Before you read my thoughts, you need to hear the thoughts of PHCC Board Chair Jill Watson that she shared during worship this past Sunday. If you haven’t done so already, go to the church web site and watch the service from this past Sunday and hear Jill share as presiding elder her thoughts of the good shape the church is in as we start 2021. Things at PHCC are probably better than you may realize. There’s a lot to be thankful for!
A good friend of mine serves as pastor to a church which has the best Epiphany tradition I know. As they celebrate Epiphany, the story of the Magi following the star of Bethlehem, they hang cardboard stars all around their sanctuary. On each star is written a word, such as peace, love, grace, etc. Those present are invited to take a star and consider the word on it a message from God as they start the new year. They mail stars with their words from God to those who cannot be present for worship, and this year their church continues to meet online, so they are mailing them out to everyone.
When I saw my friend’s Facebook post about this year’s Epiphany stars, I commented about how meaningful of a practice I thought it was, so he sent me my very own star. It turns out my star had the word “laughter” on it. What a strange word to get after a year like 2020 and a new year begun with violence and chaos! In a way, laughter hardly seems appropriate for such a time. Yet, I found myself feeling the word “laughter” was entirely appropriate, because in the midst of troubled times laughter reminds us what makes life worth living.
Recently I talked with a church member about the state of PHCC. With this person, as with so many others, there is anxiety about PHCC’s future. They confessed to having less ability and less interest in doing many of the church things they did when they were younger. I wondered aloud if that might be a good thing. So many of the structures of churches like PHCC were made in a different time for a different culture, and many of those things just do not work anymore. We exhaust ourselves keeping them going and then feel like we have failed when they inevitably die. Instead of feeling shame and guilt, maybe a good way to think about what is necessary for a church to do is by asking, “What makes us laugh?”
At church, so much of our language is about sacrifice and service—necessarily so!—but many of us, myself included, translate those concepts into drudgery and obligation. Of course, there is always grunt work to be done at church, but when done in a spirit of joy with other folks who also do it joyously, then even grunt work can become enjoyable. Many of us who approach church as something we “should” do feel uncomfortable laughing about church. In our desire to do things right and good, we end up taking church so seriously we forget to have fun. We end up turning church into something nobody wants to do. I don’t mean church should become mere entertainment, but church should be a source of joy in our lives. I know of no better way to turn rigorous obligation into joyous experience than laughing at it.
Laughter is a way for us to be humble about our beliefs and practices. Pity the Christian who can’t laugh at themselves and their attempts to relate to a God who is so close to us but also so mysterious. Minister and writer Matt Fitzgerald writes, “Laughing in church is a way of saying, ‘Let's be honest. We don't really know what we're talking about.’ Laughter undercuts religion's clammy sanctimoniousness. And its murderous certitude. We better laugh.” What would have happened if the rioters at the Capitol last week had beforehand taken a moment to take themselves less seriously? Perhaps that riot could have been avoided if they bothered to laugh at themselves. Similarly, how many awful things done by Christian’s in God’s name could have been avoided if the perpetrators knew how to laugh at themselves? How much joy is the average church missing out on, because its people don’t know how to have a little fun and laugh at their foibles, mistakes, goof ups and quirks?
During worship the Sunday before last I finished the opening prayer and simply walked off the chancel completely forgetting our practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer at that point in the service. I sat down in the pew wondering what the awkward silence was about. Thankfully, our music leader RaJean began the prayer on my behalf. I mentioned later that if you wanted proof that we don’t have to be perfect at church, just look at the imperfect minister who makes mistakes up at the front of the church each week.
I’ve been in churches that operated their services with ruthless automatic efficiency. Any deacon who didn’t pass the offering plate as precisely as a Swiss watchmaker was shamed. Heaven forbid a baby might cry or someone might trip walking to the lectern to read scripture. In such places, I felt the pomposity bordered on blasphemy. I could only imagine God and the angels lovingly laughing at all the self-serious church folk.
We live in a world where seriously unfunny things happen. Currently as many as 4,000 people are dying each day in our country during COVID. The very fabric of our democracy seems to be on the brink of unraveling. The future of our church and most churches is potentially dire, to say the least. Yet, if the lives we live for the short time we get to live them are worth living at all, there must be time and space for happiness, for fun, for joy and for laughter. Laughter is a holy resistance to the pain and suffering in our world. Yes, there are moments of grief and times for tears, but if there is not also time for laughter than all we have is misery. Life isn’t supposed to be miserable, and neither is church.
As PHCC looks to a new year, ponders what kind of life together it wants when the COVID pandemic ends, and discerns what kind of pastor it seeks to call, put at the top of your list whatever it is that makes you laugh. I don’t mean the coarse or cruel laughter that comes at someone’s expense, but rather the surprising laughter that bubbles up from the gut which is medicine for the soul. Consider when you have laughed together as a church. Remember when you were able to laugh at yourself, not as a put down or self-abuse but rather in the life-giving way of loosening up and enjoying the present moment. I promise you that as you consider what you want the future of PHCC to be, if you start with what brings laughter then you will find God’s purpose for this church.
Grace and Peace,
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