We gather here today and make a community
A number of differing journeys to get here
A circus of varied moods under one roof
But with values that bind us together: love, and justice.
By the light of this flame
Let us be reminded to look past our immediate experience
Reminded to be curious
Reminded to see towards each other.
Let this children’s flame remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Reading: The Lady’s Reward, by Dorothy Parker
Lady, lady, never start
Conversation toward your heart;
Keep your pretty words serene;
Never murmur what you mean.
Show yourself, by word and look,
Swift and shallow as a brook.
Be as cool and quick to go
As a drop of April snow;
Be as delicate and gay
As a cherry flower in May.
Lady, lady, never speak
Of the tears that burn your cheek—
She will never win him, whose
Words had shown she feared to lose.
Be you wise and never sad,
You will get your lovely lad.
Never serious be, nor true,
And your wish will come to you—
And if that makes you happy, kid,
You'll be the first it ever did.
Reading: On the Ning Nang Nong, by Spike Milligan
On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang
And you just can't catch 'em when they do!
So it’s Ning Nang Nong
Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning
Trees go ping
Nong Ning Nang
The mice go Clang
What a noisy place to belong
is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!!
Message: by Rev. Claire Wilson
There are many books by experts on the subject of humour and laughter. What I’m sharing with you today, though, are just a few personal insights into why, in my experience, this aspect of life is so important.
Our take on humour - what we find amusing - is of course constantly on the move, and at various points in my talk we’ll find ourselves reflecting on the past, exploring the present, and speculating on the future.
My first question takes us back to our earlier days. What kind of humour was around in our childhood? Well, it’s likely we’ll have had quite varied experiences. I grew up in the 1940s in a firmly religious household, where although mum and dad were basically kind people, there were a lot of strict rules, including what it was NOT OK to laugh about. All even remotely “saucy” jokes were banned: heads were shaken in severe disapproval. Thus I remained “innocent” pretty much into my teenage years, but then at Dartford Girls’ Grammar School things began to change. For example, my friends and I relished a Christmas carol whose words had come to have a double meaning:
“As they offered gifts most rare
At that manger RUDE and BARE”.
Of course, rules were strict in school as well. If we were caught giggling as we sang that verse, we’d be seriously rebuked by our teachers.
Changes in language and what certain words have come to mean has had the gradual effect of turning one-time respectable phrases into “snigger-material.” The hymn-books of today no longer include the Victorian verse we used to sing in chapel:
“Praise in the common things of life
Its common looks and tones
In intercourse at hearth or board
With my beloved ones.”
(No humour intended there by the hymn-writer!)
Back to the distant past: it’s become apparent recently that certain ancient writings actually contain jokes and humour which we have previously missed. I’ve just read an article which suggests that within the Bible there is far more light-touch material than we realise. We don’t spot it because we aren’t programmed to expect it. His theory is that Jesus was actually something of a natural comedian: that when he told stories featuring dodgy or eccentric characters, he’d also mimic them. People listening would be entertained and drawn in, and the story’s final “message” would be put across through the medium of laughter.
Jesus was of course Jewish, and Judaism is classically famous for its huge collection of jokes, past and present. A couple of my favourites:
“Two men order a drink in a café. ‘I’ll have a still water,’ one of them says. ‘Same for me,’ the other one says, ‘and make sure the glass is clean.’ The drinks arrive, and the waiter asks ‘Vitch one vanted the clean glass?’ ”
Or this one:
“A man tells his friend: ‘Someone stole my credit card, but I haven’t reported it. The thief spends less with it than my wife did.’ ”.
I believe that in every age, humour helps us to sit light to ourselves, and can free us up. This was true for me a few years ago at an official Anglican “ministerial training day” on how to conduct a funeral. Attendance was compulsory, and I have to say that as I entered the lecture-room and sat down, all those clergy in their dog-collars looked depressingly earnest and self-important. But then, the bishop who was leading the day, began not with the expected solemn prayer, but with a joke to cheer us all up. It was this one:
“Two men were playing golf, when a funeral-procession passed slowly by along the road by the edge of the course. One of the men put down his club, stood still and solemnly bowed his head toward the hearse. “That’s nice” the other man said. “It’s unusual to see such respect in these modern times.”
“Well,” his friend replied, “we were married fifty years.”
And thanks to the joke, the atmosphere lightened: we were able to talk in a more relaxed, open way about our personal experiences of taking funerals.
At a different level, seeing things humorously can be a choice we make. Certain unpleasant experiences which knock us sideways can be regarded either as a misfortune leading to self-pity and gloom OR as an amusing mishap with which to entertain our friends. When I worked in east London, on my day off I frequently took the Overground from the railway terminus in Chingford down to central London. One morning as I boarded the train waiting on platform 2, everything looked great. I had an engrossing book with me, and I was the only person in the compartment: wonderful! No intrusive mobile phones! It was a bright sunny day, and I opened a couple of windows. Some muffled announcement was being made over the station loudspeaker, but I couldn’t hear it: oh well, I thought, it won’t affect me. The train set off, but then there was a weird climate-change. The blue sky turned grey, and suddenly water came pouring into the carriage through the opened windows. And at that moment I realised: I’d got on a train which was “not in service”, and we were going through the automatic train-washing tunnel! By then I was soaked to the skin, and I struggled up to the driver’s cab. He looked dismayed. “But didn’t you hear the announcement? You were told not to board this train!”
I sat in a soggy heap waiting for the train to go back into the station. And I remember thinking that I had a choice. I could see this as the end of my planned day out in town. I could go home feeling totally pissed off and sit around for the rest of the day feeling sorry for myself. OR: I could regard the event as one of the most improbably comic experiences I’d ever had. Put dry clothes on, get a proper train into town, have a coffee in my favourite Liverpool St café, and dine out on this story for the rest of my life, christening the event “A shower of blessings”. (You’ll realise which option I went for.)
It’s been encouraging to me as well to find out that in other world faiths today there is space for a laugh. Buddhism, for instance. I found one or two online:
“Wherever you go, there you are. (Your luggage is another story.)”
Could that be the origin of the well-known airport poster joke, “Breakfast in London, lunch in New York” to which some wit had added “Luggage in Hong Kong”?
Another Buddhist example:
“Drink tea and nourish your life.
With the first sip: joy.
With the second sip: satisfaction
With the third sip: peace
With the fourth sip: a Danish pastry.”
On a more serious general note: what about sickness and ill-health? Physical fragility is something we’re all going to experience one day. And obviously we can’t assume that laughter is the right response on every occasion, for example on receiving the news that someone’s illness is terminal. Sensitivity is crucial in these circumstances. Even so, risks can be taken. A woman I know at this present time who fears she has breast cancer told me she enjoyed this one:
“If you’re a woman and you get called in for a mammogram, look on the bright side. At least this is one kind of film they still want you to appear topless in.”
And the ageing process often gets sent up:
“A bin man is on his rounds. As usual, most of the bins have been left out ready on the kerb, but one old lady has forgotten to put hers out. Hearing the lorry, she totters out in her dressing gown and curlers and calls out ‘Am I too late for the collection? Have I missed it?’ ‘Of course not, love,’ says the bin man, opening the truck again. ‘Hop in!’ ”
Or this: “An elderly woman worries about the cosmetic surgery she has booked. ‘Is it going to hurt?’ she asks the doctor. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘but not until you get my bill.’”
Inevitably humour, like any other emotional “tool”, can be used destructively. It can be cruel and can generate anger and bitterness. Until relatively recently, it was common practice to circulate jokes which undermined gay men and women or rubbished the Jewish community or ridiculed black people, the working-classes and so on. Thankfully today we are more aware of how offensive and hurtful this can be, and we have, on the whole, moved on. While these jokes can still crop up, at least it has been “officially” made clear that they are now unacceptable. During the 1980s I was closely involved with the then controversial movement for the ordination of women to the Anglican priesthood. Our strategies included marching down Whitehall and demonstrating outside Westminster Abbey, and you’ll guess that some of the people opposed to the idea of women priests mocked us relentlessly. We were regularly disparaged in public as “wicked witches,” as “temple prostitutes” and plenty more. On one occasion a cruel quip made by an anti-women vicar was so insulting that I reported the offender to our diocesan bishop. A week later I received in the post a response from the rebuked vicar which began as follows:
“I have been instructed by my bishop to write you a letter of apology.”
The clergyman’s pseudo-penitence amused me and my fellow-suffragettes quite refreshingly.
So yes, in some ways we have learnt from the past. The present: well, these days we are still blessed with a good supply of life-affirming humour. As to the future, who can predict? I find encouragement, however, in the words of Paul Marcus, the author of a book entitled “How to Laugh Your Way Through Life”. I quote:
“Throughout history, humour has generated compassion, created strong bonds between people, reduced tension, anxiety and discomfort, and perhaps most important, provided hope especially in our darkest times.” Amen to that: I have faith that we will continue to be sustained in that way whatever lies ahead.
PS: The boundary between theists and atheists is crossed all the time by humorous exchanges. I regularly share a laugh with friends who detached themselves long ago from conventional religion. Perhaps the oldest joke in our collection is:
“What does a dyslexic, insomniac atheist do?
Stay awake all night wondering if there is a dog.”
When we listen to a joke, it works because it acts upon our expectations: and it in some way subverts or interrupts them.
Words are not always as accurate as we would wish them to be.
Our interpretation of them is affected by our experience.
But they are the primary tool of our communication.
We are, each of us, aware of our own, rich, varied histories
Let us be mindful of the same in others too,
And of what our words convey;
And choose them lovingly.
May it be so.