By Paul Koch –
Do you remember when church was fun? I do.
Truth be told, I was always that kid in the back of the class with a few other deviants who spent most of their time joking around rather than paying close attention. Many times throughout my life, both academically and professionally, I have been accused of not taking things seriously, or perhaps not taking them seriously enough.
Now look, I know there are times for serious discussions. I know that, in the realm of theological study, there is much to be concerned about and very little that should not be taken seriously. Heresy is not something to be passed over lightly, confessions matter, and even things like definitions should be weighed and rightly judged. But there is still joy in all this. There is still room for fun and ample opportunity for jokes and sarcasm that ought to be explored. In fact, for the sake of everything that is serious, we need to embrace the fun of church.
Luther famously stated in the Heidelberg Disputation:
“A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”
Perhaps we might hijack this eloquent statement and instead say,
“A theology of glory calls the funny serious and the serious funny. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”
When I arrived at the seminary, I was filled with a blissful ignorance about the church and her theology. I was just beginning to love the study of theology and couldn’t wait to dive into the library and pick the minds of the professors. I loved arguing with my friends as we hurled insults at each other over beer and pipes. Theology was fun! It was full of grit, humor, and dirty jokes.
But as I said, I was ignorant. Being the first pastor in my family, I knew nothing about a whole world of synodical politics and bureaucrats that had been a long tradition in the church. I wasn’t sure which papers to read or radio shows to listen to (thank God there weren’t blogs and podcasts back then). And I knew nothing about the old fights with familiar sounding names. Conventions, presidents, and districts were a mystery to me, but they all seemed to be telling me that the fun was about to end. It was time to get serious.
But what I’ve learned from my training, both from sitting in the back of the class telling jokes and from sitting at the feet of great men, is that most of what gets billed as crucial and serious is actually a missed opportunity to laugh. Likewise, most of what gave us simple joys and caused fun has been labeled as serious. And in the end, church is just not much fun, and everything carries eternal consequences.
Throughout my time at the seminary, I was drawn to any and every class taught by Dr. Nagel. If you have never heard or met or even read Nagel, it is difficult to describe the experience. He had a way to get me to do far more for his classes than I would do for any other. I would scour the recesses of the library, read long forgotten journal articles, and come to him with questions all without his provocation. He seemed to provide me with a whole new way of speaking about the faith, a way that hammered home who was the giver and who was the receiver. The gifts of Christ worked through the languages of men and definitions could help deliver the goods. Theology became focused. The task was not easy, but it was simple.
As the task before me came into focus, and as I began to see the vocation of a pastor as that of a preacher doing the Word to the hearers, I began to see how much fun there still was in the church. In fact, as I recall those days sitting at the feet of an incredible teacher of the church, I’m reminded that there really doesn’t have to be a major disconnect between the beer, pipes, and insults over theological arguments of my early seminary days and my daily work as a parish pastor.
The task at hand is serious and should be treated as such, but let’s not make the mistake of believing that everything surrounding that task is equally as serious. Let us learn to laugh, first at ourselves and then at others. Let’s keep the serious things serious and have some fun with the funny things.
In the end we just might find out what it was Luther confessed when he said,
“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and my Amsdorf [Nicholaus von], the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”