July 17, 2011

"The Healing Grace of Laughter"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Luke 6:21; Proverbs 15:13, 15; 17:22


One of the most powerful and poetic preachers I know, Paul Duke, was once asked about his sermon preparation.  And he said, “Over one shoulder is the voice of George Buttrick, the great preacher of the mid 20th century, telling him, ‘You can say it better.  There’s a better word, a better phrase, a better image. You can say it better.’  And over the other shoulder is the voice of Grady Nutt.  And Grady is saying, ‘Lighten up!  Tell ‘em a story!’”

I think Grady might also say, “Tell ‘em a joke.” Grady did frame that beautiful line:  “Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world.”  Jesus told the crowd one day, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”  Laughter is a sign of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.  Our world is troubled.  For many of us, our hearts are troubled.  I do not know a person who cannot use a dose of the healing grace of laughter.  Humor helps us bear the pains of life more easily.  Why is that?

In his article, “The Science of Laughter,” neuroscientist Robert Provine of the University of Maryland, suggests that the only truly universal language is that of laughter.  He says:  “Laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together.  It is a hidden language that we all speak.  It is not a learned group reaction but an instinctive behavior programmed by our genes.

Laughter bonds us through humor and play.”  He agrees with the adage that “laughter is the best medicine.”  But not for the physical body.  He says it is the best medicine for sick communities and infected communications.  That’s why societies appreciate comedians so much.  He says the physical health benefits to laughter appear to be only secondary.  He writes:  “Laughter did not evolve to make us feel good or improve our health.  Certainly, laughter has been shown in studies to improve mental and physical health.  But the presumed health benefits of laughter may be coincidental consequences of its primary goal:  bringing people together.  Laughter unites people.”1


Jesus said, Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.  If laughter is indeed a sign of God’s in-breaking kingdom,  what do you say we let the kingdom shine through this morning with a little laughter?


One of the funniest and yet profound preachers I know is Brett Younger.  Brett is the former pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, and is now the professor of preaching at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta.  At the CBF General Assembly a few weeks ago,  I attended his workshop on the Gospel of Mark and I won two books that he and wife wrote on Mark  because I was the champion of a contest of about 50 people on who knew the most about the gospel of Mark.  Steve Clark was in the workshop, so I have a witness.  I say that not to brag, of course,  but so you can rest easy in knowing that your pastor is familiar with the Bible.  If you read Baptists Today, you may be familiar with Brett’s column, “The Lighter Side.”   In a recent column he referenced the commercial about a product most Baptists claim not to care for, but when we are alone we smile at the commercials featuring “the most interesting man in the world” about whom the commercials say:

If he punched you in the face, you would have to fight off the strong urge to thank him. 
He once taught a German shepherd to bark in Spanish. His words carry weight that would break a less interesting man’s jaw.  He’s won trophies for his game face alone.  His parents were named after him.  He is the only person Chuck Norris has apologized to.  When he looks into the mirror, his reflection gives him a thumbs up.  Women leave the seat up for him.  He once fired Donald Trump.  He is the most interesting man in the world.  Each commercial ends with a signature sign-off: “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

Brett Younger has these things to say about “the most interesting minister in the world.”  When the most interesting minister leads a silent prayer, birds stop singing. Other ministers have to lead the prayer of confession because the most interesting minister has nothing to say.  When the most interesting minister reads scripture, most assume she wrote it.  When the most interesting minister has a baby dedication, the baby always cries - when he hands the baby back to the mother.  When the most interesting minister steps into the baptistry, the water parts.  Nine months after her sermon on the Song of Solomon, the nursery ran out of space.  When he preached on the Book of Revelation, it made sense.  When she preached on the war in Iraq, abortion, and gay marriage, everyone agreed with everything she said.  The most interesting minister never preaches long enough.  When he preached on Genesis 3, apple sales plummeted.  The most interesting minister performs the Christmas pageant as a one-person play. The most interesting minister has been to Israel many times, and each time, peace breaks out.  Then Brett signs off: “Ministers, stay interesting.”


Check out this actual email once sent to a pastor.  It reads: I love my golden poodle but I understand he will not live forever.  I told my wife our next dog has to be a German shepherd.  I want to name him “The Lord.”  That way when someone asks whose dog this is I can reply  “The Lord is my shepherd.”  Is this wrong?  The first biblical recording of laughter was when God told Abraham at age 100 and Sarah at age 90 that they would be having a baby, and Sarah laughed.

Phyllis Diller once said: It would seem that something which means poverty, disorder and violence every single day should be avoided entirely, but the desire to beget children is a natural urge.  And speaking of children, Barbara Kingsolver wrote:  It kills you to see them grow up.  But I guess it would kill you quicker if they didn’t.  Sarah laughed at the mystery of it all.  We have our own crazy mysteries. Things like:  If a word in the dictionary were misspelled, how would we know?  Why isn’t phonetic spelled the way it sounds?  Why does your nose run and your feet smell?  If pro is the opposite of con, is progress the opposite of congress?  If Superman is so clever then why is his underwear on the outside?  If a 7-Eleven is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, why are there locks on the doors?  If it’s really a circular drive, how do you get out?


Here are some other humorous quips:  I’m not into working out. My philosophy is no pain, no pain.   I’m in shape. Round is a shape.  I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I should have been more specific. Ever notice that anyone going slower than you is an idiot, but anyone going faster is a maniac? My mother has a passion for exercise.  She started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 now and we have no idea where she is. Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love and got married. The ceremony wasn’t much, but the reception was excellent.  An invisible man marries an invisible woman. The kids were nothing to look at either.  Light travels faster than sound.  This is why some people seem bright until you hear them speak.  We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.  I thought I wanted a career.  Turns out I just wanted paychecks.  Whenever I fill out an application, in the part that says, “In case of emergency, notify:” I put “DOCTOR”

Things not to say to your significant other:          If I agreed with you, we would both be wrong.  I didn’t say it was your fault.  I said I was blaming you.  I asked God for a bike.  But I know God doesn’t work that way.  So I stole a bike and asked God for forgiveness.  You do not need a parachute to skydive.  You only need a parachute to skydive twice.  I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.  Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.  Hospitality is making your guests feel at home even when you wish they were.  When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually use water.  Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.


And to laugh at ourselves:  You might be a (Southern) Baptist if:  You believe you are supposed to take a covered dish to heaven when you die. You think God's presence is always strongest in the back 3 pews. You judge the quality of the sermon by how much sweat the preacher worked up. You are old enough to get a senior discount at the pharmacy but not old enough to be promoted into the senior adult Sunday School class. You think someone who says “amen” while the Pastor is preaching might be a charismatic.  You think that “Amazing Grace” is the national anthem. The first complete sentence you uttered was, “We've never done it this way before.” You once woke up craving fried chicken and interpreted that as a call to preach.


If you have ever pondered the meaning of life, perhaps this imaginative retelling of the Creation story will help.  For those of you who like math word problems, you might want a pen and paper, but it’s not necessary. 

On the first day of creation, God created the dog and said:  “Sit all day by the door of your house and bark at anyone who comes in or walks past. For this, I will give you a life span of twenty years.”  The dog said: “That’s a long time to be barking.  How about only ten years and I'll give you back the other ten?”  So God agreed.
On the second day, God created the monkey and said:  “Entertain people, do tricks, and make them laugh. For this, I’ll give you a twenty-year life span.” The monkey said: “Monkey tricks for twenty years? That’s a pretty long time to perform. How about I give you back ten like the Dog did?” And God agreed.  
On the third day, God created the cow and said:  “You must go into the field with the farmer all day long and suffer under the sun, have calves and give milk to support the farmer’s family.  For this, I will give you a life span of sixty years.”  The cow said: “That’s kind of a tough life you want me to live for sixty years.  How about twenty and I’ll give back the other forty?”  And God agreed again.
On the fourth day, God created man and said: “Eat, sleep, play, marry and enjoy your life. For this, I’ll give you twenty years.”  But man said: “Only twenty years?  Could you possibly give me my twenty, the forty the cow gave back, the ten the monkey gave back, and the ten the dog gave back; that makes eighty; is that okay?”  “Okay,” said God , “You asked for it.” So that is why for our first twenty years we eat, sleep, play and enjoy ourselves.  For the next forty years we slave in the sun to support our family. For the next ten years we do monkey tricks to entertain the grandchildren. And for the last ten years we sit on the front porch and bark at everybody.


For the sake of our harsh world perhaps we should take a hint from Sarah and learn to laugh at some of the crazy things that happen in our lives.  Life can be funny sometimes.  And I think God is often in on the joke.  I think it was Woody Allen who said, “God is a comedian playing to an audience who is afraid to laugh.” 

Laughter is grace.  The laughter that does not ridicule another person, but the laughter that springs from everyday life, the laughter that comes from not taking ourselves too seriously. Laughter is a healing grace.  We do not have to earn it or deserve it.  It often comes when we least expect it.  And the best we can do is enjoy it and give thanks.

I received this line a few months ago attached to the bottom of an Anne-Britton Arnett email:

“What keeps our faith cheerful is the extreme persistence of gentleness and humor.”

Jesus said, Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.


1.  Psychology Today, November 2000