Laughter as prayer...

NOTE: This week's sermon notes as I finish a three part series re: humor as a spiritual discipline for humility. The series - Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace - will go throughout the summer. Please join us if you are in the area on Sunday at 10:30 am.

Can you say this prayer with me? “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” To be able to live within this truth – humble and free, fully alive to the suffering and the celebrations of ordinary life with serenity – is what the Christian life is all about.

+ It is the whole point of learning the unforced rhythms of grace that Jesus speaks about.

+ It is what prayer and compassion, meditation and action and all the rest are all about: serenity – peace within and without – a life so grounded in gratitude that you actually become part of the blessings of God in the course of your everyday experience.

And this takes practice: it is neither automatic nor guaranteed, it is always available but always at a cost and it always leads us into the upside down kingdom of God rather than anything our expectations, egos or education prepares for us. St. Paul was spot on when he said about himself, “Time and again I have been blessed by God’s grace in my life…”

… And at the same time, so I wouldn't get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan's angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn't think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me: My grace is enough; it's all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness. Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ's strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become. II Corinthians 12: 7-10

One counter-cultural part of learning to live within God’s grace and its serenity is humility – a grounded and gentle way of being human – and as I have been telling you: a great way to cultivate humility is humor. And I specifically want to consider how laughter can be part of the way we pray. The dictionary speaks of prayer as an “act of deep and authentic communion with God – a profound communication – with the heart of Creation.”
And isn’t that part of what takes place… when we laugh? Norman Cousins put it like this:

When I laugh I let go of tension in my mind and body. Attitudes, preconceptions, plans for action or non-action, grudges, blame, everything dissipates during the period of laughing. In those moments of release all holds melt down into a large cauldron of harmony - much as raw ingredients dropped into a cooking pot and simmered become nourishing soup.

We become integrated – connected – the human with the holy and heaven with earth: it’s like when the Zen master bought a hot dog from a street vendor and said, “Make me one… with everything!” Think about it:

+ Have you ever seen a baby laugh? So innocent and funny at the same time? Ever see a gaggle of little girls having a giggle fit? Or a gang of little boys rolling on the floor over something totally absurd and goofy?

+ Have you ever laughed so hard your sides hurt and tears came pouring out of your eyes?

Then you know that laughter is organic – it is part of how we were made – and God don’t make junk! That’s why I have come to consider laughter to be one of the ways we renew our connection with the Divine Image within and among us. It is prayer: a deep and intimate connection and communion with all that is holy within our humanity.

You don’t think it is an accident, do you, that the words human, humor and humility all come from the root word humus? “The dictionary describes humus as “a brown or black substance resulting from the partial decay of plant and animal matter… that is, it is the earth.” (Kurtz, p. 19) And do your recall how the second creation story in the book of Genesis describes the birth of humankind?

At the time GOD made Earth and Heaven, before any grasses or shrubs had sprouted from the ground—GOD hadn't yet sent rain on Earth, nor was there anyone around to work the ground (the whole Earth was watered by underground springs)—GOD formed Man out of dirt from the ground – adam ha adama - and blew into his nostrils the breath of life so that the earth being became alive—a living soul—nephesh chayah! And adam’s partner was created from the very bones and flesh of this earth being—chavah—the mother of all that is alive!

Humility is about earthiness – being grounded in what is real – a spiritual condition that bears fruit best through the prayer of laughter, don’t you think? One of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, used to say that “humility begins with our rejection of perfection – trying to live an all-or-nothing existence. For to be a human be-ing – to exist and carry out our lives in the middle of reality – is to be neither all nor nothing… it is to be all mixed-up. Both saint and sinner” to say nothing of dark and light, holy and human, male and female and all the rest.

Are you with me? Can you see why I have come to consider laughter to be one way of being at prayer? Well, all this talk about origins and the way of the Lord reminds me of a story:

It seems that once upon a time a little girl asked her mother, "How did the human race appear?" The mother answered, "God made Adam and Eve and they had children and so was all mankind made." Two days later the girl asked her father the same question. And he said, "Many years ago there were monkeys from which the human race evolved." The confused girl wondered about this for a few days before returning to her mother saying, "Mom how is it possible that you told me the human race was created by God and Dad said they developed from monkeys?" The mother smiled and replied, "Well, honey, it is very simple: I told you about my side of the family and your father told you about his."

Now here’s the thing: for laughter to advance the cause of humility and holiness in our humanity, it has to take us beyond our limits and our prejudices. Left to ourselves, we’ll do this sometimes – that is God’s nature within us – but we will also resist and even become stuck in our own worst habits and addictions. Jesus experienced what these bad habits produce when he returned to his home town to teach and heal only to find that his homies could only see the Messiah as the little carpenter’s kid who thought he was hot stuff:

"How did he get so wise all of a sudden with such ability?" they said with one breath. But in the next they were cutting him down: "Who does he think he is? He's just a carpenter—Mary's boy. We've known him since he was a kid. And we know all his brothers, James, Justus, Jude, and Simon, and his sisters. Who does he think he is?" So they tripped over what little they knew about him and fell, sprawling and they never got any further. So Jesus told them, "A prophet has little honor in his hometown, among his relatives, on the streets he played in as a child." And Jesus wasn't able to do much of anything there—he laid hands on a few sick people and healed them, that's all. He couldn't get over their stubbornness so he left and made a circuit of the other villages.

Another story from Genesis helps us go deeper: do you know the one about God promising a child to the barren and ancient Sarah and Abraham? When Sarah heard the promise of God from the angels, do you recall what she did? She laughed… but not a laugh of humility or hope. Sarah laughed at God’s promise – I’ve done it and you probably have, too – laughed that God’s upside down blessings can really make a home in reality. Now what happens next is instructive:

+ God asked why Sarah laughed. I believe that God wants to help us beyond ourselves and our difficulty with faith. In fact, I believe that God aches to lead us into serenity, but we have to get honest and acknowledge our resistance. “Why did you laugh? Do you really believe that anything is too hard for the Lord of Creation?” To which Sarah lied in her fear saying, “Oh, I didn’t laugh, Lord.” Denial is everywhere, friends, within us and among us and beyond us – but serenity can’t be built on a lie – so God keeps up the challenge: “Yes, there is no question about it; you laughed and doubted.”

+ But the story doesn’t end with the laughter of fear and denial: A few chapters later we read, “The LORD was gracious to Sarah just as he had said and the LORD did for Sarah what was promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him….And Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

And what was the name of the child born of God’s humor and Abraham and Sarah’s humanity? Isaac – Yitzhak – which means: the one who laughs! What began as a laugh of doubt and even fearful sarcasm, became a holy prayer bringing new life and hope to humans through their laughter. Small wonder that Jesus told his disciples: “Blessed are you who hunger now for you will be satisfied; and blessed are you who weep for you will be filled with laughter.” (Luke 6: 21)

Jesus gathered together a truly laughable collection of disciples: there were zealots and tax collectors – sworn political enemies – rich and poor, women and men and even children, too. Some of the disciples had a real deep trust and others were filled with questions: Simon Peter was enthusiastic but not always grounded, Mary Magdalene began to follow while emotionally ill, Paul began his journey as an opponent of Jesus and everyone betrayed him. This was hardly the group upon which you would expect God to create a new movement of compassion, hope and social justice: it sounds almost like.... our church

+ And yet such is the upside down humor of the kingdom of God: Jesus sent this bunch out into the world to preach and drive out demons, to anoint the sick with oil and advance the cause of serenity with their laughter.

+ Our ministry is not any different – we, too, have been sent out to make the word flesh – and one of the best ways is through our gentle humor. Nobody wants to hear our ranting or our proselytizing anymore; we are all sick and tired of zealots and fundamentalism.

But gentle and holy people of humor who take themselves lightly enough to soar with the angels sometimes… those are people who have something to share. And I think we’re starting to get this upside down kingdom business because a whole BUNCH of you did your home work last week and sent me some truly hilarious stories and jokes. I can’t share them all with you today but they were spot on.

+ Someone told me the story of the little boy who started to cry and cry and cry in the car on their way home after the baptism of his baby brother. And when his mother asked, “Why all the tears, honey?” He said, “Oh momma, during the baptism the minister said that we needed to be brought up in a Christian home – but I want to stay with you guys!”

+ Another sent me a note reminding me that there are three eternal religious truths: One, Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah; two, Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the true leader of the Christian faith; and three Baptists do not recognize one another in the liquor store.

But my all time favorite – one that has nourished me and helped me appreciate the mysterious nature of the kingdom of God for over 20 years – comes from the Jewish tradition.

It seems that once there was a grandmother and her grandson walking on the beach. She is old and moving towards the end of her life and her grandson is just the apple of her eye. She cherishes this child. They have gone to Florida for the winter and she is just thrilled to have her grandbaby with her for a few days. So she bought him an adorable swimsuit and matching sun jacket, little blue canvas shoes and a perfect little straw hat to keep him from roasting in the heat. One morning as they are walking along the beach talking about life and family, out of nowhere comes a huge wave. And before you could even shout… the child disappears. Gone. Vanished in the waters of the ocean.

“Oh my gracious God,” the grandmother weeps. And falling down on her knees and begins to pray. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Creator of the Universe. Please, for the sake of my love and all that is holy, please restore my grandchild to me for these last hours of my life. Please, I implore you as a faithful servant. Please, O Lord, please save the light of my life…” At which time came another massive wave that slapped the shores – and when the grandmother looked up – there was her sweet grandson alive and well and sitting in the sand.

She rushed over to him, grabbed him up into her arms and looked at him all over –kissing him and making a massive fuss – she was so overjoyed at God’s gracious gift. Then all of a sudden, she stopped everything, looked at the boy carefully before turning her gaze to the heavens and said, “Thank you, Precious Lord, thank you. From the bottom of my heart: thank you. But let me also say that when he left with you… you know he was wearing a hat!”

And so it goes: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Let’s go out there, beloved, and give them a little heaven because there is already too much hell. Sing this with me...

Art/Photo credits:
Dianne Demott: First Church pictures
Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Syncronicity of Sound in Sound of Painting: Music in Modern Art
God Created All Things: free clip art @
Marc Chagall: Abraham and Sarah, 1956


Cool blog! I sure will come back often..
Goddess said…

You sure do get it my Brother from Another Mother.

Wishing you,
Sister GoddessGoddess

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