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July/August 2010 Issue

Laugh Your Way to Grace


A group of women in Madurai, India, laugh together as they participate in a march celebrating International Women's Day. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.

By Susan Sparks

A lawyer and stand-up comedian discovers the healing and spiritual powers of laughter and answers God’s call to ministry.

 

Finding my way as an ordained comedian

I grew up with a God who wasn’t very funny. Then again, neither were Jesus nor the disciples or the prophets.

From an early age, I knew God to be a stern combination of Walter Cronkite and Clint Eastwood in “High Plains Drifter.” Jesus had the same Cronkite-Eastwood personality, just contained in a body that had the obvious Aramaic features of a Nordic Viking.

Of course I grew up knowing other things about God. I knew God lived in heaven — a gated community with pearls — where all the saved Southern Baptists got houses based on the size of their church tithes. God put all the rest of the people (about 6.5 billion) in a place that resembled Phoenix in August.

I was also sure that God spoke in a Southern accent. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard God say, “Be steahul and know I am-um Gawd.”

This holy image, along with my love of fish sticks and a fear of spiders, is one of the many legacies I carried from my childhood. Actually, I dropped the gated community and Southern accent ideas long ago.

However, the image of God as a somber, not so funny, even fearful character stuck for a long time. Need I explain what a huge problem this was for a comedian who felt called to ordained ministry?

Ministers (like God) were somber, teetotaling, big-haired versions of Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.” I, on the other hand, lacked hair height, liked Yellow
Tail Shiraz, and most troubling, was a trial lawyer moonlighting as a stand-up comedian. (Oh, and I was a woman.) How could I be called to be a minister?

After a few years, I decided that maybe I should mention this “call” to a few friends, just to see if I was missing something. Their responses ranged from laughter combined with coughing fits to blank stares.

“Who would call a comedian as their minister!” one cleric said, while rolling his eyes. Others offered thoughts like, “You’ll never get a job,” and, “The ministry requires serious theology.” The doubters kept doubting, yet the call kept ringing.

You never know if a call is for you until you actually pick up the receiver and listen. To determine whether this call was for me, I knew I needed to disengage, quiet the doubters and explore this idea of ministry without the baggage of home. I also knew that travel, like humor, tends to shake things up and offer opportunities for clarity.

Three weeks later, I quit my job, put everything I owned in storage, packed a backpack and left home for two years to figure things out. Of all the things I saw and did, one experience answered this question clearer than any other: working for Mother Teresa in Calcutta.


Laughing because you are alive

Twenty-one hours after boarding British Air in New York, I found myself standing at the doorway of Shishu Bhavan, Mother Teresa’s orphanage. What I saw stopped me short: three and four children in one crib, tiny toddlers tied to bedposts, children crying out with no one to comfort them. After a moment, I gathered my courage and slowly stepped across the threshold.

That is when I encountered 5-year-old Anna. Blind and deaf since birth, Anna could sense human presence from the vibrations of footsteps. As I walked by, she reached out and wrapped herself around my leg like a little koala bear.

Not knowing what else to do, I sat down crossed-leg beside her. She immediately crawled into my lap and began rocking back and forth, laughing and singing.

I quickly discovered that her favorite game was to hum a short tune and then press her ear up against me, feeling the vibrations as I hummed it back. She would laugh with joyful high-pitched squeals, hum a little tune back and then press her ear against me again to feel the vibrations of my response. We played this game for hours.

In those moments of holding Anna, all questions about my call, about the connection between humor and the sacred, faded. Here in the laughter of this tiny girl was humor and the Holy made manifest.

By Western standards, she had nothing: no home, no family, and barely enough food. Every day people came in and out of her life with no consistency and no promise of a home or permanence. Yet she greeted each person with the same smile and tiny outstretched arms.

For Anna, laughing was like breathing. It was her way of being in the world.

She didn’t offer her laughter to please. She didn’t hope to get into heaven faster through her smile. She didn’t know anything of “heaven.” Anna laughed simply because she was alive.

I eventually left Calcutta, traveling for another two years through Asia, Africa, the Middle East and ending with a drive to Alaska. What I found on this journey was example after example of “Anna” in different cultures and religious traditions.

After two years, 23 countries, and more than 31,000 miles, I knew my calling was to introduce humor (kicking and screaming, if need be) into the spiritual search.


Laughter is the GPS system for the soul

My hunch 10 years ago was right: Not only can a ministry of humor work; it is desperately needed.

Good ministers, like comedians, stand in solidarity with their audience — not just through the silly, frustrating challenges in life but in the places of our greatest pain. Comedy says we are all in this together.

It makes us feel a little less alone.

Laughter is the global positioning system (GPS) for the soul. Humor offers a revolutionary, yet simple, spiritual paradigm: If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others. Laughter heals. It grounds us in a place of hope.

Perhaps most important, laughter fosters intimacy and honesty in our relationships with each other and with God. In fact, laughter and faith are mutually dependent. Theologian Conrad Hyers explained, “Faith without laughter leads to dogma, and laughter without faith to despair.”


It’s all holy

As a trained theologian, my favorite movie is, of course, “Kung Fu Panda.”

The best part is when Zen master Oogway (a tortoise) tries to convince Po that even though he’s an overweight panda, his true destiny is to be a great dragon warrior. “Our destiny,” he tells Po, “is usually found on the road we take to avoid it.” And there, in one sentence, is my life as an ex-lawyer, turned standup comedian and minister.

My one regret? I wish I had realized earlier that my call was not a wrong number. Every person has a call, an invitation to bring all of who we are to the spiritual search. If we want healing, we must give God all the pieces. That includes the things that “don’t fit the mold” — the tears, the anger, the joy and the laughter. It’s all holy.

I’ve studied theology, and I’ve studied stand-up. And between the two, if I were looking for the presence of the Holy, I’d take stand-up any day.

Humor can blaze a new spiritual path; a life lived with elegance, beauty and a generosity of spirit. It’s simply a matter of reclaiming our gift of joy. Trust me on this. I am convinced — you can laugh your way to grace.


Reflections

Did you grow up in an organized religion? If so, describe the faith leader (e.g., minister, imam or rabbi) you grew up with.

If not, what was your impression of clergy people? Did they laugh? Smile? Were they warm people or arms-length people?

How did this influence your image of God?

Laughter, in a way, is about forgiveness. Think of a time when you were able to laugh at your shortcomings rather than judge yourself.

How did that change how you felt about yourself? Did that affect your future judgments of others? Did giving yourself a break enhance your ability to forgive others?

Recall a time you were in a comedy club or watching comedy on television with others.

When you laughed together at the same jokes, how did you feel? Did you feel a sense of solidarity? Less alone?

Think about Conrad Hyers’s statement:
“Faith without laughter leads to dogma, and laughter without faith to despair.”

Do you think this is it true? Why or why not? What experiences in your life do those words remind you of?

Trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, the Rev. Susan Sparks is senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. After 10 years as a lawyer moonlighting as a stand-up comedian, she left her practice and spent two years on a solo trip around the world, including working with Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta, India, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and driving the Alaska Highway. Upon returning home, she entered seminary and earned a Master of Divinity degree and wrote an honors thesis on humor and religion. Her website is www.susansparks.com.

 

Last Updated: 03/23/2014
 
 

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