Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Laughter. It's Good for the Soul.

Dear Friends,

At the risk of sounding heretical, and offending us pious Christians (me included), I’m thinking that maybe we need to lighten up a little. Sometimes it seems as if a grim, teeth-clenching, joylessness is in our Protestant DNA. We wring our hands over the future of the church in America as attendance declines and an entire generation walks away from their faith. Those reasons are complex but I wonder if it’s, in part, because our Christian demeanor of perpetual constipation is off-putting to those seeking a church to join. 

There are church traditions that look with disdain upon any expression of joy. A few years ago, I was in a mainline church on Easter Morning and hearing the congregation stoically singing CHRIST THE LORD IS RISEN TODAY as if it were a funeral dirge. Christ had risen indeed, but looking at the grim faces that morning, it was obvious that no one was very happy about it. I’ve been in mainline church “contemporary” services where upbeat praise songs were sung in the same slow and somber cadence as a sedate hymn. We’re told to “rejoice always” 1 Thess 5:19 but we’ve added the Pharisutical rule: except in church.

How did Jesus and the early church worship? Let’s quickly look at their “church song book” as we compare our style of worship to theirs.Shout joyful praises to God, all the earth! Sing about the glory of His name! Tell the world how glorious He is.” “Come, everyone! Clap your hands! Shout to God with joyful praise!” “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, And bless the LORD.” “Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song. Sing His praises in the assembly of the faithful.” (Psalm 66:1-2) (Psalm 47:1) (Psalm 134:2) (Psalm 149:1) 

One time in a church I was visiting, I guess I was singing a little too much like Jesus because the pastor’s wife turned around and gave me the evil eye. “Don’t you go singing His praises and worshiping like that in MY church, young man!”

The Church stopped all exuberant praise of the Lord thousands of years ago and developed the practice of the liturgical monotone. Many Protestant churches grimly soldier on in the same tradition and their ministers look with disdain and suspicion at the other church down the street as if fearful that someone, somewhere, may be happy. They could be right. Those Evangelicals can worship with such exuberance that you quickly realize how much they really do love God. Could that be why, as other churches decline, the Evangelical churches are the fastest growing Christian movement in America and in our world today? 

Some mainline churches do have the joy of the Lord. Arguably, African-Americans are the people group in America that has historically suffered the most. But go to an African-American Baptist Church and you’ll be over-whelmed at seeing and hearing the transcending joy and happiness that explodes out of their worship! A Jesuit priest wrote that, “..genuine joy does not minimize suffering. Rather it arises from facing it and, with God’s help, overcoming it.” 

But the joy of the Lord comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and is not a performance to please a crowd. A mainline church was trying to increase their attendance by offering “clown-led” worship and one can only hope that they drew the line at randomly-placed whoopee cushions on the pews! Of course we want to draw people to our church, but the house of God is not a circus or a Sunday Comedy Club. Our church service is a joy-filled celebration of our Lord in a sanctuary where God is reverently worshiped. Communion is a personal time of intimacy with Jesus Christ and all that takes place during those holy moments in the service should usher us into His presence.

We strive for balance, with times of reverence during Communion and then times of lightness when appropriate. Laughter is good for the soul and that’s why appropriate humor during the sermon or announcements can be that moment’s salve for one’s life-weary or stressed out soul. A German Theologian said, “The lack of humor into which we in the contemporary church have so often slipped is perhaps one of the most serious objections which can be brought against present-day Christianity.” When the final blessing is pronounced, we should feel spiritually refreshed, recharged, renewed and ready to face the world!

Our joy is contagious. I smile every time I look at the top photo of these three church friends. They are joy-filled Christians! In "Between Heaven and Mirth" a Jesuit Priest, James Martin, writes that:

1) Humor and joy evangelize others by showing our hope. 
2) Self-deprecating humor reminds us to not take ourselves too seriously. 
3) Joy, humor and laughter show Christian courage in the face of adversity. 
4) Humor and laughter welcome others into our church. 
5) Laughter helps in the healing process. 
6) Humor fosters good human relationships. 
7) Laughter relaxes us and is God’s gracious gift for us to enjoy.

The Apostle Paul said to “Rejoice always!” And let’s add: especially in church. It’s okay to be filled with the joy of the Lord! Let’s show others that our Christian faith is filled with life, love and laughter. “We were filled with laughter, and we sang for joy. And the others said, ‘What amazing things the LORD has done for them.’” Psalm 126:2 NLT

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