by Lindsey Funtik, Coordinator of Volunteer Ministries, Ashland First United Methodist Church, Ashland, Ohio
Church history surprised me by becoming one of my favorite classes in seminary. It is not that I didn’t find it important or interesting, but with aspirations of being a theologian, I did not expect that memorizing dates and recounting who argued about which issues at what council would rank high on my list of experiences.
This, of course, was the opinion of a novice. Not only did I come to understand the role history plays in our present theological convictions, but I came to love it. This was due in large part to my professor, Dr. Paul Chilcote, and his uncanny ability to connect the past with the present. I discovered my patron saint, Hildegard of Bingen, under his tutelage. I read my first spoken word poem (which has become a spiritual practice for me) of my seminary career as an assigned creative response to Origen’s “On Prayer”. I was delighted to find out that it was okay for the movie “Zoolander” to be lightheartedly quoted in the hallowed halls of religious instruction. The “Great Cloud of Witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) never felt so real.
I will never forget the day that Dr. Chilcote asked us to move from our normal classroom into the lounge across the hall. As we entered, he greeted us as if we were members of a first century church that had received a letter from Polycarp, who was responsible for shepherding and instructing us through the written word. In this brief activity, we got a glimpse of what it meant to be followers of the Way as the faith was being founded. In some way, we scratched the surface of what it meant to be gathered together to devour godly encouragement and guidance that was nourishment in that time and place.
That sunny afternoon, huddled around a makeshift Polycarp to hear words that breathed life into my sisters and brothers of the past, has been brought to mind quite often these past two weeks as I have embarked on leading a Bible study through 1 John. This letter, which is my favorite book of the Bible, was written by the Apostle John and many scholars believe it was a circular letter which made its rounds to multiple congregations in Asia Minor. I imagine the tableau inside each house where the fellowship met to hear from John was very similar to Paul Chilcote’s church history class–a letter has come! Let’s hear it together and allow it to inform and change our lives!
This was a powerful image, made even more so by the act of looking at the saints who (via Zoom) surrounded me. My friends and I came together to learn from Saint John. The more that I move through my life of ministry, the more I have begun to recognize that poring over Scripture with another human being or three or four is among my greatest joys. I always walk away from Bible study energized.
I have been examining this–why should we enter into the world of the Bible together? Why am I overwhelmed with an almost giddy peace after having studied Scripture in a group? What role does group reading have on spiritual formation?
To answer these questions faithfully would be to fill volumes, but two words come to mind that I believe will help us dip our toes into deep waters: unity and diversity.
When original recipients of the letters that would become Scripture gathered to hear their contents, they were together. When my classmates and I opened our ears to the words of Polycarp, we were together. When members of our faith family log onto Zoom to dive into what John has to say, we receive the sweetest gift of being able to be together, even if it is only through our computer screens. The good truth is that the Bible is for absolutely everyone. Whether you’re a pastor or a real estate mogul or a stripper, whether you’re old or young or somewhere in between, whether you are correct and think cilantro is repulsive or completely wrong in believing that it is anywhere near edible, the Bible is for you.
Scripture is, in so many ways, the great equalizer. We are all on the same playing field when we come before the holy cross of Christ as human beings broken and desiring the love that only God can offer. So, it makes sense that coming to Scripture has a way of unifying us as well. When we look at the narrative of God and the window into the Divine character that the Bible gives us, we are confronted with ourselves. When we read that story and engage with its meat side by side, we are bonded in a way that nothing else can accomplish.
We should read the Bible with our sisters and brothers because it brings us together as both beloved by God and participants in the grand story of Kingdom redemption He is writing. We experience community how it was meant to be experienced.
I recognize that it is not always easy to motivate oneself for group reading. In today’s busy world, it can be hard enough to motivate and make space for individual time in the Word! But I promise that, should you and those around you make that effort, you will experience community in ways unlike any other.
During the last few weeks, another Bible study of which I am a part has been working through the Book of Habakkuk. I was filling in for our fearless leader this past week and I was particularly excited to share my thoughts on the last verse of our designated passage. It was to be the grand finale of sorts, the spiritual “feel good” at the end of an otherwise heavy section. Oh, the hubris.
Just before I shared said thoughts, however, a member of our group chimed in with a different interpretation. Though it was not what I had originally considered, I was bowled over by her insight. In the end, her observation and my prepared conclusion created something much more rich and nuanced than either of us could perhaps procure on our own. It was beautiful.
Believe it or not, Christians don’t always agree on everything (shocking, right?!). There are sisters and brothers in the faith with whom I profoundly disagree, and a lot of it comes back to our varying interpretations of Scripture. I’m not here today to tout one view or another, but to simply highlight the fact that a myriad of perspectives sometimes forms something so rich and so revelatory. We miss out when we don’t read together because we don’t hear every side of the story.
Do we always have to affirm every interpretation that we hear? By no means! But should we always have our hearts open to other, different thoughts so that we might learn and grow? Without a doubt. By reading with others, I diversify my views of and engagement with Scripture and, in that, enjoy a fuller view of the God we all seek to serve.
Go For It!
In the end, just grab a friend and open the Bible. Find a group Bible study (we churches local to Ashland, OH offer several–Monday at 7pm! Tuesdays at 10am!) and hop in. In so doing, we are opened to a bountiful and necessary element to Christian discipleship.
We become a part of the long narrative of our sisters and brothers–let’s gather round and see what God wants to teach us all today.
Cross-Posted from Reflections on Faith, Words, and The Holiness of Today