by Christa von Zychlin–
The elderly gentleman gave me the once over as I raced into the hospital lobby looking for a bathroom. It was decades ago; I was a freshly minted pastor, a pioneer among the mostly male leaders of every Christian denomination. I had driven a couple of hours to visit a church member who was facing serious surgery. I always took care to wear my full clergy regalia to these hospital visits: black shirt, roman collar, tailored blazer and—just to show I was not shy about being a woman pastor—a poofy, feminine skirt.
To add to my strangeness, I was heavily pregnant with my first child, so I was acutely aware of my appearance. I braced myself for the kinds of questions I fielded all the time. Was I some flavor of kooky nun or member of an odd-ball cult? No time for questions now, though. I spied the women’s room, did as pregnant women need to do, then flounced back out into the hospital lobby, head held high.
“Excuse me, Miss…”
I turned, just daring the old man to question me and my credentials. I distinctly remember the kind tone of his voice.
“Your, uh, skirt is bunched up in the back, dear.”
Indeed. In my pregnant lady awkwardness, I had managed to tuck my slip and skirt into my pantyhose, and the result was not good. It took me decades to get over this moment without my face heating up each time I thought of it.
I’m thankful to that old man, though. First of all, I’m thankful he didn’t keep quiet and allow me to traipse through the entire hospital in that condition! As time has passed, I’ve also wondered if he wasn’t some sort of angel, on a cosmic errand to warn a young clergywoman—don’t take yourself too seriously, girl. Yes, you’re a cool chick; you’ve got your Divinity degree, your ordination certificate and your official Letter of Call. But you’re also plenty human; wonderfully fallible. At any moment, you’re exactly one exposed panty away from looking like a complete fool. And maybe that’s okay.
You: Hey, what are you doing under there?
Your unsuspecting friend: …under where?
You: YOU SAID UNDERWEAR! (fits of giggles)
Consider the children
“…but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14)
As a child I found church inviting, awesome and sometimes hilarious. My friend Kay and I giggled at the church soloist who sang with a high, warbling vibrato.
We snorted in our seats when the pastor mispronounced a word and firmly taught us, “Breast are the peacemakers.”
We couldn’t control ourselves when Grandma K accidentally farted when she stood up for Jesus.
Finally our mothers had to separate us. Which was the right thing to do. In later years I’ve had to shush and separate kids hundreds of times… kids laughing at the poor acolyte who can’t get candles lit, kids drawing cartoons in the bulletin for each other’s amusement, kids cracking up when little Sammy announces cheerfully, “I’ve got poopy pants, Mommy,” in the middle of my sober sermon.
The Bible clearly teaches that you can never take God too seriously. At least three times we are told the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Throughout the Scriptures, we see God’s power is not something to be trifled with. People are shook up when they meet the Holy One—when God thunders at them (Moses, Job), summons them for special assignments (Hagar, Jeremiah) or confirms them in their deepest desires (a baby, a healing or an exit from the tomb). In fact, an appropriate reaction to meeting God, the Bible tells us, is to fall down in fear and trembling. Therefore, I might ask myself, if I were really and completely immersed in God’s presence, would the snickering of a troop of teenagers bother me so much? Would it even register?
Maybe it’s a sign of spiritual maturity when we can allow children (or teens or the occasional insightful adult) to giggle a little in church. Yes, kids should sometimes be separated, occasionally even escorted out of the sanctuary in order to compose themselves. But then we need to welcome them back, even beg them to return. We need their honesty, their insights, their hilarity. And yes, that was a fart, and it was pretty funny. I myself hope to grow to become just like Grandma K, who laughed right along with the kids in that long-ago church pew.
Why do skunks love church?
They get to sit in their own pew.
The woman who laughed
“Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’” (Genesis 21:6)
The most famous laugh in the Old Testament is Sarah’s. Her laughter is a bit salty. “Shall I know pleasure in my old age?” she asks in Genesis 18. Older couples may see it’s not only a question of having a baby, it’s also the funny question of exactly how the conception is going to occur. Sarah’s husband Abraham cracks up, too. He laughs so hard he falls on his face. “Ahem, God, don’t you remember I’m a hundred years old, and my wife is no spring chicken, either?”
Nine months later, Sarah is laughing again. Who would have guessed her old breasts would give joy, not only to her centenarian husband, but also—surprise—to a hungry newborn.
It was only after I had my own babies that I understood a related joke told by the prophet Isaiah. A circle of female seminary students with whom I recently discussed this decided Isaiah must have gotten divine inspiration from his nursing wife or sister when he speaks for God, asking, “Can a woman forget her nursing child?… Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). The immediate insight for a woman with a superabundance of breast milk is, no! A nursing mother can’t possibly forget her baby. After a few hours have gone by, she is so engorged as to become desperate for the child to suckle. It’s a divinely ordained, symbiotic relationship. Can we smile to think God, our heavenly Creator, has such a desire for us?
Auntie Pearl: You’ll live to be 90.
Auntie Em: I am 90.
Auntie Pearl: See?!
A fool for Christ
“If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise” (1 Corinthians 3:18b).
One of my spiritual heroes is Brother Lawrence, known for a tiny book, The Practice of the Presence of God (Spire Books, 1981). My worn paperback edition is subtitled: “A Living Testament of Joy.” Lawrence is a master of light-heartedness. After he messes up on a project, Lawrence admonishes God, “I will never do any better if You leave me to my own devices; it’s You who must prevent my falling and fix what goes wrong.” Then he frets no more!
One of Brother Lawrence’s assignments is to go by boat to the big city to purchase communion wine at wholesale prices. This is a job he dislikes because he considers himself no good at business negotiations. Even worse, Lawrence is lame, and can only get around the boat by rolling himself over the casks! So he tells God, “Hey, it’s your business I’m doing, so you’d better make sure it’s done right.” Brother Lawrence goes on to say the most important job in life is to love and delight ourselves in God. I laugh to picture a roly-poly monk somersaulting his way over wine barrels and learning to do so with humor, his physical clumsiness more than made up for by spiritual grace.
Brother Lawrence’s attitude reminds me of the day John joined our church. John is a middle-aged adult. He has “Down syndrome,” which he likes to call “Up syndrome.” John is known for riding his bike to the local grocery store, standing outside the automatic doors and telling people they dropped their money. When they quickly look down to check, he happily exclaims, “April Fools!” (Never mind what month it actually is). If they take this with good humor, John rewards them with three or four more from his repertoire of jokes.
My husband and I were fairly new co-pastors in town, and the congregation was still checking us out. On New Members Sunday, after going through the normal liturgy, we asked each person to say something about themselves. John asked, “Can I tell a joke?” Well, it was a big Sunday. We had 200 people looking mighty solemn out there. “Yes, John, just one joke. But keep it clean, ok?” “Yeah, ok,” John said. Then he launched into it:
“How can you tell Ronald McDonald at a nude beach?”
My heart sank. Two hundred pairs of eyes stared at us. I was envisioning a re-call of my husband and myself as the pastors of the congregation. But John was not to be deterred.
“By his sesame seed buns.”
The sanctuary roared, and I’m sure at least part of the laughter was relief that the punchline wasn’t anything worse!
The last laugh
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:2a).
The laugh I miss the most in the world is my sister’s. She died three years ago of cancer. Not a holiday meal goes by without my missing her cries of welcome, her cackles when we looked for more cavities in the turkey to stuff, her snorting over my need to follow recipes precisely. “Add a little more wine, it will be fine,” she would say, adding one splash of wine to the gravy, two splashes to refill my glass.
I hope, I trust, I’m counting on there being lots of laughter in the world to come. Meanwhile, we can practice taking life—and ourselves—a little more light-heartedly in this one. We can learn from kids in the pew, old ladies in the Bible, joyful saints past and present and the echoes of laughter from those we’ve loved best.
Final gratuitous joke:
Did the Sadducees believe in the resurrection of the body?
No. And that is why they were sad, you see…
Christa von Zychlin lives, works and laughs in Hong Kong, where she serves the ELCA as a seminary teacher and preacher with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong and the Mekong Mission Forum.
This article is from the April 2016 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.