By Alan Scott
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis in April, I met a good friend at a restaurant because we could. We needed to. But nobody else was there. I felt fear and dread still creeping through the streets as I trekked toward our favorite eatery.
A masked host seated us at properly distanced chairs outside on a patio. Apparently, innumerable state restrictions allowed restaurants to open, but with all the fun taken out.
It was weird.
But sitting outside in the warm sun and laughing wasn’t weird. I thought of Paul’s great theological words, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Laugh, you jokester! Don’t make me tell you again! Smile, you who rise from humus (earth). There is humor in dirt filled with the very breath of God.
Being open for business, I discovered, is no laughing matter. Maybe it should be.
I’m concerned our dosage of humor has been lost in our numbing search for a COVID prescription.
Sherry and I were happy to make a run to our local Sprouts health-food store, but we found mostly gloom next to the bananas that have always been good for a slapstick laugh or two.
Earbuds and AirPods are preventing us from hearing a good joke. Ray-Bans are shielding our eyes from the obviously funny. And now, under presidential orders, our mouths and noses are covered by masks that have stolen the gift of smiles and lockjawed our laughter.
Aubrey Menen wrote, “There are three things which are real: God, human folly [sin], and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third.”
Many people are seeking hope from a creator who is above and beyond a viral fray. Sin and a broken world are what ultimately landed us in quarantine. But who will dare to laugh through all of this?
Of course, there must be ample time given to mourning and crying and humility. But even Jesus, after preaching the beyond-difficult Beatitudes, said, “Rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12). In other words, laugh.
We’ve been given new life. For me, that is funny! It’s the thing of grace that tickles my imagination. Evagrius, a fourth-century monk, labeled this as hilaritas—a blessing that is essential to life, even for a monastic monk!
I dare not be accused of being a dark and robed monk who neglects the serious ministry of being hilarious. Plastic vomit may very well be an effective tool in the hands of a holy God.
The church has been placed smack-dab in the middle of the chaos, pain, hurt, disease, and confusion of a global pandemic. Of course, our faith calls us to mourn with those who are grieving. But shouldn’t we also concern ourselves with an outbreak of joy? It is, after all, our strength if it comes from the One who formed us with humus and humor. I tend to rest better when I know God created me with a smile, if not a belly-bustin’ chortle.
G.K. Chesterton once instructed C.S. Lewis (oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that meeting), how the laughter of joy was necessary. “Life is serious all the time,” he quipped, “but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as death, sex, and religion), you must have mirth or you will have madness.”
Without joy, there is madness. Without smiles and giggles, there is only death.
Who will join me in a revolution of joy? I’m not sure I’m fully prepared to lead such a call to arms. I tend to reserve my best jokes and hilaritas vulnerability for those who are closest. I will joke and dance and guffaw with those who understand my humor, because they also understand my pain.
But perhaps a revolution requires me to go beyond myself. The grace and gospel of Jesus, which takes a mess like me and forms a new creation, does just that. Grace is not only serious theology, but it also laughs in the cringing face of the evil one, who works daily to keep me from humming, smiling, and snorting out loud.
Yesterday, Sherry and I walked and joked about the mating techniques of cardinals. You had to be there . . . and I’m glad I was. My kids were laughing last night as they shared a love seat and funny memes. I listened to their hooting and smiled as my head sank into a pillow. My two glorious pranksters are 18 and 21. My best friend at the empty restaurant laughed with me and never at me. Perhaps for these reasons I woke up this morning with the Holy Spirit guiding me like a rubber chicken into the depths of joy.
So many among us look toward a vaccine as our only solution, but I’m raising a banner that shouts, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Look it up. The health benefits of snorting and snickering include decreasing stress and increasing blood flow. Let’s at least try to solve our immunity problem with a good knock-knock joke. Joy helps us to process oxygen better, and it loosens our bowels. The temptation for bathroom humor is overwhelming, but that is not my point.
My point is joy. The joy of the Lord can become my strength, sort of like how an arrow through the head became Steve Martin’s signature gag. My attempt at stand-up is this: In the same way the church began serving the disheveled when our world went into a pandemic, maybe we should allow for holy laughter to help get us out.
My suggestion is joy. Laughter. Rolling on the floor. Amusement. Doubling up. Cackling and giggling until we are crying. After all, joy is, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, the serious business of heaven.
One final, seriously funny thought comes from Frederick Buechner and his book, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. Get a load of this!
The place to start is with a woman laughing. She is an old woman, and after a lifetime in the desert, her face is cracked and rutted like a six-month drought. She hunches her shoulders around her eyes and starts to shake. She squinnies her eyes shut, and her laughter is all wheeze and tears running down as she rocks back and forth in her kitchen chair. She is laughing because she is pushing 91 hard and has just been told she is going to have a baby. . . . The old woman’s name is Sarah, of course, and her old man’s name is Abraham, and they are laughing at the idea of a baby’s being born in the geriatric ward and Medicare’s picking up the tab. . . . Maybe the most interesting part of it all is that far from getting angry at them for laughing, God told them that when the baby was born, he wanted them to name him Isaac, which in Hebrew means laughter. So you can say that God not only tolerated their laughter, but blessed it and, in a sense, joined in it himself.
Alan Scott is the lead pastor of Crossview Christian Church in Waynesville, Ohio, and the author of I Quit Being a Christian to Follow Jesus. He appreciates the comedic help from Dr. Terry Lindvall and his hilarious article “The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” available at www.cslewisinstitute.org.