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Friday, October 05, 2012  

The Way of Life
Chicago Diarist

It was only my second visit to the Barrington Metra station, and my first before 7:00 a.m., but I have now sojourned in the suburbs long enough to know the routine. I managed to grab a small coffee from the kiosk just before the 6:40 train arrived to deposit me and the other sleepy, bundled-up riders, downtown an hour later. I should have dozed, but busied myself with employment paperwork and my lectio continua of the Bible instead (I am in 1 Samuel and Acts, rather arbitrarily. Reading Life Together has complicated my life in certain unwelcome ways).

From the Ogilvie Transportation Center downtown, the route is wholly familiar. It is not the only option, but I discarded other possibilities for the sake of the bleak familiarity that bounds the probable arrival times of CTA travel by heading for the Green Line and hence the Garfield bus. From there I would go on foot the Seminary Co-op Bookstore to pick up a copy of The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians by Thomas O'Loughlin, and then to Swift Hall, room 400 at 9:00 a.m., where Kyle and I would rumble through a sample invitatory psalm to introduce a new cohort of second-year ministry students to the requirement of leading the Arts of Ministry: Worship and Preaching class in a moment of ritual or reflection.

And so I began my first day adjunct teaching at the University of Chicago Divinity School, as the designated ministry practitioner to complement the faculty and doctoral-student expertise. It is, to state the obvious, a rather awesome and humbling privilege. I loved being a student at the Divinity School (loved the studying part, if not the being-a-person-in-other-ways part) and I had a great admiration, and sometimes awe, of the people I studied with and under. Taking even a modest hand in the formation of new students is the sort of thing I should perhaps have considered at more length, but I'm terribly excited to be doing it.

And it would here be tempting to offer all manner of explanations for why I chose to put myself forward for this task, but O'Loughlin's wonderful little book has warned me not to. It is an elaboration of "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," a first-century prescription of Christian life and worship that includes a moral passage on the Way of Life and the Way of Death, another on the rituals of Christian initiation and communal worship, and still another on church organization. O'Loughlin reminds a primarily Christian and scholarly audience of what secular historians of religion have known for a long time: that ritual is conservative, while the script of the ritual and the meanings we associate with it change. We mimic the Eucharist described in The Didache, but we've made it something very different than what it was, O'Loughlin implies, adding meanings--a symbolic re-enactment of Christ's atoning sacrifice, a "dose" of grace and forgiveness of sins, and so on--that would have made no sense to the Christians of 50 A.D. And so on with baptism, fasting, and other observances. We continue to do these things, despite (or because of) the new meanings we have ended up using to explain them.

People seemed surprised that I had traveled so far to assist in teaching this class, and I would have happily offered a somewhat cynical account of enjoying being paid to talk about things like The Didache, but in light of O'Loughlin's splendid discussion I have to admit that I am, in my way, re-enacting the habits that formed my identity as a scholar and a Christian. I wandered down there in 1996, again in 1998, 2000, frequently after my graduation from The College in 2002, and again in 2004 when I went to the Divinity School. I moved to the suburbs after I graduated but commuted to Englewood for internship and to Hyde Park for a year of classes afterward at the Lutheran Seminary. I even came to Swift Hall to lead a workshop (with a fellow alum) last year. I suppose the technical term for this is "network effects," and I won't gainsay that. But there is certainly something to be said for the path one could walk blindfolded, for the L station known by turns and stops, for the place one is accustomed to waiting for a bus that cannot come too soon--a place that, new Green Line station aside, looks little different from my first anxious arrival there a dozen years ago. Like Odysseus taunting Polyphemus, somehow I will always end up doing something that pulls me back to the Southside.

I wish I could share with you my observations on that first class, which was in some ways curiously unfamiliar for being only seven years after my own Arts of Ministry sequence, and in some ways comfortingly familiar. And I wish I could share with you the nature of the emergency pastoral care concern that greeted me as I got back into my car in Barrington, in the form of a genuinely rare and genuinely urgent call from church on my day off (yes, I do pastor stuff on my day off--that is another matter). What the Didache calls "The Way of Life" consists to a considerable degree of what our more sophisticated age would call neurotic, compulsive, maladaptive (or meme-driven), self-hypnotizing behaviors. But that is the nature of anything that one could call "a way." It is trodden by others and oneself repetitively, and yet it places you at the threshold of experiences you've never had before.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:54 PM
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