Message 83, “An Overlooked New Year’s Resolution: Laughter to Feed the Body, Mind and Soul”, 1-22-12
Anybody who has been attending over the past few months will remember two very different services. Several weeks ago we had a gas leak in our furnace which created a dilemma for me. What should I do? Cancel the service or continue and allow for the potential risk. It was an anxiety moment for me and I did not rise to the occasion. I was stressed and upset. Many of you could tell and Wayne Butterfass even came up to me and very kindly encouraged me to just relax. Instead of practicing gentle ways by not being anxious and instead of finding humor in the situation, I was nervous and indecisive.
In contrast to that moment, a few weeks ago, on concluding the Christmas Eve service message, I did something slightly uncommon for me. I extended myself and was willing to look a bit silly and less serious. I put a shiny silver tinsel boa around my neck and I stuck a red bow on my nose – all to conclude a message on faith like a child. I debated beforehand whether to do such a silly thing – especially at an important service like Christmas Eve, but I went with it and played the fool – hopefully to illustrate my message point.
My response to the gas leak was spontaneous and not the best. My actions in the Christmas Eve service were planned. I went for the sight gag and several folks laughed – probably because I acted in a way that I am not particularly known for, and of course, I must have looked awfully silly.
Indeed, the laughter response of those in attendance that evening highlight the reasons why most people do laugh – our brain expects one thing but then it is suddenly confronted with something different and incongruous. We note the irony and our bodies respond by laughing. How many Pastors act goofy at the end of a traditionally solemn Christmas message?
My lesson from both of those incidents is that I must resolve to incorporate laughter and a sense of humor in my life. By planning to be funny some of the time, I might be more inclined to respond with humor and laughter at difficult or stressful times. Numerous experts, from psychologists to theologians to medical doctors, all extol the virtues and benefits of laughter. And so I include it on my list of often overlooked New Year’s resolutions – our series topic during January.
Indeed, if you have heard or read the last two messages, you might have come away a bit down or in a much too serious frame of mind. While I do not take back the notion that being gentle or practicing forgiveness are important, I mean come on! They are sooooo serious! Depression, the death penalty, anger, frustration and murder are not especially light subjects – all of which were mentioned in the last two messages. I need today’s message to remind myself – lighten up occasionally Doug! Life does not have to be so darn serious!
And most importantly, Sunday services, faith and spirituality do not have to always be so darn serious. They can and should be occasionally playful. We should not make light of important issues of our time and our lives but we also need to step back, take a deep breath and ultimately laugh at the often ridiculous or silly circumstances we are in. It was Voltaire who said that, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” What I need to remind myself is that God, or whatever power it is that controls our universe, wants me to laugh!
Take a look now at what I find is a hilarious but gentle mocking of church services – mine included – that are often way too serious, much too boring and terribly stuffy: click here to watch video
Poking fun at religion and spirituality is quite common. And it should be! Few other institutions take themselves so seriously and consider themselves so important. But that is not what most of the great prophets of history promote. Jesus spoke often of the need for joy in life and he set out to experience fun – attending countless raucous dinner parties in the company of prostitutes, thieves and other so-called sinners. I think he knew they would be much more fun and much better company than all of the so-called elites and religious know-it-alls.
The Bible even quotes him as making a joke out of Peter’s name – playfully teasing him that “Peter”, in Aramaic, means “little stone” or “pebble.” “Yo, Peter!” Jesus said, “You’re a BIG dude, man, a BIG little rock upon which my spirituality will be built!” (I’m paraphrasing of course!) It’s interesting that many Bible literalists and the Catholic Church don’t get the joke Jesus was making. He knew Peter was full of faults. He was rash, a bit arrogant and ultimately weak in his convictions. So Jesus playfully teased him by saying he was going to build his ethical teachings on a rock – on Peter – which everyone knew meant “pebble.” The irony was a good one. Faith rests on the weak and the meek. Jesus did not intend to literally say that Christianity would be founded by Peter and that he should be the first Pope – an idea Jesus never mentions. He was making a joke!
My point is that spirituality of all things should be full of joy and laughter and what better way to express a sense of humor than to gently laugh at oneself? The Dalai Lama relates that his people, the Tibetans, face many serious issues, most importantly their oppression by the Chinese. But he remains committed to smiling, laughing and being playful. One looks at him and smiles.
The Koran says that “Blessed is he who makes his companions laugh.” Kahlil Gibran, the Islamic mystic, wrote that, “It is my fervent hope that my whole life on this earth will ever be tears and laughter. Tears that purify my heart and laughter that brings me closer to my fellow people; tears with which I join the broken-hearted and laughter that symbolizes joy over my very existence.” And a Yiddish proverb states that, “What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.” All the things that ail us – worry, anxiety, hatred, anger and fear are cleansed – wiped away – by laughter!
We need to laugh at the sometimes pompous and self-important rituals of faith – much like in the video clip we just saw. I imagine if I could sit out where you do – I would sometimes laugh at myself – not in self-indulgent embarrassment, but at how serious I can take myself. Or, as Mr. Bean does in the video, I’d fall asleep. I like to tell friends, who ask about listening to me online, that the Gathering ought to make some added money by selling my recorded messages as the perfect cure for insomnia!
Here are a few cartoons about religion that I find very funny. Some of them you will have to think about just a bit… (Click on cartoon to slightly enlarge, scroll down through cartoons to resume message)
Chuckling to ourselves or laughing out loud are cathartic and immensely helpful to our spiritual souls. By smiling, experiencing moments of happiness and taking life less seriously, we find real joy. Such moments cause us to draw closer to one another and, instead of diminishing the importance of a spiritual subject, laughter comes by thinking about and understanding subtle ironies – like how Christians worship a dead body much like bugs would worship a squashed one! That helps us tap into spirituality and how it affects the world. Is it blasphemy to humorously think of God watching us on some divine super computer, or Jesus having his bottom exposed – pointing out his need for sunscreen, or two Buddhist monks praising the ironic idea of being thoughtless? Some people believe religious subjects are off-limits and, indeed, I believe there are some things that are not funny. Negative humor demeans and debases. It humiliates and is cruel. Racist, sexist or homophobic jokes are examples. Who among us could not have aspects of their heritage, appearance or sexuality made fun of? Such things are off base.
But if God, Jesus, Buddha or any other religious figure are not big enough to be mildly teased, then I suggest they are not all powerful. I fully believe that if Jesus were alive today and had seen an actual Coppertone sunscreen commercial, he would laugh at the cartoon of him needing the same. As Paul Rudnick, a contemporary comedian notes, “There is only one blasphemy and that is the refusal to experience joy.”
And that ought to hold true for us. If I possess any confidence in who I am as a person, I can withstand gentle and mild teasing. Indeed, I ought to be the first to laugh at myself. The actress Shirley McClaine once said, “The person who knows how to laugh at himself or herself will never cease to be amused!”
Laughter also is a proven benefit for our minds and our bodies. This has been known throughout history. Plato and Socrates knew of its benefits. Laughter and tickling were used as a form of anesthesia during surgical procedures in the Middle Ages. Court jesters were used after large banquets because laughter was seen as helping digestion. Jesters were used to help Kings and Queen recover from an illness and it was Sigmund Freud who proposed that laughter relieves the mind of anxiety. Indeed, it’s been scientifically shown that an amusing stimulus to the brain causes the pituitary gland to release certain hormones that create endorphins in our bloodstream. Those are the natural body chemicals that make us feel good – after we exercise, engage in sex or laugh.
Psychologically, laughter reduces tension. It helps us be more empathetic toward others – we relate to people better if we see the human side of them. Laughter eliminates anger as it encourages forgiveness and a calm approach to problem solving. According to a recent article in Psychology Today, couples should not just to find laughter from outside sources like TV or the movies, but from playful and gentle humor understood just between the two. Those partners who are able to laugh at silly things between them or playfully tease one another, are said to be happier and more stable. While some find relentless tickling painful, the article suggests that mild forms of it are healthy in a relationship. Tickling that causes laughter is intimate, it brings the two closer and it helps diffuse disagreements. Indeed, the article says that in the middle of an argument it is sometimes helpful to say something funny or to begin tickling the other. Such actions indicate that the disagreement is not that serious and it enables calmer and more reasoned discussion later.
Physically, laughter is known to have immense benefits. Laughter lowers blood pressure, it reduces heart disease by reducing stress – something that has been proven harmful to the epithelial lining of veins and arteries. Laughter boosts our immune system by increasing the T-cell count and it increases the production of cancer fighting lymphocytes. It also strengthens our brains and improves our memories by engaging both sides of the brain – one of the few things that does this. We use our left brain to analyze a joke or funny situation. We use our right brain to actually get the joke and then laugh. Such engagement of both sides of the brain improves short and long term memory.
And so, my friends, as I end this January message series on overlooked New Year’s resolutions, I hope to have stimulated some thought about taking a chance and extending ourselves in new and better ways. Life is never easy. It is often framed with heart ache and pain, but we do possess the secrets to joy. We have within us that power I mentioned two weeks ago, to create pain or stimulate happiness – in ourselves and in others. If, as I believe, heaven is here and now and it is what we make it to be, then this is our chance, our one opportunity to have an impact and do good. It is our time to speak gentle words and experience a peaceful presence. It is up to us to let go of that which hurts and destroys and grab a hold of kindness, empathy and forgiveness. Of equal importance, as serious as life can be, we should NOT make it more so. We must laugh out loud, tell jokes, and be playful. And we must learn to laugh at ourselves. We are often quite ridiculous, but lovable people.
I conclude with the words of two men – one a comic genius and the other a much too serious Pastor. Woody Allen, the comic genius, said, “I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.” And I, the much too serious Pastor, says to you and to me, take a chance, laugh and be a fool for a moment. You just might be the wisest one in the room!
Peace and much joy I wish for all of you…