Originally published on Read the Spirit.
Now this is funny!
AND, it’s an important insight for anyone who cares about congregations: In building her community, Susan Sparks pulls together all sorts of different worlds, even realms that seem to clash. For example: “Hey! Did you hear the one about the preacher, the lawyer and the standup comedian who all walked into a bar?”
Pause, then: “You just met Susan Sparks.”
She’s actually all those things and that’s the big, refreshing insight she shares with the rest of us. Yes, she wants to help us loosen up, take ourselves less seriously, laugh our way to spiritual health. All that’s on the cover of her new book, which we’re recommending to you this week. (In Part 1 of our coverage of Susan, we introduced her list of 15 all-time funny movies.)
But, there’s more.
Like any smart comic, Susan knows how to slice ruthlessly to the essentials. Check out the website for her church in New York City, Madison Avenue Baptist Church. What are the pillars of a healthy church these days? Susan’s congregation boils it down to four words: “Know. Be. Feel. Do.”
Or, check out her personal website SusanSparks.com. She’s far from your average pastor! This preacher has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, ABC and Psychology Today. In short, her voice echoes far and wide. (On her website, the CNN video clip shows a bit of her interfaith comedy connection with Rabbi Bob Alper and Muslim comics, as well.)
In the Introduction to her new book, Susan puts it this way: When you mention humor and religion in the same breath, most people think of Noah jokes and nun puns. And those are great—at least some of them. But the power of humor on the spiritual path radiates far beyond the realm of punch lines. Laughter is, in fact, a way of coming at the world. It challenges how we perceive ourselves and our circumstances, it reframes how we see others, and it changes the very way we engage with God.
Sounds sort of like another famous preacher who liked to use humorous stories to score spiritual points as he and his 12 followers wandered through the ancient world. Remember the one about the foolish son who thought he struck it rich by grabbing his father’s inheritance before the old man died—only to wind up living in a pigsty? That story of a foolish son could be fodder for Prairie Home Companion.
In fact, the first words in Susan’s new book come from Garrison Keillor himself: “Humor is not a trick, not jokes. Humor is a presence in the world, like grace, and shines on everyone.”
DAVID: You started your career as a corporate lawyer. You’re also a veteran standup comedian. You felt a call to the ministry, went to seminary and you’re now the pastor of a landmark church in New York City. But, I have to tell you that I smiled when I read that you now earn 40 percent of what you did as a lawyer. My first reaction was: Wow, your church pays you well!
SUSAN: (laughs) I’m not going to kid you. This is hard work! It’s especially hard getting through seminary and then starting out in ministry, first as an intern. It’s a long hard process. Here’s the bottom line: In my law practice, I also worked really hard, but at night after a long day I’d ask myself: What did I do today that helped anyone? If I passed on tonight, would the world be any better because I was here? My answers kept coming up: Nothing and No. And that’s not a cheap shot at lawyers or my employers in that part of my life, but I realized that I wasn’t going to leave a legacy with my life as it was. Once I began thinking like that, I never looked back. Now, I go to bed at night very comfortable that something I did at church or something I said in a standup show lifted someone up.
Now, on the money issue? No, I’ve never made that much, not even back when I was a lawyer. Have I got anything against a little extra money? (laughs) No, I wouldn’t turn it down! But, in truth? Money’s not my life’s goal.
CHURCH GROWTH “WITH THE 20-YEAR-OLD SET’
DAVID: You’re 47, but your book and your way of talking about life feels very young to me. I hear people in their 20s talking like you talk about honestly assessing the world and refusing to buy into a lot of the assumptions about success that motivated earlier generations.
SUSAN: Very much so! We are blessed to have a big growth spurt with the 20-year-old set coming through our doors. We put a face on the church that’s very different than what many of them have experienced. We’re inviting them back to a tradition they has alienated many of them. We offer a theology that’s more compassionate and opening. I also think that younger people are searching not only for home and family, which is one big thing we represent, but also for meaning in their lives. Every week in the pulpit, I put out the idea that we should leave our place better than we found it. And “our place” means our work, our home and our relationship with Earth. Let’s leave this place better than we found it.
OVERCOMING GELIOPHOBIA AND FEAR OF GOD
DAVID: You taught me a new word in your book: geliophobia, the fear of laughter. I thought I knew all the phobias, but that’s a new one for me. Why is it important to confront that fear?
SUSAN: Many of us were raised with an image of God as fearful, scary, imposing—and understandably so. Many stories in the Hebrew Bible that we heard when we were growing up presented a powerful figure who is judging, destructive, punishing. Think about human relationships we know. In a relationship with someone you fear, you’re going to hold back, protect yourself. I’m encouraging people to look past the fearful images of God we’ve encountered. God is much bigger than that one mask we’ve seen. Open up that mask and you’ll see a face of joy, compassion—and even a face of laughter. This can deeply affect our prayer life, the way we engage the holy.
DAVID: I agree with you. But let’s get down to a simpler level: A lot of people are flat-out afraid to laugh in church, right?
SUSAN: In my own congregation, our people know me well enough that they’ve moved past this. But there are a lot of people who fear that it might be blasphemous to laugh in the presence of the holy. What I’m talking about is not universally welcomed. In the blog world, I’ve had people criticize me as watering down the gospel or making it seem frivolous. Now, most of those people have never actually heard my message or attended my workshops. But there’s a part of us that actually wants an angry God. You know, sometimes we want a God who’ll strike down the mean people with lightening bolts. That becomes a serious issue we’ve got to work through.
There’s also an issue of power. Power and humor are not good friends. Humor breaks things open. If we laugh in holy realms, then there might be some wiggle room in the power of the church’s dogma. That’s where I’m finding a pushback. Power has trouble with humor.
GOD’S JOY AT THE CORE OF CREATION
DAVID: You argue that God has a sense of humor. “Laughter is at the very core of creation,” you write.
SUSAN: Think about our own human spirit. At the core of human beings is the ability to laugh, to feel joy and happiness. And Genesis says we’re made in the image of the Divine. It doesn’t take a law degree to see that, therefore, part of the Divine has to be joy. Look at how Jesus chose to communicate with people. Jesus was at his core a standup comedian, because the tools he chose to use in the parables were irony, juxtaposition and exaggeration—all basic standup comedy tools. Just think about shoving a camel through the eye of a needle! That must have been a hilarious image for his audience of shopkeepers and fishermen and farmers.
DAVID: Some of our readers may associate your Baptist denomination with a narrow view of the religious world. Your own website celebrates interfaith comedy shows you’ve done with Rabbi Bob Alper and Muslim comedians, too. But your book goes even further. You write about what you’ve learned from Zen. I found that section of your book refreshing—well worth reading for Christians. Over the years as a journalist, I’ve covered appearances by the Dalai Lama in various places. He’s often serious, it’s true—but he’s also got a terrific sense of humor. You aren’t afraid to pick up wisdom from other religious traditions.
SUSAN: Absolutely. I was privileged to take a long trip around the world after practicing law and before going to seminary. I had frankly been very disconnected from my own Christian tradition from an early age. And I hadn’t turned to the church in any substantive way for about 25 years. I needed that trip to connect with my own path. The irony is that my path led back to Christianity through the teachings of the world’s other great religions. Hinduism has many wonderful teachings about the many faces of God. That broke open a lot of new ways of relating to my own faith. Zen Buddhism opened up a lot for me, including the potential of laughter as a part of religious practice.
HOW MINISTERS AND COMEDIANS SHOULD BE ALIKE
DAVID: We’re not talking about something that’s “frivolous,” to use that word you mentioned before. We’re really talking about tough laughter—about finding joy in the face of the world’s many tragedies that easily could crush us. One of the most remarkable books I’ve encountered on this theme is Desmond Tutu’s and Mpho Tutu’s new book, “Made for Goodness.”
SUSAN: Laughter is most powerful in times of crisis. I write in the book about doing counseling after 9/11. I’m talking about September 12, 2001. People were calling in to give us identities of missing men and women to help the search-and-rescue workers. One woman called in and was describing her husband and she began laughing. She said, “He left the house with the worst tie in the world!” She stopped and then she said, “That may sound inappropriate—but it’s all me and my family have left.”
In a moment like that you see it clearly: Laughter is a lifeboat.
I’m a breast cancer survivor four years out and I know that finding laughter in a place of fear is almost as though you are taking your life back. It’s so easy to become defined by places of pain and suffering. It was a revelation to me to sit in a waiting room getting ready to go in for radiation. I’m there surrounded with other people who are in various stages of cancer. And many of these people would come in each day with a joke they would tell. They would laugh. And when you laugh? You bring everyone around you up, too.
Ministers and comedians stand in solidarity with people through the goofy and the hard times that happen in all of our lives. When ministers and comedians do their jobs right, the outcome should be the same: We make people feel less alone.