Humor and grief in ministry…hand in hand

“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?

Evidently so, because many of us have done it.

My weeping, a rarity for most of my years, was kicked into overdrive 5 months ago when the Lord suddenly took my wife home.  I am not normally a “man of sorrows,” but have soaked many a hankie since Margaret left so abruptly.  And for those who wonder, yes, at long last the sun has come out and is shining.  Looks like I’m going to survive.

“Weeping endureth for the night; but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). God’s children learn that by experience.

I believe in joy.

Jesus believed in joy. Even though He is called the consummate “Man of Sorrows,” He spoke of “my joy” (see John 17:13).  He was a joyful person.

Joy visible is a smile.  Joy audible is laughter and singing.  Joy palpable is a hug, a friendly touch.

Scripture sings on the subject of joy.  “In Thy presence is fullness of joy….” (Psalm 16:11).  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy….” (Galatians 5:22).  “Your sorrow will be turned to joy” (John 16:20).  “No one will rob you of your joy” (John 16:22).

“The joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  And in this earthly life, we are going to be needing that supernatural strength.

Laughter and weeping, seemingly opposites, tend to be successive.  Joy comes in the morning, after a night of weeping.  Once in a while, they show up at the same time.  And when that happens, we’re not quite prepared what to do, as though both mothers-in-law arrived on the same day with plans to occupy the same guest bedroom for two weeks.  We put them both in there and hope for the best.

Is it possible to laugh and cry at the same time?  Can weeping and laughing share the same space?

Every minister can provide anecdotal evidence in the affirmative.

–Emmalee Holland said, “I must be sicker than I thought. Everyone who comes into my hospital room tells me they love me.”  Two weeks later, they laughed when I told that at her funeral.  Was it funny?  Not particularly. But it sounded so much like her perceptive wit that hearing it and laughing at it drew us all together.

–After Joyce’s mother died, friends and family members filled the large house to remember, grieve, and comfort one another.  A cousin approached Joyce in the kitchen and said, “Oh honey.  If your mama knew we were using paper plates in her house, she would just die!” The laughter did them good.

–My wife and I used to discuss dying and where we would be buried. Not one given to making jokes, she surprised me with this. “I’m going to have you cremated and then place you on the mantel. From time to time as I walk by, talking to you, I’ll say, ‘Know what I mean, Urn?'”

–Margaret was stricken on Friday January 23 with a pulmonary embolism which triggered a cardiac arrest.  Five days later, with no response to all the measures the hospital had taken, we asked them to unplug her. She took her last breath of earthly air the next day, January 29, and her first breath of celestial air in the same moment.  Her passing was so sudden and so unexpected none of us were prepared.  We were caught completely off guard.  I cried for days. I would sometimes stand by her bedside when no one else was in the room and say, “Honey, you would be so surprised at how much I’m crying.”  It almost seemed funny at the time.

–At the post office, I ran into Mr. King, a parishioner at another church but a well-known older citizen. When I asked how he was doing, he said, “Well, pastor, I just got back from M. D. Anderson in Houston. That cancer thing is back, big time.  I told my family I want them to buy me two songs.  ‘One day at a time, sweet Jesus,’ and ‘Help me make it through the night.'”

Laughter can be a great coping mechanism for our grief.

Freud said that.  He called humor a way of dealing with the unspeakable pain of everyday life.

–Suzanne said when her grandmother died, the father of one of her best friends dropped by the rural funeral home to pay his respects. Since the friend was Sue Hall and her father was the inimitable Jerry Clower, soon the funeral home was filled with laughter. It was a great thing he did that day.

–After 9-11, America did not feel like laughing for a time. Then, gradually, the television comics taught us how to smile again.  Jay Leno said, “America must now protect itself from angry religious fundamentalists. But enough about Jerry Falwell.”  — Another comic said, “President Bush said we should resume consumer spending.  I immediately went shopping. I mean, if I didn’t, they’d be winning.”  — A cartoon showed a psychiatrist administering a Rorschach test to a patient.  Holding up a card with a drawing of an airplane, he said, “What do you think of when you see this?”  The man said, “Go AMTRAK.”

–Teresa sent me this about her mother.  “Mom grew up in a small town in Arkansas.  They lived in Texas and followed oil field work, then eventually moved back home.  Mom loved movies and had her favorite stars, and often wore the same color lipstick as her star.  She was always pretty with her hair fixed.  But mom had a terrible time admitting her age.  Now, the courthouse in the county where she was born burned to the ground, so the records were lost, leaving her room to choose her own age.  My mom was brutally murdered in 1981. This took place in another small town, so it happened that three separate counties carried her obituary.  Her age was different in every one–48, 50, and 52.  No one knew which was right.  It was 52, much too young to be gone.  I still chuckle remembering this story.”

–Robert’s grandmother lived to be 99, and was a real character, always coming out with witty sayings.  She admitted herself into a nursing home in Starkville.  When she started wearing diapers the last ten years of her life, she hated it.  My mom told her to quit complaining about them and make up a poem or something.  A few days later, grandma came out with this:  “Pee in the morning, pee at night; pee all day, O what a delight!”  Robert still misses that wonderful personality and her delightful stories.

–Esther lives in the Dallas area but grew up in Kenya.  She tells me she was in college when a cousin arrived to inform her that her father had died.  “There were no cell phones back then.”  She had to take the bus home, an arduous ten-hour trip “with a million stops along the way.”  When she finally arrived at her hometown, the funeral was over.  “I could not get the strength to walk home from the bus stop.  My legs literally refused to go to a home where I was an orphan.  My brothers had to come get me.  We cried and we cried.”  Then, at some point, one of Esther’s brothers started singing what she calls “a Catholic song my dad used to sing. We always giggled when he sang it.”  Esther’s brother sounded so much like her father that the whole family laughed and cried at the same time.  “From that, I got the strength to walk home.”  She adds, “We still talk about my dad like he is among us.  We sing that song, and still laugh like we did then.”

Laughter is medicine for the aching heart.

That’s Proverbs 17:22. “A merry heart does good like medicine; but a broken spirit dries the bones.”

I’ve noticed this about my own father, who was called Heavenward in 2007 when he was not far from his 96th birthday.  When I begin missing him and the pain is too much to bear, I do two things: I give thanks to the Lord for various things about Dad–his longevity, his character, his love and generosity, his stories, etc–and I remember things he did and stories he told. And the pain leaves.

Pain has a difficult time co-existing with joy and gratitude.

Both pain and joy are legitimate. Weeping and rejoicing are valid emotions.

We must not deny either.  (The Pharisee would deny the joy, I suppose, and weeping is rejected by those who have not come to terms with their humanity.)

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

The trick is to do both at the same time.  I’ve not mastered that skill yet, and probably won’t.  But we keep trying.

Susan grew up in our church and was killed in a freak accident in an art store where she worked, when a large sculpture fell on her.  Our community went into shock and our hearts were broken. And, because a wedding was scheduled at our church that Saturday afternoon, the First United Methodist Church graciously offered their sanctuary for Susan’s funeral.  The place was packed, and the service was as painful as I have ever done.

And then, a few minutes later, I walked up the street a block to our church and performed the wedding.  Rejoicing with these who were rejoicing.

I have no idea how to end this, so will just stop. Thank you.




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