Laughter and Lament
DECEMBER 4, 2019
I’m working on another book.
Are you crazy? You just finished one.
I know, but I wrote that book almost two years ago. The book I’m working on now will be out in a couple of years unless, of course, D.D. Day happens (when I drool or die) beforehand.
The working title of this book is Laughter and Lament: The Biblical Keys to Spiritual Health.
The Bible, you know, is a “crazy” book for a lot of reasons. It’s from God and the prophet Isaiah says that God’s ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). Paul recognized the crazy nature of God’s revelation by calling it the “foolishness of God” (1 Corinthians 1:25). The Bible is also crazy because it’s so counterintuitive. It violates almost everything that seems to be logical, balanced, and understandable. Jesus found it necessary to correct the common and reasonable understanding of Scripture by saying, “You have heard…but I say to you” (Matthew 5). He still does that. The Bible is crazy because an infinite God simply doesn’t communicate to finite beings or at least he shouldn’t because there just aren’t the words. It points to a sovereign God when we thought that, as the poet William Henley said, we were “the masters of our fates” and “the captains of our souls.”
There is probably no place where the Bible seems crazier than in what it teaches about tragedy and triumph, joy and tears, and laughter and lament. I’ve been doing this religious thing for most of my life as a pastor, teacher, and writer. And over all those years I can’t think of a single Christian funeral I’ve attended or over which I’ve officiated where there wasn’t laughter. I understand the loss and tears when one listens for the sound of footsteps that are no longer there. I also understand the nervous laughter one can hear as people walk through a graveyard at night. But when the loss is affirmed and even embraced, and the laughter is free and authentic, something is going on that needs to be examined.
I recently talked with a Key Life board member’s wife, and a close friend. She has been diagnosed with cancer and everything they’ve tried hasn’t worked. I called her up to pray with her and to see if I could give her a degree of pastoral comfort. She was having none of it. In fact, we laughed together more than we cried. She told me, “Steve, I wouldn’t have chosen this, but I’m okay with it. I’m not being spiritual in saying this, but I have a peace that is deeper than anything I’ve ever experienced.” I thought that was an amazing statement of faith. But what puzzled me was the laughter.
A number of years ago a publisher republished a book I wrote as a young pastor. It was a book of doctrine for new Christians and the original title was So Now You Are a Christian. The publisher asked me to write a new introduction and change what I felt needed to be changed. The book’s first publication included my photo on the cover. I was then a young man with hair, a pristine complexion, and a confident demeanor. As I looked at that photo from the past, I realized that that young man’s life went in directions he never expected. Over the years I’ve seen and experienced more tragedy and pain than I even knew existed. You name it and I’ve seen it, and it shows. Now the little hair that is left is white, the confident air is less apparent, and the lines…well, you should see the lines in my face. As a young man said to me once at a conference, “Dr. Brown, I thought you would be a lot younger. You’re old.” He turned and walked away, but before he left, he turned back and said, “I mean really old!”
So when I looked at that photo, I winced. But I did something else. I looked at my image in a mirror. I’m not altogether pleased with this old, wrinkled face, but the more I examined it, the more I realized something that surprised me. I noticed that most of the lines were laugh lines and most of the wrinkles were from smiles, not frowns. In that discovery is a reality most people reject—laughter and lament are often appropriate in unexpected places. When we experience or see tragedy, we expect tears, bitterness, and fear. Just so, when we experience the good and pleasant, we expect joy and maybe even laughter. But how can we explain the opposite—laughter in the pain and tears in the joy?
It is said that at parties in ancient Egyptian cultures they placed a mummified corpse at the head table. I suppose it was there to remind the partygoers of their mortality. But there may have been more to it. The wise partygoers also saw that one should never forget that “every day the world rolls over on top of someone who was just sitting on top of it” and in the worst of times there is always a motivation to party. Given what is clearly taught in Scripture, Christians should understand that more than anybody else. That is also a key element in the Christian witness to a world where pain is cursed and laughter is cynical.
That’s the direction I’m going in the book. You might wonder why I’m writing about laughter and lament in a letter that should be about a baby in a manager, angels, and shepherds. Let me tell you. Laughter has everything to do with Christmas because Christmas is the time when the laughter of God spilled over into a sour world…a world of grief with good reason to grieve.
Have you ever thought that the darker it gets, the brighter the light becomes? In the Apostle John’s profound and theological description of Christmas, he writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). That’s true of laughter too.
Years ago a friend sent me a cassette of nothing but recorded laughter. (For those of you who don’t know what a cassette is, it’s a tape in a plastic container that can be played on a cassette recorder. What’s a tape? Well, it’s…uh…never mind.) The interesting thing about that recording is that when I listened to it or played it for someone else, we started laughing. There wasn’t any joke, just infectious joy. That’s Christmas.
Even pagans feel it. Someone has suggested that Christmas has been so robbed of Christ that we’ve become a culture celebrating a day with nothing to celebrate. But we celebrate anyway. There are parties, decorations, gifts, and family, and the warmth of the season. When the angels showed themselves to the shepherds, it scared the spit out of them. One of the angels said something important, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). That is true even if “all the people” don’t know it. In my mind’s eye, I can see a couple after Christmas taking down the decorations. There is a moment of silence and he says to her, “What was that all about? Maybe we missed something.” They did, but there was still laughter.
Then there is the surprising laughter from God. We would have understood anger (most of us know that’s what we deserve), lightning and thunder (God is big and scary), and more laws (we don’t get a vote and God makes all the rules), but laughter? John says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth….For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14, 16-17).
It’s important, too, that we remember the darkness of the world into which Christ was born. It is still dark. John calls it a “light shining in the darkness” (John 1:5). Lament, sadness, and tears are appropriate. Babies still die. Wars continue. People are abused. Racism, hunger, and oppression are real. And that’s not just because we observe it, it’s real because we experience it. There are people reading this right now who are close to tears. The darkness is real, the pain is bad, and the loss is ever present.
This past week I attended and spoke at an old friend’s memorial service. We had been roommates in graduate school. When I got up to speak, I was surprised by the emotion I felt. In fact, I almost didn’t get through it because of my tears. This morning I talked on the phone to my late friend’s wife, and we were both rather emotional. But do you know how that call ended? It ended in laughter. For the Christian, it always does.
Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady,” was the controversial and conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in a turbulent time. In her autobiography, she described her efforts as pitching a pup tent on the side of a hill in a landslide. That’s what Christians are called to do—only it isn’t a pup tent; it’s a fortress. If you listen, you’ll hear the sound of the landslide, but you’ll also be surprised by the laughter coming from the fortress. That’s because those who are in the fortress know that they are forgiven no matter what and loved without reservation, and the landslide will pass. It’s laughter from those who have experienced a personal Christmas called a new birth. They don’t deny the landslide; but, because of Christmas, they laugh the laughter of the redeemed.
There’s an old story about one of Satan’s demons wishing Satan Merry Christmas. “Keep it merry, brother,” Satan replies. “If they ever take it seriously, we’re in trouble.”
Actually, that’s not true. If they keep laughing, Satan, you’re in trouble.
So have a great Christmas. If there are tears, that’s appropriate…but don’t forget to laugh.
He asked me to remind you.