(Next in my series of old articles is one about joy and personal integration.)
Laugh-a-minute Faulkner, she called me. She had not worshipped at the church where I was the minister during my time, but she had heard the stories. David Faulkner told jokes in his sermons, and it was not the done thing.
It was her misfortune, then, to attend a united service for all the churches in the town one Easter Sunday evening, where I was the speaker. Having read that on Easter Day in Russia the Orthodox priests gathered in the afternoon to tell one another jokes as a sign of their joy, and having also read a line of a poet who called the resurrection of Jesus ‘a laugh freed for ever’, I felt I had adequate theological precedent to begin my talk with a joke.
One person conspicuously avoided me afterwards.
I thought of that occasion again recently, when someone said that I had matured: I had gone from ‘flippant’ to ‘serious’ sermons. I would take great issue with the idea that I was flippant, but I am concerned for those who feel you can’t have a belly-laugh in a service.
My concerns are twofold. Firstly, I think they’ve misread Jesus and the Bible. Yes, Jesus in his sufferings was a ‘man of sorrows, acquainted with grief’. But he was more. He was the one who turned water into wine. Wouldn’t you invite him to your parties? (By the way, Lord, if it’s not too much to ask, mine is a Californian Zinfandel or an Aussie Semillon.) He said he had come to bring ‘life in all its fullness’ – was he bringing a misery package? And he told his petty critics that they were ‘straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel’ – sounds like satire to me.
Jesus wasn’t unique in the Bible. Laughter among the spiritual didn’t begin with him. When Elijah had a ding-dong with the prophets of the idol Baal at Mount Carmel, Baal’s gang got so desperate that their god wasn’t answering their prayers that they even resorted to self-harm. Elijah mocked them, saying, “Perhaps your god has gone to the loo”. Yes, really.
If my first concern is for a lack of wholeness in appreciating the spiritual life, my second concern is that the criticism of laughter in worship implies another lack of wholeness: a lack of inner wholeness as a person, a lack of integration. It manifests itself in other ways: the same person may listen to secular pop music for entertainment, but insist on traditional hymns in a church service. There doesn’t seem to be enough sauce goose to cover the gander.
Such a lack of personal wholeness is often allied with an approach to Christian worship that regards it as an escape from the world. Yet Jesus didn’t come to set up a ghetto of escapists. He came to transform people who would engage with a broken world, people who would bring the whole of themselves to worship and service, not just a religious segment.
It seems to me that these symptoms indicate a number of problems: a inner dualism, a lack of sensing that all of life is lived in relation to Jesus, an unacknowledged inner brokenness. It suggests that life is something to run away from, rather than to look in the eye. Given the healthy postmodern desire for wholeness, is it any surprise that so few people are persuaded by we Christians about our faith when this is often what we are like?