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The Tranquilizer with No Side Effects

August 20, 2006

Proverbs 17:22

I love this moment. The choir members settle back in their seats. People across the congregation adjust their hearing aids, some up, and some down. Parents reach for Lifesavers and magic markers. You wait. You wait to see if the man standing up front, shuffling cards like a riverboat gambler, has anything to say. I love this moment, but I also dread it. A kind of fear goes along with this moment, a fear that one day I am going to stand up here, look out over the congregation, and have no message for you. I come to this moment pretty much the way you do. I come with a sense of anticipation, wondering what the Lord has for us. I must tell you that sometimes I am surprised.

On Monday morning, I gave to Jan Greene a sermon title and scripture reference. By Tuesday, I was not so sure that I would preach on that particular topic and passage. It was not until Wednesday that I knew for sure the topic of the sermon today. I first got an inkling about the topic when Clare shared with me a little saying she found on the Internet: “Laughter is to the spirit what soap is the body.” That statement implies, of course, that laughter has a cleansing quality. Then I heard an interview between Pope Benedict and German reporters in which the Pope talked about how important it is for him to see the funny side of life. He commented, “I am not a man who constantly thinks up jokes, but it is very important to be able to see the humor and joyful dimensions of life. We must not to take everything quite so seriously, view everything quite so tragically. Having that attitude is necessary for me and for my ministry.”

I started thinking about the Christian experience of laughter after hearing the quote Clare found and listening to this interview. Then when I took my clothes to the dry-cleaners, a member of our church handed me a printout of bloopers that have appeared in church bulletins. Listen to this sample.

– The fasting and prayer conference on Wednesday will include a meal.

– The morning sermon will be “Jesus Walks on the Water.” The evening sermon
is “Searching for Jesus.”

– Our youth basketball team is back in action on Wednesday night in the
Recreation Hall, playing the Episcopalians. Come out and kill Christ the King.

– Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It is a chance to get rid of those old
things not worth keeping around the house. Be sure and bring your husbands.

– The peace-making meeting scheduled for tonight has been canceled due to
conflict.

– For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery
downstairs.

– Next Thursday, there will be try-outs for the choir. They need all the help they
can get.

– At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be “What is Hell?” Come
early and listen to our choir practice.

– We need to purchase eight new choir robes due to the addition of several new
members to the choir and the deterioration of some older ones.

– Please place your donations in the envelope along with the deceased person you
are honoring.

– Weight-Watchers will meet at 7:00 P.M. on Wednesday night. Please use the
large double-doors.

It is fun to laugh. Reader’s Digest says, “Laughter is the best medicine.” I did not know until after the early service that this month’s issue devotes itself to laughter. I cannot wait to read that issue. It is good that I had not read it prior to today’s sermon. We would have gone on forever with humorous stories. The Bible also says laughter is good for us. Our scripture today, Proverbs 17:22, says, “Laughter does good like a medicine.” Laughter is vital to your Christian faith and to your life. Laughter really is good medicine, a tranquilizer with no harmful side effects. It helps us with our physical health, our emotional health, and our spiritual health. God gave us a gift of grace when He gave us the ability to laugh.

One of the first stories in the Bible concerns an old couple, Abraham and Sarah, who were childless. Finally, strangers arrived, announcing to Abraham that Sarah was pregnant. Sarah, in the kitchen making bread, laughed when she received that message because she was ninety years old. Maybe you are not ninety yet, but some of you are approaching that age. Would you laugh if you found out you were pregnant at that age? Sarah did. When her child was born, she gave him the name Isaac, the Hebrew word for laughter. Laughter is a gift from God.

Elton Trueblood, a Quaker, has written in his book entitled The Humor of Christ, that most Christians miss the humor of our Lord. Ordinarily, we do not think of Jesus as a man who laughed; but Trueblood says that scripture contains many examples of his humor. This humor is difficult for us to understand because it appears in an unfamiliar form called Aramaic hyperbole, or exaggeration. For example, in talking with the Pharisees about their dietary laws, he said, “You are so careful that you will strain out a gnat. You pour liquid through a piece of cheesecloth to be sure that no insects, considered unclean animals, are in your drink or soup. You strain out a gnat, but you will swallow a camel.” Think about pouring yourself a bowl of cereal for breakfast and seeing a big lumpy camel fall out in your bowl. The exaggeration, which is so preposterous, reveals the humor of Jesus. Another example of Aramaic hyperbole reflecting his humor Jesus stems from his growing up in a carpenter’s shop. He told the Pharisees, “You will look for a speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye, but you have a plank sticking out of your own eye.”

Richard Hook has created one of my favorite portrayals of Jesus. His captivating portrait depicts our Lord as a strong, robust man. He shows Christ’s Jewish face with a big grin. We do not ordinarily think of Jesus in that way, but I am certain laughter must have been a part of his life.

Some children are born with a congenital deformity that affects their facial muscles, making it impossible for them to smile. Doctors have now developed a delicate surgery that can correct that inability. The surgery completely changes their disposition, their attitude toward life. Of course, it also changes the way other people, even their own parents, respond to them.

Norman Cousins was able to hold off a debilitating illness for more than twenty years with the help of laughter. Diagnosed with a muscular skeletal disease, he thought that laughing a little would probably help him cope with his illness. He and his good friend Allen Funt, who developed the Candid Camera program, obtained the approval of Cousins’ physician. For about three hours a day, the two friends sat together in a room and watched old Candid Camera clips. They also watched comedies featuring such actors as Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and the Three Stooges. Cousins’ laughter actually reversed some of the debilitating effects of his disease. He wrote about the positive effects of laughter in his book The Anatomy of an Illness.

That book prompted an examination of the beneficial effects of laughter in retirement homes. Researchers divided residents of various homes into three groups: one that saw only current news clips, another that viewed only tragic films, and a third that watched only comedies. The studies indicate that those who laugh seem to have a better attitude and disposition, as well as generally better health.

Laughter, a gift God has given to us, affects every part of our lives, even our physical well-being.

A pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, went to visit a member of his congregation who had had radical surgery for terrible throat cancer. Because the surgery completely altered his appearance, the man became a recluse, refusing to leave his home.

The pastor told the man during their visit, “I want you to go to the grocery store with me.”

The man answered, “I am not going to do that. I do not want to show my face in public.”

“Let me tell you something,” teased the pastor. “You didn’t look so good before the surgery.”

That comment startled the man, but he agreed to accompany the pastor to the store. This first step encouraged the man to go out in public and to attend church again. When he noticed that people were somewhat alarmed by his appearance, he would say something like, “I’m sorry I don’t look so good, but according to my pastor, I didn’t look that great before the surgery. This is about the best I can do.” He took his facial appearance in stride because he was able to laugh at it.

That is real humor. I am not talking about Don Rickles’ humor, which is cutting and demeaning or Joan Rivers’ humor, which is belittling. I am talking about the ability to laugh at the important things in life and especially the ability to laugh at ourselves.

I suppose Abraham Lincoln, who served during a time of civil war, had as much stress as any president this country has had. Lincoln asked that every morning he receive the latest political cartoon drawn by Thomas Nast. One day Lincoln was laughing at himself depicted in a Nast cartoon as Edward Stanton, the Secretary of War, stood nearby. Stanton was probably well suited for that position. He was reported to wear a scowl most of the time. He did not like Lincoln very much. Lincoln looked up at him and asked, “Why don’t you laugh? If I did not laugh, I believe I would lose my mind.” The president knew that all of us need laughter. It really is a kind of tranquillizer, one with no harmful side effects. It is helps us face the difficulties of life.

A friend of mine pastored a church in eastern North Carolina. One day he received a call from a church member, asking him to be at the family’s house that afternoon when the school bus came. My friend discovered that a dump truck had hit and killed the family’s pet beagle, Barney. Each morning Barney would follow the little boy to the bus stop, and then return in the afternoon to greet the child. Barney and the little boy would walk down the long road and play together as they made their way home.

On this particular day, the little beagle followed his nose right into the road after the little boy left on the bus. A dump truck hit Barney, killing him. The mother was quite concerned about telling her son that his dog was dead, so she asked this pastor to come to the house and explain the death.

The little boy knew immediately that something was wrong because Barney had not been waiting on him as usual. When he saw the pastor’s car in the driveway, he came inside and asked, “What’s wrong?”

My friend started talking excessively, trying his best to soften the blow. He was so young, right out of seminary. Green as a sapling, he did not know what to do or what to say. The pastor actually said things he did not believe. Finally, he told the little boy, “Barney went out into the road, and a truck hit him. Jesus took your dog to heaven.”

When he finishing explaining, he asked, “Son, do you have any questions?”

Crying and sniffling, he asked, “Yes, pastor, why would Jesus want a dead dog?”

Even in grief, we have reason to laugh. I have repeatedly found that when people are grieving, humor helps ease the sorrow. Some people think laughing at a funeral is unusual. You have been to enough funerals of our church members to know that we try to laugh during funerals if it is appropriate.

Nobody loved life and any more than my father-in-law, Mr. Jack, did. We loved each other very much, and we enjoyed sharing humor. He could make a meal last for hours, piddling in his food and telling stories. Being with him at a meal was like playing in a ping-pong match. We would go back and forth, swapping stories. Storytelling was just a part of the meal.

About two weeks before Mr. Jack died, he was anticipating his own death. I was at his bedside, and he said, “Kirk, this path is getting pretty narrow. I don’t believe there is any room for me to turn around. After my death, I want you to find the ledger in the top right-hand drawer of my desk. It will provide every detail you need to know.”

After his death, Clare, her mother and brother, and I found the ledger on the desk and removed two letters. Mr. Jack had written on the outside of the envelopes that I was to read one immediately and the other after his funeral service. The first letter contained instructions for me about how to perform his service. He warned me that I would probably have trouble getting pallbearers. He wrote, “A lot of the people on the list should be my pallbearers, but since many owe me money, but they might decide not to come to the funeral. They might not even be sober for my funeral. Just go out in the street and find some people. Pay them $10 a piece and ask them to carry me out if you can’t get these guys to do it.”

At the funeral home, we decided on a beautiful wooden casket. Mr. Jack loved working with wood, and we thought that type of casket would be appropriate. We then had to choose a vault.

The funeral director pointed out, “This is our top-of-the-line model. This is mid-range, and this is the bottom-of-the-line vault.”

I asked, “What is the difference in the three?”

He explained, “The top-of-the-line model comes with a life-time guarantee.”

Confused, I asked, “What does that mean? Whose lifetime are we talking about here?”

He replied, “I don’t know what it means. That is just what they told me to say.” We bought the bottom-of-the-line model.

When digging Mr. Jack’s grave at Emory United Methodist Church in Saluda, the crew hit a granite slab about three feet down in the ground. Since the workers could not go through the rock, they opened the grave next to Mr. Jack’s, lowered his casket in the ground, and slid him over to his grave underneath that granite slab. During his funeral, I shared these stories about the vault and the complications with digging his grave. People laughed. They still tell me, “I wish I had a tape of that funeral. That was the best funeral I have ever attended.” Our laughter was so befitting for this man’s life. He would have absolutely loved the service.

Following the funeral, we returned home. I opened the ledger a second time and read the other letter to Clare and her mother and brother. Mr. Jack had written a very sweet love letter to his wife and children, a letter again salted with humor. I particularly remember reading several lines: “Lib, I have tried to provide for you. I believe you are going to be fine, but there is not enough money for live-in boyfriends.” I read this letter just within a few hours of Mr. Jack’s funeral. He loved laughter. Even after his death, he gave us this gift of laughter. It is amazing that the book in the Bible that mentions laughter more than any other is Job, the book we identify with unrelenting suffering.

Morningside has a clown troupe called the Morning Glories. Though currently inactive, the group could begin this ministry again. We certainly have enough people in this congregation who like to clown around and have fun. The motto of the troupe is “Laughter is God’s hand on the shoulder of a troubled world.” Laughter is a gift of grace. Laughter is a gift you want to give to others. Laughter is not just a cheer-up message; it comes from taking seriously the things of life.

My favorite story is about a man who had a long commute to work every morning. He had to drive his automobile down the New Jersey turnpike, park his car, and catch a ferry to take him over to the big city of New York. In the evening, he had to make the return trip. One morning, he was running late. He drove as fast as he could, but traffic was slow. Reaching the parking lot near the ferry later than usual, he jumped out of his car, grabbed his briefcase, and looked down the ramp at the ferry, which was just a few feet away from the dock. He started thinking, “I was a high school athlete. I believe if I run as fast as I can and jump as far as I can, I can make it to the ferry.” The man began sprinting down the ramp, with his necktie flapping in the breeze. He reached the edge of the ramp and jumped, landing with both feet right on the ferry. Pleased with himself, he kind of caught his breath, straightened up, and then realized that the ferry was coming toward the dock instead of going away from the dock.

The best laughter of all is when we laugh at ourselves. The ability to laugh at ourselves is the key to real humor. It helps us physically. It helps us emotionally. It also helps us spiritually. Humor and faith are first cousins. Reinhold Niebuhr, a great theologian, said that humor has the same function of faith; it gives us new insight into the things of life.

When Clare and I were visiting a garden during a vacation, we saw a statue of a Buddha, one of those statues of a pot-bellied man with a smile on his face. Somebody commented, “You need a statue like that in your garden.” I answered, “No, we already have a smiling pot-bellied guy in our garden.” Of course, I am talking about myself. Laughing at yourself is real humor.

If humor and faith are closely related, and they are, do you see that prayer and laughter are first cousins? When we laugh, we laugh about the things that are most important to us. When we pray, we pray about the things that are most important to us.

One of my friends, Paul Condey, worked as a chaplain for juvenile delinquents in an institution. Toward the end of his term and the beginning of my service there, we had a few days of transition. Paul had recently received a seminary degree, and I asked, “Paul, what are you going to do now that you have your degree?”

He explained, “I am going to join the rodeo. All of my people from South Dakota are rodeo people. Kirk, they don’t have a pastor, so I am going to be a pastor to them.”

“Will they pay you for doing that?”

“Oh, no. I’ll have another job.”

I asked, “Are you going to ride bulls and horses and rope calves?”

“No, I’m going to be a rodeo clown.”

“Paul, if you are going to be a rodeo clown, will people listen to you when you stand up to preach?”

“Oh, yes. A rodeo clown jumps in the ring and distracts the bull or bronco so that the cowboy can scramble to safety. As a clown on Saturday nights, I actually put my life on the line to save the lives of cowboys. I can guarantee you that when I stand up to preach on Sunday mornings, they are going to listen to me.”

Humor and faith go together. They are not opposites; they are first cousins. Laughter and prayer are closely related. My favorite beatitude is not one found in Matthew 5. Jesus said in Luke 6:21, “Blessed are you who weep now, for then you shall laugh.” Laughter is a gift of grace. It is a gift that every single one of us needs. It is a gift from God. Uncle Remus says that everybody needs a laughing place. I agree, and I would suggest to you that you will find that place smack-dab in the middle of your faith.

Do you know Jesus Christ? Have you accepted him as your Savior? This journey of faith begins with that step. If you have never made that decision, we want to invite you to ask Christ Jesus into your life. Some of you know that God has led you to Morningside. He wants you to anchor down here, to be a part of this church family. We invite you to respond as God leads as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Room at the Cross.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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