by Sue Conrad Howes. Sue is an ordained Mennonite pastor and an aspiring comedian. She is a graduate of Goshen College and holds an M.A. in Speech Communication from Penn State University and an M.Div. from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She and her husband, Michael, also a pastor, live in Lancaster, PA and strive to fill their home with friends, exciting theological discussion, and lots of laughter.
At my seminary, there was a table outside of the library that had old books for sale. One day, I walked by and was taken back because of something on the table. Along with the normal, old, musty, theological books was a sketch of Jesus. I stood and stared at the sketch for a long time, mesmerized, drawn into the magnetism of Jesus expressed in this artwork. Eventually, I saw the 25 cent price tag on the art piece. Joyfully, I put a quarter in the self-serve payment box and put Jesus in my backpack.
Jesus is now always prominently displayed in my church office, and almost no one comes into my office for the first time without acknowledging Jesus (the Jesus on the artwork, that is). I’m not sure why this artistic rendition is so mesmerizing and noticeable for so many. Is it because we aren’t used to seeing Jesus so happy? Is it because we rarely think of Jesus like this? Is it because we are drawn to and deeply desire a savior who is so full of joy? A part of me thinks all of these are true, and honestly, that saddens me. So, I decided long ago, that an important part of my ministry would be serving as a representative of a joyful Jesus Christ.
I wish church held more laughter. I’ll be the first to admit that every day life can be crushingly hard, and many days it feels like there is nothing at which to laugh, in the global media news cycle or our own lives. I long for church to be a place where all our emotions, sadness and pain, laughter and joy, are accepted and can be safely expressed. We are reminded of these mix of emotions when we read the Bible, and yet, so often, church feels like a place where it’s only safe to be somber and stoic. I don’t know when that happened, because Jesus’ first followers visibly enjoyed his company. Church isn’t an open mic night at a comedy club, but we need to laugh more, smile, and have fun together. We need to rejoice in our Creator.
When I read the Bible, I see God’s playfulness and humor at work. Sometimes it is explicit, such as the renowned laughter of Sarah when she heard the prediction that she, at age 90, would give birth to a baby (Genesis 18:12), Balaam’s talking donkey (Numbers 22:28), or the standard giggle that always arises when we read Exodus 33:18-23, imagining Moses seeing God’s “backside.”
Other times, we have to imagine the situation a bit further. One of my favorite stories from the gospels is when Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, is mute because he does not believe the prophecy of the angel regarding John’s birth (Luke 1:18-20). The fact that Zechariah is mute is not so funny (especially for someone like me, who values the ability to talk), but what I do cherish is an often overlooked point of the story. Zechariah obviously started trying to communicate with his own sign language (Luke 1:22) and even written communication (Luke 1:63), but what I find so comical is that people tried communicating with Zechariah through signs (Luke 1:62). Although Zechariah lost his ability to speak, he was not deaf. He was still quite capable of listening to the spoken word, but we humans are funny, and so instead of just speaking to Zechariah, people tried to communicate with him using signs. I would guess that Zechariah wanted to yell, “I’m not deaf; I can still hear you. I just can’t talk!”
Of course there are times that the playfulness of Jesus seems evident to me, such as when he surprises Mary at his tomb on Easter (John 20:11-16), or when he broke bread with Cleopas and his companion after meeting them on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-31). And the disciples are a comedy act on their own. Their constant asking of questions and lack of understanding, which annoys Jesus at times, and the lightning speed of the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (didn’t Jesus love them all?), when he notably outruns Peter to the gravesite on Easter morning (John 20:2-6).
What these stories, and many more like them in the Bible, remind us is that we humans are funny, both in comical ways, but also in just silly, playful ways. I believe, more and more each day when I see and experience the funny things in life, that God indeed must have a great sense of humor and must love to laugh, since we were created in God’s image.
Bringing humor into a sermon or worship service isn’t always easy. Everyone likes good humor, but not everyone can execute it correctly. When I taught public speaking, my students loved the idea of opening their speeches with a joke. I warned them: practice it … a lot. Practice it in front of other people. Make sure your rehearsal audience genuinely laughs. If they don’t, I guarantee your real life audience won’t laugh either and it will be a horrible way to begin a speech.
The same goes for church. If you have the ability to be funny, make sure it is funny and enjoyable to everyone. A joke should never be at anyone’s expense or hurtful, especially in church. The main purpose of bringing humor into church life is to add joy. Ensure that your humor does that. Allow the humor to enhance what you are doing. Do not merely add it for the sake of trying to get a few obligated chuckles.
It sometimes is difficult to involve humor if you are speaking to a group of persons who doesn’t know you well. I was reminded of this recently, when I made a joke about myself to a new audience, and no one laughed. I quickly recovered, but for a novice, this can be disabling.
We all know that Jesus wept (John 11:35), but I am utterly confident that Jesus laughed a lot too! Let humor flow through you as a sign of joy. Have fun! I can think of no better way to draw people to Christ than to let them experience the joy of the Lord in you and through you.