Chapter 11. The Saving Grace of a Sense of Humor
"... a time to weep, and a time to laugh..." Ecclesiastes 3:4
My third preaching stint ever was in a most inhospitable surrounding, Sunday evening compulsory chapel at the college I attended. It was late winter of my senior year. I had already been accepted at seminary. I was president of the undergraduate society of aspirant pastors. That is, everyone knew I was bound for the ordained ministry. But I was young, without much personal experience to draw on, and short on ideas of what was appropriate fare for collegiate worshipers. So I based my sermon mostly on Gordon Allport's measures of a mature personality. One of those measures he named "self-objectification -- insight into one’s own behavior, the ability to laugh at oneself, etc."1 My own sense of humor would have been sorely tested that night had the rebellious worshipers carried through on their threat to set off alarm clocks throughout the nave in mid-sermon.
Allport's celebration of the self-objectifying and self-deprecating spirit still, no less than in 1953, describes the mature human being. It also describes an effective pastor.
But right at the start please understand that I am not advocating ecclesiastical license to be a joker. Oh, some there are in the pulpit who insist that every sermon should begin with a joke... to put listeners at ease, to jolly them up before driving home the heavy message. I never could do it, couldn't find enough jokes that most people hadn't already heard... or clean and mild enough for repetition in the pulpit. My hats off to the pulpiteer who can hold his own with Henny Youngman. But, I report, I have yet to hear one... a preacher who made me laugh without shaking my head for the staleness of the joke. More to my liking, however, are those sermons hiding in a comic routine. Garrison Keillor's shaggy dog stories from his Minnesotan childhood never fail to sound a humane theme, with plenty of irony and laughter at one's own expense. George Carlin and Robin Williams, on occasion, come across as moralists more than jokesters. Perhaps the lesson here is that a comedy routine without a message and a sermonic message with out some comedy are equally deadly... or yawn inducing.
Basically it's an attitude the pastor will seek to develop, the one Gordon Allport identified, the ability to see oneself as others do, to be able to stand aside and above oneself with a richness of appreciation for one's own foolishness and pretensions. There's no fool like an old fool, the saying goes. Add to age the reputation of being holy and the saying could be emended for pastors, that there's no fool like an old religious one, especially if he comes with a turned around collar, and rolls his "r's" when pronouncing spirrrritual.
Oh the stories I have heard about the comedowns of reverential stuffiness! Like the fellow decked out in a morning coat, as was the pulpit custom in the 1930's, a regular pontificator who prided himself on his sartorial elegance and sermonic eloquence, who, having made a quick trip to the lavatory before the processional hymn, could be seen walking down the aisle with certain buttons unbuttoned and an unmistakable glimpse of a union suit peeking through. The punchline to this legend has it that henceforth the fellow had his pants tailored without a fly.
On the other hand, while recounting legends of pastoral embarrassment, few clergy of my age in this corner of Christendom will forget the story Lester Auman, The Rev. Lester Auman, repeated about his retrieval of the newspaper from his driveway. It was early, it was warm, and the paper was only a few dozen feet from his front door. So there was little likelihood anyone would see him in his underwear fetching the morning news. But as he slipped out the front door it shut behind him. It locked behind him. And he was home alone. He relished telling the story of his own underdressed mishap. He laughed at himself as loudly as we laughed with him. And we loved him for it.
The Bible is not a humorous book. There are no belly laughs in it pages. Just an ironic smile here and there. As when Jesus tells the parable of the great banquet feast and the fellow who gets thrown out because he forgot to wear his white tux.2 The man's perplexity with his eviction and the enormity of his fate are exaggerations not lost on the Lord's hearers, who surely smiled in response to Jesus' touch of irony, by way of delivering the message that grace isn't cheap but arrives with an earnest of repentance.
This imputation of irony to Jesus will sound like blasphemy to literalist ears. I have offended my share of souls with this claim, people who suffer from an underdeveloped sense of humor. There is a mindset that wants its Bible without any reading between the lines. Those with that mindset have accused me of being too clever for my own good... or my congregation's. But a flat interpretation of the Scriptures is just that, flat, void of humanity and any sense that that (the Bible's situation) is this (our situation).3 Wit is an ingredient most great preachers have in full measure. Martin Luther: reading his account of the Nativity in the slim volume, The Martin Luther Christmas Book,4one encounters a wonderful confusion of first century Palestinians and sixteenth century German burghers, ripe, alive, and funny. Or Bishop Fulton Sheen: he competed with Milton Berle in the early days of television for the highest ratings not because he had a haloed aura but because he had a twinkle in his eye. Or Peter, yes St. Peter, who at Pentecost explained to those who were flabbergast with the outpouring of tongues all around them, that the superlinguists were under the influence of the Holy Spirit, not hard liquor, because it was too early in the morning (or, otherwise, the suspicion of tippling might be correct?). Only teetotalers wouldn't laugh at that caveat.
If the Bible provides no explicit endorsement of a sense of humor, it certainly elevates the quality of character a sense of humor evidences: humility. Old Testament verses present themselves in good number, but my favorite is a familiar passage from Isaiah 57, "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit." Meaning those who know themselves and know themselves to be, if beloved champions for Christ's sake, nonetheless arrant sinners God welcomes for all that. Call it an advertisement for self-objectification, seeing ourselves under the gaze of eternity, never forgetting how appropriate the publican's prayer is for everyone of us, baby or bishop, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"5 So Jesus makes this promise, that "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." Think of that staple of bygone comic pages, the tophatted gentleman in a black cashmere coat walking down the street in winter and dirty-faced urchins knock the stovepipe from his head with well-aimed snowballs. Think of the pompous preacher processing down the aisle with his union suit showing. Then to be able to laugh at your own comeuppance, that is a true gift, a saving grace, and any pastor who would seek to be effective will ransack his soul to find it within himself.
If only because few virtues are as endearing as a laugh at one's own expense. During Children's Sermons I found it helpful to wear different hats, literally: a red Santa's stocking cap, a fireman's dress hat, a king's crown, and, yes, a stovepipe, from a Lincoln costume. Sometimes the congregation laughed in embarrassment for me and later wondered that I should subject myself to playing the fool. But the children seemed to think it funny and just what the pastor might do on a special occasion. One small saint explained to her mother why she liked the pastor, "Because he makes me laugh." Few are the pastors who have been cashiered by their congregation because they weren't spiritual enough. The more likely cause for a split between pastor and parish derives from a lack of humanity, that "he's a cold fish," that the sermons are leaden, and that "he just doesn't connect with us." A smile, and admission of vulnerability to all of the temptations to which this flesh is prone, a willingness to poke fun a one's own pieties: such go a long way to convincing the flock that the shepherd is really on their side and can be trusted to understand life as they live it.
That young preacher in Thompson Memorial Chapel in the late winter of 1953 had it right, more right than he could ever comprehend in that moment, that a sense of humor is a measure of maturity. More, it is a saving grace against all of the arrogant nonsense pastors sometimes perpetuate in the name of the Gospel.
1. See the website for Gordon Allport: http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/allport.html
2. This insight can be attributed to Dr. Paul Scherer, Professor of Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary, New York NY, in the 1950's. I say "attributed" because I've got to believe that Dr. Scherer, however brilliant and perceptive an expositor, probably heard this version of the parable from one of his teachers. The beat goes on.
3. This phrase, "the Bible's situation is our situation," was an oft-repeated refrain by the aforementioned Dr. Scherer. Biblical scholars, intoxicated with the Documentary Hypothesis and the uncertainty of finding the historical Jesus, will quarrel with this rule... because "then" is quite different from "now." But the professor of homiletics' hermeneutic is valid. It keeps the preacher from doing what Dr. Scherer calls the "elephant walk," that clumsy back and forth between the Biblical pericope and the present moment. Luther was a practitioner of this rule, as I indicate in the sentence that follows.
4. The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and Arranged by Roland H. Bainton, The Westminster Press, 1948
5. I fondly remember the story told years ago about an Episcopal bishop with a reputation as a high and mighty stuffed shirt. He was presiding at the Eucharist. When he came to these words in the ritual, borrowed from the publican, saying, "Lord, I am a sinner," one of his subordinates responded out of his eminence's hearing, "Yes, Lord, he is a sinner." God's Word greets us almost always and only on human lips. The subordinate should have spoken louder.