I’ve never attended a women’s Bible study. My mom, on the other hand, attended many throughout the late nineties. She died in 2001. I was eleven.
I’m twenty-nine now. My dad, in an effort to consolidate his life’s inventory, recently handed me a box of my mom’s Bible study notes. He and my step-mom, who had also lost a spouse, are moving into a townhouse, one with enough room for the two of them and visiting grandkids, but with less room for some of the physical memories of their former lives. He had saved this box, along with an assortment of others, for nearly seventeen years, uncertain if either me or my sister would ever desire to read these notes and unwilling to simply throw them in the garbage.
No one teaches us how to grieve. For some of us, we grieve by getting rid of everything that reminds us of the deceased person. It hurts too much to hold on. For others, like my dad, we grieve by keeping a few of these things: a favorite shirt of hers, a dog-eared book or two, a box of Bible study notes. It hurts too much to let go.
I took the box, knowing that I have less room for it than he does. And for nearly a month, it sat untouched in the only vacant spot we have in our small apartment. I had been avoiding it, not because I was afraid of what emotions it might stir up, but because I just didn’t know what to do with it once I opened it. Was it up to me, now, to throw these things in the garbage? Or, would I leave that task for my own children?
The box was overflowing with yellow legal pad scribbles and notes of admiration that other women had written to my mom. Many of these were tucked into the pages of a few of the books she loved, books worth next to nothing on Amazon. There were notes from membership classes at her church, taken with the kind of trademark intensity a new Christian can muster. There were a few overhead projector pages for classes she taught. And, as I expected, there were Beth Moore workbooks.
My mom idolized Beth Moore. She wanted to be just like her—to write and teach Bible studies for women. She was already the coordinator of WOW (Women of the Word) at a megachurch in Portland, Oregon (even though she felt unqualified). She was preparing to attend seminary in East Tennessee alongside my dad, far more excited about learning Greek and Hebrew than he was.
One of the workbooks was A Heart Like His, a ten-week study on the life and leadership of King David. It was originally published in 1996, one of Beth Moore’s earliest studies, and it was updated in 2010 under a new title. This edition uses Papyrus as the theme font, the ultimate font for anything published in biblical studies in the nineties and the bane of graphic designers everywhere. (The new edition changed the fonts.) Based on dated prayers my mom wrote in the margins, she must have completed this one in 1999 or 2000. It was about a year after she recovered from breast cancer and eighteen months before she would die of complications from a surgery to remove a pituitary gland tumor.
I confess that for many years, I experienced an inner eye-roll whenever I heard that the women in my church were doing yet another Beth Moore study. I kept thinking, Is there anyone else out there? It was unjustified, of course, but I didn’t understand how Beth Moore became the patron saint of women’s Bible study.
Recently, though, I started to see Beth Moore in a different light. I follow her on Twitter, and I saw the way she spoke out in support of the #metoo movement and against racial injustice. To risk her reputation among her evangelical fanbase was courageous and brave, and I began to wonder if I had been missing out on what else Beth Moore had to say.
I decided to read my mom’s Beth Moore workbook from beginning to end, over the course of three nights after my eleven-month-old went to sleep. I was hesitant, of course, because it felt like I was trespassing into two worlds where I didn’t belong. I was stepping into a world that women can claim as their own, a corner of spiritual conversation in the church where men don’t get the first or the last word. I was also stepping into the inner world of my mom. Would I find comments about her relationship with my dad? Or, even more terrifying, would I find comments about me—her fourth grader?
The pages were full of highlights, faded to a barely discernible yellow tint, and the margins were full of notes in every color pen: blue, black, pink, pencil. There are short prayers written next to each day’s study, like this one dated 12/18/1999: “Father, I feel weary and unworthy, today. I feel like a bad person and unfit to be used by you. Show me a word to stand on today, right now, this minute.” To read her handwriting after nearly twenty years, to see how her strokes are hauntingly similar to my own, was almost enough to make me close the book and save it for another day.
The more I read of the workbook, the easier it was for me to understand why my mom and many others love Beth Moore. She’s funny and engaging. She doesn’t shy away from theological depth as she makes abstract concepts accessible to ordinary women. She makes Hebrew word studies fun—a rare feat. Her workbooks are thorough enough to be intimidating to the average person, but somehow they are as addictive as any Netflix show. As a speaker, she is charismatic and winsome and a joy to learn from—commanding the respect of women and men alike. I can understand why my mom wanted to be just like her.
In the end, though, I was struck most by the ordinariness of the spiritual formation provided by a workbook like this one. Its five-day-a-week structure creates a daily discipline of engaging deeply with the Bible. It’s day after day of read this, reflect on that, check these boxes, fill in those blanks, reflect on that experience, write down this scripture. Over time, these little exercises add up to a breadth and depth of biblical knowledge that rivals what one might acquire in a seminary class like the ones I attend right now.
Workbooks like these create a space for women to make sense of their lives, or at least make peace with them, within a biblical imagination. It’s a place to record feelings women didn’t know they were permitted to feel. For my mom, it was a place to reflect on her experience of “losing all her outward beauty” during chemo, how unfit she felt to lead a women’s Bible study, her interactions with friends like Barb and Ann and Deb, an unresolved conflict with a long-time friend, and the difficulties of raising children who were ages eight and ten—one of which had a proclivity for stealing pogs from Christian bookstores.
When I read some of the letters written from other women to my mom, tucked into the pages of this workbook, you might think you were reading about a saint. They described how my mom’s influence and example changed the course of their lives. My mom wanted to be like Beth Moore, but many others, according to these letters, wanted to be like my mom. Much of her spiritual formation, though, was little more than following the instructions in a Beth Moore workbook combined with personal prayer and writing in a journal.
As I closed A Heart Like His, still uncertain of what do with this particular relic of my mom’s, I was certain of one thing: my mom wasn’t the only one who hoped to one day teach the Bible as well as Beth Moore. So did I. My mom would’ve been fifty-eight this October, and I doubt she could have anticipated that her pog-stealing ten-year-old would have become a pastor who, like herself, wanted to teach like Beth Moore.
Cover photo by Daiga Ellaby.
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