Friday, 10 May 2019

Anyone for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine. Proverbs 17:22

I read recently about a man who, since 2007, has kept a record of every time he sneezes. “He logs them by location, strength and activity when it happened,” it said in The Times. Apparently Sneeze Number 5126 was recorded as: “Bathroom, moderate to strong, cleaning teeth.” (Aren’t you just glad you know that?)

And don’t you just love people with a wacky sense of humour? Like the man who decided his house address was a bit boring, having only a number and street name: 44 Acacia Avenue or whatever. It ought to have a name to itself! he declared. Something to distinguish it! So after deep thought he came up with... Ocean View.

Now, isn’t that beautiful? You can almost see the sun sparkling on the waves, the gulls wheeling overhead, the boats sailing by on the horizon, the children paddling in the water. Beautiful.

Never mind that he happened to live in the suburbs of Wolverhampton. (In case you’re not familiar with the geography of England, let me just say that there are few places in the country more distant from the coast.) Hats off to that man, I say!

Or the football fan who refused to admit that his team had lost. “No,” he said, “we didn’t lose, we just ran out of time while we were temporarily behind.” (All right, have it your own way...)

I could go on. What about the person who has made himself an authority on the history of tomato ketchup? Or shipping containers? Or... whatever?

Where would we be without jokes and laughter, banter and leg-pulling? In a pretty bad way, that’s where. Humour is a wired-in part of human nature: after all, a new-born baby doesn’t have to be taught to either cry or laugh. We need light-heartedness: an adult who is never downright silly is a sorry specimen.

Of course, “religious” people have sometimes tended to be suspicious of humour. And that has included Christians - or, at least, the kind of Christians who see God mainly as hard and stern.

You can understand them to some extent. Much humour derives its effectiveness from being either cruel - making somebody else feel bad about themself - or crude. (There are some television programmes which seem to me simply disgusting, and I find it hard to understand how any Christian can enjoy them. I’m not sure who to feel sadder about - the people up front peddling this stuff, or the people in the audience howling their heads off as crudity follows crudity. I know that feeling this way exposes me to the danger of seeming self-righteous, but - well, so be it.)

A lack of humour can be a sign of danger. “Those whom the gods would make bigots, they first deprive of humour,” said James Gillis. True, there are good people who just don’t see the funny side of things, and that’s fine; but it can be genuinely worrying when even innocent humour is regarded as suspect. I doubt if there are many belly-laughs among religious extremists who believe that it’s right to kill in the name of their god.

As I look back on the bad old days of soviet communism, and picture those granite-faced men who rose to the top of the political ladder, it’s hard to remember any of them smiling, never mind laughing.

The Bible doesn’t have much to say about humour. But it does tell us to be good-humoured and cheerful. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. The Book of Proverbs - a lot of good earthy sense there - says that “a cheerful look brings joy to the heart” (15:30), and “a cheerful heart is good medicine” (17:22). I think modern psychology would go along with that.

Down through the centuries Christians have testified to the God-given nature of humour...

“God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed man with the incalculable gift of laughter”, wrote Sydney Harris.

Martin Luther went so far as to say, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”

And Richard Baxter (1615-1691), who belonged to that grouping of Christians who became known as “Puritans”, wrote, “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers.”

Yes! I used to help out with “mag-packing” for a missionary society - retired people like me were roped in to get magazines ready for posting. It could be a tedious task. But one of our number had this marvellous gift of reeling off wisecrack after wisecrack to keep us entertained as we toiled. He had us almost falling about - and I think that Baxter’s dictum was well borne out.

The message has to be: Christian, cultivate holy humour and godly laughter! You will feel better yourself. And you will make this world a better place.

Loving Father, help me to take an innocent and joyful delight in the many good things I enjoy from your generous hand. And help me to lighten the heaviness of others by my good nature and appropriate cheerfulness. Amen.

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