“I love to laugh, ha ha ha ha, loud and long and clear!” (Uncle Albert in “Mary Poppins”)
Should religious leaders be funny? Often we think not.
But consider this scene from the Acts of the Apostles. While on his second trip through Troas, Paul delivers a speech at the weekly Christian gathering. Luke tells us, however, that Paul gave way to the preacher’s perennial problem: a long-winded sermon. “Paul talked with them,” writes Luke, and “prolonged his speech until midnight. ... A young man named Eutychus was sitting in the window. He sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on and on; and being overcome by sleep, Eutychus fell down from the third story and was taken up dead” (Acts 20:7-9).
Perhaps because we’re accustomed to thinking of the Bible as a book of high religious or moral seriousness, we think it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) funny and often miss its humor. But there is plenty to laugh at in its pages. In this scene from Acts, for example, the story displays the comedic effects of an extremely long and boring sermon. Luke, the companion of Paul and author of Acts, is poking fun at Paul for being long-winded.
Of course, Paul points out that Eutychus is not really dead (he turns out to be just fine). Luke’s humor is not dark. But it is funny. Transpose any long-winded preacher, visualize the nodding heads and soft whistles of air from the regular congregational sleepers, watch a youth group member fall out of the balcony, and you’ve seen something of the dramatic power of early Christian worship! The Spirit moves so powerfully that the preacher can’t shut up, the members of the congregation fall asleep and people are actually bored (almost) to death!
Having a sense of humor is a mark of life-giving leadership, if for no other reason than that laughter is theologically profound. Laughter testifies to the finitude of tears. It beckons us physiologically, spiritually -- even if for just a moment -- into the reality that all shall not be lost, that we shall be saved. In this way, laughter instantiates hope.
Because laughter can be both a sign and a means of hope, those who believe humor and seriousness are opposites have missed a large part of laughter’s importance. Laughter is, in fact, quite serious: It is a primary way that human beings -- uniquely, so far as we know, among the animals -- proclaim the victory of life, utter forth joy in the face of suffering and death, and offer foretastes of the time when every tear shall be wiped away. As the psalmist once put it, laughing and shouting for joy is what we’ll do when the weeping is finally finished: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. ... May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:1-2, 5-6).
In short, laughter is the difference between life and death. Its seriousness is its refusal to give in to brokenness and its stubborn insistence on joy as the final reality of the world.
For this reason, much is at stake in whether we laugh. To be sure, like all good gifts, laughter can be used cruelly or can function as a sign of our existential anxiety (people have been known, of course, to break into laughter at terribly sad news) or can show relief at the fact that someone else has gotten what might have been ours (“Thank goodness!” we think, “the joke’s on him”).
But to exist without humor is in the end to deny the hope we have been given and to turn toward death. Institutions and their leaders, therefore, who exist without laughter are on a deathward trajectory. They are, at best, anemic, hungry and weak creatures on the way to spiritual starvation in the absence of true joy.
By contrast, institutions and their leaders who have learned to laugh -- perhaps especially at their own foibles and flops -- exhibit the joy that lies at the heart of the world. These leaders hold out for something better than what usually comes across the desk or explodes in a committee meeting. They know, in brief, that resurrection comes after crucifixion and life after death. And they can thus laugh -- loud and long and clear.