Lighten up already! Karl Barth’s remedy for thinking too highly of ourselves

Sure, ministry involves the important stuff of life, but have you ever attached so much importance to the ministry in which you serve that you begin losing your sense of playfulness, humor or joy? Or in taking your role as a servant seriously, have you also begun taking yourself a bit too seriously? It’s an easy trap to fall into.

(Confession time here. In leading worship through the years, I’ve seen more than a few photos of myself looking more serious than a solemn judge, and not so much like a joyful worshiper. Though none of us will do it perfectly, those who serve in visible roles should be aware of the impressions given.)

And if we take ourselves too seriously, we might also think too highly of ourselves and our work—especially if folks regularly offer thanks and appreciation for our work.

Remedy arrives in the wisdom and humor of Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Barth was perhaps the most highly acclaimed theologian of the 20th century, and no one had written more about the seriously deep, weighty matters of God, creation, humanity, revelation, response, freedom, responsibility, and so on, than Karl Barth in his 13 volume Church Dogmatics, written over the span of 35 years. (Click here for the link to Boiling down a bazillion words – a previous post referring to Barth’s work and to 'theological belonging' -- that both by creation and redemption, humanity belongs to Jesus.)

Yet for all the acclaim heaped on Barth, the theologian maintained a joyful servant’s heart and a self-deprecating sense of humor, as was described in an address given by Martin Rumscheidt at a Memorial Service at the University of Toronto in the chapel of Knox College in December 1968, following Barth’s death at age 82.
He was a joyful man, a man of humour…. You can see Barth turning the laugh on himself when he says: “The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at his trying to capture the truth about God in a book on dogmatics. They laugh, because volume follows volume, each thicker than the last, and as they laugh they say to each other: “Look! There he goes with his [wheel]barrow full of volumes on dogmatics.” …..Recently, in fact four days before his death, he told two friends that he had at last discovered the explanation of the size and number of his books. ‘My doctors discovered that my colon was much too long’, he said. ‘Now at last I know why there is no end to my volumes on dogmatics.’
Rumscheidt showed that same humor was already evident in a much younger Barth.
In 1922 he [Barth] addressed to himself these words by Luther: ‘If you think and are of the opinion that you really stand secure and you please yourself with your own books, your teaching and your writings, [if you think] that you have done splendidly and have preached magnificently, and if it then pleases you to be praised before others….then my friend, if you are man enough, put your hands to your ears, and if you do so rightly, you will find a lovely pair of big, long, rough donkey’s ears. Do not spare the cost of decorating them with golden bells so that you can be heard wherever you go and the people can point to you and say; “Behold, behold! There goes that splendid creature that writes such wonderful books and preaches such wonderful sermons.”
Speaking further of Barth’s humor, Rumscheidt said,
Barth’s humour is humour out of faith. A very appropriate academic and ecclesiastical honour to bestow upon him would have been a doctorate humoris causa…. It is here, in the knowledge of faith in the power and finality of redemption, that man can laugh, laugh at himself, laugh in the happy expectation that the word of him who speaks the last word will most assuredly be a good word, a word infinitely better than all those muttered or spoken by man. Barth’s humour is of the ‘nevertheless’ kind, like Mozart’s music, in which the shadows of death and the dark hues of pain and suffering are not absent, but are nevertheless bathed in the radiance and harmony that sings praises to the goodness of God’s creation.
As to continual praises for Barth’s work, Rumscheidt quoted from a speech Barth gave on the occasion of his eightieth birthday celebration.
‘Let me again remind you of the donkey… A real donkey is mentioned in the Bible, or more specifically an ass. But let us call it a donkey. It was permitted to carry Jesus to Jerusalem. If I have done anything in this life of mine, I have done it as a relative of the donkey that then went to its way carrying an important burden. The disciples had said to its owner: “The Lord has need of it”. And so it seems to have pleased God to use me at this time, just as I was…. I just happened to be on the spot. A theology somewhat different from the current theology was apparently needed in our time, and I was permitted to be the donkey that carried this better theology for part of the way, or tried to carry as best I could.’
Seriously, anybody feeling a bit like a donkey?