Imagine Them Smiling

March 19, 2012

What if humor were the only way to understand the Bible? Often seeing humor improves our understanding, but in some cases, humor offers the only way to make sense of the text. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, argues that the story of Jesus’ dialogue with the Canaanite woman gives a prime example.

The story (found in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30) describes an encounter between a non-Jewish woman and Jesus, when he traveled outside of Israel to get some relief from the crowds. She was desperate to get healing for her demon-possessed daughter; Jesus was trying to hide. She found Jesus, threw herself at his feet, and begged for Jesus to act. He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” To which Jesus replied, “Good answer! Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” (Mk 7, mostly from the Common English Bible)

Jesus does act compassionately, but the dialogue is disturbing. Trueblood says that any alternative to seeing humor in this account is “intolerable.” Jesus appears here to be “rude…harsh…contemptuous.” “Above all,” he writes, “it is at complete variance with the general picture which we receive from the rest of the Gospel, particularly in connection with the poor and needy.” (122) For folks who want to see Jesus as angry or mean, this is a gold mine. However, if we can recognize the cleverness and boldness of her bantering with Jesus, we can see the story in harmony with all we know of his loving presence and action, including his sense of humor.

Over coffee with Chloe, this story came up. She said she had just been talking about this with a friend who was puzzled by it. Trying to help, she told him, “Imagine them smiling.” (By the way, Chloe gave permission for me to use her name and said she would be glad to receive donations.) “Imagine them smiling.” Brilliant, I thought. The text doesn’t give us facial expressions or vocal inflections; we bring those to it. Imagining Jesus smiling and even being a bit coy rather than being cranky makes a lot of sense, particularly when we remember Jesus’ response in so many other stories.

My colleague Ron also tells me that this passage is very important to missiologists. They see this as one of the ways Jesus was teaching the disciples the wide range of the Gospel. The sneaky gentleness of humor, as they watched, could well have had an enduring, powerful effect.

Since Chloe gave me this wonderful phrase, I have experimented with Jesus smiling in other stories. Though not always, often we smile with each other when we meet and talk. One occasion that intrigues me is the story of Jesus talking with another non-Jewish woman, the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. (John 4:4-42) I find reading with some sense of banter gives new life to the story. Perhaps while reading other stories about Jesus, you, too, can experiment with the phrase, “imagine them smiling.” And, please, let me know what you discover.


Seriously In Fun

March 13, 2012

First some news, then some notes from being in fun. In news, we’re continuing to improve the website, at least hoping that the changes are for the better. For example, now you can actually read the Red Nose Training Manual on the site. This could change your life. Recently, a retired couple, both spouses with stellar careers, read it for the first time. Even with their life successes, I could see that they wondered what greater heights they might have reached had they harvested the manual’s wisdom decades earlier. I’ve also heard from Rudolph the Reindeer, a professional red nose user, that even he has picked up some good tips from our manual. Even though it’s not for advanced users, it includes something new for almost everyone.

My book Rhythms of the Inner Life, about the Psalms and the spiritual journey, is now available as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and iBook (and soon for Google and Kobo). Whether they consider its $3.99 price as accessible, modest, or cheap, we’re hoping many readers will enjoy having it. You can use links on our website to find Rhythms at your favorite e-book site.

I try to be in fun even when I’m being serious. When I attended the Justice Conference 2012 at Portland’s Oregon Convention Center, I gathered new insights and grew in hope – all in all, a wonderful gathering. But being in fun bolstered me, too. After a challenging morning of thinking of practical ways we can apply the Bible’s command to love our neighbors, I started toward a lunch break only to discover we shared the Convention Center with another group whose theme was “Love Yourself First.” A friend explained that the second group was to help women learn more about looking good, especially in denim fashions. The tasty irony is that both groups apparently lived out the principle, “Puzzle your neighbor.”

Imagining mischievous architects or designers gave me another in-fun moment. The Oregon Convention Center offers grand spaces and clever design throughout, even in small details. In my visit to one of the men’s restrooms, however, a prominent artistic feature surprised me. The tiled wall included, over each of the urinals, a large photo of one of Oregon’s free-flowing waterfalls, most found in the Columbia River Gorge. A bit more disturbing, the bottom of the Wahkeena Falls photo includes a woman in sunglasses, staring out and smiling. Admitting that I see funny, I’ll bet I’m not the only guy who’s noticed the waterfalls and onlookers. Even more, I imagine that somewhere a designer is still grinning that his (or her) mischief in design made it all the way to the final product.


Smiling Persuasion

March 9, 2012

After seeing my brief note suggesting that the Apostle Paul used humor when he wrote to Philemon, a friend e-mailed me: “I have not been able to read Philemon with a straight face for years! I was afraid I was being sacrilegious. I saw Paul as being a bit melodramatic and manipulative. I hadn’t considered that Philemon may have been in on the humor!”

I’m sure that Philemon was in on it. While Paul was at Colossae, they had become good friends. They had worked and prayed, laughed and bantered together before. So when Philemon read (or heard) the letter, he could see the smile on Paul’s face and the twinkle in his eye.

It’s funny, but not frivolous. Paul writes to ask Philemon to risk taking revolutionary action, an action deeply personal, pointedly counter-cultural, and not simply theoretical. Paul pleads with Philemon to take his runaway slave back as a Christian brother. He’s asking him to be a prime example of what he had written to Philemon’s Christian community: “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.” (Colossians 3:11 NLT) As friends often do, Paul uses humor to smooth the way.

Paul starts with lavish praise, highlighting especially Philemon as a model of love who cheers the hearts of his fellow Christians and brings delight to Paul. No doubt it’s true and Paul is warm and sincere. But it’s also too much, too lavish. A lot of us, I’d guess, smile and chuckle when we get exaggerated praise from a friend. We also see caution lights and think, “So where is this going? What does he want?”

Just as the lights begin to flash, the letter turns. “Because you are so loving, I want to ask you to do something. I could insist, but I won’t.” (I paraphrase here and there.) J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase continues here and catches the tone: “No, I am appealing to that love of yours, a simple personal appeal from Paul the old man, in prison for Jesus Christ’s sake. I am appealing for my child. Yes, I have become a father though I have been under lock and key, and the child’s name is – Onesimus!” How he piles on! Loving friend, help this old man, in prison for Jesus, and a new father, no less.

“Onesimus” is startling and fun. That Paul sent the we’ll-never-see-him-again runaway to deliver the letter is mischievous in itself. In the letter Paul uses word-play to great effect: “My son ‘Useful’ (= ‘Onesimus’) has been useless to you, but very useful to me, as if you were here yourself. But I couldn’t do this in secret, behind your back, so I’m sending him (part of me actually) back to you, knowing that he’ll be very useful to you.” Then, still with a smile, dynamite: “Please treat him like a Christian brother, not a slave. … Welcome him as you would welcome me.”

So what do you think? Is Philemon now sucking air, smiling, saying “so this is where that was going!”?

Paul doesn’t put down the humor hammer yet. Still in jail, Paul says, “If he owes you anything, put it on my tab. I’m good for it. I won’t even mention that you owe me your life.” To close, I imagine with a huge grin, Paul taps into his lavish beginning, “Of course, your love is so amazing that I know you’ll do even more than I ask.” And, by the way, “I hope to visit you soon. Get ready.” No pressure.

The setting of the letter also makes me smile. It’s not really a private letter. All the folks who admire Philemon as a model of Christian love will hear it. Probably with Onesimus sitting there.

Paul works Philemon, no doubt. But he does it as a dear friend, full of love and high regard. In that context, he uses humor to wade into deep waters and to give Philemon the insight and courage he needs to do the hard, but right, thing. I’m glad for friends who have done the same for me.


Turkey Calls

March 5, 2012

L. L. Bean Company just sent me their new Hunting catalog. That’s not quite odd; we’re such good friends that they send me all their catalogs – Summer, Men, Women, Children, Home, Christmas, Fishing, Outdoor Gear, and more. But I don’t know much about hunting, except for a few boyhood misadventures I don’t talk about. I don’t need a gun-cleaning kit or, I’m pretty sure, an ambush jacket and pants. Some stuff I don’t need was missing, including AK-47s and deep woods lingerie (maybe that doesn’t make sense in camo anyway).

I smiled, though, to see that William Penn made the Bean catalog. It offered Quaker calls for people who hunt turkeys – the William Penn Slate Turkey Call, the William Penn Twin Hen Cherry Box Call (the prettiest one, I thought), and the William Penn Cherry Owl Hooter. Probably the Pennsylvania company that makes them wants to trade on the Quaker reputation for integrity and quality. I’m glad, and I grin proudly that Beans didn’t offer Baptist Hooters. Then again, maybe Baptists don’t do hooters.

The catalog also showed practical gear for pets. For example, to train hunting dogs they offer Dead Fowl Scent Kits in the choices Quail, Waterfowl, or Grouse. These kits take scent sophistication to levels well above ordinary road kill. The catalog also pictured a Pet Tie-Down device, but it doesn’t look like it would work on top of your car. All in all, this grand collection of hunting gear both entertained and dazzled me.

When catalogs and other uninvited stuff shows up, I often choose being in fun over being annoyed. Fun works better. And I do hope my friends in Freeport will send me Deep Woods Gear and all their catalogs this year.


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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