“The Gift of Laughter” – Room to Breathe Sermon Series
“The Gift of Laughter”
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
October 24, 2021
My wife, Michelle, and I began dating during the fall of our sophomore year of college. About a month into our dating relationship, we had plans to go out with three other couples for a Saturday evening dinner together. And I know some of you know this story so humor me if you know where this is headed.
I call Michelle Saturday afternoon and because I didn’t know what kind of restaurant we were going to I asked, “Anything special we’re supposed to wear to this place?”
She replies, “Oh, forgot to tell you. We’re doing a theme date. Each couple is dressing up according to a different theme. Alison and David are doing a prom theme so they’ll dress in prom attire, (other) Alison and Marshall are doing a hippie theme…we’re doing a Texas theme – cowboy, cowgirl.”
I had not heard of this, and I really wanted no part of this. I was particularly concerned about all the studying I needed to do but… we have only been dating a month, I really like her, so I take a deep breath and promise that this boy from Ohio will find the right outfit.
I walk up and down the dorm halls around me asking if I can borrow various items – I found a cowboy hat, a belt buckle, cowboy boots, and a leather vest. Took basically the remainder of the afternoon to find the whole outfit.
I step out of my dorm hall, begin to walk to the roundabout where the group was to meet before driving to dinner. What I did not fully appreciate at that time was the fact that you knew Michelle liked you if she messed with you.
Six of them were are already there waiting, and to my horror, every one of them dressed normally. Keeling over laughing.
They got me. And it’s a great story – they were not malicious in the least just having fun with a friend they knew to be often gullible. But do you know the part of the story that bugs me the most?
I did not laugh at all in that moment.
I turned right back around to my dorm room. I did eventually get dressed in more regular attire for that part of the country and joined everyone for dinner…but instead of joining in the laugh I mainly felt mad for falling behind on work searching for a costume and also mad because I knew inside it was a great joke, and something within me – the stress of my workload, my pride, my sense of self-importance… it would not let go and just laugh.
On the podcast Hidden Brain, there was a recent episode on laughter, and it cited a study from a few years ago that the average 4-year old child laughs 300 times a day. By contrast, it takes over two months for the average 40-year old to laugh that many times. And it is not until we hit our 70s that we start to recover some more laughter.
Where does it go? What holds it in? And this is not just a curious question or a mental health question, though certainly, that plays in. It’s a faith question.
You remember back in Genesis 12 when God promises to the elderly Abram (later Abraham) that he and his elderly wife, Sarai (Sarah), will have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. And do you remember how Sarah responds to this promise of lots of children (something, of course, she would have dearly wanted and was likely deeply pained to have not had in her early years)? She laughs. It’s preposterous.
She probably laughs just to stave off the weeping that might occur if she let herself think about the promise that was surely not going to happen…
But then, sure enough, Sarah gives birth to a child whom they name “Isaac.” Anyone know what Isaac means? “Laughter.”
How many are the times in Scripture do we hear a reference to the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?”
Isn’t it great, then, that we are heirs to a faith that has laughter sitting right in the middle?
Abraham, Laughter and Jacob.
The beginning portion of Psalm 126 has the people of God remembering the joy of laughter:
“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; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
They are recalling the time that God brought them back from exile, back from life without a home…and it was a time when God came through for them in a way that was dream-like. They did not deserve, could not have orchestrated it or done it themselves…and yet God found a way.
And so they laughed.
Karl Barth once remarked that “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”
There is… something about laughter and…
- Something about how it just comes over us without our bidding or control and it shakes our body and has us put forth a sound we would never make audible if we were trying to project our ‘best’ self…
- Something about the way you can’t even always put into words why something is laughable, something about how you can’t even describe it but it fills with joy…
Something about laughter that is about as close to grace as you can get.
You can”t grasp, you can’t control it, but oh how fully it fills and frees the body.
What are the parts of our story (like those praying in Psalm 126) where we look back and recall a grace that had our heads shaking and our bodies laughing?
How precious those memories are.
In this particular Psalm, the people of God are clinging to their memory of laughter. Because the truth is, for a beautiful as those opening three verses are, this Psalm is classified as a Psalm of Lament.
Because in the particular moment that this prayer is being offered to God, the petition is this (from verses 4-6):
And now, God, do it again—
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
will shout “Yes!” at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.
“Do it again…bring the laughter again…produce a harvest from “our heavy hearts, our drought-stricken lives.”
I was at a virtual conference with a couple of dozen congregational leaders from around the nation as well as a few congregants and staff from FPC – it was a conference focused on the intersection of the church and youth and young adults in today’s society. A lot of good material, a lot to consider, but one of the more poignant moments of this whole conference was when the keynote speaker took a moment to draw back from his remarks, take a question that someone has about how to do this or that, push forward with this or that…
“We need to name something clearly for ourselves at the outset of all of this: we are exhausted.”
And even over Zoom with everyone in their different digital boxes, even over Zoom you could feel the deep stillness of agreement wash over these dozens of congregants and church staff from around the nation.
“Our drought-stricken lives.”
The irony about the deepest and fullest laughter we may ever know is that the breath for that laughter begins in the space of the deepest sighs. The breath for that laughter begins in naming clearly the hurts, the longings, the barrenness, the profound disconnects between God’s vision for this world where none shall go hungry, where weeping is no more, where peace reigns …and the things we too often know.
Where do we sigh most deeply these days? In the strange calculus of grace, that is where the breath of laughter is formed.
In Christ, the space where breath ceases is the very space where eternal breath is born.
Mark Labberton is the President of Fuller Theological Seminary, and I listened to him address the entire student body as they came back for fall classes a week or so ago. And think of all things you might want to tell a group of seminary students in these times…where might you start?
He preached on God promising a child to Sarah in Genesis 12 and how deep an ache that would have been for Sarah. How profound a sigh for God to speak into and make a promise.
At one point, he said this:
“We are engaged in a promise that is laughable (a child in old age, love conquering the sword, the cross greater than death)…We are in the laugh industry. You may have come to Fuller to think you’re going to study and think hard and work hard – all that’s true. But at the core of it, if we don’t understand that we have to laugh hard, then we fail to understand what we are actually really doing.”
His point is that if we are taking seriously the depth of pain and hurt in our lives and this world and the fullness of God’s promise in light of that – and the often gaping hole that exists between the two…
Then we cannot help but laugh. If we are not laughing, we have stopped paying attention.
In part, we laugh with Sarah’s incredulity (How, Lord, is this going to happen!).
But then also we laugh at the unexplained grace of Jesus Christ unfolding time and again against all odds in among the unlikeliest of people and situations.
Indeed, Psalm 2 speaks of the evil powers of this world conspiring to do their worst against God’s way and God’s people… and what is God’s response?
“The One enthroned in heaven laughs…” for the One Enthroned has installed an even greater King whose power over sin, evil, and death is greater…but the sign of this King’s power comes in form of weakness. This King is often moving most forcefully among the broken, the overlooked, the marginalized.
Laugh with incredulity.
Laugh in the weeping.
Laugh when you realize the person coming by the church office looking for gas money to El Paso and showing photos of his family is perhaps the clearest you will see Jesus on the move that day.
When was the last time we knew the grace of a deep laugh?
Where amid our deep sighs this day might we have reason to laugh? Reason to believe a grace inexplicable is at work?
I remember the end of one of my interviews with the 11-person Pastor Nominating Committee from FPC. I was interviewing remotely pre-Zoom days when most of us were not used to meeting virtually.
And Karen Rayburn, having wrapped everything up for the meeting goes, “Would you pray?” As far as I could tell from my screen, Karen appeared to be looking in this direction across the room at Cliff Snyder. Cliff appeared to be looking right back at her, actually. And he as not moving. Not speaking at all.
And in my head, I’m going, “This Cliff guy doesn’t know he’s supposed to pray. Cliff…you gotta pray.”
What I didn’t know is that from their perspective, Karen was looking directly at a screen with me on it and saying, “Would you pray?” And so all 11 of them are undoubtedly thinking, second by awkward second, “Um…a pastor who freezes up when invited to pray?”
Eventually, Karen tries again: “Bobby, would you pray.”
“Oh…” and I explain that I had been staring at Cliff for the past few seconds and wondering what was happening.
And their room burst into laughter. And honestly, that was such a frequent thing with this group.
In fact, shortly after taking the call to come here at Pastor back in late 2019, I found folks would often ask, “So what brought you to FPC? How did you know it was God calling?”
And you know what I would always inevitably say?
“You know what caught me maybe more than anything else? That 11-person pastor nominating committee, this group that really is representative of the whole congregation…every time I spoke with them or met with them, they laugh so well together. Not a nervous laughter, not a polite laughter, not a cynical laughter…a deep laughter, a joyful one – the kind that surely has been born of knowing tears together.”
“Their shared laughter was the thing that caught me the most.”
Then I would shrug and say, “Does that make any sense?”
And one of my mentors leaned in one time when I shared that said, “Perfect sense. That means it’s a congregation well-acquainted with grace.”
May the Holy Spirit ever-guard us from growing too serious or too cynical.
Instead, may the Spirit meet us in our sighs and by the gift of grace fill us with fresh laughter.
A fresh sense of
- God’s promise,
- God’s joy,
- God’s inexplicable favor.
And if we wonder how or where or when that might happen next – who can say? Except… the average 4-year old child laughs 300 times a day.
Like Jesus, perhaps we would be wise to find ourselves attentive to some of the youngest among us in the coming days. I do wonder if they are not frequently the ones through whom the promise of Christ fills our bellies:
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.”