Humor and the Absent

March 19, 2014

“Don’t be a jerk,” James Martin suggested as he explained how we could “Be kind” during Lent. He added “Always give people the benefit of the doubt” and “Honor the absent,” that is, stop talking (and joking) about people behind their backs.

I think I could be kind, mostly, for forty days. But what if it became a habit? Would I like it? Would I be boring? Would you like it? It’s worth taking a chance. Actually, I’m convinced that, not counting lousy jokes, we can habitually be both funny and kind and that it won’t bore people.

Martin’s “honor the absent” reminds me of one important way to be funny and kind: know your audience. Your audience, any time you speak or chat or joke, is bigger than you think. You have the audience you can see, whether an individual or a crowd. (You can actually see how big they are, but there’s a lot about them you still don’t know.) Then you have the audience you can’t see, the one at the next table or cubicle, or down the hall, or the one to whom you get quoted, live or on Twitter and Facebook. Whatever their size, it’s big.

We can’t choose “the absent,” the unseen audience. So to avoid being a jerk, the kindness habit makes sense. I suspect that some behind-the-back talk can be kind. You could brag on or say nice things about someone. You might even tell a funny story that the “absent” person would laugh along with, that would not feel like an attack or like being laughed at. These are brags and tales you could tell gladly and kindly with the missing person standing right beside you.

But more often, I’d guess, people say demeaning, even false things and laugh at the absent person’s expense. Attacks like that hurt both the target and those who talk and laugh. It sullies everyone who shares in the meanness. And it raises questions about the speaker. Even when they laugh, listeners must rightly think, “What will he say about me when I’m not around? Mental note: do not trust this person.”

Both our integrity and our unseen audience deserve the best we can give. The habit of kindness gives us a good start. You might try it for Lent.

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Joining Earth’s Gladness

February 26, 2014

Standing outside the small store at the edge of the coastal mountain, I suppose I chickened out. But when I saw the rugged man toss two twelve-packs of Bud into the pickup bed alongside his large chainsaws, I balked at asking about his bumper sticker: “Earth First – we’ll log the other planets later.” In the land where protecting spotted owls and clear-cut logging of forests compete, the conversation seemed risky at best.

I’ve already repented of some of the things I might have said. But I’ve been thinking of others, wiser I hope. And he might have listened. After all, one of the godliest men I know was a lumberjack, complete with tough denims, steel-toe, high-top boots, 60-inch bar chainsaws and all.

earthFor one thing, I might have told him about the earth’s deep gladness at the rule of God. It started with the morning stars singing joyfully as God laid the foundations of the earth, surveyed its dimensions, laid its cornerstone, and set clear boundaries for the sea. (Job 38:4-11) Earth’s gladness continues as all of its creatures – cedars and cypresses, storks and rock badgers, lions and people, too – live richly satisfied with God’s generous provision. (Psalm 104) When God sends rains that turn wilderness to pasture and wrap hillsides with blossoms, that clothe meadows with sheep and carpet valleys with grain, “they all shout and sing for joy!” (Psalm 65:10-13, NLT) In Isaac Watts’ hymn “Joy to the World,” based on Psalm 98, we are invited to sing along “while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.” God rules in faithfulness and love. No wonder the psalmists call all creation to sing. No wonder earth is glad.

Another thing I might have said is that we can join in earth’s deep gladness as fellow creatures. We can admire and wonder at the creation that God delighted to call “good … very good,” with its lavishness, practicality and playfulness, with its diversity, its riot of color and design. We can celebrate our own creatureliness, for example, when we enjoy watching the families of birds – sandhill cranes, yellow-headed blackbirds, bald and golden eagles, cinnamon teals, curlews, and avocets. We can relax into and marvel at God’s power when we explore the shape of the world from broad plains to mountains tilted high by tectonic plates crashing together, from cinder cones that wanted to be volcanoes to fertile tidelands.

Part of joining gladly with other creatures is to remind ourselves that we are not God. We’re just critters. As critters we must, like all of creation, come to rest in God’s goodness and to depend on God’s provision. One of the main reasons for keeping Sabbath is to act as if God can and will care for us, that we don’t have to push 24/7 to be sure we’re okay. With similar impact, Jesus challenged his followers to answer whether they thought that God, who generously tends wildflowers and sparrows, would also care for them. If we can say yes, we can more easily join the rest of creation in living in joy and freedom.

Finally, I think I might have said that we can wonder at and live out faithfully the special place in creation that we humans have. After marveling at the night sky the psalmist wonders that God should either notice or care for people. Even more remarkably, he says, God has given humans authority to govern creation. (Psalm 8, Genesis 1:28) The creation story in Genesis 2, though, tempers the temptation to get uppity about all this. It recounts that earth had no plants yet because there were no people to work the soil. (Genesis 2:5) You need farmers first. The Hebrew word typically translated “till” or “cultivate” has the general meaning “to serve,” which points us in a helpful direction. It suggests serving the earth rather than serving ourselves. Collaborating in God’s rule invites us to share in God’s manner, to emulate God’s right ordering, tenderness, delight, and generosity.

Humans have not always ruled faithfully. The ancient taunt song against the grandiose, fallen king of Babylon describes how “finally the earth is at rest and quiet. Now it can sing again.” The cypresses and cedars of Lebanon, relentlessly over-harvested to build distant palaces, now sing to the king. “Since you have been cut down, no one will come now to cut us down!” (Isaiah 14:7-8, NLT) Of course, despite their song of liberation, today the creation still groans to be set free from the effects of human rule that is not like God’s.

In contrast, the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom which we love in Isaiah 11 and in the powerful images of artists Edward Hicks and Fritz Eichenberg, is only realized in the wake of a just and loving ruler, guided by God’s Spirit and delighting in God’s ways. So as creatures still dependent on God, we can seek God’s guidance to govern our fellow creatures wisely and humbly. Perhaps we can discover better ways to cultivate, grow, and harvest. Maybe we could use our creative powers to develop hardier, more fruitful plants. We could learn to live in ways to do less harm, that strengthen rather than weaken. We can applaud and join individuals and groups who are seeking practical ways of sustaining the creation. We can work hard to provide pure water and clean environments that give life and health to people and lands.

We ordinary people, as unlikely as it seems, have been invited by the Creator to share in God’s rule. In choices large and small, may we live in ways that share the world’s love for God and share God’s love for the world.

 

[This essay was originally published in Quaker Life magazine in 2008, but I just rediscovered it and wanted to share it with blog readers who would not have seen it.]

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What the Bleep?!

February 13, 2014

Recently I heard, again, about a newscaster who abruptly lost his job when he dropped an “f-bomb” (and other colorful words) while his mike was still live. But that’s hardly news anymore. All kinds of people get embarrassed, at least, or canned because they can’t keep their ast***erisks, @*X&!, and “what the bleeps?” together.

I haven’t heard of a pulpit f-bomb firing yet. Could have happened. But I have read a blog post arguing that it s fine for Christians to drop one now and again. Frankly, that seemed odd to me. I admit that I grew up among Christian folks who both avoided coarse, vulgar, or profane language and urged me to avoid it, too. My grandfather, I learned, would only occasionally let out a “Horsefeathers!” when his team of horses would make trouble. Or maybe less fiercely, “Pshaw.” I don’t think my father-in-law actually knew any words for such moments. One good friend, who actually knows how to play basketball, would sometimes give a vigorous, almost-a-whisper “Shshugar!” when he missed a lay-up or when one of us (like me) would forget (again) how to run a pick-and-roll. My mentors even warned about “minced oaths,” though now I admit to letting a “golly” or “darn” slip once in a while. I’m still embarrassed by, but almost proud of, the moment that my two young children stared wide-eyed at each other and exclaimed, “Did you hear what Dad said?!” Almost. I’m glad it seemed out of the ordinary.

Well, bother! (Thanks, Winnie). I think my mentors were right. Crude-and-rude, profane language does not reflect our new way of life as Children of the Light. (For example, reflect on Ephesians 5.) Speech that is clean, courteous, and kind is more fitting for folks under transformation. So is choosing not to trivialize God’s name by using it as slang. This may seem a bit countercultural, but then Christians are not supposed to be widgets stamped out by our cultural molds.

Note that I follow Paul at this point, “The rest is from me and not from the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:12, JB. What a fine proof-text.) A lot of this comes down to habit, habits we choose and develop. On the one hand, I’m convinced that some folks use coarse language so habitually that they don’t even know what the ***** bleep they’re saying. On the other, we can choose richer and more suitable uses of language. Even if we low-ball the number of English words at one quarter of a million, we have lots of great words to choose from. If you leave out the dozen or two most common crude and profane words (it’s really a boring, limited vocabulary), you can still find a way to say what you want.

And, frankly, it’s simpler, sort of like the habit of telling the truth. If we make a habit of gracious speech, then we don’t have to think about how we have to clean it up for particular listeners. And we don’t have to worry about whether the mike is live.

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Laughter and Imperfection

February 4, 2014

The first thing I did after I fell over my mower and splattered myself on the ground was to look around to see if any of my neighbors had watched my graceful self-planting. I must have made an ugly sound, too, since while I was still scanning for neighbors, my wife came running out and was the first to discover the gash on my knee. Rushing to the emergency room rescued me from cul-de-sac view and put me in the hands of medical folk who routinely witness frailty at its finest.

My first response, of course, was to see whether anyone had seen my awkward folly instead of my very together, capable, perfect self. Not that my neighbors hadn’t already seen past that. Laughing would have been better, even while I was fertilizing the lawn with my precious hemoglobin. For one thing, I would have beaten everyone else to it and freed them to laugh out loud. And by laughing I could both confess and remind myself that I am just an ordinary human – limited, imperfect, sometimes clumsy.

We often distinguish “laughing at” from “laughing with” to help us avoid humor that hurts others and to embrace humor that reminds us that we’re all in the same boat. Sometimes, though, we need to laugh at ourselves so we’ll know that we’re “with” others, that we’re as human as anybody. Self-deprecatory humor can be helpful and charming, of course. But we need to guard against it becoming self-derogatory and hurtful. Consider the following suggestions.

First, be kind to yourself. Embrace your folly and imperfection, but don’t let laughing turn into shaming, demeaning, or despising. Good humor should free you from that and even show self-compassion. Don’t trash yourself with angry thoughts or phrases like, “You idiot! You’re just a screw-up! You’ll never get it right! You always (fill in the blank).” Joking that undercuts your worth as a person might get a good laugh, but it leaves wounds. Perhaps you wince, as I do, when you hear people cut themselves deeply with humor and you know they’re not kidding.

Let your laughter be truthful. Don’t use humor to hide or deflect, still trying to protect the illusion of being superhuman. Instead, let it show the wonder of our sometimes stumbling-bumbling humanity. When we show up and are vulnerable enough to be real, even with mismatched socks, awkward words, clumsy moves, or spinach stuck in our teeth, it frees us from pretense and embraces the folks around us, all of whom struggle as we do. As we live in imperfection, laughter can do us a lot of good.

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Seeing Funny: Imagining

October 8, 2013

In two previous blog posts about “Seeing Funny,” I’ve explored playing with words and using formulas. This installment will make “Seeing Funny” a trilogy, which has brought some folks to fame and fortune, even to movie contracts. Of course it may not come to that, but I’m protecting the movie rights for now. Still, free for now, here are some ideas about using your imagination to create fun.

Make words, ideas, and phrases literal. Picture them. You can have great fun by just playing with figures of speech or imaginative scenes. You hear, “She rolled her eyes,” and imagine (or better, gesture) her popping her eyes into her hand and rolling them like dice. Or imagine how awkward or painful it must be to have your “heart in your throat.” I like to invite literalist readers to picture Job 37:1, “At this my own heart quakes, and leaps from its place.” (Jerusalem Bible) When people speak of thinking hard, I almost involuntarily hear gears grinding and smell smoke pouring out. And I’ve borrowed the language of allergy. “I’m allergic to cheesecake. When I eat it, my waist breaks out with big lumps of fat.” Sometimes you just have to go literal.brain and gears 2

Exaggerate. Exaggerating, except in arguments with your family, can create great fun. You can start with an idea or story that’s already funny and then push it to the edges. You can make things huge or tiny, ordinary things like speed, weight, size, being accident-prone. “When that guy passed me, he was going 300 miles per hour!” Comics like Johnny Carson and David Letterman use formulas like “How hot was it?” and “How wet was it?” to set up punch lines. “It was so wet in Newberg last week that my neighbor scrambled to build an ark.”

A funny, over-sized curse from Carson years ago still wanders freely in my head. “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits.” I’ve never heard a sermon about curse texts from Deuteronomy 28, but they’ve made students both shudder and giggle: “The LORD will afflict you with Egyptian inflammation, hemorrhoids, rash, and itch. You will be untreatable. The LORD will make you go crazy, make you blind, make your mind confused.” (Dt 28:27-28, Common English Bible) (For my more liturgical readers, you’ll find this in Lectionary X, the collection of texts never read in public worship.)

Re-arrange. I first played with Mr. Potato Head when I was nine or ten. That was back in the old days when the toy first came out, before it was declared dangerous. You had to use a real potato, which might in fact rot if you wanted to permanently display a version of Mr. Potato Head you had created. And the body part pieces did have to have sharp points, duller in later versions. But pioneering in Mr. Potato Head was fabulous fun; for laughs, of course, you could put eyes, ears, and noses wherever you wanted, not just in the pre-drilled holes of the later plastic potatoes. Even now, re-arranging pieces of an idea or a story so that they show up in odd or unexpected places can stir up lots of fun. Unlikely pieces in unlikely places fuel a lot of funny stories. For example, imagine Don Knotts as a bumbling janitor who mistakenly gets launched as an astronaut (in the old movie “The Reluctant Astronaut”). It’s not exactly George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in the new movie “Gravity.” Better yet, imagine your own funny pieces in funny places – at home, in your work place, in other places you know.

Play what-if. Create or change the circumstances, the players, or the plot and see what happens. For example, after years as a college teacher, it amuses me to imagine asking administrators this question: “What if we get record student enrollments next year? Would we still have to keep tightening our budget belts?” Of course, I could also imagine what might happen to me were I to ask such a question. Maybe that would be funny. In one of his novels, Kurt Vonnegut wonders what life would be like if the earth had variable gravity, lighter some days and heavier on others. How would that affect walking around? Using elevators? Some what-ifs might be terrifying (“What if there’s really a zombie apocalypse? What would I offer for trick-or-treat?”). Or wishful (“What if I win the lottery?”). So keep it fun. What if you were to play with this? What if you were to imagine having fun?

If you have some what-ifs and other imagining tools to share, we’d love to hear from you.

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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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