Laughter in Surprising Places
NOVEMBER 17, 2021
This morning I saw something I had to share with someone. And you’re it!
School has recently started. I was driving to the office, and stopped at an intersection when I noticed the school crossing guard. He was waiting for the light to change to help some small children cross the street. I noticed something kind of strange. The guy was waving and smiling at all the cars driving by.
Frankly, being the cynical, old preacher I am, I really wondered about his sanity. I thought that maybe he was drunk and even gave some consideration to reporting him to the school authorities. At the time, I was listening to the news. With everybody else, my mind was (and is) occupied by all the pandemic stuff, the political division, and the fear and confusion all of us are feeling. And this man stood there like an idiot, waving and smiling at everybody.
What’s with that?
Then a funny thing happened. I found myself smiling. And for no reason, I found myself feeling a little better about the world. So when the light changed, and the crossing guard waved at me and smiled, I waved and smiled back. As I drove down the street and looked in my rearview mirror, he grinned and gave me a thumbs up.
One more thing. Later that day I stopped for gas near Key Life when the guy in the car next to mine came over. He said, “I’m embarrassed, but could you give me a couple of bucks for gas? I’m broke.” I gave him some money and he thanked me profusely. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “You’re thinking that I’m going to buy booze or drugs with the money you gave me. I’m not, and I want to promise you that before the day is over, I’ll pay forward what you gave me to someone else. You will have helped two people rather than just one.” I asked him his name and then gave him mine. And we both reached out to shake hands, but then remembered that shaking hands just isn’t done these days, so we bumped fists and started laughing. As I walked back to my car, he said, “Steve, God bless you.”
That would be two incidents of laughter and joy in places where we don’t often find them. It got me thinking about the book I’m presently writing. (The working title is Laughter and Lament: The Touchstones of Radical Freedom.)
The first one sounds like a Pollyanna to me and the second a con artist!
Could be. But frankly, you sound more cynical than I am and that should scare the spit out of you. So repent! I often repent of my cynicism and you should too. Since I started working on my book, I’m seeing more laughter and sadness than I expected and in places where we don’t usually find either. My initial response has often been a cynical “Just grow up and deal with it!” or “What are you laughing about?” But of late I’m looking beyond my cynicism and sometimes seeing Jesus.
In Philippians, Paul is writing from prison . . . and he’s not there for a parking ticket. Paul even wrote that he might be poured out [executed] on the altar of their faith (Philippians 2:17). And earlier Paul talked about the possibility of his death, that he was hard-pressed to choose between life and ministry, and death and glory (Philippians 1:23). I get Paul’s commitment and admire him for it. It is certainly more than mine. (“The good news is that you’re going to heaven, and the bad news is that you’re going on Thursday.”) What’s hard to get is the fact that Philippians is a book of joy. In fact, the word “joy” or a variant of that word is mentioned some 20 times in this short letter. Thus we see laughter in a place where there should be tears. Paul, just so you know, was neither a Pollyanna nor someone given to denial. Paul knew the dark and there he found joy.
I know, everybody says that there is a difference between joy/laughter and happiness. I’m not so sure. Laughter is the outward manifestation of inward joy and the flag often flying over the believer’s existential circumstances. Paul wrote that he had learned to be content: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).
When I started writing to you I thought I would “count the blessings” of being a Christian and show those as the sources of joy. Of course there is that . . . but that’s not the key. The key is Jesus. And Jesus is a lot different than many would suggest.
I remember being on an airplane once when suddenly there was a very loud and terrible noise. I’ve never put all my weight on an airplane and immediately went to prayer, “Lord Jesus, are you still there?”
That noise isn’t one I’ve ever heard before. It’s scary.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before, either.
What?!!! We’re in trouble.
Most of us would say, “Jesus doesn’t kid. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).” That’s true, but to paraphrase Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was joyful, yet for your sake he became sad, so that you by his sadness, might laugh.”
Do you have a friend whose very presence makes you feel better? It has nothing to do with what they can do for you; it’s just their presence. You’ve probably heard me say on numerous occasions that the way to tell if Jesus has left the room is to look for laughter. If there’s no laughter, he’s gone somewhere else. I believe that’s true in worship services, funerals, religious meetings, and our lives. The more I’m around Christians, the more I see that truth.
What if Jesus does kid . . . and laugh and party? What if his presence is the source of our laughter and freedom? What if the lines on Christians’ faces are supposed to be laugh lines? What if those who take everything seriously are wrong? What if at the heart of it all is Jesus’ laughter?
A friend of mine recently reminded me of Eugene O’Neill’s play, Lazarus Laughed. Lazarus, you will remember, was Jesus’ friend who died and Jesus raised him from the dead. The play that O’Neill wrote is quite philosophical and, in a sense, obtuse. But in the play, Lazarus says, in answer to the question of what happens after death, “There is only life! I heard the heart of Jesus laughing in my heart . . . And my heart reborn to love and life cried ‘Yes’ and I laughed in the laughter of God.”
If Lazarus laughed (and I suspect he did) it wasn’t because he came back from the dead. In fact, because of his resurrection, it meant that Lazarus would have to do the death thing twice. That’s not a reason for happiness. Once is enough.
A number of years ago some friends of mine went through a pretty major earthquake in California. It felt like “the big one.” My friends were in a building that shook so hard that everything in the room moved, items came off shelves, and the ceiling cracked. The wife, having fallen down, crawled over to her husband who held her and said, “Honey, it’s going to be all right.” She told me later that she felt a lot better . . . until she realized that he didn’t know any more than she knew. “What am I thinking?” she said, “You don’t know if it’s going to be all right! We could both die!”
But what if, instead of her husband, Jesus—who really does know—said that it was going to be all right? That would make us relax, smile, and maybe even laugh.
He does that, you know?
He asked me to remind you.