Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Is Church Funny?

Yesterday I went to church with my mom to hear Don Piper speak. He is the fellow who wrote "90 Minutes in Heaven." The short version of his story: killed when an 18 wheeler hit him head on in excess of 60 mph. Declared dead by four different sets of EMTs. Dead. Definitely dead. 90 minutes and lots of prayer later, he was singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and somebody was telling the police officer, "Hey, the dead guy in the red car is singing."

I'm not going to weigh in on the tale or the religious implications. I haven't reviewed x-rays or medical charts or verified eye witness accounts and don't feel particularly driven to do any of these things. Draw your own conclusions. Aside from the amazing personal account I left church with one other burning question.

Why is church funny?

Am I just by nature sacreligious? I don't think God is funny, although I'm pretty sure He has a sense of humor. But honestly, I cannot get through an entire church service of any type without stifling laughter at the most inappropriate times. Yesterday, for example, I almost lost it when the internalized narrator noted in a dry voice that the soloist bore a disconcerting resemblance to BTK. Perverse, I know.

If you could get inside my head at a funeral you might be diagnosed with grief induced hysteria. My own wedding witnessed shudders of silent laughter that began with me and spread to include my sister and the very dignified, dedicated pastor performing the ceremony. (The flower girl rolled backwards down the stairs with a series of thuds that sounded for all the world like a bowling ball. In my defense it was pretty funny.)

I think it is all the dignity at church that makes me laugh. People are just not dignified. I sit there in the pew and contemplate the nature of God, the failings of humanity, the remarkable notion of redemption, and wonder how many other people there are hungover or thinking about lunch. Stomachs growl, the guy next to me in the pew has killer garlic breath and sings with too much gusto, kids who are too old for the children's service squirm, we all sweat or shiver because one octogenarian power-hungry harpy of a church secretary controls the thermostat. No single place in the world brings to focus the foibles of humanity like church.

I have many friends who no longer attend church (or synagogue or whatever). They cite a host of reasons for their lapse but chief among them is that church is full of hypocrites. Naturally church is full of hypocrites. How can you have hypocrisy without standards that you value and fail? It's really the whole point of church, if you think about it. A place for all us hypocrites to get together and try (or pretend) to be better than we are.

It's the dichotomy, I suppose. The incongruous juxtaposition of the beauty of spirit and selflessness with the inescapable reality of corporeal form. That being said I really should go to church more. If nothing else, it's good for a laugh. And if the sermon takes too long I usually leave with a really good idea for a book.

Yesterday's service taught me one very important thing about myself. I do NOT want to get run over by an 18 wheeler in order to achieve publishing success. God does speak to us, even if we laugh too much during service.


  1. I find it funny that people would stop going to church because the other people there are hypocrites. First of all, isn't this casting the first stone? Second, church is supposed to be about furthering one's relationship with God rather than worrying about the other people.

    Anyhow, I think there is not enough laughter in church. I much prefer a pastor who brings in a little laughter and love to his sermons, rather than the fire and brimstone type.

  2. Yeah, I don't think the presence of hypocrites in church should be a deterrent for attending, either. Not that I think attendance should be compulsory, or anything, but if all you want in a group of peers is lack of hypocrisy you definitely need to look elsewhere.

    Never been a fire and brimstone girl myself. People are funny, both on purpose and unintentionally, and hypocrites can be the funniest of the lot. We laugh at our kids all the time. Why wouldn't we expect God to laugh at us?

  3. lol... you nailed my own [previous] experiences quite well, laurel ;)

    about the only times i attend now are for christenings, weddings and funerals... not necessarily in that order :O

  4. laughingwolf:

    I have an odd secondary reason for going to church. The primary one is that I truly think I should if for no other reason than the fact that I have actually read the whole Bible, know what I think about some parts, don't understand others, and can articulate why on both counts and frankly I think a diverging opinion is healthy. Be it mine or someone else's (but it's usually mine).

    The secondary reason is that I have small children that I want to have a firm grasp of literature. A huge chunk of literary history (western, anyway) is based on a presupposed knowledge of scripture. I hate to think that my kids will be incapable of appreciating Middle English literature because I didn't haul them to church on Sunday and Wednesday nights and make them learn their Sunday school lessons.

    Mercenary and heathen, I know.

  5. Laurel,

    Being told to not laugh in church always struck me as "holier-than-thou." I mean ... God has the wackiest sense of humor ever -- just look at the platypus -- and why would He grant us the ability to laugh if He didn't want us to?

    P.S. Bonus points if you get where I stole the platypus comment from.

  6. Matt:

    DRAT! I have heard that before and I've no idea where!

    Regarding laughter in church: I don't think anyone minds THAT I laugh in church so much as they are very confused by WHEN I laugh. I do the same thing at the gym, the grocery, really anyplace. There's a party in my head all the time and occasionally the revelers make too much noise and it spills out onto the street.

    Church is just quieter so it's a little more noticeable.

  7. You stole the platypus comment from Mike Warnke Matt.

    Laurel I don't know you-I know a friend of yours-Jennifer Johnson. I'm a pastor too and I perform stand-up comedy (intentionally) because I think church ought to be funny.

    It's funny to hear about your inner dialogue while you're worshipping. I name some of that when I know my sermon is running long and it seems to help alleviate the suffering of those in the congregation-for example I have said

    "I know you're likely thinking about getting into the buffet line first or wanting to get out soon and you're making your grocery list-but bear with me these last few minutes".

    You sound like just the type of parishioner it would be fun to have at the church I serve.

    I visited here via Jennifer's blog "This is the Life". I served as a pastor in Ashland Kentucky several years ago and we've kept up with each other's families through email.


  8. Dwight,

    I took it from the movie Dogma, where it's in the opening credits. I've never even heard of Mike Warnke until you mentioned him. Just looked him up on Wikipedia though ... interesting guy.

  9. Welcome, Pastor Dwight!

    Jennifer is one of the greatest folks on the planet. My dad continually threatened to adopt her as a replacement for one of us when we were kids.

    As a general rule, most of the people I know who pursue ministry as a vocation have extremely well-developed senses of humor. Laughter is an expression of joy.

  10. LOL! You and Janet must be attending the same service!
    I've been reading through your posts and thoroughly enjoying them! Sorry I haven't been around--Jason's blog, yanno.
    I'm STILL not done reading them all!! How in the world did you do it? There needs to be a prize for that too!

  11. Hey, Chris!

    Obsessive compulsive disorder is how I did it. I really couldn't concentrate on much else for about a week. I'm still re-reading some entries. I cannot believe how good they are!

    Nah, I don't go to Janet's church. She's Catholic, like my husband. I'm Baptist. We pray for Catholics.

  12. I am going way off topic here Laurel but I wanted to make sure you got this from the Clarity of Night posts. THANK YOU for understanding.
    Be Well

    Laurel, I have about twenty years on you and often times I go back to the same least I am not in fourth grade again. During that school year the nun who taught three of my older siblings every single day stood me up beside my desk and let me know in no uncertain terms that i was fat, a slob and would never measure up to my brother and sisters concerning their ability.

    The very worst of it was in doing that she not only made me feel fairly useless, she also taught those other kids that it was good and right and goddamn near a holy thing to do to me, abuse, bully and heap all manner of abuse and scorn on me.

    This was a small neighbor hood Catholic school so I was stuck with these kids for the rest of the time I went there through 11th grade.

    The abuse stopped during 10th grade when I finally realized that I didn't have to be only hit but that I could hit back. (growing to 5'11" 250 lbs didn't hurt either)I can't count all of the broken knuckles I have had over the years. I finally came to realize two things...the old bitch did me a favor because she set my foot on a path less traveled, though painful it has thus far been a hell of a ride, and secondly once I forgave myself for accepting responsibility for her and the kids actions I was healed of the lingering after effects.

    It took a long time to let go of that baggage but it felt good to finally be free of it. I may still be fat, and I may yet be a slob, and stupider than a standard door knob but I am what none of them I went to school with or what any of my siblings

  13. Laurel, your paragraph on the stomach growling-garlic breath-squirmy kids-etc is one of the funniest/undeniably true things I have read on a blog in a long time!

    I'm still laughing about it!


  14. Hey, wow! I missed a great conversation here. Dwight, are you following me? Laurel, WHY DIDN'T YOUR DAD MAKE GOOD ON HIS THREAT?! Man. I could have lived in a house with a vacuum cleaner built in and taken showers on the carport. Shoot. Such missed opportunities.
    I find lots of things to be amused about in worship and my life. Sometimes I share those from the pulpit, and sometimes I don't.

    Life is often absurd. I think being honest about that is appreciated in the pews. We all recognize it.And I preach pretty much like I write, and how I see things. This congregation seems to appreciate it very much. In fact, they have yet to run me out on a rail for being a romance author, so I give them a lot of credit for tolerance.

  15. The first time I went to church after being away for many years, I found it creepy. All the chanting and unison activities. I imagined myself an alien observing the local fauna. Stepping back really gives things a different look.

  16. Hey!

    Seems Blogger ate my comment. :(

    I've never been inside a church and am an atheist. So cant relate to how you felt. I often used to sit outside on the steps of a church here... when I wanted to be alone. It was so very peaceful out there.

  17. Hi, Jason!

    Baptists don't chant much although we do recite the Lord's Prayer together sometimes and usually sing one hymn at every service, like the Doxology. I have been to services in other denominations with much greater emphasis on the responsive readings, etc, and it doesn't seem creepy to me but rather stilted. I have Catholic friends, however, who really enjoy the universal nature of the service and find the chanting meditative, which I suppose is the point.

    Probably my favorite thing about the Baptist segment is the lack of unison. It is actually doctrinal that each person is individually responsible for his or her own understanding of the relationship of the individual to their Creator. The highly amusing byproduct of this individualistic streak is that whenever you have two or more Baptists in a room they will argue about some point of theology.

    Aniket: My favorite time to be in any religious building, church, temple, whatever, is when it is quiet and still. You're right, it is peaceful.

  18. I used to attend a conservative catholic church because I was hired to sing solos and lead the congregation in music ministry. I was often appalled at the sermons which were essentially telling the congregation how to vote in elections. The music director (jewish) and myself (spiritual but not religious) would often look at each other and share deep secret conversations via inconspicuous eye widening, which were essentially suppressed screams. Not laughing so much. There was absolutely more love and humor in the 70's when I was a teenager and attended the Methodist church with my grandmother. My grandfather was a Methodist minister, although he died before I was born, but he was known for his humor. He was also a writer of fantasy and children's stories which are very funny.

    As far as laughter at inappropriate times are concerned, I still have a problem with things like, 'so and so died' (laugh). It's not because I'm happy, it's something else, not sure what. It's a strange kind of crying that looks like laughter and makes me feel like an insensitive jerk. What to do?

  19. this is like that laughing at funerals thing. like yawning, it's contagious.
    love your blog. i'm following you now. you should pop over/follow mine. i have all things books...
    nice meeting you.

  20. Just stalking around. You made the "Book of Mormon" comment on Nathan B's blog, and I was so glad. I was a few days late reading it, but I wanted to throw that into the mix, and there it was! Thanks for reading my mind, two days before I thought it. That's psychic AND clairvoyant. I'm impressed.

  21. We've been looking for a church home and trying out different ones. I've been thinking a lot about church in the process...why we go, why some don't. I think some people legitimately are against organized religion and certainly one does not have to be seated in church to worship. But I also believe many people use the "organized religion" excuse as a cop-out. They want an excuse not to have to go to church every Sunday because they can "stay home and worship." Only they don't...and we all know they don't.

  22. Tkx, Kelly and KayKayBe!

    And Stephanie, you are so right. People who claim to "stay home and worship" usually feel like they should go to church but they don't. If church isn't your thing, not for you, whatever, that's fine but just own it. The only people I have ever known who actually DO "stay home and worship" can't find a church that's good enough for them. Seriously. Every church they have tried wasn't "Christian" enough. Which is a whole 'nother can of worms. Crazy, brain eating, judgy worms.

  23. When I was in high school my parents took me and a friend on a ski trip. We were in Beaver Creek on Palm Sunday, and they made us go to church. Kevin and I convince them that we did not need to sit with them, so we went up to the back row of the balcony with a deck of cards and quietly played war.

    We were sitting on the kind of folding chairs that have a cushioned seat. A large man sat in the chair in front of me, and a rush of air escaped from the cushion, sounding a lot like a quiet fart. Kevin waved his hand in front of his face and wrinkled his nose in a wow-that-smelled gesture and I lost it.

    It was quiet at first. Then it got funnier. The more I didn't laugh, the funnier it got. Then I looked at Kevin, and he was struggling just as hard as I was. Mass hadn't even officially started yet and we had to leave, cracking up loudly as we entered the stairwell.

    A few minutes later we thought it was over (and we wanted to finish our card game) so we went back up to the balcony, but as soon as we saw the dude in that chair we both started cracking up again.

    We never left the lobby area after that.

    To this day, this is my fondest memory of church.