Laughter and religion


ImageThe following was my presentation at The Gathering, a United Church of Christ Congregation, 1431 Main St. in Over-the-Rhine.

I was a bit cautious when asked to fill in for your pastor this week. I was reminded of the story when a guest minister substituted in another local church. He arrived late and lost the feel of what was going on. But swallowing his pride he asked from the pulpit, “What do I do now?” Someone in the audience replied, “You say something and we respond.” Still perplexed, he said, “I must confess, I’m speech, less!” And the audience responded, “Thanks be to God.”

I am not a comedian. Once I did tell a group that I was a comedian and they just laughed at me. But I do consider myself a health educator. As a pharmacist, I’ve witnessed many who are searching for other avenues to better their health and well- being.

Laughter is the cheapest luxury one can have. It stirs up the blood, expands the chest, electrifies the nerves, clears away the cobwebs of the brain and relieves stress. It gives the whole system a cleansing rehabilitation.

In 1932, I became the fifth child in a family of 12 from South Fairmount.  Back then it was “Cheaper By The Dozen.” Three of my family spent some time in mental hospitals. But there was laughter. I also learned to dance at a very early age, just waiting to get into the bathroom.

I’m probably preaching to the choir, but there are still skeptics who doubt the validity of laughter. Researchers tell us that children spontaneously laugh hundreds of times a day, but adults laugh only 10 to 15 times a day; this is called adulteration.

And this occurs in spite of all the biblical verses proclaiming laughter.  In Proverbs: “A merry heart doeth good, like a medicine.” From Job: “God fills our mouth with laughter.” From Genesis:  “God has made me laugh so that all who hear shall laugh with me.” And in the Psalms: “He that sits in heaven shall laugh.”

So when did things go wrong?  Around the third century, along comes the Syrian St. John Chysostom with his new proclamation: “Laughter does not seem to be a sin, but it leads to sin.” Many centuries later the monk Martin Luther would say, “If God has no sense of humor, I don’t want to go to heaven.”  Then the philosopher Voltaire added, “ God is a comedian to an audience that is afraid to laugh.”

At an AATH Convention (Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor), I met Sister Christelle Macaluso from Omaha. She has a Ph.D. but prefers to be called  “The Fun Nun.”  She did a computer search on the frequency of words used in the bible. Joy was mentioned 250 times, sorrow 40 times and sadness only once. Sister picked up on the laughter greeting from The World Laughter Club  Movement  by saying to all, “Hi! I’m from Omaha-ha-ha.”  Once a Hawaiian answered with, “Well, Aloha-ha-ha  to you.”

Ten years ago I was instrumental in bringing Dr. Madan Kataria to Cincinnati’s Convention Center’s Health Fair.  He is the founder of “The Laughter Clubs Movement,” a new yoga technique of laughter where anyone can participate in group laughter without resorting to jokes. His book is “Laugh For No Reason,” a concept he developed out of the spirituality of the Laughing Buddha. The next time you order a hot dog in front of the Westin Hotel and the server asks, “How would you like your hot dog?” Answer with, “As a good Buddhist would say, “Make me one, with everything.”

Last week your pastor gave an in-depth critique on the Muslim faith. During my Peace Corps experience in Afghanistan I met an Afghan who explained: “You Americans probably wonder why we’re allowed up to four wives. We hear that Americans do the same, only  you have them  one at a time.”  I do recall an important verse from the Koran: “He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh.”

A Jewish proverb states: “ What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.” Holocaust concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl confided to the world that” I never would have made it if I could not have laughed. It lifted me momentarily out of this horrible situation just enough to make it livable.”

In history we find that the most enduring music and laughter often evolves out of those cultures that have endured the most hardships. The great Mahatma Gandi once said, “If I had no sense of humor, I would have committed suicide long ago.”  Here’s an example of hardship:

                    An Old Irish Prayer                                                                                                                                                                           May those that love us, love us.  And to those that don’t love us, may God turn their hearts.                   And if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may He turn their ankles, so we’ll know them by their limping.

My wife Ginny and I taught English in China with Global Volunteers. A China tour guide told us that the word “gospel” literally means “the good news.”  He did like our good news-bad news concept in telling a story.  He used this with his American tourists, telling them, “Now I know you’re anxious to swim during this hot weather. At our next stop, the good news is, there is a swimming pool.”  Cheers went up. “The bad news is, there’s no water in the pool.”  

The English poet and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton said, “It is the test of a good religion if you can joke about it.”  I’m always amused at the church signs you find along the roadside.  Here’s a few:

Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet Him.

The atheists say, “There ain’t no hell.”  Others say, “The hell there ain’t.”

In Edmonton, Canada, a church had a large sign outside: JESUS SAVES.  Across the street was a larger supermarket sign: BUT WE SAVE YOU MORE.

And then there is this church bulletin blooper: Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our community.

For the vast amount of people who do not adhere to biblical texts or directives, the cosmos is as comical as it is awesome.  In the animal kingdom, God made the hippo, the purple purple-bottomed baboon and the duck-billed platypus. Perhaps you can add a few people to that list. Have you heard of the new-age beatitude?  “Blessed are they who can laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused.”

Let’s recognize laughter for what it is: a universal language and a God-given blessing for all of mankind. The following is from the American Apache tradition:

The Creator made humans able to walk and to talk, to see and to hear…to do everything.  But the Creator wasn’t satisfied. Finally the Creator made humans laugh, and when they laughed and laughed, the Creator said, “Now you are fit to live.”