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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

On keeping it simple

It may be an apocryphal story, but I have loved it for so long that I don’t care. The story goes that Albert Einstein, teaching advanced mathematical concepts, would cover the classroom blackboard with arcane equations of all sorts. Each night the janitorial staff would clean the blackboard, except for one little corner. In that corner, Einstein had written “2+2=4” and then added the instruction, “Do not erase.”

It’s a simple image. But it is also a reminder that no matter how complicated, nuanced or advanced life gets, it’s good to remember the basics. Not that the basics are sufficient, whether in mathematics or relationships or theology or any other pursuit, but we lose track of them at our peril.

I recently was asked to say a few words at a memorial service I was planning to attend. It turned out that I was the only one who was going to say a few words in the usual sense, and that the event was mostly a musical gathering with potluck and fellowship. Hardly anyone in the room was “churched.” The deceased had long ago formed an adversarial relationship with the church, stemming from a painful experience at a crucial time of life (probably the result of an inept or obtuse pastor, from what I can discern).

I was only loosely connected to the group, knowing a few very well and having never met most of them. I was a long way from home in a secular setting, and I was asked to say a few words because I was known to be a pastor.

You’d think a few words at a memorial service would be pretty simple after 40+ years of pastoral ministry. I’ve done it hundreds of times, of course. But what do you say when this might be the only time some of the folks will put themselves in a position to hear the Gospel? I asked for help from the few I knew, resisted the temptation to give a theology lesson or an evangelistic plea, left almost all my nuanced Lutheran theology or honed preaching skills behind, and talked briefly with those who were there.

There was hardly any theological language, only a brief Biblical passage paraphrased, and in essence I confessed my belief that “the one who is responsible for all this (creation) actually knows and loves me (and you), and what we do in response matters.” I said I believe she is in the same gracious hands as she’s been in all her life, and prayed a blessing on her and all of us. It took a little longer than that, of course, but measured by the standards of a funeral for a faithful saint, it was devoid of scriptural depth and theological substance.

Why? Well, I was trying to say “2+2=4” to a room full of people who would have made no more sense out of my precious theological acumen that they would have out of a blackboard full of Einstein’s equations.

Was it the right thing to do? I don’t know. But if the responses during the next few hours were any indication, it was. A few might even be willing to listen again, in more depth. I’ll never know, of course. But maybe those brief basics will be enough to open an ear, or heart, to a fuller rendition in the future.

As you plumb the depths and learn the nuances of theology and life, may you also hang on to the pastoral version of “2+2=4” for those times when you need it.

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