Humor Makes the Serious more Serious

A pastor once told David that humor within a sermon makes the serious more serious. In other words it creates the emotional highs and lows that helps us remember the point of the sermon as well as create receptiveness that inspires change or endurance in doing well.

I have wondered as others have  whether Jesus had a sense of humor and said funny things. (Googling ‘Did Jesus have a sense of humor?’ yielded 10.6 million hits.)  As it turns out, many scholars think so.  Jesus’ use of hyperbole to make a point, the colorful descriptions in his parables, and the fact that he liked hanging out with “sketchy” people at dinner parties probably spoke to a winsome and intelligent humor as well as an appreciation for the delightful in some folks, especially the little ones.  And, we all know that Jesus would have laughed at the crazy viral YouTube, titled, “Charlie bit me.”  YouTube link here if you are one of the only three English speaking people in the world who have not seen this.  (Dave’s note:  Actually there is an Indian and Arabic remix.)

As an aside, my time over the last decade with Palestinian Bible Society staff in the West Bank and Gaza has taught me to expect a lot of laughing, hilarity, antics and teasing (without the booze) when they get together socially; in spite of being a group that has endured much hardship and tragedy.

My personal favorite “funny” from Jesus

log-in-eyeAbout two thirds through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he uses a ridiculous image to drive home his point about hyper criticalness.  David was reading Matthew 5-7 out loud to me the other day.  I laughed out-loud when David read Jesus’ famous ” get the log out of your own eye before trying to get the speck out of your brother’s eye” within the Sermon  (Matthew 7:1-5).  Scholars of Biblical studies and culture think I responded like Jesus’ Galilean listeners and it would have been by design.  Think about it for a minute. Jesus just told people to stop hating, lusting, divorcing, swearing and revenging. He tells his audience that they not only have to love their neighbor but also their enemy and do it with their actions. And He tells them that they should give to the needy but not  let anyone know about it, quit acting so religious, quit storing up wealth on earth, quit worrying and replace worrying with trust – all things we need to hear but when you pile them up all together they can seem a little overwhelming. Just when people were probably finding themselves emotionally and mentally flooded (a psych term) Jesus injected humor.  I like to think that Jesus thought something to the effect of, “hmm, let me break this up with a witty image that will last centuries and prepare these folks to hear even more challenges before I finish off ‘The Sermon’ that will inaugurate a new understanding of God’s ethical standard of living within the Kingdom of God. I know they will laugh but it will  only enhance the point that I have little patience with hypocritical judgmental-ism..

Jesus was no stand-up comic  but he used humor to drive home some tough sobering points that had barbs.

Some interesting facts about laughing from the Mayo Clinic.

In the short term:

Laughter doesn’t just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body:

  • Stimulates many organs.Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.
  • Activates and relieves your stress response.A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.
  • Soothes tension.Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.

In the long term
Laughter isn’t just a quick pick-me-up, though. It’s also good for you over the long haul. Laughter may:

  • Improve your immune system.Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity. In contrast, positive thoughts actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.
  • Relieve pain.Laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers. Laughter may also break the pain-spasm cycle common to some muscle disorders.
  • Increase personal satisfaction.Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations. It also helps you connect with other people.
  • Improve your mood.Many people experience depression, sometimes due to chronic illnesses. Laughter can help lessen your depression and anxiety and make you feel happier.

Spiritual application:

Laugh a lot.  Look for things to laugh about.  Be appropriate and sweet about it so watch out for superior sarcasm and passive aggressive teasing. Laughing with others increases our affection and emotional connection with them.  Above all, take yourself less seriously while taking God, very seriously – then you will be emotionally and spiritually ready to read the Sermon on the Mount. It’s no light read but then again we can handle it if we” first get the log out of our own eye.”


Radical touching

So it turns out according to a colossal amount of research that touching someone is good for health and mood; not just for the “touch-ee” but also for the “touch-er”.  Now, that is hardly earth shattering news. Being touched (APPROPRIATELY) whether in the form of a hug, gentle pat on the arm, holding a hand, back rub is shown to release neurotransmitters that positively affect the immune system, mood, self-esteem, blood pressure, and stress level.  It seems that there is nothing that even the slightest touch on the arm can’t bring about that is not positive.  Of course, there are caveats.  “Know your audience.”  Not all cultures will respond positively to an uninvited touch on the arm.  Nor, do all women necessarily want random men touching them on the arm or anywhere else. But the research is in:  touch activates skin receptors that send signals to the brain to release “feel-good” neurotransmitters and hormones that aid in boosting immune systems.  And, it does not take a scientist to know that touch, given in the right spirit and received in that same spirit, builds a healthy, uplifting psychological connection.

However, there is a “touching” that stuns with its radical compassion and fierceness.  And if we are honest we don’t quite know what to do with it.

The story

In early November of 2013, Vinicio Riva and others traveled by bus to Vatican City, where they attended a morning public audience held by Pope Francis. Vinicio Riva who was in a wheel chair pushed by his aunt was just hoping to see the Pope. Vinicia suffers from a rare skin disorder that has left him severely disfigured with tumors all over his face and body. Neurofibromatosis is not contagious.

The following was reported By CNN World.

“I didn’t think we would be so close to the Pope, but the Swiss Guard kept ushering us forward until we were in a corner in the front row,” recalled his aunt.  “When he came close to us, I thought he would give me his hand. Instead he went straight to Vinicio and embraced him tightly. I thought he wouldn’t give him back to me he held him so tightly.”

(There are pictures of this encounter at the end of this post.)

Vinicio, accustomed to stares of shock and fear, was initially confused by the pontiff’s lack of hesitation. “He didn’t have any fear of my illness,” he said. “He embraced me without speaking … I quivered. I felt a great warmth.”

The entire encounter lasted little over a minute, and soon Vinicio and his aunt were back on the bus; Vinicio in a state of combined shock and joy.

“He was almost not himself,” Lotto said. “He was shaking.’’

“I felt I was returning home ten years younger, as if a load had been lifted,” Vinicio said.

The Huffington Post reported Vinicio as saying, “I’m not contagious, but he [the Pope] didn’t know that.  But he did it, period.  He caressed my whole face and while he was doing it, I felt only love.”

No words were exchanged, just the healing comfort of touch. “I tried to speak to say something but I was unable to,” said Riva in a translation provided by Time. “The emotion was too strong. It lasted a little longer than a minute but it felt as if it were eternity.”

Gospel story

Pope Francis no doubt gets his cue from the gospels.  Another story reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke tells the story of Jesus healing a man “filled with leprosy.”  Jesus broke with centuries-old cleanliness laws by touching, no, “grabbing” a man who fell on his knees before Jesus saying, “If you are willing you can make me clean.”  Jesus, filled with compassion, grabs the man and says, “I am willing”.  The desperate man is cured from one of society’s most dreaded diseases – a disease leading to disfigurement and death but only after a life of misery, pain, isolation, shame and loneliness.

Many through the centuries have also taken their cue from Jesus to radically touch and bless the severely disfigured from dreaded skin diseases and disorders.  St. Francis Assisi, Dr. Paul and Mary Brandt, Mother Theresa and so many others that will never make the radical touch-ers hall of fame on this side of heaven.

I was curious what leprosy might have looked like in first century Palestine.  Surprisingly, Google images revealed something that did not look so different from Riva’s disorder.  Now, here is where it gets a little odd.  When I viewed several images of religious paintings of the encounter of Jesus with the leper they showed something quite different from what would have been the reality.  Jesus is portrayed as “ other worldly” taking his finger and pointing it towards the man as if he was dispelling fairy dust and the man with leprosy looks a little ashen or at most smudgy, something that hot soapy water could fix.  Why was the disease’s disfigurement played down and why is Jesus portrayed as someone who is beyond getting down and dirty with the lowly?  I don’t know but here are two theories.  One, the artist does not want us distracted by the terribleness of the diseased man so that we can keep our gaze on the beautiful ephemeral Jesus, or, two, a painting to be displayed in a church or in the palace of a wealthy benefactor needed to be lovely and stunning to look at showing the magnificence of Christ .  While I understand the reasons it is a disservice to the heart of Christ and to those suffering.

about me

So, would I do what Pope Francis did?  I need to honestly confront my limits and fears and ask sincerely what it means when Christ says, “When you do it to the least of these you are doing it to me.”  Wait a minute, I know what it means.  Compassion has no limits. It comes at a cost.  It certainly did for Christ, our Savior and Healer. I like to think of myself as a touch-er, hugg-er and kisser type of person.  I also like to think of myself as a follower of Christ, too. But, the call to be a radical touch-er?   Me? God help me. I mean it, Holy Spirit help me!




Living the New Normal

I finished cancer treatment over two weeks ago and have returned to my home in Juneau, Alaska.

I left Alaska in January of this year with a vision of myself as a healthy woman with exciting plans of seeing family and friends on the east coast and then a two month ministry in the Middle East; a routine that has gone uninterrupted for the last 8 years.  On February 26th those plans were profoundly interrupted with a sudden diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer. For those of you who have walked this path or cared for someone who has, you know the common expressions: “Everything changed in a moment’s time.  The rug was suddenly pulled out from under me.  I went from living a life to surviving for a life, and etc…”

David, who likes the country western star Alan Jackson, shared the lyrics from the song Jackson wrote and recorded for Denise, his wife of 33 years, after she had completed her cancer treatment:

Ain’t it funny how one minute your whole life’s looking fine

And a short few words later it all just comes untied?

You can’t believe you’re looking at what was always someone else,

Now it’s staring right there at you, yesterday you couldn’t tell. (1) 

Once the shock was processed then came the emotions: some sadness, some anxiety and some frustration, guilt and worry.

Then the anger starts to surface, lookin’ up, askin’ why

Then you realize He (God) probably wants the best the same as I.

But there were two other emotions that couldn’t be laid to rest.  They would show up in unexpected ways and times.  Gratefulness and humbleness were two friends that would visit uninvited so I began looking for them in unexpected places and, seeing them often, would greet them by name.  Calling a thing by its name whether that thing is a person or abstraction carries its own blessing and power.  Why are we embarrassed when we can’t Grateful humble_revremember someone’s name when we see that person?  It’s because we intuitively know that saying the name out loud will validate that person as significant and valuable in relation to us. “Oh wow, you remembered my name!” Of course I did because you made an impression on me and I gave you enough care and consideration to file your name away.  Unspoken thoughts perhaps, but none the less operating to create meaningful relationship.  Well, it happens much the same way with abstractions.  You name an abstraction in relationship to yourself enough times you will begin to feel its connection and power in your life: love, kindness, endurance, thankfulness, to name a few. The New Testament has a list and refers to them as the fruits of the Spirit.  (Galatians 5: 22-23, Colossians 3:2-17)  If you have read even a few of my previous blog posts you will see these two not-so-now-abstract feelings pop up a lot.

More Alan Jackson:

And the seconds turn to minutes, and minutes wouldn’t last

And the hours, days, and weeks and months, seem endless and too fast

And the blessin’s poured from Heaven, like the rain on that first spring.

But now, there is a new challenge in my life.

The treatment protocol for my particular cancer is complete.  Now there are new thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  I’m learning to live “the new normal.”  I like to compare this state with how I felt when I had my first baby.  Lots of attention from medical staff during pregnancy, delivery, birth and the few days in hospital and then, “voila”, the release into the world with my new human responsibility to figure out how to do this thing of living with baby without the hand holding.

Now, I don’t want to overdo this analogy because in reality there is support after birth and there is support after cancer treatment.  After all, there are the checkups and the knowledge that if anything goes haywire I can pick up the phone and say, “help,” and I will get it.[2]

But since being home I have experienced some trepidation of my future health possibilities, some crankiness and anxiousness reserved for the person who deserves it the least.  (You husbands out there will be happy to know that he doesn’t take it lying down.  He emailed me one of my own past blog posts the other day as a reminder of, hmm… I am not sure but I think it was a clever way to say, “Hey, be nice” or “be true to your blog post”.  Fair enough.)   Now, all of the above reactions are not uncommon for cancer patients and survivors.  There are plenty of studies out there to point to an handholding revincrease of depression in cancer patients after treatment so it does not surprise me that I may be having a few ups and downs since being done with treatment and realizing my cancer care providers are a couple thousand miles away. But, I am now having to learn to live this “new normal” and start fine tuning my radar for gratefulness and humbleness in many different places and circumstances and when finding it, start naming it.  I need these and other “fruits of the spirit” to wash over, overwhelm and subdue the fearful musings and emotions about an unknown future.   The hand holding treatment days may have come to an end for now but the Spirit didn’t go away.  The Holy Spirit is with me reminding me that there is a boatload of gratefulness to be named out loud.

So, I’m going hunting in new territory and I won’t be alone.


(1) ‘When I Saw You Leaving’

Writer: Alan Jackson
Copyright: Tri-angels Music, Emi April Music Inc

[2] Help for those of us of the middle class, that is.  It should be like that for everyone but sadly we know it isn’t. And that is not because no one is willing to help. In many places there are those willing to lend a hand.  The problem many times is that the marginalized have a lack of confidence and trust in the system to get what is needed. But then again there are many places in this world where those willing to help are few and far apart. This is all grist for future postings.