Frankly, I'm a bit amazed to be here speaking to you. I’m keenly aware of the great theologians and prolific writers attending and participating this weekend. And yet- here I am- invited because of my only credential that makes me stand out from the crowd:
I'm a professional comedian.
Yeah, let that sink in for a minute.
Are we really so desperate for laughter and humor and joy that we would want a comedian to offer a keynote speech at a large religious gathering? Apparently the answer is yes. Yes. We thirst for laughter. Yes. We hunger for joy. Yes. We seek community. - unless of course you're an introvert in which case I promise I will leave you alone now (But don't come to my workshop this afternoon it will make you uncomfortable.)
I have two simple goals for this breakfast talk: that we will laugh together and that you will find some value in the humor for your larger life. I also want to warn you that I'm planning on taking the advice of the great comedian Mel Brooks who said, " if you are going to bother walking up to the bell, ring the bell, don't tap the bell" All letters should be addressed to the Metropolitan Boston Association or the moderator of the Millis Massachusetts Congregational Church- So let's jump in to the story and ring the bell loudly...
About five years ago I purchased my very first brand-new car. I bought myself a Saturn which, as you might know, is now my generation version of the Edsel. But this Saturn came with satellite radio and I was delighted to find a comedy channel of clean comedians. One day, I was driving down the road on my way to a hospital visit when I started laughing at a comedian on the radio and I looked down at my fancy digital display and the display read Rabbi Bob Alper. And I thought yes! That's exactly what I want to do. I want to be a clergy-person and a standup comedian. And this remained a great idea for about 4 miles until suddenly I remembered I'm a Christian.
And Christians tend not to do comedy all that well.
In fact, we have a name for our Christian comedians. Historically we call them heretics. Unless of course you're really good, in which case, we call you a martyr.
But the timing of this idea was perfect as it was just a few weeks before my 40th birthday. Deciding it was time to start taking things off my bucket list I enrolled in a standup comedy boot camp and discovered I have a decent talent for the art.
Of course anyone from my family of origin could have told you that I have an odd gift for comedy. My father sat me down when I was about 10 years old and told me that if I was not careful I would manage to offend everyone I would ever meet in my life with my sense of humor. Fortunately, through the years his prophecy has not proven to be accurate- as the actual percentage of annoyed people hovers closer to 86 percent.
I don't set out to intentionally offend people.
Okay I rarely set out to intentionally offend people.
Most of the time I just lose control of my verbal filter and don't even realize that someone could be offended. The flipside of this is that it's hard to offend me. In fact, sometimes people have to point out to me when I should be offended.
Here's an example. Many years and a few churches ago after worship one Sunday a church member came up to me and said," Jen, I really love listening to you preach. You always wear your faith like it's a party dress."
Now, I thought that was pretty cool comment. Until I started chatting with one of my colleagues and mentioned to her what the man had said. Before my eyes she became indignant on my behalf.
"How dare he?", She said.
I was confused. "How dare he what?"
"How dare he say that. He made you sound like you're a little girl."
So of course I thought, "he did?" And then I proceeded to don my own feminist outrage at the clearly horrible and disrespectful treatment.
The following Sunday rolled around and I had gotten my indignation under control enough to simply ask the person what he meant by his comment.
"Well," he said, "some people wear their faith like a suit of armor. It fits awkwardly but it protects them from everything. They don't get to interact with the world comfortably. Their faith keeps everyone at a distance. And some people wear their faith like old pajamas. They’re so comfortable and worn out that the person forgets that they're even there.
But you, you wear your faith like a party dress. It looks from the outside like you're doing something special -you're going somewhere exciting and the best part is you seem to invite us all to come along with you."
Now perhaps I'm still naïve, but I couldn't find the need to be upset about anything he said. In fact, that statement of "wearing my faith like a party dress” has become a touchstone of my ministry.
Because why shouldn't we have a party? Why shouldn't we celebrate? We proclaim the joyful feast as if it was last rites or a terminal diagnosis – “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Jones, but, this is the Body of Christ, Given for you.”
I think that this gift of faith and forgiveness and grace this is pretty awesome. This is worth celebrating. And I choose to celebrate with laughter. Now, believe it or not, I have been in other settings where people are offended and upset that I think the Christian faith is fun and that it invites joy.
And, yes, I’ve gotten a bit of flack from folks who feel that my calling as an ordained minister can’t coexist with my calling as a comedian. And, Yes. I do see my comedy work as a calling within my call to ministry. A calling within the call. It is not just about laughing. I don’t want you to leave here thinking you can tell a few knock-knock jokes and magically enhance the ministry to which you were called. That isn’t my humor ministry and it shouldn’t be anyone’s.
Humor- this comedy work, this laughter is not about simple joke telling- It is about accessing joy. it is about making an authentic connection. It is about being fully present in the situation and looking at it with a unique perspective.
And church is a fertile ground for unique perspectives. Because churches are very funny and anyone who doesn’t think churches are funny have clearly never spent a lot of time with church people. And church communities, for all their differences, are really very similar. I wish someone would do Joseph Campbell type study of the various archetypes prevalent in every congregation. There's the over-functioning church lady who takes on tasks that other people were willing to take on – so she can complain about how much work she has to do. The grumpy man who says he doesn't want to be there and yet spends an extraordinary amount of time at the church puttering around. There is the fierce protector of the church history - and Lord help you if you want to change even the type size in the bulletin without their feedback and permission. And then of course there's my favorite church archetype, the guardian of the church kitchen. I think that universally the kitchen guardian is a lot like the wizard Gandalf the gray from the Lord of the rings. She just stands at the doorway to the church kitchen and plants her broom like a magical staff yelling, "You Shall Not Pass!"
And those are just the people who hang out at the church. Some of the best stories come from people who are visiting the church for various reasons.
Several years ago now I was officiating a church wedding. It was an evening service and the reception was going to follow at a local nightclub. As sometimes happens the bride was running late. I mean late; as in 45 minutes late. But luckily that seemed to be the culture of her peer group and most of the guests were running late as well. I was less than thrilled about the tardiness, considering the fact that I was paying a babysitter top dollar. So, in a move that I now confess as fairly passive aggressive I went out in my robe and stole to check and see if the limousine had arrived.
So, there I was, standing on the front steps of the church when a friend of the bride arrived. She was wearing what I can only describe as clothing from the 50 Shades of Gray eveningwear collection. A red and black dress made up of many straps of various width and 6 inch heels that were bright red and studded with black gemstones. I was watching her impressed by her ability to maneuver in the high heels, as she made her way carefully up the stairs. When she arrived at the landing where I stood the most amazing thing happened. She stumbled. Now, for most people going to a church event that wouldn't be a big deal, but because of the precariously placed collection of straps she was wearing as a dress- she had bigger issues. As she approached me, continuing to lose her balance on those deathtraps she had strapped to her feet, the jostling of her stumble made her upper body pop right out of the dress just as she put her hands out - grabbing onto me and pulling me close- for balance.
Seminary taught me how to handle many church situations - this wasn't one of them.
So, I stood there - not sure what to do... Again- I blame Andover Newton that I was not prepared for this....
I finally asked a divinely inspired question, "What’s up?"
I continue to stand there as still as possible while she regained her balance let go of me and adjusted her dress.
"Not much" she finally said as she made her way up the remaining stairs into the church sanctuary. From her calm countenance, one would think it was a common occurrence for her. So everyone else on the staircase...we just rolled with it... The wedding started an hour late and the babysitter got a nice paycheck.
Friends, you know that is just one example of a typical day in the life of a church.
And it's funny. And horrifically awkward- but funny. And maybe I've made you a tiny bit uncomfortable with that story? We'll that’s ok too- humor has a side benefit of sometimes being provocative...
As well as helping us deal with the awkwardness. It can help us deal with the pain. The best humor- the best comedy is about reframing the situation - not ignoring it.
A bit of caution here – like everything else - laughter and humor can be misused.
A word of caution for us all -but especially for my friends serving in positions of power within the church. Humor –can be incredibly wounding. Sometimes you can hit a spot you didn’t know was tender and the next thing you know- your toss away line – your innocent joke has gone thermonuclear. It happens. It is unintentional – but it happens and it is a risk you take when you use humor.
Another, less obvious danger is when humor is used inappropriately to minimize the suffering of others. My advice it to be gentle, to seek permission to be playful and to be sure that the humor is authentic and welcome.
I have a friend who is undergoing chemotherapy to treat her cancer. She goes in for her infusions every Wednesday. And every Wednesday morning I send her a text message containing the "Chemotherapy song of the day." We've enjoyed such hits as, Culture Club’s "chemo, Chemo, Chemo, chemo, Chameleon”, Kermit the Frog's little know hit, "The Chemo Connection" , and the ever popular Wham chart topper, "Wake Me Up Before You Glow Glow". But before this little bizarre ministry- we had a long talk. An honest talk. And while we joke together. – we’re also honoring her fears and her pain. We don't cover up the icky-ness of her chemo- we intentionally incorporate laughter into the icky-ness. Can you imagine the fall out if she wasn’t looking forward to those text messages? We have the kind of relationship where that is seen as the silliness it is AND a pastoral moment of checking in- she knows that I’m thinking about her and praying for her every time she goes in for a treatment.
Here's another example that might ring true to people.
Parenting is awfully hard isn't it? I'm finding it's not at all like they promised in the brochure.
When I was pregnant, my husband and I really struggled to find a name that we could agree on for the baby. Being religious people everyone expected that we would choose a biblical name for a child. We just couldn't agree. We spent days studying names in the New Testament, you know all the important ones, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But eventually we came to agree on a name we first saw in the Hebrew Scriptures. It was easy to spell and easy to pronounce. So after much deliberation we decided to name the baby, God. This worked out quite well because as an only child he is certainly worshiped. And now that he's a teenager, not a day goes by where I'm not reminded that God hates me.
There's a joke there- but there is also pain. I fully acknowledge that it kinda hurts knowing that I’m not even close to being the perfect mother. It hurts that my son and I aren’t as close as we were when he was younger. This is normal. This is real. And maybe you found yourself in the joke. Anybody have a Yep moment? Did it make my experience, my pain relatable to you?
Were you able to laugh at it with me? And yet, I don't feel that my experience, real and painful as it is was diminished by the fact that we all laughed. In fact, that's a good joke. I'd be sad if you didn't laugh.
Within the church community we can use laughter to honor the struggles that some of our churches are having. Before I started serving the church in Millis Massachusetts I was serving a church out West you know Far West near Springfield Massachusetts- the great frontier for those of you from the Boston Area. And this church was struggling. I mean really struggling. The church was in such a budget crisis that we could no longer afford the upkeep on the pipe organ and it was out of tune to the point of being unusable. We didn't have a piano and that left us with very few options for music. But as you all know, music is exceptionally important in our tradition. Luckily down in the Sunday school room there was an old Fisher-Price xylophone complete with the little yellow mallet. And it worked out great until one day the little yellow mallet disappeared. But even then I was undeterred because it was the pull toy kind of xylophone.
Did you have that one? So worked out just fine in the end because every Sunday morning I would take the xylophone and go to the back of the church, put it down in the aisle and then I’d run as fast as I could up and down the aisle so we would at least have some music. Of course all of the hymns had to be sung to the tune of old McDonald's Farm but we made it work - it was a lot like this, " amazing grace how sweet the sound e I e I o I once was lost but now I'm found. E I E I O..."
Oh, you people- you do know you snickered at a dying church, right?
Or maybe we should look at a more global issue- a social justice issue. Let's talk about the exploitation of our young girls. Because that's definitely not funny.
My niece recently had a birthday - she was turning 12 and asked me to go to the mall to this particular store which shall remain unnamed and to buy her, in her words "anything in that store aunt Jenny, anything!" So, I went to the mall and walked into the store. And I stopped short and I looked around and thought clearly I accidentally stumbled into Frederick's of Hollywood Junior. I went back out to double-check the sign, but no, this was actually the store that my niece loves. So I just shook my head and walked around looking at the clothing. Have you seen the clothes that are marketed to preteen girls? They were horrific. Sparkles and spangles and spandex, oh my. Then off in the corner I saw a row of sweatpants. Now my niece did say I could buy her anything so I went over to the sweatpants. Have you seen the sweatpants? They all have words across the butt; Angel, Sweetie, Juicy. And I thought to myself there is no way I'm buying my niece anything that will encourage a complete stranger to read her hiney.
Then I had an epiphany. See, I decided that I should really get a pair of the sweatpants for myself. Only my sweatpants are not going say juicy. Oh no, my sweatpants are going to tell the entire world why a middle-aged woman is wearing sweatpants in public. My sweatpants are simply going to read "retaining fluid." And I'm darn lucky I have the room to pull it off.
But back to the story. So anyhow having failed in my quest to find anything appropriate in the store for my 12-year-old niece I was on my way out when I was accosted by saleswoman who insisted that she could help me pick out the perfect outfit. I argued that no, I was looking for an appropriate outfit for 12-year-old and she assured me she had just the thing. She disappeared into the racks and came back a moment later holding up a Hot pink leopard print sparkly spandex miniskirt with matching vest that had- wait for it - tassels. And she held it up like it was the Holy Grail.
This is the point in the story where all of the filters I have between my brain in my mouth collectively went on strike. And I responded to her by clapping my hands and saying " That's perfect! Her Brownie troop is going for their junior hooker badge and that outfit is a winner." And then I turned to storm away in righteous indignation only to come face-to-face with my town’s most dedicated Brownie troop leader - who was picking up a very similar outfit for her own daughter.
Oh... Life... You just gotta laugh sometimes.... And you just gotta cry sometimes.
To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.
Laughter, friends, laughter is simply the ministry to which I have been called. And that doesn’t mean I’m not sad sometimes. And that doesn’t mean I’m not depressed sometimes. And that doesn’t mean I can’t empathize or won’t stop joking when someone else is in pain. It doesn’t mean that I don’t screw it up. I do. I am painfully human.
My father’s warning is as true today as it was all those years ago. My sense of humor can get me into trouble. When I was in discernment for ordination I met annually with what was then called the Committee on Ministry. And each year I wrote a paper for them about the process – my growing edges …favorite classes,. The usual… and for some reason I decided to write my first draft as a Dr. Suess poem. It was epic. This thing was five pages of actual report – real theological content- but with a rhyming bouncy cadence. I submitted it to my in-care advisor and ALSO sent along a “Standard one.” Both were sent to the committee. And they were not amused. What I thought showed great creativity and imagination to them was disrespectful and an indication of my not taking the process seriously enough for them. Yup, It’s all fun and games until someone loses their standing. The epic report was an epic fail. And I could almost hear the ghostly voice of my father whispering, “I told you so…”
But I learned my lesson- the way a child learns not to touch the stove- once burned. I’ve mostly just moved on to other stoves….
From the time of the significant trip down the road in my Saturn listening to Rabbi Alper to my life now- which includes performing with Bob Alper on his Laugh in Peace interfaith comedy tour – I’ve discovered something vital.
The world needs more laughter. We need more humor. We need more community and joy and smiles. The good work of peace and justice can be accomplished not only through protests and actions – it can be also be done with jokes and laughter.
At an interfaith comedy show- the Christians, Jews and Muslims laugh at the same jokes. The people who had no connection before are forming community through a shared joy-filled experience.
And when the show is over there are some interesting stories.
At a large university in the mid-west- the Laugh in Peace show was booked and promoted jointly by the Jewish student association and the Muslim student association. (I don’t know what the Christians were up to- probably drinking and eating cheeseburgers) after the show the presidents of the two student groups shared that the two groups have had offices next door to each other in the student center for YEARS and this was the first time they spoke- let alone worked together. Laughing together brought the communities closer. This is spirit of Christ’s great prayer paraphrased –One that I hold dear - That they may all laugh as one..