Belief, God, New Testament, Old Testament, Seeking, The Bible, KJV, The Bible, NIV

“I Guess I’ll Read My Bible Elsewhere”

A few weeks ago, at the Meeting House, Zach was breathing too loudly while he was sitting in quiet contemplation for the still small voice of God. A woman in front of us, panicked but also terrible, kept turning around. Zach’s eyes were closed, because, again, as I said, he was sitting in quiet contemplation for the still small voice of God that comes from within. His breathing shouldn’t have been a prob– I’m getting ahead of myself, or at least away from the story I want to tell.

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So, a few weeks ago, at the Meeting House, Zach was breathing too loudly and this woman was losing her mind. Zach finally opened his eyes for a moment — I think someone was giving a testimony — and the woman began to artlessly sign at him not because she was deaf or hard of hearing, or even that she thought Zach was, but because the strict letter of the law in a Quaker Meeting House is silence, unless you’re moved to speak. She was following the letter by silently, yet animatedly, gesturing for him to not exhale.

Zach didn’t know what she was going on about.

“What’s she going on about?” he asked me. I maintained eye contact with the woman in front of him, our itinerant signer, and said, in a normal speaking voice not whispered for a Meeting: “She hates that you’re breathing.”

giphy

My religious background — what little there is — and my social background — what even littler — are sort of Southern Baptist. My mom is from Arkansas and has, even in the dark thick of Alzheimer’s, the full recipe for the best fried chicken you’ll ever eat, as well as a passive-aggressive spin for everything. She once said a baby was as cute as it could be — and that wasn’t a compliment. Another time, describing a relative’s two-year-old: “I could love her more if I saw less of her.” Visiting my house — actually, the first time she visited a house I was living in — she walked in, looked at the clutter (that looked tidy to me), ran her finger across the top of a dusty bookcase, and said, “Y’all must be so busy.

I paint this picture because what I desperately wanted to do during the time of the meeting where we hold people who need healing in the light, is to stand and say, “I’d like to hold Laura, sitting in front of me, in the light. Her ears are giving her fits like to ruin her life. Sensitive to breathing, you see.”

But I didn’t. Because I was raised right*.

[* I was not.]

Earlier this week, after Meeting, I went up to that day’s Friendly Ear. (It all gets sort of Gileadish, what with its Friendly Ear and Gilead’s Under His Eye, but may the Lord open, they are totally different.) I wanted to find out if there was a group of local Quakers who read the Bible together. And then it all got sort of escalated?

I’ll quote from some email exchanges, but leave names out.

First, I’ll try to describe the in-person interaction:

godot

Mike: I was wondering if there was some sort of group that meets together to read the Bible here?

Ear: Oh. I. Erm. I.

Mike: I have a directory — should I just look there?

She decides I need to speak with this other person, who is on the Religious Education Committee. It takes some time to find her. Some said she had already left. Some said she was by the punch. She did turn up, but from where remains an ineffable mystery unless you ask her directly, then you’d know.

Ineffable Mystery: Hi, I hear I’m being looked for!

Ear: Yes. This young man is interested in Bible study.

Ineffable Mystery: Oh. I. Erm.

Ear: That’s what I said!

Ineffable Mystery: That’s not really something we have. We have a lovely library, and a book group. Is that what you mean?

Mike: No, I mean, those are great, but I’m interested in a weekly group of some number of people who get together and read the Bible.

Ineffable Mystery: So you have experience teaching the Bible?

Mike: No — and that’s not what I am looking for. This is really more like a book group, but for the Bible.

Ear: Oh, we have a book group! Maybe you didn’t know about that?

Mike: I don’t want to read The Kite Runner is the thing. I just want to read the Bible. With other Quakers. Together.

Ineffable Mystery: Well, I don’t know if that’s something I would be into or not.

Ear: Yeah, it’s not something we do. We have a different relationship with the Bible.

Ineffable Mystery: Yeah.

Mike: [channeling his mother, Patricia Kelly] Okay. Well, it sounds like my church isn’t the place to read the Bible and I’ll figure something else out.

— FIN —

So, to the emails. First, the Ear wrote me:

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I have been thinking about your question of having a reading group on the Bible partly because I think Ineffable Mystery and I gave you a pretty inadequate response. [Several] things have occurred to me since:

1. Although many Quakers are extremely knowledgeable about the Bible and would appreciate having the opportunity to reflect on passages together, there may not be many of them [here]. On the other hand, there may be some who would be delighted to know of your interest and a new group may form. To that end, if you would send me a brief description of what you have in mind, I would be happy to forward it to everyone…asking them to be in touch with you.*

[* This is literally all I wanted from the very beginning. Just that. Ask others! Some may, some may not!]

2. I mentioned the Spiritual Formation program at the rise of Meeting and this is a program in which small groups within the Meeting get together twice a month to share reflections on spiritual readings, which certainly could include the Bible.* You may wish to become a part of that program.

[* My heart sank here, dear reader, when I thought, “Fuck. I bet they read The Alchemist.”]

I replied with my bona fides and a bit more about what I was interested in accomplishing.

giphy (1)

Friendly Ear! This email was so wonderful! Thank you. I felt bewildered (through my own fault) when I left our conversation last Sunday. This email really helped. I’m also just generally socially awkward; however, I’m also stunningly handsome. God doesn’t give with both hands. (I KID.)

A bit about me: I have been coming to Meetings for about 2 months now. I am new to Quakerism, and new, really, to religion. But everyone has been so warm and welcoming; I really feel I made the right choice.

My day job is in Regulatory Financial Compliance: I make sure banks and creditors and collection agencies stay on the right side of the law. I love it because it involves knowing the rules and explaining them — two things of which I am inordinately fond.

My passion, though, is in literature. I read an upsetting amount. I have been lucky enough to have run the library’s Classics in Context program for the past 12 years. It is one of the more popular reading groups offered by the library, and I get to read with some incredibly intelligent people. I have never left a book discussion with any of my assumptions about the book intact.

I have also been privileged to be invited to lecture to a variety of audiences, primarily on 19th century history, culture, and literature. I have lectured to the Victorian Society of North American, Washington D.C. chapter; The Gay & Lesbian Alliance; Oasis Lifelong Learning; and for Bethesda Live & Learn. Where I am most interested is in how people perform certain actions. I call it performative morality and actual morality when I’m talking about how the Victorians acted towards, say, the poor.

What I am hoping for is one of these two options:

1) An already-existing Bible group who read the Bible from a Quaker perspective, but with room for personal readings people may come with. (It sounds like this doesn’t exist.)

2) A need for one, and I could facilitate it.

My interest is not at all in saying, “This is what this passage means,” or posing in any way like an expert. I’m as confused by the Bible as anyone else — and that’s what is so intriguing to me about this project. It’s a chance for me to hear many other interpretations, among people, other Quakers, whom I love and respect.

This can all be done entirely free. And it would mean a lot to me as a new member to use the Quaker space as a spiritual home.

I’m available for any questions or follow-ups you may have.

This didn’t get me any closer to where I wanted to be.

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Dear Mike,

I just found this excellent bibliography of Quaker-oriented Bible study books and courses:

https://www.nyym.org/content/quaker-resources-the-bible

I would be glad to talk further with you about your thoughts about this.

I replied:

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Thank you so much! I will read through these.

In case this wasn’t clear: it’s not that I’m confused about the Bible and looking for experts. I thought that a group of like-minded people, reading a book like the Bible and other texts*, might enrich each other with their personal thoughts and reactions.

[* I’ll be honest here: I threw in that “other texts” nonsense because I thought they’d be more interested/receptive if they thought I’d bring in some Eckankar, a religion I know about only because a straight boy I was obsessed with named Johnny was an Eckist so I’d like my Comparative Religions doctorate now please and thank you.]

If a Bible reading group doesn’t feel at all like a good fit, that is fine! I don’t need special accommodations; I just like reading and sharing ideas and the Bible has some common currency among us.

I wasn’t supposed to send the above email. I had met with my therapist yesterday (Tift Pelias, if you’re in the market; tell him Mike sent you!), and talked about how my go-to strategy is to react, rather than respond, when I’m feeling aggrieved. React is sort of following your body’s lead, which isn’t a problem necessarily when your mind and your body are functioning as a team. My brain and body function as a buddy cop movie with none of the fun stuff included and the cops hate each other. When I react, it’s almost always based on bad, biased information. Responding, however, is taking your reaction, and a moment, and sitting with both. Ask if what you’re feeling is true, or if it’s just convenient. (Sometimes anger is a convenient feeling or me because it justifies my bad mood and terrible behavior.)

So, I was going to start practicing responding over reacting and I was going to write out my email response, quoted above, put it aside, read it to Zach (this is key; he keeps me in check), and then discuss how I’m feeling and if the message I’m sending is the message I meant. I was going to start that; but then I hit send rather than close and I’ve been saying, “It was by mistake,” and I may even say that that is the truth — but I’m new to not being an asshole so it very well may have been that it was That Mike who said, “Fuck it.”

So, it was perfect when the last email I received before I decided to disengage until a later date, said this:

Hi, Mike – here is an article that describes “A Quaker Approach to the Bible.” You might find it interesting.

https://universalistfriends.org/cadbury-1.html

I DO NOT WANT A QUAKER APPROACH TO THE BIBLE. I DO NOT WANT ANY APPROACH TO THE BIBLE. I ONLY WANTED A GROUP OF PEOPLE WITH A COMMON SPIRITUAL BELIEF TO COME TOGETHER ON THE REGULAR AND SAY, “Hey, guys, that story about the binding of Isaac. Man. What do you make of that?”

THAT’S WHAT I WANTED.

When I was reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins (bonus poem by that guy at the end of all this), the biographer mentioned, several times, that Hopkins could not be an Anglican at all — he hungered, too much, for the actual body and blood of Christ. (“Food for the journey,” I read, once. A woman’s husband was in hospice and she made sure he received the Host every day and I find that such a beautiful and profoundly transforming story.) In Anglicanism, it’s all metaphorical. For Catholicism, which Hopkins was inexorably drawn towards, it’s literal. (Flannery O’Connor on Mary McCarthy and the Eucharist: “Mrs. Broadwater [Mary McCarthy’s married name] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”)

flannery-oconnor

My hunger isn’t for the Host at all. Catholicism is, for me, best understood as a mystery that I am glad exists, but have no interest in engaging. But my hunger is for the Bible, and the Quakers are VERY weird about it.

Some of that might be where the Bible sits within Quakerism, which is shakily, and off to the side. Quakers see the Bible as an interesting document of God’s revelations from a specific time and place; they do not see it at all as an item that bears any more weight than today’s revelations experienced during a Quaker Meeting. In fact, primacy of the Bible can be seen to undermine today’s revelations from God.

But I have yet to hear, at a Quaker Meeting, anything so lovely as “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). It’s mostly well-meaning white people wanting to perform responsibility. Several meetings, someone will stand up and either announce their intention of going to the border to help with the family issue, or someone will stand up and say, “My heart is breaking because I know I can do good at the border for those families, but I do not have the resources to get there.” This all smacks a little of Mrs Jellyby, obsessed with an obscure African tribe, rather than proferring help to those in London or even, God forbid, her own children. The help we want to give — the showy, busy, selfless work — is rarely the help that is needed. And the help that is needed is often boring, with no glamour to it.

6e
“Mrs Jellyby was looking far away into Africa.” — C. Dickens

So, what is to be done? I don’t know. I want to continue my spiritual journey towards/with God; however, I am worried that maybe the Quakers aren’t the home for me that I want. Which puts me in the wonderfully awkward position of visiting a local Baptist church this Sunday. I know they read the Bible there.


Pied Beauty — Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things—
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
       And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                     Praise Him.
timthumb
Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844 – 1889
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23 thoughts on ““I Guess I’ll Read My Bible Elsewhere””

  1. A conversation with my friend, Jeff:

    Jeff: OH tell me about why you drip with antipathy for The Alchemist
    R_____ pitched it to me as the ONE BOOK she wants to recommend to me.

    Mike: Okay
    I will
    But
    This is just a Very Mike Bevel opinion

    Jeff: it’s okay if it’s not kind

    Mike: I found it an insulting book. It’s written in this sort of fairy tale/fable level, but for someone who had reading challenges growing up.
    It wants to be as charming as The Pilgrim’s Progress, but it is not.
    It’s conclusions are vapid — the gift for gold was in you all along, but it wasn’t gold, it was MYSTICISM — but it acts as if it’s brilliant.

    Jeff: so a quick read at least, assuming I’m not compromised?

    Mike: It’s a VERY fast read
    Even if you were compromised

    Jeff: ok

    Mike: Also, the copy I had, from about 15 years ago, had a blurb from Madonna on it

    Like

  2. I’ve been part of a meeting they maintained a weekly Bible group but the more common experience is that there’s one person in a meeting that wants to do this and the 0-3 people they can get to join them in any random week. TBH, I haven’t found Quaker Bible study to be substantively different from the small non-Quaker groups I’ve been a pet of.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My meeting has a bible study….MAYBE. If it truly exists from one week to the next is anyone’s guess, but a person reading quietly in the library on Sundays is always a thing. Sometimes people join in this activity and suddenly it’s a group study. But it’s rarely intentional and rarely has much continuity.
      My own (minuscule) exposure to Quaker Bible study is really more like a joint Bible study and Quaker history lesson, Read a chapter or verse, connect to some piece of Quaker history. Read another, put it in a Quaker context. But never “here’s the Quaker interpretation of this verse”.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Definitely laugh-cried at this one! You are a hilarious writer describing an absurd (and, for me, depressing) situation. Rest assured that there are some meetings – even liberal unprogrammed ones – with active Bible studies. I hope you find one before you decide to sail into the sunset! I’d also love to hear more about what drew you to Friends. I hope you’ll explore that a bit in future posts.

    Blessings,
    Adria
    ShadowOfBabylon.com

    Liked by 1 person

  4. No, Mike, no. Not the Baptists! JK (sort of).
    When I went to Quaker meeting in Palo Alto, there was a Bible Study group, so I know they exist. Someone else asked what you wanted out of Bible Study, I will ask, what do you want from a Quaker meeting (other than Bible Study of course)? Have you ever tried Quaker Church?
    Very funny writing, really enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I live near Mike, and I can confirm that our nearest Baptist church is the complete opposite of the Southern Baptists. (They’re AWAB) They’re pleasant folks, but being down to only about 15 on a Sunday, they’ll be selling their building soon.

      There are no Friends Churches near us. There’s one an hour away, once a month. However, I’ve been thinking about changing that.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “No, Mike, no. Not the Baptists! JK (sort of).”

      Man, I wish it wasn’t an option, too. But it’s what’s in my blood. (I just published a new essay that deals with this.) I grew up with Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and some Assemblies of God nonsense that I’ll write about more later. (I need to get permission from my brother to write about him.)

      Thank you so much for reading, btw! It means a lot to me.

      Like

  5. Empathy, Mike. When I moved to MD from TX I was coming from the tiniest unprogrammed meeting that had a robust Bible study before worship every week.
    The process used in the group was multiple readings in different voices with some fixed questions like (fuzzy memory now but I’ll try):

    What is happening in this passage?
    What is the textual context — i.e. what just happened, and what’s about to happen?
    What did you notice for the first time, or what did you hear in a new way this time?
    How, if at all, is what happened true to your experience?
    What lesson do you draw for your life today?

    We would go around the group each circle and you could pass. Strongly discouraged from debating other people’s responses so if I had a reaction or question I would just write it down and sit with it it during worship. Often that was very helpful to me.

    The focus on engaging the text rather than a lot of commentaries around the text (without hostility to scholarship or insight from history), high value on experience, and the no-debate rule distinguished it from the Bible studies in other traditions that I had grown up with and was doing alongside the Quaker one. I found it disciplining to listen to the text again and to listen to Spirit through colleagues learning and listening too rather than trying to demonstrate certainty or mastery.

    I hope you find or make a group that is like that. When I’m back in town (I moved away for work but come home when I can), I would love to know the option exists.

    Like

    1. Man. What you described is exactly what I was hoping for with the Quakers. “Here’s a text. It weirdly still holds a LOT of power in the Year of Our Lord 20 and 18. Maybe we can see what happens to us when we read it.”

      And I especially agree with “no debate.” I don’t want a system where someone says The Right Thing and the rest of us just nod. I am so in love with people — I want to hear their experience, not their assumptions.

      Tell me when you’re in Maryland again, please!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’d be very unusual to find a group in a liberal meeting that wanted to dig into the meaning of Scripture. If you post your thoughts on particular passages, you may get some response (or reaction). I hope that you stick around and contribute, and aren’t overcome by the present-day banality. The 17th-c. Quaker revolution had something immeasurably significant to offer, and I think its findings might be recovered if there were some people whose passionate need for meaning/truth had compelled them to study and search for wisdom: first, perhaps (in our secular age), in literature: “Oh, the Humanities!” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/08/opinion/oh-the-humanities.html

    Patricia Dallmann
    patradallmann.wordpress.com/

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Mike, please know that you are not alone in your hunger for engaging with scripture with other Quakers! I participate in a tiny unprogrammed meeting in Texas* that has used the Friendly Bible Study method for years. You can read more about Friendly Bible Study at http://www.read-the-bible.org/friendlybiblestudy.htm. FGC used to sell the same information as a pamphlet on its Quakerbooks website, but I’m not sure they still do.

    What’s really interesting, though, is that it all started with a Friend like you. Recognizing that obtaining the blessing of the entire Meeting was unlikely, he simply said, in effect, “So-and-so and I will be doing Friendly Bible Study at my house every Wednesday night at 7:00, and anyone who’s interested is welcome to come.” The first few Friends who tried it had positive experiences that they shared with others, and over time, more and more people began to participate. After a few years, the Meeting began scheduling time for Friendly Bible Study before worship each First Day. It’s an excellent preparation for entering into Holy Silence!

    Peace to you as you discern your way forward.

    (*Keisha, is that you? Hello! I’m delighted to know that you are still among Friends!)

    Like

  8. Adelphi Meeting has, or at least had, a weekly Bible study, and I think they are near you.

    The Spiritual Formation program that I did with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had a lot of readings, but not Bible readings; it was mostly Pendle Hill pamphlets (often written by Friends who clearly loved the Bible). It is odd that so few meetings have a Bible study! We are kind of a DYI religion, so it may be that this is something that you can offer to your meeting. Just because the people “in charge” aren’t enthusiastic doesn’t mean it won’t resonate with others; I’ve found this time and time again.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Enough liberal Quaker meetings have Bible discussion groups that I can safely use the adjective “many”. As someone else mentioned, liberal Quakers really are a DIY religion with lots of diversity where people seek to respond to the Spirit’s nudging. So all that is needed is someone who wants a Bible group to form in the meeting and then nurture its formation and be patient as the group develops. If this DIY culture frustrates you, you likely will not be happy at a liberal Quaker meeting even if they have Bible study every day.

    There are two liberal Quaker meetings in the city where I live. One does have regular Bible study that I believe is well attended (not sure since I don’t go to that meeting). The meeting I attend has weekly spiritual sharing that is centered each week around a different spiritual source; sometimes that source might be passages from the Bible. Personally, I like that variety over just Bible study.

    Good luck with your new experience with liberal Quakers. What a great place to grow spiritually in the manner that is meaningful to you with people who are seeking that same journey. When a liberal Quaker meeting is at its best, the people there are diverse, but also in loving unity.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dear Mike. Thank you for demonstrating that blogging is not dead! You inspire me. Greetings from Freedom Friends Church in Salem Oregon. We are a Jesus friendly, Bible friendly, inclusive, semi-programmed, pastoral-optional, universalist, uniting, Friends Church/Meeting in Salem Oregon.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Mike,
    A great post and thanks for posting it. Your experience is familiar to me and it is one of the reasons why I concluded that the Friends wasn’t quite right for me (although I have great respect for them and I always feel welcome when I visit). I consider myself first and foremost a “follower of Jesus” and I’m interested in the scriptures to the extent that they reveal the character and teachings of Jesus to the world. I was drawn to Quakerism to the degree that the Testimonies reflect the character of Jesus; however, I was also disappointed by the lack of mention of Jesus among Friends and (what I consider to be) the proper place of scripture in any kind of worship. Every christian denomination has its flaws, but some have fewer than others. There are some independent bible study groups in various locations. One of these might appeal to you. A “Quaker perspective/tradition” might be something that you would bring to the group. I hope you find what you’re looking for.

    Like

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