I recently heard a story about John Coburn, gentle giant of the Episcopal Church a generation ago. He was involved with a big old national church meeting, with lots of politics, resolutions, serious discussion. One of those places where fun goes to die.
As John Coburn led this conversation, he cited one of my heroes, Karl Barth, great theologian of the 20th century. As far as I can tell, Dr. Barth never had an unexpressed thought. He wrote volumes on just about everything. I often wonder what he would write about the times in which we live. When I studied his work in seminary, it would literally take me about an hour to read a page from his theological tomes. I think it’s why I wear thick glasses. Having said all that, here’s the word from John Coburn that caught my attention:
When the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, who wrote and published volumes of Dogmatic Theology throughout his professional career, recognized that his life was drawing to a close, he wrote concerning his prodigious theological efforts:
“The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, ‘Look’ Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics.”
John Coburn continued, with reference to the meetings in which he found himself:
“Well, dear angels of God, here we come now with our little pushcart full of Books, Reports, Memorials and Resolutions, Petitions and Pamphlets. Please keep an eye on us so we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our Mission- Yes, Ourselves- No.”
All of this is to say that church can be terminally serious, but that’s hardly news. What I find remarkable is that some of the church leaders who encountered greatest opposition, endured greatest persecution, given greatest opportunity to harbor resentment, have responded with joy.
You could start with St. Paul who wrote an epistle to the Philippian church from a 1st century prison cell (let your imagination run wild) and filled that letter with the words “rejoice”. St. Francis of Assisi is remembered across the centuries, the most admired and least imitated of the saints. One of his legacies: joy. In our own day, the joyful demeanor of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama all point to a spiritual reality, that joy is a mark of spiritual growth, even for those who face the deepest suffering and combat the greatest human evils. I admire and envy these saints at once.
Along with the joy, comes the appeal of simplicity and humility. Dr. Barth once addressed a group of seminarians. One skeptical snark, aware of the word count in Dr. Barth’s writings, asked if the good doctor could sum up his theology in one sentence. I’m told Dr. Barth responded with a smile and said: I can do that.
“Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so.”
And play is good. Try some playfulness this Monday.
Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.
Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise. Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you. All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.
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