When I was a kid attending church with my family, the worst offense we could commit was to laugh in the middle of the service. Which is why my siblings and I regularly prodded each other into laughter so forceful that it seemed to emit from our mouths, noses and ears. My brother and sister and I were regularly reshuffled to opposite ends of the pews by parental glares set to “SALT PILLAR” until the moment Miss Smith arose and called the kids to follow her out for Sunday School. The lesson was driven home at an early age: God and humor do not mix.
So I was so delighted, as an adult, to find a church in my adopted hometown in NorCal where a) our priest is an accomplished stilt walker and never misses a chance to explain a parable from ten feet overhead; b) the send-off gift to newly ordained seminarians as they head to their first big jobs is a flaming Bible (to be used ironically, of course); and c) when a Bible reading is particularly heavy on “shall nots” or regressive historical social policy, the reader has been known to utter “Good luck with that” to the preacher whose job it is to interpret it for her congregation.
It’s as a member of this lefty, liberal, Episcopal church that I have come to believe that God has an excellent sense of humor. How else do you explain a Bible passage I like to think of as “Revenge of the Chrome Dome”:
“Then Elisha went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, ‘Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!’ When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.” (Kings 2:23)I believe that God wants me to get up every day with the intent to be a better person and a better writer, which really boils down to one thing: keep trying.
It’s got the perfect joke structure: setup (bald guy getting mocked by first century juvenile delinquents) and punchline (bear tucks in for 42-juvie buffet). It also illustrates where, for me, humor and faith come together because both make it easier to bear witness to hard truths. In the face of injustice or indignity – in this case, reprobates mocking a leprosy-afflicted servant of God — it’s tempting to climb on a soapbox and lecture. But by wrapping the message in a couple of sly jokes and a bit of absurd imagery, you engage people who might otherwise not listen. You can pack a wallop into that laugh.
Another place where I believe faith and comedy align: hope. If you’ve lost hope, it’s hard to believe things will ever get better and consequently harder to see why you should bother trying to make them so. And as Saint Erma Bombeck once said, “When humor goes, there goes civilization.”
I don’t think I’ve ever felt as challenged to find a laugh as I did in 2016, for myriad reasons. My dad died, Prince died, Bowie died, George Michael died and we elected someone as president who may well finish off the rest of us. What kept me going most days? An ongoing text conversation between seven of my humor writer friends. At least four times every day, I look at my phone screen to read something so absurdly funny that I burst out laughing – I mean, mouth/nose/ears laughing – and the sound of my own laughter makes me believe that whatever we are facing, we are going to get through it ok.
Finally, faith and humor writing – any kind of writing, really – share another commonality: Every morning you get a blank page to start over again. You can write the saddest, no-punchline-having story that anyone in the history of mankind ever wrote today and then start penning a Mark Twain Award-winner tomorrow morning. Conveniently, that’s the same time you can start to work harder to be more patient or more generous or less judgmental than you were today.
I believe that God wants me to get up every day with the intent to be a better person and a better writer, which really boils down to one thing: keep trying.
My proof? In the Bible, there is a passage where Paul literally bores a man to death with his words.
“And there was a young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor and was picked up dead.” (Acts 20:9-10)
Yet Paul eventually went on to become a saint and, maybe more importantly, a contributor to the bestselling book of all time.