John Stott’s The Radical Disciple (Wholehearted Christian Living) and why laughter is so important to that living

It was the last book that he wrote. What a great little encouraging, challenging book it is. The cleanliness of his prose coupled with a deep, seemingly (almost) instinctive understanding of what it means to be a human serves a reader at any level. The examples he chose to illustrate what it means to be a disciple are personal and some borrowed from history. He emphasises simple living, care for our environment and the need to conform to Christ rather than to those who would lead us astray. While reading the book it didn’t seem like a memoir or an autobiography, but after having put it down it does, though without the focus being on the author or his life. The entire book is worth your time, but I just wanted to highlight a point that relates to my ongoing interest in humour and laughter, with a reminder of its serious nature.

Stott endorses humour. He does so for the sake of both humility and as a means to come to terms with the need to be dependent on others when we are used to being dependant on ourselves. In the chapter entitled Balance he reminds us of Peter’s illustration of what it means to be a Christian. Peter calls us a stone that is used to build the temple, of which Jesus is the cornerstone. (1 Peter 2:1-17) He juxtaposes the texts which say:

See I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.

Against:

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone

and

A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.

I will tell you where he takes the problem of the stumbling block and the ensuing shame, that rock which bruises the shin of the unfaithful, in just a moment. First I want to jump to a section in the chapter on Dependence, in which Stott recounts when he broke his hip. One Sunday morning in 2006, he tripped, feel and could not move. He contacted help through his panic button and was whisked off to hospital while Hugh Palmer took his sermon notes and preached on his behalf.

Desiring for us to understand how painful the experience was, he later recounts weeping, first with a friend at hospital and when at home with a carer, who put her hand on his shoulder and encouraged him to ‘let it out’. This is perhaps the part of the book which is the most autobiographical a humble man will let a book become. But before he summons this illustration of pain management and dealing with the need to be dependent even in preparation for death, he asks the reader to bear in mind how he broke his hip:

So as the chapter progresses please do not forget my earlier experience, spread-eagled on the floor, completely dependent on others.

Knowing the meticulous clarity with which he writes, I cannot imagine him using the word ‘spread-eagled’ for any other reason than to induce at least the smallest smile, if not to get an out right laugh from his readers. Later in the chapter he quotes Archbishop Michael Ramsey during an ordination ceremony on humility. The last point is about having a sense of humour:

Use your sense of humour. Laugh about things, laugh at the absurdities of life, laugh about yourself, and about your own absurdity. We are all of us infinitesimally small and ludicrous creatures within God’s universe. You have to be serious, but never be solemn, because if you are solemn about anything, there is the risk of becoming solemn about yourself.

Let’s now return back to St. Peter and the stumbling block, which I have previously argued is an illustration of slapstick. There being examples in the Bible of humour that we often do not recognize as such, because we are probably guilty of being rather solemn when we read the bible or pray; but, for the sake of taking the advice of the Archbishop, lets keep in mind that we are to have a sense of humour and also be serious.

Without making an adjective out of the word ‘serious’, let’s think about the serious nature of laughter.

In the post I just mentioned I argued that God has a sense of humour and that even when slapstick happens, and God laughs at us, he provides healing. I gave the example of Paul preaching and a young man falling asleep and falling out of a windowsill and dying, or at least seriously injuring himself, only to be resurrected or healed later in the account. This is a perfect example of slapstick. I then relate slapstick to the idea that Jesus is the cornerstone that causes the proud to stumble because they have faith in the law and have rejected him. We laugh when a haughty-taughty self-righteous somebody trips up. We laugh because pride comes before a fall, yet Stott uses the ambiguity between Jesus being the cornerstone-stumbling block, and being the cornerstone on which the church is built, to illustrate the importance of being able to live in community. This is seen in a further encounter he had.

The Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Illinois University once told him that he had had a lovers quarrel with the church. It was because the church had failed him as a young man, and continued to fail his patients to this day, adding that the church had never learned the secret of community. Stott’s plea to his readers was for the church to recapture the vision of fellowship, ‘as living stones in the building of God. … there is a great need for better mortar.’

So what is that mortar? Obviously its more than humour, but laughter is a part of that mortar. Gods response to slapstick is to laugh but with compassion. To have such a response to slapstick we must be able to have a proper idea of our place in the universe and an eschatology which takes into consideration Gods eschatological view, which includes the stone becoming a living sacrifice on our behalf, and providing ultimate healing. In the Archbishops words:

We are all of us infinitesimally small and ludicrous creatures within God’s universe. You have to be serious, but never be solemn, because if you are solemn about anything, there is the risk of becoming solemn about yourself.

And

Use your sense of humour. Laugh about things, laugh at the absurdities of life, laugh about yourself, and about your own absurdity.

The Radical Disciple is great. Let me know if you would like to borrow it.

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