Between Heaven and Mirth

February 3, 2012

My Jesuit classmates in my doctoral studies scared me. They weren’t unkind, but were alien smart. Though they were still young enough, I was sure they had spent decades in the basement of the Vatican reading Scripture and learning seventeen languages, in all of which they could fluently tell secrets or jokes. Not that they did, but then I’m not that good at getting casual Latin puns.

So when I brought my caricature of Jesuits as smart, scary scholar-teachers to reading James Martin, SJ’s book Between Heaven and Mirth (HarperOne, 2011), I didn’t know what to expect.

Briefly, it is smart and funny. It responds at length to an elderly priest’s glowering scold of a young priest who confessed to “excessive levity.” The confessor chided, “All levity is excessive.” Martin argues that, instead of excessive, levity is essential, and he winsomely prods readers toward great joyfulness. “And when you’re deadly serious, you’re seriously dead,” he writes. “A better goal for believers is to be joyfully alive.”

Martin’s biblical, theological, and historical foundations are wide and deep. He writes engagingly and tells lots of fun stories. I found it both profound and, as he intends, “mirthful.”

At the core, Martin corrects crippling misconceptions of God, Jesus, and the spiritual life. For example, he notes that the common picture of God as “joyless judge” is “enough to wipe the smile off any believer’s face.” He shows how Jesus could be “hilarious,” using high exaggeration and “intentionally ridiculous illustrations” in his teaching. Martin devotes a whole chapter to humor among the saints, including the words attributed to St. Teresa, “From somber devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”

Several chapters offer practical guidance for discovering joy in our personal spiritual lives. With chapters like “I’m Not Funny and My Life Stinks,” Martin explores both the challenges and the benefits of opening ourselves to joy.

This fine book invites and guides us, developing the subtitle, “Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.” I love the old English setting of Psalm 100 that includes the phrase, “Him serve with mirth, His praise forthtell.” James Martin’s book can help us do both.

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Laugh Your Way to Grace

December 30, 2011

In her book Laugh Your Way to Grace, Susan Sparks won me over right away. Maybe it was the promise about what she would say: “As a veteran of the punch line and the pulpit, I believe that humor can empower us to live with elegance and beauty and a generosity of spirit. It is the one tool that can enable us to live our daily lives, our spiritual lives, with grace.” (xvii)

Maybe it was her wonderful writing and storytelling. Sparks’ skill in crafting comedy draws you into the range and depth of her practical insights. She quotes from a grand company of wits and thinkers, from theologian Karl Barth (“Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”), to Mark Twain, Anne LaMott, Yogi Berra, and Phyllis Diller.

Maybe her own story won me at first. It’s the story of a young woman whose leading toward ministry was hindered by her church, who became a trial lawyer, then a stand-up comedian, and finally the first woman pastor of New York’s 160-year-old Madison Avenue Baptist Church ever had. Along the way she encounters Mad Dog Murphy, climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro, and hangs out with Mother Teresa.

I raced through the book at first reading, and now, reading again at a slower pace, I’m still laughing and learning a lot. Here are some reasons why (and why I think you’d like her book, too):

On forgiveness: “Humor offers a revolutionary, yet simple, spiritual paradigm: If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others. Laughter heals. It grounds us in a place of hope.” (6-7)

The all-purpose tool: “Humor is the WD40 and duct tape of life. Like WD40 on those rusted clips, humor jars us loose, breaks us open, and makes us see things in a fresh, new way. And like the duct tape on the pack, it bonds us together by highlighting our commonalities.” (65)

Thin spaces: Sparks speaks of what the Celts call “thin spaces,” “places where the boundary between human and holy is so thin, so transparent, you can almost break through.” And she speaks of laughter as a thin space where “our hearts are laid bare before God.” (124)

Spiritual practice: “Laughter is a spiritual practice,” she says, one that, as a daily habit, can bring us clearer vision and joy. (9-10)

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The Joyful Noiseletter

February 1, 2011

Elton Trueblood encouraged his students to practice the spiritual gift of introduction. It’s simply introducing people to one another who would benefit from knowing each other. (I’ve avoided using this for matchmaking.) In that spirit, let me introduce Cal Samra.

I first met Cal Samra through his book The Joyful Christ: The Healing Power of Humor. It’s a remarkable book, especially considering Cal wrote it only three years after he was so depressed that, with a fresh rope and a long day looking for suitable trees, he spent a couple hours trying to figure out how to hang himself from a tall cactus. The book contains a wide range of stories and witness to humor in the Church over many centuries. And it invites readers to share in that joy. His chapter describing how few pictures there are of Jesus as a joyful person set me searching for such images myself.

Near when the book appeared, Cal and his wife Rose founded the Fellowship of Merry Christians and began publishing The Joyful Noiseletter, a fun and funny monthly newsletter full of stories, cartoons, quotes, bloopers, book excerpts, and more. They describe it as “a voice laughing in the wilderness” that seeks “to recapture the spirit of joy, humor, unity and healing power of the early Christians.” In that spirit they have a fine catalog of books (including The Joyful Christ) and pictures, they encourage Holy Humor Sunday the week after Easter, and they have recently been inviting churches to host groups called Health & Humor Hangouts (“aka 3-H clubs”). I’m an avid fan and urge you to get acquainted with Cal, Rose, and the fun community that’s gathered at www.JoyfulNoiseletter.com (or call them at 1-800-877-2757).

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The Bible and the Black Lagoon

October 23, 2010

“Heaven and Mirth” stories sprang from the imagination of Mike Thaler, already a top children’s book author with hits like the Black Lagoon series (The Teacher from the Black Lagoon, The Principal …, The Librarian …, The School Bus Driver …, and more). After he gave up a “fast-food relationship with God” to join in Jesus Christ’s “glorious feast,” he began to wonder why children squirmed while hearing Bible stories instead of enjoying them. So he set out to write “humorous retellings of Bible stories that are vivid and alive for kids.” What fun stories! The titles hint at their creativity and humor – Moses: Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning, David and Bubblebath Sheba, David: God’s Rock Star, The Prodigal Son: Oh, Brother! Thaler (“America’s Riddle King”) romps respectfully through the stories with funny word play and surprising connections while Dennis Adler adds hilarious illustrations. I enjoy these books so much I have more than a full set. You might enjoy them, too, and on a good day you might even share them with a kid.
I’m sure that it’s okay for Bible stories to be fun, and not just for kids. In fact, if we would loosen up a bit, we might discover that some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, even without Mike Thaler’s special touch. Sometimes kids can teach us. Elton Trueblood reports that his young son’s unexpected laughter at a Bible story, a genuinely funny one, prompted him to write his book The Humor of Christ. Maybe we can learn to be in fun, like children, even when we read the Bible.

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Choosing Positive Humor

October 4, 2010

Sometimes chance (?), surprising discoveries turn up the greatest treasures. I uncovered such a treasure while poking around in the library of Pendle Hill study and retreat center in Wallingsford, Pennsylvania. There I found Christian Hageseth III’s book A Laughing Place: The Art and Psychology of Positive Humor in Love and Adversity. As an added surprise, as I began reading it I discovered that Hageseth had partnered in humor workshops with C. W. Metcalf, author of Lighten Up, already one of my favorite books on humor and sensible living.

The book cover describes Hageseth, a psychiatrist, as a funny and normal shrink and as an “innovative humor theorist.” I believe it. The book is wide-ranging, meaty (a sumptuous feast even vegetarians can enjoy), and very funny. I asked my favorite book concierge Amazon whether I could still get a copy, and he said yes.

As a challenging appetizer, let me offer a few of Hageseth’s “twelve positive humor affirmations”:
“1. I am determined to use my humor for positive, loving purposes only.
2. I will take myself lightly, even though I take my work in life seriously.” He explains why our work in life is not our job or career.
“3. I will not seek to be offended. When in doubt, I choose to see others as meaning well. I will practice positive paranoia. …
5. I refuse to use my humor to express anger or prejudice. I will express negative feelings directly without contaminating my positive use of humor.
6. I understand that the gift of laughter is a loving gift. I will laugh generously at others’ attempts at humor.” (pp. 141-2)

For more of the feast, you can talk to my concierge.

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Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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