I wake up a little after 2 a.m. I stumble to the bathroom where a hot shower washes some of the numbness away. Returning to the bedroom, I dress in the dark, then lean over and kiss my slumbering wife goodbye.
Down the stairs to the kitchen I go, making sure I have all my books, my computer, my tickets, and various other items I might need. It’s dark and still when I go out the back door onto the deck and down the steps to the car. Wallet? Check. Tickets? Check. Fanny pack? Check.
I drive through MacDonalds and get a Diet Coke, then swing toward the strangely deserted highway. Normally, my trip toward Indianapolis would be a tense dance in a crowded room, as I along with other cars and trucks jockey for position on the interstate. At this time of day, however, my car is one of only a few. I arrive downtown almost before I know it and pull into the empty all-day parking lot. I put my bills in an envelope, mark my information on it, tear off the receipt and put it on the dashboard, and drop my fee in the pay box. I remind myself to stay aware of my surroundings. Empty downtown parking lots in the wee hours are not my native territory.
Gathering my things, I walk the block to the bus station. A few men are sitting in the all-night White Castle. I’m thinking they are probably cabbies. I see other drivers standing on the street corners and a few more sitting in their cars conversing. Waiting time. Entering the bus station, I step across the form of a man sleeping just inside the door, taking shelter from the cold. A few people, awake, are working on their computers or talking on their phones. Most are just sitting on benches, glassy-eyed, wrapped in coats or blankets, like creatures from the netherworld. I’m sure I look the same.
A TV blares. A baby cries. I can hear the muffled sound of rap music in the headphones of the fellow next to me. Together, we wait.
Once in my seat, I read for a few moments while the bus driver loads the luggage and the lights are on inside the coach. I feel a little wired. Soon we pull out, the lights go down, and most riders try to find a comfortable position in which to snatch a few winks.
This is impossible for me. I twist and contort and fidget and sigh and curse under my breath. Head against the window. Head back against the seat. Seat back. Seat up. Feet on the footrests, then sprawled under the seat in front of me. Head on my backpack, then against the window once more. Roll up my hoodie again, put a book under my arm to protect it from the metal grooves on the window sill. Give up. Turn the reading light on, read a few pages. Pull out the laptop and test the wi-fi. Check my mail. Check the blog. Who can do anything on this bumpy road? Put it away and start all over again. Fidget. Fidget. Fidget.
For about an hour this goes on. Then we make our first stop in Lafayette. By this time the adrenalin has been used up and I’m feeling sleepy. I find a position I can live with (and no more) and get maybe a half hour of fitful sleep. Then we play the fidget game again for a few more hours until we enter Chicago, where golden morning dawns upon the skyline.
Some of us disembark at the southernmost end of the Red Line train. I swipe my card and trot down the steps to the breezy platform. It’s filled with kids going to school and workers going to work. Stepping on the train, I find I am usually the only white Caucasian in my car. I am the suburb-dweller, the out-of-towner and occasional visitor who has intruded upon a world that is, for most of these folks, everyday life. I am the other, the stranger here. Nevertheless, deep down I feel at home, in my element. Safe among my own. One of the crowd.
On one of those morning train rides, I heard the voice of a black preacher farther down in our car. He called his captive audience to attention, gave his testimony, and then held a revival service. He focused his attention on the young black men around him, exhorting them to be responsible when it came to their sexual activities. I don’t think too many of us were thinking about sex at that moment, but you never know. Mostly, we all stood or sat shoulder to shoulder, enduring the ride and looking at the ground and waiting to hear our stop called. Nothing sexy about that.
We arrive. Moving out onto the platform, I follow the crowd up the stairs and across the street to await the local bus, the final link. The din of traffic on the interstate below is incredibly loud. One last boarding, one last stop. The bus drops me off at the door of the seminary.
I move directly from public transportation into the ivory tower. From the 21st century to the 16th. From the mundane concerns of a traveler to the musings of theologians.
We are discussing how a gifted Bible professor in Wittenberg, Germany proclaimed a revolutionary alternative to medieval scholasticism. Suddenly I’m immersed in the storied careers of Church Fathers, German monks, and condemned heretics. We discuss Latin phrases and theological definitions. We talk of popes and princes and castles and peasants. We distinguish “alien righteousness” from “proper righteousness,” look up profound passages in heavy hardbound books, and laugh and blush when we read things like Luther saying, “Listen, papal ass, you are a particularly crass ass; indeed, you are a filthy sow!”
We enjoy our coffee, delight in our discussions, revel in what we are learning, and occasionally catch a glimpse of how something might translate from this classroom to the workaday world where most people live and move and have their being.
You know, I think maybe we should feel a little of the discomfort of this journey we’re on. It ought not seem easy to be a member of hoi polloi and at the same time contemplate the things of heaven, where the saints dwell in inexpressible glory. The ivory tower is a privileged place, but in the end it won’t mean a thing if I can’t carry what I learn with me on public transportation. I need to feel that struggle more keenly, more often.
So I’m glad to be reminded each Monday that I’m hoi polloi, one of the common people. A hard seat on a long, sleepless bus ride is an effective antidote to imagining that this sublime theology I’m learning makes me some kind of a spiritual hot-shot.
Because frankly, my butt hurts and I’ve got a kink in my neck. I spilled my drink on the floor of the coach and I’m finding it hard to catch up on my sleep. The folks around me look just as uncomfortable. This journey we are all on can be a bear. There’s precious little glamour in it.
But I sure hope to find some Gospel. It’s what all of us need.