IT TOOK ONLY TWO WEEKS under fluorescent lights to learn I had been at a funeral all along.
I never acknowledged it myself, probably because there was no afternoon where I dressed in black and ate cold ham sandwiches. But though I hadn't attended a funeral, I still felt an inky blackness as though I had. My eyebrows were sore from thinking, staring into infinite puzzles. My mind was haggard from all the dead ends and the doubts they midwifed. My throat had a lump: I was afraid to say anything meaningful at all. Theology had frozen me, and I felt I no longer knew anything of Jesus at all.
I sat in my senior seminar class. I can't remember what we were talking about. By time you reach your senior level theology class, you've learned the art of saying something while saying nothing at all. I don't know how many times I've talked about things 'being brought into conversation' with another thing, which has become code for not knowing what the hell I'm talking about and being confused about mostly everything except my love of Frank's Red Hot.
I played a couple games of theological tennis to get participation points, but secretly, I'd been absent-minded the whole class. The whole semester, to be honest. It's nothing personal, really. I was busy presiding over the funeral of my own faith.
We went off topic and talked about how we do theology. I talked about my struggle. How I longed to do theology like I was a poet. I went on for a couple sentences before I felt my head get feverish. I felt my throat gurgle with angst. I surprised myself with my emotion. Maybe my faith wasn't dead after all.
By time I needed to choose a topic for my gargantuan 25-page paper, I knew I couldn't do status quo. I hated theology like a friend who'd just experienced its bitter betrayal. My mind would scream with bitterness with every letter. I wanted to figure out why doing theology had put my faith on life support, or at least find a way to do theology that didn't make me completely hate myself. In other words, I wanted to know if theology had room for laughter.
I'M NOT SURE WHAT TO DO WITH LAUGHTER. I mean, I do it, but I'm not sure if it means anything. I read a psalm once where the writer daydreamed about the time when the mouths of God's people were filled with laughter. Something about that always felt beautiful to me, like they couldn't stop laughing if they tried. Recently, I've found myself wondering how they got there in the first place.
I don't know when it switched if I'm honest. I think it's part of being human to assume the past was this dreamy haze of good things, especially when you feel like you're in a low place. I know my last two years of high school had lots of boring moments: brushing teeth, staring at the pantry waiting for Cheez-its to appear, feeling my face flush with embarrassment after awkward conversations, and other things like them.
But when I daydream, I mostly think about the time when God filled my mouth with laughter. I sure do remember laughing lots, and sometimes it seemed like it was for really ordinary things, like seeing the milky moonlight splash onto the boring stretches of suburban grass in my old neighborhood. And it feels beautiful, but only in the bittersweet way that memories do.
In a way, I guess, laughter's a word I've been trying for the last six years to figure out the punctuation. And if the last two years of high school had put an exclamation, the first two were a big, sweaty question mark.
Few people believe laughter is spiritual. The ones that do mostly think it's bad. The ancient Indian dramatist Bharata once made up a range of laughter, from a faint smile to the kind that makes you fall over and burst out in tears. The harder you laughed, the harder you fell into something gross, sensual, and degrading. Go into the Western world, and some said there was no clear religious ground for laughter in its entire tradition.
But the further I went, the further I discovered that Christians feared laughter the most.
John Wesley, the guy behind Methodism, once disciplined a preacher who'd make jokes from the pulpit. 4th-century itinerant Chrysostom said the world wasn't a theatre to laugh, but to weep for our sins. St. Benedict, the founder of monasticism as we know it, used Bible verses to forbade laughter. 17th-century Quaker Robert Barclay once wrote that sports, mirth, and laughter didn't agree with the gravity of Christian faith.
When missionaries went into Africa, the natives were marked by their big, boisterous laughter. The missionaries thought this was pagan, so upon conversion the natives developed a nervous, suppressed, embarrassed laughter later known as the "mission giggle."
I didn’t think much about the spirituality of laughter in freshman year. I didn’t actually laugh much, either. How could I? Real laughter doesn’t have any room for fear, and fear was a sleazy governor I kept re-electing. When you’re a fourteen-year old boy, you like Hollister, Pomade hair gel, Nutty bars, and any hint that another person thinks you’re hot. Just in the exact opposite order, and the hints make your day rise and fall. Walking back to my locker at the end of the day, I actually used to count the number of people who said hi to me. That’s the godhonest truth.
I liked this girl Nicole once. Nick, my older brother, was friends with her sister, so they set us up to hang out as a group. When they left us alone with a couch and MTV, I got scared I’d screw something up, so I faked naptime. Meaning, I pretended to fall asleep, hating every ride Xzibit tried to pimp.
Before we left, though, I had another moment alone with Nicole. I hugged her, even lifting her a few inches off the ground. I selectively tuned out the bored groan. I was on top of the world for two straight weeks. I texted her, and she slowly stopped texting back. She eventually said sorry for leading me on. When you’re a fourteen-year old boy, you’re bummed when Home-Ec class finishes Little Rascals, stung when your baseball team loses Game 163, and crushed when you believe another person has peered down to the bottom of you and found you boring.
Fearful people mostly don’t have room to laugh because laughter makes its home among those miraculously able to temporarily believe they’ll be OK. With every genuine uproar, we defy tragedy. We admit our limits, and believe our limits are overcome, somehow. But fear whispers that our limits will be the end of us, that we’re just the sum of our snarly imperfections and sins: fascinatingly, the one who fears and the one who laughs are often looking at the same thing. I put a big, sweaty question mark on laughter because I saw my limits; I saw all the screwy things that didn’t make sense in life; I couldn’t see something that could overcome them.
I wasn’t sure I’d be OK.
WHEN I THINK ABOUT the time God filled my mouth with laughter, I’m drawn mostly to the summer nights. I think on the cool asphalt pressing against my bare feet. I think on the harsh bridge light in the distance and the dusk’s faint blue light in front of me. I think on the hazy July air brushing through my fingers as I made my evening pace through the neighborhood. I think on the galactic God-thoughts coursing through my mind like an awful thunderstorm I never wanted to leave. I think on the fiercely delightful conviction I was conversing with the Holy. But most of all, I think on the geysers of laughter, coloring all my thoughts with confidence.
It was senior year of high school, and laughter was the big, boisterous exclamation tacked onto a life that barely knew fear.
To laugh or not laugh depends mostly on what genre we think our story is. The classic definition of a tragedy story is birth, struggle, and death. Aristophanes, often called the father of comedy, defined a comedy story as birth, struggle, death, and a resurrection.
Buechner once said that laughter comes out of the darkness—as much as tears do—in a world where God is of all missing persons the most missed, except not as a symptom of darkness but as its antidote. True laughter doesn’t dismiss tragedy. It understands we are bleeding; it also believes—whether we realize it or not—that we are bled for. Laughter thrives on the unexpected, and the grace-gospel is God’s big, fat, unforeseeable joke, and God waits on bated breath for us to get the punch line.
I got the joke reading C.S. Lewis by the black-felt poker table in the basement of our foreclosing home. Lewis wrote of two kinds of faith: one stuck to beliefs despite all wavering and doubt in ordinary life, and the other that sensed our bankruptcy before God, giving back to God what was already God’s. I knew my family’s bleeding: the long line of broken people whose lives were open-ended questions about their father’s affection, some being driven to isolation, others abuse, still others suicide. Birth, struggle, and death. I knew the tragedy. Somehow – sometime in my sophomore year – I got the comedy of Jesus: the birth, struggle, death, and the resurrection that changed everything. The tragic was inevitable; the gospel was unforeseeable, both two millennia ago and in arriving in my wildly insecure and tragically serious heart.
I was bleeding. Comically, I was bled for. Over the next two years, the gospel became a joke I found more hilarious every single day. I laughed. I mean, actually laughed. More than I ever had in my entire life. Things became funnier, less because my life had more comic material and more because I saw all life’s screwy inconsistencies differently. It’s not like I lost my limits either. I knew the same snarly imperfections and sins, but they were no longer the end of the story.
When we laugh, we taste a world without pain. For a moment’s time—as our zygomatic muscles spasm and our epiglottis’ contract – we taste a story where brokenness is a word, but resurrection is the final word. It is a story where death dies a humiliating death, where the multifaceted tragedy of our experience is somehow transposed into a wholeness that fills all things. It is a story where the end involves all tears being wiped away.
When I became a Christian, I discovered my laughter begged a question only the big, expansive, unexpected, and ongoing story of Jesus answered.
I STILL BELIEVED THAT STORY as I wrote my 25-page theology final. Still, I felt like my words were less like reflections on my Christian faith and more like trying to speak it back into existence. I don’t know where it had gone, when I’d lost it, and how it evaporated. But with each keystroke, I found myself caring less about how my faith had become so rigid, jittery, and fearful and caring more about how to find the faith I once had, a faith that was dynamic, vibrant, and courageous.
I don’t think it’s fair to say Christians should always be joyful. I showed in my paper the long history of mopey Christians who didn’t know how to laugh. But I also know Christians who don’t know how to feel broken, who try very hard to plaster cheap platitudes onto tragedies where words don’t belong.
I know them because I’ve talked with them; I know them mostly because I know myself. Weeping is kind of an intense word, and crying might not be for everybody. But when I see the oppression of my brother or sister, I am bound by my humanity not to order fast-food laughter because I’m uncomfortable, or re-gift them cheap promises because I’m selfish.
To be Christian, in some ways, is to figure out the tension of already-but-not-yet into your actual life. The already is that the climax of God’s comedy story has already happened with the resurrected Jesus. The not yet is that we wait for Jesus’ kingdom to fully arrive, and meanwhile our stories—of our selves, our families, our communities, our nations—still seem pretty tragic.
The first two years of high school, laughter was a word with big, sweaty question mark. The last two years of high school, laughter was attached with a big, boisterous exclamation mark. Now, in the twilight of my Bible degree, laughter appears with a comma in my life.
A few weeks ago, I was at brunch with friends when I found myself splitting with laughter. The kind where your gut gets sore and your forehead gets sweaty, and afterward you slink back in your chair with the silliest kind of tired satisfaction you’ve ever felt.
Back in high school, I found the story of Jesus pointed me to laughter; that morning, I realized that laughter could point me right back to this Jesus-story.
It seemed almost sacramental, a visible symbol pointing me to an invisible reality. Laughter seems to be a strange space where God invites me—us, even—to pause and remember, remember the painless, fearless world laughter temporarily creates is a symbol pointing to a world Jesus will one day permanently establish.
This is my comedy, Jesus whispers with the beginnings of smirk, given to my screwy ragamuffin children. Laugh in remembrance of me.