Wednesday, May 09, 2012

THE GOD OF LAUGHTER -- Alan Reynolds

Abram the Bedouin lived on the caravan route between the two great centers of civilization and commerce of his ancient time (Syria and Egypt). Of course he met many travellers and traders and would welcome them to his tents with his best Bedouin hospitality.  In the exchange of introductions he would give his name -- Abram, which meant "father of many."  And the natural response would be, "Tell us, O father of many, how many sons do you have?"  And poor Abram would be forced to reply, "None."  One can almost hear the snort of suppressed laughter which Abram, so many times over the years, must have found so very humiliating.

It was especially difficult because Abram claimed that he had been promised by the God he served, Yahweh, the "Lord," that his descendants would number as the sand, and that he, Abram, would be fruitful and multiply and be, not just the "father of many" but even the "father of many nations."

Even when he was 99 years old, and Sarah his wife 90 years old, Abram claimed that the Lord appeared to him and repeated the promise.  The story tells us that Abram, the man noted in the New Testament for his faith, fell on his face laughing.

To make matters worse, God told Abram to change his name to Abraham, meaning "father of a multitude."  Imagine what probably happened when the old man called together the members of his tribe, nieces and nephews, servants and their families, and said to them, "The Lord has told me to change my name."  You can hear them saying behind their hands to one another, "Well the old man has finally come to his senses and given up.  Thank goodness we won't have to explain anymore why a man with no children calls himself 'father of many.'"

So they waited to hear the new name.  "Henceforth," the old man pronounced, "I am to be called Abraham" (which means "father of a multitude").

Imagine the stunned silence, and later, in the privacy of their own quarters, the secret laughter.  Imagine Sarah remonstrating, "You old fool, it was bad enough before.  Why did you go and make it worse? Imagine how it makes me feel!"

Finally, when the messengers of the Lord came to Abraham by the "oaks of Mamre" where he sat by his tent in the shade, to tell him that within the year Sarah would bear a son, Sarah, eavesdropping from within the tent, was overheard to laugh.  Not just a giggle, but no doubt an honest-to-goodness belly laugh that couldn't be disguised as anything but what it was.  How embarrassing for Abraham, trying to be the good host and act with due seriousness in such a ridiculous situation.  And his wife, to be the bearer of the promise, guffawing in the hearing of his guests.

When the boy was born, they didn't get very pious and call him "promised of God," or "miracle child of our old age."  No, they named him as God had commanded, "Isaac," which means "Laughter."  As Sarah said, "God has made Laughter for me!"

And the Lord also, who might be thought to be above such casual humour, seemed actually to relish it.  Down the generations following, God kept reminding His people of it (they seemed to forget so often). "I am the God of Laughter," the Lord would say, "the God of Abraham, Laughter and Jacob."

Isn't it strange, when laughter is written not only into our very nature but into the very Word of God, that we should so often picture God as solemn and sober, somber and even sour.  Oh, let's not take away the seriousness of God's judgement or the reality of suffering. But let us remember that God is quite evidently a God who loves laughter.

We can, no doubt, blame our Puritan forefathers for such a somber attitude to religion, and serious men and women they were. Edward Irving wrote, "Laughter is a kind of bacchanalian state of the mind just as drunkenness is a bacchanalian state of the body."  Some of the Puritans refused to gaze on flowers, since they were "worldly things." And the 17th century pietist, August Francke, forbade children in his orphanages to smile, as he regarded humour and laughter as irreverent.

Remember that the Puritans had their reasons.  Life was a serious business in those days, full of hard labour, dangerous and mysterious diseases, and stern justice.  Then too, Puritanism itself was a reaction against the corruption of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, when humour gave way to debauchery and mirth to riot.  In their righteous zeal, the Puritans closed the theatres and forbade the celebration of Christmas.

Before we condemn the excesses of our Puritan forefathers, let us remember how far we have allowed the pendulum to swing again to the same extremes.  Have you listened lately to some of the nite-club humorists, or attended a movie in the last twenty years?

But still, surely laughter has its place and purpose in God's plan -- and perhaps a very central and important place. Laughter is written into nature.  It was Abraham Lincoln who said something like, "God must have meant us to laugh, or He wouldn't have created mules, monkeys, and men."  Whether we go to the zoo to laugh at the duck-billed, web-footed, flat-tailed platypus, or watch in our kitchen a kitten playing with a ball of yarn, we find much in nature and in natural life to make us laugh.

Dear God, we make you so solemn,
So stiff and old and staid,
How can we be so stupid
When we look at the things you've made?

Who watches the ostrich swallow,
Then doubts that You like to play,
Or questions your sense of humour
Hearing a donkey bray?

Could the God who made the monkey
Have forgotten how to laugh?
Or the one who striped the zebra
And stretched out the giraffe?

How could a solemn person
Fashion a pelican?
Or a perfectly sober Creator
Ever imagine a man?
(Helen Salsbury)

There is humour in the Bible too, so much of it, and so little of it recognized.  Isaiah laughed at those who spent money and effort to have an idol built "of a wood that will not rot," cast about with silver chains and fancy decorations, but then had to nail it down carefully so that it didn't fall over (Isaiah 40).

Read the story of Jacob (Genesis 27f.)  Imagine how the people loved to tell this story, and how the children loved to hear it.  Imagine how they laughed as they told of the one whose name meant "supplanter," born the second of twins but clutching on to his brother's heel  even in birth.  How he clothed himself in sheepskin to fool his blind old father into giving him the blessing reserved forthe first-born.  How he worked for seven years to earn the beautiful Rachel for his bride, only to lift the veil to find that he had married her older sister, Leah! How he engaged in such a war of wits with his father-in-law that they finally had to agree to part.  They agreed on a "line of demarcation" and there they built a cairn as a divider, agreeing that neither would step over the line.  And just to make sure, they repeated together, "The Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent one from the other."  In other words, a formula of mutual mistrust: "Remember, when I can't keep an eye on you, the Lord is watching what you're up to."

In the New Testament, we have the instance of Paul preaching at such length to the elders at Ephesus than one of the congregation fell asleep and fell out of an upper-story window.

Or there's the instance of four friends tearing up the roof of a house in order to lay at the feet of Jesus the one who couldn't walk! Or little Zacchaeus climbing the sycamore tree.

Remember how often Jesus used humour in his teaching.  There was the man with the great plank in his own eye trying to take a speck out of another's eye. Or the person who put the candle under the basket instead of on a stand.  Or the camel trying to get through the eye of the needle. Or Solomon worrying about his wardrobe while the flowers, a million strong in their finery, fluttered carelessly in the field.

There is ample evidence of Jesus' suffering, of His sorrow for our blindness and sin.  The shortest verse in the Bible is, "Jesus wept." But there is also ample evidence that Jesus was one who had a sense of humour and enjoyed laughter.  John's disciples, they said, fasted and prayed, while Jesus' disciples feasted and danced.

"The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men," wrote the apostle Paul.  He wasn't talking about anything light. He was talking about the cross.  Yet, even here, in the end, is a kind of laughter.

"He who sits in the heavens laughs," says the second Psalm, and there does seem to be a kind of resurrection laughter that even the most sordid and tragic of our human circumstances, seen from theperspective of the fulfillment of God's purposes, may be an occasion for laughter.  Surely we do not believe that, in the end, it's the devil who gets the last laugh.

In Lazarus Laughed, the play he forgot when he wrote "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Eugene O'Neill pictured Lazarus, risen from the grave, going about laughing.  "There is only life," he says, "I heard the heart of Jesus laughing in my heart . . . and I laughed in the laughter of God." The crowds catch the spirit and begin to chant, "Laugh!  Laugh!  Laugh with Lazarus!  Fear is no more!  There is no death!"

At the climax of the play, Lazarus faces Caesar, laughs at his threats, and is put to death -- still laughing.

God grant us grace so to understand the power of God that we may
place ourselves in God's hands, not in fear and trembling, but with
the laughter of little children and the confidence of those who know
that the Victory has been won.

Not merely in the words you say,
Not only in your deeds confessed,
But in the most unconscious way
Is Christ confessed.

Is it a beatific smile?
A holy light upon your brow?
Ah no -- I felt God's presence while
You laughed just now!
(Beatrice Cleland)

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Alan,thank you for this enjoyable -- and as always, informative -- read. Raises my gaze, and elevates the corners of my mouth. :)

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