A New Unity Sunday Gathering
We have come into this place today
The hard parts of our lives come along with us like a shadow in the afternoon
Walking west, we are followed by a darkness we feel unable to escape
Walking east, the gloom precedes us, warning of woe before we have even arrived
Let this flame shine a light upon shadow
Like laughter, may it leave us...
Alight with joy
Ways of Talking by Ha Jin
We used to like talking about grief
Our journals and letters were packed
with losses, complaints, and sorrows.
Even if there was no grief
we wouldn’t stop lamenting
as though longing for the charm
of a distressed face.
Then we couldn’t help expressing grief
So many things descended without warning:
labor wasted, loves lost, houses gone,
marriages broken, friends estranged,
ambitions worn away by immediate needs.
Words lined up in our throats
for a good whining.
Grief seemed like an endless river—
the only immortal flow of life.
After losing a land and then giving up a tongue,
we stopped talking of grief
Smiles began to brighten our faces.
We laugh a lot, at our own mess.
Things become beautiful,
even hailstones in the strawberry fields.
Petals by Rumi
Even when you tear its petals off one after another,
the rose keeps laughing and doesn't bend in pain.
"Why should I be afflicted because of a thorn?
It is the thorn which taught me how to laugh."
Whatever you lost through fate,
be certain that it saved you from pain.
A Sheikh was asked: "What is Sufism?"
He said: "To feel joy in the heart when sorrow appears."
Message, by Andy Pakula
Our first reading was Ways of Talking, by Ha Jin. Jin is a poet and author and is a professor in the Boston area of the United States. He was born in China and lived through the cultural revolution which began when he was ten years old. In that anti-intellectual turmoil, books were burned, schools were closed, and children were turned against their own parents - urged to report them for anti-revolutionary words or attitudes.
At 14, Jin began his service in the People’s Liberation Army. He spent six long year enduring the bitterly cold winters along the Chinese border with the Soviet Union.
When schools finally reopened, Jin began to study English and, when an opportunity arose, he applied to a Ph.D. programme in the US. He was accepted, won a scholarship, and went off to Boston. He had planned to return to China, but 1989’s brutal suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square ended those plans. Jin spoke out and lost - perhaps forever - his opportunity to return to his home.
When he speaks of losing a language, of losing a country, and so much more, there is no exaggeration. He has earned the right to grieve forever.
And yet, he writes of laughing at “our own mess.” “even hailstones in the strawberry fields” become beautiful.
And Rumi - the 13th century Sufi mystic poet tells that “it is the thorn that taught me how to laugh” and that Sufism is “to feel joy in the heart when sorrow appears.”
We began our exploration of work and play this month. Does play have any place in the hard times of our lives? Can laughter and humour be present at times of pain?
Can we always look on the bright side of life? How about the bright side of death as Eric Idle wrote in that song of Monty Python fame.
Author and Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum declared that “laughter is the cure of grief.” He goes too far there, but I have certainly seen laughter and humour cause a helpful and healthy change in very difficult situations.
Laughter is good medicine - it reduces stress, strengthens our immune systems, improves our moods, and even provides pain relief.
There is no doubt that there are times when laughter is not appropriate. Humour that harms others is always wrong.
But many of us err in the other direction. We can be too darned serious.
We can have a sense that we dishonour and lessen the importance of things we hold dear by joking about them and laughing.
In 2000, Chaya Ostrower, then a student at Tel Aviv University, earned her doctoral degree with her thesis on a topic that had previously been somewhat off-limits - humour in the Holocaust. The work was the basis of a book published later, entitled “It kept us alive.” Ostrower interviewed 84 holocaust survivors - people who had been in the ghettos and concentration camps. Looking back on that terrible episode in humanity, humour seems absolutely inappropriate. Indeed, if the wrong people were to joke about the holocaust today, it would be deeply offensive.
But Jews during The Holocaust did laugh. They used humour as a way to survive. They laughed and joked about the terrible things done to them. They laughed about the lack of food. They laughed to feel some power over their tormentors.
One survivor told Ostrower that laughter was a matter of life or death, saying “...There was a lot of humor about ourselves, about what we do.... that is we made a joke out of every situation, we made fun, yes, why not, how can you live any other way? Look, if I say I'll die, I'll die, you'll die before you're dead, you should know there were many people who died because of it before their time was up because they did not know how to laugh at themselves, we had to!”
Laughter makes a difference in life. At difficult times it provides lightness. It allows us to cope with what we could not otherwise handle.
But if we think of laughter as the opposite of seriousness, we are making a big mistake. I remember a civil partnership ceremony I conducted early in my ministry. The ceremony had a theme. Pirates. When they told me they wanted a pirate wedding, I was a bit concerned that they were not taking what is, after all, a very serious commitment, seriously enough. Not wanting to judge though, we went ahead as they wished.
Both of the grooms and all of their guests came dressed in pirate regalia. The outfits themselves were fabulous and often hilarious. The ceremony itself was full of laughter. It turns out that almost everything you say about pirates can become a sexual double entendre when you’re in the right frame of mind - and we were. I was - often inadvertently - the funniest minister ever that day.
But something else happened which surprised me more than the laughter itself - the tears. Many weddings that aim for serious are not so much serious as restrained. Laughter doesn’t simply lighten, it can also deepen. By laughing, we open the door of emotion and lower the defenses of our hearts. Much more emerges than humour.
The pirate wedding was one of the most moving ceremonies I’ve ever conducted and it was because hearts were opened - not by worthy words and calls upon solemnity, but by laughter.
I’ve seen the same happen in other weddings, in child dedications, and in funerals. Yes - funerals often involve laughter - and it is not usually a sign of denial, but rather an indication that people have begun to deal with the fullness of their loss.
Laughing out ourselves usually does not mean that we think less of ourselves. Quite the opposite. It means we have come to a point of comfort and acceptance with who we are - so much so that we are prepared to allow others to join with us in seeing who we are.
Pioneering psychologist Gordon Allport spoke of the power of laughter this way: "So many tangles in life are ultimately hopeless that we have no appropriate sword other than laughter. I venture to say that no person is in good health unless he can laugh at himself."
Now I come to the part of this message where I will try to wrap everything up and make it sound really deep and serious!
Let’s all just laugh when we can. Let’s welcome humour for what it is - healthy, enlightening, and sometimes a good medicine. Let’s continue - in this extraordinary community of New Unity - to take ourselves just the right amount of serious and make sure that a smile and a laugh are never too far away.
With each day, let us face ourselves with honesty
Let us look at our lives with an unblinking and perceptive gaze
And in that inspection, let us see the humour and absurdity that is us
Life is short. Life is uncertain.
Don’t let a day go by without laughter