Humor Makes the Serious more Serious

A pastor once told David that humor within a sermon makes the serious more serious. In other words it creates the emotional highs and lows that helps us remember the point of the sermon as well as create receptiveness that inspires change or endurance in doing well.

I have wondered as others have  whether Jesus had a sense of humor and said funny things. (Googling ‘Did Jesus have a sense of humor?’ yielded 10.6 million hits.)  As it turns out, many scholars think so.  Jesus’ use of hyperbole to make a point, the colorful descriptions in his parables, and the fact that he liked hanging out with “sketchy” people at dinner parties probably spoke to a winsome and intelligent humor as well as an appreciation for the delightful in some folks, especially the little ones.  And, we all know that Jesus would have laughed at the crazy viral YouTube, titled, “Charlie bit me.”  YouTube link here if you are one of the only three English speaking people in the world who have not seen this.  (Dave’s note:  Actually there is an Indian and Arabic remix.)

As an aside, my time over the last decade with Palestinian Bible Society staff in the West Bank and Gaza has taught me to expect a lot of laughing, hilarity, antics and teasing (without the booze) when they get together socially; in spite of being a group that has endured much hardship and tragedy.

My personal favorite “funny” from Jesus

log-in-eyeAbout two thirds through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he uses a ridiculous image to drive home his point about hyper criticalness.  David was reading Matthew 5-7 out loud to me the other day.  I laughed out-loud when David read Jesus’ famous ” get the log out of your own eye before trying to get the speck out of your brother’s eye” within the Sermon  (Matthew 7:1-5).  Scholars of Biblical studies and culture think I responded like Jesus’ Galilean listeners and it would have been by design.  Think about it for a minute. Jesus just told people to stop hating, lusting, divorcing, swearing and revenging. He tells his audience that they not only have to love their neighbor but also their enemy and do it with their actions. And He tells them that they should give to the needy but not  let anyone know about it, quit acting so religious, quit storing up wealth on earth, quit worrying and replace worrying with trust – all things we need to hear but when you pile them up all together they can seem a little overwhelming. Just when people were probably finding themselves emotionally and mentally flooded (a psych term) Jesus injected humor.  I like to think that Jesus thought something to the effect of, “hmm, let me break this up with a witty image that will last centuries and prepare these folks to hear even more challenges before I finish off ‘The Sermon’ that will inaugurate a new understanding of God’s ethical standard of living within the Kingdom of God. I know they will laugh but it will  only enhance the point that I have little patience with hypocritical judgmental-ism..

Jesus was no stand-up comic  but he used humor to drive home some tough sobering points that had barbs.

Some interesting facts about laughing from the Mayo Clinic.

In the short term:

Laughter doesn’t just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body:

  • Stimulates many organs.Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.
  • Activates and relieves your stress response.A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.
  • Soothes tension.Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.

In the long term
Laughter isn’t just a quick pick-me-up, though. It’s also good for you over the long haul. Laughter may:

  • Improve your immune system.Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity. In contrast, positive thoughts actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.
  • Relieve pain.Laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers. Laughter may also break the pain-spasm cycle common to some muscle disorders.
  • Increase personal satisfaction.Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations. It also helps you connect with other people.
  • Improve your mood.Many people experience depression, sometimes due to chronic illnesses. Laughter can help lessen your depression and anxiety and make you feel happier.

Spiritual application:

Laugh a lot.  Look for things to laugh about.  Be appropriate and sweet about it so watch out for superior sarcasm and passive aggressive teasing. Laughing with others increases our affection and emotional connection with them.  Above all, take yourself less seriously while taking God, very seriously – then you will be emotionally and spiritually ready to read the Sermon on the Mount. It’s no light read but then again we can handle it if we” first get the log out of our own eye.”

 

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The Storyteller

It is gratifying to tell a story to a sensitive 4-year old. The stories don’t have to be particularly interesting with complicated plots, characters or climaxes. They sometimes don’t even have to be stories at all – just mere observations told with some real or feigned flair. But nonetheless they are received with appreciation and interest.
“Oh, look Marlon (my grandson), there’s a guy smoking a pipe. You don’t see that much anymore.” “Why,” said Marlon. “I don’t know. But my dad used to smoke a pipe but then he stopped smoking it when he learned from the doctor that it was bad for his health.” Health and/or moral lessons can be sneakily introduced this way. That story got retold to his parents later on when I wasn’t there. Too bad, because Marlon got the story understandably mixed up as he thought that I said his dad had smoked a pipe. My son-in-law had to tell him that ” Nonna was mistaken”. Shucks! I had to retell the story with emphasis on my dad, not his. By that time, Marlon was hardly interested in the retelling of a story that only included a change in proper names.

Sometimes my stories generate sympathy and compassion for almost nothing. “Hey Marlon, yesterday, I saw a guy carelessly throw trash out of his car onto the street. Boy, that wasn’t nice, was it?” “Why”, said Marlon. “Well, because we all need to work together to make our roads and communities clean and nice places to live.” Later, Marlon said, “Nonna, I’m sorry that you had to see someone litter from their car.” I was impressed that my non-story had such an impact even while feeling a tad guilty that my litter story had not nearly the emotional impact on me as my grandson assumed it had. Shame on me.

Storytelling is hot at the moment
There are books, seminars and workshops on Storytelling. It appears that we are all desperately in need of hearing a good story or, better yet, to be able to tell one. The goal is to create stories that are interesting, arresting, and even life changing. Libraries, clubs and shows advertise upcoming storytelling events. Good communication and sermons must include stories to hold the interests of its audience. That audience can sometimes be just one person like your spouse or child. This current trend has a way of making Storytelling sound like it’s the newest tool for good communication. It is almost as if before now, we were only communicating in treatises and legalese or worst yet, in grunts, texts and tweets. But Storytelling is hardly new. We have been telling stories ever since we humans have been sitting around camp fires rotisseriz-ing our wild drumsticks. We are hardwired for stories. Oral storytelling has been the ancient way of entertaining and efficiently teaching the younger generation of what was important for group cohesiveness and how to stay alive in a world rife with dangers.

We still do it.

I unfortunately got the “tell scary life stories gene” in spades as my daughters can testify. They are able to retell every, “once there was this person, and they did something and then something really horrible happened to them so watch out” story I ever told them. I am working on suppressing this anxious gene expression for the sake of my grandchildren. In fact, I am hoping to be able to tell them some of Jesus’ stories in winsome and engaging ways. And hopefully, like Jesus, I won’t do my Aesop’s fable-lesson- type-thing at the end of the story to make sure they get the point. Rather I hope to let Jesus’ parables do their own mysterious workings in my grandchildren’s hearts and minds; informing their understanding of God’s love and what He wants of them.

I have been attending to the parables of Jesus for several decades. I am often surprised how freshly they communicate God’s ways and wisdom. ” The prodigal son” (Luke 15) is a personal  favorite  when I am tempted to feel that God  doles out love and acceptance based on performance rather than faith in His love and sacrifice. My latest appreciation of this parable follows, thanks to Kenneth Bailey.

A very incomplete recap of Jesus’ story of the “Prodigal Son”
The story begins with a young adult son or teen who asks for his share of the family inheritance – a request that was unheard of in first century Palestine. The request amounts to a “you are taking too long to die so give me my inheritance now.” Jesus’ audience would have perked up immediately with this story’s beginning as it would have belied the cultural norms right from the get- go. A son behaving in such a way would have been punished but surprisingly the father grants his request and off the son goes to a “faraway place where he proceeds to squander his inheritance on wild riotous living.” Jesus then describes the son’s descent into self-inflicted poverty. Alone and starving the son remembers the stability and comforts of home and decides to take a chance and return. He, too, knows his culture’s expectations of how to treat such a flagrantly disobedient son. But he is desperate.

Jesus’ first century listeners would have assumed the ending to this morality drama. The father who is also a wealthy landowner and by implication a leader and one of the guardians of the community’s stability  would have the son killed, banished or, if inclined to show mercy, treated as an hired servant with no claim to a son’s status or affection. The latter is what the son is hoping for as we listen to his internal dialogue being practiced on his journey back home.: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son: make me like one of your hired servants.” (Luke 15:18-19)

And why not? There needed to be an ending that would help keep the community intact. After all, youth listening to a story like this would need to know that if you break the community’s rules , you could expect to be an outcast. How else would the long held traditions of elder respect and compliance be upheld? How else was a community going to be protected from chaos, corruption, and possible extinction unless the father or community elder did not exact the rules of tribal community survival?  Bringing the erring son to justice was certainly what the Jesus-listeners would have expected.. But no, this is not how this story would end. Jesus, no doubt, surprised his listeners with an ending of unimaginable love, forgiveness, and humility. “But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

I like imagining the father hiking up his long robe to run ( older men in the Middle East don’t run. it is beneath them and invites shame) all the while thinking, “Who cares what the village thinks of me. Let the community be disgusted with my disregard to the village’s rules and let them think I am no longer worthy of their esteemed opinion and respect. I only care that I have my son back and I am going to throw a party!” To add more intrigue to this story, Jesus introduces a third character. The self-righteous follow-the-rules older brother who upon hearing of his loser brother returning and being thrown a party by their father is abhorred and resentful. He complains bitterly to his father for what he sees as an injustice of indulgence and favoritism. The father tries to woo the older son with love, as well. “Don’t you see? You had the benefit of always being with me and enjoying the comforts of home, while your brother was playing the fool and ended up almost starving to death, you had a stable life with friends and beef steak anytime you wanted it.”

Bailey, a theologian and Middle Eastern scholar who I credit for elucidating Jesus’ parables with exciting insights, calls this parable and other parables, metaphoric and deeply theological representations of God’s, “costly demonstration of extravagant and unexpected love.” He states says that this kind of love that only God can offer is for “the law breaker (younger son) as well as for the law keeper (older son in the story).” They both need it and so do we regardless of which brother we identify with.

Read, ”Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes,” by Kenneth Bailey.

Personal application
Is a story told to first century Palestine relevant for us? Well, it depends if you feel a need to be accepted and loved beyond your capacity to be deserving of such love. And it depends on whether or not you believe in a God whom you have let down no matter how little or hard you have tried to be good and self-justified. If you feel such a need as I do then this parable is a tear jerk-er of good news. And for sure it is much better and has more emotional impact than stories of people smoking pipes or even of litter bugs.