That phrase came to mind recently while reading a book Hope needs for a class. I got to it first and began to read.
The writer talked about a passage from Augustine’s book on rhetoric, De doctrina Christiana. I pulled it off the shelf above my desk to look at the passage. In the slowly darkening room, in the late afternoon of midwinter, I realized that I was removed from the writing. I could read the words, of course, but I couldn’t follow the train.
I skimmed the book. Derrida. Kierkegaard. Kenneth Burke. I started to tear up. I looked at the index. I recognized the names and topics of hermeneutics. Of the understanding of texts.
These are the names of the people I used to know. Not face-to-face, but in theory. Literally, through their theories as they talk about texts and interpretation and communication. When I was in graduate school, when I was writing my dissertation, these were the names I studied.
I remembered a walk I took by a small pond near a library on a campus in Fort Wayne.
In the days after the invention of the telephone but before the invention of the cellphone, interruptions were limited to the length of a wire. I discovered that if I went away from my campus, I could avoid the sense of work responsibility that always drew me in. And I discovered a library on another campus where I could smuggle a thermos of coffee into the lower level. Once there I could read, reflect, sip coffee, and make progress on my study of “The Rhetoric of Evangelization.”
One day I was taking a study break. I walked around the small pond just outside the library. I’m not sure why, but I was thinking about my work in higher education. The role of a faculty member was built on teaching and research and service.
“I like research. Exploring and writing are fun. But there are people who love research. I like teaching, and my students seem to think that I can do it well. But there are people who love teaching. I can do administration, and everyone hates it. I’ll be an administrator.”
At the time, part of my responsibility was chairing a division of our college, the general studies division. It wasn’t the Biblical studies division, where people studied the important work. It wasn’t the professional studies division, where people learned job skills. It was the liberal arts part, the necessary evil. Literature, history, science, writing, speaking. But I had found that I could think through curriculum design and course schedules and budgets in ways that many of my colleagues couldn’t.
That day by the pond, I gave up being devoted to teaching and scholarship. Within a couple years, I was a full-time administrator. More than two decades later, it’s still part of my title. a decade in higher ed, and now a decade in church.
Do I regret that commitment? Not at all. The opportunities I have had in administration have been suited to me. My friend Terry says, “leaders make matters better” and that’s what I’ve tried to do.
But there has been a lenten abandonment. As I discovered while reading Hope’s book. a whole set of arguments has been left aside for two decades.
During that time, I have gained the understanding of texts. I have been forming as a student of the Bible. Not a bible scholar, not trained by seminary. But I have been able to take audience and take text and take author and say, “How do these connect”.
Abandonment for the sake of others has its own blessing. I know that now. Or discover it in the writing.