Lifelines

A lifeline is literally a rope tossed to a drowning person, and figuratively something that provides escape from a dire situation. Sometimes we get thrown theological and intellectual lifelines!

One of the persistent features of my three plus decades in ministry has been my conviction that a pastor must be a theologian, and my own experience as a pastor-theologian has included several salient moments when I was thrown a theological life-line enabling me to carry on my work.

One was certainly in my first parish, where at twenty-six I was called to preach to two small congregations in rural Maine. After using up most of my seminary material in about a month the question loomed, what shall I say now?

To complicate matters, one of my congregations had a committed group of warm-hearted Jesus Freaks (this was 1975) who lamentably knew nothing about Paul Tillich’s “ground of all Being” or “ultimate concern,”and insisted on talking about matters liked being saved and the rapture. I felt like I had been dropped off on the far side of the moon, and often went back to my empty parsonage to pray and wonder if I was really a Christian.

Early lifelines came from books like Helmut Thielicke’s “Waiting Father” and “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.” The first real rescuing lifeline was Karl Barth. A neighboring young pastor, Charlie Ford (about 25 miles away) had just returned from Bonn after working on a Ph. D. in New Testament. We would meet and read Karl Barth and study Greek.

Here was a towering intellect taking the tradition seriously, and now I finally had a common tongue to speak with my pietist friends of sin and grace, of righteousness and salvation. The first Barth I read was not the massive “Church Dogmatics,” but the short work, “Word of God and Word of Man,” translated and edited by Douglas Horton.

Horton’s preface includes his own lifeline narrative of seeing the little book at the Harvard Divinity School library and reading it in German. Horton found this “strange new world” a powerful alternative to the dry desiccated humanism in which he had been trained.

Another lifeline narrative comes from my friend Browne Barr, who died on February 1 of this year at 91. Browne had been a homiletics teacher at Yale, and for many years in the turbulent 60’s and 70’s he was the pastor of the big UCC church in Berkeley, California, where he was known for his engaging attention to both Word and World.

In the 1981 Pickwick Press reprint of P. T. Forsyth’s 1907 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale, entitled Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, Browne wrote an essay called “The Preacher’s Theologian.”

A generation after Douglas Horton, Browne Barr tells a similar tale. The setting this time is not a divinity school library, but his recently deceased predecessor’s study in the old parsonage where Browne, a young minister, comes across Forsyth’s book on preaching.

It is 1944, and as he puts it, “In Europe the hinge of history had not yet yet shown which way it was going to swing its door.”Reared and trained after the First World War on prohibition, pacifism, and “the integration of personality” he wondered what he would preach on his first Sunday. It was hard to say much about Christian pacifism when most of the men were at war. “The integration of personality? It was also hard to say much about that to a congregation absorbed with news of the nightly bombing of London and weary with their work on airplane propellors and parachute cloth. They really appeared fairly well integrated.”

Browne Barr’s lifeline was P. T. Forsyth, 33 years dead, but whose words on preaching still carried the ring of truth. And over the decades how many of us have had this same lifeline thrown to us, so that at difficult times in our ministry we were put in touch with the living Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy God he called Father?

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