no joking matter

not speakHaving recently posted my degree dissertation on ‘A Theology of Humour’ it feels appropriate to be making an observation on the recent comments by Boris Johnson about women wearing Burqas. I am not going to give Mr Johnson’s comments any publicity by repeating them save to say that I consider them to be reprehensible and offensive, especially when written by someone with his public profile.

Had the hideous comments been made by someone in a far right organisation there might have been a prosecution for incitement to racial hatred. If you doubt that this is the case I was deeply distressed to read a report last week of how some yobs had been abusing and harassing a lady wearing a burqa in such a way that it was clearly ‘inspired’ by Mr Johnson’s comments.

It has been suggested that Mr Johnson should not be censured for his comments because they were “a joke”. Even if that was so it was in extremely poor taste. But a joke can still be offensive and can still incite others to copy them because the words, once released, carry a life and notoriety all of their own and any humorous intent can swiftly be lost.

And it’s this ‘joke’ concept that has niggled away at me – perhaps because I have recently revisited my dissertation. It seems to me that there is a very fine line between laughing at someone or something we hold affectionately – like laughing when one of our friends says something unintentionally funny – and ridiculing someone we do not respect – which feels like the tone of Mr Johnson’s comments, particularly given his (apparent) unwillingness to apologise for them.

I think there may be some sort of comedic continuum here with concepts like: ‘parody, lampooning, caricaturing, send-up, spoof, and satire’ at one end and ‘mockery, scorn, ridicule, derision, contempt, disdain, sarcasm, jeering’ at the other. The problem is that it is very difficult to know where satire becomes ridicule, or lampooning becomes jeering. And I think the answer is revealed as much by the outcome as the words themselves and the intent of the author, and perhaps as much by the (lack of) affection or respect we have for the subject.

Words, once spoken or written and released publicly, are not harmless. I can remember reciting the mantra: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” as I was being verbally bullied at school. It was intended as a defence mechanism because I was unwilling to become physically violent in response. But deep down I knew that those words did hurt. It was not only the words themselves that hurt, but I knew that there was disrespect and hatred behind them.

If we let a domesticated, well-trained dog off the lead in the countryside and it harasses or savages a flock of sheep we have to take responsibility for that and I believe we also have to take responsibility for what we say even if the words have taken on a significance and meaning we did not intend. That is true not only for Mr Johnson, but for all of us. In the letter written in the Bible by James (possibly Jesus’ brother) we read in chapter 3 verses 3-12:

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Jesus was even more direct (Matthew 12):

33 ‘Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognised by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’


Be blessed, be a blessing

you’re a joke

laughing - permission given for blogJokes are funny. I know that we don’t all find all of them to be ‘funny haha’ but they are ‘funny peculiar’. What I find funny (peculiar) is the vast range and variety of different jokes. Some work best when observed or read on the page or screen; others work best when spoken or performed. Some have a lengthy set up before we get the punch-line; others hit you before you are ready. Some jokes are one-liners; others are long and complicated. Some are very clever and take a while to work out; others are blunt and blatant. And there are many other variations – so much so that some jokes have universal appeal and others only work in specific languages or cultures. But they are all jokes.

One that I found this morning tickled my funny bones: “Making spoonerisms is a bit like bird watching.” It’s short, it’s clever, and I think it’s funny (haha) too. But it doesn’t work if you translate it from English and you have to know what a spoonerism is to make it funny and recognise how clever it is.

One thing that I think Christians have missed is just how funny (haha) Jesus was. I have written about it elsewhere on this blog and you can read about it in my dodgy degree dissertation that you can download from here. I think the reason is that we don’t understand the prevailing sense of humour of his day and his culture. And we imagine that he was always serious and never played pranks on his friends, didn’t tell jokes and didn’t enjoy a ‘throw-your-head-back-laugh-til-it-hurts joke. If we deny him that we diminish his humanity (which doesn’t enhance his divinity). Did he chuckle to himself as he sent Peter the fisherman off to catch a fish which will have a coin in its mouth in order to pay the tax, or was he deep in thought and seriousness?

I think we are all jokes. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. What I mean is that we are all different, unique, funny (peculiar) and yet all share the same human-ness. We need to  appreciate differences and not elevate any over any others; we need to recognise similarities and affirm them; we need to seek to understand one another and we need to be prepared to take ourselves a bit less seriously sometimes and laugh more. If Jesus did, shouldn’t we?

Be blessed, be a blessing

the old joke I almost used on Sunday morning…*

golf holeA Minister decided he needed a day off (no, that’s not the joke). He woke up one morning, looked out on a beautiful day, and decided to play a round of golf (some of you are already at the punchline now). The only problem was that it was a Sunday.

He phoned his Church Secretary and pretended to have lost his voice. He croaked that he would not be able to take the service and received the sympathy of his Secretary. Then he put the phone down, picked up his clubs, put them in the car and joyfully drove off to the golf course.

Meanwhile, from above, two angels were watching. One, a novice, was seriously indignant: “Did you see that?” he blurted. “That Minister lied to his Church and is now off to play golf on a Sunday. We need to stop him!”

“Don’t worry,” said the other angel, a Wing Commander. “It will be sorted.”

The Minister arrived at the golf course and set himself up on the first tee. He swung at the ball, sliced it and it shot off to the right. It careened into a tree, rebounded onto the course and trundled happily up the fairway.

“Did you see that!” shouted the novice angel. “He lied to his Church, is playing golf on a Sunday, and now he’s hitting fluke shots.”

“Don’t worry,” said the Wing Commander. “It will be sorted.”

The Minister chipped onto the green and then sank a 15 foot putt for a birdie.

“Did you see that!” screamed the novice angel. “He lied to his Church, is playing golf on a Sunday, he’s hitting fluke shots and now he’s got a birdie!”

“Don’t worry,” said the Wing Commander. “It will be sorted.”

The next hole was a par three. The Minister lined up his tee shot, swung, and for once made a perfect connection. The ball sailed into the air, straight and true, and landed on the bottom tier of the green. It bounced a couple of times and then rolled up the slope towards the hole and stopped right on the very edge of the cup. Then, after a brief pause, the ball dropped into the hole for a hole in one.

“Did you see that!” fumed the novice angel, forgetting all about the serenity of heaven. “He lied to his Church, is playing golf on a Sunday, he’s hitting fluke shots to get a birdie, and now he’s hit a hole in one! He’s having the round of his life! He should not be getting away with this!”

“Don’t worry, it’s sorted” said the Wing Commander. “He may be having the round of his life, and he may have hit a hole in one, but who can he tell?”

Most of you got to the punch line well before you read it. And I get the feeling that this happens a lot with Christians. Not so much with jokes but with sermons and Bible Studies and the like. We know that the answer will be often one or more of ‘follow Jesus, share your faith, pray, and / or read the Bible’. That may be true at a superficial level, but in my experience it’s as I do those things that I find new experiences every time. Sometimes God takes the familiar things and applies them in new ways. Sometimes I need to be reminded about the familiar things and reapply them to my life. And then there are the ‘wow’ moments when I discover something new or am reminded of something I had forgotten.

If that joke was familiar to you the chances are you would not have remembered it until I told it. If it was new to you the chances are you would not have come across it anywhere else today. It may seem mundane to say ‘follow Jesus, share your faith, pray, and / or read the Bible’ but in doing those things we find the amazing, the exciting, the surprising.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*I decided against telling the joke on Sunday, but I like it so much that I thought you deserved to read it today!

theology from a joke?

Ravenel Bridge CharlestonA while ago the website Ship of Fools ran a competition to find the funniest religious joke. This was the winner, from comedian Emo Philips:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. 

I said, “Don’t do it!”

He said, “Nobody loves me.”

I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, “A Christian.” 

I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” 

He said, “Protestant.” 

I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” 

He said, “Baptist.” 

I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” 

He said, “Northern Baptist.” 

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” 

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” 

I said, “Me, too!” 

“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” 

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

In case you are experiencing deja vu, yes I have mentioned this before on the blog – here. I retold this joke recently to some friends in our church and it got a great response. But subsequent pondering made me wonder why it is that it is so funny. I think that there are several reasons. One is that it draws you in with the ever-deepening coincidence of shared experience. Another is that the shared experience seems to get more and more contrived. A third is the humour of the ridiculousness of how fractured and splintered the church has become – dividing over more and more issues. And then, just when we are wondering how many more coincidences there can be Emo Philips hits us with the unexpected punchline about heresy and his over the top response to it and our laughter reflex is triggered in an explosion of surprise and shock at the outcome and the jettisoning of all that was common.

There are, however, a couple of problems:

The first problem is that while this joke is funny for all those reasons (and many more), having dissected it as I just have may have killed the joke for you.

The second problem is that while this is a funny joke it is rooted in reality. As well as laughing at the joke we should take a good long hard look at ourselves through the lens of the joke. What things divide us from others? Do we spend more time focusing on those things and less focusing on what unites us?

By definition if I believe something to be true I must consider someone who holds a different view to be wrong. They are a heretic. Two contradictory things cannot be simultaneously right. The laws of physics and logic say that they can’t be. And this approach to theology has fractured and splintered churches throughout its history and caused immense hurt.

  • If an understanding of the Bible leads someone to believe that women should not be in leadership of a church they also believe that those who believe that women should be in leadership are wrong*.
  • If an understanding of the Bible leads someone to believe that it is right to baptise infants they also believe that those who believe that only those who are believers should be baptised are wrong*.
  • If an understanding of the Bible leads someone to believe that all clergy should be celibate they also believe that those who believe that they do not need to be celibate are wrong*.

*These do not represent my theological understanding. They are being used to illustrate my point. You can interchange them for any issue on which Christians are divided – church structures, sexuality, divorce, euthanasia, and (sadly) much much more. Because we hold a particular view about issues (especially those we hold strongly) by definition we infer that those who hold opposing views must be wrong.

Now I have three more problems, which are probably aspects of one single problem – intolerance of tolerance and tolerance of intolerance.

One is that I don’t accept that because I believe something to be true and there are others who hold a different view it means that I have to brand those who think differently as heretics and get pushed off bridges. I hope I hold my beliefs through considered prayerful study, experience and reflection (for the most part – some may be because I have uncritically adopted someone else’s view because I liked the sound of it and I need to be aware of that). What sort of person am I if I decide that someone else who holds a different view reached through considered prayerful study, experience and reflection must be condemned and I can have nothing to do with them? I could be wrong: even if I don’t think I am I surely have to have sufficient humility to accept that I could be: I have changed my views on theological issues through my life – the ‘previous’ me would regard the ‘current’ me as a heretic!

The second is that I don’t accept that two contradictory positions mean that one must be wrong. Both could be wrong. But what if both are right? Can that be possible? The laws of physics and logic say that it is not. But what if those laws are the wrong ones to be applying here:

God is simultaneously comprehensible and logical (so we can understand him) and beyond human comprehension and understanding.

He has established the laws of physics and logic and all that makes our Universe how it is and at the same time he breaks those laws (we call them miracles).

Jesus was both fully human and fully God – simultaneously.

God is all powerful and yet he chooses to limit his power by giving us free will and the option to choose to go against his will.

If we try to apply physical laws to them something has to give, but with God they are not contradictions they are paradoxes. Somehow God is able to hold in creative tension things that we would see as contradictory. Can’t we seek the grace to do that too?

And that leads me to the third problem. Why do some Christians (who have experienced Grace and Love and seek to follow the most perfect Example of both, Jesus of Nazareth) feel it is necessary to exclude and condemn those who have a different interpretation of the Bible or a different theological view? At this point in discussion with others they often introduce the ‘slippery slope’ – if we say that we accept one thing, where will it end: it’s a slippery slope. So, to be facetious to make the point, if we say that Christians who sincerely hold the view that churches should have only pews when our church only has chairs genuinely are Christians then before we know it won’t we be on a slippery slope that leads towards us saying that all people who sincerely believe something, even those who sincerely hold the view that there is no God, are Christians?

Erm. No. I think that  if there is a genuine slippery slope we can define a point on the slope beyond which we will not slide. It’s very difficult to say that you are a Christian if you don’t believe in God. Ah, you say, but you said we could hold contradictory positions in creative tension.

True, but even God has his limits. He is absolute love, but he is not also absolute hate. (NB The thing the Bible says he hates above all is religious hypocrisy!)

There are limits. And for each of us those limits may be different. But does that mean that we should unleash venomous bile and condemnation on those who believe the limits are in a different place to us? Does that sound like Grace and Love? Perhaps it is easier if we accept that we all exist on slippery slopes and need the grace to accept those who are slipping and sliding around with us. 

I recognise that I could be accused of being inconsistent – I am being less tolerant of those who unleash bile and condemnation. That brings me back to what I have just been saying. There are limits. But surely those limits could be limited to the core of what we believe and surely we should be careful about making that core bigger than Jesus would.

What is the core? The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which “confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” 

The WCC seeks to be a space “in which [Christians] can reflect, speak, act, worship and work together, challenge and support each other, share and debate with each other. As members of this fellowship, WCC member churches:

  • are called to the goal of visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship;
  • promote their common witness in work for mission and evangelism;
  • engage in Christian service by serving human need, breaking down barriers between people, seeking justice and peace, and upholding the integrity of creation; and
  • foster renewal in unity, worship, mission and service.”

Sounds like a good place to start.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Sunday morning’s postponed joke

I usually begin my sermons with a joke. If nothing else it means people might be awake at the start of the sermon!

This Sunday morning I had a joke ready but felt as we were going through the service that I should not start with a joke. So I didn’t.

This is the postponed joke. It should be stressed that this is an entirely fictional story!

A reporter met with the millionaire entrepreneur Deborah Meaden from Dragon’s Den. In the interview he asked her what her leadership philosophy was. She says that it was to surround herself with intelligent people. The man asked how she knew if they were intelligent.

“I ask them the right questions,” said Deborah Meaden. “Allow me to demonstrate.”

She phoned her secretary and asked, “Gill, please answer this question: Your mother has a child, and your father has a child, and this child is not your brother or sister. Who is it?
There was a pause and the secretary replied, “It’s me, Mrs Meaden.”

“Correct. Thank you and goodbye,” said Deborah Meaden. She turned to the reporter, “Did you get that?”

“Yes,” said the reporter. “Thank you.” When he got back to the newspaper he decided to try out the test.

He called the Editor and said, “I wonder if you can answer a question for me.” The editor agreed.

“Your mother has a child, and your father has a child, and this child is not your brother or sister. Who is it?”

The editor was silent and finally asked, “Can I think about it and get The editor immediately called the rest of the staff together, and they puzzled over the question for several hours, but nobody had an answer.

Finally, in desperation, the editor called the Archbishop of Canterbury and explained his problem. “Your mother has a child, And your father has a child, and this child is not your brother or sister. Who is it?”

The Archbishop of Canterbury answered immediately, “It’s me, of course.”

Much relieved, the editor rushed back to call the reporter and exclaims. “I know the answer! I know who it is! It’s The Archbishop of Canterbury!! The reporter replied in disgust, “Wrong, it’s Deborah Meaden’s secretary.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

And before pedants get hold of me, it is possible that the meeting was for just one procrastinator. Or you can get a life and stop worrying about rogue apostrophe’s.

The apostrophe in ‘apostrophe’s’ was deliberately put there to increase the ‘aaaargh’ for pedant’s.

Oops, done it again.


doctor, doctor

heartI feel the need…

I feel the need for levity

This joke comes from one of my main sources of jokes: I retell it here in honour of those who work in our health service, especially those who work in cardiac services.

A mechanic was removing a cylinder head from the motor of a motorcycle when he spotted a well known heart surgeon in his shop. The surgeon was waiting for the service manager to look at his bike.

The mechanic shouted across the garage, “Hey Doc, can I ask you a question?”

The surgeon, a bit surprised, walked over to the mechanic who was working on the motorcycle. The mechanic straightened up, wiped his hands and said, “So doc, look at this engine, I open its heart, take valves out, fix them, put ’em back and when I finish, it works just like new. So how come I get such a small salary and you get the really big bucks, when you and I are doing basically the same work?”

The surgeon paused, smiled and leaned over and whispered to the mechanic, “Try doing it with the engine running.”

Be blessed, be a blessing

crossing roads

2012-05-31 08.48.00Not much time to blog today, so a philosophical question for you to consider:

Why did the Baptist Minister cross the road?

Possible answers include:

It was the chicken’s day off
She was tied to the chicken
To show the hedgehog it was possible
To get to the other side*
Because he didn’t know any good jokes
To jump in a big puddle

Be blessed, be a blessing (and be grateful that I stopped when I did!)

You must be able to do better…


*This punchline works if they get run over too (other side aka heaven)

A year with the Lears (2013 version)

Dear friends

letter c

A Christmas letter

It’s time for one of those lovely Christmas letters* from the Lears, where we bore you silly with our news and gloat about our successes. So, if you are kind enough to continue to read this we hope it might at least make you smile, and can guarantee it will make the cracker jokes you have tomorrow seem a lot funnier.


Nick has a new hobby: he is writing film scripts. So far he has written three blockbuster epics – a trilogy about an ordinary disgraced policeman who realises that a master criminal has bought the world’s supply of indigestion remedies and will only sell them at triple the price. Meanwhile his henchmen have altered the recipe for pastry in order to make crusts inedible and it’s up to our hero to stop them on his own. The trilogy is called ‘Pie Hard’.

Nick got banned from a local pub this year but had thought it was a compliment. He did a poetry reading and the pub landlord said, “You’re bard!” Next year Nick will be performing magic at an international venue. (He is sure that someone from overseas must have been to Maldon Town Hall and at some point so that makes it international in his mind).

He has just started on the 5.2 diet – where you eat what you want for 5 days and then fast for 2 days. He says that the first 5 days have been brilliant.

Sally asked her gym instructor to teach her how to do the splits this year. When he asked her how flexible she was she told him that she could only do Wednesdays.

She has given up her job at the shoe recycling centre: it was sole destroying. She got the job after visiting a local shoe shop having heard they were selling recycled shoes. She was struggling to get one on and an assistant said, “Try it with the tongue out.” And she replied, “Itth thtill too thmall.”

Thomas has been working on a new computerised payment system based at the Vatican: Papal.

He went to the doctors and asked him if he had anything for wind. The doctor gave him a kite. This year he has broken the world record for giggling at the most flatulence-related jokes and noises.

>I'm back dook

He was impressed by recent research into feet. Apparently ducks have webbed feet so they can stamp out forest fires. And elephants have flat feet to stamp out burning ducks.

Hannah is still engaged to Olly Murs, but there is no wedding date yet. We’re keeping it quiet so that she is not inundated with attention from Hello and so that she does not receive too many death threats from other fans. She wishes you all an Olly MrsMurs.

Next year she will finish the supercar that she has been hand-building in her bedroom and will be allowing the team from Top Gear to drive it around their track… once she has worked out how to get it out of her bedroom.

She went to the local bakery in order to set up a bank account: it was a currant account.

Her geography teacher asked her if Sally helped her with her geography homework. “No,” said Hannah, “she did it all on her own.”

We wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Be blessed, be a blessing (with tinsel on as it’s Christmas)

*Any resemblance to actual events is completely coincidental and should be ignored. The rest of the family wish to distance themselves from these jokes and would like you to know that it’s all Nick’s idea.

some assembly required

I have been given two books. The lovely Sally, my wife, went to a charity shop yesterday and came back with a carrier bag of books (they are selling them by the bag now!) and two were for me. One was a book of card tricks, and I won’t be sharing any quotes from that with you. The other is a selection of stories told by after dinner speakers. This one tickled me:

A visiting clergyman went to a small village to take the evening service as the resident parson was ill. As he had not been there before he arrived in good time and had a look around the church. He saw a collecting box with a card over it: ‘For church expenses’ and he put in 10p.

When the service was over the verger came into the vestry with the collecting box. He said, “It has always been our custom to give the contents of this box to any visiting clergyman we may have.”

coin handHe selected a key from a bunch he held and, after opening the box, he said, “My word, sir, you are lucky tonight: there’s 10p in it!” and he handed the money over.

When he reached home the clergyman told his wife and small daughter of his experience. The girl’s answer was, “Well you see, daddy, if you had put more into the box you would have got more out of it.”

[insert your own application here*].

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*That’s where some assembly is required for this bloggage.

highbrow humour

How high are your brows?

How high are your brows?

I found this page in the Independent recently (it’s almost a month old, but as it is not an article about the news I think it’s okay. It is looking at the most highbrow jokes in the world. I thought would share some with you to counter any suggestions that this blog is dumbed down. Here goes:

A photon checks into a hotel and the porter asks him if he has any luggage. The photon replies: “No, I’m travelling light.”

There are 10 types of people in this world. Those that know binary, and those that don’t.

When I heard that oxygen and magnesium hooked up I was like OMg.

The barman says: “We don’t serve faster-than-light particles here.” A tachyon enters a bar.

Never trust an atom. They make up everything.

A Roman walks into a bar,  holds up two fingers, and says:  “Five beers, please.”

A classics professor goes to a tailor to get his trousers mended. The tailor asks: “Euripides?” The professor replies: “Yes. Eumenides?”

A programmer’s wife tells him: “Run to the store and pick up a loaf of bread. If they have eggs, get a dozen.” The programmer comes home with 12 loaves of bread.

What do you get when you combine a joke with a rhetorical question?

Argon walks into a bar and orders a drink. The bartender says, “sir, we don’t serve noble gasses.” There was no reaction.

Now that your brows are suitably high I will leave you with a brief reflection.

[glimpses himself in the mirror].

Be blessed, be a blessing