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A pastor arranged for the installation of sanitary hot air hand dryers in the rest rooms at his church but after two weeks he had them removed. A colleague asked him why and he confessed that they worked fine, but when he went in one of the restrooms, hung by the hand dryer was a sign that read, "For a sample of this week's sermon, push the button."
Holy Humor Sunday. It goes back a long way. In the 1200's, Orthodox Christians often celebrated the resurrection of Jesus for the entire week following Easter Sunday to the next Saturday. The customs were rooted in the musings of early church theologians (big names like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom) that God had played a wonderful practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. "Risus paschalis," the Easter laugh," the early theologians called it. "Bright" week was filled with parties, picnics, feasts, joke-telling, and good-natured pranks. Other Christian traditions held parties on the day after Easter ("Bright Monday") as another way of giving thanks for the good news of Easter. Sadly, between the efforts of such folks as Pope Clement X, who prohibited such practices, and the Reformers, who were so serious about everything (admit it...ever seen a picture of Calvin or Knox smiling?), the laughter soon went out of Easter.(1) Too bad.
Our denomination has never been known as a particularly joyous one. According to a book I read sometime back called How to Survive Being a Presbyterian,(2) we sometimes operate as if we are in a humor-free zone. "It's been said that Calvin put a man in jail for three days for laughing in church and some reports have it that he sometimes woke up in the middle of the night worrying that, somewhere in the world, someone was having a good time...A few physicians - of other faiths, of course - say that many of us suffer from a wonderfully-named condition known as anhedonia, the incapacity for experiencing happiness." Hmm.
But we are getting some better. About twenty years ago, a group called the Fellowship of Merry Christians (which includes a few of us Presbyterians) called attention to the fact that these joyous observances of Jesus' resurrection had been sorely neglected by the modern church and began encouraging us to resuscitate the old customs. And today, more and more churches are doing just that.
And why not? Is not the God we worship the one who "sits in the heavens and laughs," according to the psalmist?(3) Doesn't our Bible tell us that "a cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones?"(4) And if someone like the Apostle Paul is willing to be a "fool for Christ's sake,"(5) then maybe it is time for us to bring back laughter and joy into the house of God. That is the purpose of Holy Humor Sunday - to continue the energy and enthusiasm of Easter, to continue to sing the glad songs of life and hope, to celebrate God's grace flowing out of the darkened tomb.
I know very well that the idea that laughter, joy and good fun do have a place in worship still shocks some people, who believe that what we do in church is serious, sober business. They are not comfortable with reverent dance presented as praise, or with any sort of revelry or festivity during church services. Faith and fun do not mix.
Truth be told, they come by that attitude honestly. We can catch glimpses of it in the gospels when the disciples tried to chase away children coming to Jesus for a blessing. They wanted nothing interrupting the day's schedule; there were more important things for Jesus to be doing than spending time with the children. You remember the story. When Jesus saw what was going on he was indignant and said, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs."(6) Jesus welcomed the children, adjusted his schedule for them, accepted their eyes of wonder, giggles of shyness and unabashed curiosity and openness. He blessed them and their playful presence.
Jesus had a delightful sense of humor, which I am convinced, is part of what made him attractive to kids. Jesus' illustration of someone trying to call attention to a tiny speck in a neighbor's eye while a whole log is hanging out of his own eye is one example. Elton Trueblood wrote a whole book entitled The Humor of Christ that was inspired by that passage. He says,
The germ of the idea which has finally led to the writing of this book was planted many years ago when our eldest son was four years old. 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.(7)Sometime back there was a letter in the paper to Dear Abby and the headline read, "Church applause welcomed as joyful noise to the Lord."(8) It was in regard to a previous letter from an individual who had complained about clapping in church. One of the responses was from Ronald C. Bauer of San Juan Capistrano, California. He wrote:
I have been an Episcopal priest for 33 years, ministering to the "frozen chosen," as others call us. I began ministerial life as a cleric believing in the rectitude of proper demeanor in worship. This meant that a show of joy or emotion was forbidden. After looking for years out at a congregation and seeing the frustration on the faces of those who wanted to join in an expression of appreciation for some moving sermon, reading, choir anthem or instrumental piece, I have been converted. In the Old Testament, worshipers are taught: "Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy," (Psalm 47:1). In other passages, all of creation is to praise God with clapping and singing. Psalm 98:8 says: "Let floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy."Good answer. Joy is God's word to us today. The late Pope John Paul II wrote, "Christ came to bring joy...In a true sense, joy is the keynote of the Christian message and the recurring motif of the Gospels...Be messengers of joy." Yes, there are gracious plenty heartaches and sorrows out there, and no one knows that better than a church congregation, which experiences all the tragedies, troubles, setbacks and concerns of an extended family. That is precisely why we need joy, and its companion, humor, so very much.
Abraham Lincoln, despite being caught up in the midst of the most disastrous war this nation has ever experienced, and despite fighting his own private war with depression, was well-known for his sense of humor. There was a story that circulated around Washington during those years concerning him and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Two pious Quaker ladies were discussing the relative merits and prospects of the two leaders. One said, "I think Davis will succeed because he is a praying man."
The other replied, "But so is Lincoln."
The first responded, "Yes, but when Abraham prays, the Lord will think he's joking."(9)
Once at a Cabinet meeting, the president read aloud from a humorous book. The Cabinet members were amazed; not one of them even smiled. "Gentlemen," Lincoln asked with a sigh, "why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh, I should die. You need this medicine as much as I do." We know.
Laughter is good for us; laughter releases tensions; laughter can cause creative outbursts; laughter can bring about a positive outlook; laughter does every single one of us a world of good! The Navajo have a special rite of singing and dancing to celebrate the first laugh of a baby.
In one of the well-loved American folk tales of Uncle Remus, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear have got Br'er Rabbit in a serious predicament. They've got him tied up and are preparing to roast him for their supper. Just as they place Br'er Rabbit over the fire, he begins to laugh.
This just does not seem right nor proper to Br'er Fox. He takes it upon himself to impress upon the rabbit the seriousness of his situation. But Br'er Rabbit continues to laugh. He cannot help it, he explains. He is thinking about his laughing place.
Say what? Br'er Bear's curiosity begins to get the best of him. He blurts out that he has got to see this "laughing place." He is so insistent that he convinces even Br'er Fox to go along with it. The two of them cut Br'er Rabbit loose, and order him to lead them to his "laughing place."
Br'er Rabbit leads them on a winding path through the forest. He really does not have a "laughing place," of course, but he has to figure out some way of escaping. Finally, he spots a hornet's nest in some dense brush. He points to the brush, saying, "There it is. There's my laughing place!"
The impetuous Br'er Bear rushes in. In no time at all, he has the hornet's nest caught on his head. The angry insects rush out, attacking both him and Br'er Fox. As Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear are busy evading the hornets, Br'er Rabbit runs free.
Later on, Br'er Bear catches Br'er Rabbit again. He says, "If this is the laughing place, I ain't laughin'!"
Br'er Rabbit replies, "I didn't say it was your laughing place. I said it was my laughing place!"
At this point, the cloud of angry hornets catches up once again to Br'er Bear and Br'er Fox, who have no choice but to let Br'er Rabbit go as the hornets chase them off into the sunset.
Everyone needs a laughing place, a place that gives joy. For Christians, the laughing place is the empty tomb of Jesus. It took Mary Magdalene and the other disciples a little while before their fear and confusion turned to laughter -- but once it did, that laughter spread, infectiously, around the world.(10)
Several years ago, the Reverend Sylvia Guinn-Ammons served as moderator of the Presbytery of Denver, Colorado. In her installation address, she offered the gift of good humor during her time in office, encouraging all the officers in the Presbytery to begin each meeting with prayer and good humor, a joke or happy story to make committee members smile after saying 'Amen.'
Sylvia went on to say, "The best evangelism in the world is laughter, a church laughing - not naïve tittering, not sarcastic boisterousness, not angry irony, but deep, joyful laughter from the pit of our being...laughter which has suffered from the consequences of evil choices and found redemption and newness of life through the cross of Jesus Christ, laughter which remembers tears, yet knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are not to fear, for Jesus, God's good-humored Christ, has overcome the world."(11)
1. Thom Shuman, "The Immediate Word," for 4/23/06, http://www.csspub.com/tiw.lasso
2. Bob Reed, (New York ; Writers Club Press, 2001), p. 171
3. Psalm 2:4
4. Proverbs 17:22
5. 1 Corinthians 4:10
6. Mark 10:13-16
7. Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 9
8. Milwaukee Sentinel Journal, 2/7/98, p. 1F
9. Clifton Fadiman, Gen. Ed., The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1985), p. 358
10. "The Immediate Word"
11. Katherine Fagerburg, "The Playground of God," sermon, 8/1/04, http://www.southchurch.org/sermons/08012004.htm