My two-year teaching assignment at Cotner was extended for a third year. The professor I was filling in for discovered that he needed another year at Duke to complete his Ph.D. dissertation. So I got a reprieve from having to find a “real” job and could stay in the academic womb a little longer. I had my little family and my slightly larger student body and a growing circle of like-minded friends in the university and church community. I was busy on weekends with preaching in small town churches in eastern Nebraska. I taught several off-campus classes for ministers and lay people. Cotner’s dean sent me to represent the school at Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion regional and national meetings, which gave me the opportunity to rub shoulders with many of the prominent scholars and writers in the theological and biblical studies world.
The mid-sixties were also times of growing unrest on college campuses. The civil rights movement was in full swing. The anti-Vietnam war protests were heating up. I found myself attending rallies for these two causes and helping to found a peaceful anti-war protest on the edge of the campus. Daily we stood on the sidewalk with signs and made our silent presence known in opposition to the war’s escalation. Students were also organizing volunteers to get on buses leaving from the campus to go to Mississippi and Alabama.
The end of my life in academia was approaching but I was not yet aware of it. I delivered lectures at a Cotner sponsored series on The New Testament Conception of the Ministry and Paul Tillich’s Concept of God, and while I received kudos for my presentation, the life of a scholar was making less and less sense to me. Also, in 1966 I attended a lecture sponsored by the campus YMCA delivered by the new-on-the-scene Dean of the Ecumenical Institute: Chicago, Joe Mathews, who began to rock my world and challenge many of my already shaky beliefs about the way life is.
One quote from his lecture that never left me was: “There is only one absolute in life and that is that there are no absolutes.” After the lecture I had the chance to spend a couple of hours with him in a small group of campus pastors. I literally did not know what to make of this guy. It was like it must have been the first time the disciples encountered Jesus. I did not immediately pick up and follow him back to Chicago, nor was he asking me to. But the seed was planted. Sometimes it takes a few years to blossom, as will be revealed as the story unfolds.
Joe in “5th City” with a community leader on Chicago’s west side.