"So Sarah Laughed to Herself."
|She plucked from my lapel the invisible strand of lint (the universal act of woman to proclaim ownership).|
|As for me, if you want a good laugh, you will come and find me fat and sleek, in excellent condition, one of Epicurus' herd of pigs.|
|Present mirth hath present laughter.|
The quite unremarkable story of Sarai and Abram's early life together slowly unfolds into something of a quite remarkable divine comedy. By faith, this young married couple had set out from the land of Ur on an extended honeymoon to some distant territory promised by some distant God.
It can be tempting to see Abram as little more than an earthbound schlemiel, a sympathetic bungler, born clueless, inept, and just not too smart and willing to stay that way. In short, a typical husband. But Abram was born neither a habitual loser nor a simpleton. He was generally successful and respected. No, Abram was no schlemiel. To use another Yiddish word, he was more of a divinely led schlemozzle, doing his best in life and usually acting wisely but chronically thrust into predicaments beyond his control or comprehension. Some of the sticky messes involved his nephew. Others involved foreign kings and visiting dignitaries. One involved his wife's maidservant. Yet the greatest and most mind-boggling situations almost always involved his wife, Sarai.
As usual, it was scorching, and the camels were clamoring for water. Sitting under the tent, Abram shooed the flies and napped. Sarai stayed busy behind the flap preparing a family album that had no pictures except for Abram; his father, Terah; and a few sheep and camels. Although Sarai had a lot to do, somehow her life felt strangely empty. She wished that their family was larger, but so far the sheep were the closest thing she and Abram had to children. God, Abram said, had promised to make them a great nation and to bless them. In obedience to him, they had left Haran and their family and had wandered for a while—mostly because Abram, like other men she knew, never once stopped to ask directions. But God was leading them, wasn't he?
They had waited for the promise of a child to be fulfilled, but despite her years of expectancy, Sarai was not expecting. In fact, all around there was wilderness and struggle. Even in the usually fruitful land of Canaan, there had been famine, a dearth so great it had forced them to sojourn in Egypt for some time. As she looked around even now, she saw few signs of new life. Nonetheless Sarai, well past her likeliest years for childbearing, still clung to God's promise, yearning for a child of her own, of their own.
She thought back to when Abram had told her of his conversation with God. "As the stars in the heavens," he had said, "so shall your descendants be." She still could hardly believe it, though she wanted to. Abram could hardly believe it himself, but he'd heard from God and, understandably, was excited to have done so. How could he not be excited in the face of a promise of such blessings? Abram believed the Lord, and his enthusiasm inspired Sarai to do the same. He wanted to keep trying anyway. But things weren't going as Sarai planned.
Still she maintained a sunny disposition behind her lovely, if aging, face. It hadn't always been easy, especially considering the fact that her husband had been willing to pawn her off to save his own skin. Revealing cowardice beneath his divine calling, Abram tended to avoid confrontation. In fact, he had actually cowered in the face of powerful rulers because of Sarai. His wife was beautiful, and he knew it. He also knew that men had killed for women less attractive than she. So when Sarai caught the eye and the interest of an Egyptian king, Abram hadn't gambled. He folded.
"My wife?" he fawned, with her coerced complicity. "Oh, she's my sister, really. But, hey, take my sister… please!" So Sarai had played the pawn, moving about in hopes of securing the peace. Thankfully, nothing had happened to Abram—or her, for that matter. Bad things had happened to Pharaoh because he'd added Sarai to his harem, but not for long. God gave the king a vision, and Abram was forced to fess up. Much to everyone's relief, everything turned out all right in the end, and Abram and Sarai had returned to Mamre (which was like going to Cleveland).
Now, sitting in their tent, Sarai looked over at this man she had married. Sure, her husband was chicken. He had a yellow streak longer than the Euphrates, but he also was kind. Abram was neglectful but faithful, and that should count for something.
But for all his love, she thought, he was, like all men, awfully oblivious of what a woman is, much less what she needs. He had sacrificed solitude by dragging their nephew Lot along with them. He had sacrificed security by letting Lot move into the choicest of land ("God said it will all be our family's one day," Abram had told her) and then by rescuing him from trouble with nearby authorities. Her husband, she thought, never really understood that solitude and security were important to her. But she loved him anyway, so she just shook her head and picked the lint off his robe.
Overall, Sarai was realistic and practical. There was no pretense in her. She could read the weather from a red sky, tell a fake fellow from fifty yards, and prophesy if a neighbor were having a baby girl or boy by dangling a string with a ring over the mother's extended belly. She'd done these things enough to become an expert. She was savvy—wise to the ways of the world.
She was also wise to the ways of Abram. She could tell when her husband was desperate, or getting there. Although he had reminded God that they still had no offspring, on this matter of an heir, Abram was losing faith. She knew the feeling so she decided to face the facts, no matter how they hurt.
Abram was in need of a loophole to produce this heir of promise, so Sarai tailored her own solution. She would give her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, to Abram. Together maybe they could have a child for her. After all, what else were the servants for? And besides, Hagar was basically a girl who couldn't say no—especially in this case—and it got her in a terrible fix.
Of course, the idea bothered Sarai, even though she knew Abram loved her and only her. She reminded herself that although Hagar was young, she wasn't too attractive. And Abram was in his 80s. Besides, this was business. It wasn't love. It was only sex. Yet when she presented her idea to Abram, she wished he had been more hesitant to accept her offer. But he wasn't. Then again, why should she expect him to be? He was just as anxious as she to see God's plans become reality. She suggested this plan, Sarai sighed. Her plan of providing Hagar ended with the issue of Ishmael, the one who would later mock his younger brother Isaac. The poisoned laughter of a teasing stepsibling would result from Sarai's own desperate trick. It wasn't nice to foolishly try to play mother nature.
It wasn't long, just a few months, before Sarai was sure that this one-time tryst had been a bad idea. Her plan had worked: Hagar was pregnant. All of a sudden, however, Sarai didn't like the fact that Abram was looking at her and Hagar differently. Her slave was carrying his child, and he was, admittedly, pleased. Sarai wasn't.
And then there was Hagar. Her personality seemed to change overnight. Hagar was carrying a "wild child," and she lorded her new status over her lady at every opportunity. Sarai responded like a nuclear reactor, unleashing all the fury of a woman neglected. Abram soon suffered the catastrophic consequences of a husband who had actually listened to his wife. "May the wrong done me be upon you" (Gen. 16:5 NASB), Sarai scolded her husband, who couldn't win even with the hope of a full house.
Even after Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, there was no peace in the camp. Their desperate plans to bring forth an heir by their own invention ultimately proved futile and fretful. In God's plan, begetting was to be done, they learned, by the rules, the old- fashioned way. It was a hard lesson, but it was also the prologue to the blessed comic routine.
For Sarai and Abram it was as if the old joke proved true: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." Fortunately for these Hebrews, they learned that if God wants to make you laugh, he tells you his plans. Perhaps Sarai thought of how Abram was the answer to all her prayers, not presumably the answer she was hoping for but apparently the answer that God had planned for her.
And what plans they were! Abram and Sarai were to become different people—in fact, God even decided to change their names. Ninety-nine-year-old Abram, Hebrew for "exalted father," became Abraham, "father of a multitude." And Sarai, his ninety-year-old "princess," became Sarah, "mother of nations." The names were ironic enough in themselves, but then, in Genesis 17:16, God dropped the real comedic bomb: "I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her."
Here it was again. God was promising to give Abram and Sarai—now Abraham and Sarah—an heir. The promise was enough to make Abraham drop to his face in laughter.
Why? Because he knew what that required of him. At his age he wasn't fully convinced he was up for the task—or ever could be.
"God, are you sure you don't mean Ishmael?" Abraham responded.
"No," said the Lord, "I will bless him, but he is not the child of my covenant." Abraham listened as the Lord continued. "Sarah—indeed—will bear you a son, about this time next year, and Abraham, you'd better name him Isaac."
For three months Abraham laughed intermittently. One day he called, "Sarah, God told me again that we are going to have a baby.
"Sarah?" he called a second time, "did you hear me? It's going to be a boy!"
A third time he shouted from the flap of the tent: "Sarah, are you deaf? We need to get the nursery ready."
Finally, he walked over to his wife, stood in front of her, and repeated loudly, "Sarah, did you hear what I said?"
For a moment she just looked at him. "Yes," she yelled in his good ear, "for the fourth time."
It wasn't long before the Lord, along with two other men, appeared again to Abraham near the oaks of Mamre. Abraham practiced the sacred rites of desert hospitality, offering them a little water to wash their feet, a little refreshment in the shade of the tree, a little bread to stanch their hunger. To be a companion meant to share your bread with others, so Abraham hurriedly asked his wife to prepare bread cakes so that these holy ones might be their companions. "Quickly, get what you can from the pantry," he told her as he hurried off to fetch a calf. Soon, with curds and milk and tender veal, he blessed his honored guests with a meal. "Eat and be filled," he invited them.
After dining, but before they announced their business, they asked where Sarah was. "My wife is in the tent behind us," Abraham said, not knowing quite what to expect, and not really knowing where she was at any time.
Then the Lord said with authority, "Behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son" (Gen. 18:10 NKJV).
"Oy vey, that Sarah," Abraham said, sighing.
Hiding behind the tent flap, Sarah had been eavesdropping. She knew that Abraham wouldn't remember what the travelers had said, so she had been listening in. She knew something was afoot, but now she heard it—again!—this joke about having a son. Enough already.
This time, however, it struck her as funny, for as Sarah had come to know, an old joke repeated becomes even funnier. So Sarah laughed to herself. Out of the blue, out of the mouth of this unexpected Visitor, out of the heat of the desert came this frothy, funny, preposterous announcement.
"So Sarah laughed to herself" (v. 12, italics added). This daring and darling old woman, who had waited for almost a century to feel a kick in her womb, surrendered to the thought of this incredible and hilarious promise and did the only thing she could do—she laughed. She gave herself over to laughter as she had given herself over to love with wild abandon. And it felt good, real good.
Even in her infertility, laughing was the best thing Sarah could do. She had endured it all with a sort of easy cheerfulness. With savvy chutzpah, she knew more than her grouchy neighbors that husbands are laughable creatures, untrained in the arts of hearing, listening, and seeing. They are, by nature, benignly neglectful. They are happiest when uninterrupted, when left alone. But like eggs, if left alone for too long, they begin to smell like sulfur or old socks. Better to break a man's shell and make an omelet out of him than let him go bad, a woman thinks.
And Sarah was right. Everyone knows that a cheerful, lively loved one is better medicine to those who are ill in flesh or depressed in spirit than the most efficient doctor. (And best of all is a joyful Jewish mother who knows how healthy you would be if only you would eat her chicken soup and like it.)
Over a century ago, Dr. Leonard Keene Hirshberg, a Jewish physician from John Hopkins University, declared that cheerfulness and a rosy smile would conquer disease: "One of the most elemental proofs of convalescence in an invalid is his or her buoyancy, pleasure, and happy laughter." This physician's observation was akin to that of Mark Twain's description of an old man in Tom Sawyer who "laughed loud and joyously, shook up the details of his anatomy from head to foot, and ended by saying that such a laugh was money in a man's pocket because it cut down the doctor's bill like everything."
So, too, the editor of the Saturday Review, Norman Cousins, found in laughter a fresh, healing force to counteract a degenerative spinal condition. Like the miserable poet in Psalm 31, Cousins's body and mind had been deteriorating, despite huge doses of pain-killing drugs. Then he read that negative emotions could affect the body detrimentally. Resentment and envy could trigger harmful biochemical reactions; fretting gnawed away at its victims until they began to slump, eaten up from inside by their own worry; anger could set the jaw in stiff, clenched judgment; and depression pressed down the spirit until the bones went limp.
Cousins wondered, "What would happen if people practiced positive emotions?" Would there be any therapeutic effect to exercising such robust habits of the heart as love, faith, hope, encouragement, joy, and laughter? Were there any benefits to living according to the fruit of the Spirit? Cousins decided it was time for him to test the truth of Proverbs 17:22: "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones."
Self-quarantined in a hotel room, Cousins watched reel after reel of Candid Camera shows and Laurel and Hardy films. He soon found, to his delightful amazement, that God's gift of laughter helped to restore his health. He also found that, in general, the beliefs people live by and the habits they practice serve to advance either their sickness or their wholeness and health.
Depending on our worldview, life strikes us as funny or despairing—usually both. We, however, can choose which weltanschauung (a typical multisyllabic German word for "worldview" that shows how serious we are) dominates our perspective. The inevitable, like death and taxes, is tragic. The unexpected, like surprise parties and burps, is comic.
Horace Walpole once remarked that life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think. If we allow ourselves to be ruled by our emotions, we will be tossed to and fro like waves on a stormy sea, to be manipulated by emotional tricks of a seasick movie like Titanic. If, on the other hand, we consider the ways of God, we might see more of the divine comedy. We might realize that he holds us in the palm of his hand, that he tends to us more than the sparrow, that to trust the Lord is to rest in someone greater than our world.
So as Sarah thought about the improbable promise—that Abraham would give her such pleasure in their old age and that she, well past menopause, would conceive from their mating—she laughed to herself. And that laughter became a fresh, healing tonic.
Sarah, like all women, laughed to herself. But at what do women laugh? Often it's a small thing, like the husbands they've chosen. They look at their lovers and see not only what God has ordained but what they have ordained for themselves. The old joke is that any man who thinks he has chosen his wife is wrong. The combination of free will and men is an oxymoron. The illusion that men control marriage is moronic. A man is usually marked and selected by a woman. Men may think they choose first, but women actually govern the ways of relationships. Men don't even know what a relationship is. But then women laugh at themselves for the choices they've made, often under the influence of too much chocolate, too many roses, or sheer boredom.
Women also laugh because they recognize that God created man out of the dust—but he left women the job of cleaning it up. "You may have come from dirt, and you may return to dirt, but while you're here, you'll keep those muddy feet off my carpet." It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
Humorist Dave Barry pointed out that "the primary difference between men and women is that women can see extremely small quantities of dirt." Due to a hormonal secretion in the growth process, women can see dirt at the molecular level, whereas men "don't generally notice it until it forms clumps large enough to support agriculture."
Thus, women can see things on and in us men of which we are totally unaware. Usually it is dirt, sometimes it is mud, and more often than not, it is funny. It's no coincidence that man's earthy humor derives from the fact that he was created from the mud; nor is it surprising that women have a higher wit, having been fashioned not from the ground but from Adam's rib, several feet up.
A woman laughs to herself thinking that of all the choices she could have made, she chose this man. "What in the world was I thinking?" she inevitably asks at least once in her life, usually on the honeymoon. Isn't it amusing that sweet irony often dictates the paths of romance?
When tall, lanky Texan Scotty Sawyer met effervescent, splashy Joy Roulier, gangly met sassy. They were very different but shared a common pet peeve: Christian singles groups. In fact, their disdain was so great that they decided to collaborate on a humorous article. Their parody contained a plethora of pointers a la Marabel Morgan but for the unmarried: "Greet your date at the door with Saran Wrap… wrapped around your clothes."
As a joke, they also began addressing each other by little terms of endearment: "My Sweet" and "Rosebud" (they liked movies as well as books). However, something interrupted their mocking of all things sentimental and silly. They fell truly, madly, deeply in love and kept calling each other those names—for real. They proved the truth of the old maxim that the practice of flirting can lead to the habits of loving. As any Yenta will tell you, it can be dangerous to play with matches, for they soon light a fire that rages out of control. Of course, in the comedy of matchmaking, everyone discovers that it is better to marry than to burn.
In Max Beerbohm's book "The Happy Hypocrite," a man pretending to be good by putting on a mask of goodness and kindness actually becomes good and kind. It works in real life too. Behavior begets feeling. One man kisses his wife because he loves her, but another man kisses his so he will come to love her. By doing the acts of love even when, or especially when, we don't feel like it, we find that God rewards our obedience—our acting, our role-playing—with true blessings.
A woman also laughs to herself because if she can get a man to laugh with her as she calls him "my pet" in jest, she will soon have him wearing a collar. And he will be happy, especially when fed or petted.
In December 1981, Karen Garbis and some of her friends attended a performance of Handel's Messiah at Virginia Beach Methodist Church. At the concert she met her casual date, Jon Simpson, who already had dated most of her friends (and eventually would date another). By no accident Jon had dragged along a friend, a comic communication professor from his graduate school, Regent University, to succor him with moral and romantic advice.
Jon and his bachelor friend arrived early and began saving seats for the women. But when the nutty professor in his mid-thirties saw the twenty-something Karen coming down the aisle, he was speechless (which was a miracle in itself for a communication professor, especially this one). At that moment he claimed he knew she was The One for whom he had waited thirty-five years. Dumbstruck by her beauty, he sat staring and grinning at her throughout the musical masterpiece. Then came the grand finale, the Hallelujah Chorus, and they both stood up.
Karen, wearing two-inch heels, nearly topped six feet tall. The professor, in his loafers, stood five foot six inches.
Still, the small professor claimed he felt confident, like Joshua looking over the Promised Land of milk and honey. No giant would deter him, even if it was a she, especially this she. A land of great grapes awaited him. He was reminded of Joshua's courage and Solomon's songs. He would seek to enter the Promised Land.
I, the miniature professor, pursued this statuesque beauty. Not coincidentally, we found ourselves on the same coed basketball team. Although she could stuff the lights out of me, I refused to take the bench. I would not foul out. I kept shooting.
One night, strolling around her neighborhood during a Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) celebration called Seven Days Ablaze, I inquired whether she thought our relationship could ever lead to something more serious—like marriage.
"No," she said simply.
When I, undeterred, asked if she believed that with God all things were possible, she looked down at me and laughed. "Well, almost. Everything but us."
A year later we were married at First Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach. God had provided, and in a way few people expected. And now Karen regularly laughs to herself (usually because her husband is snoring).
So Sarah laughed to herself. In Sarah's laughter there was a realization that what she had envisioned was a lot more than she got. She had dreamed of having a large family and being a great-great-grandmother. But instead she passed through menopause and into her golden years without any children. She had once dreamed of heaven, but instead she got earth.
Sarah came face-to-face with the mirror of her own humanity, especially as refracted in the all-too-silly human prism of that creature, her husband. She thought back to the many times her father had told his princess that no man was good enough for her. Then when Abram had managed to father a child by another woman, her mere slave, she came to realize that. But now, was God talking about her becoming a mother of many, seeing the possibility of procreation in her? She gave in to the blessed imagination.
And she laughed to herself. She imagined how she would balloon out like a remoistened prune. She thought about having morning sickness and queasiness and private problems that Abraham could not even begin to understand, much less empathize with.
When stumbling upon a headline that shouted: "Women in 50s Can Safely Have Babies," Kerry Dougherty, a friend who happens to be a newspaper columnist, shouted back: "Oh joy. Women today really can have it all. Hot flashes and morning sickness. Wrinkles and stretch marks." What's next, she thought, "nursing homes with nurseries?" The idea of a fifty-something maternal matron dieting on Gerber and Geritol however is not new. Sarah was to experience it all at about twice that age.
But before any of these blessed incongruities could come, before the miracle could be wrought in her body, it would have to be wrought in Abraham's! When Sarah paused to think about it—Abraham's body—now there was a joke! And not just any joke, but the butt of many jokes.
Abraham earlier had agreed with her assessment. In fact, when God had told him, he hadn't just laughed modestly to himself; he had fallen face down, convulsing and wheezing in merriment. "Hey, Lord, haven't you noticed? I've fallen and I can't get up, so to speak," said Abraham, laughing in the face of God and all history. "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old?"
But the answer, God said, was an emphatic "Yes!"
Sarah also laughed to herself about something else: the improbability of physical pleasure. Could she expect delight, or to become an expectant delight? With her wizened womb? With her aged Abraham?
God help her.
Maybe that was the true comedy of her predicament. Sarah looked at her worn-out old man, whose robes barely covered his wrinkles, and wondered if—finally, again—she would receive the pleasure of his intimacy. "Lord, how funny you are," Sarah chuckled quietly.
Sarah also laughed because the pleasure she dared to think about went beyond sheer physicality and into the suspicious realm of sexuality. Sarah's laughter, God suggested, would come wrapped up in sex. It seemed that God meant these things to go together in some peculiar and providential way.
Of course. Make no mistake about it, there is an abundance of holy humor in the most personal acts of our private lives. And there's a lot of irony about intimacy. Wise and loving husbands and wives should recognize how the bedroom is a playroom. While we are kings and queens of our homes, we are jesters and clowns in our private chambers. Good lovers, wrote C. S. Lewis, are always laughing at each other, at least until they have a baby; then they laugh at the baby.
In his splendid treatise on The Four Loves, Lewis found hilarity in the heavenly establishment of the institution of marriage. He thought it one of God's jokes that
a passion so soaring, so apparently transcendent, as Eros, should thus be linked in incongruous symbiosis with a bodily appetite which, like any other appetite, tactlessly reveals its connection with such mundane factors as weather, health, diet, circulation, and digestion. In Eros at times we seem to be flying; Venus gives us the sudden twitch that reminds us we are really captive balloons. It is a continual demonstration of the truth that we are composite creatures, rational animals, akin on one side to the angels, on the other to tom-cats. It is a bad thing not to be able to take a joke. Worse, not to take a divine joke; made, I grant you, at our expense, but also (who doubts it?) for our endless benefit.
Sex isn't always all it's built up to be. But laughter never lets us down. When Parade Magazine polled happily married couples, it found that three out of four said that their number one reason for choosing a mate was their "ability to laugh and have fun together." More than half of those polled indicated that a sense of humor was more important than sex for marital happiness (but try telling that to a teenager with raging hormones). It seems that when we can begin to laugh about each other and ourselves (instead of focusing on just sex and physical prowess) then we begin to practice reality therapy. A crucial sign of a healthy married life is the ability to laugh at one's sexual encounters, or lack thereof.
In a Sunday school class at Galilee Episcopal Church, psychologist Mark Yarhouse was teaching on Sex and the Christian Life, focusing on the role of prayer. I asked, quite spontaneously, if he were talking about how we are to pray for sex. (Even though the men in the class laughed, I was perpetually banished from future attendance.)
The most memorable sermon we young seminarians at Fuller Theological Seminary ever imagined was on the parable of the "Ten Virgins and the Wedding Feast." But it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. "Would you," the minister intoned seriously, "prefer to be with the five wise virgins at the wedding feast or with the five foolish virgins in the dark?"
It was a question none of us could quickly answer. We still laugh to ourselves.
As did Sarah. "Shall I have the pleasure from this old man? Will he really be able to please me at ninety-nine when he couldn't at forty-nine?" She paused and thought, "Husbands, when will they ever learn?"
Then she remembered another question she had for God.
"And how about that circumcision, Lord? What were you thinking with that? I just hope it helps."
Comedian Dick Gregory described God closing his covenant with Abraham and sealing the deal by saying, "Abraham, give me some skin." And as Sarah thought about her husband's body, she must have seen plenty of raw material for a stand-up comedy routine. But, then again, so too with her going-on-ninety-plus body. Hearing that her flesh would be reawakened into the spring of her youth awakened Sarah's sense of humor.
But God seemed to be saying something more. "Hey," he seemed to remind her in the midst of her laughter, "didn't I make all things good?"
"Well, of course you did," she thought back.
"Didn't I make your body? And his?"
"Mine? OK," said Sarah, who could still turn some heads, "but Abraham's? Come on now, Lord. I mean, well, just look. He's as good as dead."
"Sarah," God answered, "didn't I also make the puffin, the porcupine, and the platypus? You can't do much with them either, but they still are good."
Sarah convulsed with laughter. "I guess so, Lord.… I guess so."
We Christians so prize the spiritual that we tend to devalue the physical, sometimes writing it off altogether. We forget that the body is a central part of God's good creation. Had Sarah ignored or denied the flesh God had made, she would have been a heretic. So warned the later church fathers. You see, one doctrinal error that plagued the early church was known as Gnosticism. The gang of Gnostics wore scratchy camel hair T-shirts, ate diet tofu, sighed a lot, and denied the worth of the body and any of its functions. "Watch out," God seemed to caution, "you're trying to be more spiritual than I am. Even I was made flesh. It was called the Incarnation."
But the Gnostics paid little attention. They believed in a cosmic dualism—the spirit was good, and the flesh was bad. They also recommended two equally wrong ways of dealing with the body. On the one hand, since only the spirit was important for them, some Gnostics (who would ultimately move to California) felt licensed to do whatever they wished with their unimportant bodies, indulging in every form of sensual excess imaginable. On the other hand were the less-free-spirited Gnostics (who would become tax lawyers) who believed that since the flesh was the source of evil, it should be treated as such. They disciplined their bodies severely, literally beating them into subjugation. Some would even flagellate themselves into bloody self-condemnation. Others would eat only leeks and Brussels sprouts. Either way, Gnostics fell like Martin Luther's proverbial drunk off his horse, first to the right, then to the left.
In other words, what is important is to strike a proper balance in our attitudes toward our bodies as well as our spirituality, not to forget that God created bodies and declared them good. We do not exist without both body and spirit.
Imagine a group of eccentric medieval monks (as a film buff, I imagine the scribes in Umberto Eco's comic novel-turned-movie, The Name of the Rose) meticulously copying sacred manuscripts of the early church fathers. As one monk laboriously imitates each illuminated detail, he looks to his superior and says, "Copy, copy, copy. Why don't we get to see the originals?"
"Ah, you want to see the original manuscripts of the sacred writings of the Church, eh? Well, go down into the cellar, and you will find what you seek."
The young monk disappeared and did not return for a long time. After a while, his superior sent down another monk to fetch him. When he, too, did not return, several others were sent. Not one of them returned. Finally the older priest went down himself. Lying prostrate on the cold floor were all the monks, weeping and lamenting.
"What is wrong?" asked their superior.
The first young monk raised his head, and through a choked, teary voice, muttered, "It says celebrate, not celibate."
Our bodies are a gift from God, meant to be enjoyed and used as any good gift. For C. S. Lewis, "the fact that we have bodies is the oldest joke there is." He reminded his readers that St. Francis of Assisi once called his own body Brother Ass. He was exactly right, thought Lewis. The donkey is an animal that is infuriatingly stubborn, minding its own slow business, requiring first the stick and then the carrot. Like Winnie the Pooh's friend Eeyore, the gloomy donkey often does little but sit around, eat thistles, and bemoan his sad state. And so are our bodies: demanding to be fed or pampered or massaged or just left alone.
But, alas and thankfully, one of the body's chief tasks in life is to play the part of the buffoon. Just when we think we have arrived as sophisticated, mature, self-controlled men and women, our physical forms begin to sag, wrinkle, fall apart, and emit creaks, squeaks, and other less publicly approved noises. Our bodies don't obey us the way they are supposed to. But then again, neither do our minds.
So Sarah laughed to herself. "How?" she asked. How, indeed, with her body, her whole wrinkled, sagging, broken-down body?
Laughter rang out in Sarah's innermost womb, the temple of God's own Holy Spirit. When our son was memorizing an anti-smoking poem for his fifth-grade class, the family started talking about our bodies being the temples of the Lord. We noted how some temples are bigger than others. Some are cathedrals while others are small prayer chapels. Somewhat mischievously, I looked over at my wife, winked, and thought, What a good-looking temple she has.
Like Sarah, if you contemplate your own body, you cannot reflect too long without being filled with wonder, despair, and then, hilarity. An apocryphal story from the public stage debates between Catholic G. K. Chesterton and Life-Force advocate George Bernard Shaw centered on Chesterton's four hundred-pound habitus.
Thumping on Chesterton's overripe belly, Shaw teased, "And what are you going to name it when's it's born, Gilbert?"
"Ah," Chesterton replied, "if it is a boy, I shall call him John. If a girl, I shall name her Mary. But if it is gas, I shall call it George Bernard Shaw."
Like digestive gases, laughter seems to come preinstalled with our bodies. Can we not understand the nature of our bodies and enjoy them for what God made them? After radical hip replacement surgery, I was convalescing miserably with tremendous gas pains in my abdomen. Constipated and aching, I was attended by sympathetic visitors, including my wife, Karen, and my professorial friend Ben Fraser. Both of them had been praying with me for a lessening of the intense pain, when suddenly I was overcome with flatulence. (These were, let me tell you, no polite expressions of release but a volcano of unrelenting praise from my southern hemisphere.) When it was over, all three of us laughed uproariously and thanked God fervently. And everyone who heard of it thereafter also laughed. Of course, they also left the room as soon as possible.
Thankfully, even the most broken-down members of the body can share in the moments of pleasure the entire body receives. That's because when God created pleasure, He connected it intimately to our bodies. For everybody's body, pleasure is just a touch away. A back massage will relieve tension in the tightest muscles. A foot rub will relax the most uptight partner. A child's simple hug can melt the iciest grandparent. The pleasure of a kiss at just the right moment can make the universe spin.
Laughter, too, is tied to the body. At its core laughter is a physiological response, the body's muscular response to certain bodily stimuli. At its heart, however, laughter is the product of the mind's recognition of a comic situation. Often described as mental jog- ging or internal mini-earthquakes, laughter makes our bodies convulse in predictable ways—they roll, they jiggle, they shake, they fall down with loud noises, and sometimes they make puddles.
Although the Book of Job describes us as relatives to jackals and owls, animals do not laugh as we do. Dogs come close to smiling; but even hyenas, creatures credited with laughing, really only howl out of meanness and hunger. Aristotle observed that among all animals, only man laughs. (Cats, of course, can sneer but not chuckle.)
Psychiatrist Paul Ekman studied the relationship between what we put on our faces and the emotional state of our bodies. He found that if we put on a face of anger or fear, it will trigger a genuine emotional reaction in our bodies. Try it: clench your teeth and set your jaw tightly and see if you feel more stress or ferocity.
Conversely, the same is true of positive emotions. Here's an experiment. Hold a pencil (or a stick, a finger, your cat's tail) between your lips. Notice how you feel (kind of dumb, I know, but try to be scientific). Now, hold the object between your front teeth. Do you feel a difference? Most of us sense the slightest suggestion of silliness, of percolating humor, of expectant laughter, when we expose our teeth. Such simple science suggests that how your face looks and what you put on it will affect your internal state.
If we become what we put on our faces, then it might behoove us to put on something pleasant. The merry truism to "put on a happy face" is grounded, in fact, in quite reputable research. Such an act may just cheer you up. So I once heard from a therapist, Dr. Hagerstaff, who studied facial muscles and developed a physiology of laughter. By coaching ourselves to exercise facial muscles in certain ways, we reattach the links between what our faces say and what they feel. Facial muscles send blood and messages to the brain, triggering a sense of well-being.
This physiological insight confirms what the Scriptures observed centuries ago: "A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit" (Prov. 15:13). This verse is also a sort of spiritual palindrome—a cheerful face also helps make a happy heart.
Sarah's heart was happy, so she laughed to herself. In the middle of that arid desert, her laughter bubbled up like springs of living water. Her body couldn't help it.
Innately, we know that if we experience a certain emotion, even if we try our best to hide it, the way we feel leaks through our bodies and reveals our mood. Excitement suppressed still bounces around through our walk or Tigger-like inability to stand or sit still. Sadness spills out of us, betraying our depression in and through our slumping posture, our downcast eyes, or our listlessness. And if you put a drop of lemon on a baby's tongue (not that I advocate such behavior), her face will show a shivering repugnance.
All the researchers have done is discovered the truth of the way God created us—that our inner and outer persons want to reflect each other. My friend Steve Sylvester recently reminded me that Abraham Lincoln once observed that by the age of fifty, everybody has the face he or she deserves—and today some have had several. The folks who have a few fickle faces would be what the Greeks called hypocrites, actors who changed the masks they held in front of their faces to portray certain emotions. To some extent we all do the same thing today (internally, of course), hiding our true feelings to maintain a level of social acceptability.
Otherwise, the direct correspondence between our feelings and our bodies remains evident. We see this portrayed in the poetry of the psalmists, who linked spiritual sin with physical suffering. In praising God for forgiving his horrible sins, King David remembered how he ruined his health by keeping quiet about his iniquity. In Psalms 31 and 32, he describes how his bones and body wasted away and how he felt God's heavy hand pressing him down to the earth. Although his eyesight was blurred by grief, he still noticed that his friends found him repulsive and avoided him. David knew that body and soul are intertwined, and after repenting and being restored to God's presence, he happily experienced the freedom from guilt and sin that revived and strengthened his life, both emotionally and physically.
Research supports the fact that humor is a cardiologist's dream, helping to keep your heart and body fit without trips to the gym. Just as Norman Cousins had discovered, laughter boosts healing and overall good physical health. Bombay physician Madan Kataria was so convinced of this that he organized numerous laughing clubs all over India. The Wall Street Journal reported that the jolly doctor directed his patients to stretch their muscles by both reaching for their toes and rotating their waists (a veritable challenge for some of us who can't see our toes because of our waist). Then, after several deep-breathing exercises, he had his patients start with some warm-up chuckles. His patients gradually climbed a ladder of laughter, moving to higher and higher rungs of hilarity until they eventually reached a point of physical cavorting and profuse sweating. Kataria proposed that laughter would help to alleviate high blood pressure and chase away migraine headaches. At the very least, it would exercise the thirty-two muscles of the face, which too rarely get the concentrated workout they need (except at weddings, when making faces at babies, or while watching a Fawlty Towers marathon).
The laugh-your-way-to-health craze went to a new level when cartoonist Garry Trudeau created a "Doonesbury" character who was an "aerobic humorist." This health guru conducted low-impact workouts using nothing but jokes. He argued that laughing two hundred times provides exercise equal to ten minutes of hearty rowing, thereby helping the lungs and torso while enabling the belly muscles to "feel the burn."
Trudeau's cartoon may have been a case of art imitating life. Dr. William F. Fry, formerly affiliated with Stanford University, published research indicating that laughing one hundred times a day is equivalent to about ten minutes of rowing. Such jovial exercise stimulates the production of hormones called catecholamines, which, in turn, release chemical endorphins into the brain. These endorphins seem to enhance blood flow, stimulate alertness, foster a sense of relaxation, and dull the stabs of pain. They also help you listen to in-laws or to long sermons by ministers.
There are critics who suspect that a happy heart and easy laughter are signs of naiveté. They claim that those who laugh may be out of touch with reality, that they are merely Pollyanna optimists. Well, according to a research report by Judith Newman in Health magazine, they are wrong. When faced with negative circumstances or bad news, Newman reported, optimists were found to be more realistic than pessimists and were more able to face a crisis head-on in a constructive manner. They were able to reframe negative events as new opportunities, even whistling while they worked, singing hymns in prison, or laughing at the news of an unexpected pregnancy.
It takes a certain amount of emotional maturity—and emotional good health—to see something comic in a difficult situation. Laughter is not a flight from reality but an experience that steps outside the prison of the self and sees that God is working in and through all things. As the great poet Dante taught us, even a journey that begins by walking into a dark wood and through the inferno can be called a "Divine Comedy."
This comedic element God designed is basically tied to the body, with specific human physiological responses. Dr. Hagerstaff explained that the arrival of laughter follows certain steps, from the mere stretching of the Zygomatic cheek muscles (those on the face), to the squinting of the tiny muscles around the eyes (the obicularis oculis), followed by the extension of the forehead and the dropping of the jaw (the frontal and platisma muscles), ending in the shaking of the whole body. When these actions have been completed, we find that the body produces "a complex set of muscular contractions, a coordinated contraction of diaphram, intercostal, interlaryngeal muscles all proceeded in microseconds by a slight tightening of the anal sphincter." (Of course the latter is for obvious reasons. Perhaps you never knew that God built that in, but he had to. If he hadn't, we'd be laughing from both ends.)
One might remember the old Chinese saying: "Beware the man whose belly does not move when he laughs." Such a person is more concerned with his or her dignity and will only give you a smile. Rather trust the person who gives herself over to laughter the way we should give ourselves over to God—completely.
I should warn you that this approach to laughter does have inherent "dangers." When you are overcome with laughter, "if there is a quantity of liquid in you, it will escape indecorously. For the internal agitation and jouncing are so strong that the sphincters are unable to resist." You will even find that if you lose control of your laughter while drinking milk, it will gush out of your nose.
Back in 1972, I was on a blind date in Denver at a spaghetti party with my sister Debby and her husband, Kent. I was funny. I was witty. I was the life of the party. Suddenly—as I was eating and laughing uncontrollably at my own wit—a noodle came out of my nose! Needless to say, I didn't get a second date.
I still laugh at myself over that incident. (I have to. My relatives are still living and will remind me if I don't.) My sister says it's a miracle that I ever got married. But I console myself with the fact that there is biblical precedence for my experience. When the Israelites complained about the lack of food in the wilderness ("It's so bad. And such small portions too"), God gave them quail. So what did they do? They ate so much that it came out their noses. It's true. Look it up in Numbers 11:19-20.
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Sarah laughed to herself. She tried to suppress it, but her joy was more than mere grinning. Her laughter silently roared out loud from behind the tent curtain. She laughed because in one way God had made her to laugh. Her body and the thought of Abraham's and the incredible hope of having a baby gave her good reasons. So she let loose, giving herself and her faith over to the Lord, with his promises of laughter and of life within her dusty, dry, deadpan womb.
At first she laughed just with herself. She wasn't ready to share the hilarity with Abraham, or with God. But as G. K. Chesterton noted, when a man laughs to himself, he is sharing his joke either with God or with the devil. So Sarah laughed to herself, secretly knowing she couldn't ultimately keep a good joke to herself—and God heard it.