How to write humor

I wonder if I’m qualified to speak/write on this subject.

You’re wondering why I’m addressing the subject of writing humor when so many “real” writers with impressive resumes are available.  Good question.

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?

After all, Dave Barry could not be with us today.

And Erma Bombeck and Art Buchwald couldn’t come either, tied up as they are teaching similar classes on a much higher level. In heaven, actually.

I assume. I hope.

I’m betting people laugh a lot in Heaven. After all, they made it.  So, what’s not to be happy about?

Anyway, my first point:  He who would write humor must first learn to write.  Period.  Okay?

What else?  Okay, here are Joe’s ten guidelines (suggestions? commandments? ironclad rules? whatever) for writing humor….

–1) Most importantly, you should learn to write really really good.  I said that already? Okay.

–2) Don’t use “good” when you intend to say “well” or “effectively.”

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What did you do in the war, Daddy?

“As his share who goes down to the battle, so shall his share be who stays by the baggage: they shall share alike” (I Samuel 30:24).

When Roland Q. Leavell returned home to the States from the “Great War” in Europe–what would come to be called the First World War–he had a problem.  People wanted to hear stories of the war, of battles, of heroism. The problem was he didn’t have any.

Roland Q. Leavell was in his 20s, single, and with a bachelor’s degree from seminary.  He had pastored small churches and had been sent to “the front” as a representative of the YMCA.  In those days, there was no USO to take care of American troops overseas, and fledgling organizations and ministries were still trying to figure these things out.

According to Dottie L. Hudson’s book “He Still Stands Tall: The Life of Roland Q. Leavell,” based on her father’s diaries, Roland did a hundred small things in his efforts for the Y:  He led Bible studies, he counseled soldiers, he ran a canteen, he taught French to a few soldiers, and he drove an ambulance.  At one point, he inhaled poisonous gas the Boches sprayed into the air. The one time he shot a gun was as a joke, pointed into the air across no-man’s-land.  “I guess I didn’t kill over 50,” he remarked in his diary.

And when he got home, people wanted to hear his stories.

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12 things pastors should do promptly–and 5 they shouldn’t!

Do these things promptly…

    1. Confess sins.  “Keep short accounts with God,” it’s called.
    2. Write thank you notes.
    3. Write notes of appreciation.  “Great song Sunday.”  “I hear great things about your class.”
    4. When inspiration for a sermon or an article  comes in the middle of the night, it must be recorded then or, count on it, you’ll never remember it.  Keep a pad by the bedside.
    5. When you agree to do a friend  a favor–write a letter of recommendation, call on a patient in a hospital, whatever–do it immediately or you will never do it.
    6. Jot down a story, illustration, or thought for a sermon that occurs to you.  If you’re in the car alone, look for an exit and get off the highway so you can write this down.  I’ve sometimes asked my wife to make a note for me as we drove.
    7. Pray for someone when prompted by the Spirit.  When I spot someone who reminds me of a person I knew years ago, I take that as an impulse to pray for them.

And these things, too–

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Ministers, get all the education you can. Then, never mention your degrees!

“Beware of Pharisees.  They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi.  But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers; and do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  And do not be called leaders, for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.  But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” Matthew 23

Pastor, when given a choice–and you always have a choice–try not to look and act like a Pharisee.  For my money, the best way–the very best way in the universe to come across as a big-shot–is to use this phrase: “When I got my doctorate…”

I’m not sure why that sets me off, but it does.  And I haven’t the slightest idea whether it’s only me or the rest of the universe.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that phrase is completely unnecessary and is inserted only to call attention to oneself, to make sure the hearers fall to their knees in abject horror.  “Oh my, you have a doctorate?! You must be of superior intelligence, far beyond most mortals.”  “Forgive me for thinking you put your pants on one leg at a time!”

The plain truth is doctorates are over-rated. There are people with earned doctorates who scarcely know how to sign their name or use the telephone.

The chairman of a search committee said to me, “Should we be concerned that this preacher does not have a doctorate?”  I said, “My friend, I know people with doctorates who have a hard time putting two sentences together. Those degrees are easy to come by these days and are vastly over-rated.  Pay attention to the pastor’s preaching, listen to his conversation, and get to know the man.  But ignore the absence of a doctorate.”

I assured him his candidate was a godly minister of the gospel whom he would come to appreciate in the years ahead.

Two years later, that chairman went out of his way to thank me. The pastor, whom they had called to their church, was doing splendid work far beyond anything they had a right to expect.  And they call him by the finest title I’ve ever known: “Pastor.”

If you are the preacher, get all the education you can, by all means.  And then, never mention it again.  Never. Mention. It. Again.

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“Oh! How long it’s been since I’ve seen you!”

Wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God” (Hebrews 11:16). 

What do you do when you know you should recognize a person, but you can’t find their name in your head?  My answer: Admit it, and save yourself some stress.

Not everyone agrees, however.

Songwriter Robert Sherman was attending the birthday party for Will Durant, the 85-year-old who with his wife Ariel had recently produced the enormous set of volumes on The History of Civilization.  It was a feat of incredible magnitude for which they had won all kinds of awards.

One month earlier, Sherman had spent several hours with Dr. Durant during which they discussed literature and film.  But now, in the crowded reception, as they greet one another, Durant just cannot place Sherman.  He knows he’s supposed to know him but cannot get beyond that.

Bob Sherman said Dr. Durant would stare, smile, and try to make the connection. You could almost see the wheels turning in his head.

Finally, Durant said, “It’s good of you to come.  It’s been a long time since I have seen you.  Too long.”

Sherman, relating this story in Moose: Chapters from my Life, called Durant’s words  “an all purpose statement.”

And, he says, Sherman understands the problem.  The older we get, the more prone we are to forgetfulness.

In his retirement years, news anchor Walter Cronkite loved to visit with friends in his boat off Martha’s Vineyard.  Now, he was hard of hearing but rarely admitted it.  When Cronkite, his wife, and friends stopped at a lakeside store, they went inside.  Some stranger greeted him and asked him a question.  He figured it was “do you know this person or that?”  So, Cronkite answered, “We get together once in a while, but I’ve not seen him lately.”  Later, in the boat, his wife said, “Do you know what that man asked you?”  “No, not really.”  She: “He asked if you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior?”

Do you have a similar story?  Here is one of mine.

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Some necessary things about prayer

I had led a family to Christ.  They soon joined our church and were baptized the following Sunday.  My notes remind me of something the grandfather said.  He was chairman of deacons in a church 3 hours away, and of course, they were excited about what had happened.  He said to me, “We’ve been praying for this family, but one by one.  We had no idea they’d all get saved at the same time!”

Expectations.  Dale Caston told me something that took place in a high school class when he was a teen.  The teacher asked the students, “What do you expect to get out of this class?”  She looked at one student: “Eddie, what do you expect?”  Eddie said, “Well, I’ve had you before–and I don’t expect nothing!”  —  What do you expect when you pray?  The curse of modern Christianity is that we expect little from the Lord, too much from the church, and nothing from ourselves.

“Thou art coming to a King; Large petitions with thee bring; For His grace and power are such, none can ever ask too much.” –John Newton

Okay.  Now, some quick thoughts on what the Lord has taught and is teaching me on prayer….

One.  You don’t have to be perfect to pray.

That’s almost funny, it’s so obvious.  But you might be amazed to know how many of us shirk from praying because “I’ve sinned.”  Well, duh.  “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14).  He is under no illusions about us, friend.  He who created us knew He was getting no bargain when He saved us.  When we sin, the only one surprised is us. So, go on and pray.

Two. You don’t have to feel like you deserve to pray, have lived so righteously that you have a right to have your prayers answered.  It’s all of grace, friend.  How we feel has nothing to do with anything.

Three.  The best advice I was ever given–and the best I have ever doled out–on this subject is: “Pray Anyway.”  In spite of how you feel, what others say, what you know about a situation, how little or much you know on what the Almighty wishes to do in a situation, or a thousand other things, it is all right to pray.

It is urgent that we pray. See Luke 18:1. “Pray or quit.”

Four.  Honesty in prayer is always best.  If you don’t feel like praying, tell Him that.  He who created you understands tiredness.  If you have a fear or doubt or question, He can take your admitting that in your prayer.  We worship in Spirit and in truth.

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What a good sermon intro looks like. And what it does.

I said to a pastor friend, “I wonder if you’d allow me to offer a tiny word of criticism on last Sunday’s sermon.”  He sat up straight and beamed. “I’d welcome a criticism!”

This good man is even excited to have someone do this.  Wow.  (He said later that everyone compliments his preaching, but sometimes he’d appreciate a helpful suggestion.  I had two thoughts: Any right-thinking pastor would do that, but at the same time, we don’t want a constant barrage of suggestions or criticisms.  Just one or two along the way at helpful intervals would be quite sufficient, thanks.)

I said, “You jumped off into the deep end of the pool with us.  Within two minutes after you began the sermon we were in over our heads.  That makes it hard on a congregation to keep up and follow you.”

He kept listening.

“How much better to wade out in the shallow end at first. Let us adjust to the water temperature and see where you are going with this message.  Gradually take us into the deep.”

He welcomed the thought and proved once again what I already knew–what a terrific fellow he is.  One doesn’t abruptly offer criticism or suggestions without confidence that the recipient will welcome it.

Story One. 

The U.S. Attorney for the southern district of our state was addressing a weekly men’s luncheon at our church this week.  He began with this story…

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Have you considered how special you are to God?

“Go tell His disciples–and Peter….” (Mark 16:7)

How special Peter must have felt, to have been singled out by the angel.

This is a question followed by a story…..

Question:  What has God done that forever makes you know how special you are to Him?

Was it a healing? A close call with a near-accident?  Something you read in Scripture?  A sermon that perfectly fit your need of the moment?  Your salvation?

What did He do?

Why do you feel so special to Him?

I have a friend who says she feels like God’s favorite child.  There has to be a reason.  I’m asking you to search out that reason.

Now, the story.

I was preaching a revival in East Fork Baptist Church, halfway between McComb and Liberty, MS.  Fans of Jerry Clower will remember he talked of this church and the community often.  Jerry Clower sat on the front row at every service.  I stayed in his camp house that week.

The organist for the little church had only one arm.  Clyde Whittington was a sweet-spirited, friendly fellow.  One day when we were having lunch with Mr. and Mrs. Whittington, Jerry Clower said, “Clyde, you have to tell Brother Joe what happened to you.”

Clyde was only too ready to tell how he had lost that arm and why he would forever feel special to God.

One day, some years earlier, he had taken the tractor out to bale some hay.  Normally, one person would have the dickens of a time working all the machinery, but Clyde figured he could handle it alone if he was careful.

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What I hate about my preaching

No one enjoys second-guessing himself, what Warren Wiersbe called “doing an autopsy on oneself.”

It’s possible to work ourselves into the psych ward or even an early grave by analyzing every single thing we do and questioning the motive behind every word.

No one is suggesting that.

And yet, there is much to be said for looking back at what we did and learning from our mistakes and failures and omissions.

That’s what this is all about.

It’s best done in solitary. (Often, we preachers ask our wives, “How did I do?” Poor woman. She’s in a no-win situation. Leave her out of it.)

What I hate most about my preaching is the tendency to intrude too much into the sermon.

I hate realizing that in a sermon I was trying to co-star with Jesus when the Holy Spirit called me to be a member of the supporting cast.

At a funeral of a dear friend who was a longtime deacon in a former pastorate, I filled the message time with too much of me.

Now, I adore his family and, if I’m any judge, the feeling is mutual. So, feeling at home and among friends, I shared their grief at our loved one’s death and rejoiced in their confidence that he is with the Lord.

Instead of delivering a formal message that had been well thought out in advance, I shared memories of my friend and insights from Scripture that say so much about death and eternal life.

Nothing of this was wrong or out of place. If there is one thing I believe strongly, it’s in the integrity of the Lord Jesus Christ and His assurances for life eternal.

But the sermon was just “too much Joe.”

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