December 16th, 2017
Rob has a Christmas party almost every year. It’s always a German Christmas party, “eine Weihnachtsfeier”. This is because most everyone in attendance, including Rob, has some deep connection with Germany. Some people, like my wife, are natives of Deutschland. Others, like myself, lived there for several years. A few folks are wannabe Germans; they just like the language and the culture. Anyway, the Teutonic thing is a common denominator for most of the folks who come to Rob’s house for the annual festivities.
There is something else that binds most of us together: we were part of the same Bible study group for almost a decade. We started meeting on Saturdays at Dan’s house back in 2003. We came together each weekend to study Scripture in German. Usually, we had to shift back into English after a while. Discussing theology in a foreign language is a daunting task. Even the native German speakers sometimes didn’t have the necessary vocabulary to keep the conversation moving.
It still amazes me that we came together in the small study group. I certainly didn’t fit in with that crowd. Karin, Sister Diane, and I were the only Catholics there. Everyone else was (is) some flavor of Evangelical. The discussions had a definite Baptist feel to them. We often had “spirited discussions”, which is a nice way of saying we argued. Well, I argued. Sometimes I did that out of sheer perversity; I like to be contrary. Sometimes I argued with people because I couldn’t tolerate their smug self-certainty. Most of the group agreed on some fundamental assumptions about God and the world, and I felt the need to challenge those notions. That didn’t always go well.
I didn’t argue in the group because I was Catholic. Any number of people will testify that I’m not very good at following the precepts of the Church. It was more that I had (have) a very different view of what Scripture is and does. The Evangelicals (at least some of them) look at the Bible as kind of a spiritual operators manual. I will over-generalize here, but they assume that, if a person follows the rules in the Book, then everything will be cool. God will bless a believer. They often seek definitive, immutable answers to messy, open-ended questions. They want The Truth, whatever that is (I think that Pontius Pilate asked the right question in John’s Gospel). They want the world to be black and white, with none of those pesky grey areas. I would also like to have some answers to the basic issues in my life, but I am more interested in wrestling with the questions. I am usually okay with some uncertainty and ambivalence. I am more interested in the process than the final result.
Eventually, after about ten years, Karin and I left the Bible study. For a while we had learned quite a bit with the group. I gained a new appreciation and reverence for the Bible. Then, members in the group, including myself, got kind of stuck. We kept revisiting the same controversies, and arriving at the same inconclusive conclusions. Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses. Despite disagreements, Karin and I remained close friends with the other people in the study group. They are all fine human beings, and we love them. They love us.
It’s ironic in a way. Joining that Bible study was my first foray out of the Catholic cocoon. Two years after joining the Evangelicals, I started going to a Zen Center to meditate with the Buddhists. I still do that. Two years after that, I started attending an Orthodox synagogue. I also started visiting a mosque and the local Sikh Temple. Some of the people from the Bible study are convinced that I have left the true path, but the fact is that they got me started on this journey.
In any case, we get together at Rob’s house once a year. That is about all we can handle. Well, it’s about all that I can handle. Thankfully, Rob provides plenty of good food and drink. The guests supplement his humble buffet with homemade treats. While eating, we talk about about various things. Some of the conversations bring up fascinating new topics. Some of the discussions hurry down to the usual dead ends. Some people are comfortable with rehashing old ideas. Some of us aren’t.
People change. Fourteen years can make a huge difference in a person’s life. Some of our friends are going through some severe health issues: cancer, Parkinson’s disease, heart problems. Mortality has reared its ugly head. Others have had intense personal struggles with family members. Life has not been gentle with most of Rob’s guests.
These sorts of challenges have different effects on different people. Some of our friends have found new strength in their faith, and they have become more tolerant and compassionate toward others who are suffering. Some have become more cynical. I am probably in that group. Some people have become more rigid, and they cling ever more tightly to the life preserver of their theology. Mostly, people have matured. We seem to be more accepting of our fate, perhaps because we understand that there is no other choice. We play the hand that we have been dealt.
I had one extraordinary conversation at the party. I spoke with a young man named Theo. He seemed to be utterly lost in the crowd of older people. I don’t how he got to Rob’s house. Some older relative must have dragged him to the gathering. Theo was sitting alone in a corner, silent and brooding. I went up to him and spoke.
I asked Theo, “So, what do you really like to do?”
He replied slowly, “Well, I play guitar and bass.”
“Really? I play bass too!”
After that, Theo and I discussed music. He talked about wanting to join a band. I told him about playing bass with my son, Stefan. We talked about the blues. I described to him the joys of Klezmer. After I told Theo about Tab Benoit, he looked up the guy on his smart phone. We told each other about our favorite artists. We discussed the bass lines in Jimi Hendrix songs.
Theo told me about how he wanted to play music for a living, but he didn’t want to prostitute himself to producer just to make a buck. I explained to Theo that almost nobody earns a living by playing music. It’s an art that has to be practiced for its own sake. I have a friend who plays blues guitar, and he drives a truck to support his family. Music isn’t usually a job. It’s a passion.
Karin was tired after about three hours at Rob’s house. We got ready to go home. We said farewell to Rob and to the other guests.
I shook Theo’s hand. He held on to mine firmly.
I told him, “I was really glad to meet you.”
He smiled and said, “Me too.”