A good laugh

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

12 thoughts on “A good laugh”

  1. If you imagine Jesus telling his stories for a laugh, there are lots of them: a log stuck in your eye, reburying a pearl in a field, going to a wedding in the wrong clothes, the mustard seed, children in the market place…. Need I go on?

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  2. Thank you Barbara for this lovely reflection. Thank you for seeing and inviting us to see in Sara who saw the ridiculous side of Divine action in her laughter and merriment. When laughter serves as a beginning of prayer, prayer then becomes as action, joining with God in bringing laughter to people around.

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  3. Of all things, spare us becoming like Jorge in Name of the Rose who claimed Jesus never laughed. There’s so much good eastern hyperbole in Jesus’ stories he clearly laughed a lot; or how about taking the plank out of your own eye before looking for the speck in someone else’s; or plucking you eye out if it causes you to stumble – so gross you have to laugh. Anyway, a timely reminder.

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  4. Much of comedy is laughing at someone. I wonder where that fits in to the divine laughter. In my prejudiced view, if those being laughed at have instigated the joke or at least fully endorsed it, I can see the divine in it; punching up in satire I can see as prophetic, not just funny, but mocking others …?

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  5. Thank you for such a cheering piece. Oldies like me remember an exhibition of paintings at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004 called ‘Jesus laughing and loving’. It used to be housed at Greyfriars Kirk Edinburgh when not on tour. Magnet magazine also published an article by Harriet Harris in Winter 2004. Materials I have cherished over the years.

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  6. I have to agree with Tim. God gave us a sense of humour and I’m sure that, being fully human, Jesus liked a good laugh as much as we all do. Laughing with each other at our own human follies is one thing, but laughing at each other, and making an individual the butt of our jokes is another thing entirely. Tory bashing and Trump bashing seems to have become the accepted norm within the Methodist Church. It’s not an attractive trait for any Christian community.

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    1. Thank you for agreeing with me Yvonne, but I’m afraid satire of Trump and some Tories was actually what I had in mind as being prophetic as well as funny. That was why I prefaced my remarks with “In my prejudiced view”. Clearly some humour at the expense of Trump and others is just hurtful; perhaps we can all agree on that (although I must confess that is not what I had in mind when questioning whether mocking others could be consistent with divine laughter).

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  7. I agree with Yvonne that it is good to laugh at our own human follies, but to criticise Tory and Trump “bashing” is another matter. When governments pervert freedom and democracy into societies based on financial self-interest and barely moral egoistic self-concern, I for one feel a sense of revolt. It would be nice to live in a world where everyone was nice to each other, but the need for food banks and the isolationism of the US, not to mention Brexit, leaving the WHO and the Mexican Wall, are events that seem deeply unChristian to me. If it requires jokes to join Jesus in turning over the tables in the Temple because that is our only voice, then I am in there laughing!

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  8. I don’t like the way people use Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple (one recorded incident of bad temper in three years of ministry) to justify self-righteous, indignant and angry protests aimed at people of a different political persuasion. Things are never that black and white. Not all Tories are baddies (many of us actually support the foodbanks and other community projects) and not all socialists are goodies (which is why the Tories had a resounding win in the last election, even in the Labour heartlands.) Some people may despise President Trump but he still has his followers. John Wesley had some fine socialist principles but he was in fact a Tory!

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