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)


Is This Normal?

December 27, 2011

When suggesting tools that will help students discover humor in the Bible, we explore all kinds of humor devices: the backward or upside-down, the surprising and absurd, odd pairings and strange twists, non sequiturs, the out-of-proportion or exaggerated, too big, too small, and many more. In a step toward simplicity, one student (Thank you, Rivers!) suggested a question that gathers up many of these devices: “Is this normal?”

What’s not normal often makes us laugh – bumbling heroes (like Inspector Clouseau), strange clothes (like Princess Beatrice’s hat at the recent royal wedding), homemade videos of the weird and accidental, and stories from the Darwin Awards that describe how, through unrivaled stupidity, people have eliminated themselves from the human gene pool.

The not-normal in the Bible can also make us laugh – geriatric Sarah finally getting pregnant and naming her first-born Laughter, Balaam’s talking donkey who saw what the seer couldn’t see, Belshazzar’s knees knocking together in fear at a hand writing on the wall while he was celebrating his superpower empire, Jesus turning water into premium wine in the ritual purification vessels (the equivalent of hundreds of bottles, generous excess for a crowd that’s already buzzed), and more.

Looking through the lens of “Is this normal?” can help us see what’s funny. In practice, this is a bit analytical for how humor works. Usually we laugh first and think later. Laughter erupts at the difference between what we expect and what we see, at the surprising and the odd. But the question “Is this normal?” may well help readers loosen up a bit to see how funny some parts of the Bible really are.


Typos Reveal Hidden Truths

December 22, 2011

You can learn a lot as a teacher, especially if you pay attention to the unexpected insights and new truths that students offer in their tests and papers. Of course, some surprises are so shocking that you wonder if you’ve failed completely. But others open new vistas and prompt hearty laughter, both welcome in late hours when the piles of papers are deep and breeding. I’ve almost missed the joy of reading papers this fall, but my colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies at George Fox University have generously shared newly revealed truths. I thank them. They’ve also reinforced my conviction that often you need to giggle, not just whistle, while you work. In these examples, most arise from typos and bad proofreading, though, even with that caveat, some gleam with potential.

In describing the “swoon” theory, one of the several explanations people sometimes use to dismiss Jesus’ death and resurrection, she wrote that Jesus only “fainted on the cross and then fell into a deep comma, only to reawaken and escape from the tomb.” That is one serious comma! Period.

Another student was eager to have youth learn some of the old hymn favorites like “The Old Rigid Cross.” Still another included a reference to a newly discovered Jewish sect, the “Pharmacies,” that kept track of and harassed Jesus. So the “Sadducees and the Pharmacies” led in this effort. I suppose the Pharmacies would be good companions, too, to the Pharisees, who committed themselves to strict purity.

In writing of the expansion of the early Church, another student referred to the “Genital Mission.” Now many of us know about Paul’s missionary travels to the Gentiles, but this is a new insight. I’m not sure this theory is completely wrong either, since Paul had devout Jews following him around and telling Christian converts that yes, they must indeed be circumcised.

Finally, I learned of the work of the great Reformer, Martian Luther. Since the name was spelled this way consistently throughout the paper, I can only assume that we are learning of a previously unknown hero of the faith. For all the good the German guy did, he left some gaps. Maybe Martian has been sent from one of the 2,326 potential alien worlds (= earth-like) that have been discovered with the Kepler Space Telescope.

So from unexpected sources, including here, you can find hidden truth revealed. Keep checking back; you never know when we’ll light up your life.


Twists and Turns

December 18, 2011

My friend Dave grinned too broadly and laughed too heartily, I thought, as he pushed his Porsche through four-wheel slides on Chehalem Mountain’s winding road. As a college freshman this seemed a lot different from the Ramblers and VW bugs of my family experience. This was not how my mother taught me to drive. I have learned since that life brings lots of twists and turns, sometimes four-wheel slides, and smiling, even nervous laughter, helps us get through them.

Entering 2011 I had expected to recover from surgery, teach big classes, and retire at the end of the semester. I had not anticipated dealing with the deaths of both Dad and Mom or taking active steps with my wife to move and become members of a retirement community. Then again, we had a full six months to accomplish all of this.

Both of my parents fell into comas before they passed, often difficult for family members gathered around. But in waiting there was love and laughter, and I had friends who shared funny coma stories. It actually helped. My favorite was from a student whose aunt awoke briefly from a coma, looked around warily at the family, and exclaimed (complained?), “Am I still here?”

In Newberg, Everest Street leads to the Friends Cemetery. I’m not the only one in town who reads it Ever-rest and who laughs at its “No Outlet” sign shortly before the cemetery entrance. Long-time Newberg residents remember (as I do) that the sign used to read “Dead End.”

Timings can bring smiles, too. I chuckled several times at the irony of having Mom’s committal service and my department’s retirement celebration for me on the same day. The day after Mom’s memorial service was Easter Sunday. In Greek Orthodox tradition, the days after Easter are filled with laughter; Jesus’ resurrection turns “No Exit” on its head. New life in Christ frames twists and turns with joy.


Thanks to all (at least more than both) my readers

December 18, 2011

Thanks to all of you who noticed that I neglected this blog for a long time and who were patient about it. The next post will give you a clue about that. Thanks also to newcomers who have discovered “Laughing Pilgrims” even in the dead-air time. I’m back with lots of ideas and high hopes to post once or twice a week. So welcome, keep coming back, tell friends, make a comment now and again.


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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