Humor On the Platform: Laughter is the Best Response

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This is my third post on using humor in ministry.  In these posts I have been trying to find and articulate the boundaries and effectiveness of humor in my many roles as pastor.  This has been difficult because “humor” is a nebulous concept and an often changing target.  Still, it is a wonderful reality in which to live because, as I have been arguing, laughing at the absurdity in the world is the best way keep it from consuming us.

This is important because I have been told that there was a day when humor wasn’t allowed within thirty feet of a Christian worship service.  But I did not grow up in that day.  Instead,I grew up in a shifting scenery of modern (or post modern, or maybe emergent and definitely missional) worship.  Many preachers tried way too hard to be funny all the time and failed miserably.  Others genuinely succeeded, having that right personality.  Others didn’t try to be funny but ended up making humorous gaffes anyway and added to the humor by being horribly embarrassed.

So when I filled my first pulpit, it was with careful measures of self condescension, humorous asides and perfectly timed (or not so perfectly timed) punchlines.  Not surprisingly, the humor in my sermons have brought me consistent praise.

Still, I struggle with how to be funny and when to be funny during my twenty minutes of fame every Sunday.  The danger is not that the joke might bomb or that your jokes might be offensive.   The danger is that the humor will be misplaced or misdirected and, in turn, misdirect the congregation.

The greatest example of misdirected humor is self condescension.  Certainly, insulting myself is the easiest way to get a few laughs and to get people to lower their guards.  So I use it a lot.  But I really struggle with why I use it.  Am I being manipulative or even honest?

Beyond that, I have found that insulting yourself for laughs is that you also insult the people who like you.  And there are those in my congregation who take it offensively because I am insulting their judgment in having me as a pastor.

To give an example, two years ago at our annual assembly gathering with the other churches, I had to give a three minute report on the state of my church.  So I got up and said, “Everything is going great” and gave examples of things that were going well.  After the examples I concluded, “So you see everything is going splendidly, except for their new Senior Pastor.  He is a young kid, right out of seminary, first pastorate, has no clue what he is doing.  He has spent the last year bumbling around town getting himself into trouble and then calling the district office at all times of day and night asking for advice and help.  Seriously, I don’t know what they were thinking hiring him!”

Everybody laughed hysterically but afterward my church’s delegates pulled me aside and said, “That was funny but you are not a lousy pastor and we are really mad you said that.  If you do it next year we will stand up right then and there and let everybody know how full of it you are!”  And though they were being slightly facetious, I still could sense the disappointment behind their voices.

So I try hard not to run myself down, especially when doing so is just a manipulative move to get people to think I am more humble than I really am.

Another dangerous area is using humor as a way of making people like you.  The truth is people enjoy being around funny people and if you make people laugh, they are probably less likely to kill you, or fire you, which would be the same thing.  However, in the pulpit, humor that scores cheap political points is misguided.  Typically these sermons are not technically sermons but stand up routines fit for comedy clubs.  They flit from joke to joke with no real point or direction.  People leave them thinking, “That was funny.  We sure like Pastor,” but their lives are not helped or changed for the better and the only reason the pastor was funny was to keep people from firing him or to give the church more money.

A third area of danger is forcing Scripture to be funny when it just isn’t.  I addressed this in part yesterday but usually these sermons rely on heavy embellishments from the biblical text in a way that violates the historical reality and the actual meaning.  They aim to make the text funnier than it is and in so doing create huge exegetical problems.

With those three danger zones in mind, there are a few incredibly useful ways to use humor in sermons.

The first is to point to the absurdity lying beneath our lives.  A common sermon structure (and one I fall back on a lot) is to describe a problem in the world, describe the problem in the Biblical text, tell the solution in the text and use that to form a solution to the problem in the world.  Humor is a great way to begin these sermons because nothing like humor helps us come to grips with the absurdity of our lives.

For example, last Sunday I preached about joy in light of the third advent candle.  I began the sermon by pointing out that I love joy because it is the only virtue you get to say you have.  But after laughing about how humble people can’t say they are humble and loving people can’t claim to be loving, I turned the joke on its head and said, “But here is the thing:  I don’t think we should let people get away with claiming they are joyful when they are not.”  It worked quite well both for capturing attention and helping people come to grips with the despair hiding beneath their fake smiles.

Another way to use humor is to highlight the awkwardness in confronting a Biblical passage that is hard to connect with.   This is not an attempt to make a Bible passage funny that isn’t.  Instead it is pointing out, in a humorous way, how detached we are from the original audience of the text.  It is laughing at the absurdity of trying to honestly read a passage written 2,000 years ago in a language we don’t understand and that nobody speaks any more.

One of my funnier moments happened awhile back when I described in short detail one of Paul’s more lengthy and complex arguments.  At the end of my description I said, “It all gets quite complicated if you ask me but the conclusion he arrives at is.  .  .”  The congregation burst into laughter because I acknowledged what they were thinking and let them know I was thinking it too.  We are far removed from this type of thinking and logic.

A third way to use humor is to move beyond jokes to actions and pictures.  Humorous pictures of the text on a screen really help people relate to the story.  The Brick Testament is a great site that recreates Biblical stories using Lego’s.  Sometimes having those funny pictures behind me while I seriously address the text helps people laugh at and understand some of the weirdness in the Bible stories.

Other times I use hand motions or even invite others up to the stage to help me address the text in a humorous way.  It lightens the mood and helps people connect and relate.  An added bonus is that those invited to help won’t soon forget the Bible story.

Regardless of how you use humor in your sermons, I would invite all my preaching peers to continue to experiment with it.  I hope this post (and all my posts) are not the last word on the issue but just helpful notes that guide conversation.

I hope to write soon about humor in pastoral counseling.  Until then a farmer and a welder walk into a bar.  .  .or a church.  .  .

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A Hermeneutic of Humor: Laughter’s The Best Word

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Yesterday I wrote about the absurdity hiding beneath the fragile fabric of our lives  I argued that the best way to keep it from overcoming us is to laugh.  Today I want to turn in a different direction and talk about how we read the Scriptures.

Scripture is filled with a different kind of absurdity, a quite Holy type that encourages us to laugh at ourselves as we try to get along with the God who created us.

So over the last year or so I have begun to realize that my own hermeneutical lens lands in the middle of irony, sarcasm and humor.  This does not mean I ignore every passage that does not make me laugh.  It just means I keep my eye open to the unexpected, looking for the hidden humor to show itself.

If I have learned anything from good comedians, it is that the unexpected makes us laugh.  And as Jerry Seinfield taught us, we laugh even harder when the unexpected is hiding behind the everyday events of our lives.  But we miss that humor because we are so accustomed to our lives that we don’t stop to reflect.

In the same way we are so familiar with some narratives and passages of Scripture that we don’t stop to look for what might be hiding in plain sight for us to see.  A Hermeneutic of Humor fights that tendency by keeping one’s eye out for what you do not expect.

For example, I read the Sermon on the Mount for years without realizing that in chapter 7 verse 11 Jesus calls his entire audience “evil.”  I grew up reading that passage but had enver stopped to think about how funny and interesting it is that Jesus just insults his whole audience right there in the middle of the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached.

The story of Samson is filled with all kinds of humor and irony that one would not expect.  Nowhere is this more evident than after Samson kills 1,000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone.  After the slaughter, Samson tells a joke.  The Hebrew is just a bunch of forms of the word donkey.  A literal English translation might be, “With a donkey, I made donkeys out of a donkey full of donkeys.”  However, the real punchline comes right after when suddenly Samson gets all emotional and collapses, begging God to kill him.  From anger to sarcasm to depression.  .  .that is a full day.

In 1st Corinthians 6 Paul is practically screaming at the Corinthians but in chapter 7 verse 1 he suddenly stops and says, “Now for the matters you asked about.”  The transition is so awkward it makes you laugh awkwardly.

The Prophet Daniel compares Babylon to a prostitute.  Most people are so accustomed to this that they miss the force of the metaphor.  The Babylonians were doing all kinds of nice things for the Jewish captives but their military was out torturing people and sacking cities and raping women.  So the force of the prostitute metaphor is that Babylon looks pretty and inviting on the street corner but I wouldn’t go taking her home or throwing good money and hormones after her.

In case you still are not sold read the Psalms and consider they sang these songs together in worship.  Some Psalms have lines like, “Appoint an evil man to replace him!” and “It is like precious oil running down Aaron’s Beard.”  Now that is quite mental image!

All of this is missed when we read Scripture in the comfort of our low expectations.  In contrast, a Hermeneutic of Humor keeps us on our toes.  It forces us to roll our eyes at Samson, laugh at Babylon and gasp in shock at Jesus.   It makes us rather uncomfortable around Paul and questions the Psalms we sing.   Most importantly, it keeps us from getting comfortable in our own jagged relationships with the Almighty.

But, like yesterday, I must offer a word of warning.  Not all of Scripture is ironic, sarcastic or humorous.  Some of it is quite sobering and when we read with an eye to the unexpected sometimes we are surprised not by humor, but by sorrow and anger and frustration.  When we open ourselves up to laughter, we might also open ourselves up to being offended or angered.

Still, there is much humor lying behind our relationships with the Almighty and sometimes I wonder if Scripture isn’t a testimony to the fact that God spends most of the time laughing at us and with us.

Humor in the Pulpit: Laughter’s the Best Weapon

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It will come as no surprise to many of you (especially those who have read my last few posts) that I rather enjoy good humor.  I enjoy writing it, watching it and reading it.  This is why Jon Acuff’s book, which I reviewed earlier, has stuck with me more than any book I have read in the last year.

It is also why a month later I am still laughing at how much effort it took to convince myself to run 10 extra minutes on a treadmill, only to get back on and immediately abort because my son woke up from a nap.  And I am still laughing at the absurdity of naming your hymnal “Hymns for the Living Church” as if there could ever be a hymn for a dead church.

I am laughing at these things because humor is the most valuable tool for surviving this world.  Underneath the fragile fabric of our everyday lives there is a deep absurdity threatening to rise up and overwhelm us and if we don’t laugh it, it will probably win.

For example, we park on driveways and drive on parkways.

We now watch reality TV shows centered around fishing.

Even more humorous is that those “reality” shows are scripted with lines the fishermen have to say upon catching a fish.

Our Country Time Lemonade has no lemons in it.  Our furniture polish does.

Speaking of which, our Green Tea is not made with tea leaves, but with chemically flavored corn syrup.  This means we are artificially making the most unhealthy substance taste like the most disgusting beverage.  I would rather drink soda pop.  At least it tastes good.

However, the “Diet Green Tea” is made from real tea leaves.  Someone explain that to me.

In the USA we have one political party that claims to love small government, but is crusading to make everything illegal.  The other party campaigns on the effectiveness of big government but wants to legalize everything.

In addition the divorced people are the angriest at the homosexuals for “ruining marriage.”

Our Christmas presents are the best thing that ever happened to us until January 10th, when we can’t remember what it was we got for Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas presents, there is a whole realm of silliness that happens there.  I have a friend whose grandparents went to the mall every year.  They split up and each bought themselves a present for Christmas.  Then they met back at the car, exchanged bags, went home and gift wrapped the other’s presents.  Then on Christmas morning they went out of their way to act surprised when they got “exactly what I wanted!”

We have nondenominational churches who claim to be about transcending the disunity of denominations.  Then these churches name themselves, “Real Life” in a way of giving the middle finger to all those “Dead Life Denominational” Churches out there.

In addition, the most religious people claim to “spiritual, not religious” so that people will like them.

At times I want to scream at it all.  Other times I want to cry tears of overwhelming desperation.  Other times I go to write incredibly cruel blog posts that will certainly be the final word on the topic.  Then I remember that writing a blog post to end the absurdity in the world is a lot like buying a wild bear to protect me from wild bears.

In the end, I have found that the most effective way to conquer the absurdity is to laugh at it.  In such thinking, there is a lot of truth behind the saying, “I laugh so I will not cry.”

Speaking of “laughing so as to avoid crying,” I was working at a Rescue Mission a few years back.  One night, one of our regulars found several large cases of alcohol in an alleyway behind a nightclub.  He quickly piled them into his van and drove over to our street where he passed them out to the clients who had not come in for the night.  Then he left, leaving the alcohol in the hands of a trusted friend.  After getting a little tipsy, the trusted friend drunkenly bumped into the stacked crates and knocked the whole thing over, causing our street to become a land flowing with beer and wine.  Not one minute later, the client who had found the free alcohol showed back up and was furious that they had spilled “his liquor.”

The story ended with them throwing empty bottles at each other and us calling the police.

This story is sad and deeply troubling.  Yet it also crazy funny.  It reads like an episode of a sitcom with all kinds of punchlines and irony.  I remember shrugging my shoulders and laughing at the whole event because it was the only weapon I had against the heartbreaking absurdity of drunks destroying themselves and others and stealing that which was not theirs.

In such a way when we talk about struggling against the powers and forces of this present world, laughter becomes an invaluable weapon.  I have found the right amount of humor at the right time can disarm even the most defended strongholds of sin.

Yet I must give a warning that the wrong humor at the wrong time directed at the wrong people can only increase the defensiveness of those we are trying to reach.  After, all at the heart of humor is the risk that others won’t find the joke funny but offensive.

There is certainly a tightrope to walk here but it is one that must be braved.  This week I will describe the ways I have used humor to minister to the hurt and broken.  I will cover the bases of ministry, from reading Scripture, to preaching to meetings to counseling.  In each of these areas there is a deep absurdity threatening to swallow our churches whole.  But there are also valuable opportunities to lighten people’s loads.

Until then if the absurdity to the Holiday season is overwhelming you, I recommend watching “Christmas Family Vacation,” “Home Alone,” “The Grinch” and “Muppet’s Christmas Carol.”  Each of those movies comes at Christmas from incredibly unique perspectives.  They laugh at everything from family dysfunction to Holiday killjoys to crazy light displays to Dicken’s overly dramatic prose.

So enjoy them and see you tomorrow!

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