Banana bread, coffee, a glass bowl of mixed nuts. These treats welcomed us into the large, cinderblock classroom. Every week a comforting sameness. Usual suspects meandered in, no rush, lots of talk. The average age of the group? Around 75. The purpose of their showing up at 10 o’clock on a Thursday morning? Bible study. I, along with other pastors on staff, taught the class. Like so often happens in my ministry, I would be teaching a group who know the Bible far better than I do. They have heard it and read it and taught it far longer than I have. More importantly, they have lived it longer.
When my turn came around to teach the Thursday class I thought, “One more thing to prepare. One more time slot taken.” In all honesty I thought, “These people already know the Bible, anyway.” And they did. But learning the Bible is only one reason of many in studying it together.
In mentally scrolling through the innumerable Bible studies in which I have been either leader or participant I came to this conclusion: Bible study and Pentecost are close cousins. I love worship and hearing a soaring sermon makes my heart sing (and occasionally even changes my behavior). Acts of service, done together, are rewarding, maybe sinfully so. Fellowship? This noun-turned-verb in the church is meaningful and joy-filled. But Bible study has been the setting where I have heard God’s mighty deeds of power through the words of Scripture and in my own language through the stories of those gathered around the table with me.
Bible study is where I learned about the scourge of Jim Crow from people who lived during those days. Bible study is the setting where passages about miraculous healings were interpreted by those enduring debilitating cancer treatments. Bible study is the place where Jesus’ parables gave way to those of his followers. Studying Scripture with other disciples, time and time again, has been the occasion for upending revelations, deep, boundary crossing connections, and tangible glimpses of the Spirit at work in the world.
I often think that as we struggle with what it means to be the church in the 21st century, we imagine we are in a burning building searching desperately for a way out or a means to extinguish the fire. What program will draw a specific demographic? What catchy stewardship theme will bring in the money needed to make the budget? How do we keep our youth in the pews? I have agonized over all these things, too. But in my fear, I have failed to see that – at least sometimes – the flames all around are the life-giving ones of the Holy Spirit, not the destructive ones that induce weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I believe that during this season of tumult and loss and anxiety, God still shows up. As innocuous as banana bread and coffee and small talk and Bible study and prayer appear, these ordinary activities in cinderblock-walled and fluorescent-lit rooms are irresistible to the Holy Spirit.
One Thursday morning I had the wisdom to sit back and look as everyone found their seats. Around that table was a woman who had served in the military and been a mission worker in Japan. Another couple had not only marched in the Civil Rights Movement, but sent their children to be among those to integrate the schools in their community. The retired pastor sitting to my right had helped kids in the community through a civic organization; his wife was part of our quilting ministry that had wrapped countless people in prayer. Both encouraged me every Thursday and every Sunday. The man across the room had more integrity in his little finger than I had in my whole being. His wife of 50 years, tireless in her care for fellow church members, sat beside him. I was going to teach them the Bible today. No, not really. We were going to keep learning God’s story, our story, together. The Holy Spirit would help us in that room, making us better able to go out into the world and be faithful. That’s the power of banana bread and Bible study.
Grace and peace,