Girls in the 'Hood

by Joanie Butman

I am writing this while waiting for the women on my street to arrive for a neighborhood luncheon to introduce a couple of new residents, welcome another returning to the fold, and to catch up with some who live on the same street but who I can go months or even years with no contact other than a passing wave.

I also had a reunion this week with the girls in my other ‘neighborhood’ as the bible study I’ve been part of for years resumed following our summer sabbatical. Wikipedia defines a sabbatical as a “period of time during which someone does not work at his or her regular job and is able to rest, travel, do research, etc.” In reality, there is no sabbatical for devotees of the bible as our lives should be a reflection of that which we study. Sadly, during the summer that is certainly not true in my case. I find when I am away from the routine and fellowship of weekly bible study, I become the most undisciplined person in every area of my life. It’s similar to when I was freed from the tyranny of Catholic school – girl gone wild!! It is exactly this kind of behavior which makes fellowship so integral to anyone’s life regardless of where you find it. Can’t we all use a group of individuals for encouragement, support and to help keep us grounded? Mine just happens to choose to employ the bible to accomplish this connection.

The first day of bible study is reminiscent of a blind date. You go through the mandatory intros, “My name is Joan, I live in New Canaan, I am married to a wonderful man and have two amazing children. This is my 16th year of Community Bible Study.” Just once I want someone to start with, “My name is Joan, I am married to a great guy who drives me crazy.  I’d like to say I have two wonderful children, but the truth is, wonderful isn’t an adjective I’d ever use in the same sentence when describing teenagers. ” Sometimes honesty is not the best policy. I don’t know about you, but I would never reveal too much about myself on a blind date – at least not if I wanted to see the guy again.

I’m not sure anyone else would admit it, but how can you not be sizing people up as you go around the room trying to imagine who will determine they aren’t coming back for a second date or maybe it will take three or four dates for them to determine they are not interested in a long-term relationship. Perhaps they will go to the ladies room and slip out quietly never to be seen again. I’ve never used this strategy on a blind date but do know people who have.

As in any new friendship, I am curious as to what will be revealed over the course of the year. After all this time, there are always a few familiar faces, but each new group brings many strangers and newcomers. Regardless, I know from experience I will be walking through whatever life throws us this year with them, and by May we will have forged bonds that won’t be quickly broken.

By yourself you’re unprotected.

With a friend you can face the worst.

Can you round up a third?

A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped.

                               (Eccl 4:12 , The Message)

As we were introducing ourselves, someone commented, “I remember you. I was at a function at your house years ago. You’re the one with the bible verses on your wall.” I felt all eyes turn towards me and recognized a few looks that translated, “She’s one of those.” My first reaction was denial. That’s biblical isn’t it? I felt like Peter. Scripture on my walls? Even for me, that seemed a little over the top.

I’ve seen poetry or quotes used in decorating as a frieze but have never employed the technique, so I assumed she was mistaken. I had forgotten about the list I tacked below the family rules I posted in our kitchen a lifetime ago (or so it seems). I’m glad someone took note because I don’t think anyone in my own family ever did. It was entitled Christ’s Family Rules, and they are the basis of Christian fellowship. In fact, I’d say that even though these are bible verses, they illustrate how to live out The Golden Rule, which is the basis of all major world religions: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) In other words, “do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:21)

The next day while walking with a friend, she shared her own first-day awkward moment. She described how her new leader, whom she did not know, approached her for a hug – yikes. I can tell you right now my reaction would have been a simple, “I don’t kiss on the first date!” I know by May hugs will be second nature, but you have to ease into it – especially someone like me who has a firm ‘no touch’ policy. I visited a new church with my sister-in-law recently and our Catholicism became obvious when they asked everyone to reach out and touch the people next to them for the closing prayer. Catholics don’t do that. My sister-in-law did the one-finger ET touch to the man in front of her, and without thinking, I reached over and put my hand on the leg of the man to my right. I don’t know the etiquette about exactly where you’re supposed to touch someone in that situation, but it felt a little forward and judging from his reaction, so did he. Fellowship has its limits.

My husband has often asked whether I will ever ‘graduate’ from bible study. “You haven’t finished after 16 years?” “It’s a big book,” I reply, “And I’m a slow learner.” You don’t need to be part of a group to study the bible, but as I said, it keeps me disciplined. Plus, I find it more fun and more enlightening as you hear many different perspectives, and the homework forces you to think more deeply about what you read and often dig further as you consider answers. The reason I enjoy this particular bible study is because you are not allowed to discuss religion. How refreshing is that? The attendees are a cross-section of women from every walk of life offering unique insights and life experiences to enrich our study and conversations.

The importance of fellowship and community can never be underestimated, and I am reminded of its value every fall as my girls welcome me back into the hood. We were created to be in communion with one another, and its worth is magnified in times of distress. Together we raise each other up to a level we can’t achieve alone nor are we meant to. That’s why hearing the stories of others is so encouraging. The human condition hasn’t changed much since biblical times. We still struggle with the same issues. Apparently, I am not the only slow learner out there. There is immense healing power in shared suffering as well as shared praising. Isn’t that the foundation of every support group in existence?

Returning in September to Connecticut and to the CBS fellowship I enjoy during the school calendar are both a homecoming of sorts – a return to my girls in the hood on my street and in my heart. I will end with the words of a friend who opened Thursday’s session. She was discussing why she chose to come to CBS and why she continues to study the bible. She closed with this sentiment, which mirrors my own experience. “I chose to come to bible study to make friends, and what I found was my ultimate friend – Christ.”

A one-minute, light-hearted call to fellowship from a youth pastor.