In my early twenties, I took part in the first of many young women’s Bible studies. It was an in-depth study of David, and it was transformational. For one thing, I found an author who loved digging into the Bible just as much as me. For another, she left no stone unturned, connecting historical reference to psalms to chronological timelines. Her insights into the life of David changed the way I read the Bible and changed my understanding of the people in it.
It had been more than a few years since I had last gone through one of her studies when a friend asked if I was interested in doing another. I jumped at the opportunity. “I love her!” I shrieked, like I was getting ready to go to a Shenandoah concert (WOOOO! IF BUBBA CAN DANCE, I CAN TOO!!! WOOOOOO!). We invited a few other friends eager for the in-depth, transformative experience we anticipated based on our study years earlier.
The seven of us who gathered week by week came from different churches and different church backgrounds. We ranged in age from mid-twenties to mid-seventies. The study we chose was on the book of James, one of the more practical books of the Bible, and once again the author made the biblical character come to life, rooting James in geography, history, and family. She contextualized James as the brother of Jesus, revisited the Scriptures that referenced him in the Gospels, and changed the way I view James.
Something else happened. Instead of underlining revelation after revelation, I found myself jotting rebuttals in the margins. I cringed during parts of the videos, blushed a little at some of the theology, and winced over what felt at times like rehearsed intensity. Week by week we debriefed what stuck with us and what rubbed us wrong, what tweaked a nerve and what we felt she may have missed.
What happened? I used to love this stuff! I felt disappointed that the author’s faith hadn’t changed the same way mine had these last ten years, or if it had it had stayed within the same rigid container, while mine had been punched and left with a bunch of jagged holes that leaked out all over. My whole god box needed to be discarded, while hers seemed to still be as solid and intact as she had portrayed it when I first fell in love with her teachings.
Is it me? I thought. Have I moved away from God or just from a certain way of understanding God? Is one of us wrong? Does it matter?
I expected my favorite part of this study to be the study. The other people there were tertiary to my experience. Our generation has been trained to cultivate the individual, to keep on bettering and bettering and bettering the self. I can acquire knowledge and wisdom with the best of them. I expected to acquire more knowledge, more wisdom.
But without love, I am just a banging cymbal. A clanging gong. And love is not a solitary act.
My one girlfriend who came lost her mom to a drunk driver a couple of years ago. Another is struggling with infertility. I brought my own stresses because of my mom’s kidney cancer. Around a coffee table with brownies and cookies, we prayed and laughed and cried and wrestled with questions of faith and theology and asking where God is when things fall apart.
This is where we form opinions and where our opinions have the space to change. This is where our faith is deepened and widened and heightened and broadened, in a space carved out in the midst of our storms and stresses and celebrations. This is where we can ask these questions, seek after answers, and comfort each other when no answers come. It isn’t the people who should be tertiary; it’s the study that should be background to building and sustaining relationships.
I still respect this author and speaker for the impact she had upon me a decade ago. I was wowed by her. Everything she said I loved and celebrated and possessed as my own. I still appreciate her, because she is digging into the Bible and she is harvesting meaning for the searching Christian. And even while I laugh and shift uncomfortably during parts where theology might not match my line of thinking, she invites us to speak to one another.
I engage again with the text. I wonder. I broaden and widen and heighten and deepen, and through it all, maybe I start to look a little bit more like Christ. Maybe I start to look a little bit more like his beautiful and ever-complicated bride.
P.S. You guys, I just looked, and Shenandoah is still touring. Eeeeee! Take me to the church on Cumberland Road, baby!