During the summer before the 2013-2014 school year I reached out to my program staff colleagues – Carrie, Amy, and Mandy – and asked them if they would be interested in the four of us doing a Bible study together and they all eagerly indicated that they would. We looked at a few options and decided on a 30 week study called “Discovering the Bible” by the Kerygma Bible Study program. We committed to set aside 12:00-2:00 every Monday to meet, and to spend time preparing in between sessions. The program is based on not having a teacher as such, so if everyone does not study and prepare ahead of time it will flop.
It was as though the Lord really smiled on this endeavor. We all typically have lots of disruptions to our daily schedules, but we never had to skip a session and there were very few times anyone had to miss. We tried to continue this year with another study and the disruptions seemed constant.
So what happened for us last year? We, whose jobs revolve around the Scriptures but are frequently over occupied with the details of planning programs, recruiting and training leaders, managing budgets, and all the other details, immersed ourselves intentionally and deeply in Bible study together. It helped us all to refocus on the big picture and the central themes of the Bible. We have very different backgrounds and experiences and this allowed us to share with and learn from each other. It helped us know each other more deeply, deepening relationships as well as knowledge and understanding. It was one of the best things I’ve done in a long time and I’m thankful to my colleagues for the experience. It was exactly what I needed in order to be grounded for the difficult year I did not know was coming which would begin very soon.
As we finished the study we were also talking about a theme for the next year at Central, and as you know we decided on the theme, “Living in the Light.” In our planning I offered two things I wanted to do which could contribute to that theme. One was to offer the opportunity to members of the church to be a part of the study we had just done. After all, as the Psalmnist says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” So deeper engagement with God’s word was a clear way to encourage living in the light. The other was to offer a pilgrimage in the “Footsteps of St. Paul,” and that group departs tomorrow as Amy told you earlier.
So around May of last year I put out an invitation to any who would like to be a part of a year-long Bible study that would be held during the day time. To my delight, 33 people showed up. That is too many for a group like this, so we set two different times for people to choose from. One group met Mondays from 10-12 and had about 22 people in it, and the other met Wednesdays from 8:30-10:30 and had about 11 people in it. We started in August and finished this week.
Again, the Lord smiled on this endeavor in amazing ways. Even in a six week Midweek class attendance usually drops off by the end. But in these classes the tables were as full at the end of the year as they were at the beginning. One person in each class had to drop out due to major health problems.
The overwhelming response at the end was the desire to continue with another study next year. This is my experience as well with Bible study. The more you learn the more you want to learn, and the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know very much yet. And when you study the Bible with others and experience the Christian fellowship, that fulfills another important need.
The groups included a wide variety of people. There were people from most of our Sunday School classes – Fellowship, Koinonia, Ethics, Genesis, and Journey – plus some who are not in a Sunday School class. We ranged in age from the 30’s to the 90’s. We had three generations of one family and two of another, and several husbands and wives. We had a lady who grew up in Malaysia and another who grew up in Vietnam. We had northerners and southerners and Midwesterners. We had cradle Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, Church of God, Buddhist, and none of the above. We had Democrats and Republicans and everything in between. We had people who have studied and read and taught the Bible all their lives and some who had never really read it.
This is what the church ought to look like but seldom does because of the challenges it brings. When you come to worship and go to Sunday School with people you’ve known a long time and who are in your age bracket and share a similar world view, it is easy to assume that everybody you go to church with thinks the same way you do about everything, or at least they should.
Participating in groups like these with so much cross pollenization of backgrounds, ages, and worldviews quickly dispels that notion. We had people who came into the group with the predisposition that you don’t question anything you read in the Bible and others who came with the predisposition that you question everything. As that huge difference was exposed during the first few weeks I was not sure whether the class would survive or whether people would start dropping out. I could see eyes rolling and heads shaking when someone on the “other” side would make a point. I could hear the frustration and anger in voices from time to time.
But the Holy Spirit and the grace of God were at work in the hearts and minds of this group. They learned that it is possible to listen to and accept the very different ideas of others without either having to agree with it all or reject them as heretics. And they learned that it may just be possible to learn a little something from that very different perspective. So I watched the miracle of the group embracing each other and encouraging each other and visiting with each other caringly before and after classes.
That was such a gift to me this year and I thank you for the perseverance it took to get there. Everything about our culture and society today wants to segment us into groups who think just alike. If you are for this, go stand in that corner with people who are like you. Or more likely, if you are against this, go stand in that corner so you can all grumble and complain together. Then we will see which group is louder.
The church always has been and always will be tempted to let itself be divided by arguments over the issues of the day. The sign out front of our church, which predates my time here, claims, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Not “They’ll know we are Christians because we are right about everything.” One of the things said about the early church in Jerusalem was, “See how they love one another.”
That became more of a challenge as Paul’s missionary work began, bringing together Jews and Gentiles who had never had anything to do with each other before. There were many obstacles. Their basic instinct was not to like each other, not to get along, not to want to be together. But Paul insisted that Jesus had knocked down the walls that separated them and, like it or not, they were the body of Christ together and needed to learn how to love each other. Jesus had said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.” I John says, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
One of the consistent themes in group reflections on our study is about seeing the broad scope of the Bible – how people have consistently disappointed God, yet God continues to be in relationship and continues to love. History has not changed in this regard – the failures of our day are not a new thing. God’s faithfulness has endured all, giving us hope and encouragement to try to live for him.
I’d like to share a few reflections from group members. Jones and Becky Chamblee wrote, “This has been a year that has meant so much to us both personally and intellectually as we learned different and better ways to read and study God’s inspired word, the Scriptures. This study has given us so much insight into the true meaning of God’s word and what it is saying to us. Lastly, the sharing between group members, the listening to, the acceptance of, and the discussion is an experience that cannot be measured. We sincerely hope we can find a way to continue this blessed experience.”
Tom Hinchman wrote, “I enjoyed being a part of such a diverse group of people. I think we had every political and religious base covered… Hearing so many viewpoints on different subjects was entertaining, occasionally troubling, but always enlightening. I respected the opinions of my classmates, and the exchange and sharing of different ideas made the class much more interesting and educational.”
Terrell Wilson wrote, “I was amazed when reading the different passages, how new events and information ‘jumped’ out at me. These were Scriptures I had read and heard all my life. Why had I not focused on these details? I know that through this study my faith has been strengthened and enriched. This also includes the discussions, fellowship, and the laughter shared with the members of the class.”
One more, from Ashleigh Cole: “With hesitation about joining, because I knew nothing about the class or what it would entail, I committed because I knew I needed to do something more for my spiritual journey. This class not only allowed me to learn more, it offered a new and different perspective with an array of ages and a comfortable atmosphere where respect was of the utmost importance. The class encompassed those who owned a Bible and were familiar with a few Scriptures to those who owned a library of Bibles, biblical references, and could recite many verses from as early as childhood.
“A common thread was noticed. Questions, and yes, doubts, transcend age, gender, and background. There are so many questions and doubts that we all share. This life in Christ is about faith. There’s an unworthiness in us all. Life in Christ is about grace. There’s an ebb and flow we all experience in our journey. Our life in Christ is about unconditional love and God’s desire for us to have Him in it.
“Some things will always remain unanswered. Our faith will allow us to be accepting of the unanswered. I found a deeper peace in learning more about Scripture. Really learning, picking apart, analyzing and cross referencing. Was it easy? No. Was it short? No. Was it worth it? Without a doubt! For anyone hesitant about doing this study or a study at all – do something for yourself! As you dig and try to reach a better understanding about Him what you really discover is His love for you and the love He wants us to have for one another.”
This morning, the Sunday after Easter, is known as low Sunday in churches. The Easter crowds are gone and normal life resumes. I wanted to highlight this behind the scenes way in which some folks in this church accepted a challenge to live more deeply in the light this year. I know it was a very important experience for many of them, and it was for me too.
This spring, as the groups were coming to an end, my 60th birthday rolled around. That is a pretty clear marker that my years of active, full time ministry in the church are winding down. Reflecting on these groups and the group leaving on pilgrimage tomorrow makes clear for me that I am not interesting in squandering these last years on negative things. I want to spend my time doing positive, constructive things like walking with these groups doing things that will ultimately build up the body of Christ in this place and strengthen individual lives of faith. Anyone interested in being a part of that? If you are, let me know. What needs to happen to make it work? Offer a group on a week night or a weekend or five in the morning? Need child care? Let’s see if we can figure it out.
This morning I have certificates to present to those who have participated in the Kerygma groups. There is no grade given. These certificates will not get you into heaven. But I hope they will remind you of an important part of your spiritual journey and that they will remind you to continue to study, to grow, to share your faith with others, and to be open to others. With these certificates also accept my deep gratitude for the difference you have made in my life and the difference you can make in this church.
David J. Bailey
April 12, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church