(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

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        Three atheists die – and together approach the Pearly Gates of Heaven.  St. Peter is surprised to have atheists seek entrance to the heavenly realm but, being in a good mood he decides to give them a chance.

“I’ll allow you entry into heaven if you can explain to me the meaning of Easter,” he tells them.

The first atheist hems and haws as the wheels figuratively spin in his mind.  “Oh, oh, I know,” the atheist finally says.  “It’s about an old man with a grey beard, dressed all in red.  He has eight reindeer and he spends his time giving presents to people who are good.”

“Wrong,” says Peter as he pushes a big red button that causes this atheist to fall into eternal damnation.

Seeing that, the second atheist is visibly shaken.  She timidly says, “I think Easter is about a bunny that hops from house to house giving away painted eggs.”

“Nope,” says Peter.  This atheist then screams as Peter pushes the red button and a hole in the cloud opens up and she falls away.

The third atheist smugly approaches Peter.  With a confident voice he says, “I know all about Easter.  I took a comparative religion class.  Jesus is arrested after being betrayed by Judas – one of his apostles.  He’s dragged before Pontius Pilate who condemns him to death.  Jesus is nailed to a cross and, after dying, he’s buried in a tomb that is sealed with a large rock.”

St. Peter smiles and is very pleased.  Finally, there is an atheist who knows what it means to be a Christian.  But just as Peter is about to push a green button to open up the pearly gates, the third atheist continues…

“And after three days in the tomb, Jesus pushes aside the rock and emerges to see if he can see his shadow.  If he does, there will be six more weeks of winterrrrrrrrrr….,” as he screams and falls into the fiery pit.

I love Unitarian Universalist and atheist jokes.  It may seem weird but I appreciate how UU’s and atheists are mostly unique in their ability to laugh at themselves.  For a denomination that can often seem earnest and very serious, UU jokes show our playful and fun side.

There’s the story about two churches and a synagogue that were built side by side.  One of them catches fire and soon all three are up in flames.  The Christian congregation rushes into their building to save the one thing that is important to them – the cross over the altar.  The Jewish members rush into their synagogue and save the cherished Torah scrolls.  The Unitarian Universalists  rush into their burning church to save what is most meaningful to them.  They emerge from the burning building carrying their meeting room conference table…

On an airplane that is about to crash, some passengers begin to cry, some assume a protective crash position, and many others pray.  But a Unitarian Universalist minister stands up and tries to form a committee to discuss air safety…

A young woman walks into a fabric stores and asks to buy fifteen yards of see-through lace material.  “What are you going to make?” the clerk asks. “I’m getting married and I want to make a negligee to wear for my new husband.”  “That’s nice,” says the clerk.  “But fifteen yards is way too much material for a negligee.”  The woman replies, “I know, but my fiancé is a Unitarian Universalist and they would rather seek than find.”

And finally, what is the Unitarian Universalist definition of sin?  A discussion group in which everyone agrees with each other.

I decided to begin my message with a few jokes to hopefully create a more lighthearted atmosphere.  I enjoy laughter and fun as much as anyone but my default is to be serious.  That is likely reflected in many of my messages where I focus on weighty subjects that might be food for thought – but are hardly food for fun.

And so my message series for this month will ask the question, “Are we having fun yet?”  That question is, itself, funny with its sarcastic and playful query.  If one is truly having fun, he or she doesn’t have to ask if they’re having it.  A person just feels it.

My former wife and I enjoyed asking “Are we having fun yet” to each other on a family trip to Disney World many years ago.  Standing in the hot sun, in the middle of a long lines to get on rides that last two minutes, we frequently turned to each other to ask that question.  As two serious adults, we finally agreed we were indeed having fun after seeing our daughters’ excitement and delight  – which was infectious precisely because they weren’t being serious.  They had abandoned themselves to the make believe and the fun.  That’s something I usually fail to do – but I shouldn’t.

In an ironic way, though, having fun is serious stuff.  Virtually all animals engage in what can only be called play.  Dogs, chimps, bears, penguins, whales and horses spend a lot of time engaging in playful activities that have nothing to do with survival activities – like seeking food, finding a mate, or raising offspring.  Scientists therefore believe that having fun is not wasted time and energy, but is instead a very serious way to diminish stress, recharge the brain, and build relationships.

Every animal and person experiences stress from the challenges of living.  We feel stressed and anxious because our brains, in the middle of a challenge, cause the release of the hormone cortisol which raises our blood pressure, heart rates and metabolism – all so one can deal with stressful challenges.  But the longterm effects of stress and cortisol cause permanent damage to the body.

Dopamine is the antidote to too much stress and cortisol.  It is the feel good hormone released with eating and sex – but also during any playful or fun activity.  Dopamine lowers blood pressure and heart rates and produces a feeling of happiness and even euphoria.  Our brains have thus been hardwired to help us deal with stress by causing pleasure from various activities – and many of those activities are to play, laugh and have fun.  In other words, having fun is an ironically serious activity necessary for long term survival – because doing so reduces feelings of stress and the toll it takes on our bodies.

Unfortunately, adulthood and our American culture often encourage us to do the opposite of having fun.  People are told they should always be busy doing something productive and work related.  America is the only industrialized country that does not legally require any paid vacation time for its workers.  Every country in the European Union, however, requires paid time off.  Even Germany, with its often serious work ethic, requires three weeks of paid time off for all workers.  

Beliefs against fun and play in our nation come from, I believe, our stern, Puritan heritage.  The American Judeo-Christian religious tradition has historically said that most forms play are immoral because they encourage indulgence and sensuality.  The religious adage that, “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings” reinforces this notion that fun is somehow evil.  Many American religions today – especially fundamentalist ones – believe dancing, upbeat music, drinking alcohol, eating a good meal, and of course sex should all be severely limited.  They believe in a theology of original sin and in the evil nature of our flesh.  Anything that makes our bodies and minds feel pleasure is bad.  Only our spiritual selves are good and so we must deny our flesh and encourage our spirits.    

Perhaps worst of all, modern culture often imposes this puritanical attitude on youth.  Many schools have shortened or eliminated recess time in order to prioritize academics.  Many of today’s children have after school schedules that emphasize structured activities and minimize free play.  While some adults believe structured activities are forms of play, experts disagree.  True play, they say, should be random, creative, and most of all unstructured.  Any form of recreation that is organized and regulated by adults is not the kind of free play experts believe children need.

I may be an old guy who talks about the so-called good old days, but I remember when I was growing up that hordes of kids in my neighborhood engaged in totally free play after school and on weekends.  We played tag, rode our bikes, built forts and treehouses, and organized our own games with our own rules.  We may not have learned a specific activity skill, but we gained what experts say is the kind of creativity, independence and free thought that children need.  Such play allows any person – particularly children – to learn how to interact with others on their own terms, and without the guidance of adult rules that can limit growth.    

Today, when I drive through many neighborhoods in the late afternoon and on weekends, I don’t see many kids out playing.  And that is not just due to indoor video games and smartphones.      

The National Institute of Play – a name that sounds way too serious – says that our culture defines too many activities as play when they are not.  They are, instead, forms of structured work that don’t allow for make believe or relaxation.  That results in what the institute believes is an American fun deficit that has created a health crisis in the form of increased rates of adult and childhood depression, anxiety and irritability.  What people need more of, they believe, is time to just goof off. 

Surprisingly, I think some Unitarian Universalists have bought into the mindset of busy-ness and the seeming evils of unstructured play.   UU’s can often be too serious with their services, committees, and religious education.   And Ministers like me can often encourage such seriousness.  Congregations exist for important reasons, but it’s too often forgotten that the most important reason UU churches exist is to foster the well-being of their members and the wider community.  And having fun has been proven, as I discussed earlier, to be in our self-interest.

Once again, however, irony enters the picture.  Unitarian Universalistism, perhaps more than any other spiritual endeavor, ought to recognize the importance and the morality of fun and play.  UU’s, unlike members of other religions, are not constrained by creeds that focus on supposed sin.  With principles that emphasize human well-being, Unitarian Universalists philosophically support the good in any activity that does no harm and that is freely engaged in by the participants.  

In that regard, the universal ethic of the Golden Rule applies – all pleasurable activities are permissible if they affect others in ways that a person wants for oneself.  As long as any activity is not forced or contrary to what we want for ourselves, then it is good and completely moral.  And Unitarian Universalists should therefore practice what they believe by being a bit less serious and more fun loving in all they do.

I can’t tell you, however, how to have fun.  Fun is a highly subjective feeling.  Most experts suggest that something is fun if doing it is pleasurable, amusing, lively or playful.  They point to activities like laughter, singing, dancing, time spent in nature, communal meals, kissing and intimacy, movies, theatrical plays, reading good books, travel, picnics, games played with others, and mild exercise as ones that are fun for most people.

And to have regular fun, experts say we should compile a list of 20 activities that give us pleasure – and then we should resolve to engage in at least one of them every day.  That may seem like another daily chore we are supposed to do – and experts say we may feel that way at first.  But the way our brains are wired, as I described earlier, means that the fun we have will make us feel good.  Our dopamine levels will increase and that in turn will make us feel less stress, more happy, and WANT to repeat playful activities.

Of course, balance is everything.  As the proverb says, “All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy……..But all play and no work, makes Jack a mere toy.”

Most importantly, having regular fun enhances our ability to achieve what I believe is the human purpose for living.  We exist to improve the world by how we act, speak, and serve.  But we are unable to do that unless we first meet our own needs – and as I hope I’ve indicated, one of our human needs is to reduce life stress through play.   

Are we having fun yet?  For our own well-being, and for our ability to make a positive difference in the world, let’s resolve to say an emphatic yes to that question as often as possible!