Posted on

How long, God? The waiting is killing me!

how long?Pain can feel eternal. Suffering slows the clock to a crawl.

In the hospital where I work, I see people in deep pain on a regular basis. Physical pain that so fills the senses it’s hard for the patient to think about anything else. Emotional pain as a loved one lays in bed, unresponsive, with tubes and monitors all over the place, and going downhill on a slow but definite angle.

We humans know suffering of unlimited shapes and sizes. To have a body is to be vulnerable to pain. To have relationships is to potentially have your heart ripped out. And it happens to all us eventually. In fact, I read somewhere that at any given time 80% of the people you know are in the middle of some kind of relational pain. I don’t know how true that statistic is, but I’m guessing that if any of us would take stock of our lives, we’d find something significantly broken.

Sometimes, the pain just won’t quit. Sometimes, there’s a waiting that goes beyond normal waiting. It undermines our sense of justice in the world. It wracks our bodies. It sends earthquakes through our relationships. It undermines our faith.

There are times when we’ve hung on for so long, we’re on the verge of giving up and letting go.

“How long?” is a cry of desperation. It’d beyond a cry for help. It’s a cry that follows many, many cries for help. It’s a final cry.

Psalm 13 is one of our “How long?” psalms. It begins with four salvos of “How long” questions.

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

As a kid, I waited for my Mom a lot. She was always busy, running from here to there. And there were so many times I was left alone and waiting that we came up with a deal. For every five minutes she was late, she’d owe me a pack of Star Wars collector’s cards. The original Star Wars movie had come out recently and I ended up with the biggest collection of all my friends. Hundreds of cards, thanks to my forgetful mother.

But she didn’t forget me forever. She always showed up. Eventually. There were times, though, when I would get so mad at her for it, feeling so abandoned the Star Wars cards didn’t make up for the hurt I felt. It’s the same way my kids have felt when I’ve forgotten them, too.

To be forgotten is to feel worthless. I’m not even worth a thought. I’m so insignificant, I don’t even register.

Paired with this feeling of being forgotten by God is feeling as if he’s hidden his face. This doesn’t refer to our inability to see God. Rather, it’s a feeling as if God has turned his back on me, that he’s intentionally looking the other way in order to avoid me.

Where being forgotten is to unintentionally turn me into a nothing, to have God hide his face from me is to intentionally turn me into a nothing. A less than nothing. An anti-something.

After the initial questions aimed at God, David the psalm writer, turns a question toward himself and another toward his antagonist. And there we have the three sources of suffering: God, ourselves, and others who are out to get us. I find David a keen observer of his own soul by including his own wresting with his thoughts and his sorrows as a source of suffering.

But once he’s asked his questions, David states his demands to God. He lays down two imperatives.

Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

If God’s face is turned away, he’d better turn it around and look at me. If he’s giving me the silent treatment, he’d better cut it out and start talking. I need a new spark or else I’m dead. Not only will God’s silence kill me, it’ll give my enemies something to cheer about. Injustice will be complete.

Then comes the Gospel word: But.

The word “but” is one of my favorite words. It speaks a new story into one that’s gone spinning out of control. It’s speaks the possibility of something other than my pain.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

The “but” is a present hope for a future outcome, based on a past experience.

In the middle of pain and a feeling of abandonment by God, David remembers what God has done for him in the past (“for his has been good to me”).

Memory of past goodness is essential to a hopeful imagination. It pulls the mind out of its present pain and its cramped imagination that has shrunken down to the size of its suffering. I’m reminded that the bad I’m currently experiencing isn’t the only thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve known God’s goodness in the past. And if I’ve known it before, I can know it again.

David turns his memory into trust and that trust into rejoicing. This isn’t a snap-of-the-fingers thing, but the psalm’s brevity contracts time to show us it’s possible.

God’s love has never failed and will never fail. And even though it feels like it’s failing now, I will trust in it anyway. And this trust leads to a rejoicing in a salvation that hasn’t yet happened.

This is Paul and Silas singing in their jail cell. This is the blind, mostly deaf, and seriously ill man I met in the hospital who longed to go to church, “So I can say thank you to God.”

This is down-payment praise. Salvation hasn’t yet taken place. Pain is still keen. But even so, I start to rejoice with faltering lips and a weak heart, knowing the day is coming when I will be able to let loose with power and passion.

In six short verses, David has mined the depths of his pain, not minimalizing or marginalizing it with a brave face and an “I can handle this” through gritted teeth. No. He faces God, himself, and his antagonists head-on but refuses to get stuck in his suffering. Instead, with intense resolve, he stirs up his memory, which fortifies his weary heart.

This is a psalm to keep in a back pocket for easy and frequent access, because pain is never far away.

Questions for consideration

Where are you waiting for God?

What hurts most: God’s silence? Active hurt caused by others? Constantly reviewing the pain in your mind?


Lord, come quickly! Delay no longer. Break your silence and turn your face toward me. Ease my pain. Straighten out the path in front of me. End the opposition I face. And turn my mind away from withering replayings of past hurts and toward memories of your good and loving presence. I want to replace my sorrows with songs of joy. I want to live resurrection. Amen.

Posted on

Pain gives definition to life

I celebrate the anniversaries of friends whose marriage survived the dark and harrowing days after his infidelities were discovered.

I celebrate the birthdays of the son of friends whose asthma has almost taken down to the grave many times over the past two decades.

I celebrate the graduation from college of a kid I worried would never make it through high school.

In each of these cases, real pain has threatened the marriage, the life, the education that I thought would sink it. The struggle offsets the success like the night sky offsets the moon’s brightness.

Now, pain is not essential. It is possible to celebrate a marriage that hasn’t been threatened by divorce, a life that hasn’t been threatened by death, an education that took work but never veered from high marks. Struggle is common, but it isn’t required.

But even if it’s not required, pain and struggle create a depth that those who skate on the surface or bail out when the going gets rough just don’t experience to their own impoverishment.

A trip to Disneyland is nice and all, being all about thrills without risks. But the trip to Disneyland won on a radio contest by a friend’s father just months before dying of cancer is an experience with a whole new depth of meaning to it.

At the end of his novel Miss Wyoming, Douglas Coupland wrote:

He looked at Susan’s reflection in the black window glass. John remembered once yelling at a cameraman on a film, whom he was convinced was color-blind. During a break John went off to props and brought back with him a piece of shiny black plastic. He gave it to the cameraman, and the cameraman asked him, “What’s this for?” and John said, “It’s something Impressionist painters used to do. Whenever they were unsure of the true color of something, they’d look at its reflection in a piece of black glass. They thought that the only way they could ever see the true nature of something was to reflect it onto something dark.”

We see the true nature of our friendships, our marriages, our faiths, our families, our vocations, our nations, our churches, our souls by how they stand out against the darkness. Do they get lost in the muddiness? Do their true colors reflect back?

But before I even get to those questions, I have to answer these questions: Am I willing to stick it out through the pain to get to the point where I can see my true colors for what they are against the darkness? Or will I call it quits and wonder why life seems to lack the depth I think I want?

Posted on

Living in a world with teeth 

God is not afraid of danger, pain, or death. And he’s not afraid of seeing his loved ones on paths that will lead us through all three. In fact, he guarantees that every one of us will experience danger, pain, and death.

This is the kind of world God created. It’s the kind of world that shapes our souls. It is the crucible that refines us.

The creation story itself includes elements that its original readers would have recognized as dangerous or chaotic.

Before God starts speaking his creation into being, two things that ancient world would have agreed upon as chaotic and dangerous already exist — the dark and the deep (Gen. 1:2; Gen. 1:1 is a summary of all that follows). Darkness has always been the region of the unknown, the criminal, the nocturnal predator, the unseen stumbling block, the monsters of our imaginations. The watery deeps of the seas and oceans are untamable and were especially dangerous before modern ship building, sucking sailors to their deaths and avoided by the rest.

Rather than banishing these chaotic elements, when God does his creating, he does two things to both of them. He names them and he limits them.

There is no creating of the darkness, but it is called “Night” and is bounded by light (Gen. 1:3-5). Likewise, there is no creating of the deep, but it is called “Sea” and is collected and bounded by sky and land (Gen. 1:6-10).

I find this theologically and practically significant. God doesn’t create these chaotic elements in the world. But neither does he banish them. Instead, he incorporates them into his creation and uses them throughout his story of salvation.

The Flood story is a case of the dark and the deep breaking through their boundaries with God’s permission only to be bound up again at the end of the story. Similarly, in the Exodus, when the children of Israel escape the clutches of Egypt, there is darkness as they go through the sea … on dry ground and led by a pillar of light. Evil is behind them and chaos all around them, but God and his boundaries are victorious. And the chaos rebounds on evil, swallowing it up.

At the end of the Scriptures, when the new creation dawns, these two pre-creation elements of chaos are eliminated, their purposes complete. This is why there is no longer any sea (Rev. 21:1) nor night (Rev. 21:25), at least metaphorically.

One other note from the creation story is the inclusion of the sea monsters (Gen. 1:21). The taninim were anti-creation monsters in the myths of surrounding cultures. But in Genesis and in Psalm 104:26, they are created for God’s pleasure and purposes. They are dangers that bring dread on humans, but they are intentionally included by God in his very good creation.

(I will leave the sticky issues of the satan and the unclean spirits aside for now, though I do want to acknowledge them as part of this conversation.)

We can see that God is comfortable with the chaotic and the dangerous. In fact, he has intentionally and purposefully woven them into the fabric of his creation. They serve his purposes and move them toward his goals. They may seem to stand against God from our perspective, but they don’t.

When Jonah gets tossed into the dark and raging sea and is swallowed by a sea monster, all three of these chaotic elements serve the God of creation in his salvation of Ninevah.

When Jesus falls asleep in a boat and a storm arises, he calms the wind and the waves with a simple rebuke, revealing his true identity.

When the apostle Paul is being transported in chains over the Mediterranean, God warns him of the impending storm and saves him from it, showing his power and the truth of Jesus to all the survivors of the wreck.

Creation has teeth. God has armed his world with dangerous weapons. And pain and destruction and death are never far away. But it’s always mixed with the good.

We see this practically in a kinds of things that can be turned to creative or destructive ends.

Alcohol, which can clean wounds and make the heart merry, can also destroy homes and careers and lives. I know its teeth. I have a sister who was killed by a drunk driver.

Sex, which can bind husband and wife together and bring children into the world, can also rip apart marriages by being turned inward in selfishness or by being turned outward in adultery or by being turned off. I know its teeth. I am close to and impacted by all three.

A gun, which can put food on the table and offer sporting play in controlled settings, can also start wars and kill the innocent. I know its teeth. I know too many whose military services have been needed and we’ve seen the horror of guns being brought to schools.

Computers and phones, which can connect people across long distances and provide digital tools to enhance our lives, can also suck away our lives in video games, sex sites, cat videos, Facebook posts, and endless email. I know its teeth. I have wasted too much of my life in empty digital pursuits.

Cars, food, TV, music, money, drugs, and on and on. Each of the things that adds to us also takes away from us at some point. Always.

This world is a dangerous place. We play with snakes. Every day is a danger. Pain is never far away. Death hangs over us at every step. And God is fine with it.

Thankfully, God doesn’t set us on this path alone. Not only has he given us one another to walk it, but he has walked it with us. And Jesus bears the scars of nail wounds to prove it. He knows the danger, the pain, the death from the inside like we do.

But that isn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

God also has his purposes in mind at all times.

Pain has the ability to wake us up to things we need to avoid and to things we need to embrace.

Pain has the ability to refine us, burning away what is excess and harmful.

Pain can hone us, exercising our bodies and minds.

Pain reminds us that we don’t know everything and inspires us to learn more.

Pain can stop us from doing serious damage to ourselves.

Pain can force us to reconsider our circumstances and move toward needed change.

Pain points out the significance of a situation.

Pain can remind us of all that is right and good in our lives by highlighting what isn’t.

Pain can bring clarity to what is important and what isn’t.

Pain reminds us that we aren’t immune or immortal, that we don’t have what it takes to do this like on our own, that we need God.

And our dislike of pain points to a future beyond pain that we were created for and hope for.

Posted on

The Jesus who confronts our pain & shame

I am a strategically self-protective person. I hide my faults and weaknesses. I weigh my words. I hedge my bets.

Because of this, there’s a side to Jesus that I find particularly disturbing. It’s a side to him that doesn’t just show up once or twice in the gospels. It is an essential part of who he is, showing up regularly.

Jesus is not afraid of my pain. And he’s not afraid of disturbing it or of confronting my shame.

Most of us are as afraid of each other’s pain as we are of our own, maybe even more so. We turn our eyes away from arguing couples and weeping adults, the handicapped and the homeless. We tiptoe around a co-worker’s divorce, a neighbor’s drunkenness, a church member’s bankruptcy, an old friend’s suicide, a cousin’s cancer. We don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. And our happiness feels inappropriate in the midst of their heaviness.

To enter into their pain would mean asking tough questions and listening to tough answers, weighty answers, long-winded answers. It’s awkward. It’s time-consuming. It’s a downer. Making a joke and talking about the weather or sports or politics or anything else feels like side-stepping a catastrophe.

But that’s not the Jesus way. Jesus homes in on the pain and deals with the shame.

In one of my favorite stories, he meets a woman at a well at the wrong time of day. All the other women got their water at the same time in the morning when it was cool and when they could share the gossip of the previous day. But this woman has come at noon, when the sun is highest and hottest, to avoid the crowd, to get her water in silence and peace, knowing the gossip will probably be about her. She’s avoiding the pain, avoiding her shame.

Jesus starts softly, meekly. He has all of the cultural advantages on his side, but he puts himself in the place of need, the vulnerable place where he can be denied. He asks for a drink of water.

It’s a simple request. A very human request. But it’s a masterful one. In just a few words, he has started a conversation that crosses all kinds of social boundaries and he has elevated the woman while humbling himself. And so they talk.

Soon, the woman is asking him for water. Roles has reversed. And Jesus looks like he’s about to give away something almost magical: an internal, eternal spring of living water. But instead, Jesus makes another request.

“Go get your husband and come back.”

After the humility and generosity, Jesus now engages in brutality. His request has touched on the most painful, most shameful part of this woman’s life. It is the open wound. It is the scarlet letter. It is the reason she endures the discomfort of the noonday sun and avoids the scornful glares of the morning crowd.

“I don’t have a husband.”

“No. You don’t. You’ve had five. And the man you’re with now isn’t your husband. You spoke truly.”

Ouch. Jesus has exposed the one thing the woman has committed to keep hidden, even if everyone around her knows the truth of the matter. She hasn’t been able to keep concealed her pain, but she’s kept others from disturbing it. But here comes Jesus, poking and disturbing.

What’s amazing about this story from John 4 is that Jesus has the chutzpah to prod where the woman is most self-protective. But not only that, I find it amazing that he offers no other words about the woman’s marital mess. He offers no consolation about how these previous husbands have used her (which is probably the case, since men did the majority of divorcing back then because it was economic suicide for a woman to divorce her husband). He offers no judgment, no blame. He offers no suggestions. (“You really ought to marry the guy you’re with or dump him. Living together is a sin, you know.”) He simply never brings it up again.

After a brief theological discussion, she runs off in such haste that she leaves her water jar behind — the importance of her encounter with Jesus eclipsing the basic human need for water. She has to get back to town to tell people about him. And what does she say when she gets there? We’re told twice: “He told me everything I’ve ever done.”

He knew her. He knew her pain. He knew her shame. And yet he approached her. And yet he asked her from a drink. And yet he offered her living water. He knew and he cared — he cared for her.

He didn’t ignore the problems. And he didn’t ignore that they were truly problematic. But he didn’t let the problems define the relationship he was establishing with her.

We are never told that Jesus was kind or compassionate or gentle or nice in any way. If anything, he seems witty and playful on one hand and intense on the other. The word “love” is never mentioned in the passage, but what we see on display in Jesus is the definition of love. He’s humble, yet confrontational. He’s generous, yet truthful. In him, there is no tension between any of these. It’s obvious that everything he says is for her benefit, all emerging from his love for her.

We see the same at play when Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” When he asks a handicapped man, “Do you want to get well?” When he tells a woman caught in the act of adultery, “Go and sin no more.” When he tells his disciples, “All of you will abandon me.” When he tells the short-statured tax collector Zacchaeus, “Come down from the tree. I’m eating at your house today.” When he calls the religious leaders “white washed tombs filled with dead men’s bones.”

In each and every case, Jesus puts his finger on the painful place. No ignoring. No avoiding. He lances the infected place, opening up the wound that it might get on with the healing.

And so, I ask myself: Am I willing to engage with the tough love of Jesus? Am I willing to have my shame exposed? Am I willing to feel the pain of love? What makes me afraid? What makes me resist?

Ad so, I pray: “Lord, love me in this way. Let’s have this conversation. I want this living water that you are offering. I know that there are things we need to deal with as I take it in, but I have a hunch that the pain of dealing with them will be less than the pain of living with them. So, let’s talk.”

[Here are Brené Brown’s amazing TED talks on vulnerability and  shame.]

[This post was inspired by observations on John 4 by my son and subsequent conversations over dinner at The Table.]

Posted on

Finding the purpose in our suffering

Pain is one of the most personal things any of us ever experiences. Whether physical or emotional, pain has the ability to focus our attention unlike almost any other human experience.

This past week, I spent time in the dentist’s chair having a root canal done and my wife will be having one done herself in a few days. While the days leading up to mine were uncomfortable enough that I was looking forward to having it done, the days leading up to Charlene’s are being excruciating, making it difficult for her to get work done and making us willing to spend extra money just to get it taken care of sooner. Even though we are having similar procedures for similar dental problems, our personal experiences are vastly different.

Our sufferings may be similar, but they’re not the same.

Because of the differences in experience, I can’t say I “know” what she’s going through. I can’t brush off her pain and say, “Oh, it’s not big deal. I just had a root canal, too, and the discomfort is minimal at best. You can handle this. Just suck it up.”

Because of the similarities, though, I have a good sense of what she’s going through — not the extent of it, but the shape of it. In fact, as she goes through her pain, I can almost feel it in my own body, since I retain the memory of my own discomfort. And that, I believe, is what gives purpose to the pains we each suffer.

The fruit of suffering is compassion, an ability to understand the pain others are going through by remembering the pains we have gone through ourselves.

This isn’t an “I know exactly what you are going through” attitude that reduces the experience of others to what I experienced myself and is really more about me than about them. Rather, it is a redemption of what I’ve experienced by enabling me to know how others might be suffering and caring for them in the midst of it.

If suffering doesn’t make us tender, we’ve wasted it.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by a certain kitchen tool. It was a wooden mallet with a bumpy metal end. My Mom didn’t appreciate it, but I’d get it out and play with it on a regular basis, brandishing it like Thor’s war hammer, Mjöllnir.

Then, one day, I saw my mother use it as it was intended, pounding a piece of beef in preparation for cooking it. The mallet, she said, is a tenderizer, a tool for softening tough meat and bringing out its juices.

A tenderizer. That’s what suffering is. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be for. It’s purpose is to make our tough parts softer, to bring out the flavors hidden within us.

Now, pain can do just the opposite. It can close us down and turn us inward. That’s generally the case when we’re in the midst of it. But it can also be the case afterward, as we toughen ourselves up in self-protection, trying to make sure that we never experience that pain again. Instead of becoming softer, we armor ourselves. Instead of becoming sweeter, we become bitter. Instead of turning outward, we turn inward.

This is where our choice comes to play. We get to decide whether we will become tender or tough, sweet or bitter, outward or inward. The same pain can have incredibly different results, depending on what we choose to do with it.

This is where prayer comes in for me and where suffering shapes the quality of my praying.

Generally, when I am in the midst of suffering, my prayers are all about me and getting me out of the pain. I just want it done, and I want God to rescue me from it as soon as possible. Yesterday would be best.

Those are the initial prayers and I believe they’re appropriate. A cry for help when drowning is always appropriate. But it needs to go beyond just me. To continue the drowning image, if I’ve been saved from drowning, I ought to express my gratitude. But once I am beyond my own trauma, I need to turn toward the water to see if I can aid anyone else who might be drowning as well.

Let’s go back to my root canal story.

I can pray my way through the pain, go to the dentist, be done, and never think about it again. Or I can go through it and then turn my prayers and attention toward my wife and others who are going through similar pains. Teaching me how to do the second option is the purpose of pain.

Every time I suffer something new, I become aware of that form of suffering in the world and am given the choice of become a person of compassion toward others suffering from it or of walling it away and trying to protect myself from feeling that awful pain every again.

If I stub my toe, I become aware of all of the stubbed toes out there in the world. If I get my heart broken, I become aware of all of the broken hearts. If I get fired from a job, if I have my home burglarized, if I get a cold, if I am betrayed by a friend, if I am audited by the IRS, if I have a root canal — if I experience any kind of human pain, I am put in the place of choosing whether to let it make me bigger or smaller as a person, whether to let it make me cave in on myself or turn outward toward the needs of others, seeing them clearly for the first time.

Suffering should soften our hearts and open our eyes.

Suffering should spur us on to prayer and service for others who suffer similarly.

Suffering should show us the heart of God, who loved us so much he entered into the pain of this world, willingly suffered along with us and for us, and is moving all things toward a day when suffering will cease.

Posted on

Get over it!

If you’re an adult, you’ve had experiences where people have said and done hurtful things to you. I have. We all have.

They were painful. They were inappropriate. But they’re over. Done. Gone. In the past.

So, get over it.

Really. Move on.

Stop repeating to yourself how sad it is this was said to you and that was done to you. Really. You don’t have to do that anymore.

You don’t need a therapist. You don’t need a priest. You don’t need a life coach. You don’t need your mom. You just need to move on.

Talking about it may help a little. But not a lot. In fact, talking about it might just reinforce your victim feelings.

What you experienced was bad. It was probably worse than I have experienced, though I’ve had my share of hurts. So, how do I get off in telling you to get over it?

Because you can. Because you should.

You may have had worse than I have. But there a plenty who’ve had worse than you. And they’ve moved on.

Read Ishmael Beah’s book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. He was a child soldier and experienced horrific things. But his book is written out of joy and gratitude. That’s the most shocking part about it. In my mind, he should never smile again. But that’s not the case. He is full of smiles. He has moved on. And if he can, so can you.

I’m not trying to be dismissive here. You’ve probably had to deal with some incredibly rough stuff. None of us gets far into adult life without taking a beating along the way. Life is brutal that way. We all walk with a limp.

I had a period in my life where I rehashed the deeply inappropriate and hurtful words said by a person in authority over me. For a couple of years, there wasn’t a week where I didn’t waste mental and emotional space to bitterly replaying words that took less than 10 minutes to be said to me. Hours upon hours of pause-rewind-replay. Soul space wasted.

But after years of nursing the wound, getting over it was a matter of moments. It took place in a worship service, where we were coming to the Lord’s Table. There was a reminder that just as we have been forgiven in Jesus, so we are to be those who forgive. Just as the death of Jesus wipes out the record of our sins, so it wipes out the record of others’ sins against us. And with that, I was done.

Gratitude saved me.

The real problem that we deal with is self-pity, isn’t it?

Gratitude is always the right response to self-pity. If we can move from this “I’ve been treated so badly” selfishness to a “I’ve been loved so well” thankfulness, we have what it takes to get over anything said or done to us.

But too many of us love our self-pity too much to move on.

Again, you’ve been treated badly. I don’t doubt it. We all have, though not in the same way. But we all have been loved, too. Deeply loved. The cross of Jesus is proof of the depth of God’s love for us if you’ve never experienced it elsewhere.

Live in the love that is available right here, right now, not in the pains of the past.

And forgive. You haven’t gotten over it until you’ve forgiven it. This is a tall order. But when you know yourself to be fully forgiven, then you can get on with forgiving those who have treated you badly. It does require being honest about your own inappropriate words and actions, but the result is so worth it.

So, instead of pause-rewind-replay, be grateful-forgive-move on. There’s a lot of great living to be done without carrying that baggage around anymore.

Posted on

Laughter as liberation

One of the joys of the internet and social media is the many humorous posts and memes and photos and videos that are continually shared online. Laughter is liberating.

Laughter liberates the weighed-down soul. It brings levity or lightness to heavy times. When I was a kid, my Mom subscribed to Reader’s Digest (probably as a fundraiser for us kids) and I would read each issue religiously. But only the funny parts. I never missed the section called “Laughter, the Best Medicine.” And I agreed with the section title. I felt healed in some way by the ability to read a few lines and laugh out loud. I don’t know the stats, but I’ve heard many times that though they are a small population in the United States, the majority of comedians in our country are Jewish. As a people who have suffered so much for so many centuries, they’ve had to laugh or die.

Laughter liberates as a form of protest speech. Jews aren’t the only people who have suffered. Every suffering people learns to make fun of their oppressors. Isn’t that interesting that fun can be made? And when fun is made at the expense of those who have pressed you down, it is all the more fun.

Often that’s all that can be done in the face of power. When the powerful push and push and abuse those who resist, humor is often the only form of resistance left because of its subtlety.

In an overly regulated culture with signs everywhere, vandalism can be a wonderfully humorous form of protest speech as these altered signs prove. And easily the most renowned vandal is the street artist known only as Banksy. His work is so clever and well-done that most people would be sad if it were removed or covered over. Isn’t that interesting? A criminal act that is done so well and with such creative punch can become recognized as a valuable artistic contribution. What’s brilliant about Banksy is that by embracing anonymity, he is able to accept artistic recognition without letting it dilute the protest in his sometimes joyful, sometimes painful humor.

I wish all humor were liberating. But there are forms of satire which are so angry and hateful that they aren’t all that funny. Those are a topic for another time and another post.

My point here is: Laugh and be liberated. Laugh at yourself and be liberated from taking yourself too seriously. Laugh at your circumstances, because there is hope that absurdity will someday end. Laugh at the powerful and the beautiful ones, because their power and their beauty are already fading.

Laugh because there is something solid beneath this human farce that enables us to laugh and not despair. Laugh because there is a God who gives meaning to the crazy ride of history.

Laugh because when all is said and done, the absurdity will be transformed into beauty.

Posted on

Doing things that I hate when other people do them & the gift of laughter

I used to wear a watch. Now, I have an iPhone. (But that trade is a story for another time.) Back in the days when I wore a watch, way back when I was in fifth grade, I discovered a use for my watch that no one had ever told me about. My watch was a mild weapon.

I sat near the large, floor-to-ceiling windows of my fifth grade classroom. That was a mistake right off. I had an incredible view from our second-floor classroom of the kids from other classes running around during their recess while I sat sweltering in class. And I sweltered. The afternoon sun baked me, making me even more drowsy than Mr. Zweers’ lectures already made me. But something happened one day day that woke me up from my afternoon siesta. It was a blinding flash of light from the crystal face of my watch.

Once I discovered that mirrored circle of light, I began to play with it, learning how to control it. Soon, I was sending that piercing beam of reflected light across the room and into the unsuspecting eyes of my classmates, temporarily blinding them and sending me into a fit of giggles.

I got so good at it that I could laser someone across the room and seem like I was innocently doing my homework. Eventually, the classmates near me caught on, discovering that they could do the same thing. But what was so great was only the handful of us sitting next to the window had access to sunlight, so no one could get me back.

Until we got new seats.

Then I became the victim of the watchbeams of my former victims. And all of a sudden, it wasn’t nearly as fun or funny. It was painful and annoying. I’d be doing my work like the lovely little lad I was and then I’d get blasted by not just one but two or three fiery beams of light, as my friends teamed up to pay me back for all the torture I’d inflicted on them.

For some reason, causing discomfort for others is funny to most of us. I loved watching the Little Rascals on TV when I was a kid. (No, I didn’t see them when they first came out. I’m not THAT old.) I loved how they did things that should get them in trouble. I was a kid after all, and their rule-breaking was adventuresome and humorous to me as a fellow kid. But then I became an adult. And all of a sudden, those same hi jinx done by my own kids weren’t nearly so enjoyable, especially when I was at the receiving end.

I guess I’ve come to two opposite conclusions.

The first is simply a repeat of the Golden Rule: Do to others what you’d have them do to you. If I’m not willing to have what I’m doing to others done to me, I probably should do it to them myself.

The second is: Don’t lose your sense of humor. Some things are uncomfortable, but they really are quite funny. Sometimes, that means laughing at others in the endless supply of YouTube videos because it makes the tragic things in our own lives seem not so bad for a little while. And sometimes, that means being willing to be the butt of the joke that enables some to giggle and others to give themselves over to a tears-down-the-face belly laugh that is life’s best medicine.

Last summer, we were at Lake Tahoe, soaking up the sun on one of its beaches. Then one of my kids pointed out a young man on a stand-up paddle board. He was doing his absolutely best to look cool. But no sooner had he stood up on the board then down he went again with an awkward splash. He’d already been at this for a while before it was brought to my attention, but I watched him as he tenaciously tried to master that board over and over and over again for the next half-hour. And every time, it mastered him and he toppled off the too-small board and into Tahoe’s blue wetness. And every time, my kids and I will laugh some more. Finally, he exchanged the board for one that matched his size and the fun was over. But that 30 minutes of slapstick lightened my heart so much that I have promised my kids I will intentionally play the fool on a paddleboard this coming summer so that others may laugh at me.

The Deschutes River here in Bend may be much colder than Lake Tahoe, but that’s OK. I want humor in my life. And I’m willing to suffer the chill of the Deschutes like a piercing flash of watch-light in order to give the gift of humor to others as well.