Toward the end of the graduate bible study my wife and I led this past academic year, two things were almost always certain: cheesecakes and IRB forms.
The cheesecakes we owed to one of our regulars. Like Cassandra of Troy, she was doubly cursed, compelled on the one hand to stress-bake and on the other to purchase preposterous amounts of cream cheese. In the final throes of the semester, she would consistently arrive at our apartment on Tuesday evening with a bible wedged beneath her arm and a pie tin of baked feelings cradled between her hands. She never said so, but I suspect that in those final weeks we probably ate our way through a solid chunk of her dissertation proposal.
The IRB forms, meanwhile, came from another regular. Working toward a PhD in sociology, he was writing about our bible study as a part of a project on campus ministries. And although he had interviewed most of the group individually, he had forgotten at the time to have them sign consent forms. So, at the conclusion of most of our meetings, he’d tug out a small stack of slightly crumpled papers from his laptop bag, smooth them out on a knee, and check that everyone in attendance that evening had signed.
Having belonged to just one other bible study prior to this, I can only assume that this latter ritual—and the phenomenon of “participant-observers” in general—was peculiar to our own.
Good ol’ grad school, I suppose.
As of last week, this bible study, complete with its cheesecakes and IRBs, came to its official end. To celebrate, we had a potluck. Sitting around the living room with our feet up and our chairs back, we laughed and joked and balanced dinner plates on our laps. Someone had brought roasted potatoes. Someone else came with chips and a bowl of sliced melon. Our resident Cassandra, plopping down a final cheesecake on the kitchen counter, smilingly informed me and the other vegetarian in the room that she had mixed pork into the batter, just for us. When we finished eating, we switched gears and—because our ethos as a bible study was nothing if not tasteful—played a couple of noisy rounds of a game titled Secret Hitler, before calling it a night.
A few goodbyes later, and Jes and I were stacking dishes in the sink, the apartment newly empty and the ceiling fan humming gently.
Thinking back on that last meeting, I find myself surprised at how remarkably ordinary it all felt, how not-like-an-ending. And in fact there’s a part of me that wishes there had been a greater sense of closure to that final get-together. This part of me, which likes its endings tidy and its stories properly moral-ed, wanted something like the closing of a book—a sense not just of an end but of why that end mattered. After all, for nine months straight, this group—for the most part strangers at the start, but friends by the close—did something you just don’t do in contemporary culture. We read from the bible aloud. We voiced our ideas about the sacred and talked about passé notions like sin and grace. We shared worries, thanksgivings. We prayed.
In the face of an experience like that, barbecue chips and secret identity games can seem a woefully inadequate and all too pedestrian conclusion.
But then again perhaps there is something to be thankful for in the lack of an ending, and in the quiet poetry of barbecue chips and identity games. Perhaps in the very ordinariness of that final potluck and in the easy familiarity with which we said goodbye, we can find an implicit promise. A promise that goes something like: hey, at some point, maybe next year, maybe some years after that, we can pick up where we left off. We can gather those chairs in a ring again. We can resume those old discussions. We can slice into a cheesecake and maybe even fill out a couple consent forms.