June 22, 2014
I’m sure many of you saw the 1998 movie starring Robin Williams as Patch Adams. It was inspired by the real Dr. Patch Adams and his Gesundheit Institute. Besides being a medical doctor, Patch Adams is a clown and performer. He believes true health care must incorporate laughter, joy and creativity as an integral part of the healing process. Churches are also at their best when their mission erupts from an explosion of joy.
Norman Cousins was Editor-in-Chief for the Saturday Review from 1942-1972. He is perhaps best known for his 1979 book Anatomy of an Illness in which he tells the story of his painful illness from which he was told he had little chance of surviving. He responded with a positive attitude, love, faith, hope and laughter induced by watching Marx Brothers films. He reported, “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter has an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” When he died in 1990, he had outlived his doctors’ predictions by 36 years. He was Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities at UCLA.
Psalm 126:2 tells how when the people of Judah returned from exile in Babylon they sang, “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”
In 1977-78, in my early 30s, I went through a Dark Night of the Soul. Just when I thought I should be hitting my stride, I was deeply questioning my calling. Candy and I were in a small group Bible study, and one evening we discussed Proverbs 17:22. “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” At that point I felt my bones were about as dried up as possible, but somehow that verse opened an escape for me. It took two more years for me to confirm my calling and find God’s place for me to serve, but I have never again gone through that darkness. Even in difficult times, I have been able to claim a cheerful heart as God’s gift.
Laughter has both positive and negative functions. It can be ridicule, disbelief, or humor, surprise, joy or gratitude. The whole range of the functions of laughter tie together the stories of the birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham in Genesis.
Isaac’s name means “he laughs.” Every time his parents called Isaac’s name, they were reminded of all the ways they laughed before and when he was born.
In Genesis 18, The Lord came to Abraham in the form of three men, which some see as two accompanying angels and others as the Trinity, as shown in Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon from a little after 1400. With typical Middle Eastern hospitality, Abraham hurriedly instructs Sarah to prepare a meal for their guests. As they ate and talked, Sarah was listening from the door of the tent. When she heard that she was to bear a son by Abraham, she laughed to herself and said, “After I have grown old and my husband is old, shall I have this pleasure?” (18:12) Her first reaction seemed to be to laugh for the prospect of marital joy. However, with a moment of reflection on the impossibility of conceiving a child, her laughter turned to doubt, and she denied laughing. (18:15) After Isaac was born, Sarah laughed again. (21:6) This time seems to be laughter at the maternal joy of having a child and the status it gave her in among the women who were laughing with her in communal affirmation.
The Lord had previously appeared to Abram in Genesis 17 to change his name from Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, which means “Father of a Multitude.” Long before Fathers’ Day got on the greeting card and goofy gift calendar, Abraham became the quintessential father. His name change was a confirmation that a son would be born to Sari who would fulfill God’s covenant promise. God also changed Sari’s name to Sarah. Both mean “princess,” but Sarah connoted becoming the mother of nations, kings and many peoples. At this, Abraham laughed first, before Sarah. (17:17) With incredulity he questioned how God could accomplish this, but apparently didn’t doubt that God would accomplish it. Abraham was laughing again when Isaac was born, and named him “he laughs.” (21:3) This laughter was exuberant wonder at what God had done.
Have you ever gone to the zoo, and while looking at some of the strange animals said to yourself, “God must have quite a sense of humor.” I frequently comment on God’s sense of humor when I see the bewildering twists and turns of life fit together in unexpected purpose. The New Testament never describes Jesus as laughing, though in recent years a number of artists have portrayed him that way. Perhaps Luke 10:21 comes closest to Jesus laughing when he rejoiced, thanking the Father that the mysteries of redemption had been hidden from the wise and intelligent and revealed to infants such as his disciples and us. Certainly, some of the images in Jesus’ parables were humorous and got a laugh such as a camel going through the eye of a needle. Sometimes Jesus’ humor had a bite such as calling Herod a fox.
In Luke’s account of the Beatitudes, Jesus did say that those who weep now will laugh, and those who are laughing now will someday weep. (6:21,25) This kind of laughter comes from God reversing our human expectations and lifting up those who are beaten down.
Jesus echoed Ecclesiastes 3:1,4. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: … a time to weep, and a time to laugh.” He was encouraging hope for those who are weeping, that their time to laugh will come. And he warned those who are laughing in smugness or derision that their time to weep and mourn is coming. Though he didn’t use the word laugh when answering those who criticized his disciples for not fasting as the disciples of the Pharisees and John the Baptist did, in all three synoptic Gospels, Jesus defended his disciples for rejoicing while he, as the bridegroom, was with them. (Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19; Luke 5:35)
While the three lost and found parables of Luke 15 use rejoice rather than laugh, I must imagine the shepherd laughing when he recovered his lost sheep and the woman laughing when she found her lost coin, and how could the party thrown by the father to welcome the Prodigal Son home not have included laughter?
Churches are at their best when their mission erupts from an explosion of joy.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned some of the unusual “exercises” at the 1801 Cane Ridge Revival that helped spawn the Disciples of Christ. Uncontrollable laughter was one of them, which has shown up in other times of revival. You may remember the news splash made by the “Toronto Blessing” of “holy laughter” that started in 1994. I don’t know how to evaluate all of these, but the kind of laughter tracing to the birth of Isaac is a joyous response of awe and wonder that God is active among us.
Sometimes we can get so intensely serious about our church work, thinking we have to make it succeed by our sheer exertion, that we smother the joy of watching God’s power among us. In her June 11 blog (About.com Christianity), Mary Fairchild wrote, “I grew up in a large Italian family that loves to laugh – out loud. I have one uncle who laughs so loud that it used to scare my childhood friends. This uncle was born with a serious disability, but he has lived more than 40 years beyond his doctors’ expectations. My favorite teachers were the ones who made me laugh. I am always eager to learn from my pastor who laces his messages with humor, because the laughter opens my mind and my heart to receive.” Like Mary Fairchild, I’m not a particularly good joke-teller, but I do hope you feel free to laugh when something in one of my sermons seems humorous.
Krish Kandiah is Executive Director for Churches in Mission in the United Kingdom. He wrote about what it means to be an apostolic church in the June 2014 Christianity Today (pp. 47-49) Though his quote of British missiologist Lesslie Newbigin doesn’t use the word laugh, I think it speaks powerfully to the importance of laughing with God as this congregation moves into a new era of mission with a new pastor.
"There has been a long tradition which sees the mission of the church primarily as obedience to a command. … It tends to make mission a burden rather than a joy, to make it part of the law rather than part of the gospel. If one looks at the New Testament evidence, one gets another impression. Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy."