An Appreciation: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth

Thomas Merton and Karl Barth died on this day in 1968, Barth in Basel at the age of 82, and Merton in Bangok, Thailand at the age of 53. They couldn’t have been more different, but they both were powerful influences on me.

I was a sophomore in college when they died, and I doubt that I had ever heard of either one of them. It must have been a year or two later, during a time of great personal soul-searching, that I first read Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. It was at the height of the Vietnam war, and I had recently resigned from Air Force ROTC, left college to work in New York, and was applying for Conscientious Objector status.

I was also seeking authentic voices about God, and Merton, along with others such as Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel, and Daniel Berrigan, spoke powerfully to me.

William James speaks about the natural mysticism of adolescence, and I suppose I was no different. I didn’t just want to read about God, I wanted to know God.  Merton’s popular autobiography The Seven Story Mountain portrays a troubled young man who finds peace with God through contemplation and ends up happy in a Trappist monastery.

There was a deep romantic mysticism in Merton’s writing that resonated with my own search for God. Much like poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, another convert to Roman Catholicism, Merton sensed God all around him in the natural world. I wouldn’t have known it then, but reading this passage from Merton today I hear echoes of Hopkins (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”):

“By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.”

I discovered Karl Barth several years later, not in seminary as one might expect, but in my first pastorate. The challenge then was not to know God, but to figure out what this God might want to have me say to his people from week to week.  I didn’t dive right into the monumental Church Dogmatics, but started with smaller works, the wonderful Word of God and Word of Man,  and Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.

If Merton, the Catholic, found God in contemplation and in nature, Barth, the Protestant, found him elsewhere.  Barth’s God was the wholly Other, who breaks into our world through the revelation in Jesus Christ as attested in Scripture.  There was no natural theology here, and Barth saw religion itself as a false alternative to faith. He said, “Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way.

I had a group of young pietists in my first church, and it was Barth who gave me the language of Christian faith with which to speak with them.

I rarely read Merton anymore, but I owe him a debt for writing words that brought me closer to God at a critical time in my pilgrimage. I still read Karl Barth all the time and find new delights each time.  Both deserved to be remembered by the church on this day.

(Jim Gordon wrote a thoughtful response to this post on his blog Living Wittily. I commend it to you. Find it here.)

“On the Death of Karl Barth” by Jack Clemo


December 10, 1968 was a day of loss for the church of Jesus Christ, as two of her intellectual giants, Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, died within hours of each other.

On this eve of the forty-first anniversary of their deaths I offer this poem by the late British writer and poet Jack Clemo (1916-1994). Clemo, who was from Cornwall, became deaf as a young man and blind around the age of forty. His poem is entitled:

 “On the Death of Karl Barth”

He ascended from a lonely crag in winter,
His thunder fading in the Alpine dusk;
And a blizzard was back on the Church,
A convenient cloak, sprinkling harlot and husk—
Back again, after all his labour
To clear the passes, give us access
Once more to the old prophetic tongues,
Peak-heats in which man, time, progress
Are lost in reconciliation
With outcast and angered Deity.

He has not gone silenced in defeat;
The suffocating swirl of heresy
Confirms the law he taught us; we keep the glow,
Knowing the season, the rhythm, the consummation.
Truth predicts the eclipse of truth,
And in that eclipse it condemns man,
Whose self-love with its useful schools of thought,
Its pious camouflage of a God within,
Is always the cause of the shadow, the fall, the burial,
The smug rub of hands
Amid a reek of research.

The cyclic, well-meant smothering
Of the accursed footprints inside man’s frontier;
The militant revival,
Within time and as an unchanged creed,
Of the eternal form and substance of the Word:
This has marked Western history,
Its life’s chief need and counter need,
From the hour God’s feet shook Jordan.

We touched His crag of paradox
Through our tempestuous leader, now dead,
Who plowed from Safenwil to show us greatness
In a God lonely, exiled, homeless in our sphere,
Since his footfall breeds guilt, stirs dread
Of a love fire-tongued, cleaving our sin,
Retrieving the soul from racial evolution,
Giving it grace to mortify,
In deeps or shallow, all projections of the divine.

(From The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, Edited by Donald Davie, 1988, p 290-291)

(Portrait of Jack Clemo by Betty Penver)

The Humor of Karl Barth

Those of us who have drunk deeply from the well of Karl Barth’s theology are sometimes accused of taking things too seriously.  There is a quite mistaken but still lingering reputation that his theology is lacking in humor.  But just because Barth’s theology is deadly serious doesn’t make it deadly, and I often find passages that are downright playful.  So I was delighted to see this mention of Barth’s humor in a 1986 editorial in Theology Today by Daniel L. Migliore:

“It is well to be reminded, therefore, that for Barth theology was not primarily a heavy burden but a joyful activity. While it is certainly correct to speak of his theology as Christ-centered, to say that it was rooted in a life-long, uninterrupted conversation with the Bible, and to note how important prayer was in his life and theology, all such characterizations of Barth’s work would still miss something essential if they overlooked his remarkable freedom and playfulness. Laughter was deeply etched in Barth’s theology and spirituality. He was a theologian with a rare sense of humor.

Humor often arises from the experienced discrepancy between reality and appearance, from the distance between what we pretend we are and what others know us to be, or between what others imagine us to be and what we know of ourselves. Humor thrives on incongruity, disproportion, the sometimes bizarre disparity between assumptions and facts, protocol and performance, the imagined past and the real past, the awaited future and the experienced present. The quality of humor-whether it is harsh or gentle, destructive or humanizing-depends on whether these contradictions and incongruities are held to be eternal and inescapable or provisional and redeemable.

If disproportion and incongruity are the stuff of humor, the life of faith and the work of theology are fields ripe for the harvest, a fact that seems to have been more readily apparent to the children of the world than to theologians. Witness Woody Allen’s description of God as an underachiever; or the prayer of Tevye, the poor milkman in Fiddler on the Roof asking God kindly to bestow the undeniably high honor of election for once on some other people than the Jews; or the unlikely defense of God by Yossarian’s lady friend in Catch 22 who, although herself an atheist, is so shaken by Yossarian’s devilish indictment of God’s ineptness or malevolence that she breaks into tears and retorts: “I don’t believe in God, but the God I don’t believe in is a good God.”As theologians go, Barth was uncommonly appreciative of the rightful place of humor in human life in general and in Christian life in particular. He wondered why the modern apologists for the uniqueness of humanity, who had forgotten the meaning of the creation of men and women in the image of God, had never even mentioned the fact that apparently human beings are the only creatures who laugh. For Barth, humor was a symptom of being human, and it frequently found expression in his conversations and actions.

As a preacher, Barth could acknowledge that some of his sermons were real clinkers, like the one on the sinking of the Titanic which he later noted was as great a disaster as the original event. In the midst of the German church struggle, indeed in the midst of his trial for refusing to practice the Nazi salute at the beginning of his classes, Barth suggested to the court that like Socrates many centuries earlier he actually deserved a reward rather than a punishment from his fellow-citizens. The gesture was of course a complete failure, as one might have expected in the dreadfully humorless world of Nazism.

Barth was also able to laugh about his work as a theologian, recognizing that every theology is a human endeavor with all the limitations and need of continuous revision which this implies. He remarked that when he got to heaven, he would want to have a long conversation about theological method with Schleiermacher-say, for a couple of centuries. He imagined that the angels giggled among themselves when they saw old Karl pushing his cart-load of Church Dogmatics.

Recalling Barth’s humor is not a human interest ploy or a curiosity of merely biographical significance. It is certainly not intended to obscure or trivialize the thunderous prophetic criticism which Barth often directed against both church and society in the name of the Word of God. The point is that Barth had not only a sense of humor but a theology of humor, and it was of a piece with his whole theology and practice of Christian freedom in response to the grace of God. His theology of humor can be briefly summarized as follows. First, humor for Barth is often and perhaps primarily self-directed. “Humor is the opposite of all self-admiration and self-praise” (CD III/4, p. 665). There is, in other words, such a thing as Christian freedom to laugh at ourselves, to recognize the incongruity and disproportion between the sinners we still are and the saints we prematurely claim to be, and thus to recognize ever and again the miracle of our being graciously accepted, valued, and honored by God. When one can laugh at oneself, then one can also rightly laugh at others-never bitterly or cynically, never in the superficial spirit of carnival or the poisoned laughter that expresses hatred for, or superiority over, another.

Second, for Barth true humor, far from being an escape from the realities of suffering and evil in the world, is “laughter amid tears.” True humor “presupposes rather than excludes the knowledge of suffering” (Ethics, 511). As the child of suffering, humor takes suffering seriously but refuses to give it the last word. It is remarkable, Barth observed, how fundamentally humorless the rich and powerful and self-satisfied of this world are, and how, by contrast, genuine humor often flourishes among the poor. The refusal to become resigned to the reign of suffering and death in the world has enormous personal and political significance.

Third, and most decisively for Barth, humor is grounded in the grace, faithfulness, and promise of God. Humor is part of the freedom which is ours to exercise, thanks to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is a sign of liberation and release rather than bondage and resignation. Grace creates “liberated laughter,” laughter made possible by the memory of God’s faithfulness, the present foretaste of God’s new creation, and the hope in the fulfillment of God’s promises. To put this another way, humor for Barth is rooted in the glory and beauty of God and is an expression of the delight and pleasure which the God of the gospel evokes in human life. The grace of God in Jesus Christ is beautiful, and it radiates joy and awakens humor (II/1, p. 655).

Of course, it is necessary to distinguish between the time of humor and the time of unambiguous joy. Joy is experienced now, but not continuously or totally. “Joy is anticipatory,” it has an “eschatological character” (III/4, p. 377). Humor, like art and human play generally, is oriented to God’s future, and can only be properly understood in that context. In Jesus Christ, God’s mighty Yes to us has been spoken, and this event signals the beginning of the end of the contradictions of Yes and No, of life and death, of friendship and enmity. Barth’s humor points beyond irony or satire, and certainly far beyond ridicule or gallows humor, to the free laughter of children and friends in God’s new creation.

So understood, humor is different from, though intimately related to, joy. Joy arises out of the partial presence of the promised Kingdom which has erupted in Christ and in the work of his Spirit. Humor arises out of the still partial presence of this Kingdom, leaving the undeniable incongruity and disproportion between what we and the world still are and what God’s grace in Jesus Christ promises that we and the world shall yet become. Joy will find its fulfillment in God’s new heaven and new earth; humor belongs to a world between the times.” (Daniel L. Migliore, “Reappraising Barth’s Theology,” Editorial, Theology Today, April 1986)

Karl Barth on “What is Preaching?”

In addition to various places in his monumental and magisterial 14 volume Church Dogmatics, where Karl Barth addresses preaching directly, he also left us a fine little book on homiletics and some anthologies of sermons. With these in hand we may explore his views on preaching.

What is preaching? That is the question that preoccupies Barth throughout Homiletics (Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1991.) Barth begins the book with what is really an extended essay on the history of eighteenth and nineteenth century German hermeneutics, entitled “The Nature of the Sermon: A Historical and Dogmatic Sketch.” He critically examines in turn the theories of David Hollaz, Frederich Scleiermacher, Alexandre Vinet, Christian Palmer, C.I. Nitzsch, Johannes Bauer (with a surly nod at Albrecht Ritschl), Karl Fezer, and Leonhard Fendt. Let us look at each in turn and see the evolution which sets the stage for Barth’s own definition of preaching.

Hollaz was an orthodox dogmatician whose definition of the two–fold task of preaching (investigation and application of the text) raises questions of form for Barth. Schleiermacher, the most brilliant theological exponent of the new Romanticism, understood preaching as the articulation of the shared spirituality (as some might say today) of the congregation. The preacher . . .“steps forward to project his innermost self as a subject of shared observation that has been prompted by God, in order to lead them to the sphere of religion, where they feel at home so that he can instill his sacred feelings: He expresses divinity, while in holy silence the congregation follows his inspired speech.” (From On Religion, quoted in Barth on p. 23.) Barth rightly asks whether “the self–presentation of the pious feelings of the congregation is really preaching as Schleiermacher thinks?” (p. 25)

We see the next unfortunate and inevitable mutation in the evolution of homiletics in the theories of Vinet, a disciple of Schleiermacher, who believed preaching to be a special sort of rhetorical speech whose decisive character was its “spiritual”(that word again) content, and who posited (logically enough based on his assumptions) that a biblical text does not have to be the basis for such discourse.

The next theorist, Christian Palmer defines the task thus: “To preach is by living witness, and in the name of God, to offer the salvation which appeared and is present for human beings in the person and work of Christ.” Barth thinks Palmer claims too much for the “living witness,”that is, the preacher. Palmer, like Hollaz and Schleiermacher, allows the preacher to maintain control over what is proclaimed. To Barth “the offer of salvation” sounds too sacramental and “overmuch is ascribed here to the preacher.”

Barth goes on to commend many features of the theories of C. I. Nitzsch, whose definition is: “A sermon is the ongoing proclamation of the gospel for the edification of the congregation of the Lord, a proclamation of the word of God through texts of holy scripture which take place in a living relationship to contemporary circumstances through called witnesses.” (p 27). Barth likes the fact that Nitzsch, unlike Schleiermacher, who had dissolved the distinction between preacher and congregation and preacher and subject matter, understands that the subject matter of preaching is different from humanity “in the plight from which it has to be rescued.” (p 29) But Nitzsch falters when he ascribes some special religious attitude to the preacher as a requisite part of preaching.

Barth dismisses Johannes Bauer as a regression from Nitzsch to the total subjectivism typical of this period under the spell of Ritschl, Troelsch, and the history of religion school.

If you will pardon a personal digression, it was in reading this material that I was reminded once again how ill-prepared I was for preaching and pastoring, not to mention for the dialogue with fundamentalism that began my ministry, by my theological education. That education was informed on one side by the therapeutic verities of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) (certainly helpful in certain contexts) and on the other side by the critical social theory of James Luther Adams and Max Stackhouse (also helpful in many contexts), which had a direct genealogical line from Troeslch. I was given psychology and sociology, but no theology worthy of the name, and certainly no handle on what it meant to be a preacher. My clergy mentor admonished me at my ordination to be a “minister of the Word of God” but it was years of intellectual struggle before I had a clue as to what that meant.

To return to Barth’s history of preaching we come to Karl Fezer. He is the first of the theorists to abandon the principle of the superiority of the preacher over the subject matter and Barth, after some small criticisms, is most approving. For Fezer, God is now the subject of the process. Fezer understands that God gives us himself in the work of scripture, and this notion is centered on the atonement.

Leonhard Fendt, earns some praise from Barth because his notion of preaching, like Fezer’s but unlike Bauer’s, takes God seriously. Barth breaks Fendt’s definition down into nine constitutive elements.

Barth then offers his own definition in two formulas which are to be in dialectical relationship to one another:

1. Preaching is the Word of God which he himself speaks, claiming for the purpose the exposition of a biblical text in free human words that are relevant to contemporaries by those that are called to do this in the church that is obedient to its commission.

2. Preaching is the attempt enjoined upon the church to serve God’s own Word, through one who is called thereto, by expounding a biblical text in human words and making it relevant to contemporaries in intimation of what they have to hear from God himself.

In both the history of the theories of preaching that he offers and in his definition of preaching, Barth is attempting to identify preaching that, as he said of Palmer, “takes God seriously” as the subject of preaching, that is, as the one who addresses both the preacher and the congregation through scripture.

It is interesting to read Barth’s anthology of sermons Call for God (Harper Collins Publishers, 1993) to see examples of how Barth’s theory of preaching takes shape in actual sermons. In reading them I had, as I have had before when reading Barth, the sensation of glimpsing a different world, the “strange new world of the Bible” as Barth once called it (in The Word of God and The Word of Man) and of being addressed very simply by a different word than the world speaks, and realizing it isn’t just a word, but the Word of God.

In Barth’s sermons “religion” isn’t explained or taught, rather the hearers are addressed by the God who both speaks and acts in his Word. For example in the sermon “What Remains” he tells about the nature of the address that confronts us in the scriptures. He says, “But let us ask once more; What kind of word is it? Where is it decisively spoken in such a way that we can hear it? I will try once more to answer quite simply: God has said his Word simply by doing what it says. What happened was that he appeared and worked and acted in our midst as our God.” (p. 60.) Here we see Barth work out in sermons that which we see worked out in the Church Dogmatics, the identification of revelation with event. “ . . . his Word tells us what he has done. It is no mere word. It is loud and clearly perceptible to everyone in the Christmas event . . .” (p. 60.)

Barth’s theology has been the single most significant influence (besides scripture) on my ministry . It may well have allowed me to remain a minister at some key junctures in my many years in ministry. As a struggling believer I found great solace and also great challenge when I ceased to be an observer of religion and was faced with the personal question of my own faith as one addressed by God. As a newly-minted minister I found the task of weekly preaching to be terribly agonizing. It was then I started reading Barth, beginning with the little book The Word of God and the Word of Man. Clearly the questions Barth was asking were mine as well, “What is preaching?” and “where does the preacher derives his or her authority?” His critique of Schleiermacher and theological liberalism spoke to my own sense of the bankruptcy of my liberal religious background and much of my theological education, which had understood “religion” (whatever that is) to be some special sensibility that humans have that needs to be nurtured and cultivated and that in some sense is identical to our highest aspirations and deepest emotions.

Reading Barth I was able to gain again the joy of discovery of a living God that is “God with us”, a joy that I had known as a child, but was distilled out of me by years of exposure to the post-enlightenment world-view of my education, not least by Post-Bultmannian seminary professors for whom texts were seen more as the pieces and parts of a puzzle and not a Word of Life. I have to say that reading Barth right out of seminary was tantamount to a conversion. Ever since then my preaching has been that of one who stands under the Word of God, rather than as a religious expert that dispenses divine truth or sings the lyrical theism of liberal religion. Reading texts this way has enabled me to develop what Paul Ricouer has described as “a second naivete.”

One can see in both Barth books that preaching means being addressed by texts, and then by grace finding in the struggle with the text that one is addressed by God. I have found great help in sorting out the authority question by a simple reflection on Barth’s threefold understanding of the Word of God: the written word of scripture, the spoken word of preaching, and the Word of God, Jesus Christ. I often begin my sermons with the following prayer: “Gracious God, we pray that through the written word, and through the spoken word, we may behold the living Word, even your Son our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Hear an example of how Barth addresses the hearers in this portion of the sermon “What Remains”: “Whoever does the will of God—and that means whoever hears the Word of God and holds fast to it as he listens—whoever allows what it creates within him to take root and grow—that is a little faith, a little hope, a little love—such a man remains at this moment and will remain too forever.” (p. 65) Here in one sentence is promise, exhortation, ethics, humility, and hope.

I think Barth’s approach to preaching and the hermeneutic that lies behind it have revolutionary implications for the practice of ministry in local congregations. It calls into question the prevailing therapeutic and managerial models of local church life, and invites ministers and congregations to take themselves seriously as those who are addressed by God in his Word. And more than addressed, congregations are constituted, called, gathered, sustained, empowered, in fact have no authentic life of their own apart from the life given them by God in his Word. To take such a God seriously demands a congregation that studies scripture in all seasons, that takes prayer seriously, that risks putting an end to “the sin of bustle” (the phrase is P.T. Forsyth’s) so that they might hearken to the particular call of God to their time and place.

Such a community and such ministers will take sermon preparation seriously as demanding time, study, research, prayer and a kind of deep reflection impossible for the modern pastor whose vocation is conceptualized in professional terms as a primary caregiver. One piece I have added to my sermon preparation over the years is the lectionary bible study with members of the congregation. When we sit down together to struggle with the texts new understandings emerge, new insights into the text are shared. In addition the community raises the context to provide the relevance of which Barth speaks in his definition of preaching as . . .“expounding a biblical text and making it relevant to contemporaries. . .” But the most important piece of that definition is the next phrase: “in intimation of what they have to hear from God himself.” ( p. 44) That is the key to authentic Christian preaching.

(These reflections are based on a paper I submitted during my doctoral studies to Professor George Hunsinger at the Bangor Theological Seminary at Hanover, NH, on February 8, 1993.)

Karl Barth on Calvin

I’ve been sitting on my back porch on this lovely June day reading Karl Barth’s 1922 lectures on John Calvin’s 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, Chapter 9, on “Christian Liberty.” I am preparing for The 25th Karl Barth Summer Session for Pastors sponsored by the Massachusetts Convention of Congregational Ministers, an organization founded in 1692. Calvin was chosen this year to commemorate his 500th anniversary.

I haven’t been to all 25 of them, but I’ve been to a great many, and have some wonderful memories of rich theological conversations with pastor theologians and visiting Barth scholars. Some of those scholars I have heard and talked with over the years have included Hans Frei, George Hunsinger, and Alexander (Sandy) McElway, just to name a few. This year’s leader is Dr. Clifford Anderson, curator of Reformed Research Collections, Princeton Theological Seminary. Cliff, my friend and fellow Confessing Christ blogger, was also the leader in 2006.

The format of the two-day sessions is a morning dedicated to the Barth readings, and an afternoon dedicated to a practical issue, contemporary or historical. In the case of this year we will ponder Nathaniel Ward’s Body of Civil Liberties. Ward was a Puritan minister, writer, and attorney, who compiled this code of statutes for the Commonwealth in 1641.

There are gems galore in Barth’s rich appreciation of Calvin. Here’s a small sample: “We must not view Calvin’s church of holiness as a catholicizing confusion of divine and human commands, at least not as far as Calvin himself was concerned, no matter what misunderstandings might have arisen among his successors. Calvin himself clearly saw the possibility of such a confusion. Under the pressure of the order and holiness that he found in God, he realized that order and holiness are incommensurable. They cannot be imitated on this side of the human sphere that is not to be confused with the other world, in the little city of Geneva that even at the pinnacle of his success he never truly regarded as a Jerusalem. With a certain resigned wisdom and grim humor, if we might put it thus, he spoke only of honoring God by bonds of humanity so far as this is possible seeing that we live on earth. Calvin did not fall victim to the illusion that gripped the Middle Ages and that has gained force again in the modern age, the illusion that there is a continuous path that leads step by step from an earthly city of God to the kingdom of heaven. For him the divine was always divine and the human always human.” (The Theology of John Calvin, by Karl Barth. Translated by Geoffrey Bromily. Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1995. P 201)

Where I Ruminate on Why St. Anselm Is Still Worth Reading

On my blog list of theologians I read I have put St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), whose book on the atonement, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human), remains an important witness to the center of the Christian faith.  My own little book on the atonement, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:  Reflections on the Atonement, has a strong Anselmian objective flavor, although with some qualifications.

Karl Barth was strongly influenced by Anselm.   What impressed Karl Barth so much when he delved into Anselm’s “proof” for the existence of God in the early Twentieth Century was that it took the being of God seriously. In the late medieval world in which Anselm lived the existence of God was presumed by most scholars, yet Anselm struggled to articulate what was widely believed in a rational, or at least reasonable, way. Barth’s context couldn’t have been more different, modernity itself being defined as the time when God is not a factor, but Barth found in Anselm a model for doing theology which took God as God seriously and not as some extension of human knowing or being. This was a key in Barth’s radical rethinking of the theological project of his time.

At the point at which Barth was digging into his life project, the magisterial Church Dogmatics, Anselm provided a model. The humility of Anselm before the mystery and majesty of God, yet his confidence in the reality of God, are reflected in Barth’s great work. And the ironclad Chalcedonian conviction that in Jesus Christ we are dealing at the same time with God and man is seen in both theologians throughout their respective work.

Anselm was an original and innovative thinker and he is still worth studying. His “proofs” may not quite get from here to there, but one could do worse than ponder them, and his much maligned atonement theory, whatever its liabilities, still puts its weight where it belongs, on God’s free and sovereign activity in and through the cross of Jesus Christ, which does something rather than shows something (as per Abelard), something we can not do for ourselves.

When I visited Canterbury cathedral in 1993 there was a chapel dedicated to St. Anselm with votive candles burning away. I had a rare Protestant devotional moment of gratitude and awe for this man who lived over nine hundred years ago, and whose work still quietly witnesses to God in Christ.


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?