Thursday, July 31, 2008

Laughter is good medicine and theology

I admit it, I am an easy mark and often the butt of jokes. Those of you who know me well already know that. For the rest of you, I'll not elaborate. You'll figure it out soon enough.

I seems to me, ministers fall into one of two categories when it comes to humor and laughter. Some of us are joke tellers, laugh often, and most often at ourselves. Others of us are serious minded souls intent on our call to ministry and living good, holy and righteous lives. The former bring joy, laughter and celebration to worship. Congregations love this and are often starved for it in worship. While the later, whether conservative focusing of personal morally, or liberal pursuing social justice, can be tediously heavy. Serious minded Presbyterians have often been considered rather dour.

The late Rev. John S. Hutchison, under whom I once served as young associate pastor, straddled the line between laughter and seriousness, joy and concern. We served a congregation following an ugly and painful dissolution of the pastoral relationship with the former head of staff. John's humor brought a breath of fresh air to that congregation, a lightness to their heaviness. In the office, when the secretary was asked to blow up a document, referring to the new zoom feature on the copier for enlarging the size of a document, John would say, "No, no, no! We're not blowing anything up here." We would laugh, even as we could sense his pastoral alertness to the next emotional episode of some emotional outburst. On the wall outside his office door, John placed a poster for all who entered to see. It was a picture of an eagle staring directly at you with steely eyes, with the caption, "I am laughing." It's dead seriousness, lightened your heart when you entered through that door.

So it is with the door which is Christ. There is so much pain in the world, in our lives, AND in the church. The Church of Jesus Christ takes that seriously. And when we get a glimpse of eternity, love and grace of God, we smile, lift up our heads, and sometimes laugh. And laughter heals us. H. A. Williams, in this book Tensions, writes,

"God, we believe, accepts us, accepts all persons, unconditionally, warts and all. Laughter is the purest form of our response to God's acceptance of us. For when I laugh at myself I accept myself and when I laugh at other people in genuine mirth I accept them. Self-acceptance in laughter is the very opposite of self-satisfaction or pride. For in laughter I accept myself not because I'm some sort of super-person, but precisely because I'm not. There is nothing funny about a super-person. There is everything funny about a person who thinks s/he is. In laughing at my own claims to importance or regard I receive myself in a sort of loving forgiveness which is an echo of God's forgiveness of me. In much conventional contrition there is a selfishness and pride which are scarcely hidden. In our desperate self-concern we blame ourselves for not being the super-persons we think we really are. But in laughter we sit light to ourselves. That is why laughter is the purest form of our response to God."

Yes, our calling takes us to some grim places. The pain is sometimes more than we can bear. Yet, there is One who lightens our burden by carrying it for us. In Christ, we pass through a door in which we face the realities with the steely look of an eagle and break into a smile. Because of Christ, we can lighten up and be healed through grace.

As I visit among the churches, a consistent theme of concern is our struggle to pass our faith along to the next generation. In such moments, I am mindful of Sarah snickering/laughing in the tent as she over hears the absurdity of God's messenger visitors telling her husband Abraham, that his wife will bear a child. May we with barren senior citizen, Sarah, not only laugh at the absurdity of God's ways of making us pregnant with new emerging life, but live to sing God's praises, come to laugh at ourselves, and with Sarah and Abraham, name our children Isaac, a name which means laughter.

Yes, laughter is not only good medicine, which brings healing, it's good theology!