Muddling through

Every two weeks people in the congregation get together to study the Bible.  The name of the group is ‘Roots & Shoots’ which doesn’t tell people new to the church a lot about what we do, but it is a name that has stuck and which I emphasize as the ‘Roots & Shoots Bible Study‘.  In the back of my mind I still wonder if there will be a day when someone comes to the group ready to garden.  Despite the name, the purpose is simple: study the Bible.

For many years I have participated in Bible Study groups both as studies which take place in the churches, or as private home group Bible study.  Not a single group is the same.  Not a single meeting is the same and this causes both delight and frustration for many.

I can recall the first time I was asked to lead a Bible Study group and the interesting personalities which made it…let’s say, interesting.  The formal leadership of the group was an elder layman who had basically grown up in the church and seemed to live and breath the Bible.  He used a ‘method’ that had people studying large passages throughout the entire Bible over the course of a couple years.  It was a study that would give anyone an overview at just about every book in the Bible.  From the moment I was asked to take a lead all I could really think about was the most senior person in the group, a woman named Joan.  Joan was a (long) retired teacher whom I am sure taught in a one room school house with pupils writing letters and numbers on pieces of slate and erasing their mistakes with ripped pieces of cloth.  Joan loved to talk and she loved to talk with her eyes closed.  Yes the habit of closing her eyes and talking at you:  at times you might have thought that some oracle was speaking, but for the most part I found it exceedingly annoying as it blocked any further attempt at any conversation.  Bible study usually meant a race between the leader who had prepared an outline, and Joan who, once started, could go the distance and take over the entire session.

These battles often meant that the group which met remained small and that the turn over in membership was high.  In fact it was probably my own look of having one foot out the door that the leader proposed that I should lead.

The long awaited evening came and as usual we met in the boardroom which gave the impression that about ten people more should be coming at any moment.  The table was a wood laminate and was badly chipped around some of the edges.  The carpet was an overwhelmingly bright avocado green with a hint of over-ripeness to it with brown flecks that were either bits of dirt that had accumulated, or a poorly made design feature.  The stackable chairs were uncomfortable and the arms of the chairs sometimes became a little loose with the wear and tear suddenly pinching your fleshy bits of arms if you were not careful.  A wonderful start to the evening.

I’ve read somewhere in some managerial magazine that board meetings and boardrooms lend themselves to a psychology of power struggles depending on who sits where.  The chair often takes the head of the table and the anti-chair (antagonist) usually sits directly opposite.  Those who wish to be ignored are often to the right and to the left of the chair, in a way, they are present, but not really present enough to be called upon for questioning, or discussion.

I arrived a little ahead of schedule like an athlete visualizing the course of events that was about to happen.  I sat in my usual chair and did not claim the head of the table like the leader usually did.  Closing my eyes, and maybe being seen to waver from side to side  like some skier mentally preparing for the downhill event I was startled to find that Joan was sitting exactly opposite me in a chair that was not her usual seat.  The antagonist had arrived.  Small chit-chat ensued and I was so very tempted to silently get up and change seats while Joan lamented her days events with tightly shut eyes.  Obviously the crowing glory of her day was to be the Bible Study group.

To my surprise there were more people in attendance.  It was, I thought, like people coming to see a spectator sport.  I had the notes that the leader had given  me and they were laid out on the table in front of me like a script.  Once we began it became apparent that I wasn’t comfortable with the status quo of the leader trying to rattle off as much of his script before his competitor, a bit slow off the block, but far more enduring, got started on her own race to the finish.

No sooner had I started that the leader began interjecting like a perfectionist director of a Shakespearean production –  I wasn’t following the script! Instead I did the unthinkable and started with a simple request that we read together the passage of study and note what interested us, or what was challenging, or if something was just plain strange.  Truly white knuckled stuff this was.  “But this isn’t how it is suppose to be!”, the elder leader burst out.  A small pause of silence which always feels excruciatingly long ensued until someone began to say that something from verse 12 really spoke to them.

We had gone through about two people who were perhaps more surprised at their own willingness to speak, when the warning signs of someone coming up from the rear of our Bible study track were upon us.  Joan sighed inwardly, closed her Bible (King James of course), folded her arms across her chest in a movement that suggested that she was adjusting her sweater for when cold seeped into the room, and with drooping eyelids and a slightly tipped back head she began.

A few minutes later, after we had heard about what seemed an actual recount of the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness I spoke up.  I began to point out a small reference Joan had made in regards to the actual passage we intended to study and wondered aloud if others had any other thoughts on the subject.  I thanked Joan for her impressions and scanned the faces around the table for someone who looked eager to jump in with their own ideas.

It was like a tennis match had started and peoples eyes flicked across the length of the table from me to the Joan.  Joan had stopped talking and one eye lid flickered open and the look of the people around the table was as if I had just awakened the Kraken whilst the elder leader was quickly on the Flying Dutchmen off into the hidden darkness of the car park outside.

Repeating the words, “Oh no, oh no!” in ones head does actually give the appearance of serenity and deep prayer.  Yet the crack had opened and it seems a dams worth of water was now going to rush through as others burst forth with their own insights and questions about the scripture.

After the evening had wrapped up I felt exhausted and I felt that I had failed.  I looked around the boardroom at all in attendance and had an image of a shipwreck in mind.  Yet there was more talking, more excitement, more interaction with everyone, not just Joan and the leader.  I began to feel more like we were somehow saved in the wreckage and were in a lifeboat together.  Something had saved the night.  Yes, it was stormy.  Yes, we had people yelling that they could not swim (metaphorically speaking). But now here we all were in the same boat and it felt that we were now rowing, not in circles with one person in the bow pointing, and other in the stern demanding that we go her way.  No.  Instead it felt like we were on a journey of discovery and that whatever the weather we could all stick an oar in and contribute and therefore go somewhere.

This experience, although it happened over twenty years ago still has an impact on me to this day.  It is curious, and rewarding to also know that the passage we studied was Luke 8: 22-25 where Jesus calms the storm which ravages the boat filled with disciples.  No Bible Study meeting has ever been the same – both a frustration and a great relief.

Luke 8. 24The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, weʼre going to drown!”  He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25“Where is your faith?”he asked his disciples.
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