“We have a new member tonight,” Lillian said. “Would you like to introduce yourself?”
“Sure,” I said, looking at the mix of new and familiar faces in front of me. Some of my friends from last year were in this Bible study, but I did not recognize everyone else. “I’m Greg,” I announced. “I’m a sophomore, majoring in mathematics.”
“Hey!” Shawn, the other leader, said. “I’m a math major too!”
“Really? I don’t meet many other math majors.”
“What do you want to do with it?” Shawn asked. “Are you going to be a teacher?”
“Probably not. I’m not really sure. I just know I like math.”
“I’m going to teach high school. I don’t think I can deal with kids younger than that. And I would have summers off to train.”
“What are you training for?”
“I do triathlons and marathons.”
“Wow,” I said. “I definitely do not have that kind of athletic endurance.”
“It takes practice.”
“I’m sure it does.”
After the others all said their first names, we said an opening prayer and sang a few songs. Pete Green, whom I had known since my first day at the University of Jeromeville, got out his guitar and started playing as people passed around lyrics. I recognized the songs from JCF large group. Before the last song started, Shawn said, “Greg, our theme for this quarter is that we’re looking at the Scriptures in some of the songs we sing at JCF. Tonight we’re going to be doing Create In Me.”
I followed along with the words on the lyric sheet; I had heard this song before, but it was not one we sang often. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” I sang.
After we sang the song through twice, since it was a short song, Lillian opened her Bible. It was much thicker than mine, with many papers, bookmarks, and Post-It Notes stuck inside. It appeared to be a study Bible, with extra notes and commentaries built in. I wondered if I should get one of those someday. I had noticed a lot of students at JCF who had big study Bibles.
“The song is from Psalm 51,” Lillian said. “So open your Bible to Psalm 51.”
I found the passage quickly, since I knew approximately where the Psalms were found in the Bible. A few weeks ago, I made some new friends hanging out after JCF. It came up in conversation that night that I did not have a Bible, so one of those new friends, Kristina, gave me an extra Bible that she had. Ever since Kristina had given me that Bible, I had been reading it often, occasionally just flipping through it for fun, familiarizing myself with all the different books. I was glad I had done this, because I would have been embarrassed to have to ask someone for help finding a book. Psalms, containing worship music and poetry from the Old Testament time period, was one of the longest books in the Bible, so it was easy to find.
JCF ran many small group Bible studies, and I was a little disappointed, but not surprised, that none of the new friends from that night were in this one. With so many JCF people in their neighborhood, I figured there would be other Bible studies meeting on that side of town. I really wanted to get to know that group better, both because they were very nice people, and because they seemed to have full social lives revolving around other Christians. They were the cool kids of JCF. One of the new friends from that night, Haley, was really cute; I especially wanted to get to know her.
After we all found Psalm 51, people then took turns reading a few verses at a time. The song came from verses 10 through 12:
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
“Any initial thoughts?” Shawn asked. A few people went around and shared things. Liz Williams, a friend from last year who had invited me to this Bible study, asked what “hyssop” was. That word appeared in verse 7, and I did not know it either; someone thought it was a plant with medicinal properties.
I noticed that the beginning of the Psalm said, “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” I knew what adultery meant, but it sounded like that was referring to some other incident in King David’s life that I was unaware of. I wondered if this other incident was mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, but I did not ask since I did not want to look dumb. Maybe this was something that everyone else who was not Catholic knew about. JCF was not affiliated with a specific denomination, and there were very few Catholics in the group that I knew of, just me and one other guy who showed up occasionally who was not in this small group.
Fortunately, I did not have to ask, because after we discussed our initial thoughts, Lillian said, “So at the very beginning of Psalm 51, it says when David wrote it. Turn to 2 Samuel, chapter 11.” I flipped through my Old Testament, looking for that book; it was long enough that it did not take long to find. The backstory for Psalm 51 made up two entire chapters, so Lillian and Shawn paraphrased, adding direct quotes from the Scripture for emphasis. Apparently King David saw an attractive woman bathing, so he had sex with her and got her pregnant. Her husband was fighting in a war, so David devised a military strategy that ensured that her husband would get killed. God sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke David, and the child died, although David later married the woman and had another child with her, the future King Solomon. I had never heard that story before. Apparently the Bible was full of interesting stuff.
We spent the next hour talking about Psalm 51 in great detail. We discussed sin and repentance, and restoration and forgiveness. Someone noted that parts of this Psalm seem to foreshadow Jesus coming to be our sacrifice once and for all, replacing the system of temple sacrifices that dated back to the time of Moses. We talked about the wording of the song being different from the Bible. I did not say much, since I was new to this, but I did have one thing to share. At one point, a tall, deep-voiced guy named Evan, whom I had just met that night, said, “Why is it that the end of the song says ‘renew a right spirit,’ but the Bible says, ‘grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me?’”
No one answered after a couple seconds, so I said, “Probably just the songwriter matching the words he used at the beginning, for poetic effect.”
“That makes sense,” Liz added.
“Yeah,” Lillian said. “Probably.”
After we finished discussing Psalm 51, Shawn said, “Does anyone have prayer requests?” We went around in a circle sharing, and when it came to my turn, I said, “I have three midterms on Friday.”
“Ouch,” Shawn said.
“Again?” Pete asked. “Didn’t you just have a bunch of midterms on the same day a few weeks ago?”
“I did,” I replied. “I have the worst midterm schedule ever this quarter.”
“We’ll definitely pray for you,” Lillian said. We each took turns praying for someone else, and I was assigned to pray for Liz, who asked for prayer regarding a mission trip to Mexico in the summer. “Jesus,” I began, “I pray for Liz’s trip to Mexico. I pray that the plans will come together, and that she will have safe travels. I pray that you will be with her as she works with the church down there, and I pray that you will give her wisdom.”
Pete’s turn to pray for me was next. “Lord, I thank you for bringing Greg to our Bible study,” he said. “I pray, Father, that you will continue to work in Greg’s life, as he grows closer to you and studies your word. I pray that you will take away the stress that he is experiencing with these midterms. I pray, Lord, that you will help him remember what he knows when the tests come, and that he will remember that you love him unconditionally, and that his worth does not depend on his grades.” I liked that. My worth did not depend on my grades. I wanted to succeed in school, but God loved me no matter what.
When we finished praying, I stuck around for a bit to talk to people before I went home. “So what did you think?” Liz asked.
“It was good. I like the way you guys do things.”
“Are you going to come back next week?”
Evan, the deep-voiced guy whom I did not know, walked over to us. “Hey, Greg,” he said. “I’m Evan.”
“Hi,” I replied, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Liz told me you’re from Plumdale?”
“Yeah,” I replied, wondering where he was going with this. Did I know him back home and not remember him?
“I’m from Gabilan.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” I said. I probably did not know him, but I wondered if my mother did, or if she had heard of his family, since she grew up in Gabilan and seemed to know everyone. But I did not feel comfortable saying this now. (I mentioned Evan to Mom a few weeks later, after I learned his last name, and I was correct; Mom did know of his family.)
“Do you go back home very often?” Evan asked.
“Not really. Usually just quarter breaks.”
“Same with me,” he said. “Did you go to Plumdale High?”
“I have a friend from there. I wonder if you know her. Her name is Melissa Holmes.”
“Yes! I know Melissa! She’s one of my best friends.”
“Wow. That’s cool.
“She’s one of only a few high school friends left who I still hear from. I’ll have to tell her I met you.”
“Yeah. Tell her I said hi. I haven’t heard from her in a while.”
“I will. I should get home, I still have to study. But it was nice meeting you.”
“You too, Greg.”
The following night I had choir practice at the Newman Center. I usually carpooled with Heather, another choir member who lived in the same apartment complex as me. It was Heather’s turn to drive, and when she knocked on my door that night, she was with Melanie, another choir member.
“Mel and I are hanging out tonight,” Heather explained, “so she’s driving. Is that okay?”
“Sure,” I replied. We got into Melanie’s car and drove to the church. When we walked in, Claire Seaver, a music major who was informally the leader of the choir, was getting our sheet music organized; she handed me my copies of this week’s songs. I set them up on a music stand. Sabrina Murphy, the cute redhead who, unfortunately for me, had a boyfriend, began setting up the music stand next to me.
The first song we practiced was called Hosea. We sang this one once before, back in the fall, and I liked it, although I did not understand the title back then. I did now, though, or at least I knew what Hosea meant. As if on cue, as if God knew that I was waiting for the chance to demonstrate my newfound knowledge, Sabrina pointed at the word Hosea in the title and whispered to me, “What does that mean?”
“Hosea is a prophet in the Old Testament,” I replied, smiling.
“Oh,” Sabrina said. I doubted that my knowledge of the Old Testament prophets would make Sabrina leave her boyfriend and go out with me instead, but I could dream. It did not seem to matter, though, since that would never happen. Besides, I liked Haley Channing from JCF now. And my knowledge of the Old Testament still was not much. I had not yet read the Book of Hosea in the Old Testament, nor did I know how these lyrics, which began “Come back to me with all your heart,” related to the story or writings of Hosea. But I had seen that name while flipping around my recently acquired Bible over the last few weeks.
“What’s next?” Matt Jones asked after we finished. Like my new friend Evan, Matt was from Gabilan, and my mother knew his family. I always felt weird about my mother knowing my friends, just because she talks about people behind their back so often. But nothing weird had come up with Matt so far.
“‘On Eagle’s Wings,’” Claire replied. “We’re singing the female version.” I was not sure what “female version” meant, but I knew this song well; it had been around for a while. I looked at the fine print at the bottom of the sheet music, as I had been doing recently now that I was reading the Bible; it said “Copyright 1979,” and also mentioned that the text was derived from Psalm 91. I had not read Psalm 91 yet; I would have to look that up.
“You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life,” I sang. Something sounded off, like everyone else had been singing something different at one part. It almost sounded like the others had said “in her shadow for life.” I remembered at that moment that there was a time last year, before I had joined the church choir, when I thought the choir had sung “hold you in the palm of her hand” at the end of the chorus, instead of “palm of his hand.”
At the next lyric containing a pronoun, I abruptly stopped singing so I could hear everyone else. “And she will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” everyone else sang.
“Wait,” I said. “Is that what the female version means?” Everyone else stopped singing and playing instruments. “We sing feminine pronouns instead?”
“Oh, yeah.” Claire answered. “Remember, everyone, feminine pronouns!”
“Why?” I asked. This made no sense. Catholics did not believe in Goddess.
“We always do certain songs this way,” Heather said.
“But why? Is that allowed? To call God ‘she?’”
“Sister Mary Rose wants it that way,” Claire explained. “Especially when we do a lot of songs with ‘he.’” I shrugged my shoulders, and we continued practicing, but I mumbled every time we sang a feminine pronoun. Calling God “she” just felt wrong to me. To be clear, I never thought of women as second-class citizens, and my understanding of God was that he transcended the human idea of sex and gender. But it seemed arrogant and disrespectful to fly in the face of thousands of years of tradition just to keep up with liberal college town political correctness.
After we finished choir practice, Heather and Melanie and I got back into Melanie’s car and headed home. As we pulled up to the red light at Andrews Road and Coventry Boulevard, Melanie was telling a story about having been in a coffee shop studying yesterday while enjoying a latte.
“I hope it was actually a latte, and you didn’t grab someone else’s drink by mistake,” Heather said.
“Oh my gosh,” Melanie laughed. “That happened one time.”
“Did you ever find out what you actually drank that night? You were so messed up!”
“No! It was strong!”
“Remember when you went up to that guy and kissed him on the cheek?”
“That was so embarrassing!”
I was not there for whatever happened that the girls were talking and laughing about, but it sounded like it would have been fun to watch. The light turned green as the two girls continued laughing. The two cars in front of us drove through the intersection as we remained stopped in the middle of the street. “The light is green,” I said.
“Oh my gosh!” Melanie said, laughing loudly. “That night was so crazy!”
“You were so funny!” Heather exclaimed.
“The light is green!” I repeated, trying unsuccessfully to get Melanie’s attention.
“What was it that you kept saying that night?” Heather asked, still laughing.
“GREEN LIGHT!” I shouted.
“No, that wasn’t it,” Heather answered. “Greg, you weren’t even there!”
“Oh! Green light!” Melanie finally said. As she started to pull the car forward, the light turned yellow; it was clear she would not make it through before the light turned red. She pulled up to the intersection and stopped again. All three of us laughed.
“Good thing there’s no one behind us,” Heather said.
“I was saying ‘green light’ the whole time,” I said.
“Sorry!” Melanie replied.
After we finally made it across Coventry Boulevard, Melanie dropped me off at my apartment. I had three midterms coming up on Friday, but I did not feel like studying anymore tonight. I turned on the computer and decided to unwind on an IRC chat for the rest of the night. As I listened to the whistles and chirps of my dialup Internet connecting, I thought about the events of the last two days. I did not want to sound like some kind of sexist pig, but using feminine pronouns for God really bothered me. There seemed to be no precedent for that in the Bible, as far as I knew, and going against Scripture and Church teaching seemed to be a dangerous slippery slope.
As I looked through the list of people chatting on this channel, looking for possible girls to flirt with, I kept thinking about Bible study last night. “Create in me a pure heart, O God,” King David had written. He wrote that Psalm after committing adultery with Bathsheba. I had not committed adultery in the technical sense, but I felt just as guilty sometimes when I talked dirty with girls on the Internet. That was a slippery slope as well, and I did not want to fall into old patterns that were not God’s will for my life. I read Psalm 51 again and kept my chat clean that night.