Friday, November 26, 2010

Surprised By Laughter

Life is serious business. There are bills to pay. There are people to please and those we’d rather not please. There are children to discipline and marriages to work on. There are strained relationships. There are “honey-do” lists to be done today and “what-I-want-to-do” lists that get set aside for tomorrow, again. There are disappointments and challenges. There are wars and rumours of wars. Life can be seriously sufferable; how is one to cope?

Abraham Lincoln faced much as Civil War President before a bullet took him down at Ford’s Theatre. In light of the sobering leadership challenges he faced, Lincoln said, “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.” Ironically, the most revered of Presidents was assassinated during the funniest line of the play “Our American Cousin.” John Wilkes Booth intentionally waited for the burst of laughter to muffle his shot that changed history. Suffering and laughter are strange and oxymoronic bedfellows.

We all know this is true. As Saturday Night Live’s Jack Handy once said, “Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.” Great comedians can take the serious stuff of life, even the politically incorrect, and surprise us with an angle of thought, a twist of the tongue, an irreverent notion, that tickles the funny bone. In that strange moment something wonderful happens: we laugh. You can try to suppress it, but you have to be seriously stubborn – and perhaps comatose – to contain a good chuckle. A laugh is a beautifully surprising thing and it’s upon that part of our nature that comedians prey.

“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs,” wrote the crusty German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” While Nietzsche, whose ideas on the death of God and the meaninglessness of life still shape our culture, might not exactly be considered a reliable source of snigger therapy – except for perhaps his wild 19th century mustache – he might be on to something. Human beings uniquely, among all God’s creatures, laugh. Even Hyenas are only “laughing” because we think they do. Given the other possibilities for coping with the sobering realities we face, laughter may very well not only be the best option, but a divine gift. It may, in fact, be part of the image of God in us.

God gave Abram a promise that through him all nations on earth would be blessed. Quite an unlikely promise given that Abram and Sarai were childless and beyond even Viagara-aid. The idea of those two procreating is kind of like going down the fearful path of thinking about your grandparents “doing it.” Yeah, enough said. Nevertheless, God keeps his word. The impossible becomes reality and the suffering couple’s hopeless, faith-filled journey into retirement is upended by the arrival of a bouncing baby boy when Abraham is one hundred. They boy is named Isaac, which means, “he laughs.” Sarah rejoices, “God has made laughter for me…” (Genesis 21:6). God makes laughter – what a marvelous thought.

Have you ever thought that God loves to make us laugh? Where is God making laughter for you?

The laughter of God’s making that refreshes and washes the soul is most often surprising. Sarah had attempted to create hilarity by giving Abraham her maidservant and Abe, the drooling old fart, went along with it. That didn’t go so well and created bitterness, competition, and a lot of difficult conversations around the nomadic campfire. Conversely, the laughter of God’s creation surprisingly interrupts our reality with his faithfulness, often in spite of our sad attempts at humouring ourselves. God’s laughter-making is hinted at in the art of the comedic, but is only truly experienced in the discipline of being open to surprise. And, the discipline of surprise is a position of faith that is sure God alone can invade the mundane and even the painful with the surprise of a smile, a giggle, and eventually a hearty belly laugh that can revolutionize the world as we know it. And, in that light, laughter may very well be a gateway to worship – the suffering human beings wonder and surrender to the God who will one day wipe away every tear and fill our mouths with shouts of joy.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Wrong Question

The silly season will soon arrive when you will hear, “What do you want for Christmas?” Endlessly creative lists of desires will follow. Others will go all high-horse and not ask for anything, while silently hoping you can read minds. Still others will completely miss the point and wish a bride for Prince William or a Stanley Cup for the Maple Leafs—only one of which seems remotely possible.

But given that Christmas is rooted in the Great Gift-Giver, should we not be asking, “What will you give for Christmas?” This would be, despite all the trappings and absurdities that have become part of the sugar overdose of Yuletide, at least one small step in the right direction.

Many approach the wonder of the church in the same way we have been conditioned to view Christmas. We bring sloppy church-thought to the fore when we say something like, “I want a church that will meet my needs!” We almost stomp our feet when we say this, and there is much worth puking over in this type of toddler-tantrum.

The local church is no drive-thru. A church is the neighbourhood expression of the people of God, saved by a cross of grace, resurrected from the dominion of self, and called out of the world only to be sent back to it as one body. The church is gathered by the Father to live like Jesus in the world in the power of the Spirit, not some abstract entity for Christian cherry-picking. When we treat the church like consumers, we are participating in heresy.

The abundance of churches in most communities means some Christians, bulging at the seams from being force-fed the lie that they are the centre of the universe and having never wrestled biblically with the nature of the church, look at church buildings in much the same way they view strip malls: “I wonder if that church will make me happier,” or, “I’m sure this one will give me what I want, and probably for a better deal.” The variety of the body of Christ is thus reduced to the equivalent of competing catalogues and sales events.

A more biblical, and perhaps even history-altering, approach would be akin to that other Christmas question. Instead of selfishly hoping for a church that will meet my wants and needs, what might change if we would say, “I want to join God in meeting the world’s needs! I have graciously received. What can I now give and who will I do it with?”

* First, it might actually begin correcting our sloppy church-thought and recover a biblical ecclesiology that sees the church as God’s idea to change the world (Ephesians 3:10) and not his department store for spiritual shopaholics.
* Second, it might give us a greater appreciation for those who serve and lead the church. Rather than see our leaders as holy service providers who need to put out or move on, we might become an army of kingdom agents asking, “How might I serve?” instead of, “What have you done for me lately?” It might also be just what our leaders need to be freed from the tyranny of performance that keeps many shackled and fearful.
* Third, it might actually make us happier. We may discover that joining God’s mission to meet the world’s deepest needs is exceedingly more exhilarating, and unifying, than having another itch scratched. We may, in fact, discover the joy of the Great Giver himself.