Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Good for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. Proverbs 17:22

I heard about an old man who was never anything but bright and happy. When someone wanted to know his secret he said, “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself a question. Am I going to be cheerful today, or am I going to be miserable? And I make the decision to be cheerful.”

Easier said than done, you might think. Indeed, somebody might well say, “You wouldn’t talk like that if you were going through what I’m going through...”

Fair enough. Cheerfulness isn’t just a tap you can turn on at will - any more than anxiety is a tap you can turn off just because of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25. Things aren’t quite as simple as that.

And yet... what that man said is worth thinking about. The fact is that we do have it within our power to take at least some control of our moods; we can adopt a basically positive or a basically negative attitude.

Some people seem to delight in being miserable. I have a friend who was breezing down the high street one day when he met someone he knew just a little and had always got on with all right. Being a cheery sort of soul he greeted him: “Morning! How are you today?” To which came the never-to-be-forgotten answer, “What’s it got to do with you?”

CS Lewis also tells the story somewhere about being on a train and asking a fellow-passenger if he knew what time they were due to get to Liverpool. The merry response was, “Ask the guard - it’s not my job to give you information.”

Oh well, they say it takes all sorts...

The Book of Proverbs is a fascinating part of the Bible. In the Good News Bible translation of 17:22 it reads: “Being cheerful keeps you healthy. It is slow death to be gloomy all the time.” The Message translation has: “A cheerful disposition is good for your health; gloom and doom leave you bone-tired.”

Whichever translation you prefer, the verse raises a question (one which, in fact, applies to many verses in Proverbs): Is it simply a statement of fact, an observation, or is it intended to be a challenge to the reader? In other words: are we supposed to respond by shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Yes, that’s true, that’s the way it is”, or by perking up and saying “Yes! It’s time I stopped being such a misery-guts!”

It isn’t clear. But if you are a Christian you will surely want to take something positive from it - something to make you a better person.

Anyone who can make us smile is a real tonic. Just yesterday the death of the British comedian Ken Dodd was announced, and all the tributes being paid were along the same lines: he was “life-enhancing”; it was impossible to be gloomy in his presence. (Apparently he claimed never to reply to letters from the Inland Revenue, on the grounds that (wait for it) he lived by the sea-side. Geddit...?)

I know that humour can be a tricky thing: so often it depends on either cruelty or crudity; either it invites you to enjoy somebody else’s misery, or to wallow in what is coarse and vulgar. But a wholesome humour is truly a gift of God.

There have been times in history when Christians have been renowned for their sombreness. The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, the man who wrote Treasure Island, once recorded in his diary: “Went to church this morning - and was not depressed!” - as if it was the most amazing thing in the world. This, surely, cannot be right. Doesn’t Paul list joy at number two in his description of the fruit of the Holy Spirit? Isn’t a joyless church, or a joyless Christian, an absolute contradiction in terms?

Here are one or two quotes which, I think, could well be described as proverbs...

Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers. (The Puritan writer Richard Baxter, 1615-1691)

If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there. (Martin Luther, 1483-1546) (Mind you, I’m not quite sure where he might have preferred to go...)

The person who is always laughing is a fool; the person who never laughs is a knave. (Spanish saying) (Yes, over the years I have learned to be very wary of people who never smile or laugh; they often seem to point to trouble ahead.)

On balance I think I’ll aim to learn from that cheerful old man we started with. What about you?

Lord God, your word tells us that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Help me always to know the difference! And thank you for those lovely Christians who lift my spirits by their cheerful faith. Amen.

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