Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

August 17, 2008: “Religion IS a Laughing Matter”

Depending on ones point of view, I am either cursed or gifted with my sense of humor; perhaps it’s the same thing. Try as I might, I just see humor in so much of life, but I don’t want to be a comedian, I am a minister. Yet I have always found a sense of laughter in the divine as well. Humor is dangerous, subversive, and often irreligious, yet laughter surely must be from the gods and hence the person who evokes the laughter must be religious ! When I went to seminary to become a UU minister after discovering UUism in a lay led fellowship I returned to serve there and be ordained there. One of the older teenagers, due to my sense of humor called me after my ordination, the irreverend. What I don’t mean, however, is that we should make fun of religion or of peoples belief to be disrespectful or hurt them. I believe that poking fun is not hurtful. I believe that all religion has a common denominator, though it is not all the same or alike, nor does it all believe in the same God, as some attempt to say, but all religion attempts to find meaning out of life for its followers. I am also one who enjoys the jokes about us UUs, whether from Garrison Keillor or one of my colleagues.

There is the story about the Catholics, the Jews, and the UU's hearing the awful report from the world scientists that Global warming was even worse than we eared and that the polar ice caps were melting due to the warming of the atmosphere, and that there were only thirty days before the entire earth would be under water and all life extinct. The Catholics looked at each other and said that would have to hold continuous masses and provide a lot of extra opportunities for people to go to confession. The Jews took deep breath and said that they too would hold continuous services at their synagogue and would be reading and rereading the Torah. Finally the UU's looked at each other, and said," Well, we've got to hurry, too. We only have thirty days to learn how to  live under water!

It seems that there was a woman who went to a department store to but material to make a nightgown to entice her "significant other" who was a Unitarian Universalist. She found a bolt of blue chiffon and took it to the cutting station. The clerk asked her how many yards she would like for her nightgown, and the woman replied, "Thirty yards, please." the clerk was confused and said, "Your partner will never find you in thirty yards of material." The woman replied that that was ok because her partner was UU and had told her that UU's would rather search than find!

There is a Yiddish Proverb that says, What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul. I think the reason that comedy clubs attract more young adults than churches do should be obvious. Some people think that Sunday morning church is the penalty for going out Saturday night. Churches and synagogues and perhaps especially mosques are not known for their humor.

Its something like what former Prime Minister Lloyd George once said about his childhood view of religion. "When I was a boy the thought of heaven used to frighten me more than the thought of hell. I pictured heaven as a place where time would be perpetual Sundays, with perpetual services from which there would be no break. It was a horrible nightmare and made me an atheist for ten years."

Yet often humor helps us hear things that we don't hear if were defensive or angry or fearful. Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously, we take our religion too seriously and miss what is really going on around us. Sometimes our way of being religious is irrelevant to the needs of others:, like in this story:

Two students at a Baptist seminary in Alabama decided they would spend their summer doing evangelistic work in the rural area around Montgomery. One hot day they stopped their car in front of a farmhouse and proceeded up the path through a gauntlet of screaming children and barking dogs. When they knocked on the screen door, the woman of the house stopped her scrubbing over a tub and washboard, brushed hair and perspiration from her brow and asked them what they wanted.
 "We would like to tell you how to obtain eternal life," they answered.
 The tired homemaker hesitated for a moment and then replied, "Thank you, but I don't believe I could stand it!"

There are examples of different religious traditions using humor. In the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism, the holy fool, Nasruddin, often also called the Mullah, sometimes acts more like a heretic or unbeliever - like this story;

One day Mullah Nasruddin saw the village schoolmaster leading a group of children toward the mosque.

"What are you taking them there for? he asked.

"There is a drought in the land," said the teacher, "and we trust that the cries of the innocent will move the heart of Allah."

  "It isn't the cries, whether innocent or criminal, that count," said the Mullah, "but wisdom and awareness."

"How dare you make such a blasphemous statement in the presence of these children!" cried the teacher. "Prove what you have said, or you shall be denounced as a heretic."

"Easy enough," said Nasruddin. "If the prayers of children counted for anything there wouldn't be a schoolteacher in all the land, for there is nothing they detest as going to school. The reason you have survived those prayers is that we, who know better than the children, have kept you where you are!"

Or Hinduism: One day [a disciple] was going along the road when an elephant broke loose and was charging towards him. He just stood there, looking at the elephant, saying to himself, All this is Brahman. Nothing can happen to me.
 The elephant took him up in his trunk and threw him off by the side of the road, where he was picked up unconscious. They brought him back to the guru and the man complained to him, You said all is Brahman. I thought the elephant was Brahman; how can this hurt me?
 The guru replied, Yes, but the mahout who was riding the elephant was shouting to you to get out of the way, and he also was Brahman.

The story from Zen Buddhism-about a great Zen Master- who was questioned about what happens after death, and he replied that he didn’t know. The student was flabbergasted and said, How can that be? You are a Zen Master!
Yes, he replied, but I am not a dead Zen Master.

Humor and laughter allows us to relax and sometimes hear a message we might not be otherwise open to. Laughter makes us, well. in plain, nonscientific, non religious terms, feel good, and if that's not part of what religion should do, what is?

A very spiritual, devout and holy priest dies and is immediately swept up to heaven. St. Peter greets him at the Pearly Gates, and says, "Hello, Father, we've been waiting for you for a long time. Welcome to Heaven!"
"You are very well known here, and as a special reward, because you are such a spiritual and holy man, we're going to grant you anything you wish even before we enter Heaven. What can I grant you?"
"Well," the priest says, "I've always been a great admirer of the Virgin Mother. I've always wanted to talk to her."
St. Peter nods his head to one side, and lo and behold who should approach the priest but the Virgin Mary!
The priest is beside is himself, and he manages to say, "Mother, I have always been a great admirer of yours, and have studied everything I could about you and followed your life as best I could. I have studied every painting and portrait ever made of you, and I've noticed that you are always portrayed with a slightly sad look on your face. I have always, always wondered what it was that made you sad. Would you please tell me?"
 "Honestly?" with a little pained grimace on her face. "Well, I was really hoping for a girl."

The honesty of children often amuse us especially when the talk about religion and we find what they really believe, and what they really have comprehended about what we or others have taught them. One of my favorite sources is Children's Letters to God:(Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall)

Dear God, Do animals use you or is there somebody else for them?

God, It s ok that you made different religions but don’t you get them mixed
up sometimes.

Dear God What does it mean you are a jealous God? I thought you had everything.

Did you really mean do unto others as they do unto you, because if you did I’m going to fix my brother.

Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy.

SO many of these actually raise questions that some us still have. Some parts of religion that don't make sense, or sometimes we find people who take themselves so seriously that we want to poke fun at them to let out some of the hot air! Religion should not be full of hot air!

....A storm was raging at sea, and the captain saw that his small ship was sinking. He called over the roar of the waves, "Does anyone aboard know how to pray?"
  One sailor stepped forward and said, "Aye, Captain, I know how to pray."
 "Good," said the captain. "You pray while the rest of us don our life jackets. We're one jacket short."

.....A woman and her grandmother--a very forgiving and religious soul -were sitting on their porch discussing a member of the family. "He's just no good," the young woman said. "He's completely untrustworthy, not to mention lazy."

“Yes, he’s bad,” the grandmother said as she rocked back and forth in her rocker, “but Jesus loves him.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” the younger woman persisted.
“Oh, yes,” assured the elderly lady. “Jesus loves him.” She rocked and thought for a few more minutes and then added, “Of course, Jesus doesn’t know him like we do..”

Laughter should be part of religion because laughter can be part of a healing process, perhaps as much as prayer, maybe more depending on your belief!

Psychologist Wayne Dyer points out: It is impossible for you to be angry and laugh at the same time. Anger and laughter are mutually exclusive and you have the poser to choose either.
And the great comedian Groucho Marx. said: "A clown is like an aspirin, except that it works twice as fast."

There is even an article that just looking forward to laughing is good for you.  Just anticipating a happy, funny event can raise levels of endorphins and other pleasure and relaxation-inducing hormones, and lower production of stress hormones. Those who knew in advance they would see the video started experiencing biological changes right away. These findings were reported by Berk at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Orlando, Florida.   (.--Looking forward to a laugh? Good for you... by MAGGIE FOX, Reuters, Nov. 06, 2002  WASHINGTON - Laughter may be the best medicine, but even looking forward to having a good laugh can boost your immune system and reduce stress, according to US researchers at the University of California-Irvine.)

Imagine, if people started feeling better just looking forward coming to church every Sunday!

On one web site about humor and cancer which was called Humor Your Tumor; Psychoneuroimmunology and Humor;(July 1999) By Paul McGhee, Ph.D.

III. Impact of Positive Emotion on Survival

"Laughter in and of itself cannot cure cancer nor prevent cancer, but laughter as part of the full range of positive emotions including hope, love, faith, strong will to live, determination and purpose, can be a significant and indispensable aspect of the total fight for recovery." -Harold H. Benjamin, PhD

I used to take a class in Family Systems Theory for Clergy at a Lutheran Church in San Antonio taught by a Lutheran Minister who was a Certified marital and family therapist. ; it was held in the middle school RE classroom, full of those traditional Christian Sunday school posters of the 10 Commandments, etc, but one handwritten sign by an obviously fed-up teacher, who obviously wanted the kids to be serious in a room that reeked of seriousness!

It read, with almost angry letters: How We Will Read The Bible-
  1. When the Bible is read, there will be NO talking or horseplay
  2. Listen
  3. Whoever is reading must stand
  4. Whoever is reading the part of God must stand very carefully on a chair.
    One would think that if one were reading the part of God, one should have a good sense of balance, but apparently not. We’ve probably heard of the work of Patch Adams, from that wonderful movie of the same name, starring one of the patron saints of comedy, Robin Williams. Or how about the phenomenal success of all things, a radio show coming out of the Midwest, Prairie Home Companion, in the age of computers, but where Garrison Keillor, like a preacher himself during his It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone. monologue-cum-sermons. That has been going on for what 30 years or more? It like church or even better for many folks. I’ve often wanted to do a kid of worship service on Sunday morning that was half as inspirational! Laughter is deep and powerful medicine, is spiritual nurturance, I believe, and leaves us feeling good, feeling relaxed, yea, even comforted in those times of stress. One of the articles told of a Methodist minister who had been in a serious accident and had to spend several weeks in the hospital. He had a lot of pain, and was given shots to reduce it. The procedure was always the same. When the pain got bad enough, he would ring a buzzer near his bed, and a nurse would soon come to give him the shot. One day, he rang for the nurse and then rolled over on his side (with his back to the door), pulled his hospital gown up over his exposed backside, and waited for the nurse to come in. When he heard the door open, he pointed to his right bare buttock and said, “Why don’t you give me the shot right here this time?”

After a few moments of silence, he looked up. It was a woman from his church! Following a brief embarrassing conversation, the woman left, and the minister–realizing what he had done–started laughing. He laughed so hard that tears were coming out of his eyes when the nurse arrived. When he tried to explain what had happened, he began laughing even harder.

    When he was finally able to tell the nurse the whole story, what do you think he noticed? His pain was gone! He didn't need the shot, and didn't ask for one for another 90 minutes.

Those of you who talked to me during my recent trials of Job and hospital stay know that my sense of humor saved my sanity and perhaps helped others as well. I know the nurses usually enjoyed my company! There were countless times when I could have responded with anger and impatience, but I have found that if I can find a way to make people laugh in telling the story that it makes me feel better to. Oh, I have to be careful not to avoid feelings r to suppress them, but to try to work through them with humor and understanding Some theologians say that the true message of the story of Job is that really sometimes we just don't really know why there is suffering and God doesn't either! Its not Gods fault! Indeed, since I believe that God is another name for the transforming power of love, and relationship, I don't expect a supernatural being to punish or reward me, to cause me suffering or give me pleasure. Life is bittersweet and is a combination of both; sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down. To everything there is a season...

Both religion and medicine could do with more laughter and joy, then. The doctors, surgeons often did not know what exactly what was the matter, what was causing the infection or even exactly what to do; perhaps, the laughter did as much as the antibiotics.

When we think of humorous people like Bill Cosby, or Will Rogers- who once said: There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you- or Mark Twain, who once said, It ain't the parts of the Bible that I don't understand that bother me; it's the part that I do understand that bother me! And so many others that often leave us happily exhausted after laughing so much, we usually think of them with much affection, because we like how they help us to become happier after laughing! Yes, and sometimes it is laughing at our own foibles. After all, the words- humor, human, and humus and yes, hubris- are all related!

Someone once said, A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour. Did you know that some scholars translate the Sermon on the Mount using the word happy rather than blessed? Does it give new meaning thinking of the teachings of Jesus as something that might make us happy? That happy and blessed are the same idea? Go therefore and spread the happiness, share the laughter, bear the pain, and may church make you smile.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace, Love, hugs and much laughter be yours…