Laughter as a Means of Grace by John de Gruchy

Laughter as a Means of Grace by John de Gruchy

‘God’s foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ (I Corinthians 1:18-15)
A few weeks ago we took our grandchildren to Le Grand Cirque Fantazie, which can best be described as a high-tech version of a good old-fashioned circus staged in a modern theatre rather than a tent. As in all good circuses, there was a clown who played the fool and provided continuity for the show. After we marveled at the amazing acts of the other performers, the clown brought us back to earth with a laughing bump. He reminded me of Tickey the Clown, the dwarf in Boswell’s Circus many years ago who delighted us when we were kids with all his antics between the dazzling performances of trapeze artists and Boswell himself in the lions’ den. Like the court jester of Medieval times or the trickster in every culture, the clown fulfils an important role, making us laugh not just at himself but also at ourselves, our foibles and silliness. How necessary that is especially when we take ourselves too seriously.
‘There is a time to weep and a time to laugh,’ so says the preacher in the book we call Ecclesiastes. Often the two go together. Laughter we often say is the best medicine, and for good reason, for it not only helps to bring us back to our senses, but it also helps us to live with sadness and sorrow. Isobel and I have discovered this during these past five months since Steve’s death, not least when we shared stories with our grandchildren about his early years that made us laugh together. No wonder, then, that the great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth went so far as to say that ‘laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.’ How, then, does laughter become a means of grace for us not least in difficult times of strain and tearful sadness?
I found one clue in Jean Vanier’s book Community & Growth in a section where he writes about how to deal with aggression and tension in our personal lives and relationships. He speaks of people who, under the inspiration of the Spirit are able to absorb the tensions that often threaten to tear us apart by ‘playing the fool. Then he says, ‘the aggression is gradually transformed and the crackle of tension is dissipated in the light of laughter.’ (67) My copy of Vanier’s book was originally owned by Clement Sergel, the Anglican priest who did so much for Volmoed in its early days. Next to this passage Clement put not one, but two exclamation marks! He knew that the Volmoed community had learnt to laugh when going through difficult times, and that it would be important to continue to practice the art in the future. Every community needs a jester whose God-given gift is to play the fool! Playing the fool, or being the clown, can be an important ministry, a means of God’s grace. That is why in the Russian Orthodox tradition the ‘holy fool’ is a revered person.
Of course, playing the fool is not always helpful or good, and being foolish in the normal sense of the word is not exactly a virtue. In the Old Testament the ‘fool’ is someone who does not acknowledge God, and much of the wisdom literature is a critique of such foolishness. So I am not exalting stupidity as a virtue. But it has long been recognized that jesters, tricksters and clowns fulfill an important role in society by deflating the proud and arrogant and exalting the humble and meek. There is even an international organization that goes by the name ‘Clowns for Jesus,’ at least that’s what I discovered on the internet. They are, I read ‘a group of evangelical clowns who use red noses, and slapstick comedy to spread the Christian faith’, or, as they prefer to term it ‘gospel clown’.You may also like to know that as far back as 1980 there was a clown ministry at St. Martin’s-in-the-Field in London where, on occasion the vicar also wore a red nose during worship! I well recall that Robert Steiner, when he was the youth pastor at the Rondebosch United Church in Cape Town, used clowning to great effect, sometimes arriving at church and sharing in worship dressed as a clown with red nose and oversized shoes! It all puts a new spin on St. Paul’s words about being a ‘fool for Christ’s sake,’ the holy fool who, in some significant way embodies the spirit of Jesus.
There is, in fact, a long tradition beneath the surface of respectable Christianity of regarding Jesus as a clown. This may sound irreverent to some, but as some scholars have pointed out there is some ground for this in the gospels. Consider the way in which he pricked the balloon of pious pomposity in his day, challenging the rich and powerful with his parables and pithy sayings such as the one about a camel going through the eye of a needle! You may also remember the play and movie Godspell in which Jesus is portrayed in this way. I know that the mere idea of Jesus as a clown will not go down well with those who regard themselves as the custodians of doctrine, morality and piety, but then Jesus did not go down well with them either during his ministry! I guess the common people heard Jesus gladly not least because he brought the religious hypocrites of his day down a peg or two for their own good and that must have caused a laugh or two in the crowd.
Unlike in the Medieval courts where jesters were able to say what they liked with impunity, Jesus’ words and deeds in which he challenged the religious and political powers brought him to the cross. They could not laugh at themselves; they did not recognize their hypocrisy; they felt threatened by this foolish prophet and messianic pretender. But in dying on the cross, as Jean Vanier put it, Jesus absorbed, or took upon himself all that tears us apart in order that we could be healed and made whole. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that in writing about the cross Paul describes this outpouring of God’s love and grace in Jesus as something that appears to be foolish but is actually a sign of God’s wisdom. So there, at the very heart of Christian faith, there, in that supreme act of redemption, we discover the foolishness that makes us look again at ourselves, acknowledge our need, and discover afresh God’s amazing, saving grace. Truly, ‘…God’s foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’
Volmoed Eucharist
22 July 2010