Sunday, February 23, 2014

Medals and Crowns

Commemoration of Eric Liddell, Missionary to China

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. - Isaiah 40:27-31

When I open the lectionary and see the commemoration for the day along with the readings, I often wonder how whoever it was who did the choosing picked the particular readings for the given occasion. With things like the Paschal Tridiuum, All Saints and Christmas it's pretty easy to figure out which readings are most appropriate; it's when it comes to the new ones, the newest-added commemorations of Anglican and Episcopal saints that brought me to that question. I still don't know but in the case of Eric Liddell, the designee for today, I think they checked their concordances for appropriate words like "missionary" and "runner." Eric Liddell was both.

Eric Liddell was born in China to missionary parents in 1902. From the age of 6, he was educated in boarding school for missionary children in Blackheath, London, and then to Edinburgh University. Being an MK (Missionary Kid), one would expect him to somewhat kick over the traces like a lot of preacher's kids (PKs) do, but he doesn't seem to have done that. One of his great loves was sports, especially rugby and running. He was chosen for the 1924 British Olympic teams as a runner, his best event being the 100 meter. As anyone who has watched Chariots of Fire will know, when his running event heat was scheduled for a Sunday, he would not run on that day and so forfeited his chance to medal in that event. He did run the 400 meters on another day, however, and won that gold medal, a feat which can still be seen in a video on the internet.

It seems a bit strange to watch a saint run such a race. We're a bit more used to Paul's metaphorical race and winning it. Still, Liddell won a real race and in world record time. He also won a bronze in the 200 meter.

After his graduation from university in 1932, he returned to China as a missionary, being ordained to the ministry in 1932 and marrying the daughter of a missionary in 1934. It was a turbulent time in China and the Liddell family suffered because of it. With the bombing at Pearl Harbor in 1941, things got even worse. His wife and children heeded the advisory that emigrants like the missionaries should leave the country but Liddell and his brother stayed to continue the ministry. He was captured by the Japanese in 1943 and interned in a prison camp where he continued to practice his ministry among his fellow captives. He died in the camp in 1945 just before the liberation of the prisoners in that camp.

It seems odd, in a way, to have a saint who lived almost within my own lifetime. I'm used to 12th - 19th century saints but more recent ones like Martin Luther King Jr., Florence Li-Tim Oi and Eric Liddell feel a bit strange to me. It makes me stop and think. Could I be witnessing a saint being born or being used by God for the good of others? It also helps me to think about Eric Liddell and the notion that saints aren't always pious people sitting in church praying or preaching on street corners, Bible in hand. Piety sometimes shows in odd ways, like refusing to run a race on Sunday or staying in a danger zone because that's where they're needed most. Even saints had real lives and sometimes interests outside churches and theology books.

I know that every baptized Christian is part of the Communion of Saints. It makes me think that maybe I'm not living up to my potential or that I'm riding on the coat-tails of other members of that body much more worthy of the name of saint than I. Take, for instance, Fr. Mychal Judge and the firefighters of 9/11 who rushed into a danger from which thousands of others were running away. They're not on our calendar but we do remember them every time the anniversary of that date rolls around. Like Liddell and others, they did what they had to do to try to help and save people they probably didn't know but valued as human beings regardless of color, race, religion, orientation or any other artificial classification the world put on them.

Eric Liddell was a missionary and a runner. He not only ran the Olympic track of Paris, he ran the Pauline track of missionary life, Christian life dedicated to the service of others. What he attained is more than a gold medal; he won a golden crown as well. He is in our list of commemorations for that reason and as an example of what that golden crown is about.

I don't know about anybody else, but it makes me think I need to try a bit harder to live into that "saint" thing. I can't let the Eric Liddell and the rest of the Communion of Saints down. I can't let God down either. It takes work and training, and I think I'd better get busy. The finish line is getting closer every day. And also it reminds me to look around -- I may be seeing the birthing process of a new saint for the calendar.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 22, 2014, under the title "Commemoration of Eric Liddell."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

America la Maganda

During the Super Bowl, one of the highlights (and sometimes low lights) is the commercials. Advertisers spend millions of dollars to produce the best commercials they can come up with and more millions to purchase a small time slot on a Sunday afternoon/evening in January every year. They know that a great commercial can sway public opinion and bring more revenue into their coffers, but some also like to have some sort of message over and above “Buy my product;” they like to take a stand for something besides chips in a bowl or some sort of beverage. As in the sporting event itself, there are winners and losers in the commercial wars, and this year was no exception.  

Most writers seemed to agree on in the outstanding category was the Coke commercial featuring scenes of Americans living their lives in various places and in various ways while the voices of young women soloists sang a song that is iconic in the United States, “America the Beautiful.” The video was lovely, the voices of the young women clear and sweet, and the whole package seemed almost flawless. Yet there has been almost a firestorm of condemnation and anger about this very beautiful and meaningful celebration of not just product but national pride and diversity. The cause? “America the Beautiful” was sung in English – and Hindi, Tagalog, Spanish and several other languages that clearly were NOT English.  

People were up in arms that the words to such a song could be sung in any language other than English. How dare Coke foist such a disgusting misuse of a national anthem (some even referred to it as “the” national anthem) on an unsuspecting nation? We are Americans and Americans speak English is their cry. Anybody who comes here should either speak only English or go back where they came from. Xenophobia is alive and well in the United States of America, land of the free, home of the brave and, apparently, the seat of E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many, One, which now seems to be only those who look, act and speak like us, whoever “us” is.  

Instead of using the term “melting pot” we now use “diversity” and, for some, “diversity” is a very bad word indeed, almost worse than some of the scatological and carnal words and phrases that are heard on almost every street corner, school hallway and locker room, and even over backyard fences in “nice” neighborhoods. And this Coke commercial? It celebrated diversity by having young women sing a familiar song in more than the original language in which it was composed. In celebrating diversity, it has helped to expose the fact that we don’t believe in the basic right to freedom, including the right to speak in their own languages and dialects in this country; we only want others to be like us in every way. It’s funny, but I bet none of these people complaining about the commercial have any problem singing “Silent Night” at Christmas (it was originally written in German) among other translated classics. Music is universal, poetry and sentiment as well as news and inspirational writings are translated into many languages and dialects every day, so what is so sacred about “America the Beautiful” that it can’t speak to others in Hebrew or Mandarin as well as in English? Even the Bible is written in many languages other than its original (of which there is no “original” copy) without losing its power, beauty and meaning. 

In first-century Palestine, the land Jesus knew, there were numerous small towns and villages where individual clans and tribes made their home and probably spoke their own dialect of Aramaic. Those involved in trade such as merchants, skilled laborers, innkeepers, and those working for the government probably all spoke not just their local version of Aramaic but Koine Greek, possibly a bit of Latin, maybe a dash of Hebrew and perhaps even a pinch or two of Demotic. Most towns and villages didn’t have many immigrants but some probably did, and Jesus, as an itinerant preacher/teacher/healer, would have undoubtedly been able to make his message understood no matter to whom he spoke. The Samaritan woman and the Roman Centurion probably didn’t speak the same dialect or maybe even language, yet Jesus seemed to be able to speak to both of them in very clear and understandable ways. And so it went also for the individuals and crowds with whom he came in contact. The only ones he seemed to have trouble with were the Pharisees and that didn’t have anything to do with the language they each spoke, only the interpretation of that language. 

Does the message of Jesus become diluted or unsuitable because Jesus didn’t speak English and we don’t speak the original language (whatever language that was) in which he expressed so many of his teachings? His message was to draw people together, regardless of whether or not they were members of the same clan, nation or even language group. What amazes me (and amuses me in a sad sort of way) is that we think nothing about truly sacred words of the Bible that we read being translations of translations, versions of versions and interpretations of interpretations of a message that wasn’t in English or even in a language commonly spoken today, Koine Greek. Yet we raise a huge fuss over the lyrics of a secular song extolling the beauty of the country and the freedom we have to enjoy it.  

What a strange world we live in that we begrudge them the joy of expression of the blessings and beauty of our land or any land simply based on the language they use to express that joy. What would Jesus think?

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Saturday, February15, 2014.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Islands and Interconnections

Romans 14:1-23

Sometimes Paul drives me nuts. Don't get me wrong, there are tons of stuff in Paul's writings that is important and all the reiterations of the same point again and again are a teaching tool to get that point across. He definitely wasn't a sound bite kind of guy, using short, snappy, quickly grabbed thoughts and pushing them out as quickly as his tongue could speak or fingers write (or his amanuensis' fingers, come to think of it).  There are times when reading an epistle lesson from Paul in church it's very easy to get lost in the words and phrases. And, if the old thing about taking a breath at the comma is to be obeyed, one could either hyperventilate or gradually turn blue waiting for the next one. Still, Paul has a lot so say and sometimes it is something that so catches the attention that it's hard to put away and go on to something else. That happened to me this morning with part of this reading.   

 The lesson deals with judging, something we're all familiar with and something all of us indulge in perhaps too often. Judgement is a topic about which there is a lot of argument; is it proper to judge a person and under what circumstances?  Jesus put it very simply, "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged" (Matt. 7:1). Paul goes into great detail about judgements and stumbling blocks, people doing things that seem quite okay and harmless to them but which are problems for other people. It's about how people treat each other, caring for one another and being careful to avoid doing things that would hurt, injure or give them problems more than they already have. It's an important lesson, and worth all the detail into which Paul goes in his letter. Still, it isn't the part that catches my heart this morning.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (7-9)

 The words are important – and they are meant as comfort. The Book of Common Prayer uses them as one of several opening anthems read as a body is brought into the church for the burial service (469, 491). We don’t think about judgement with that snippet; we only think of the comfort of knowing that, one way or another, we are, were and will always be God’s. Paul even put it another way earlier in Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39). We are God’s, no matter what.

Just as we are connected forever to God through Jesus Christ, so we are also connected forever to our fellow human beings and, indeed, all of creation including creation itself. Like the proverbial butterfly sneeze in Brazil that causes a typhoon in Japan or the gentle prod of a finger on a domino that begins a chain reaction that causes thousands of other dominoes to fall, what one person does, no matter how slight, causes something else to happen. We judge that our lives to require adequate heat in winter and engineer our houses and thermostats so that we don’t have to think about that, but we never think of the people who have only oil and propane for heat and whose budgets often can’t be stretched far enough to cover a whole month’s worth of fuel. As long as we’re comfortable, all’s right with the world, right? It’s a judgement call and one that potentially causes others to fall prey to cold and despair -- and sometimes death.
Paul’s poetic assertion that “We do not live to ourselves” tugs as the heartstrings. We weren’t put here just to amuse ourselves and look down our noses at those who are poorer or of a lower status than we are. We were put here to be stewards of God’s creation and companions to God as well. “Am I my brother’s keeper” is more than a question Cain asks of God, knowing full well he’s just murdered his brother. Jesus answered that we are all our brother’s keeper – and our sister’s as well. Just as we bask in the love of God, we’re charged to pass it on, not hoard it like Midas’ gold. Our judgements have to be what is good for everybody, not just ourselves or our social class or group. We are God’s, whether we live or die, and God expects us to be profitable, not just to ourselves or our company but to God and all that is God's above all. If we judge someone to be unworthy of help, we fail to see God’s presence and stamp on them, just as they cannot see the same on us. It’s interconnectedness, and it’s vital.

The mystical/metaphysical poet John Donne, wrote:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. *

I think Donne strikes at the heart of Paul’s message: we are all interconnected and we can’t in good conscience believe otherwise, no matter how much we’d like to (or do). If we are interconnected we can’t judge others without judging ourselves as well, and we know how hard that can be to do. We’re used to self-justification for whatever it is and give little thought to the perceptions of others.

I have to stop and remember that every time I judge someone else, I’m chipping away a tiny piece of my own soul. I’m not living into the “. . . [W]e are the Lord’s” and, if I forget that, it is at my own peril. No, not the peril that I will lose God’s love, but that I will lose my love for God that I proclaim with my lips but fail to do in my life. I’m still God’s, whether I live or die, and it’s up to me to remember that and live it until the day I die.

The challenge has been given. The response is now up to me. 

 Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 15, 2014.

* Devotion upon Emergent Occasions

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Appearances and Judgement Calls

AM: Psalm 75, 76
PM: Psalm 23, 27
Genesis 24:28-38, 49-51
Hebrews 12:12-29
John 17:14-36

Jesus answered them, ‘I performed one work, and all of you are astonished. Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs), and you circumcise a man on the sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.’  -- John 17:21-24

I remember Sundays as a kid: church in the morning, usually a round of visiting relatives for lunch or an afternoon visit, home for supper and then, usually, church again before coming home and going to bed. The only permissible work on Sunday was cooking and cleaning up (aside from feeding the animals and perhaps helping a stranded neighbor). They worked hard all week and Sundays were for sitting down, chatting about family and friends and whatever else they felt like discussing. It was their way of keeping the Sabbath. Someone who mowed their lawn on Sunday was judged a non-Christian or at least non-churchgoing person, no matter how many good deeds or charitable acts they performed during the week. Resting on Sunday was the rule and people were supposed to abide by them, whether or not it was of their tradition or not.

The Torah spelled out a list of permissible actions for the Sabbath including how far a person could travel from home and what things were permitted to be done, including circumcision (except for certain very specific instances). God rested on the seventh day of creation and, by heaven, people were expected to do the same. It was a novel concept back in the time of Moses; other cultures did not observe a day of rest but worked seven days a week and only took off for really big religious or political holidays. The Israelites and their descendants had a mandate from God, though, to work six days and rest on the seventh. Woe be to anyone who disregarded that rule that was written into the commandments God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. When the crowd saw and heard of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, well, that was work and he was breaking the law of God! He must be punished! Many of them even thought death would be a proper punishment for his audacity and his claims of being sent by God and doing God's will.

Here's where the passage takes a turn: "Do not judge by appearances but judge with right judgement."  What appeared to the Pharisees and the crowd as law-breaking was, in Jesus' eyes life-saving. It was a matter of perspective. Jesus was doing what he was here to do, to heal both the body and the spirit as well as point the way to God, and if it was something that needed to be done on the Sabbath, then that's how it was.
One evening our Education for Ministry (EfM) group had a theological reflection on a photograph of the back of a very expensive sports car with a vanity plate that read "Drunk." To the side and a bit further away there was a man sitting on the side of the street holding a sign that read "Hungry."  It was hard not to judge the driver of the sports car and the presence of that particular vanity plate. Were they proud of being a drunk?  Was it a figurative thumbing of the nose? Was it some sort of court-ordered mandate? Did the driver even notice the guy on the street with the sign? What about him?  Was he too lazy to work?  A scammer?  A guy who didn't know where to go for help? We ranged through so many possibilities of what it might mean. When it came to implications of our discussion, I think most of us realized that we had to judge whether we wanted to (a) give the hungry man a meal at McDonald's or at least a couple of bucks to get something for himself or (b) drive on by and not chance giving money to an unworthy person. It would be a judgement call based on appearances and how our hearts responded.

If Jesus had done his healings by appearances, probably only the very presentable would have been the recipients of his help. Jarius’ daughter and Peter’s mother-in-law would have passed the test of presentableness but the lepers on the side of the road or the blind man at the Pool of Siloam? I doubt it. The crowd based their judgement on how someone appeared; if the person were dressed well, looked prosperous, not even really sick or maimed or injured, they were seen with approval. Any deviation, like dirty or tattered clothes (or even no clothes like the Gerasene Demoniac), an obvious defect or deformity, anything that would label them as “not like us” was judged as unacceptable, unclean, being punished for something and therefore not really worthy of notice much less help.

The man on the side of the road in our TR image didn’t look particularly hungry. He was well-fleshed, looked reasonably clean, clothes appeared intact with no rips or tears or obvious dirt, so why was he holding a sign announcing he was hungry? Again, we judged based on our inclinations but also on our attention being called to the image and the things our reactions said about us. It’s something we all do every day, making judgements about what we see rather than what is real or knowable. God doesn’t work that way, though, and Jesus didn’t either.

Today’s challenge is to stop looking at the sports cars with the vanity plates and see the guy on the side of the road. It is to look beyond dirty faces and tattered clothes to see the real needs of people in trouble and respond to it. It is to look beyond Gucci handbags and Brooks Brothers suits and see the hurt and loneliness that lie underneath. Most of all, it is to look with eyes of compassion and God-sight to see what is truly there and what need requires filling, including within ourselves.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 8, 2014.

An Epiphany Essay

I like Epiphany. After Advent, it's my very favorite season. Unlike Advent, though, or even Christmas, or Lent, it is a variable-length season of four to nine Sundays between the date of Epiphany itself (January 6) and the beginning of Lent, which, this year, is March 30, ensuring a long Epiphany season. It celebrates the coming of the Magi to the Christ Child on the day and the manifestation of God in human flesh, the light lf Christ coming into the world throughout the season.

For me, a sad part of Epiphany is the darkening of the Christmas lights that made the December nights brighter and more hopeful. I admit to being a sucker for Christmas lights, even though I don't put any on my own house. Luckily, I have a neighbor who throws herself into the season whole-heartedly and decorates enough for both of us. They have been taken down now and put away for the next eleven months, but here and there on my way to work are still the odd houses with lights glowing. Without those little points of light, life seems a bit bleaker.

I don't have any studies to prove it, but my personal theory is that it is easier to be depressed in January than in just about any other month. People may argue for December because Christmas without all the trimmings (and the people) can be a lonely affair, but, at least in my eyes, the thought of a new year is like a stretch of Route 66 that was as straight as an arrow and went on for what seemed like half a million miles with absolutely nothing much in the way of scenery and the mountains that loomed in the distance never seeming to get any closer. It's easy to get depressed in January; all the parties and whoop-de-doo of Christmas are over, tax season approacheth, it's still winter and the turning of the calendar is a reminder that change is coming, whether we want it to or not. Babies will be born, elders (and often much beloved elders) will die, the economy and the state of the nation and the world will continue to wobble like an egg rolling downhill, and the heroes we raise today will be found tomorrow to have feet of very real clay.

But then there's Epiphany, the season. It's the spark of light that reminds us that just as everything has an ending, new things come along to engage us. Epiphanies are also sudden insights and flashes of Godlight that are like the V-8 commercial. They smack a person in the forehead. It's looking at something seemingly ordinary and plain and suddenly having the lenses change and the thing appears in a whole new light, a whole different way, a 180° turn. It's an idea that wasn't there a second ago but suddenly rocks a personal world with its suddenness and (potential) brilliance. It's seeing that homeless person hunched over a formerly abandoned grocery cart filled with bags and boxes that contain every single thing they own and suddenly seeing nail marks in their hands or a circlet of thorns instead of a watch cap on their heads. Things like that can happen all year but Epiphany is a reminder to be on the lookout for those new insights and changes of perspective.

The nights of the Epiphany season are still dark and cold but the nights are getting shorter, day by day, minute by minute. The green vestments and hangings of the church remind us that spring will be here -- whether sooner or later, it will come. We have celebrated the manifestation of God among us, but we can also carry the spark of new fire, new light, new hope and new insights. All we have to do is look.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian at Episcopal Café Thursday, February 6, 2014, under the title "Epiphany: a season of endings and beginnings"

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Just for Laughs

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
Then the men set out from there, and they looked towards Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way.  -- Genesis 18:1-16
Genesis is a book with so many stories that people remember when they think about the Bible. There are the creation stories, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers up to the beginning of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. One of the key players in Genesis was the patriarch Abraham. We see him in various stories from various times in his life. There is the recounting of his life in Ur and the beginning of his journey to the land God promised him. There are tales of various exploits including prevaricating to rather powerful people on two separate occasions when he declared that Sarah, his wife, was really his sister, a lie designed to spare his own life while using her like bait on a hook while stretching the truth just maybe halfway. It seems she really was his half-sister.

Today’s portion of Genesis is the story of a man having an encounter with strangers, a prophecy, and a laugh. In the days before Hilton Hotels and Motel 6, hospitality to strangers was the norm that could mean the difference between life and death, especially in the desert or more inhospitable areas. Any stranger could appear at a campsite and would be welcomed as if he were visiting royalty a member of the family. Even a person’s bitterest enemy could appear and be given three days of hospitality with no sign of violence or animosity. It was just that kind of thing done in that place and time.

Three strangers approached Abraham’s camp, and were, of course, welcomed in the appropriate manner. Food was prepared for them, they were made comfortable and Abraham served them himself. Perhaps names were exchanged, perhaps not, but the three visitors were never identified specifically so we’re left to speculate after the fact. When one informed Abraham that his wife Sarah would become pregnant a rather audible snicker a giggle or outright belly laugh came from someone just out of sight and behind a curtain or tent wall. Sarah, who like Abraham was well past the first blush of youth and even past the normal age of childbearing, must have thought it a comedy routine on par with Bill Cosby or Carol Burnett. Sarah had been out of sight but not out of earshot and definitely not out of audible range.

 There are lots of ways to receive news, depending on what kind of news and the apparent probability of that news actually being true. I can imagine that in a similar circumstance, were it on television, would result in a rather sarcastic “Say what?” Sarah just laughed. The whole thing had to be a joke, right? At about 90 years of age there was no chance of pregnancy, so what else can you do but laugh, especially if you have been childless for decades. I’m sure she must have cried her eyes out over her barrenness during those intervening years, and the only expression left to her was laughter.

Laughter is not one of the most frequent things to appear in the Bible. There are, depending on translation, perhaps 20 to 25 verses that use or allude to the practice. Sometimes laughter is done in defiance, and occasionally it is used as a pleasurable state. Most often though, it seems to be done scornfully or sarcastically in derision of a person or situation. It can almost be like a defense mechanism, which is how I think Sarah meant it. If someone walked up to your front door, rang the bell and informed you that you had just won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes, after one jaw-dropping moment, I would guess most people would burst into laughter of disbelief commingled with excitement. It’s an instinct of sorts.

The Bible never says anything about Jesus laughing but it’s hard to believe he could live a human life without it, whether or not it’s explicitly mentioned in Scripture. There are a whole lot of things that a normal person would do that Jesus isn’t reported to have done and we don’t think much about those. I guess we just assume that he had to use the bathroom, had to take baths, ran and jumped and skipped, and possibly drank just a hair more than he should. Perhaps we would have a different vision of Jesus if some of those things have been included in the Gospels that we read today. As it is, it feels like we are so focused on his divinity we forget his humanity, and try to pattern our own lives based on that divinity, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We are pretty sure we are going to fail; it is just a question of degree. We are presented with something impossible and we laugh, thinking it must be a joke that someone would even suggest that we would be able to do something seemingly miraculous like having a baby in extreme old age or feeding all the hungry children of the world that already exist (or even just a few).

Laughter is a great thing; it eases tension, creates camaraderie, promotes enjoyment and lightens the spirit. Like in the song from Mary Poppins, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” a sermon, a lesson or a life goes a little easier and is a bit more memorable when there’s something in it to provoke a little laughter. I’m sure had God not approved of laughter God would never have included both the ability and the desire to laugh into the human makeup. Laughter expresses joy as well as incredulity and happiness as well as derision. It’s a matter of learning when to use it and how.

 Sarah laughed. She laughed in disbelief, she laughed in scorn, and she laughed in pure joy, all at the same time. We could analyze it from all sorts of angles, and ascribe emotions and motives to the laughter but what it all boils down to is she heard something incredible and reacted to it. I wonder what would happen if we heard that everything bad that we had ever done had been forgiven by God before we even asked for forgiveness (if we ever did). Would we, like Sarah, laugh? Would it be a scornful laugh, a quizzical laugh, an “I can’t believe this” laugh, or would it be a laugh of pure joy? We think of the life of Jesus and figure we can never live up to that example. It doesn’t stop us from trying, but we tend to look at it with very serious eyes. What if we could greet those lessons and the example of his life with a joyful laugh? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to take and to work with and possibly with a higher degree of success?

I think that this week I will have to look at laughter in a slightly different light.  Maybe I will see places where laughter can lighten the load or express an unexpected joy. It’s worth a shot. Look what it did for Sarah!

Originally published at <a href=""> Speaking to the Soul </a> on <a href=""> Episcopal Café </a> Saturday, February 1, 2014.