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July/August 2003 Volume 6 Number 6
Saints, Sinners, Simpletons
by Leonard Sweet

The more complex the world, the more simplicity we need.

Pastors could learn something from the end-to-end design principle appropriated by network architects in the early 1980s. End-to-end design keeps the network itself as simple as possible and places the intelligence and complexity at the edges of the system.

Go to AOL.com. What do you notice first? Its simplicity. It’s easy to get around, with gathering places for everyone yet with personalized and specialized components of incredible intricacy and complexity. The end-to-end principle facilitates maximum freedom and scope while preserving a “commons” where everyone can find commonness.

Artists and scientists have been articulating the end-to-end principle for millennia. Einstein used only three letters, one symbol, and one numeral to unlock the mysteries of the universe: e=mc2. Actor Robert Mitchum maintained that the secret of good acting was to avoid bumping into the furniture. Novelist Virginia Woolf said that the most difficult thing in writing fiction was getting a character from one room to the next. Pianist/conductor Herbert von Karajan says that there’s only six things a conductor should tell the orchestra: too loud; too soft; too late; too soon; too fast; too slow. Philip Pullman won England’s Carnegie Medal in 1996 for children’s literature. In his acceptance speech he argued that, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.”

Without mastery of end-to-end mechanics, there can be no true artistry. If a scientist can’t express a finding in a simple, elegant way, it can’t be true. If you can choose two paths, and only one is congruent with end-to-end, choose that one. An ancient Chinese philosophical text by Han Feizi narrates an exchange between an emperor and a painter. Which subjects are the hardest and easiest to depict? “Dogs are difficult,” the artist replies, “demons are easy.” Simple, familiar things are hardest to get right. It’s much easier to portray mysterious entities and monstrosities.

Preaching is an exercise in depicting more “dogs” and “horses” than “demons” and “goblins.” Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh writes about two kinds of simplicity, the simplicity of going away and the simplicity of returning. “The last is the ultimate in sophistication. In the final simplicity we don’t care whether we appear foolish or not. We talk of things that earlier would embarrass. We are satisfied with being ourselves, however small.”


My theology is getting thicker and more complex the older I get, but my faith is becoming simpler. My faith is crystallizing around some very simple end-to-end words. One word in particular: “Jesus.” Here are some recent end-to-end ideas.

• Discipleship can be expressed in eight, simple words, all spoken by Jesus: see me, follow me, be me, go me.

The whole shebang of Christian theology can be expressed in six words based on three different biblical stories: (1) “Come Down” (Justification); (2) “Come Out” (Sanctification); (3) “Come Home” (Glorification).

Florence Nightingale said that the whole of religion is in two sets of four one-syllable words: God’s “Lo, it is I” and in our response, “Here am I, Lord.”

The whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth of a missional church can be expressed in four monosyllabic words: Be there with all. (See my upcoming book, Jesus Drives Me Crazy! [Zondervan]).

Just as there’s no such thing as a “simple cell,” there’s no such thing as a “simple word.” If every word can be a book, then the thin, simple words write the longest books. Why? Because it’s the simple words that unify the complexities. My only question: Why are life’s first, simple words the last things in life we get to?

Once upon a time a woman set out to buy a silver soup ladle. The sales person was very obliging. She showed the woman many ladles. Some were very fancy, gilded pieces with heavily embossed curved handles. The price seemed right, but the woman couldn’t decide.

Finally, the sales person said, “Perhaps you would like to see something like this.” She brought out a ladle that was plain and unadorned. This one pleased the woman very much. She wanted to buy it. But the price! Nearly double the cost of the others she had been shown. She asked why, and the sales person said, “In fancy ware, the agreement faults in the material don’t show. The defects are covered up by the ornamentation. As you can see, the plain ladle is free of defects. If there were any, you would see them easily.”

It’s as simple as that.

* * *

Leonard Sweet is the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew University and keynote contributor to www.preachingplus.com. (LenISweet@aol.com)

©2003 REV. magazine. All rights reserved.