Q&A with the Rev. Susan Sparks byStacy Smith from the Church Health Reader.
Rev. Susan Sparks’s bio reads like the set-up for a joke. She’s an ex-trial lawyer, a stand-up comedian, and the pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. In her book Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor, she finds the funny in her journey through life, ministry, and struggles with cancer. Stacy Smith spoke with Susan about being a comedian with a pulpit, and how laughter can be a state of being even in the midst of pain.
Stacy Smith: You’re an ex-lawyer, a comedian and a Baptist pastor. How in the world did all that happen?
Susan Sparks: Well, sit back and open a diet Coke because it’ll take a while. I started studying stand-up as a lawyer because I realized juries responded to humor. If you could get people to laugh, it established immediate rapport and trust—two factors that were essential in litigation, especially as a woman. After I did a couple of comedy shows with my class, I realized that I really liked the art of stand-up separate from using it as a tool for my job and I kept going with it.
So I was a trial lawyer and stand-up comedian for ten years, but soon it became clear to me that this was not exactly what I wanted to be doing. I had felt a call to ministry at an early age, but I grew up in a tradition that alienated me and for years I didn’t see church as a safe place. While I was still practicing law I started going on silent retreats and exploring different ways of encountering God. I realized my earlier experience was wrong—it wasn’t that God was unsafe, it was church that was unsafe. Then by a great blessing I found a community of faith that made me realize that church can be safe, too.
But I was still struggling with how a comedian was going to fit into the church so I decided to travel around the world hoping to find some—any kindred spirits. I traveled for two years doing everything from working for Mother Teresa and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to driving my Jeep Wrangler from NYC to Alaska. Everywhere I went, whether it was the laughter of Buddhist monks or the Sacred Clowns of the Navajo, I found examples of how comedy—joy and laughter—was an integral part of the Holy.
Finally, I returned and entered Union Theological Seminary. Now as we say in the South, my professors were not quite ready to teach a comedian theology, bless their hearts. But I did an internship at Madison Avenue Baptist during my first year of seminary and fell in love with it on the spot. I’ve now been here 13 years and it’s the perfect match for me and for the church, I believe. It’s the right home.
In your book you use several metaphors to describe laughter. My favorite one is laughter as a “thin place.” What do you mean by that?
Laughter brings us down to our common denominator. For example, I do a tour with a rabbi and a Muslim comic called “Laugh in Peace.” I’m the opener, so I get up in front of an audience that’s everything from Easter hats to yarmulkes to burkas. Everyone looks really scared, but after a few moments, hopefully they start to laugh. In that split second all of a sudden their lives overlap and everybody shares something in common. If you laugh at something, that means you understand it. So the thin place is where we strip everything away, all the pretenses and fears and resentments and anger—the us and others—and we share what we share in common, which is humanity. The thin place is that moment where we bond with people over a laugh that means we share the concept, we share the understanding of that moment or that experience.
You were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. Did you find places of humor while you were dealing with cancer?
At first it was very hard. I tell people my first reaction was anger and people will audibly gasp—a pastor being angry about pain! And I tell people yes, but I’m also a human being. In that anger, there is realness. So once I got angry and was very honest about what I felt, I began to notice things that would make me smile or laugh. Often it was the doctors and nurses and the funny and silly things we would share. For example, I was really nervous going into surgery, and the anesthesiologist had an amazing sense of humor. As he was putting the IV in, he pointed to the bottle said, “Don’t worry. This stuff is a great year.” And I started laughing hysterically as I went under, and I don’t remember anything else.
Then there were the folks in the waiting room, going in for their chemo or radiation. People would find the funny things about what was going on and tell stories and share. In those moments, I stood stronger, I stood straighter. It’s like God comes down and takes the burden off of your shoulders for a second so you can breathe. When you can laugh with someone in a place of pain, you realize that pain is not who you are, but what you’re experiencing.
What advice would you give to friends and family members of someone living with cancer?
Let them laugh, let them laugh, let them absolutely laugh—and laugh with them. You can’t force somebody to laugh in a place of pain, but you have got to give them space to laugh. For pastoral care purposes, when you’re in a room with the family of someone who’s terminally ill or going into surgery, 90 percent of the time, the patient is the one who wants to tell a little joke. They’re the ones who want to laugh, and no one’s got the courage to laugh with them because they’re scared it might be inappropriate. You need to just get in there with them and feel whatever they feel.
So in the church, how can we practice laughing?
It depends on the congregation. My congregation loves to laugh and feels comfortable with it. In many churches people are a little frightened of it. To me, it’s a lot about education. I always talk to people about how the church, the sanctuary, and the altar are places where you need to bring everything. We tend to check half of ourselves at the door. We think, oh, this is not appropriate, so we hang it up like a coat and bring only a fraction of ourselves to the church. But I tell my congregation that everything is welcome, and actually you need to bring it all in. Whether it’s the fear, the tears, the anger, the resentment, or the laughter, it’s all holy. And unless you bring it in, God can’t heal you.
The article was awarded the 2013 Award of Excellence for Interview: All Media by the Associated Church Press.