Sunday, June 18, 2017

He Laughs

In his masterful work One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Dr. Seuss, one of the great seers of our time, states, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”  From George Carlin’s observation about ‘Jumbo Shrimp’ to a typical shopping experience at Wal-Mart, I think he is right.  There are funny things everywhere.  Some things are funny because, well, they are funny.  If you enjoy a good laugh every now and then you might consider following the Facebook page of St. Paul’s own Jerry Bangley.  He posts several humorous items a week, often with the warning “Bad Joke Alert”: 

What did Cinderella say when her photos didn’t show up?  Someday my prints will come.”

Why did Mozart kill all his chickens?  Because they went around going Bach Bach Bach.

Have you heard about the new restaurant on the moon?  The food is great but there’s no atmosphere.

Other things are funny because they boggle the imagination.  An old woman overhears three strangers tell her even older husband their childlessness will come to an end within a year and she laughs.  It is not a laugh of joy, but rather disdain.  It is a response to the incredulous.  The thought of her deepest pain being healed and her sharpest heartache being soothed at such an old age rightfully elicits a scoffing laugh. 

But these strangers are no strangers at all.  They are a manifestation of the Godhead and God’s promises are anything but laughable.  Abraham and Sarah conceive and she gives birth to a son.  They give him the name Isaac, which in Hebrew means “he laughs.”  Sarah then offers one of the best personal testimonies ever uttered:

“God has brought laughter for me;
     everyone who hears will laugh with me.
  Who would ever have said to Abraham
     that Sarah would nurse children?
     yet I have born him a son in his old age.”

There is an old Jewish proverb that holds as soap is to the body, so laughter is to the soul.  Anne Lamont says laughter is carbonated holiness.  The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said “humor is a prelude to faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”  Dostoyevsky offers this insight:

If you wish to glimpse inside a person’s soul and get to know the person, don’t bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, or seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you’ll get better results if you just watch him laugh.  If he laughs well, he’s a good person…  All I claim to know is that laughter is the most reliable gauge of human nature.

Laughter, it seems to me, is intricately connected to joy.  I might amend One Fish, Two Fish to read, “From there to here, from here to there, joyous things are everywhere.”  It seems to me three things help us find joy. 

The first is getting older.  Aging has a way of freeing us from the expectations we impose on life, thereby helping us to accept life on its own terms.  Some people know how to do this from an early age.  If you do, you are truly blessed.  But my story is one of finding joy as I learn to let go of my own terms and conditions in order to embrace what is already at hand.  I think it is significant Sarah learns to laugh in her old age.  Remember how she offers her servant Hagar to her husband so he can have offspring through her.  Prior to Isaac’s birth she is so busy trying to manage her future she cannot enjoy her present.

The second key to finding joy is simplicity.  The more complicated you make your life, the more driven you are, and the harder it will be to catch a whiff of the scent of the roses as you pass by them.  The more cares you have, the less free you are to find joy.  Now, some cares are imposed on us.  We simply cannot walk away from the responsibility of raising children, caring for elderly parents, or keeping vigil with a friend in crisis.  But many, many of our cares are born of choices we make (and can unmake).  We make life so much harder than it has to be, and when life is hard it is difficult to find joy, and when it is difficult to find joy, laughing can be a struggle.

The third thing necessary for finding joy in life is faith – faith in a God who infuses goodness and beauty all around us.  In the quest to find joy it helps to have faith there is joy to be found.  The author of the wonderful 42nd Psalm says,

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
     and why are you so disquieted within me?
  Put your trust in God;
     For I will yet give thanks to him,
     who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

What is the relationship between your faith and your countenance?

Much of our 375th Anniversary weekend is a blur in my mind.  It all went by so fast.  But I have three distinct memories.  The first is from Saturday morning when I came over the church to get something and encountered the crew Kacky Gallotta assembled to set up and decorate the Parish Hall.  It was a huge task and could have been marked by anxiety and pressure, but everyone was having such a good time helping our church to put our best foot forward.  The Parish Hall was a place of joy and laughter. 

My second memory is seeing our children dancing in the balcony during Mountaintide’s performance.  Again, joy and laughter.  And my third distinct memory is passing the peace at the 10:30 service.  I will never forget the look on the bishop’s face after I gave the instructions.  I think he thought I was out of my mind (well, he knows I am, but this was just more hard evidence).  But once the balloons started flying, he got it.  And he got in the spirit of it by fetching his crosier and using it to bat balloons high in the air.  Joy and laugher, laughter and joy, there and here and everywhere.

Your parish Vestry met last Monday night while some of our Food Pantry volunteers finished up some of their work in another part of the building.  The next morning one of them remarked to me, “There sure was a lot of laughter at the Vestry meeting last night.”  And indeed there was, but not that much more than usual.  Your parish leaders lead with laughter.  They work hard, give tirelessly of themselves, make good decisions, and all the time are deeply in touch with the joy permeating our parish family and life. 

I have a vivid memory of a Lenten program I put together many years ago.  Its theme was drawn from a phrase in the proper preface for Lent that says, “prepare with joy for the Pascal Feast.  Now this was well before the internet or powerpoint or any of the other forms of technology we use today.  So I set out for an entire year to read every day every comic strip in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.   I clipped out every comic touching on some aspect of faith, God, the church, prayer, etc.  I then grouped them thematically, through a process I can no longer recall transferred them to overhead projector sheets, added in some bible verses and wisdom from the saints and, voilĂ  – a Lenten program.  One elderly man who attended without fail was dying of cancer and yet there he was with an oxygen tank by his side laughing and laughing and laughing at the comic strips.  His wife approached me with tears in her eyes to thank me for helping him to find so much joy at the end of his life.  As I remember it, he died some time in the Easter season of that year, but I can still hear and see him laughing and I am proud to hold it as one of the 10 best things to come out of my ordained ministry.

Someone once observed “a smile starts on the lips, a grin spreads to the eyes, a chuckle comes from the belly; but a good laugh bursts forth from the soul, overflows, and bubbles all around.”  If this is true, and I think it is, every good laugh is a deeply soulful, spiritual moment.  I would like to think at the heart of the perfect relational harmony that is the Holy Trinity there is a lot of laugher.  And I believe every time we laugh we approach (perhaps unknowingly) a central characteristic of the God we worship and adore this morning.