Seeing Funny: Word-play

July 31, 2013

A friend recently told me that she thinks I can find humor in almost anything. She made me smile because, for good or ill, I took it as a compliment. She may have been trying politely to get me to change my ways, but I missed the cue and intend to keep looking for funny all the time. It’s one way of living in the spirit of fun, of living playfully even when you’re doing important work. It can give perspective, stir up creativity, and smooth human relationships.

Without offering a full how-to manual about how to see funny, let me use several posts to explore some habits and ways of discovering humor. This essay focuses on word-play as one way to discover humor. Here sometimes others do the work for you; at other times you create funny yourself.

Misspellings. For people like me who are lucky enough to know how to spell, this is way too easy. Bad spelling spreads like kudzu in the world of words, but this aggressive weed gives a million laughs. I especially love mistakes in huge letters on billboards, buses, and trucks. For example, when McDonald’s was introducing Angus burgers to New York, a large sign on local buses read, “BIG APPLE, MEET BIG ANUS.” Not on a bus, but at Amazon, a book reviewer promised enthusiastically to “defiantly be more conscious of the power of laughter at work after reading this book.” Defiance is becoming more common. Also on the web, one writer urged readers to pay attention to the Biblical Tex. (I think I knew him.) And my wife once sent an email about a potluck, promising to bring “defiled eggs.” Yum. I harvest such goodies, but there’s always a fresh supply.

Silly words. Sometimes folks will use words earnestly, but in silly ways. For example, a famous Christian apologist, without cracking a smile, used to speak of “true truth.” That struck me as silly a long time ago, but Stephen Colbert raises this to new heights when he speaks of “truthiness.” He adds sophistication with its Latinate version, “Veritasiness.” You can’t always laugh out loud at earnest folly, but you can shake a little while you giggle. Again, this is pretty easy, since silliness abounds.

Unexpected words. Using a correct but unexpected word can stir up the laughter of surprise. One way is to put words from one context into another where they don’t quite fit. The following wise reminder helped me both laugh and avoid trouble: “You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” In a similar vein, I keep a small bumper sticker in my desk calendar: “wag more. bark less.”

Seizing the awkward, ambiguous, or open-ended. When people put words together awkwardly or don’t clearly say what they mean, they invite smart-mouths to fill in the gaps. Do please note, though, that you don’t always have to share the fun you’re having with other folks’ words, whether out of courtesy or self-protection. One dear friend in the thick of the Seattle-to-Portland bike tour posted on Facebook that the riders were coming to the best part of the route: “No car exhaust, horn honking, or yelling of expletives for 18 wonderful miles!” I asked in response, “Were you required to yell expletives on other parts of the route? I know it’s sort of against your nature.” She thought she needed to be more specific. I think we both laughed.

Puns, malaprops, and other twisted words. Some of us love twisting and re-arranging words in surprising ways, creating laughter with surprising combinations. Mistakes have taught me, though, that it’s good to let the changes go through your brain before they go through your mouth. Puns are fun, even when they’re lame. They keep us in a spirit of play. Malaprops, named after Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s play “The Rivals” (1775), are often unintentional, but can be created for fun as well. It’s simply using words in a ridiculous way, often confusing words that have similar sounds, as in, “Listen to the blabbing brook.” Or, “He was a man of great statue,” and “Make it short and sappy.” A classic example comes from Richard Daley, former mayor of Chicago: “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.”

Using these forms of word-play, and others, can help us see funny. As I write, I also find that they remind me to always proofread. And that, even with proofreading, you often discover errors just after you press send.


The Hilarity of Grace

July 20, 2013

It doesn’t happen only to people who win the one-in-a-million sweepstakes or who finally discover the perfect deodorant. Probably you, too, can remember when something wonderful happened to you, something so out of the blue and too good to be true that you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. If you’re like lots of folks, you probably did both at once. Full of surprise and extravagance, grace can crash in like that, stirring up holy hilarity.

A song and a story from the Bible show hilarity at work. Psalm 126, the song, describes how, after a long exile, the Israelites got to return home. This was so unreal, so amazing, so improbable, they sang, that it seemed like a dream. But, they continued, their mouths “were filled with laughter” and their lips with song and exuberant shout.

The story is about the man, crippled for years, who was healed by Peter and John. (Acts 3) After he stood, walked, and began to jump, he ran through the crowds in the Temple precincts, leaping and shouting praise to God. The Temple staff couldn’t figure out how to handle such displays of visible, exhilarating joy.

In song texts like “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea,” people of faith witness to the extravagance of God’s love. We wonder that God embraces us in love and accepts us in spite of all our defiance, klutziness, and failures. We see in Jesus that God will do anything to say, “I love you.”

Such extravagance, such unbounded and surprising love, should fill our mouths with laughter, pour praise and songs out of our lips. It should stir up holy hilarity. Yet often it doesn’t. Eugene Peterson observes that as a pastor his “most difficult assignment” is to help people develop a sense of “the soul-transforming implications of grace” in a culture that is in “persistent denial of grace.” (in Practicing Resurrection).

Some folks, I’m sure, see themselves as self-sufficient, as self-made, as not needing grace at all. But more folks, I suspect, resist grace, perhaps because of its extravagance. “No, that’s too much; I can’t let you do this.” “No, I don’t deserve this; I don’t want to be beholden to you.”

Still others may receive grace as a burden of duty. They work to become worthy of it or to earn it. Or they may try to scale down its extravagance to make it an acceptable bargain. In doing so, they miss the wonder that grace is not about settling accounts or paying of penalties. God’s grace is about pursuing with love, about wooing the beloved.

How much better if, instead of resisting grace or whittling it down to size, we were to receive it with joy and to share the lavish, undeserved love that God has shown us. Let’s join in the gala of grace, with all the hoopla and hullabaloo and hilarity it can bring. Enjoy it, celebrate it, and share the extravagance of grace with one another and with the world.


[An extended period of public ministry and private travel elbowed blog writing aside for a while. It’s now reclaiming its place. Thanks for your patience. I hope you’ll stop by, put us on your RSS feed, share us with your friends.]


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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