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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why So Serious?

Why so serious?

Besides being one of my favorite lines ever in a movie, it’s a question non-believers frequently ask of Christians.  An outside perception of Christians is that all we talk about if suffering.  In Dan Kimball’s book They Like Jesus but Not the Church, he quotes a non-believer as saying, “Isn’t there more to living this life than to constantly be talking about death and suffering?  (Christians) seem to hate this life and can’t wait until the next one when all the bad people here will be in hell and gone.”

Fair or not, to many non-believers, Christianity doesn’t look like a lot of fun.  Many pastors, many believers focus on the suffering sections of the Bible more than anything else.  I’ve stated recently that if a topic is in the Bible numerous times, that’s God’s way of hitting us over the head with the importance of it.  Understanding suffering is important.  Very important.  It needs to be taught.  It needs to be discussed.  And while we know that it ultimately leads to grace and wonderful things, the journey there can be kind of a bummer.

You know what else the Bible talks a lot about?  Joy.  Happiness.  It’s okay to laugh, even in times of suffering.  In fact, it’s good to laugh in times of suffering.  It’s healthy.  Believe it or not, many Christians believe that humor has no place in Christianity.  Seriously (minor pun intended).  Many feel that the Bible did not show humor; therefore, it did not happen.  They say that since the Bible does not show Jesus laughing, then Jesus didn’t laugh.  He was not funny, and did not associate Himself with others who were funny.  Some go so far as to say that those who think that God laughs are speaking heresy or blasphemy.

Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. – John 21:25

There’s a lot about Jesus’s life that isn’t included in the Bible.  Just because the Bible doesn’t show Jesus laughing doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.  The Bible also doesn’t show Him going to the bathroom, but I think it’s safe to say that He did.

Ask any professional writer: Humor is one of the most difficult things to write.  What generally makes something funny?  Slapstick humor usually makes people laugh, but that’s visual humor.  I just don’t see a Three Stooges performance in the middle of Exodus.  I don’t see Jesus calling Peter a knucklehead and poking him in the eyes.  What does that leave us with?  Tone.  Tone is ridiculously hard to portray in writing.  And that’s if a professional is doing it.  The majority of the Bible’s writers were not professionals.  Besides, they had a singular job to do: Provide the future of the world with the most important information ever.  Their job was not to entertain.  However, that does not mean humor was non-existent.

Father James Martin, S.J. tries to explain why it is that we have a difficult time seeing or understanding Biblical humor: “We’re so far away from 1st Century Palestine that we don’t understand some of the jokes and some of the wit.  Humor is very culture-bound.  If you know someone from a different culture then your own, you may find that their jokes are a little different.  If you look back at movies from the 1930s, you might see that the humor has changed over time.  So imagine how difficult it is for us in 21st Century America to understand the humor of 1st Century Palestine.”

Mark Driscoll, in his Religion Saves series, takes it to the next level:
“It’s subtle irony. If you continue in the Old Testament, then you get to the book of Exodus, where Moses goes up on the mountain to talk to God and get the Ten Commandments.  While he’s gone, he leaves Aaron in charge.  Aaron: the first priest, his dear brother.  Aaron goes and takes all the plunder and gold and jewelry from Egypt.  They melt it down and they create a what?  A golden calf.
“They parade around it in worship, and Aaron tells them, ‘Worship this idol.  This is the god who delivered you from Egypt.’  Meanwhile, Moses is up on the mountain with God.  God tells him, ‘Look, you better go down there. People have lost their minds. It’s going really bad.’
“Moses comes down.  He goes to Aaron, and (get the subtlety in this) says, ‘Aaron, what happened?  There’s a huge, golden idol!’  Here are Aaron’s words from Exodus 32:24: ‘Uh, they gave it to me, and I threw it in the fire, and out came this calf.’
“This is like a dad walking in on his high school daughter with her boyfriend.  They got no clothes on, and they’re like, ‘We don’t know what happened.  We were talking, and all our clothes fell off.  I got no idea.  We’re victims.’”

Driscoll gives another example: “How about this one in Isaiah 44.  God mocks this guy who gets a piece of wood and decides this half is good for fire wood, and since I got an A in wood shop, I’ll carve this half into a god that I can worship.  God mocks this guy, like ‘Wow, what great skill.  I mean, only a real genius would know which half of the log was firewood, and which half was god.’  It’s just a total mockery.”

Irony is funny, and there’s plenty of irony in the Bible.  In fact, I’ve been referring to Matthew 7:3 nearly every week, which is total irony.  Jesus says, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

We use hyperbole—exaggeration—frequently.  Written or verbal humor is most often some form of hyperbole (Your momma and blonde jokes, for example).  Jesus used hyperbole to make a lot of points...and it’s hard not to imagine people hearing messages like this without laughing at the absurdity of the mental pictures He was providing.

Take Matthew 19:23-24, for example: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  No one talked like this.  No one used imagery like this.  If you heard this message at the time it was given, you probably would have been holding your stomach from laughing so hard at the picture of a camel trying to walk through the eye of a needle.

Father James Martin, S.J. explains:  “Scripture scholars tell us that some of Jesus’s stories and parables would have been seen as not only clever, but laugh-out-loud funny.”  In short: While we may miss the hilarity of these verses, it would be naïve to dismiss them as humorless at the time.

Then there was Paul.  Paul was incredibly sarcastic.  I could do a massive series just on Paul’s sarcasm alone.

Read the Bible.  Actually read the stories of Jesus.  Jesus was an awesome dude.  People flocked to hear Him speak.  They would pile up by the thousands to hear His stories.  You think He would have gathered this kind of audience if He spoke like a robot?  Humor is a key component in good story-telling and as a great way to collect and keep an audience’s attention.

Scholars agree that part of Jesus’s ministry came in the form of “table fellowship.”  Basically—dinner parties.  He would call His disciples, followers, and even strangers to dinner.  Strangers frequently invited Jesus to dinner.  Sinners.  The kind of people society deemed evil men.  You think that’s going to happen if Jesus was a big, dull dud?  You think people would show up to eat with Him?  No…Jesus knew how to party.  I’m not talking Project X party…I’m talking laughing-and-having-fun party.

Children loved Jesus.  LOVED Him.  Kids are some of the best judges of character.  If Jesus wasn’t fun to be around, kids would have hated His company.  Mark Driscoll: “Jesus was fun.  That’s why kids ran to Him.  Children run to what’s fun.  Jesus was fun.  He didn’t sin, but He was fun.” (Luke 18:15-17)

Father James Martin, S.J. writes: “Jesus also embraces others with a sense of humor. In the beginning of the Gospel of John, for example, comes the remarkable story of Nathaniel, who has been told by His friends that the Messiah is from Nazareth.  Nathaniel responds, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’” (John 1:45-46)

What does Jesus do with Nathaniel?  Rebuke him?  Smite him?  No, Jesus adds Nathaniel to His group of apostles.  Think Jesus would do that if He didn’t appreciate a good joke?

Besides, Jesus was a guy.  He was a guy surrounded by a bunch of other guys.  When guys are together, they laugh at stupid things.  Like farts.  Farts are funny.  Farts are timeless.  I’m not trying to be offensive, and I am in no means claiming that this happened, but it makes me laugh to wonder if Jesus and His disciples sat around a fire after a long, stressful day, and unwound Blazing Saddles-style.

Joe’s pastor had a cool line a few weeks ago that basically said not everything that is good comes from God.  It’s true.  Not everything that is good is good for us.  Chocolate is good, but if it’s all we ate, we’d be very sick.  Laughter is both good AND good for us; therefore, I believe it’s safe to say that it comes from God.  If it comes from God, then I also believe it’s okay to assume that God indulges in a good laugh from time-to-time.  What does He laugh at, though?  What’s funny to the Creator of all things?

God laughs in Job 8:21 and 41:29, and in Psalm 37:13 and 59:8.  In these cases, He is laughing in derision as man “challenges” Him (kind of like a “You’re kidding, right?” laugh).  These are examples of God laughing, but I don’t believe it’s the only thing God laughs at.  He’s not cynical, laughing at us in times of trouble.  He is a loving God, and when love is present, so is joy.  When joy is present, so is laughter.  I believe He laughs when we do something to honor Him.  I believe He laughs when we do something awesome.  I believe He laughs at some of our foolish questions or thoughts or actions (kind of like a “You silly child” laugh).

Let’s make one thing clear: Sin is not funny to God.  Christianity may seem dull to the non-believer, but we must not accept sin in our lives to prove them wrong.  My favorite part about Driscoll’s line earlier was when he said that Jesus did not sin, but He was fun.  We can be fun without sinning.  We can laugh without sinning.  God can, and does, laugh at us, but not when we sin, because sin is detestable to Him.  However, I cannot help but imagine God shaking His head and chuckling as He watched me waste hours and days researching “What God laughs at” for this post.

Kids say and do a lot of goofy things.  As adults, we look at the things children say and do, and laugh.  We laugh at their innocence.  At their blissful ignorance.

-         Literally, as I was writing this, a kid came in and told a friend, “I thought I had frosting on my hand, so I licked it...turns out that it was paint.”
-         During my second year of teaching, I was in front of my fifth graders, and I told them that they would be doing a lot of writing.  “Whether you like it or not,” I told them, “by the end of the year, you’ll all be writers.”  A girl, with honest fear in her eyes, very quietly mumbled, “But I want to be a veterinarian.”
-         I have read the following statements, written by students about Revolutionary War heroes: “Henry Knox collapsed in 1759, which killed him.  Still, he went on to become the first ever United States Secretary of War.”…“Thomas Jefferson was the co-founder and leader of the Dominican Republic, and he created French fries!!”…“John Adams realized the importance of bringing together the North and South during the Revolutionary War.”

My kids tell me at the end of every year that when they look back at their writing from the beginning of the year, they’re embarrassed by how awful it is (their words, not mine).  I tell them, “Well, you’re a better writer now.  That’s going to happen.  You should do the same thing next year, and the following year, and so on.”

The truth is—we do it too.  As adults, we look back at our past and think about how naive, how innocent, how blissfully ignorant we were.  When we’re thirty, we look back at when we were twenty, and we’re embarrassed by the things we said, did, and believed.  When we’re forty, we look back at when we were thirty, and do the same thing.  Fifty.  Sixty.  In all walks of life, we acknowledge how little we knew in the past.

...Yet, when we were twenty, we thought that we knew all there was to know.  We thought we were so wise and understanding.  So mature.  Again at thirty.  Forty.  Fifty.  In all walks of life, we believe that we “know it all” in the present.  And in my head, that’s when God, the ultimate parent and adult, laughs at how naive, how innocent, how blissfully ignorant we are.

-         “The world is flat.”
-         The concept of “Freedom Fries.”
-         Praying for (being concerned with) things like: Where should I go out to eat tonight?  Are aliens real?  Is Heaven really up?  Is Hell really down?  Were the first days of creation normal, 24-hour days?  Is communion a form of cannibalism?  Where did YOU come from?  What do You look like (tall, short, skin color [Do You have skin?], hair color [Do You have hair?], any facial hair, muscular or lean, etc)?  Please let the Cubs win this year.
-         “I think Michael Bay would be a great choice to direct this movie!” (Okay...probably not, but I couldn’t help myself).

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. – Proverbs 17:22

Laughter and crying are polar opposites.  Laughter feels good.  If we’re sad, depressed, even angry, laughter is the quickest way towards feeling better.  Furthermore, biologically speaking, laughter is GOOD for you.  Here are a couple of sites that provide a lot more information than I have space for:  The Healing Power of Laughter and Laughter Therapy.

Dr. Frank Lipman:  “In my twenty years of medical experience, I’ve found that patients who have a sense of humor and laugh a lot tend to heal better and faster than those who don’t.”
Ten reasons why laughter is good for you, according to Dr. Lipman:
1)    Laughter helps boost your immune system by increasing T cell activity, those “killer cells” that help our bodies fight viruses and tumors.
2)    Laughter helps lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, decreases pain, and can also help stabilize blood sugar.
3)    Laughter stimulates chemical changes in the brain that help buffer our bodies against the cumulative effects of stress.
4)    Laughter burns a few extra calories: According to a university study, just 10-15 minutes worth of chuckles throughout the day can burn up to 40 calories.
5)    Laughter stimulates the release of endorphins, the mood-elevating brain chemicals behind the “runner’s high.”
6)    Laughter helps reduce inflammation throughout the body—good news for your heart, brain, and circulatory health.
7)    Laughter “massages” internal organs—which is why it’s sometimes referred to as “internal jogging”—with effects similar to exercise.
8)    Laughter provides a light workout for the heart, lungs, diaphragm, and even the abdominal muscles.
9)    Laughter releases tension in the muscles of the face, neck, shoulders, and abdomen—all common areas where we tend to hold lots of tension.
10)                       Laughter is physically and mentally therapeutic—an involuntary response that positively alters mood instantly.  What could be better?

There is suffering in this world, we cannot deny that.  As Christians, we will suffer and we should suffer.  I know the world hardens us, but faith is supposed to free us.  Being a Christian should also be fun...and it is fun.  Love is fun and we have the most powerful, most awesome love imaginable.  It’s just given to us.  That alone should make us giddy.

Besides—life can’t all be about suffering; otherwise, you would always see Christians moping around, screaming and wailing.  You don’t.  Instead, you see Christians beaming and upbeat.  Happy.  Joyful.  Light-hearted.  There’s a reason for that.

Still, a perception of us exists and we must do a better job of outwardly showing our joy.  According to Jesus, what is expected of us?  A childlike faith (Mark 10:15).  I saw this stat years ago and have never forgotten it: Children laugh about 400 times a day, while adults laugh about 17 times a day.  Let’s return to that innocence.  Let’s return to that joy.  We are children of the Lord, after all.  Maybe we can turn the tables on the rest of the world.  Smile, laugh, and enjoy life.  Children flock to fun, remember?  If the world sees us having fun...not sinning, but being fun...maybe we can get them to flock to us.  Run to the Lord.  Maybe then we can finally look at the rest of the world and ask, Why so serious?

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