Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Humor, Yes; Jokes, Seldom

“I deeply believe in humor; not in jokes.  Humor is spectacular!”

--Tom Peters

One of the signs of a neophyte preacher is the misuse of humor.  For people to stay interested in what you are saying and to identify with you a person, a sense of humor is essential to effective preaching.  That is not the same as telling jokes. 

image Every once in a while through the years, I have just “told a joke” in the midst of a sermon.  Sometimes I have prefaced it as “This really has nothing to do with the sermon, but…” or “The best joke I heard this past week was…”  

The goal of joke telling is often stated as two fold: to get the congregation in a mood to “hear” the sermon, and to provide a break from the sometimes hard work of thinking or working through a difficult passage.

I have pretty well abandoned that type of joke telling.  And the reason is that it almost always that it does the opposite.  If the joke is too good, people think about it and want to remember it to tell their friends on Monday morning. And if it is too bad…well, you know about that.

But a bigger reason is that I can’t waste a moment.  It is ALWAYS hard for me to stay within an allotted time period.  I always under estimate how long a sermon is going to be.  Therefore, I have to be tight with what I allow in the sermons. 

Therefore, the jokes pretty much have gone. 

Humor is a different thing.  A sermon MUST have humor.  I asked one of my associates one time to preach a sermon on the humor of Jesus.  People said it was the best sermon he ever did. Jesus is not thigh-slapping funny, but his words are filled with all sorts of things that surely made his hearers chuckle quietly, or give one another a knowing look.  “He gets it.  He understands.”

In think through this, I remembered a Q&A I had heard Fred Craddock do a number of years ago. It was on a PreachingToday tape.  Here is what Craddock said:

I do not tell jokes in sermons—the chances of that being a mistake are awfully high. You can wade about half way in and then by the faces realize that everybody’s heard it & you don’t know whether to wade back or jump on the cross & apologize.

I had such a Messianic intensity when I first started preaching–that I couldn’t use any humor, because humor is actually a display of freedom. God was fred_craddock doing quite well before me and will probably keep the store open after I’m dead. Therefore, I developed a sense of my own unimportance as well as importance. And that sets you free.

In the world of communication, humor is the clearest indication of the grace of God. I don’t mean silly or painful things. But if you think about it, there is no humor that doesn’t deal with something serious. Humor has to have something significant. You actually have humor about funerals, about Eucharistic services….Where does humor take place? School, church, and places where something very serious is going on. There can be no humor about anything not serious.

It is a way of celebrating the freedom and the grace of God in the midst of what we’re doing. But it took me a long while to feel that. Part of it was I felt it was out of place. And then my own uptightness.

An old retired minister who saw I was too serious about everything, and he said to me, “When you get up to go to the church in the mornings, pause at the door of the house and have a prayer that God will be with you and bless your work. Then, put on your hat and go out and as you leave the house say to yourself, ‘Here goes nothing!’”

That will kind of set you up; free you: I’ve tried that and it seems to help.

I don’t know what it takes to have a sense of humor except freedom and the sense of pleasure and a sense of awe and amazement that we are doing this: that God has called us to do this of all things. Humor is good for that.

Amen.  Good words, FC.

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