Wednesday, May 04, 2005


The Role of Humor and Laughter in Prayer

The Role of Humor and Laughter in Prayer (draft for podcast)
By Michelle Thompson

Humor has an amazingly broad range in human experience. When we laugh together at something funny, we transcend the distance between us as individuals. A visually funny experience doesn’t even require that the participants speak the same language for full participation. An example of this would be a vaudeville act, a circus clown act, or watching someone get a cream pie in the face a la The Three Stooges.

What should be immediately obvious is that laughing at someone and laughing with someone are two very different yet closely related things. Both are effective humorous methods, yet laughing at someone, while undeniably a universal human experience, is considered negative, and laughing with someone is considered quite positive. Both types of humor occur in scripture and in modern humorous prayer.

Another aspect of laughter and humor is that the expression of laughter doesn’t necessarily indicate that something funny is happening in scripture. On the contrary, a number of references to laughter are quite sobering. Let’s look at those first to get a handle on helping us settle the place of laughter and humor in prayer.

Proverbs 14:13
Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief.
Proverbs 14:12-14 (in Context) Proverbs 14 (Whole Chapter)
Ecclesiastes 2:2
"Laughter," I said, "is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?"
Ecclesiastes 2:1-3 (in Context) Ecclesiastes 2 (Whole Chapter)
Ecclesiastes 7:3
Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.
Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 (in Context) Ecclesiastes 7 (Whole Chapter)
Ecclesiastes 7:6
Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.
Ecclesiastes 7:5-7 (in Context) Ecclesiastes 7 (Whole Chapter)
Ecclesiastes 10:19
A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything.
Ecclesiastes 10:18-20 (in Context) Ecclesiastes 10 (Whole Chapter)
James 4:9
Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.
James 4:8-10 (in Context) James 4 (Whole Chapter)

8Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Psalm 37:13

13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he knows their day is coming.
Psalm 59:8

8 But you, O LORD, laugh at them;
you scoff at all those nations.
Proverbs 1:26

26 I in turn will laugh at your disaster;
I will mock when calamity overtakes you-

If there was ever a need to support the notion that laughter has no place in a prayerful life, then you might be inclined to find it here. Laughter seems to be linked to frivolity, sinning, foolishness, and a transitory state of pleasure at the expense of the immortal soul.

However, we know that there is

a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.
Ecclesiastes 3:4

And we know that

22 A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
Proverbs 17:21-23

The idea of balance, the presence of laughter, and the cheerfulness of heart, are encouraged in scripture.

Genesis 21:6
Sarah said, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me."
Genesis 21:5-7 (in Context) Genesis 21 (Whole Chapter)
Job 8:21
He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.
Psalm 126:2
Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."
Psalm 126:1-3 (in Context) Psalm 126 (Whole Chapter)

Satirical humor depends on ridicule to be funny and is often accomplished by manipulating a misunderstanding, using clever misspellings, and combinations of phrases or situations that probably shouldn’t go together.

Here’s an example of satire. These are alleged to be quotes from church bulletins. You may have seen some of these in email that’s been circulating around the internet for a number of years.

Bertha Belch, a missionary from Africa will be speaking tonight at Calvary Memorial Church in Racine. Come tonight and hear Bertha Belch all the way from Africa.

Our youth basketball team is back in action Wednesday at 8 PM in the recreation hall. Come out and watch us kill Christ the King.

The senior choir invites any member of the congregation who enjoys sinning to join the choir.

For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

The Rev. Merriwether spoke briefly, much to the delight of the audience.

Potluck supper: prayer and medication to follow.

Don't let worry kill you off - let the church help.

While funny, this type of humor doesn’t seem to illustrate anything in particular about prayer or the church. Any moderately large group of people is a worthy target of clever satire. Satirical humor isn’t much fun when you are the butt of the joke, but the motivation for satire is very often to protest something. An examination of what provoked the protest can be very rewarding to a life of faith, as self-examination is one of the fruits of the labor of prayer.

Very often, satire magnifies something about a group or institution that is either misunderstood or needs to be changed. Fussiness, stodginess, hypocrisy, and short-sightedness almost instantly inspire satire. These are also things that we should all strive to eliminate from our faith lives. Not everything that is satirized is negative, but satire in many cases offers a quick humility check for the target of the joke.

Next, let’s consider something funny that also illuminates or illustrates a positive teaching point. For example,

I had been teaching my four-year-old son, Michael, the Lord’s Prayer for several evenings at bedtime. He would repeat after me the lines from the prayer.
Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as he carefully enunciated each word right up to the end of the prayer:
“Lead us not into temptation,” he prayed, “but deliver us some E-mail.”

As Socrates said, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms”. Know what you are saying when you say it, especially in a prayer, or you may end up immortalized in a joke.

My wife invited some people to dinner. At the table, she turned to our six-year-old daughter and said, "Would you like to say the blessing?"

"I wouldn't know what to say," she replied. "Just say what you hear Mommy say," my wife said. Our daughter bowed her head and said: "Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people here?"

Ooo! The third commandment strikes again!

Here is another one.

A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem bureau has an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall.
Every day when she looks out, she sees an old bearded Jewish man praying vigorously.
Certain he would be a good interview subject, the journalist goes down to the Wall, and introduces herself to the old man.
She asks, "You come every day to the Wall. Sir, how long have you done that and what are you praying for?"
The old man replies, "I have come here to pray every day for 25 years.
In the morning I pray for world peace and for the brotherhood of man.
I go home have a cup of tea, and I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth.
And very, very important, I pray for peace and understanding between the Israelis and Palestinians."
The journalist is impressed.
"How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these wonderful things?" she asks.
The old man replies, calmly, "Like I'm talking to a freaking wall."

This humorous story brings up the question of why it seems like some of our prayers aren’t answered. This next story seeks to answer that question.

Jake the rancher went one day to fix a distant fence.
The wind was cold and gusty and the clouds rolled gray and dense
As he pounded the last staples in and gathered tools to go,
The temperature had fallen and the snow began to blow.

When he finally reached his pickup, he felt a heavy heart.
From the sound of that ignition, he knew it wouldn't start.
So Jake did what most of us would do if we'd have been there
He humbly bowed his balding head and sent aloft a prayer.

As he turned the key for the last time, he softly cursed his luck.
They found him three days later, frozen stiff in that old truck.
Now Jake had been around in life and done his share of roamin'
But when he saw Heaven, he was shocked -- it look just like Wyomin'.

Oh, there were some differences of course, but just some minor things,
One place had simply disappeared -- the town they called Rock Springs.
The BLM had been shut down; there were no grazin' fees
And the wind in Rawlins and Cheyenne was now a gentle breeze.

The Park and Forest Service folks -- they didn't fare so well,
They'd all been sent to fight some fire in a wilderness called Hell.
Though Heaven was a real nice place, Jake had a wondering mind
So he saddled up and lit a shuck, not know'n what he'd find.

Then one day up in Cody, on a cold fall afternoon,
He saw St. Peter coming, and he knew he'd be there soon.
Of all the saints in Heaven, his favorite was St. Peter,
Now, this line, it ain't needed but it helps with rhyme and meter.

So they set and talked a minute or two, or maybe it was three
Nobody was keepin' score -- in Heaven time is free.
"I've always heard," Jake said to Pete, "that God will answer prayers.
"But the one time that I asked for help, He just plain wasn't there.

"Does God answer prayers of some, and ignore the prayers of others?
"That don't seem exactly square -- I know all men are brothers.
"Or does He randomly reply, without good rhyme or reason?
"Maybe it's the time of day, the weather or the season.

"Now I ain't trying to act smart, it's just the way I feel,
And I was wonderin', could you tell -- what the heck's the deal?"
Peter listened very patiently and when Jake was done,
There were smiles of recognition, and he said, "So, you're the one!"

"That day your truck, it wouldn't start, and you sent your prayer a flying,
"You gave us all a real bad time, with hundreds of us a trying.
"A thousand angels rushed to check the status of your file,
"But you know, Jake, we hadn't heard from you in quite a while
"And though all prayers are answered, and God ain't got no quota,
"He didn't recognize your voice, and started a truck in North Dakota."

In closing, the important thing to remember about humor and prayer is that laughter can inspire truly wonderful emotions, it make prayer a more accessible activity, and it can gently remind us of our humanity.

Laughing with God can be as much as a prayer as the recitation of specific words at specific times.

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