Simple, Enduring Tools

November 1, 2013

In my post “The Humor of Christ,” I briefly listed several practical insights that professor Elton Trueblood passed along to me and to many other students at Earlham School of Religion. Several of these simple tips have helped me so much over the years that it seems right to share them a bit more fully, hoping that they might become practical tools for you, too.

Welcome ideas. When they knock, open the door and invite them in. Be gracious, listen to them, and write them down right away. Always carry paper and pen (I use 3×5 cards or, having forgotten, whatever I can get my hands on instantly – napkins, visitor cards, printed programs, sugar packets, etc.). Stop what you’re doing, even if you have to excuse yourself politely, and write it down now. Without such hospitality and attention, good ideas may just go away and never come back. I know from experience that ideas wander – or stalk – off, and I gained new resolve when I learned that Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, always tucks a note card and ballpoint pen in her jeans pocket when she goes out to walk or run.

Tend your writer’s garden. Elton was an Iowa farm boy, so he knew how crops and gardens work. In a garden, sometimes you plant different crops at different times. Crops grow and mature differently, so you do what each requires. Some need weeding or cultivating or thinning while others may be maturing and ready for harvest. The projects in a writer’s garden grow and change as well. Some may require just continuing to drop notes in a file. Others may have burgeoning files that are ready for harvest. Of course, you always hope that mature crops and deadlines arrive at the same time. Even if the metaphor breaks down here and there, I have found this a very useful way to think about multiple writing projects and other sorts of projects as well. Elton harvested  a book a year for about 35 years, so I’m sure it worked for him.

Self-index your reading. Most books have enough blank pages at the back to make a few notes. Use them to note the passages that have captured your attention or deepened your insight. I mark a lot in books, and I create my own index for portions I think I’ll want to find again. It helps later both in finding portions you want to use and in enjoying again books you’ve come to treasure. To feign being digitally savvy, I’ll confess that people who use these new-fangled e-readers can also highlight portions, make notes, and easily review them later.

Keep a fuller calendar. Elton did not urge us to cram our calendars full of more activities. With the phrase “fuller calendar” he urged us to get to our calendars before other people did. Think of the things that are important to you and consistent with your goals and energies. Then write them in the calendar and honor them. It might be family birthdays, a personal retreat, or periods devoted to particular projects. For me, when I look at the rhythm of what I’ve already committed to do, it sometimes means writing “no” over an open weekend into which I dare not jam more activity. When I have kept a fuller calendar, it has opened up my life.

Use prime time for prime tasks. We all have different rhythms of when we can bring our best attention and energy to our work. Elton’s advice was simple: plan to do your most important work in the times you know you work best. From both success and failure, I know how useful this is.

Stay acquainted with Jesus. Elton lived aware of the Present Christ, the Christ who walks alongside and lives within. To nurture that relationship, he also read 8-10 verses each day from the Gospels, and he often marked and dated what he had read. Remembering his practice has often reminded me of how important it is to listen steadily to the early witnesses to what Jesus taught and did.

I’m grateful for mentors along the way who have shared wisdom generously. No doubt you are, too. Some of my readers also learned from Elton and will know that I’ve left something important out (like getting a good night’s sleep, which I too often neglect). Others will remember gems from other mentors. I’d love to have you share some practical tools with us all.


“Have I Told You about My Pancreas?”

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.)


The Comfort of St. Dymphna

July 16, 2012

For twenty years now I’ve cherished the St. Dymphna card that colleague John gave me when I left Friends University. John was a great teacher, and he kept such accurate and entertaining minutes of faculty meetings that we all insisted he continue that rare work. But even more, despite that he was more handsome and smarter than I, John was a great friend with a wonderful sense of humor.

My mostly Quaker upbringing left me clueless about the company of saints who might come to our aid, so to me Dymphna was a mystery woman. The prayer on the back of the card gave a hint: “Grant that… those who suffer from nervous and mental illness everywhere on earth may be helped and consoled.” “I recommend to You [Lord Jesus Christ] in particular (specific name, like mine)….” Dymphna turned out to be the saint who aids and comforts the mentally and emotionally ill, and when John thought of her, he thought of me. I’ve kept the card nearby all these years, hoping that she might indeed help. Without her, I might have been worse.

I thanked John, of course, not knowing for sure whether this was a joke or an act of love. Looking back, I think it was both. We shared a great laugh, but we also shared a bond. Humor can deliver a big hug instead of a sucker punch. Robust teasing and story-swapping, without sneaky sharp edges, can build friendships. Exaggerated praise can get laughs. I recently got to compliment a colleague for being the greatest institutional tech guy in the universe, more lavish acclaim than the award he had received, but warmly received. The playfulness of creating humor together through puns, trading laugh lines, and sharing funny cartoons or quotations helps deepens our life together.

For me, seeing youngsters learning to use humor reinforces the importance of modeling humor based on kindness and love. Sharp, destructive humor so dominates our culture that it easily misleads young people (and, frankly, all of us) about how to use humor to build friendships and to enjoy one another. Timely teaching and stellar examples can point them toward life-giving humor habits.

I thank God for friends like John. Sadly, I’ve lost track of him, though last I knew he’d left “The Pearl of the Plains” to work in Kansas City. By now he may have become the president of a Catholic university, or maybe he’s doing stand-up comedy on the Bingo circuit. Or both. If I’m lucky, someone will tell him I’m talking about him and we can reconnect. Is there a saint for that?


The Humor of Christ

April 23, 2012

Among other delights, my recent visit to Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana prompted me to give thanks again for all that Elton Trueblood tried to teach me. My gracious hosts even let me spend time in the Teague Library, Elton’s cottage office, where we met in classes, worship, and conversation. There I recalled again many of Elton’s practical insights: Writing can expand your Christian ministry. Welcome ideas when they show up; write them down immediately before they slip away to find a more eager host. Tend your writer’s garden with its seasons of seeding, weeding, and harvest. Keep a “fuller calendar”; get to your calendar before other people do, write in what’s important to you, and honor it. Through these and other practices Elton has continued to teach me, and I’m grateful.

I’ve also remembered Elton’s storytelling and laughter while reading again his book The Humor of Christ. It was an unlikely and ground-breaking book in 1964, and it probably only exists because Elton’s four-year-old son Martin laughed at the wrong time. Elton explains: “We were reading to him from the seventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, feeling very serious, when suddenly the little boy began to laugh. He laughed because he saw how preposterous it would be for a man to be so deeply concerned about a speck in another person’s eye, that he was unconscious of the fact his own eye had a beam in it. Because the child understood perfectly that the human eye is not large enough to have a beam in it, the very idea struck him as ludicrous. His gay laughter was a rebuke to his parents for their failure to respond to humor in an unexpected place. The rebuke served its purpose by causing me to begin to watch for humor in all aspects of the life and teachings of Christ. Sometimes this did not appear until the text had been read and reread many times.” (9)

He is an astute reader, paying careful attention to nuance, context, and humorous device. Elton argues that Jesus’ humor is both widely used and widely neglected. He shows how Jesus used a strategy of laughter to make his message vivid and effective. Actually it was pretty easy. The Pharisees who kept an eye on Jesus had self-importance and hypocrisy enough to give him plenty of raw material. Trueblood then devotes chapters to gathering examples of how Jesus used humor in irony, in parables, and even in banter in conversations.

At several points Elton explores texts that are “endlessly perplexing,” such as the story of “the unjust steward” and Jesus’ dialogue with “the Canaanite woman.” (See my earlier post, “Imagine Them Smiling.”) These make more sense (or make sense at all), he says, when they are seen through the lens of humor. I think I see a twinkle in his eye when he gives examples of interpretations “solemn commentators” offer for such texts, all the while uncomfortable in their “learned squirming.” The solemn solutions are so often embarrassing that they strengthen Trueblood’s point. An appendix lists thirty passages in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) for readers to explore on their own.

The Humor of Christ is now almost fifty years old, but it still lays a strong, thought-provoking foundation for discovering humor in the Bible. Because Trueblood pays close attention to the biblical text, many writers continue to rely on its insights. Frankly, I suspect Elton was surprised to write this book. I’m glad Martin laughed.

A shout-out: The copy of the book that I now use was given to me by Lee Nash. Lee was an amazing man – my dean, a colleague, gracious friend, traveling companion, and book-lover extraordinaire. His handwritten note still lives in the book and reminds me how much I miss him.


Heaven and Oats

March 12, 2011

My dad, Mahlon Macy, passed away this week at age 88. Dad had a great sense of humor and loved to tell jokes. One he told often before he could no longer tell jokes was about an older couple who were thrilled at their recent arrival in heaven. “This is wonderful!” he marveled. “And to think we could have been here sooner if we hadn’t eaten all that oat bran!”

I’m thinking Dad has already told that joke a few times, maybe even to friends who had already heard it.


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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