Some people burst out laughing today, right in the middle of the worship service. Actually, I heard some jocularity and chuckling before the worship started, but I was too far away and too busy to see who it was...or what it was about.
The chatter settled down, however, when the prelude started. And we made it through the lighting of the Advent candles and the opening hymn with no levity. But then chaos broke out all over the place when we tried to sing number 227, "The Friendly Beasts."
I had asked the children to come forward and help me with the song. Stanza two features a singing donkey, stanza three a warbling cow, stanza four a caroling sheep, and stanza five some crooning doves. I had thought the kids could pretend to be the animals while we sang.
But as soon as the kids got up there I was suddenly overcome with fear that I might lose control of this sacred hymn...as in... one of them might start giggling during it.
So to reduce the chance of such irreverence, I sent the children out into the congregation to fetch adults to be the animals. After all, adults know better than to laugh in church.
Wrong move. The laugher started as soon as I gestured toward the congregation and asked the kids to go out there and bring back some donkeys. The laughter kept rolling when I instructed them to pick out a few "cows" from the congregants. And it carried on through the drafting of "sheep." Finally, we decided to let the little kids from the nursery be the "doves".
The kids giggled and the adults laughed all the way through the hymn. My Lord! How did I ever let things get so out of hand. I had surely allowed the holy sanctuary to be desecrated with our roguish joviality.
When number 227 was done, I sat down to ponder my way out of this. The kids stayed up there with Dora and sang the congregation some Christmas carols. Thank goodness the congregation didn't laugh at the kids. Their faced were beaming and their smiles huge, but no laughter. Applause and nodding of heads...but no guffaws or hilarity.
Then Jordan brought the Praise Team forward. They all whipped out sunglasses and sported them on their faces. More laughter. Then they began snapping their fingers and singing "White Christmas" in a blues vein. More laughter.
My (now deceased) professor of worship would not have laughed. After all, "White Christmas" is not technically an advent hymn. And while he would have allowed a brief spoken reference about "White Christmas" in a sermon, he most certainly would have flunked any student who stuck it into a worship service.
So, when I finally got the microphone again, I apologized by saying, "I knew that as soon as I announced my retirement, Jordan would began doing things like this." But then, everyone just laughed at me again! What is wrong with these people!
And then I found out the reason for all the laughter this morning. I've been listening to a series of lectures (from the Great Courses) entitled "The Philosophy of Humor." And it turns out that many of the people in my church think they are a "gelastic" congregation. The word comes from the Greek word, "gelos," meaning laughter. There are, of course, a few people in every church I've ever served who are adamantly "a-gelastic," meaning they would never laugh during church.
Of course, anyone who has ever met me (or ever read what I write) knows that paragraphs 3-7 above are tongue-in-cheek. I'm a huge proponent of gelastic Christianity. I just didn't know before this week that it had a name.
Laughter is one of those involuntary physical reactions that happens to be pleasurable. We almost always want more of it. And when we cause others to laugh, we are so pleased with ourselves that we want to keep it up.
Humor has a dark side as well as a light side. It's light side includes comic relief, the wise practice of not taking oneself too seriously, and enlightenment. Ironically "black humor" is part of the light side. Humor helps us bond with each other. It helps us discover companions: those who laugh at our humor reveal themselves to be like us. It is how we discover who we want to be with.
The dark side of humor subverts and deconstructs. That may or may not be good. It is how the oppressed find strength and hope: by lampooning their oppressors. It is how people rebel and overcome intimidation against their bullies.
But It can also be a powerful tool for reinforcing prejudice and hatred against others: particularly women, minorities, non-conformists, and immigrants. Directed against the "other side," it can incite and aggrevate incivilities that are already out of control in our communities, churches, and nation. Humor is sometimes the tool of propagandists who want us to go to war and kill "enemies" without remorse.
The dark side of humor is never fair. It might be a tool for justice. But it can often just as easily be poisonous and evil.
So, how does humor work when we are doing church stuff? It can do God's work by pointing out when a bishop is getting too big for his britches...or a pastor too pompous. It can give us some comic relief and energy when the fussy stalwarts of a congregation think that it's their church and not God's. It can do good.
But it can also caricaturize people...and misrepresent them...and obscure the things they say that we might need to hear. It can also turn a church cliquish.
On the whole, while we still need to be careful about our humor, I think the church needs much more of it. Humor, after all, is the fruit of surprises and mysteries and creativity. We put things together that don't really belong together...and presto...we laugh. Singing cows? In church? Followed by a praise team in sunglasses? Singing about snow and wishing for a "White Christmas..." followed by a funny quip to some people who are feeling a little sad about a pastor's retirement... It was a pretty good morning, actually.
The "a-gelastic" churches (and folks) assume that God has no surprises. Absolute truth has been passed down to us by the "authorities," and everything we need to do is all there in the rules, and the rules must be followed, not ridiculed, including the rule, "don't laugh." The "a-gelastic" God is serious and judgmental, not gracious and playful. Such folks believe that God can't take a joke...or know any of our doubts. Any humor is a threat to their control of the religious institution. Religion isn't about joy and justice...it's only about duty and ultimate rewards.
But alas, I fear I am an incurable gelastic Christian. I read the Bible and I see burlesque, parody, riddles, satire, playfulness, and surprise all through it. It constantly dabbles in rule-breaking, and I'm sure that more than one biblical character snickered at what Jesus said...and that Jesus was delighted that someone got the joke.
And for today, for all who think that humor in our holy of holies is an abomination, the joke's on us. The only sacrilege is not the presence humor and laughter...but its absence.