Melting Ice, Breaking Down Walls (Mar-Apr 1998)

By Matt Dabbs

… and/or Taking Humor Seriously

by Dennis Crawford
March – April, 1998

31It could have been a scene straight out of The Beverly Hillbillies, or worse, maybe The Grapes of Wrath. It was moving day. We were moving our daughter and new son-in-law from Searcy, Arkansas to their new home in Austin, Texas. Our convoy consisted of a U-Haul truck, two cars packed with stuff, and my pickup. The pickup was loaded with various kinds of bulky, odd-sized items that wouldn’t fit in the U-Haul truck. A cheapie blue tarp covered—theoretically—the contents of the truck. Actually, the plastic tarp had torn away from several key moorings, and had shredded into a thousand streamers. The blue streamers had been flapping in the breeze for the last eighty-five miles or so.

About half-way home, our ragamuffin motorcade pulled in for a pit stop.

It was only after we had stopped that I fully realized the significance of this whole scene. We probably looked like total idiots going down the road. Surely people had been pointing and laughing, or shaking their heads as we passed by. So, having taken this whole scene in, I did what any serious patriarch/family historian would do: I laughed until I cried, and called for the video camera.

Little did I know—when I asked for the camera—that my truck, the shredded blue tarp and my light-hearted attitude would set the stage for a…Crawford Family Moment of Truth.

I realized it was one of those moments because, for the first time, my son-in-law bristled at me. He was upset—and subtly expressed his dismay—that I wanted video footage of the ragged, floppy blue mess on my pickup. In this harmless moment, we almost crossed swords. I could tell he was out of his league. After I caught my breath, I think I said something like, “Lighten up. You take yourself way too seriously to travel with this family.” Now after a few years in the family, and some reprogramming, he’s a lot more fun to travel with.

I don’t know why our family takes itself so lightly. It could be in the blood. My dad, who made and lost two fortunes in his lifetime, had a very earthy way of shrugging off setbacks. When life knocked him down, he would—as he put it—“Just spit and go on.”

Maybe laughing at the family is a complex defense mechanism. Freud might say, “Ve beliff joo laugh at yourselze to take ze sting avay, before uzzers laugh at joo.” Could be. Or perhaps it’s some genetic quirk, but whatever, we laugh at ourselze.

Family laughter brings up a larger issue. If the church is “family,” may we laugh at our-selves? I began thinking seriously about this a few months ago when I overheard a dis-cussion concerning laughter at the expense of the church. The discussion was critical of preachers, teachers and writers who parodied, exaggerated the faults of and generally poked fun at the inconsistencies of Christians. Those engaged in the discussion thought that God’s people should never be the brunt of humorous jabs. At first, this observation seemed too true to argue. Of course, the church is sacred, holy, a royal priesthood—God’s possession. So, are the would-be humor-police right? It’s easy to check. Let’s think about it.

Breaking the Ice, Breaking Down Walls

In a practical way, every effective public speaker knows that humor builds bridges be-tween speaker and audience. And breaks the ice. You can drive home a serious point with a laugh. Proverbs 17:22 is true: “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” A good laugh can make your day, as well as open your heart. No, the preacher doesn’t need to be a standup comic. But when you say, “A funny thing happened to me on the way to the pulpit,” everybody listens.

Funny things do happen. If, while preaching or teaching, I need to lighten up for a moment, I don’t tell an Aggie joke. One of my elders has Polish roots, and graduated from Texas A & M. But that’s all right. I hardly ever tell jokes. I can’t remember them anyway. So, I tell a joke on myself. I always have several recent, embarrassing antics with which to work, and no one has ever been offended laughing at me.

Recently I taught a one-shot class at our local Concordia Lutheran College on What Is the Church of Christ? I was concerned that the students might be difficult to work with, since they had probably heard that “one of those guys who thinks he’s the only one going to Heaven is coming.” So, to get them on my side, I began the class by making myself very human. I told them an incident like this one:

Recently, I had an emergency dentist’s appointment for a very small and quick procedure. The dentist’s office is just down the street from my house, so he asked me to come in at 7:00 a.m., before he usually begins his day. He said he could do the work in five minutes and have me out of there. So I got up at 6:30—with just enough time to throw on my sweats and comb the few hairs I have left. In minutes, I was in his office, out again and back home to dress for work. It wasn’t until I began to shave… that I saw it. Sticking to my neck…plain as day… as if it belonged there… the Breathe Right nose strip I had installed on my nose the night before. Every time I think about that I have to laugh. No telling what the dentist thought. I really should print WWJD on my strip, just in case I’m called out for some emergency in the middle of the night. At least I’d have a good story if the strip turns up on my neck. “Oh, yes, haven’t you heard? WWJD isn’t just for your wrist anymore.”

Every week something like that happens to me and I find one more reason to be humble. There are lots of places for the church to grow in humility, too. Take our printed materi-als. Like a four-year-old, who says embarrassing things in public he has overheard in private, our bulletin typos remind us that we can’t take ourselves too seriously. Some of my favorites are:

“The outreach committee has enlisted 25 visitors to make calls on people who are not afflicted with any church”… which goes well with… “remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church.” And one denominational bulletin reminds us why we don’t have choirs. Their bulletin announcement read… “The choir invites any member of the congregation who enjoys sinning to join the choir.” Yes, there it is, choirs and sinning go hand in hand. Maybe praise teams, too?

Laughter is a good sign. Actually, the inability to laugh at ourselves and our foibles may indicate the onset of mental illness. My mother, who had a rich sense of humor, first began to show signs of Alzheimer’s when she became unable to “take a joke.” Neither could she make a joke. Everything became literal and serious. Studies show the ability to see humor-—even the absurd—in the idiosyncrasies of human behavior is one characteristic of a healthy, well-rounded personality.

Thank God for the freedom to laugh. In a totalitarian state, humor is scarce. Crack a joke about the regime and you may be treated to a long vacation in a beautiful gulag.

Then there are the Gospels. You can laugh there. In fact, if you don’t enjoy reading humor that refers to laughable, self-righteous, inconsistent, religious people you’d better lay off the Gospels. Jesus constantly let the air out of the Pharisees’ stuffed shirts.

Jesus said things about the hypocrisy and the spiritual blind spots of the Scribes and Pharisees that the common people had probably wanted to say for years. Don’t get me wrong—Jesus didn’t run down God’s Law—he hit those who were making a mockery of God’s law. He didn’t treat the Law of Moses, or the prophets, lightly. But he probably did inspire laughter at the expense of the Pharisees.

Laughter? In the Gospels? Was Jesus “funny”? If that’s a new concept for you, let’s seriously consider it. In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus discussed harsh judgment. He said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” From there, to illustrate, he could have said, “You people go around judging others for relatively insignificant problems when you have terrible flaws in your own lives.” But did he say it that way? No, he chose to make it memorable—even humorous—by showing us a person with a log hanging out of his eye, headed toward another saying, “Here, let me help you with that speck in your eye.” That’s funny—and he deliberately said it that way.

Isolated incidence, you think? Think again. To illustrate the religious inconsistency of the Pharisees, Jesus could have said, “You people are so inconsistent. You are careful about keeping the small parts of the Law and lax about the things that really matter.” Yes, he could have said it prosaically, but he chose to say it this way: “You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). Get the picture? Here’s the careful religious person painstakingly straining his wine through a piece of fine linen. Then he turns to his plate. There’s an entire camel on it. And he eats it. Hooves, head, tail and all. Is that funny? Unless you caught the broadside of the joke, or you’re missing a humor gene or two, you have to laugh. After you see the gnat and the camel, you’ll never again be able to look at moral inconsistency with a completely straight face.

Humor With a Bite

William Zinsser, a prize-winning columnist, says, “With humor, writers [and speakers] can say important things, in a way that regular writers can’t say it, or if they do, it’s so regular that nobody is reading it.” Translation? People may overlook a serious essay—but they’ll read something funny. So, at times, humor is no laughing matter. Preachers, teachers and writers who use humor aren’t just fooling around—well—most of the time, at least. Humor can, and should be, taken seriously.

Jesus wasn’t a standup comic. His parody, exaggeration, and irony had a sharp edge. In Matthew 23, after his stinging (grossly exaggerated, comic?) rebukes of the Pharisees, he cries out, on the verge of tears, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your chickens together… but you were not willing.”

“Wait,” someone may say, “wasn’t Jesus a man of sorrows? Didn’t he have the sins of the world on his back?” Yes, he wept. Yes, as Isaiah 53 put it, Jesus was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. “ However, sorrow, grief and suffering don’t necessarily deaden your funny bone. Some of the funniest, most joy-filled people I’ve known, have struggled with debilitating illnesses, personal problems or overwhelming family tragedies. Suffering and sorrow don’t have to put us in depression-city. On the contrary, Jesus said, “When you fast (really become contrite or agonize in prayer) do not look somber as the hypocrites do…´ (Matthew 6:16).

Love and Laughter

The discussion concerning laughter and the church boils down to this question: can you love something and see the humor it it at the same time? Does laughing at the church’s inconsistencies and human foibles mean that the humorist doesn’t love the church? Or Christians? Of course not.

Bob Hope has entertained three or four generations and made a life firing off one-liners that made us laugh at everyone from the President to the Supreme Court. When Hope entertained the troops in WW II, he encouraged them to laugh at their Commanding Officers. Yet I’ve never heard anyone accuse Bob Hope of being the slightest bit un-American. Bill Cosby, with his comedy routine and television series, had us laughing ourselves silly at mothers, dads, brothers, sisters and grandparents. Bill Cosby is antifamily? No way. Then, in our fellowship, we have Paul Faulkner. In his Marriage Enrichment Seminars, with Carl Brecheen, he has the wives laughing at the “clod” husbands. And, he even gets the “clods” laughing at themselves. Paul Faulkner doesn’t love, respect and encourage the family? You know better than that.

It’s paranoid to see a sign of disloyalty to the church in every humorous jab from pulpit or pen. We’d have to quit teaching and preaching. Because preachers, teachers and writers must point out what is, and remind us what is supposed to be. There will always be disparity between our preaching and our practice. This tension between what is, and what should be, and all our little hypocrisies in between, is the perfect breeding ground for parody, comic exaggeration and irony.

Warning: Humor May Be Hazardous to Your Health

With humor, it’s possible to get people to drop their guard and see themselves as they never have before. This can be dangerous. Some people may not appreciate that view. When the Pharisees finally got the punch line and saw themselves as they really were: blind guides, camel swallowers, whitewashed tombs, prophet killers and snakes with huge phylacteries and long tassels, they didn’t exactly roll in the aisles. They got together and decided to make some changes. Then, after one of Jesus’ routines, they said, “We have a special place for those who get laughs at our expense. It’s called a cross. Here, carry this crossbeam up that hill—see if that’s funny.”

In the rich tradition of the prophets, who used their own brand of biting sarcasm and irony, Paul told it like it was, and was chased all over the Mediterranean. As he ran with the Good News, he said of himself and his preaching brethren, “We are fools for Christ’s sake.” (1 Corinthians 4:10). Frederick Beuchner said, as he discussed preaching, “Anything worth telling is worth making a fool out of yourself to tell it.”

So we do. Ah, the power of a church, a people, who can laugh at themselves. People who can admit they are still learning how to worship. People who can confess they still don’t know how to love. People who can say, “Look at us. After all this time. Look at what a short distance we have come. We have ten miles behind us, and ten thousand more to go.” Talk about walls coming down. To laugh is to admit our human condition. To admit our weaknesses. To confess sin. To hear the Lord say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

So, have I answered the question? May we use humor? If you do, you may get into trouble. You may be misunderstood. You could even be charged with blasphemy. So finally, everyone who wants to communicate the gospel must answer that for themselves.

For me, I answer it this way. Some Sunday mornings after we have sung “The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silent before him”—I remind myself that the hymn is totally out of context in our assemblies. Even so, I feel quite somber and promise myself to cause no laughter in God’s solemn assembly today.

I step up on the podium with a prayer in my heart, open my Bible, unfold my notes and look out at the church. Then, ever so briefly, I look inside my own soul. In a brief glance I see broken-down convoys and shredded plastic tarps. In those glances, I see a weak and powerless stumble-bumbling people. And every Sunday I remember that in these very people, in us, God has promised to show his perfect power. I have to smile—grin even. And for me, at that moment, the question isn’t whether I may use humor in the pulpit or not. The question is—how in the world can I preach without it?Wineskins Magazine

Dennis Crawford

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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