catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 12 :: 2005.06.17 — 2005.06.30


Holy laughter

People often ask me how my wife and I manage to work together all day, every day. The truthful answer is that I don’t know exactly; I don’t have to think about it. But I suspect that a lot of it has to do with laughter. Humor permeates and leavens our lives.

Even before we were dating, I found reasons to be around Amanda because of her humor. The best way I can think to describe it is “unhinged.” Not only because it was unpredictable and rambunctious, but for the way it seemed to take the world apart at its seams and let inside new rays of light. Her jokes and observations would always blindside me, jostling me from my usual vantage point and opening up a new perspective. I wanted to get on the same wavelength as her, to tap into the energy and liveliness that was missing in my safely boundaried life.

It is sometimes hard to find God in our laughter, especially within the context of a single joke. We might wonder if it’s OK to laugh, what God might think of us because of what we find funny. It doesn’t seem to honor God if we giggle about bodily functions, sexual relationships, or the fallen human condition. But good humor does the job that the court jester did for the kings of yesteryear: deflate the ego and let us see things more as they are. Jesters were the only ones in the kingdom allowed to speak the unvarnished truth before the king; the more painfully sharp their observations the more they were applauded. Jesters were there to remind the king that he was human, warts and all. Good humor strips us bare, points toward the artifice we construct around ourselves, what we try to get away with, and calls us on it. How embarrassing! And yet how freeing to know we all do it. The truth is often easier to swallow when salted by wit.

As I’ve found in my marriage, God reveals himself in our laughter on a broader scale, in the way humor shapes our lives and brings us together. If we are to be the joyous people of God, if we are to honor the way he created us, if we are to be peacemakers and healers in this world, we need laughter.

We need laughter because it is healing. God created our bodies to rejuvenated by a good fit of laughter; studies have shown that laughter boosts the immune system, increases blood-vessel flow, reduces the stress hormones, and engages more areas of the brain than any other activity. When the Bible says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine,” it is being quite literal. It’s a battery recharge, a weapon against the burnout we find so often in churches. It’s a gift we can bring to others who are in pain and hurting, who need more than benevolence and well wishes. It’s a way to be healthy and whole, a way to live out our freedom from sin by living joyously.

We need laughter because it is human. Across all cultural, language, and geographic barriers, a smile communicates happiness and enjoyment. When we smile and laugh with each other, we convey our warmth and acceptance. So often as Christians we like to throw money, time, and service at people who are hurting and think we have done our duty. We rarely give the time and attention it takes to joke around with them, to make them feel heard, make them feel human. We like to give them words and principles, but rarely share with them the more physical embodiment of love—a hearty laugh, a good cry, a warm embrace. Kindness can be anonymous, but to make someone laugh always requires presence.

We need laughter because it extends grace. When we fail, we can shake it off with a laugh and try again. Amanda and I lead a church small group with a great sense of humor, and it helps balance what could be a very legalistic trek though daily Scripture reading and weekly spiritual goals. We each have our ups and downs, but laughter helps see us through. Our pastor also has a strong humorous streak, and it has helped guide our church through a lot of growth and transition. Laughter diffuses tension and keeps frustration from escalating. Good humor keeps things in perspective and smoothes over the rough patches. It says we accept one another, imperfect as we are.

Why, then, are Christians some of the last people known for their humor? Why is our caricature that of a stern, dour churchgoer who shrugs off frivolity? Why do we tsk-tsk most of the comedy we find around us and limit ourselves to a collection of bad puns on church signs?

The only reasonable answer I can find is this: Humor is very subjective. Different cultures have different sorts of humor, different frames of reference, and different vantage points on life. Humor isn’t always going to translate across countries, or even neighborhoods or churches. In contrast, truth is objective. We believe that the saving grace of Jesus Christ is the same from country to country, from generation to generation. We would not want to put off someone to our message just because he or she differs from our sense of humor.

But the answer is not to be humorless. As with everything else in our lives, we must approach God with all that we have and all that we are. We meet God in our particular neighborhood, with our particular baggage and our particular set of friends. We do not wait around to be shaped into cookie-cutter Christians, but we learn to incarnate the love of God right where we are. We bring our gifts of humor to bear upon the Christian life, to fulfill the missions we have as God’s people.

There are other, less reasonable answers to Christian sourness, most of them extending from the blasphemous notion of a dualistic split between body and soul. As this Hellenistic view began to replace the Hebraic view of wholeness and unity in our created beings, early Christians grew to distrust all that is pleasurable, festive, and playful. This spiritualized, remote way of viewing the world says: “How can you laugh when the world is in this depraved condition?” But when we see our redemption not as an escape from the physical realm but a restoration of the life God wants for human beings, we must ask: “Without joyous laughter, how will the world be restored?”

This is where we can meet God in our laughter. We can let our world be unhinged and let in the streaming rays of God’s illuminating grace.

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