April 12, 2013
April Fool’s Day this year fell on the Monday after Easter. Perfect! I laughed to think that, on April Fool’s Monday, Orthodox Christians in Greece and elsewhere were gathering to tell jokes and enjoy God’s great victory in Jesus with humor. My colleague Tim Tsohantaridis reminds me that in Greece, at least, they celebrate every day of the week after Easter. In the same spirit, this past Sunday many American congregations observed “Holy Humor Sunday.” The Joyful Noiseletter, edited by Cal Samra, reports each year the creative variety of ways that Christians have found to use humor to delight in the story of Easter.
One early way of explaining how Jesus’ death and resurrection set things right uses a funny picture, one that uses trickery. Basically, God baits a great hook with Jesus and when Satan goes for the bait, God reels him in. (Not elegant, exactly, but the current favorite atonement theory isn’t either.) Also using humor, a modern song by Carmen, “Sunday’s on the Way,” depicts Satan after Jesus’ burial as panicky, worried that Jesus won’t stay in the tomb. So Satan keeps phoning Grave to make sure Jesus is still dead. Carmen’s audiences howl with joy and laughter when, on the third day, Grave desperately reports, “No! OH NO! OH NO…SOMEBODY’S MESSING WITH THE STONE!”
In preparing for Easter, I read the four Gospel accounts of the disciples’ experience that day. Their responses at first are what we might expect – surprised, stunned, dismayed, confused, heads swimming, full of wonder. But things change as seeing Jesus alive sinks in. For example, the King James Version of John 20:20 reports, “And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.” Glad. That’s pretty tame. “Hi, I’m glad to see you.” Contrast the reading in Peterson’s The Message: “the disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant.” Peterson’s reading is spot on. The Greek verb that is used here is a word for exultant rejoicing, for loud, festive joy. And this same word is used in two of the other Gospels. Again Peterson, “They returned to Jerusalem bursting with joy.” (Luke 24:52) Similarly, in Matthew 28:8: “The women, deep in wonder and full of joy, lost no time in leaving the tomb. They ran to tell the disciples.” Exuberant. Bursting with joy. Loud and festive.
Sometimes, when you get news that is too good to be true, you laugh and you cry, maybe staring in stunned silence or muttering, “No, this can’t be happening.” All at once. Jesus’ disciples on that first Easter day heard and saw the best too-good-to-be-true news ever. It puzzled them and dazzled them. They couldn’t believe it. But by the end of the day, I’ll bet they laughed out loud while tears ran down their cheeks.
March 16, 2013
When I first met Tom Mullen, he was still asking people, “Have I told you about my pancreas?” and reminding them that not getting juvenile (Type I) diabetes until he was 35 proved that he was slow. This was probably twenty years before he wrote about “walking–nay, staggering–down the [hospital] hall a few hours after your abdomen had been savaged by a wealthy man wearing a mask while you were asleep.” With similar insight, Tom observes about aging, “As we get older, life seems an ongoing struggle to keep money coming in and teeth, hair, and vital organs from coming out.”
The last two quotations are from one of my favorite Tom Mullen books, and I remembered its title after, of course, my recent posts on loss and aging. Living Longer and Other Sobering Possibilities is only one of a collection of fine, funny books from Tom. Others include Middle Age and Other Mixed Blessings; Where Two or Three Are Gathered, Someone Spills the Milk; and Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences.
Though we lost him a few years ago, I’ll never forget Tom. As a friend and mentor, Tom taught me a lot about living well and laughter. He first taught me the phrase “being in fun,” and he practiced it in delightful and unexpected ways. He wrote and modeled that “it is possible to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances” (emphatically saying not for all, but even in the middle of disease or loss). He clearly showed how to live one day at a time, receiving it as a gift from God.
I still give thanks for the times when working sessions with Tom morphed into story-telling times when we laughed until we cried and rattled our remaining vital organs. He joked about his quirks and weaknesses in ways that drew us all into a common bond. He told harrowing stories, such as getting flown by helicopter from a cruise ship for medical care, with such delight that you could almost forget he nearly died. His preaching, teaching, and writing prospered because Tom had mastered humor and loved people.
Yes, this is a tribute to Tom. A lot of us still miss him. But because he wrote so faithfully and well, his ministry can continue. You can still buy and read his books, including the tender and funny A Very Good Marriage and Seriously, Life Is a Laughing Matter. In all of them, Tom shows how to live in joy, even through hard times. Thanks, Tom, for the laughs and wisdom. (And I think I left in an adverb that you wouldn’t like.)
February 21, 2013
Her question has puzzled and nagged at me for weeks now. After she read my blog post “New Folks, New Jokes,” this reader (much younger than I) objected that getting older challenged her and wondered how she or I could find it funny at all. Good question. I’ve tried not to take it lightly even though I’m convinced humor can help.
I thought Peg Bracken’s funny book On Getting Old for the First Time could help, but gave up on that when I discovered she wrote it in her mid-70s. Bracken writes brilliantly about loss and change, but my decades-younger reader surely wouldn’t want to wander in old-folks territory. Maybe Judith Viorst’s How Did I Get to Be 40 & Other Atrocities would help. Since Viorst wrote a book on each decade from 20s to 80s, you could choose what’s familiar or far away. Without her help, though, I’m left to share some of what I’ve been learning about times when it’s hard to laugh.
Change and pain often make it hard to laugh. Humor, we often think, denies or trivializes our loss, our fear. It doesn’t seem to take us seriously enough. When we’re hurting, we don’t want to be kidded or cajoled. Now I am sure that there are times, even extended periods of time, when humor won’t help. I’m equally sure that many times humor is exactly what we need to take hard times seriously. It can create perspective and give us courage to keep going.
Creating habits of joy makes facing loss easier. The “Preacher” of Ecclesiastes repeats often, “I heartily recommend that you pursue joy, for the best a person can do under the sun is to enjoy life.” (8:15, The Voice) Be in the moment. Live each day gladly and well, full of wonder at life itself, overflowing with thanks, “walking cheerfully,” and “being in fun.” We can practice living with such habits of joy.
Honesty helps, too. In her how-to book Stand-Up Comedy, Judy Carter insists that her students can’t find humor that works until they’re honest with themselves about who they are, how they think, and what attitudes they hold. In hard times, I think such honesty can help us discover where we’re hurt, where we’re blind, and where we’re mistaken or just silly. Maybe dear friends will risk helping us here, but we may have to make ourselves outside observers or compassionate witnesses to get an honest look at ourselves. When we’ve blown things out of proportion or become contortionists or just made stuff up, we should laugh. It creates clarity and perspective in facing loss. And it may rescue us. As Loretta LaRoche advises, “If you don’t have to suffer, don’t practice.”
LaRoche’s book, RELAX – you may only have a few minutes left, shares lots of practical tips about using the devices of humor to deal with tough moments. She suggests, for example, that we ought to listen carefully to the contradictory and irrational things we say, like complaining to a compassionate listener, “absolutely nobody cares” or “no one ever listens to me.” Sometimes by intentionally inflating our problems into end-of-the-world melodramas we can make ourselves laugh and see more clearly. I’ve known counselors who invite clients to imagine what’s the worst thing that could happen with their problem. Push it to the limit. Then they ask, “Then what?” Often it clears space to move ahead.
Along the way we’ll add more ideas. Perhaps some of these have worked for you. Or maybe you would share other good ideas with me and “Laughing Pilgrim” readers.
December 18, 2012
Surrounded by the hubbub of Christmas, one friend worried that all this busy noise would overshadow the importance of Easter and the Resurrection. “Christmas doesn’t have much to do with anything,” he grumbled, “except the Incarnation …if you stretch it a little.”
I want to assume he giggled a little as he grumbled. After all, the Incarnation, the Eternal Word becoming human, is a big deal, even if we don’t know exactly how to talk about it. Early on in seminary, Alan Richardson’s book Creeds in the Making taught me that there are lots of ways to get it wrong, and that Christians in the early centuries of the Church discovered most of them. Whatever confused thoughts we have now are usually just re-runs, though they can still stir up mischief.
Some folks focus mostly on Easter and even at Christmas sing that Jesus came to die. But the Incarnation also means that Jesus came to live, to move into the neighborhood, to show us what God is like, and to show us what being human is like. We struggle to find ways to say that Jesus entered fully into our human condition and was the most extraordinary human we’ve ever known.
Many portray Jesus mostly as a man of sorrows, one who entered into and shared our grief. As Cal Samra points out, most Christian art historically, and even now, shows Jesus as sad, burdened, morose, or, at best, with flat affect. So it’s hard for many to picture Jesus also as a man of joy, a person whose deep love and healing power takes root in joy and embodies the announcement of “good news of great joy.”
The film “Matthew,” featuring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, captures this joy better than most movies about Jesus that I know. Having read Sherwood Wirt’s stirring book Jesus, Man of Joy, Marchiano describes what he discovered in reading the Bible to prepare for his acting:
“…it became so blatantly obvious I couldn’t believe I’d never caught it before. Suddenly it was everywhere, screaming from the pages of Scripture: joy!
“Jesus began jumping off the page at me as well – His realness and strength, the sparkle in His eyes, the spring in His gait, the heartiness in His laugh, the genuineness of His touch; His passion, playfulness, excitement, and vitality: His JOY!
“Yes, Jesus smiled; yes, Jesus laughed. Jesus smiled bigger and laughed heartier than any human being who’s ever walked the planet. It’s been revelation to a lot of people both in and out of the church, their eyes opening wide after lifetimes of misunderstanding the Lord to be an aloof, pious, and sanctimonious figure. “ (Marchiano’s, In the Footsteps of Jesus, 77)
Most of the Amazon reviews of the movie are positive, though some felt that it lacked gravitas, that Jesus smiled and laughed too much, and that this certainly would not be faithful to the Bible, even though the movie uses only the NIV text. Some reviews sounded like this:
“The actor didn’t seem at all like Jesus is portrayed in the Bible. Instead of Jesus as the Alpha and Omega, the Good Shepherd, the Lord of Lords, Emmanuel, the Messiah, the King of Kings, etc. it was like this portrayal of Jesus was designed to bring Him down to our human level.”
Without stretching it even a little, the point of the Incarnation is that Jesus did live fully down at our human level. It is at once the most ordinary and most extraordinary human life we can imagine. Jesus’ life among us was the most fully authentic human we’ve ever seen, full of love, integrity, joy, grace, and truth. It shows us that Jesus has shared our common life, and it shows what it possible for human life. It gives us reason, in the midst of Christmas hubbub, loudly and often to belt out “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” and to “repeat the sounding joy.”
December 11, 2012
Joining the Friendsview Retirement Community brought fun surprises. It’s a great place, but that’s no surprise, since my folks had lived here happily. But I get to hang out more often with some amazing older people, many of them mentors and friends whom I admired growing up. And I have been reunited with college friends and other peers, though frankly I don’t remember them as being so old.
Abundant humor surprised me as well. People joke all the time about creaky joints, balky parts, fuzzy eyes and straining ears, senior moments, and other losses that later life brings. Having walked in the shadows of memory gaps (“Over the Hill? I don’t remember any hill.”), they seem to laugh most of the time at jokes (or the same old joke) about always meeting new people and hearing new jokes.
I recently read a cranky review of a book on humor, objecting sharply to the author’s recommending jokes about aging and sickness. When you go through these experiences, the reviewer chided, it’s not funny, but painful. Yes, it’s often painful. But humor can help us deal with pain and loss.
As he grew older, my dad would often say, “Getting old is not for sissies.” He said it with a smile or a chuckle, but a smile that embraced the reality of loss, change, and even fear. Dad loved to tell jokes, even in his waning years. His repertoire of stories shrank as time went on, and he often didn’t know how many times he had told the same story to the same people. (They did.) Eventually he came to having only one story to tell, and he had it written in the back of his pocket calendar so he could read it aloud. It was a good story, one he loved, about how two friends who had just arrived in heaven were so thrilled with its beauty and wonders that they ribbed each other, “We could have been here sooner if we hadn’t eaten all that oats and bran.”
Occasionally I watch reruns of good television shows I never had time to enjoy when I was teaching. The advertising, though, rattles me a bit. The ads promote hearing aids, breathing machines, jumbo button phones, motorized scooters, comfy catheters, pills to make me an “Ageless Male” (the man I “used to be,” though I don’t much recognize him), walk-in bathtubs, and much more. They offer an enticing blend of help and denial. Sometimes they annoy me; sometimes I laugh.
Laughing is healthier. It gives us courage to embrace the reality of our lives. Telling stories and making jokes helps us support one another as we laugh together about shared experiences, the humor of “You, too? Yup. Been there, done that.” Facing pain and loss with a smile, rather than denying them, shapes perspective and helps us discover new paths to joyful living.