Diary of a Free Range Priest: Wednesday night Bible study


When I was a parish priest, I was fortunate enough to meet a man I will call Arthur. Arthur walked into my church one Sunday morning because, he explained, he had been resisting the voice of Jesus that had been calling him every day for 20 years, and this day, he just couldn't resist any more. He had never identified as a Christian and had never been inside a church except for a very occasional wedding or funeral. He picked the church I served because it looked pretty on the outside, and he passed it often enough that he knew where it was. Now that he had walked in the door, he wanted to know everything. For a priest, this is a dream come true! I threw books and questions at him as fast as I could, and invited him to everything. He came to every service, he joined all the groups. He was eager to soak in the history and theology and liturgy of the Episcopal Church, the sacraments and the Scripture. He wanted to serve his neighbor and share his resources. He was the first person I called when the women needed another loaf of bread for the bake sale, or the men needed an extra hand at clean-up day. He fully embraced the life of the church, and everyone adored him.

And yet, there came a time when he asked me how to walk a little closer with Jesus. Did we have a group, or a time, when we shared our actual faith lives? How we prayed and what we prayed for? How we answered questions in our own lives based on our faith - in relationships, at work, in our own every day dilemmas and challenges? The reality is, we had nothing like this. We had an excellent Bible study, and some really good adult forums, and lots of times 'real life' questions came up in these, but we did not systematically get together to talk about how our beliefs shaped our everyday lives.

Arthur remained a faithful parishioner, but his enthusiasm waned just a bit after this. I tried to encourage a 'faith-sharing' group, but it just didn't happen. Arthur started attending a non-denominational Bible-study that focused more on how the Bible applies to our life choices. I didn't agree with every one of their interpretations, but I could see the appeal.

The Episcopal Church, by and large, is filled with lots of smart and well-educated people. And I think we quite naturally take to learning about our faith from an intellectual perspective - how to read the Bible, what church history and architecture and archeology can teach us, etc. And these things are great.

And yet, it does seem hard to find a community where the focus is actually on how our beliefs shape our daily lives. Do we really make space, at church, to share what we may be struggling with - careers, relationships, kids, aging, addiction, finances - and how we see God working in these or how we rely on our faith to frame our responses? What do we really know about what our own faith matters to us, or what our neighbor's faith is? Even what our spouse or children's faith is? It seems strange to me that we don't spend more time talking about our own faith in church.

I wonder if part of the changing institution is changing from the model of classes and programs to the model of time and space for people to gather and discern - where and how is our relationship with God evident in everything we do? How do we strengthen our faith through considering that God is present and calling us in all our joys, challenges, and relationships, every day? Church meetings could be all about these things.

It seems to me that sometimes being a church - the necessary administration and communication and formation in the faith, can overwhelm our need to just be church, people who are following Jesus, whose primary concern is about how this informs the rest of our lives. Arthur helped me see that we really have a call to balance this out in our life in community.