Saturday, 17 January 2015

There are tears of laughter too

Last Friday I attended the funeral of Sheila Jones at the crematorium at Southern Cemetery Manchester. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the place so full. It was a deeply moving service that spoke powerfully of the woman that she was.

 I first got to know Sheila properly when I was a student minister and over the years we have had many deep and meaningful conversations, shared our personal struggles and tragedies and shared so much of our personal experiences. We also laughed many times together at the absurdities of life, both our own and that of others. Sheila was the last, of a long list of people, who have touched my life in so many ways who died last year.

Now during the service they read these beautiful words from Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes 3 vv 1-8

3For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Words that whenever I hear them, more than when I read them, always touch that special place deep in the soul of me. They are words that are fitting for any season and any emotion and speak powerfully to me of the year that has passed and no doubt every year that I will be fortunate enough to experience in the future. Ecclesiastes speaks that truth of truths that whatever we are feeling or experiencing at the moment is always fleeting and that “this too shall pass” that nothing is permanent in life, it is forever changing and however you feel about a situation right now, you will feel differently soon. This is both good and bad news, well actually it is just reality.

Last week was the first anniversary of my granddad’s death. His was the first of so many losses last year. In a couple of weeks it will be the first anniversary of my brother, our Allen’s death. I shed my tears last week as I remembered the old lad and re-felt the pain of his loss, I also spoke with a few folk and remembered the man that he was and all that he meant to me, the gifts he had given me. My granddad had a wonderful sense of humour and could find the funniness in most situations, no matter how difficult. He was very funny, sometimes inappropriately so, but my word was he funny. Such a sharp wit, with little quips. Never told jokes, but never needed to, really funny people don’t need to tell jokes. He still had the capacity to make me laugh, just days before he died as he lay there in the hospice and all I could do was weep. He wasn’t trying to keep his spirits up, he was doing it for me and today I understand why. That is a true act of love. He was more concerned about how I felt in that situation than himself. He had accepted that his life was ending and was at peace with it.

“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” And the seasons turn and pass and come again. Last year one line “A time to weep and a time to laugh” took on a whole new and deeper meaning. Last year I wept more than I have ever done and by the same token I suspect I laughed more than I have ever done. I know for a fact I felt more than I ever done. I have never been more alive. I lived with an un-defended heart and saw the truth that this truly is the only way to live. I felt every breath, I did not turn away. I have never felt the presence of God more deeply.

Now I’ve not always been the kind of man who was easily moved to tears. I was as a boy, but not always as a man. There have been seasons of my life where there were few if any tears, those times when nothing touched me. I can hardly remember those seasons sadly, sometimes trying to remember those soulless days can bring tears to my eyes today.

The seasons of my life that I remember by heart and not merely head are the ones in which I have shed tears. Whether they were tears of joy; tears of sorrow; tears of awe; tears of pain; tears of frustration; tears of relief; tears of laughter. These are the thick seasons when the most profound experiences of life have occurred and deeper understanding has usually followed. During these moments I have learnt what it means to be alive. These moments have shaped my soul and built my character.

I wonder what this season will bring? Let’s not wish it away.

When I was a younger man one thing that always disturbed me about funerals was how much laughter I would hear at them. At that time in my life it was something I didn’t really understand. In those days all I could feel was the sadness. Now while I may not fully understand it today, I do experience it. I understand that just like tears laughter is a communal experience, just as we bind together in our tears and suffering we are also bound together in our joy and laughter. When people laugh together there is nothing more beautiful, it can be infectious too.

Now I’m not talking about the kind of laughter and humour that is simply mocking, especially of those weaker in society, I’m not sure this is humour at all. It certainly isn’t inspired by joyousness, more cynicism, which no one is immune from,

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Spiritual freedom brings with it the ability to laugh and not to take yourself too seriously, but it’s not about picking at other people’s perceived faults and inadequacies. This does not bring people together it just aids a sense of superiority at the expense of another. There is nothing liberating or freeing in this.

Now religion and spirituality are not often arenas where humour is obviously found and yet I have come to know that the more spiritually liberated I have become, and the more religious in its truest sense I have become, the more I have discovered my own funny bones. When I saw life as a tragedy I never felt more alone and yet when I began to see life more as kind of divine comedy with tragic elements I began to feel a part of life once more.

The ancient Greeks understood this. From their religious rituals grew two forms of theatre. One was tragedy and the other was comedy, the rituals of Dionysius incorporated both elements. The tragedies motto was “woe is me”, they portrayed situations in which the people, due to their natures, were fated to focus on their own suffering. Whereas the comedies motto was “Get over yourself”, they too expressed situations that included suffering but in these tales the people were enabled to discover ways out of these situations.

Comedy is there in the Abrahamic faiths too. There is a rich tradition of humour in Judaism, but humour is also a part of both Christian and Islamic traditions. Mulla Nasrudin is the archetype of the holy fool. found in virtually every tradition. The early Christian Desert Father’s found humour within their spirituality too. You will also find humour in the parables and stories from the eastern traditions as well. You can find many of these tales in "Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart: Parables of the Spiritual Path from round the Word" edited by Christina Fieldman and Jack Kornfield It saddens me that in the modern age so much of this seems to have got lost as the poe faced and more puritanical factions have become the dominant elements in religion. And yet as Karl Barth has claimed “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” "

“laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”

Why is this you might well ask? Well because laughter brings us together, it takes us beyond the confines of our narrow selves. It takes us beyond the confines of our own thinking minds, it helps not to take ourselves too seriously and opens our hearts beyond the confines of our own egos, there is a reason that it is said to be the best medicine. As J.B. Priestly claimed “There is in happiness an element of self-forgetfulness. You lose yourself in something outside yourself when you are happy; just as when you are desperately miserable you are intensely conscious of yourself, you are a solid little lump of ego weighing a ton.”

There is a place for silliness, especially in the most difficult of times. Last week as I was leaving what they called the “get together” after Sheila’s funeral I spoke to one of my favourite and naturally funny people Peter Sampson, I acted the goat and then for some reason apologised for being silly. Peter just smiled and laughed and then rather lovingly said you weren’t being silly, you were being you. I walked away smiling and chuckling to myself. It was one of those lovely moments of connection that lifted both of us up in what was a rather difficult time.

It brought to mind some rather lovely words by the Bendictine nun and author Joan Chittister, that a friend recently posted on facebook

“Humor gives a people dignity in situations that denigrate them. Laughter gives us relief from the burden of dailiness. No amount of coercion can break an unbreakable spirit, humor teaches us.. . . Humor cuts oppressors down to size, takes their sting away, renders them powerless to destroy us. Don't give in to what diminishes you. Learn to laugh at it and reduce its power over you.”

Now these words led me to the following by the great pre-war American theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick, he wrote “Happiness at its deepest and best is not the portion of a cushioned life which never struggled,...bore hardships, or adventured in sacrifice for costly aims. A heart of joy is never found in luxuriously coddled lives, but in men and women who achieve and dare, who have tried their powers against antagonisms, who have met even sickness and bereavement and have tempered their souls in fire…”

An undefended heart is one that both gives and receives laughter.

As John O’Donohue claimed "I think that laughter is one of the really vital dimensions of the divine presence that has been totally neglected.

I often feel when the Divine One beholds us obsessed in our intricate maze of anxiety and planning and intentionality, that She can’t stop laughing.

It’s great for people, actually, to laugh, too. I love a sense of humour in a person. It’s one of my favorite things, because I think when somebody laughs, they break out of every system that they’re in.

There’s something really subversive in laughter and in the smile on the human face. It’s lovely and infectious to be in the company of someone who can smile deeply.

I think a smile comes from the soul. And I also love its transitive kind of nature—that if you’re in the presence of someone who has a happiness and a laughter about them, it’ll affect you and it’ll call that out in you as well.

Your body relaxes completely when you’re having fun. I think one of the things that religion has often prevented us from doing is having really great fun. To be here, in a way—despite the sadness and difficulty and awkwardness of individual identity—is to be permanently invited to the festival of great laughter."

In the face of the difficulties that we all face it is laughter and the sharing of it that helps us to stay open hearted and fully engaged. Laughter can hold us together when all around us can appear to be falling apart and it can also connect us once again when we are tempted to retreat back into ourselves. Laughter is the greatest medicine and maybe it truly is the closest thing to the grace of God.

None of us knows what this season will bring. There will be tears, but not always of sorrow, there will be joy and laughter too, if we can but stay open hearted and refuse to retreat back into those shells of self-protection. Let’s not be afraid of our tears, for there are tears of laughter too. Let’s enjoy this season for none of us know how many seasons we have left; let’s not forget, in the words of Conrad Hyers "The first and last word belong to God and therefore not to death but life, not to sorrow but joy, not to weeping but laughter. For surely it is God who has the last laugh."

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