by Barbara Glasson.
I told my suitcase that we couldn’t go on holiday this year – now I am living with emotional baggage…
One of the more curious features of lockdown is the plethora of jokes about our shared situation. Some of these jokes are simply a chortle and the way we negotiate the current landscape, others are more barbed, like the one of a plane taking off and the caption ‘Dominic Cummings popping out for a newspaper’.
Religion on the other hand, it appears, has taken itself very seriously. Maybe we can trace this back to Puritan roots? To be a believer has been a rigorous thing, requiring discipline, concentration and obedience. The General Rules first laid down by Wesley for the societies, discouraged ‘such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus’. Protestant restrictions go on to name a lot of things one is advised to avoid, like comedic theatres and circuses, but they don’t mention a good belly laugh at the totally absurd nature of human existence itself. After all, what is more ridiculous than finding yourself walking around on the surface of a large lump of rock floating about in a universe that is apparently bouncing off the edge of time?
At face value, we can’t really look to Jesus for help here, we know he wept but at no point do we hear of him sitting down and cracking a good joke (camels and eyes of needles possibly excepted) and yet, if we believe he was truly human, then surely he had a lighter side? Can we not imagine a twinkle in his eye or a twitch at the corner of his mouth? I think so.
Sara of course can give us hope. She was told in her ripe old age that she was going to have a baby and laughed out loud and even named her son Isaac after that outburst of merriment – thank you Sara for seeing the ridiculous side of Divine action. And if we poke around we find all sorts of satire, irony and whimsy embedded in the stories and antics of the Old Testament. There is an earthed and holy narrative to the way the stories are narrated, that maybe is too often mislaid in their reading as texts rather than telling as stories. Poor old Jonah being guzzled by a passing fish, the subversion of the earthquake by a still small voice, Daniel shouting out of the fiery furnace…
We do know that laughter is good for us. Sometimes we ‘have to laugh or else we’ll cry’ and sometimes we have to laugh or else we will sock someone on the nose, and sometimes we simply laugh at the ridiculous nature of things, like being shut at home for ten weeks because of an invisible virus that prowls around pulling the rug from under human certainties and crashing economies in its wake. And uniquely I think we have to laugh because we are passionate, and human, fearfully and wonderfully made, and that is a merry mystery and a liberation in itself.
Laughter isn’t the opposite of seriousness it’s just that sometimes life is too important or tough or annoying to be taken seriously. Laughter is a defiant expression of human spirit and, as Reinhold Niebuhr expresses, laughter is also the beginning of prayer.[i] Personally I think God knows this and in the unlikely event that one day I should rock up in front of the pearly gates, with or without my emotional baggage, I trust that God will take one look at me and we can both hold our sides and nod our heads at the comedy as well as the tragedy of it all.
[i] Niebuhr, R., ‘Humor and Faith’ in Hyers, C., Holy Laughter (1969) p. 135