“A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” Proverb 17:22
When I was in grade school, I was the class clown — at least I thought so (my teachers and classmates may tell you a different story). As long as I can remember I have looked for opportunities to make people laugh, even if it meant having people laughing at me instead of with me.
To laugh is just about my favorite thing in the entire world. Whether it is a mis-repeated phrase from my four year old, or a great comedy movie, or mislabeled signs at the grocery store, I never feel more alive than when I am laughing.
When I was 16 or 17, my dad brought me to my first comedy club to watch his friend Bob Zany perform stand up. In my handful-and-a-half of years, I had never laughed so hard. It was the kind of laughter that gives your abs a workout and makes your jaw hurt. You know how you go to the gym for the first time in months and decide to work out on every machine in the place, and then two days later you can’t breath without hurting muscles that you never knew you had… it was that kind of laughter. More than 20 years later and I cannot remember a single joke Bob Zany told, but I remember how he made me laugh.
My love for laughter has translated into my life as a pastor. Wherever possible, I try to weave a little humor into my sermons. Sometimes it is a funny story about my kids, or a self deprecating comment about my lack of hair, or something funny I see in the context of the biblical passage we happen to be reading.
When I was a youth pastor, I found my students paid more attention to my messages when they knew that at some point in the process there was going to be a joke that they didn’t want to miss. In the world of the grown-up church, however, it is a bit different. I think people expect the preacher to be more serious and somber, and that just isn’t me. So now my goal is to craft a line so inherently funny that people can’t help but break their composure (if they are paying attention). I don’t preach to hear “Amens” or “Hallelujahs” or “Preach its”. I preach in the hopes that someone will try to hold back a snort of a laugh or at least crack a smile on their face.
This isn’t an irreverent thing. To me laughter is a holy thing, a form of non-verbal confession that can cleanse our emotional and spiritual wounds like disinfectant. When you laugh, the burdens you carry are lifted for a moment, and when the laugh is over and the burdens settle once more, you may find they are a bit less weighty, because the existence of laughter is irrefutable proof that life doesn’t need to be taken quite so seriously.
Actual scientific research has been done on the health benefits of laughter, so you don’t have to take my rambling, philosophical and theological word for it. Do a simple internet search on the health benefits of laughter, and you will find articles from reputable places like The Mayo Clinic and Cancer Centers of America that use laughter therapy to help in all sorts of physical and psychological healing. According to the folks over at helpguide.org: “Laughter boosts the immune system. Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.” (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/laughter-is-the-best-medicine.htm/)Laughter can relieve stress and lessen fear and bring us comfort in the midst of pain. And the best part is that laughter is a contagion that we can spread to everyone we come in contact with.
There are plenty of reasons to be serious. Life throws a lot at us, and none of us can make it through unscathed, but a little laughter can lessen the mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish. No one has to be taught how to laugh. It isn’t long at all after we emerge in to this world that we begin to laugh, and laugh a lot. It is only our succumbing to the weight of society and culture and family pressure that makes our laughter less frequent.
I am certain that if audible sound existed at the beginning of the universe, the sound that would have been heard coming from the presence of God would have been best described as laughter — approving laughter, full of joy, communicating the refrain “and God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1) There is no real scriptural support for this, of course, but it makes sense in my mind that a being purported to be LOVE would invariably have a voice best described as laughter.
So make time to laugh. Let it become part of your spiritual discipline, part of your self care as you travel through life. Your burdens will be less and your joy will be full. Watch some Bill Murray movies, find an old joke book, search for funny videos online, volunteer to babysit your pastor’s kids, or come listen to me preach on a Sunday. Whatever you do, make time to laugh… because you can have life without laughter, but you can’t call it living.