In February of 2014, my eyes were opened to a way of gathering around the Scriptures that was unlike any I had experienced before.
There were a dozen or so people plopped down on pillows, chairs, and couches around the living room. Rabbi Alan, our teacher, asked us to go around the room, say our names, and share something we had been thinking about lately. After everyone had spoken, he said, “Based on what was shared, here are three passages I think we could study today.” He described what the verses were, and gave us a glimpse at why they could be relevant. We voted, and moved forward into a study of 1 Samuel 1.
The four hours that followed flitted by in an instant. We talked about the meanings of the Hebrew names and they symbolic narrative that could perhaps be coupled with the historic one. We dug into themes that took us back to Genesis and the delicious word “tov” that I’ve blogged about in this space before. We cried with people who had been relative strangers just hours before about the places in our own lives where it felt like God wasn’t showing up. We wrestled through questions and frustrations about the text and how our stories intersected with it. We were given words of blessing from the rabbi and from each other that felt like the study had been designed specifically for each one of us.
The Spirit of God, the Word of God, and the people of God danced and twirled around that living room that day. I walked to my car in breathless wonder. How is it that I had been a Christian and a church leader for so long and never known a gathering could be that way?
That day was the first of many studies and emails and conversations with this rabbi. I had no idea they would change my life as much as they have.
When they were in the wilderness, the Israelites were instructed to set up the tabernacle in the center of camp, with the twelve tribes encircling it. When the people were at rest, the fire of the Lord that led them by night and the cloud of the Lord that led them by day would settle over the Tent of Meeting.
It’s easy to breeze past instructional and informational verses such as these in the Old Testament, without thinking about how this would have affected the people’s lives and also how it might inform ours.
If I were at that camp, looking across to see my community, I would see God between us. And if I were at that camp, looking at the center to see God, I would see my community through the Lord's Presence.
What if modern Scripture study could feel that way?
At the end of 2014, I left my job at a church.
I have gone to seminary, been a pastor, and worked in vocational ministry most of my adult life. Yet, when the ministry I was part of came to a crossroads, and I prayed and wrestled and cried and discerned what that might mean for me, I knew God was telling me it was time to leave.
So, I walked away from the life I had known, without having a clear direction for what that meant or where I was going. I just felt called to follow, one step at a time. Of course, those first steps went into a sort of spiritual wilderness, a time of searching for what might be next, feeling thirsty for validation, letting go of familiar comforts, and pleading for relief.
In the beginning of February 2015, one year after that first study with Rabbi Alan, the scenery changed to a landscape hope. Just as I knew it had been time for me to leave, I knew what it was time to do now.
It was time for me to lead studies like those I had experienced.
They are called “Socratic Scripture Studies,” though I’m still not sure that’s what they should be named. It’s a unique experience that’s surprisingly difficult to put into words.
As the teacher, I spend hours diving into texts, exploring word origins, historical context, and threads that run from one passage to another. I dig into Jewish roots and ways of understanding I have learned from the rabbi and other sources. I bring that study together not into a sermon or a lecture or an essay, but into questions. Questions that can come to life when a group gathers around them and the Spirit of God helps us see, the Scriptures and each other.
Socratic Scripture Studies are a way of diving into the Bible that mixes scholarly and mystical, practical and pastoral, personal and communal. Even when I’m the teacher, I always learn and grow from conversation and life that happens when the group comes together. The study is uniquely alive with the way the Spirit of God is at work in and through the people who are there.
I hesitate to use words like “God called me.” They tend to feel like an unfair trump card that can be played in a conversation. You can’t argue with a someone’s choice of direction if it’s the path God called them to take. You can’t question someone’s ability to play a role of it’s the place God called them to be.
I cannot talk about what I am doing now without saying how much it feels like God has called me to do it. Not only from what I have learned over the past year of study, but because of how my experience, gifts, and passions all feel like they have brought me to this. I don’t know the details of where this path will go, but I know Who is leading me and am learning walking in trust. I am terrified, excited, and fulfilled by what has already happened, and the potential of what will happen in the future.
People are leaving churches, feeling dissatisfied with the treatment of the Bible, and griping about the platitudes spoken by those standing on stages. I wonder how this way of gathering could help people feel once again like the Spirit of God is real and the Word of God still speaks.
Mark, a faithful reader of this blog for a long time now, emailed me recently to ask what I was doing these days. I realized that though I have had conversations about all this with people I see face-to-face, I had not yet described them to my readers. I’ve hinted at the transitions, the wilderness, and the direction shift, but not specifically put into words what I was doing now and how I got here. I am grateful for the prompt to write about this to you. You may have already noticed a shift in my writing, especially how Hebrew words and contexts have crept into my reflections. Now you know why.
If you are local to Minneapolis, I would be honored if you would join me for a group. You can learn more about current gatherings on my Socratic Scripture Studies page. You can also sign up for my email list so you will be the first to hear about more gatherings in the future. I lead a few groups per month.
If you are not local to Minneapolis, I would be honored if you would consider bringing me to your community. We could organize studies with your friends or neighbors or church group- whoever in your life might be hungry to dive deep into these types of gatherings. Please email me if you’d like to explore that option. These studies can provide the sort of rejuvenation people look for in conferences, but for a much cheaper price point and with a much more personal experience.
Blogging has played no small role in my process over these years. I am honored that you have stuck with me through all the changes in my writing and in my life. Thank you so much for reading.