This is actually Part 1 of 2 parts, the second of which I will preach on next week even though it is the first Sunday in Lent. I have a lot more research and fun stuff I want to share with you.
AliKay Wood posted this article back in the Fall: “It was 45 minutes to my cousin’s wedding reception in Nashville, Tennessee, and my mom was driving. I had my cousin’s vanilla-frosted, two-tier wedding cake on my lap. My mom made a sharp left turn, and the box went flying. The cake was smashed against the dashboard. Frosting was smeared all over the inside of the rental car.
I glared at my mom, ready to let her have it. Then burst out laughing. Not just a few giggles. More like gut-busting laughter. Pretty soon, my mom was laughing too. Tears streamed down our cheeks; we couldn’t have stopped if we tried.
“We made it to the reception and even managed to make the cake look somewhat presentable. Weeks later, though, I was still scratching my head over the incident. Why on earth had I laughed? The moment had been freeing, cathartic. (Perhaps) spiritual. As if the laughter was coming from deep within my soul. Could it be that my laughter wasn’t just a senseless reaction to a potential disaster?
A good belly laugh goes a long way toward making most of us feel better, but is there a spiritual benefit to it?” Could it be a gift from God?” Yes, I believe laughter is a gift from God. What do you think?
“According to a 2011 study from the University of Oxford, laughter triggers the release of mood-boosting endorphins and increases an individual’s pain threshold by as much as 10 percent. In 2005, researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that laughter increased blood flow by about 22 percent.” The researchers suggest 15 minutes of laughter a day will help keep the doctor away.
Did you know that there is such a thing as laughter therapy, using humor for overall health and wellness? The point is to apply humor’s natural physiological process during laughter to help relieve physical or emotional stresses or discomfort. According to helpguide.org, concerning articles about mental, emotional and physical health, “Laughter strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress.” As children we laughed hundreds of times a day but as adults, life has become so much more serious for us and sometimes we forget to take time to laugh. I have observed many people laughing at funeral visitations or during the service itself as they tell humorous stories about the deceased. That relieves stress and grief, at least for a while.
I am actually impressed when people are able to genuinely laugh during difficult times. As Christians we can do this because of the joy that we have in Jesus Christ, our Savior. No matter how awful things get, and even though they may be very difficult to navigate or deal with, we ought to seek to laugh at something humorous because fundamentally we know what awaits us when this life is over and gone.
Father James Martin is a Roman Catholic priest and an author who wrote “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.” He proclaims that the “endpoint of life is joy” for Christians, yet we give sorrow and suffering much more airtime in our lives. That’s not to say that the times of sorrow and suffering aren’t real; it’s simply that we focus so much more on the bad than the good. When there are terrible wars raging, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing wars, conflicts or oppression, scarcity of food or water supplies, lack of shelter during cold weather, death in the streets and schools, riots and so much anger everywhere, it is so very easy to focus on the serious instead of the humorous. However, we could try to at least balance those two behaviors and therefore, improve our own view of life and God’s creation. There is good and humorous all around us, we simply rarely or only occasionally focus on it.
Father Martin believes there is plenty of humor in the Bible such as when Nathanael in the Gospel of John hears about Jesus, he remarks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” That is funny because it is such an exaggeration. Much biblical humor is in the seemingly ridiculous such as when Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” How in the world could those who are meek, we may think of as mild mannered, humble or maybe even weak, be great enough to inherit the whole earth? That’s funny because it turns reality upside down to make a point. And what’s this about a log in one’s eye? One can’t possibly have a log in one’s eye, that’s impossible yet, Jesus’ contrast between a speck in a neighbor’s eye, which we point out to that individual, and a log in our own that keeps us from seeing our own errors, is funny.
Biblical humor can get at a very important teaching by meandering around a bit. One example is found in Matthew chapter 7: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged” – huh?! Well, that means don’t judge so you won’t be judged because if you do judge that will mean however you judge, you will be judged in the same way by God. That’s a funny way of teaching that point even though it gets to a serious conclusion. Jesus teaches this point in a way that can create humorous consternation even in the midst of the weightiness and urgency of the whole matter. Laughter and an important teaching can happen at the side by side.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Think about that story, under all the seriousness it is quite humorous. Jesus is standing on the top of a mountain with Peter, James and John and all of a sudden his clothes start to glow, two dead people, Moses and Elijah, appear and later disappear and in-between they also talk with Jesus, next the disciples want to put up 3 tents for the dead people and Jesus and stay up on the mountain to worship them. That’s funny— all the while instructing on the gravity of proclaiming Jesus’ divinity along with his humanity. After that incredible experience, they all, minus the dead people, must go down the mountain to continue with their ministry. They cannot stay in that mountaintop experience for life goes on.
Biblical humor also deals in contrasts such as in our Ecclesiastes passage: For everything there is a season… a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time for war and a time for peace. Even though these contrasts can certainly be read as solemn matters, we can also notice underlying humor for the contrasts are so extreme. Ecclesiastes isn’t necessarily trying to justify killing and war, or healing and peace, but points out the ridiculous extremes we find within life because of those cycles constantly rotating in and out of our daily living. If we always cry over it all, forgetting the amusing grace of God, we would always be curled up in our beds with the curtains drawn and never go out. Yes, you heard correctly- I said grace is quite amusing- well, think about it! Who of us truly deserves grace? The Bible even tells us that no one but God is perfect. God’s unblemished lamb, Jesus Christ, also God (!) died so we might receive grace even though we don’t deserve it. That can make us laugh with joy at the absurdity of God’s great and steadfast love for us in all our depravity. We can be grateful for that absurdity.
A very good, true story about humorous contrasts is told by Debra Hart who is a nurse, lay minister and member of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. “In 1997,” Debra explains, “(she) found herself alone in a church parking lot, contemplating suicide. She was overwhelmed with grief after the death of a close friend. In the midst of her pain, something remarkable happened.
“As I was thinking about ending my life, a joke popped into my head,” she said. It was a joke she’d heard at church about a man sitting on top of his roof during a flood. A group in a rowboat comes by and offers to help him, but the man replies, “God’s going to save me.” A motorboat arrives, followed by a helicopter. The man’s response is the same. Finally, the waters rise and the man drowns. When he gets to heaven, he asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” God replies, “I sent a rowboat, a motorboat and a helicopter!”
It was at that point that “something inside Hart clicked. Laughter bubbled out, releasing her pain and sorrow. “I kept thinking that I didn’t want to die and then heard God say, ‘I sent you a motorboat!,’” Hart says with a laugh. At that point, she did what she needed to do; she called a psychiatrist and entered counseling. In the more than 20 years since, Hart has made “mirth-filled laughter” the focus of her work. “It’s the kind of authentic laughter that makes your stomach ache,” Hart says. “Several studies suggest that this specific type of laughter can raise your good cholesterol and even lower your blood sugar.” Debra’s ability to laugh in the face of thoughts of suicide is what led her to get help and find a new focus in life. She saw it as a spiritual experience as God guided her to safety and renewal.
Back to Father Martin, who was actually dismayed when he came across so many Christians who assumed their faith was to be strictly serious. He believes a tenet of faith is laughter because the end point of Christianity is joy. He also explains that because the focus of the Gospels in the New Testament is preparing for the death and resurrection of Jesus, we miss the times Jesus is actually humorous. We are reminded that the Passion of Jesus was only one week in his life, a vital one for Christians yes, but only a small, in length, part of Jesus’ story. Don’t forget that Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine- that’s funny! The divine Jesus chose to pick a party for his first miracle and do something that could make people drunk. They had already been drinking and Jesus’ wine was only tastier. If we think Jesus is only serious, then our ability to relate to him in our joy of salvation and as a person of joy is genuinely limited.
Susan Sparks, a former trial lawyer now comedian, lay minister, author of “Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor” explains that laughter is uniquely human. Out of all of God’s creatures, we are the ones that most outwardly laugh and find humor in life. Since we know we are made in the image of divine, then we can deduce that God must have a humorous side too. God did, after all, create the duckbilled platypus and the elephant! Sparks says there is something innately spiritual and fundamentally holy about laughter. It comes from the soul as it’s deep inside of us bursting out in appreciation, joy, wonder and life! In her 10 year battle with cancer, Susan Sparks made every effort to laugh as often as she could. “Being able to laugh in a place of pain was the most powerful thing I could do to take my life back,” she says. “I’m not sure how I was able to laugh in the middle of all that. But it was something I tapped into within myself that helped me survive.” It seems to me that the Holy Spirit enabled her to tap into that laughter even in the midst of pain, suffering, and of stress on body and mind.
In 2005, researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that laughter increased blood flow by about 22 percent. It’s no wonder that Dr. Michael Miller, the study’s principal investigator, recommended “15 minutes of laughter on a daily basis.” So… “Hey, can I get a prescription for that?” Wouldn’t that be great…
Phyllis Diller once said, “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.” And, Ms. Diller smiled that big grin of hers quite often.
To conclude Part 1, the wonderful author, Madeleine L’Engle proclaimed, “A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.” May we all find, and help others find, the laughter to enable healing, goodness, positivity and joy in our lives. May God’s name be praised! Amen.