Today was Bible Study day and I met with 10 other men. It reminded me of when we first went to a village to live among the Kewa people in Papua New Guinea. We did not know the language, nor had we lived in the culture. We were outsiders, invited to live with the clan, and we were trying to learn how the insiders thought and what they talked about.
My Bible study is something like that: the insiders are members of the Texas clan, although one was adopted and is somewhat distinct from the others. I am definitely an outsider, although I have read a lot about the general Texas tribe and know something of the clan that I interact with. Like my adopted clan in PNG, this one is friendly and I have no feeling of danger or disease from being among them.
I am learning to understand their language and it is taking less time than the several years that it took me to learn the Kewa language in PNG. However, they often mention other villages and towns that I know nothing about and they have all taken part in certain Baptist and football rituals that are foreign to me. They often mention a town or person that I have not heard of—not unlike my friends in the village where we lived in PNG.
A good observer writes down things that he notices about the language and culture. Similarly, I want to remember my adopted group, so I am going to write a little note about each of them. All, except for our leader, the pastor, are about my age (old). I am going to use their actual first names—a dangerous practice because there are two lawyers in the group and I might be sued. But as a retired missionary, they wouldn’t get much, so it is worth the gamble for the sake of authenticity and truth.
But first, let me say that I enjoy the Bible Study and the men associated with it; my little story is not meant to detract from the positive feelings I have towards each of them. And remember that what I say is just a story, not something that I would repeat in church.
We meet on the second floor of the “Old Woolworth Building”, in downtown Waco, Texas. Like most of downtown Waco, it is a historic site, not far from the Dr Pepper Museum. People come from all over the U.S. to look at old Dr Pepper bottles and tins and hear the lore of the soft drink, once a medicine, we are told.
Don-One is the organizer of our study, meaning that he reminds us by email of our meetings, prepares the coffee, arranges the chairs and does other menial tasks that we should expect of a former University Provost. Don-One sits opposite me, directly in the sun, if it is shining, so his countenance is robust. He tries to keep us on track, what must be a difficult and somewhat frustrating task at times.
Don-Two is a lawyer and often carries a large Jerusalem Bible. I don’t know if this is because he has been to Jerusalem or because it is faithful to the original text from Jerusalem. Don refreshes all of us with his smile and welcome. Once when he read the study passage he had a difficult time in fluency because lawyer-like questions kept popping into his mind and, like any lawyer, he had questions about the motives of the participants in the story.
But our attraction is our teacher, Pastor-Eric, who is guiding us through the Gospel of John. He is a great historian and somewhat of an artist on the white board. He allows discussion, even draws it out of us, and does not seem offended by the weirdest of theologies that arise from the group. I am sure these challenge him and give him thoughts for next week.
Bill usually sits next to Don-One, but slightly behind him because he is somewhat bald and the sun plays havoc on his head, often reflecting in our eyes and causing temporary blindness. Bill is well versed in the Bible, having been to seminary, later served as a chaplain in the Navy, and often gives us well-thought out sermonettes that deal (usually) with the passage at hand. I believe he would be the one to question about the history of the clan.
Sometimes Edgar sits where Bill does, but he, too, is largely bald and recedes into the shadows when the sun is shining. Otherwise, with his large Bible and notes, he sits next to Pastor Eric. Edgar, reflecting on a passage, will occasionally talk of mysteries and spiritual things that are almost beautifully ethereal and always relate to the Old Testament, the Covenant, the Law and grace. Don-One and Lane are pragmatic and sometimes skeptical and will ask for clarification or try to restate Edgar’s exposition.
Often seated near the door is Tom, who travels a fair distance to take part in the study. Tom has been a pastor and chaplain, so his comments, although softly spoken, have great wisdom. He likes to sit near the coffee pot, although Don-Two sometimes beats him to the spot. I confess that I have sometimes taken up the left-most spot on the sofa area that Tom would like to occupy. Lately I have been sitting on a folding chair. However, being eldest (that is, chronologically disadvantaged), I have on occasion moved to the sofa. Nevertheless, I want to be careful where I sit because, in any tribe, there are prescribed seats of honor.
Sometimes Stan sits on the far side of the sofa, but not always. He moves around a bit. He is tall and bony and doesn’t say much. I know that he is alive because I have seen him breathing each week. I understand that he is also a lawyer and maybe someday I will get up nerve enough to talk to him. Sometimes he wears a beret, so he may have been a commando or a Navy Seal.
Seated at his customary place in the middle of the sofa is Kurt, a musician, who always dresses smartly and, like Don-Two, has a ready smile for everyone. He often feints a lack of knowledge on a particular verse or asks a disarming question. It is like he is tuning the orchestra. I have met leaders like that in the village where we lived. They really know the answer but want to see if you understand the question.
Lane also sits on the sofa, some distance from the coffee table. He is gregarious and once told us about his heart procedure. It elicited a lot of comments and soon Don-One, Kurt and he were using terms like Fib 2, which I learned was Atrial Fibrillation. Kurt and Don had other kinds of terms for their heart problems, but I didn’t catch what they were. They have pacemakers of one kind or another. I didn’t mention mine because I didn’t want to seem competitive. I learned long ago in the village that you should never challenge an elder.
Bob also sits near the sofa, but on the opposite end. He has been through severe brain surgery and once passed around a photo that showed a dent in his head, the size of a watermelon slice. Bob speaks slowly and softly and interjects a bit of humor. Even with my hearing aids, I often can’t hear what he says, but the smiles on the rest of the group tell me that it must have been funny (and helpful).
I’m the missionary in the midst, the Bible translator who should know everything but knows far less than I let on, or that others think. I sometimes carry my 8 version New Testament instead of a Greek one and often I read a verse from a version other than the King James or NIV to enlarge our focus. It also helps to keep us from being literalists. But I need to be careful—there are tribal rules about reciting clan history and I can tell that the KJV is still revered.
I enjoy the pre-game banter. Pastor Eric lets the group talk about Baylor’s last football or basketball game, the raw deal they have gotten in the national rankings, and things like that. It gets our adrenalin aroused enough to keep us awake during the study. Sometimes we go far afield, but tribal discussions were not always to the point either. In the village I often wondered what the point was and, when I found out, I sometimes wondered why it was the point.
No one should get sleepy in our study. Not only are we amazed at Pastor Eric’s depth of historical information about the text, but his white board summaries should be photographed and put on you-tube. However, as I said, sometimes the discussions are as wild as a Baylor vs. TCU football game or tribal warfare. It is like being in seminary without paying tuition.
We have been studying the Gospel of John. We got to chapter 11 in good time, but it took us 3 weeks to get Lazarus out of the tomb.
We did a bit better with Jesus.
Karl Franklin (on the sofa, third from the right or on a chair—out of the sun)