God and Laughter (by Sara Barton)

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 7.56.50 PMThe guy sitting next to me on the flight from Chicago to LA was friendly . . .  congenial . . . jolly is probably the appropriate word for this guy.  We were flying Southwest, where seats are not assigned, so when I freely chose the seat next to him, he made a self-deprecating joke because he’s a large man; he confessed his worry that no one really wanted to sit by him because of his size.

We exchange pleasantries…

“Where’s that accent from?” (I get it all the time).

“Arkansas, huh? Do you know Bill Clinton?”

An inappropriate joke or two about Bill Clinton.

I laugh.  A little.

He takes that reaction as a challenge.

He’s making a paper airplane and says he makes one every time he flies.

He references an episode from the TV show The Office.

I remember that episode and laugh. A lot this time.

He keeps going with one witty comment after another. He’s a funny guy, and he has me giggling way more than I usually giggle with strangers.

I’m glad I chose the seat next to him.

I needed a good laugh after a stressful week.

Things calm down after takeoff, and I pull out a book I’m reading. It has the words spiritual formation in the title.

And the jolly fellow’s entire demeanor changes.

“What are you, a pastor?” he says (he looks entirely disappointed).

“A chaplain, actually,” I say.

“What’s that?” he says.

“It’s like a pastor,” I say.

“Well, thanks for laughing at my jokes,” he says, “I didn’t know you could laugh like that and be ‘spiritual’” (he actually makes air quotes around spiritual).

Unfortunately, my paper-airplane-making, jolly friend is not alone in his perception of spirituality.

In general, spirituality could use better PR.  Our conversations about it can become quite serious.

At the root, I perceive that when Christians think of developing their spiritual lives, they often picture solemnity, quiet contemplation, and silence.  They think about restricting themselves – giving up some of their favorite things in order to add spiritual growth to their lives.  It doesn’t help that spirituality is regularly presented with vocabulary of discipline.  It’s not immediately a feel-good kind of word.  And in general, we don’t tend to use humorous tones in prayer. We even have prayer voices, quite unlike our normal ones. Laughing with God is not that common, in my experience among God’s people.

I’m certainly not against serious prayer or quiet contemplation, and I recognize the obvious benefits of engaging the spiritual disciplines. But, could we use a corrective?  Is the serious side of spirituality really the only side?

Occasionally, I wonder if God might prefer that we all just lighten up when it comes to “spirituality.”  (Gasp. Could it be that God knows how to use air quotes?)

I wonder what would happen if we actually enjoyed being with God?

Perhaps one reason we’ve taken spirituality so seriously in Christianity is because many of us have connected the religious life to a static set of unchanging rules, regulations, and dogma.  We’ve reduced the spiritual life to a list of “right” and “wrong” beliefs, to a set of rules that prohibit fun but dangerous activities such as dancing, drinking, and parties.

What if, instead of a static set of rules, life with God is one that welcomes movement? And, what if that movement is characterized by holy surprise – the kind of surprise for which the only response is laughter?  The kind of surprise for which the only response is a party, a party like this world has never seen.

Scripture attests to holy surprise.

Post-menopausal Sarah, when she overhears the message that she will give birth to a child in her old, old age, responds, as most any woman would, with incredulous laughter.  I love the description of Abraham’s laughter too:  “Abraham fell down on his face and laughed….”  It’s no wonder they name their child Laughter.  Don’t you think they threw a big party when Isaac was born, and wasn’t it fun? Fun is the only appropriate response when God breaks into this world in incredibly surprising ways.

We see this theme of surprise all throughout Scripture. Just when it seems that there’s no way, God makes a way. When the Israelites are trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s chariots, with no way out, God does a new thing when he parts the waters of the Red Sea, and the Israelites escape on dry land.  The only response is joy and praise to a God who transforms the bitter to sweet.

I always laugh when I read the scene in Matthew in which Jesus marches right up to a hated, scum-of-the-earth, verboten tax collector and calls him to be in his inner circle.  It’s surprising.  Humorous.  Hilarious.  No one would think of that but a God with a sense of humor.

The Psalms as a whole model laughter through tears. There’s no English word to describe the unique experience. I call it “Steel Magnolias” laughter because of the scene in the movie when Sally Field’s moment of terrible mourning is transformed into laughter through the fierce devotion of her friends.  The tears are still flowing, but the bitterness hasn’t won. The Psalmists teach us that “Steel Magnolias” spirituality is the only kind there really is – laughter-through-tears, sackcloth-to-joy, mourning-into-dancing spirituality.

Spiritual laughter is eschatological. It’s about God’s way of doing things breaking into the present in surprising ways.

Like when Sarah really is pregnant in her old age.

Like when a tax collector becomes the disciple of a rabbi.

Like when a dead man lives again.

Eschatological people, who live with a bit of heaven already present in them, should be the first to recognize God’s way breaking in now.  And they should be armed with ready laughter.

So, do you know what I said to my jolly seatmate on the plane who didn’t understand how spiritual people might laugh?

“Have you ever seen the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” I asked?

“Yeah.  Brad Pitt,” he replied.

“My spiritual life is like Benjamin Button,” I told him.

And I explained to him what I’m trying to say to in this blog post:  When I first became a Christian and tried to be “spiritual,” I thought my spiritual life should be characterized by seriousness.  I thought spiritual maturity meant giving up fun and parties and laughter.  I measured my spiritual growth by how many hours I spent journaling, praying, and reading the Bible.  And, many of those hours produced fruit.  But, eventually, I realized that the spiritual life could be much more fun than my imagination allowed.  So I began to play in God’s presence.  I began to look for heaven breaking into the present in surprising and unexpected moments of grace.

It turns out that my spiritual growth came when I let my spiritual maturity become more “immature.”  Benjamin Button spirituality.

God shows up in the food and wine at block parties with my neighbors.

And when I buy my favorite three-year old a cupcake.

And in the dirt when seeds break through the ground into the light.

And in the woods, when I dance and sing out loud as if the life of God is a dance.

And in the crayons when I color a prayer, especially when I use the gold one.

And in those moments when dolphins come near the shore and entertain me.

And when God gives me an unexpected friendship with someone I never would have picked myself.

And on a plane when I laugh about movies with a stranger.

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18:2-3

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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