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Recently I sat around a table with other pastors sharing stories about funerals and weddings that did not quite go as planned. It was wonderfully therapeutic. These other pastors are gifted people with vibrant ministries whose labors sometimes went awry. We laughed, as we pastors must do, and it was good.
So, with a nod to Nat King Cole, I’d like to encourage us all to find ways we can “lighten up and fly bright.”
Whether a pastor, an engineer, a plumber or a bishop, conscientious Christians feel deeply the desire to honor God with their work.1 We look for ways to give our lives as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God.2 We accept that Christian discipleship, and particularly our pastoral calling, is serious business, a cup we gladly drink. But when we mix into that “discipleship blend” a few drops of the idealism and perfectionism common to pastors, the drink becomes toxic. Our calling loses its joy as we begin to bear burdens we were never equipped to bear.
To detoxify this poisonous brew, we must laugh. We need to cultivate the ability to take ourselves far less seriously. Paul’s counsel to boast about our weaknesses in practice means that we occasionally revisit our foibles with laughter and leave the saving of the world to God.3
The Education of Mr. Greenwald
Fresh out of college I was schooled in this by an honest class of seventh graders. Their fervent young English teacher was explaining some exciting insight into a point of English grammar when a student matter-of-factly said, “Mr. Greenwald, your belly button is showing.” Seriousness morphed into laughter, and it all became far more fun.
That I have carried my idealistic fervency into my pastoral ministry is largely a good thing. No one wants a cynical pastor. But my idealism has to be kept real by reminders of my humanity. As a young preacher, a couple on the front row began inexplicably and inappropriately chuckling. My seventh graders had trained me well. It’s hard to think you’re the next incarnation of Chrysostom or D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones when you are wondering if your belly button is showing or your pants are unzipped.
Chuckling congregants may be rare, but sleeping ones are a standing joke. A distinguished professor who occasionally visited our church once told me, “Pastor, if you see me with my eyes closed, I’m not sleeping. It’s how I listen.” I found that quite convenient. I tell myself that whenever I see congregants with their eyes closed, “That’s how they listen.”
I once introduced an anesthesiologist in our church as someone whose job was the same as mine. I said, “We both put people to sleep” I thought that was funny, but the anesthesiologist corrected me. “No,” he said, “my job is to make sure they wake up.”
People did wake up that Sunday when I used a quote from the lead singer of the rock band U2 and called him “Bono,” rhyming with “Oh no.” And they woke up when I used the word “boner” to refer to “a clumsy or stupid mistake,” Webster’s second definition. Though I’d used the word properly, my friend Kurt heard it with younger ears. There is another definition in common use which makes the word a dicey one for a sermon. Words once spoken cannot be retrieved. Best to laugh and move on.
I preached quite seriously one Sunday from Jeremiah calling attention to the great disparity between what troubles us and what grieves the heart of God. I passionately pointed out how untroubled we can be by personal greed and societal oppression but then grow indignant when “our neighbor’s dog poops in our lawn.” That’s what my notes said, anyway. Somehow what came out of my mouth was “we grow indignant when our neighbor poops in our lawn.” At that, even the professor’s eyes opened.
All I can do is laugh and realize that God works with what we give him.
Seriously . . .
I know that pastoral ministry for many of you is agonizing, not laughable. You watch your congregants form angry factions. You endure unfounded charges. People whom you have loved reject your care and leave. I get it. There is nothing at all fun or funny about such things. Heath Ledger, portraying the Joker in “The Dark Night,” asks, “Why so serious?” while driving a pencil through someone’s head, a fantasy made darkly appealing by the anger boiling within us. Laughter4 alone may rescue us. Why so serious? It’s a good question.
My mistakes have been far greater than I can detail, and there is so much I’d like to undo. And yet God works even when our pastoral belly buttons are showing.
A woman who had for a while been a member of a church I pastored posted on social media that I am one of her favorite preachers. To hear such things is a rich reward.
In recommending my preaching to her friend, in itself a great affirmation, she commended me as, in her words, one of those “soothing voices which I can listen to at night that help me drift off.”
By now, I’m used to my belly button showing. I smile, lighten up, and for a moment escape the heaviness.
And that is a gift.5
As we are encouraged to do in Colossians.
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” (Colossians 3:23)
As Paul calls us to do in Romans.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)
But [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
A joyful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
And for those having trouble laughing at ourselves, perhaps you can begin by laughing at others. Try this: