A Theology of Humour (part 3)

laughing ladyThis is the third (and in my view the weakest) part of the dissertation. Having established what humour and a sense of it is; and (I hope) that God has a sense of humour and is the source of humour; this section attempts to apply some of that to life in church…

A Theology of Humour – The Punch-Line

“If you’re not allowed to laugh in Heaven, I don’t want to go there.”

We have seen from the Bible that God is a God of humour.   We will attempt to draw certain conclusions from this humour concerning God, our relationship with him, and our relationships with One another within the Church.

God is the source of laughter

This suggests that the ability to perceive humour is part of mankind’s innate being.  If God is the source of laughter, he is the one who gave it to humanity as part of the gift of creation.  On particular occasions his activity leads to the laughter of individuals.  We have concluded that God does have a sense of humour.  If humans are made ‘in his image’, and we too have a sense of humour, it does not take much thought to see where that sense of humour comes from.  If this is so, then we can surmise that before the Fall mankind’s humour was devoid of the destructive elements that it has today.

We have all experienced painful jibes in the guise of humour on various occasions.  Mockery in the hands of men and women can be a weapon that cuts deeper than any blade.   In the hands of God, however, it is not tainted with the desire to hurt or abuse.  It is part of what amuses God to see the efforts of his enemies to frustrate him and his plans.  We must be careful not to attempt to use mockery  in the manner that God uses it, for to do so is to elevate  one’s status above others, contrary to the ‘first shall be  last’ principle that Jesus taught his disciples.

God’s humour teaches and rebukes.

God’s sense of humour educates those who experience it.   The educational experience is not a painful ‘telling off’ but a warm-hearted pointer in the right direction.  It would appear that this is a much more beneficial and positive use of humour than mockery.

God does rebuke us, of that there can be no doubt.  The messages delivered through the prophets were often condemnatory.  But God sometimes seems to use humour to help his people understand him.  At this point we refer back to Jonathan Miller’s sabbatical from reality.  Humour allows us to look at ourselves in a manner that is less painful than being told ‘straight’, but is nonetheless searching.  Jesus used humour in this fashion, and one feels that in the hands of God, humour is a loving form of rebuke.  Thomas Carlyle wrote, “True humour springs not more from the head than from the heart; it is not contempt, its essence is love.”  In the hands of man, it has the potential to have the same effect, but also the potential to be destructive and heartless.  The former use of humour is to be encouraged, particularly in sermons and Christian ‘educational’ material, as a means of communicating truth.  The latter use of humour should be vigorously discouraged, and attempts should be made by all in leadership to eschew the use of humour that harms.

An example might be to mock or mimic someone in the congregation from the pulpit to make a point in the sermon, or worse still to get a cheap laugh.  Such a use of humour not only degrades and humiliates the person, but demonstrates a marked lack of sensitivity and compassion on the part of the preacher who is apparently delivering the ‘Word of God’.  At such times one suspects God is leaving him to it.  The problem is that non-Christians see ministers and vicars in particular as representatives of God and may be offended and put off seeking him.   Furthermore, if the congregation senses an opportunity to entertain others, they may pick up on the ridicule of the individual concerned, or feel that since the preacher did it, it must be all right…

On this subject, Karl Barth wrote the following words.   “As ministers we ought to speak of God.  We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God.  We ought therefore to recognise both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory.  This is our perplexity.  The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison.”  Barth in his theological reflections has unearthed the incongruity of preaching, and whilst one does not wish to write much on homiletics, it is worth bearing this incongruity in mind if one intends to preach: the incongruity being the lofty ambition of speaking of God and the inadequacy of our ability to fulfil that ambition unaided.  All that preachers can do is seek God’s assistance, and seek to remove any potential for offence that they might give – the offence of the gospel is surely more than sufficient for the average person!

The playful God

This is one of the most important things we have discerned in the writing of this paper.  God has a sense of fun, of play.  In the later chapters of Job, God seems to be enjoying his Creation for its own sake.  The image of a boring old man in a white robe is dispelled in the face of this revelation; the sorrowful, sombre Christ is seen as inaccurate; the God of wrath and judgement is seen with a pleasant smile on his face.  It would be quite wrong, however, to throw away all these images of God.  He is a God who judges, he is angry at sin and its effects; Jesus was at times sorrowful and sombre, not least during the Passion.  What is needed, and what one hopes has been achieved, is a more balanced picture of a God who is sad when people reject his love, who mourned the death of his Son, yet enjoys the company of mankind, whom he created for that purpose, and has a sense of humour and fun that he is not afraid to enjoy and share with them.

Some may fear that this portrayal of God diminishes his greatness, or is even blasphemous.  This is not so.   Surely a God who is not afraid to enjoy himself is greater than a god who must always remain austere for fear that some might not take him seriously.  God is sufficiently great that he need not fear the opinions of men – that will not diminish his greatness – and he has made us sufficiently in his image that when we see the humorous side of his nature, we are attracted to him.  As William Ingo once said, “I have never understood why it is considered derogatory to the Creator to suppose that he has a sense of humour.”

The Church and God’s humour

We began this paper by suggesting that the presence or absence of the humour of God has implications for his Church.  Now that we have established the presence of his humour, we need to explore the implications further.

We have already mentioned the inappropriate the use of humour in preaching, above, and we must not lose sight of that.  At the same time, we must not be so serious in preaching that we put off even the most lugubrious of people.  Humour is a useful tool for communication of truth: Jesus demonstrated that brilliantly.  It is also a useful tool for exegesis, when used to illustrate truth and challenge with it, rather than using it to explain away the challenge.

Humour should invade the serious and weighty aspects of the Church, bringing a little levity and light.  Of course there are times when humour is probably inappropriate, as it was in the passion of Christ (for example during the celebration of Communion, or Eucharist) but there are equally times when a sombre attitude would be inappropriate (for example during celebrations of the resurrection).  In the same way as our perception of God needs balance, so does our worship of him.  What is being advocated here is not a descent into mirthful disorder, but a recognition of the place of humour in worship.  It is perhaps not surprising that many of the growing churches in this country are those that use contemporary forms of worship, and are generally described as ‘lively’.   Their sense of joy is infectious to those who attend (although they are as prone to falling prey to excesses as the rest of the Church), and one wonders whether they might not be presenting the humorous side of God to the world, albeit unwittingly.

If the Church is truly to be the body of Christ, his representatives on earth, we need to reflect him in our life-styles.  Again one wishes to emphasise that this is not a call to flippancy, but a call to recognise the importance and significance of humour.  It is an anathema to find a Christian who never smiles, and who is never amused, who is never joyful, who has no sense of humour, for that is to deny the presence of the living, laughing, humour-loving God in the person of the Holy Spirit in the life of that Christian.  At the same time, the  ‘happy-clappy’ Christian who never admits to having any  problems denies the serious side of that same presence: to  deliberately misquote Bill Shankly’s cliché about  football: Christianity is not a matter of life and death,  it’s more important than that.

Reinhold Neibuhr suggests that humour has an even more important role than we have previously suggested.  “Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”  Niebuhr’s argument behind this startling statement is that faith, like humour, deals in incongruities.  The existence of humour and laughter at it is the starting point on the journey to discovering the greatest incongruity of them all – that God should love those who rejected him, and that he would be prepared to die for them.  If this is correct, the omission of humour from much of the Church’s activities over the last 2,000 years is all the more lamentable.  Not only is humour the prelude to faith, it is a gift for teaching and evangelism, and the absence of it in our faith has the opposite effect.

What this paper has endeavoured to show is that the Church  has missed much of the humour of God for the best part of  twenty centuries, and in so doing it has misinterpreted  and misapplied much Biblical truth and has portrayed an  inaccurate, boring, overly-serious image of that God to  the non-Christian world.  Murray Watts in the introduction to his collection of sketches, ‘Laughter in Heaven’, sums this up perfectly.

“There is no place for a church which never resounds with the laughter of faith.  Such a church commits a crime against humanity: it has become boring.  There are many serious obstacles to spreading the gospel, but this is one of the worst.  It is no good blaming the world for being blind to the truth, when we are blind to it ourselves.  If we are not free, how can we liberate others?  If we are not faithful to the uniqueness of the Resurrection experience, to the delight and heavenly joy which is ours for eternity, if we are dull, we shortchange our fellow men. …   The laughter born on that Easter morning is a gift  from heaven, which draws us closer to that day,  when ‘God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and  death shall be no more, neither shall there be  mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the  former things have passed away.'”

Amen.

Bibliography

The books listed appear in the order in which they were quoted in this paper, followed by those which were read but not directly quoted.

Castle (ed.) The Hodder Book of Christian Quotations (Hodder, London, 1982)

Metcalfe (ed.) The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations (Penguin, London, 1986)

Chambers 20th Century Dictionary (W.R. Chambers, Edinburgh, 1985)

Oxford English Dictionary H-K (Oxford University Press, London, 1933, Reprint 1970)

Koestler The Act of Creation (Hutchinson, London, 1964)

Drakeford Humor in Preaching (Zondervan, Michigan, 1986)

Durrant & J. Miller (eds.) Laughing Matters – A serious look at humour (Longman, Harlow, 1988)

The Holy Bible, New International Version (Zondervan, New York, 1978)

W.G. Morrice Joy in the New Testament (Paternoster, Exeter, 1984)

Muir (ed.) The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose (O.U.P., Oxford, 1990)

Good News Bible (Bible Society, London, 1976)

Trueblood The Humor of Christ (Harper Collins, New York, 1964)

Wilcock The Saviour of the World: The Message of Luke’s Gospel (IVP, Leicester, 1979)

Morris The Gospel According to Luke (IVP, London, 1974)

Garrett My Brother Esau is an Hairy Man (Scottish Journal of Theology, (33), pp. 239-256)

Niebuhr Discerning the Signs of the Times (Scribner’s, New York, 1946)

Watts Laughter in Heaven (Minstrel, Eastbourne, 1985)

 

The Way, Vol. 31, no. 3 (July 1991)

Theology Today, Vol. XLVIII, no. 4 (January 1992)

Y.T. Radday & A. Brenner (eds.) On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (Almoud Press, Sheffield, 1990)

M. Good Irony in the Old Testament (Almoud Press, Sheffield, 1965)

A Theology of Humour (part 1)

laughingJust over 25 years ago I submitted my degree dissertation about God’s sense of humour. By way of marking that I have decided that I will release it into the wild by posting it in instalments on my blog. Please bear in mind that this is an undergraduate dissertation – if I was to write it today I would definitely change some bits, especially the last section which I feel is definitely the weakest. Maybe one day I will! Please be aware that the footnotes have not carried across with this text so references are inadequate. I apologise to all those I have quoted but I will include the Bibliography at the end.

A THEOLOGY OF HUMOUR – A SERIOUS LOOK AT THE LIGHTER SIDE OF GOD

An attempt to establish whether or not there is humour within the character of God, and whether our response to him should be changed as a consequence.

Introduction

“Humour distorts nothing, and only false gods are laughed off their earthy pedestals”

In the tradition of the Christian Church, God has been portrayed as a God of wrath and judgement, love and mercy, authority and power, but rarely (if ever) as a God of humour.  This paper will seek to establish whether that is an omission that needs to be corrected, or whether God is a god without humour.  We will examine the structure and content of humour and look at the biblical revelation to establish whether humour is part of the Divine character.   In the final section, we shall seek to draw conclusions from this about Christian theology and practice.

Humour Dissected

“Humor (sic) can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

The problem with humour is that it is not funny once one delves beneath the skin and finds oneself among the academic entrails.  However, the study of humour is an integral part of this paper, even if it is not an in-depth study.  Whilst it is true that a full dissection is not necessary to identify a frog, at least a study of the frog’s anatomy helps in sorting out the frogs from the toads.  In this section of the paper we will attempt to discover the essence of humour, and attempt to identify the various forms of humour.

The essence of humour

The Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary defines humour as “a mental quality which apprehends and delights in the ludicrous and mirthful: that which causes mirth and amusement.”  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “a. That quality of action, speech, or writing which excites amusement; oddity, jocularity, facetiousness, comicality, fun. b. The faculty of perceiving what is ludicrous or amusing, or of expressing it in speech, writing, or other composition; jocose imagination or treatment of a subject.”  These definitions are dry and tell us very little about the components of humour, concentrating as they do on the funny side of humour.   This must not be played down.  However there is more to humour than merely being something that makes us laugh.   Humour has a darker side to it as well, but both sides share the components of humour: they merely make different uses of them.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition hints at this, by referring to oddity.  It is within the realms of oddity that we find the distinctive components of humour.  Arthur Koestler provides two graphs that help us to see this more easily (see below).  In Fig. 1a we see what happens in a tragedy; Koestler uses Shakespeare’s Othello as an example: the tension increases in the play until the climax when Othello strangles the unfaithful Desdemona; then it ebbs away in a gradual catharsis.

Koestler uses an anecdote to illustrate the difference between this and humour.  In the story a Marquis at the court of Louis XIV entered his wife’s bedroom to find her in the arms of a bishop.  He walked to the window, threw it open and started blessing the people in the street.

“What are you doing?” cried the anguished wife.

“Monseigneur is performing my functions,” replied the Marquis, “so I am performing his.”

In this episode there is also an increase in tension, but it is brought to an abrupt end as the Marquis’ unexpected reaction relieves the tension in an explosion of amusement and even laughter (Fig. 1b).

humour graphs

Koestler was attempting to illustrate what causes laughter, however, in so doing he has put his finger on the essence of humour – it arises from an incongruity.   John Drakeford reaches this conclusion in his book ‘Humor (sic) in Preaching’.  He goes on to list the various types of humour that arise, and we shall examine these below.   Dr Jonathan Miller hints at this when he writes concerning humorous discourse and describes it as like a “sabbatical let-out in one part of the brain and one part of our competence to enable us to put things up for grabs; to reconsider categories and concepts so that we can redesign our relationships to the physical world, to one another, and even to our own notion of what it is to have relationships.”  It is the concept of humour as a sabbatical from reality that is profoundly attractive.   The concept assumes a deviation from reality in order that a sabbatical let-out can be taken from that reality in the brain.  Once again the foundation of humour is the concept of oddity, incongruity or deviation from the norms of reality.  (The concept of humour as a sabbatical from reality is one to which we shall return in chapter three).

This suggestion that humour arises from some form of incongruity or deviation from that which is expected is given substantial weight when one examines the origins of the word.  It arises from its medieval use to describe any of the four cardinal body fluids – blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy (black bile).  It was thought that the relative strengths of these fluids determined an individual’s physical and mental condition.  When any one fluid predominated, then a person’s character would be dominated by that ‘humour’, and that person was said to be in a ‘humour’.  An example would be Molière’s Misanthrope, Alceste, who has a superfluity of melancholy and finds it impossible to see any positive attributes in anyone, even his beloved Celestine.  We would probably call such a person eccentric today, but that does not obscure the fact that the origin of the modern concept of humour clearly has links with incongruity and deviation from the accepted norms of reality.

Now that we have discovered what seems to be the essence of humour, it will be instructive to examine the various forms of humour and see whether they have this essence as part of their essential ingredients.

The various forms of humour

In this section we shall attempt to provide a summary of the main forms of humour that will provide the basis for our exploration into whether God does have a sense of humour and use humour in the revelations of himself that he has given us.  One of the difficulties that we face is that there is no universally accepted list of the main forms of humour.  We shall commence by looking at John  Drakeford’s summary mentioned above.  He prefaces his exploration with these words; “[Humour] is almost impossible to define, but once we are confronted with it, there is an immediate subjective response that makes us say, “Isn’t that funny?”

Absurdity

Drakeford includes incongruity as his key concept.  This includes the absurd, which he illustrates with a story of a little girl in tears looking at a picture of Christians being thrown to the lions.  Her aunt tried to comfort her; “Sad, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” cried the little girl, “there’s a little lion not getting any.”  Here the incongruous perception is so far out of step with reality that it conjures up a situation or image that is humorous.

Bisociative humour

A close relative of the absurd is bisociative humour, in which the concluding section gives an entirely new meaning to the original thought.  For example, a gravestone reads as follows:

ERECTED TO THE MEMORY OF J. MacFARLANE

Drowned in the Water of Leith

BY A FEW AFFECTIONATE FRIENDS

Exaggeration

A further example of incongruity is exaggeration or hyperbole.  It can be a form of lying if it is motivated by deception, but it is also a useful tool for enabling one to take a healthy look at oneself.  For example, comedians frequently exaggerate ordinary everyday objects and situations until they take on absurd proportions and enable the audience to laugh at themselves without feeling victimised.  The success of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean can be attributed in no small part to Atkinson’s uncanny knack of observing everyday behaviour and exaggerating it to humorous proportions.  For example, the audience can  identify with someone who has problems getting a reception  on their television set, when the reception is fine when  one is close to the set, but it goes as soon as one sits  down.  Mr Bean goes to the extreme of trying to fool the television into thinking that he is close to it by taking off his clothes and putting them on a chair next to the television so that it appears that he is still there.

Exaggeration differs from absurdity because it is a distortion of normal behaviour or situations, whereas absurdity is a completely different perception of reality.   It is worth mentioning at this point that hyperbole is one of the principle forms of Semitic humour.

Wit

The next form of humour we shall identify is wit.  Mark Twain said of wit that it is “the sudden marriage of ideas which before their marriage were not perceived to have any relationship.”  This often takes the form of a statement that has a punch line that comes with a twist.  Drakeford gives the example of an astronaut who is strangely silent after walking on the moon.  When his companions ask what the matter is he replies, “I saw God.”

“You did!” they exclaimed.  “What’s God like?”

“She’s black!”

The twist comes with the unexpected description of God as being a woman and being black, cutting through the traditional assumptions that God is a white male.

Play on words / pun

This is one of the most widely used forms of humour, and exists within virtually all languages.  An example of this in the Old Testament follows the account of Samson’s slaying of 1000 men with the jawbone of a donkey:

Then Samson said, “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them”  (Jdg. 15.16, NIV)

This could be translated as ‘With a donkey’s jawbone I have made a heap or two’, since the Hebrew for ‘donkey’ sounds similar to the Hebrew for ‘heap’.  Indeed, there is a further pun in this passage as the place is subsequently called ‘Ramath Lehi’, which means ‘Jawbone Hill’.

Surprise

Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, wrote that laughter is “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.”  This seems to match Koestler’s theory (above).  We must  be wary of reading ‘humour’ in place of ‘laughter’, however the two  are linked, since one does not usually find laughter (save for perhaps a nervous giggle, hysteria or induced by physical  stimulation) without having perceived humour, even if that perception  is in the subconscious.  If this is so, then it is more correct to say that laughter may result from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.  The cause of that laughter is humour.

It is perhaps the surprise element of humour that Kant has perceived.  The listener, or observer, is following a sequence of events and anticipating the next one when, suddenly, it moves off in a different direction altogether.  Surprise is perhaps more than one of the different forms of humour, although it can be merely that.   It is also a form of incongruity in itself, and thus may form the basis for other forms of humour, (see for example Wit, above).

Ridicule

This is a darker and less positive form of humour.  It is usually associated with drawing attention to the inadequacies or differences of an individual, or group of individuals.  Also known as mocking, ridicule works because the majority (usually) perceive themselves to be better than the minority, perhaps in physical appearance, or in intellectual ability.  It is a cruel form of humour, and its use often draws attention to inequalities.  That a situation or behaviour is perceived as stupid, however, suggests that the observer (and ridiculer) does not see his or her own behaviour as being ridiculous.   This is a close relative of parody and exaggeration, but is delivered in a less positive manner.

Irony

The last form of humour that we shall identify is irony.   This may also be a ‘darker’ form of humour.  The humour is found not in the statement made (spoken or visual) but in the tone of that delivery.  For example, “I really enjoy studying Greek,” can have two meanings, depending on the manner in which it is spoken.  It could mean that the speaker really does enjoy studying the Greek language, or, if it is spoken with sarcasm or irony in the voice, it could mean precisely the opposite.  Of course the problem with irony is that it is difficult to portray in the written word.  It is possible with the use of italics, or with the clever use of language, but it still relies predominantly on the perception of the reader to notice the irony.  Irony may be used in a positive fashion, to draw attention to a particular aspect of the subject matter, but is best used when it is subtle and perhaps not noticed by many people, or when one first encounters it.  In the form of sarcasm, on the other hand, it is always negative, and rarely subtle: often having the same intention and effect as ridicule.

Associated aspects of humour

We have already mentioned laughter above, and we need to examine this a little further.  In this section we will look at joy and hilarity, laughter, and finally at the concept of ‘sense of humour’.

Joy and hilarity

Although these two are not strictly aspects of humour, they are closely associated with humour.  They can exist independently of humour, for example, one might feel joyful because of the weather, or because of a pleasing experience, perhaps ‘religious’, although not necessarily.   Joy, like humour has many different forms, which include exultant joy, optimism, gladness, pleasure, courage and hilarity.  These are all positive responses to someone or something.  They may be evidence of the presence of humour, either intended or perceived, but this is not necessarily the case.

Hilarity is often associated with an outburst of laughter.  It is a form of pleasurable excitement that can be caused by physical stimuli, for example tickling, or by a stimulation of perception.  This is not very far removed from the incongruity of humour.

Humour can be joyful, resulting in joy and hilarity, but one must not forget that it can also be ‘black’, causing a  mood of despondency and despair as the incongruity  highlights something in life that is hopeless or helpless.

Laughter

Laughter can be brought on by physical stimulation, as can hilarity, and may also be brought on by psychological trauma in the form of hysterical laughter.  We shall not be including hysteria in our definition of humour as it is not caused by perceptions of incongruity, rather it is a psychoneurosis, and is caused by physical, emotional or psychological imbalances.  We shall also be excluding laughter caused by physical stimulation as this physiological response is not caused by incongruity.

Laughter in response to humour is frequently involuntary.   It is an explosion of inarticulate sounds of the voice under an outside influence.  It induces a feeling of well-being as endorphins are released in the brain.   Endorphins are opiate-like substances and the release leads to a ‘high’ of emotions.  Laughter is a very positive reflex action, and in its pure (non-hysterical) form is nearly always induced by perception of humour.   The perception may be one’s own, or one may be induced to laughter merely by experiencing the laughter of someone else (who has perceived humour).  The intensity of laughter may indicate the degree of incongruity that one perceives, or it may be due to a particular susceptibility to the effects of endorphins.

Frank Muir, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose comments: “A joke has a measurable potential of laughter; there are snigger-sized jokes, guffaw-sized jokes, and hearty-laughter-sized jokes.   Humour has no such limitations.  A piece might only give the reader quiet pleasure.  On the other hand if it catches the reader off-guard and in the right mood … its effect can be violent and prolonged, inducing…  uncontrollable surges of laughter, hiccups, and a curious snoring noise in trying to regain breath.”  Hilaire Belloc has a similar explanation about laughter: “Genuine laughter is the physical effect produced in the rational being by what suddenly strikes his immortal soul as being damned funny.”

Laughter is not a barometer of humour.  It may indicate the presence of humour, but not the ‘quality’ of the humour, since the response is subjective.  Absence of laughter, however, does not necessarily indicate an absence of humour, again because the laughter response is a subjective one, and what one person perceives as being humorous enough to laugh may not stimulate the perception of another.  It should also be noted here that laughter may be a form of irony.  Hollow laughter is a means of conveying (mostly negative) ironic intent without having to use words.  Furthermore, we must again remind ourselves that humour is not always funny or amusing, and what is not funny is not likely to induce laughter.

Sense of Humour

This is the faculty of perceiving humour, usually associated with humour that is amusing.  It is commonly seen as a positive attribute, and an absence is usually associated with someone who does not find the same things amusing as one does.  In this paper we shall be looking to see if God has a sense of humour.  We do not mean in the  exclusive ‘does he find the same things funny as I do’  sense; rather we shall be looking to see if God has the faculty of perceiving humour in all its forms, as well as  the faculty of delivering or creating humour.  In other words, does God find things humorous; and does he intentionally create humour?  It must be noted that even if the Biblical revelation of God does not display all the forms of humour that we have identified that does not deny the presence of a sense of humour.

ABC of gratitude


I have written about having an attitude of gratitude before, and I do try to cultivate that personally. I have come up with a new way of doing that which I thought I would share with you today. I am working my way through the Alphabet and giving myself a new letter each day. My challenge is to come up with things to be grateful for beginning with that letter.

It sounded easy but it’s not so simple. Today I am on B and have included ‘balance’ and ‘blogging’, for example. Of course some letters will present a greater challenge than others. I may need to befriend someone called Xavier otherwise I will be restricted to gratitude for xylophones and X-rays!

Something else I am going to try to do is look out for things and people beginning with that letter during the day and add to the thankfulness. And if there’s a person I will tell them why I am grateful for them.

Of course all of this gratitude is good, but it REALLY helps having Someone to whom I can express my gratitude!

Be blessed, be a blessing

the blog I almost wrote

I was about to blog about an issue I have with using up a particular resource when performing one of my favourite magic tricks when I realised that if I did I might well be revealing a bit more about that illusion than I would want to. That could have several unwanted results:

  1. For people who have seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the illusion would be weakened.
  2. For people who haven’t seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the bloggage would not make much sense.
  3. I could get thrown out of the Magic Circle for revealing too much about the method.

People who perform magical illusions try not to reveal the secrets. This is not because we are maintaining some form of cartel to keep ‘muggles’ ignorant nor because we want to maintain a delusion* of superiority. It’s not even primarily because it would put magicians out of work. It’s first and foremost because the effect and impact of the illusion would be diminished or even destroyed by showing how it is done. Yes the performer may gain some degree of credit or kudos for showing people how clever / dexterous / ingenious they have been but for the audience what was hopefully a moment of amazement, delight and perhaps even awe has been reduced to ‘oh’. The magic has been replaced with an explanation. It’s like deconstructing a joke. The funny is taken out of the joke in the explanation of why it is funny.

I wonder sometimes whether the wonder has been taken out of church in a similar way. We ask questions about God (rightly so) and we try to deepen our understanding of God (a good thing) and in the nonconformist wing of the church in which I find myself most comfortable we have almost made a virtue of simplicity (and ugly buildings) in an effort to show that you don’t need anything special to encounter God (and I don’t disagree with that intention).

20140217_130518But are we also in danger of losing the awe, the wonder, the mystery of God? I was talking with someone recently about Canterbury Cathedral (above) and one of the things it does for you when you enter the vast space and see the height of the vaulted ceiling is that it takes your breath away. I think that was the intention of the designers. Not so that people would go, “Wow, what a building!” but “Wow, how amazing God must be to inspire people to create a place like this in order to worship him!”

But it’s not just buildings that can do this.

Ideally we followers of Jesus should have such God-refined character that when people look at us they say, “Wow, how amazing God must be when you look at his followers!” And Jesus had something to say about that (my paraphrase): “If you love one another in the same way that God loves people then when people look at you it will be blindingly obvious that you are my followers.”

Is it?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*yes, I meant to write that

dating

Rather belatedly, “Happy New Year!”

Why is it that we celebrated new years? After all it’s just another 360 degree rotation of the planet on our orbit of the sun, just like any other. The fact that we have decided to number and name dates does not make them any more special than any other. Even though fireworks were let off and ‘Auld lang syne’ was sung nothing marked 1st January 2017 as any different to 31st December 2016.diary

(In fact 31st December 2016 was more remarkable because it had an extra second in it to take account of the fact that the earth is almost imperceptibly slowing down.)

And yet we mark special dates – new years, birthdays, anniversaries, and so on. I believe it is part of what makes us human. If you think about it no other created being on this planet has an awareness of dates. Other creatures may be aware of time (the dawn chorus is an example) but they do not have a sense of dates, and they certainly don’t attach any significance to any particular dates. So why do we do it?

I think it is part of our self-awareness and our consciousness. Marking special dates is a way of establishing our relationship with other people, with time and even with ourselves – which is perhaps why we like being with those we love on significant dates, or at least why we like to receive greetings from them by sending messages on cardboard or social media.

I think it’s also an indication that we recognise (albeit subconsciously) that we are mortal. We are on this planet for a limited amount of time and marking special dates is one way in which we remind ourselves of that. And perhaps, when we pause and consider our mortality, we also pause and consider whether immortality is possible – is there more to life than this?

Maybe 2017 is a year to explore that?

(again?)

(further?)

Be blessed, be a blessing

possibly the most difficult service of the year

virgin and childIn the UK this Sunday is marked as Mothering Sunday. And, when you are a local church Minister, it is one of those Sundays that takes a disproportionate amount of thought and preparation. It is a day when, when I have got it ‘wrong’, I have had more complaints than any other in the calendar year! Allow me to let you in on some of the things that have to be considered and how I have not got it right on occasions…

Gifts – do we give a gift on Mothering Sunday? If we do it should probably go to all women so that nobody feels excluded. Will a small posy of flowers be a blessing, or is it just a token? Will some women feel patronised by being included? Can we afford that number of posies of flowers? Who will organise getting the flowers and sorting them? Who will give them out? When in the service will they be given out? Are there any alternatives to flowers?

Inclusivity – not all women are mothers. Some would desperately love to be a mother and others would rather not. Some mothers no longer have their children with them – they might have moved away, they may have lost contact, some may have died prematurely. Some people did not get on well with their own mothers and would rather not be reminded of them. Some people are mothers and find it a joy, others find it a struggle. How can we prepare a service in which we take account of and include all of those different emotional needs and circumstances?

History – Mothering Sunday was not originally about mothers. It emerged in the era when the wealthy had lots of domestic servants in their homes who worked all hours and (if allowed out on a Sunday) attended the same church as their master/mistress. This was one Sunday in the year in which they were released from the obligation to attend that church and could go back to their Mother church and also visit their home. That’s a tradition that is no longer observed due to changed cultural and social structures. Mothering Sunday has now become about Mums. But if we focus on the historical roots of the day it could become a ‘Back to Church Sunday’, yet my experience in local church is that this would not be something that many would appreciate.

Language – It used to be ‘Mothering Sunday’, now it is ‘Mothers’ Day’. That change of language reflects the change of purpose of the day. But if it was a day to think about mothering it would be different from thinking about mothers. We could sensitively reflect on mothering as a positive concept and perhaps avoid upsetting some people by reminding them of past hurt or current pain.

Bible – linked to ‘language’, the Bible constantly talks about God as Father. Far less frequently is God referred to as ‘mother’ or even in the feminine, although there are a few passages – you can find a good summary of them here. I was in the congregation of a service on one occasion when the person leading opened with a prayer that began: “Mother God…” Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe that we have paid insufficient attention to the femaleness of God, and that we have ‘maleified’ Genesis 1:27 when the Bible talks about male and female being made in God’s image: if both genders are made in God’s image, what does that say about God? And I don’t actually think that to talk to God as our Mother is disrespectful, blasphemous or wrong. But to begin with those words upset almost everyone in the church (male and female) because it came without explanation or warning. I don’t think many people remembered anything about the service after those two words. There is still a lot of patriarchy in our theology and practice in church and Mothering Sunday has the potential to run aground on the rocks of that prejudice.

Tradition – I have found to my cost that if you try to change the way that Mothering Sunday has been done before you will get criticism. There is something important for people (which I have underestimated) about tradition (and that’s coming from a non-conformist branch of the church). One year I took the decision not to give out flowers but said that we would use the money instead to give to a charity working with bereaved mothers. I had not asked many people about this, I had not sought approval from the leadership team for this, I acted out of good motives but rashly and unilaterally. I naively thought that this would receive universal assent and affirmation as a new way of doing things. Nope. Cue lots of unhappy people (men and women) because I had changed from the traditional way we had done things. I’m not having a go at those people – their upset was genuine and I had not taken their feelings and thoughts into account. I’m just illustrating how deeply tradition is felt and how not to go about changing it.

Commercialisation – I do struggle with the way in which Mothers’ Day (Mothering Sunday) has been hijacked commercially. Cards have to be sent, gifts have to be bought, meals with the family in restaurants are booked (when usually people spend the time differently). Again, don’t misunderstand me. I am not against showing people that you love them by sending cards and gifts. It’s just that it sits uneasily with me, especially when there are people (identified above) for whom this is a difficult time and everywhere they go there will be reminders.

All of this may lead you to think that I am against Mothering Sunday. No. Not at all. It’s just that it’s so difficult to prepare for when you have to take all of the above into account, and that’s alongside the intention to prepare a service in which people can worship and encounter God, and a sermon through which God can speak. The beauty is that when I have got it right, it has been a very special time. For me it starts with preparing a service in which people can worship and encounter God and a sermon through which God can speak. But then it’s entirely right to take into consideration the issues I have mentioned above.

I think it is important that we encourage people to be who they are in church, not putting on a pretend, happy face when inside we are weeping. It is important that we bring all of our lives and experiences with us into church and seek God’s Spirit to minister to them, not leaving the difficult items at the door to be collected (unchanged) on the way out. Prayers can be inclusive, allowing time and space for the pain and hurt to be expressed to God alongside the thankfulness. If I was doing it again I would probably still want to make a gift to a charity working to support bereaved parents, but it would be alongside not instead of existing traditions if they were helpful to people.

Exploring the nature of God (including in the feminine) is something worth doing, and worth doing well. One of the moments that I think worked well was when we got some people up to have a ‘dandling’ competition using some of the dolls from the crèche, coming from this image in Isaiah 66:12-13:

‘I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
you will feed and be carried on her arm
    and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
    so will I comfort you;
    and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.’

(If you don’t know, dandling is playfully bouncing a child up and down on your knee.) The congregation voted for the best dandling and then we explored what it meant that God’s people (Israel in the Old Testament) are described as dandling – playful, secure, comforting, loving… and how that might be true of us.

I hope that, whatever Mothering Sunday means to you, it will also bring with it a greater awareness of God’s love, compassion, protection, joy, pride, enthusiasm and, yes, dandling into your life.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

Black Friday deal

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Great news. I’m pleased to be able to announce an incredible Black Friday deal. You won’t be able to find a better one!

You can get a fresh start in life, forgiveness for the past, a relationship with God, a helper who is always with you, live life in all its fullness, a global family of billions, the sting of death drawn so you can experience eternity in God’s presence, and a promise that it won’t be easy.

And for one day only you can get all of this ABSOLUTELY FREE.

That’s right, it won’t cost you a penny. The price has already been paid (see Good Friday).

Terms and conditions apply – you need to be willing to allow God’s Spirit to change you, admit past failings and turn away from them, acknowledge that your fresh start in life is a gift from God made possible by Jesus and live your life accordingly.

This offer has previously been available at any of God’s outlets (aka churches) on any day of the year at the same price.

Be blessed, be a blessing.