From every time and every land, there is wisdom about the saving power of humor.
We find it thousands of miles away in Greece. As Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum says, “I return each year [to the Greek island of Crete] in part because I expect laughter—from their timeless jokes and stories that are often raw and reckless and wicked. Jokes about old age and sex and war and stupidity—jokes that mask fear and failure and foolishness. Their laughter is not cautious. Without this laughter the Cretans would not have survived their travails and tragedies across the centuries. Cretan laughter is fierce, defiant laughter—an “Up yours!” to the forces of death and mystery and evil. They have a word for this laughter: Asbestos Gelos. It literally means “Fireproof laughter.” Unquenchable laughter. Invincible laughter. And the Cretans say that he who laughs, lasts. And they have been around a long, long time.”
That’s the Rev. Robert Fulghum. Asbestos gelos. The person and the community and the world that laughs, lasts.
From every time and every land, this wisdom comes.
It comes from the people who used to own the land we live on now, the indigenous tribes of America. Their mythology gives to the world Coyote. In numberless exploits, this trickster figure is portrayed as greedy and gluttonous, thieving and lecherous, clever and foolish at the same time. Yet Coyote is also the one who created the world, created people, stole the sun and moon and the seasons and gave them to humanity for their wellbeing.
All the vices and virtues that crowd the human heart crowd Coyote’s heart as well.
Here’s one story about this fascinating being. Once again, Coyote has been too smart for his own good and, as punishment, he’s been sealed up in a hollow log. That’s where we meet up with him. He’s trapped in a log and can’t move an inch.
Suddenly, the sharp rat-a-tat-tat of Woodpecker breaks the silence. Woodpecker is pecking on the log! Coyote’s response? A variant of the stereotypical homeowner who is cranky at the world and yells from his porch, “Get off of my lawn!” Coyote, from within his prison, yells at Woodpecker to go away. Doesn’t even occur to Coyote that Woodpecker might eventually peck a hole big enough that would enable his escape. Coyote doesn’t connect the dots. He’s just sheer reactivity.
But it doesn’t stop Woodpecker. Woodpecker keeps on pecking away because, in truth, he can’t hear Coyote—yet. He keeps on pecking away until he’s drilled a small hole that lets in a bit of the light. Only when Coyote sees the light does he put two and two together: escape is imminent. Now he’s on board. Now he wants Woodpecker to hurry up with his pecking.
He shouts, “Get me outta here!”
But now that there’s a hole in the log, Woodpecker can hear Coyote’s shouts, and it frightens him. Woodpecker flies away. That’s when Coyote begins to appreciate the humor of his situation and the foolishness of his reactivity. He just shuts up. Eventually Woodpecker returns and gets back to work pecking at the log. Coyote just shuts up and waits, waits until enough of the log is pecked away, and he is free, and then … he laughs!
Asbestos gelos. Fireproof laughter, fierce and defiant.
The person and the community and the world that laughs, lasts.
These days, who here feels a little bit (or a lot) like Coyote, and you’re stuck in some log or other and the best you can do is wait, wait in silence, for Woodpecker?
A story like this suggests, to me, some of the central themes of comic spirituality, which is what I’m talking about today. Comic spirituality is nothing less than a call to courage—to step back from a sense of ego entitlement that the world conforms to your wishes, and to work with the world as it is. Life is better for us when we stay creative and loose and go with the flow. Life is better, when we resist the temptations of the tragic point of view which can trap us in a self-fulfilling prophesy of suffering. Life is better, when we can see the humor in our precious, fragile lives.
A sense of humor saves.
Let’s jump right in.
Go back to Coyote. Yes, Coyote can be foolish, but let’s never forget that he is also the one who created the world. Coyote created people, Coyote stole the sun and the moon and the seasons and gave them to humanity for their wellbeing. Coyote did that. The ultimate message here can be startling to people whose sense of the Divine is limited to the traditional Christian God who is usually described as all-powerful, all-knowing, and certainly not given to laughter. Not at all. Quite the contrast to Coyote, who laughs, who plays, who is extremely powerful but does not have all power, who is extremely wise but is also foolish and is always learning things the hard way—like you and me.
One day, goes another story, Coyote was walking along. The sun was shining brightly, and Coyote felt very hot. “I would like a cloud,” he said, so a cloud came and made some shade for Coyote. But he was not satisfied. “I want more clouds,” he said, and more clouds came along, and the sky began to look very stormy. But Coyote was still hot. “How about some rain?” he said, and the clouds began to sprinkle rain. ‘“More rain,” Coyote demanded. The rain became a downpour. But now Coyote wanted a creek to put his feet in, so a creek sprang up beside him, and Coyote walked in it to cool off his feet. “It should be deeper,” said Coyote, and so the creek became a huge, swirling river, and now Coyote got more than he bargained for. He found himself swept up into the currents, rolled over and over, thrown up on the bank far away, nearly drowned. When he woke up, he saw buzzards circling him, trying to decide if he was dead, and he shooed them off. He looked around him, and what he saw was a totally new thing that had just been born: the Columbia River.
This is how that great river began.
But note, again, how it began in a way very different from what we’d expect with the God of the Hebrew Bible, who always seems to know what he is doing and has everything in control. Coyote acts, but he is vulnerable to the surprising and unexpected consequences of his actions, so he can find himself stuck in a jam, and he’s got to figure a way out, and he does, and this results in yet another close call, leading to yet another burst of creativity, and on and on, and such is the process of the evolution of the world. Such is fundamental reality. Not a process controlled by long-range planning—design established from the very beginning and then executed ideally without flaw—but experimentation, throwing yourself into it, seeing what happens next, facing loose ends and incongruities, experiencing breathtaking beauty and meaning but only to the degree you expose yourself to risk and therefore to pain. Shrugging shoulders at this fact of life and laughing—fiercely, defiantly–at the absurdity of it all….
I always think of Coyote when I sing “Bring Many Names,” #23 in our grey hymnal. There’s a verse that captures his essential spirit: “Young, growing God, eager still to know, / willing to be changed by what you started, / quick to be delighted, singing as you go: / hail and hosanna, young, growing God!” This is the only kind of God I could ever believe in, I think. A God that is changed by what that God starts. A God quick to be delighted. Not a God that is macho, not a God that is angry, not a God that inspires the conquest of continents and the dehumanization of entire communities of people. And most definitely not a God that is all-powerful, with unlimited ability to act and yet appears to remain passive and uncaring when evil in the world is truly excessive, far beyond what seems needful for people to grow strong and wise. Especially not this last part, since then, how could the heart of reality be playful? How could anyone truly feel at home in a world in which a God existed who had the power to prevent evil but held back from using it? A God who is right now allowing more than a million people worldwide to die of Covid-19—millions more to die probably—and could stop it, but does not stop it.
I could never believe in such a God.
And so, I am so very grateful to know about a particular current in contemporary theology called “process theism.” Process theism takes very seriously the idea that the Divine is a playful force like Coyote, or the “young, growing God” of our hymnal.
Essentially, process theism sees God as the creativity of the universe, and there are two sides to this. On the one side, you have the interdependent web of all existence. You have galaxies and solar systems and suns and planets. You have nature in all its complexity. Process theology tells us that it is all sacred: galaxies and stars, trees and animals, you and I. It even dares to say that the entirety of the interdependent web of existence is no less than God’s body. God has a body, and the world is it.
Just take a moment to absorb that. The world is God’s body.
That’s the first side of process theism, and now here is the other side. God is also a consciousness over and above the universe, just as you and I have a consciousness that is over and above our own bodies. You and I feel our bodies and think about them; we hope things for them and envision goals and futures; and it’s the same thing with God. God has a conscious side to complement God’s physical side. God is both the world and consciousness about the world.
Put the two together, and this is the kind of God that process theology envisions.
One of the immediate implications of this vision takes us right back to Coyote, and to comedy. Remember how Coyote was stuck in a log? Remember how Coyote was hot and kept on wanting more and more rain and in the end found himself swept up in the currents of the Columbia River and nearly drowned? Both stories dramatically illustrate how the world that Coyote has created is a force to be reckoned with. Coyote can start things–Coyote can hope for things–but the world has a creative independence and doesn’t necessarily conform to Coyote’s wishes. Despite all the good intentions that Coyote brings, things can still get tangled up. Over time, some tangles become so vicious that they seem to have a mind of their own, and this mind seems bent on evil.
Saying all this another way: what process theology teaches is that God’s power is not unlimited. The universe has its own freedom, just like your own body when it gets sick. You don’t want your body to get sick, but it gets sick anyhow, and you learn to deal with it. Same thing with God. God doesn’t want the world to be sick, and yet the world has creative independence. God simply can’t enter into the world supernaturally, like a bull in a china shop, and stop this and start that.
All God can do is influence the world from the inside—and I know this might sound vague, but an analogy will serve us well. As you may know, cancer doctors regularly prescribe visualization exercises to their patients. As a part of their healing process, patients are asked to visualize their immune system as strong and powerful and potent. Cancer patients imagine their cancer cells being gobbled up, gone. The process is not fool-proof because one’s body may just not respond to the visualization exercises. But sometimes it does work. And this is all analogous to the situation in process theism. According to process theism, God communicates images and feelings about justice and mercy to the entirety of creation. God calls for beauty and God calls for truth, and we can receive that call, we can be inspired by that call, and we can choose to act in such a way that we become part of the world’s immune system fighting against evil. Nothing supernatural is meant by any of this. God simply influences the world from the inside, just like we might influence our own immune systems through creative visualization. God showers continual blessing upon everyone, impartially, universally, and does it without us having to ask. But the world has creative independence too, and so the blessing might not be received. We might be so stuck in the log of our fears and angers and resentments that we can’t hear God’s still small voice. Or, the tangle of evil we’re facing is so complex that healing will take lifetimes.
This is simply the reality and risk of freedom.
And by now you may be noticing something about comic spirituality. It’s not just frivolous knock-knock jokes. It is no less than a way of being in the world richly, in the midst of incongruity of every kind—pain, suffering, death. Comic spirituality says, if the heart of reality is like Coyote or like the God of process theism, then there’s nothing malicious behind-the-scenes for us to resent and rebel against, and we are not tragic existential heros. Life is an open adventure. Accidents do happen. We can get firmly stuck in logs of all kinds. Tough tangles of evil are real. But don’t forget about the woodpeckers out there, who are on their way. The main thing to do is stay calm, carry on, let them do their work to free us, so we can continue the adventure.
Woodpecker is on the way.
Believe me: because the alternative is toxic. The alternative is to succumb to the temptations of the tragic point of view, and that gets us stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy of suffering. It’s like this. Have you ever gone kite flying, and (wind being the trickster that it is) your kite takes a nosedive, and in the process of reclaiming your kite, you tangle up the string? If you are like me, trying to untangle it can make you impatient, and then angry, and suddenly you feel like a tragic hero. You start telling yourself stories about how the world is unfair, the world is against me, the world is doing this to me … and before you know it, you have forgotten that your best bet is to finesse things. You pull on the tangles way too hard, jerking and tugging them, making a bad situation worse. What was originally just tangle is now a hard knot, an unredeemable mess.
This is what I mean when I talk about getting stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy of suffering.
This is what I mean.
Remember this—and help me to remember—over the course of the next four weeks and perhaps some weeks after, as America votes its conscience for our next President. The times are already ugly, and I fear the times will get even uglier. It’s the log we are all trapped in right now.
So remember my story of the kite. The world needs you and me to finesse the knots loose, not to make them even tighter and even harder to get undone…..
People, this too shall pass. This too shall pass.
It might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.
Comic spirituality is about sanity. It keeps us working together in a world that is impure. It keeps us hopeful even when the system we can’t extricate ourselves from–like our American politics–is compromised and flawed. It helps us dream of better possibilities, too, as with this dream that comes from Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang: “[P]icture … a world of joking rulers. Send, for instance, five or six of the world’s best humorists to an international conference, and give them the plenipotentiary powers of autocrats, and the world will be saved. As humor necessarily goes with good sense and the reasonable spirit, plus some exceptionally subtle powers of the mind in detecting inconsistencies and follies and bad logic, and as this is the highest form of human intelligence, we may be sure that each nation will thus be represented at the conference by its sanest and soundest mind.” Lin Yutang continues: “Can you imagine this bunch of international diplomats starting a war or even plotting for one? The sense of humor forbids it. All people are too serious and half-insane when they declare a war against another people. They are so sure that they are right and that God is on their side. The humorists, gifted with better horse-sense, don’t think so.”
Amen to that. The temptation of the tragic point of view is ultimately a temptation to do violence and war especially in the name of our highest and noblest ideals. But comic spirituality counters it. A sense of humor saves us. There is real spiritual power to it.
Asbestos gelos. Fireproof laughter. A defiant “Up yours!” to the forces of death and mystery and evil.
The person and the community and the world that laughs, lasts.
Consider the experience of Captain Gerald Coffee, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. That’s the log he was trapped in. After three months in captivity, Coffee’s Vietnamese jailor ordered him to wash in a rat-infested shower room littered with rotting things and garbage all around him. As he felt the stream of cold water against his body, he was overcome with despair. There he was in a dismal hole, body broken, totally uncertain of his fate, pressure to do this, do that, hostility his daily fare, men dying every day, the fate of his crewmen unknown.
That’s where he was, mind, body, spirit, as the cold water washed over his body. Then he raised his head, and saw something. There at eye level on the wall in front of him, scratched in by some other American who’d been there before him, were these words: “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” And he couldn’t help but smile. In that crazy place, Woodpecker had come for him, and he laughed out loud. He felt such gratitude for the spunk of that unknown American who was able to rise above his own dejection and pain to inscribe a line of encouragement.
And Captain Gerald Coffee, there in captivity in a Vietnam prison, found strength to go on.
Sometimes laughter takes us by surprise, and we find strength to go on. Better yet, though, is the conscious intent to nourish our sense of humor regularly. Never allowing the humor tank in us to go empty. If it’s a matter of daily hygiene to brush your teeth every day, then make it a matter of daily spiritual hygiene to make sure you laugh every day. Watch The Daily Show, listen to comedian John Mulaney tell his story of a horse being let loose in a hospital—how this is what it’s been like to have Trump as president. Read things that make you laugh. Watch Saturday Night Live and indulge in their humor that is bipartisan and leaves no party untouched. Giggle about the fly on Mike Pence’s hair. Find laughter opportunities.
Whatever can loosen us up, bring us back down to earth, keep us energized and plucky.
We laugh so we can last.
We need laughter that makes us fireproof.
My beloveds, I want to close with a small bit of laughter yoga. We saw that happening in the video from earlier, and now we get to do it together. To do it, you don’t have to feel particularly happy beforehand; although by the end, you might just be laughing like crazy, and it feels so good….
The video featured Liliana DeLeo, and let’s pick up with her observation that, when we start laughter yoga, it can feel uncomfortable. So right now, let’s shoo away all the judges that sit on our shoulders day in and day out judging us.
Shoo shoo shoo shoo
Ok, the judges are gone…..
Liliana DeLeo walked us through several laughter yoga exercises: “The Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha,” “The Brain Wash,” and “The Mental Floss.” But the one I want to introduce to you here and now is called “The American Bat Face.” Let me describe it first:
1. Place your hand on top of your head, with the fingers pointing straight forward
2. Reach down with the middle two fingers and touch the tip of your nose—pull the nose up, flaring the nostrils
3. Flap your tongue in and out of your mouth while making a high-pitched squealing noise
4. Think to yourself repeatedly, “This is not stupid, it’s silly.”
If this feels too uncomfortable for you, you absolutely have permission not to do it. But I hope as many of you as possible will try it and see what happens. As you do it, see if you can hear Coyote laughing with you…
Ready? Let’s go on three…..
[American Bat Face]
You see, there’s an important difference between “stupid” and “silly” that comedian Steve Allen’s son, Steve Allen Jr., points out. Listen. He says that “stupid” means ignorant and uneducated. But having fun and playing is not stupid—it’s “silly,” and “silly” is a word that comes from the Old English, meaning completely happy, completely blessed. Silly was a blessing you wished upon those you loved.
I wish that upon you today, and forever.
Have more sweet silliness in your life, and be blessed.