Jesus wept.”

The biblical verse that the first kid spouts off in the Vacation Bible School line-up of children demonstrating that they have memorized at least one Bible verse. It’s short. It commits well to memory. And it leaves every other kid reaching into his or her mental arsenal for another verse to recite.

“Jesus wept.”

It’s the shortest verse in the King James version of the Bible, and it’s true value is that it reveals Jesus’ humanity – something not often emphasized in the gospel of John. After Lazarus’ death and in the face of Mary and Martha’s deep grief, Jesus wept. (John 11:35)

“Jesus wept.”

It reminds us that Jesus was made of the same stuff as the rest of us. We can debate his divinity all day and night, but Jesus was at least human. He cried. He ate. He worked. Presumably he put on his pants one leg at a time.

It has only now occurred to me that in all the biblical expressions of Jesus’ humanity, we never see reports of Jesus laughing. We know he went to dinner parties. We know he celebrated feast days. He went to a wedding. He had friends. We can assume he laughed, but we never get a recording of it.

Jesus is usually pictured as a pretty somber guy. Think of the picture of the Last Supper that you’ve seen. Jesus with all his friends. He’s looking profound. Sad. Really wise and holy. Or stoic. But he doesn’t look the way I do when I’m having dinner with my friends: laughing and having a good time.

The importance of laughter has really hit home lately. I found myself laughing as I read a couple pages of Therese Borchard’s book Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes. I didn’t just chuckle. I laughed. I laughed hard. I interrupted the people sitting around me in the coffee shop. I almost blew water out of my nose. It was funny.

What, one might reasonably, can be that funny in a memoir about depression?

I laughed because I really identified with the passage I read. And Borchard has a great wry sense of humor. She’s able to describe really challenging life events with a slightly self-deprecating distance and wit that keeps one from feeling depressed just because one is reading about depression.

My laughter also reminded me of the importance of laughter in the context of depression. For me, the absence of laughter is a true-tell sign that I’m depressed. Here’s how it happens: One day, something will be funny. Not the kind of funny where you get the joke and smile and nod your head. Not the kind of funny where you giggle a little bit. The kind of funny where you lean your head back and ignore whatever sound is coming out of your mouth. And then I’ll hear myself think (sometimes I say it out loud): “I can’t remember the last time I laughed.”

I can’t. I will be unable to remember the last time I laughed. That means it has been weeks or months since I’ve really laughed. That means, I haven’t been happy in a long time. Of course, the laughter also means I’m feeling a little better now.

The laughter surprises me because it’s fairly easy to go around not laughing. I can smile, and do my job quite well. There’s no expectation that a professor and minister should be laughing. To the contrary – religion is generally supposed to be a really serious topic. I talk about matters of spiritual life and death. I preach about salvation and ethics. I teach about theory and philosophy. Sober material.

Christian traditions don’t well emphasize laughter. Some religious traditions are better at this. For example, Buddhism has an enviable image of a laughing Buddha. Some traditions have strong trickster figures that often laugh and delight (sometimes at someone else’s lack of wisdom). Western Christianity . . . not so much. We may have joy, but we don’t have many images or pictures of laughter. Jesus didn’t laugh.

I’ve missed it myself. In my book, Making a Way Out of No Way: a Womanist Theology, I talk about the various experiences and charges of a Savior. I am careful to note that a Savior’s work can be challenging and difficult. Why do you think Jesus needed to get away by himself every once in awhile? This salvation-business is hard.

I forgot to say that the work of salvation can also be fun. I forgot to say how important it is to have not just disciples, but also friends. This is something the gospel of John emphasizes a lot (ch 13-16). I forgot to say that sometimes us professional-religion-folk get together and laugh our heads off over the funny things we encounter. I think I forgot this because it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to get caught up in how important and serious and life-changing something is, and forget to take a break and laugh.

So I think, we have to be intentional about getting the laughter in. I’ll rent and re-rent the same DVD (you’d think I’d learn to buy it) by my favorite comedian. It’s guaranteed to put me in stitches.

I do this because I know that laughter is good for me. Literally. Laughter kicks in all types of chemicals that are known to ease depression– like beta-endorphins. Scientists actually document this. Therese Borchard well summarizes 9 ways that humor heals. Here are a couple of things laughter and humor do:

  1. Combat fear
  2. Comfort
  3. Reduce pain
  4. Boost the immune system
  5. Reduce stress

This reminds me of how amazing and complex the human body is. It makes me think about how God creates us with some ability to heal ourselves. It reminds me that laughter is a gift from God.

I might have arrived here sooner if one of the gospels had a verse saying, “Jesus laughed.” Without that, I’ve become content with this quote from the writer Anne Lamott:

“Laughter is carbonated holiness.”

Yeah, it is.

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