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May 22, 2015

The venerable Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, was the author of a massive, thirteen-volume work, Church Dogmatics. Dr. Carlisle Marney once quipped about Dr. Barth’s work, “Nobody knows that much about God.” Like so many other theologians, Dr. Barth’s wordiness sometimes interfered with clarity. When he discussed the problem of evil, he presented it in cosmic terms.

When I was named a Merrill Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, I was selected because I was a pastor. My role was to assist the faculty by bringing a practical, down-to-earth perspective to the rarified atmosphere of academic studies.

Professor Art McGill invited me to attend his Systematic Theology lectures.   I listened as he explained the fine points of Barth’s idea of cosmic evil. The class of bright students had that deer-in-the-headlights look as they struggled to understand the concept.

Finally, Professor McGill turned to me as a drowning swimmer looks for a lifeguard. “Pastor Neely, can you help us?”

I, too, had difficulty understanding Barth, and I certainly was not qualified to teach the theology of the esteemed professor from Switzerland.

As is often the case, all that I could think to do was to tell a story.

The summer after my junior year in high school, I spent several weeks putting up ceiling tile in a new showroom at the family lumberyard. I was helping an old carpenter. The ceiling was stripped with 1 x 4 boards. The ceiling tile had to be stapled to the wooden strips. In order to do the job, scaffolding was put in place. The aging carpenter and I had to stretch out on our backs atop a platform within arm’s reach of the ceiling.

During the three or four weeks that it took to complete the job, I watched this elderly man wrestle with his addiction to alcohol. He started his day with a drink from a bottle that he kept stashed behind the seat of his pickup truck. After about an hour’s work, his hands were shaking so badly that he had to climb down from the scaffolding to get another drink.

Throughout the day, every day, he returned to the bottle. By late afternoon, the smell of alcohol exuded from every pore of his body. His clothing, soaked with sweat, reeked of the sickening sweet smell. Through most of the time that we worked together, I said nothing.

Several weeks later, our project was almost complete. After his last drink of a long workday, the old carpenter climbed back up the scaffolding. I looked over at him and spoke the obvious, “That bottle really has a hold on you, doesn’t it?”

He turned his head, looking at me with glassy gray eyes, “I tell you what, good buddy, if there ain’t no devil, there’s somebody doin’ his work!”

The lumberyard tale was a simple illustration of the concept of cosmic evil. Maybe even Dr. Barth would have appreciated the story. For all of his complicated discussion of Christian theology, his heart’s desire was to make the Christian message simple to understand.

Military officers learn that, as they train their troops, they must remember the acrostic KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. This, too, is a cardinal rule for Christian teachers, whether parents, grandparents, Sunday school teachers, or pastors. We must keep it simple.

One reason Jesus taught in parables was to make his message accessible.   Simplicity is the most effective way to teach the gospel truth.

On a visit to America, Karl Barth was lecturing at Union Theological Seminary, in Richmond, Virginia. At the end of a lengthy and erudite discussion of Christocentric theology, Dr. Barth paused for questions. A woman in the audience who was not a theologian asked in exasperation, “Dr. Barth, would you please tell me what you believe in language that I can understand?”

The white-headed Dr. Barth took a long puff on his pipe and exhaled. With smoke billowing around his face, he thought for a moment and said, “If I were to summarize all of my theology in one simple sentence, I would say, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”

To speak truth simply and clearly is a skill to be desired.

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