(The first of this two-part piece was posted on June 30, 2015. Access it by scrolling backward on our website.)
There are no comedians in Scripture and no jokes. But there is a great deal of humor.
Elton Trueblood’s classic “The Humor of Christ” nowhere mentions the Lord as telling jokes or trying to be funny.
In times of grief–the subject before us today–it’s humor that eases the pain and lifts the spirits. Not funny business, although there are notable exceptions.
I’m all for fun and laughter. But mostly, we save that for another time.
At moments of grief, something a little gentler and sweeter is in order: Something humorous.
Tom Brokaw’s new book “A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope” tells of his battle with cancer in recent years. Multiple Myeloma is serious stuff, and it required his putting his life on hold to deal with it, and the involvement of Mayo Clinic as well as Sloan-Kettering.
Brokaw was speaking to an audience in Portsmouth, New Hampshire recently, and it was being telecast. I happened upon it in the middle. Throughout his presentation, the audience was often laughing. Since I’ve been working on a paper dealing with “grief and humor,” I paid attention.
“There is….a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
The doctors at Houston’s M. D. Anderson Medical Center confirmed to Ted that the lung cancer had indeed metasticized to his brain. “Perhaps six months, more or less,” said the doctor when Ted asked how long he had. The worst news imaginable.
However, that night the doctor called his room.
“I’ve been studying the brain scans,” he said. “And I believe yours is Primary Lung Cancer which has moved to the brain.” He went on to say that Primary Brain Cancer is not treatable, but a metasticized Primary Lung Cancer behaves differently in the brain and is often treatable.
There was hope, after all.
When he got off the phone, Ted explained this to his family. He was quiet a minute, then said, “Well, you know it’s your basic bad situation when you’re praying for lung cancer!”
And they laughed.
Can you weep and laugh at the same time?
Watch this. This is how it’s done.
Robert Mueller was giving a commencement address at the College of William and Mary. This former director of the FBI in the first Bush administration is the epitome of dignity and class. He is anything but a comic or comedian. That day, speaking on “Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity,” which he called the motto of the Bureau, he showed us a great way to use humor in a serious talk.
“In one of my first positions with the Department of Justice, more than thirty years ago, I found myself head of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston. I soon realized that lawyers would come into my office for one of two reasons: either to ‘see and be seen’ on the one hand, or to obtain a decision on some aspect of their work, on the other hand. I quickly fell into the habit of asking one question whenever someone walked in the door, and that question was ‘What is the issue?’
“One evening I came home to my wife, who had had a long day teaching and then coping with our two young daughters. She began to describe her day to me. After just a few minutes, I interrupted, and rather peremptorily asked, ‘What is the issue?’
He who would write humorously should spend an hour at Walmart people-watching. She who would write creatively might wish to do the same thing, preferably with laptop or phone in hand for note-taking.
Anyone hoping to write creatively and freshly should take the advice of movie-maker Harold Ramis. “I tell students (on arriving at a party or similar type gathering) to identify the most talented person in the room. And if it isn’t you, go stand next to him.”
Absorb. Listen. Remember. (And above all, be quiet. You’re there to observe.)
I’ve heard of a workshop for creative thinking among executives where the participants play paintball for an hour, then brainstorm on some topic. They are given a stack of magazines of any and all kinds and given 30 minutes to find every creative slogan or motto, and to jot it down. At the conclusion, they are thrown into small groups and told to adapt the best of those mottos to their own industry.
Creativity can be manipulated. The juices can be made to flow.
Don’t try too hard to be funny.
Don’t announce that you are now being funny.
Do not force it if this does not come naturally to you.
Find your own way of expressing the humor you feel in life.
Remembering that the best laugh comes from the surprise at the end of a good story, therefore, experiment with the best way to say that.
That’s also how to remember a good joke or story you’ve heard: Remember the punch line. If you remember that exactly right, you can recall the rest of the story by working backward in it. But the greatest single thing about telling a joke is getting the punch line right.
Again, though, surprise your hearers with it.
My granddaughter was six and we were at the swing in her front yard, doing what grandpas and little darlings do. We were singing and laughing and cutting up. At one point she said, “We’re being silly, aren’t we, grandpa.” I said, “Yes, we are. Why do we like to be so silly?”
In an effort to learn something beneficial to share with my class in 10 days at the Southern Christian Writers Conference in Tuscaloosa, I’ve been working and reading and thinking and worrying.
Here is what I have figured out so far.
I do not know how to write humor.
But I’m not telling that to Dr. David and Mrs. Joanne Sloan who invited me. I plan to stand up straight and act like I know what I’m doing, and hopefully fool them. Hey, it has happened before. I pastored six churches for 42 years. I know a lot about sucking it up and acting like I’m capable.
By now you’re wondering why I was invited to teach this class when so many “real” writers with impressive resumes are available. You’re not alone. I’m wondering the same thing.
The short answer is that I come cheap. The longer answer is that I come really, really cheap. Like, I’d do it for nothing, you know?
Erma Bombeck and Art Buchwald couldn’t come, tied up as they are teaching similar classes on a much higher level. In heaven, actually.
I belong to the greatest church in the world. We have an eclectic group of members and leaders. You would love them. Here are some of their names….
First off, our pastor is Rev. Turner Byrne.
The deacons are Rod(ney) N. Staff, Moe Love, Noah D. Word, and Ruffin Tumble.
You poor thing. Life has been boring for you lately, and you have been searching for a way to perk it up, to insert a little anxiety into your days and wakefulness into your nights. We have the answer for you. Eleven answers, in fact.
Here are Joe’s tried-and-proven techniques, all guaranteed to add frustration to your existence….
!. Buy a computer.
That’s all. Just get a computer. From the first, you will be frustrated just looking for the “start” or “on/off” switch. You will gnash your teeth trying to figure out how to get everything out of the box and set it up. You will learn the definition of words someone made up, like “modem” and “yahoo” and “google.” Then, after your 10-year-old puts it all together and makes everything work, you will tear your hair out on an average of at least once a week.
This is not an exaggeration. It’s why a large percentage of computer-users are bald. It’s why almost no old people are on the computer. They would have been, but the stress killed them before they got out of middle age.
The computer is perfect for people with insufficient frustration in their lives.
(These follow an earlier article on “Joe’s 10 ironclad rules for success,” which were mostly silly and intended to provoke a hearty laugh. Now, we get just a tad more serious. But, not to worry, not much more serious.)
11. If you study hard for your sermons and eventually get to a big church, you can hire research assistants to do your studying for you. Success brings its privileges.
12. If you look at the ceiling while you preach, you may overcome your shyness but you will end up preaching over the heads of your people.
What follows is a blend of the funny and the serious, what some call “peanut butter and jelly,” the PB for nourishment and the J for delight. Please bring a sense of whimsy and expect to receive no sermon ideas from this! Thank you. –Joe
In the January/February 2015 issue of Preaching, executive editor Michael Duduit (and my longtime friend) tells of a fellow in Florida who carved out a slot in the Guinness Book of World Records with a sermon that lasted 53 hours and 18 minutes. Well, actually, it was 45 of his old sermons stitched together, not just one. Michael says the guy used 600 PowerPoint slides and basically covered the entire Bible, from Genesis to the concordance.
All of that tickled Editor Michael’s funny bone, as oddities in the ministry usually do. This started him thinking, “What other record-breaking attempts could be made by preachers?” After relaying his suggestions–with some parenthetical notes from moi–we will have an idea or two of our own.
Okay. Michael suggests the Guinness people might want to look at: