Holy Laughter

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When Mother Teresa died last year, I remembered my favorite among her memorable one-liners, her short and direct statements of truth, built upon her short and direct acts of Christian mercy, those acts and pronouncements which make her a true twentieth-century saint.
One of her frequent newspaper interviewers was finishing up his questions to her, when he decided to ask a question meant to be practical, meant to involve us -- twentieth-century Western readers back in America enjoying our good lives. He asked her, "Given your ministry, what can we do to live out the good life?" She did not say "Go, sell all you have and work with the poor, like me." Perhaps he, and we, would have expected her to say that. But, instead, she said simply and directly, "Smile at the people you live with."

The reporter was a bit surprised and he pressed the issue. "That's easy for you to say. You don't face family pressures, and the work place." "Oh," said Mother Teresa, "I live with Jesus. Believe me, he's a hard person to live with."

I laughed, and I laugh still today, when I recall that story. Because it is true. I laugh, and because I know it's truth has been borne out with pain, suffering and difficulty. I guess that Mother Teresa saw just about as much of the harsh and painful and suffering life as one might see, but she retained a light sense of joy and wonder, so that she could offer that simple advice. "Smile at the people you live with, even Jesus, when he's hard to live with."

Somehow, a smile or a laugh is only valid to me when I know there has also been authentic struggle -- when I know that the person in my company is not simply avoiding reality, or offering cheap sentimentality. I believe in the smile of those who have suffered. "Blessed are you who weep now," said Jesus in Luke 6:21, "for you shall laugh." I believe in that kind of laughter. I believe in the beautiful smile of a woman who has been through labor and childbirth, not a sentimental smile, but one borne in pain.

I believe in the laughter of the matriarch Sarah, Abraham's old wife, beyond the age of childbearing. She was at the entrance to the desert tent while Abraham was showing hospitality to the three strangers who turned out to be -- the Lord! After they ate, these strangers spoke as one. The Lord said that when he returned, Sarah would have a son.

Sarah laughed to herself. It was a deep and lonely laugh, emerging from the weary feelings of forsakenness. She had ceased hoping now, she could only laugh. "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" What a ridiculous thought, perhaps even sacrilegious.

"Why did Sarah laugh?" the Lord asks Abraham. But Abraham does not answer. It is Sarah who then speaks directly, for herself. She denies it. "I did not laugh." She was afraid now, sensing that she was in the presence of the almighty, the transcendent, someone who could -- and would -- change her life. I know that fear. It is a tremendous and fascinating mystery. "Oh," the Lord says, the voice of piercing truth and comforting mercy. "Oh, but you did laugh."

Oh, Sarah, you did laugh. And your laughter was "meet and right so to do," for it recognized the sheer absurdity of the Lord's way. The way of God is often so foreign to us humans that the most genuine way we can respond is to laugh. God's way takes us out of our ordinary worlds, into other orbits of wondrous flight and glory. Oh, Sarah, you did laugh. You were getting the joke.

And when the son is indeed born, what do Sarah and Abraham name him? They name him "Isaac." The word in Hebrew means "laughter." It means "someone laughs." I think it means everyone laughs. Our God is at work again, and God's way breaks into our human world like a great joke -- something we know is true but which is also crazy and ridiculous and paradoxical. What does God intend to do with this two old people, traveling from their homeland to new territory, and their new son Isaac? Well, God wants to save the world through them, just like God has always wanted to do through people.

It is part of the history and nature of God to produce something out of nothing. This was how the world was created, creatio ex nihilo we call it. Creation not from mud or dirt or matter, but creation from nothing at all. It is fabulous, unbelievable, stunning. And when the world looks broken and damaged and empty again around us -- which it often does if we have eyes to acknowledge that truth -- when the world looks broken and empty around us time and time again, then it is the absurdity of God's work which redeems it again. Think back over your own lives; you have been saved by God, not just once in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, but time and time again. God has brought something into your life out of nothing.

God's business of redemption saves us no matter what circumstance we are in. Look at Psalm 126, written as the Hebrews were returning from exile and death, back into the promised land. "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream," the Psalmist says, "Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy."

Such holy laughter is the sign that God has been at work again, bringing forth life from death. But two things must be present for that laughter to be holy. First of all, there has to be the experience of pain and emptiness -- even death. Holy laughter is not the avoidance of pain. It must begin with authentic pain, an experience of some kind of death. Secondly, holy laughter emerges when that emptiness becomes filled with the grace and love of God.

For this reason, pain and suffering need not be the evidence that God has forsaken us. Instead, they are the fields, lying empty in winter fallowness, in which God will plant new seeds of spring hope. Your suffering and pain today is not the final word. The places where you suffer will be the very places where God will come alive. That is the gospel. That is the source of holy laughter.

I wonder if there has ever been a holy person who does not know how to laugh. Story after story is told of Thomas Merton simply breaking out in laughter as someone approaches him. Indeed, the gauge of our freedom in God may be our ability to laugh. For freedom, Christ has set us free!

For Sarah, her laughter was not so much an absence of faith. I believe her laughter the first sign of faith. For she was beginning to get the joke. She realized immediately the absurdity of the thing. God bringing forth new life from her tired, old body. Laughter may be the first sign of faith, and people without faith are those who cannot laugh.

It so happens that my own daughter is named Sarah, and I tell you the following story with her permission. She was quite young once, about three or four years old, and it fell my turn to give her a bath. It had been quite a hard day in the lives of young parents with young children, and Sarah was giving us all a time. She would scream. She would pout. She would run away. It took me thirty minutes to convince her she was going to get a bath.

Finally, we were in the bathroom. I leaned over into the bath to turn on the faucets. When I did, the water came out, not from the bath faucets but from the overhead shower faucet. My head was completely drenched with cold water, and I was so frozen and surprised that I couldn't speak.

Sarah looked at me with young and startled eyes herself. Having spent the last hour screaming, she didn't know now what to do. So she laughed. Sarah laughed. I laughed, too. It was a great joke. In that moment, we were truly reconciled. We were holy laughing.

True reconciliation does not come automatically. It takes time and struggle and pain. But it does come. Reconciliation and grace come as sure as joy comes in the morning.

So, laugh at the joke. God has reconciled the world to himself, through Jesus Christ. It seemed impossible once, and it may seem impossible again, but God has done it anyway. Laugh at the joke. Be reconciled to the fabulous, incredible love of God. Smile at Jesus. And smile at the people you live with. AMEN

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