What makes you laugh? Honest laughter is one of those odd things we don’t choose to do. Something surprises us, catches us off guard, and we find ourselves laughing. The more unexpected, the bigger the belly laugh! One thing that never fails to get me laughing is when I get the hiccups. I get the hiccups at the weirdest times – drinking pop, drinking water, breathing air(!). A severe attack of the hiccups has often caught me unawares at awkward moments – In the middle of a serious time of prayer at church, in the middle of a deep conversation I was having with a close friend at a coffee shop, in the middle of a meal when I am out to dinner with my family. And no matter what I do to try to rid myself of the hiccups as quickly as possible – two things always happen. I always lose my sense of self-importance and high-n-mighty dignity and I start to laugh.
If you think about it, laughter is something like catching a case of the hiccups – For one, you not always sure what got you started, but it is often hard to stop. And for another, it is not something planned, but we hear ourselves laughing in reaction to something that has startled us out of our normal reserve. As a linguist, I have thought about how laughter is part of the universal human language. In fact, in our first months of life, laughter and tears are our main modes of social connection to those around us. In tears, we connect through need and loss, but through laughter, we connect through the wonder of surprise!
One summer I went to Kazakhstan to teach English and stayed with a Uighur family whose language I did not share. We often ‘spoke’ in pantomime and gestures – and more often than not – through laughter which broke the tension of not being able to speak freely to one another. My adopted family laughed at my fumbling attempts to wash my clothes by hand. Through gestures and laughter I could see that they thought I was much too old to be struggling with such a simple task. I joined in with their laughter as I saw myself through their eyes – a grown woman from a far-away land who had somehow missed the most basic training of life that any 5-year Uighur child could do with ease.
They also laughed at my feeble attempts to roll out lagman noodles (a traditional central asian dish). I watched the Uighur mom, Salamet, weave the dough through her fingers and then slap the strips down on the table in a smart circular motion before gesturing to me that I should follow her example. I self-consciously picked up the dough strips and tried to weave them through my fingers like she had done – only to see them hanging limply in a sad disarray after my bumbled efforts. Salamet laughed and I did too. There is such grace in laughter – a healing grace that allows us to see our shortcomings and accept them and finally to take delight in them. Life is a vibrant art of bravely taking risks and stepping out of our comfort zones and all the while refusing to take ourselves too seriously.
Laughter became my saving grace and common language that summer. I laughed to myself as I scooped up the twins boys from their playpen in the morning listening to their baby babel and thinking of how my own ability to communicate was probably on par with theirs. I laughed when the neighbors tried to start a conversation with me in Uighur and couldn’t manage anything more than “good morning” in response. I laughed when I took a pictures and the youngest daughter, Karamet, would demand to see each picture on my digital camera right after I had taken them.
Karamet was always up for some kind of mischief or fun. She had short black hair, an impish smile and a love for games – especially a card game I had taught them early on called “Spoons”. After playing several rounds though it became obvious that she did not respond well to losing (who among us does?) One night when she did not win, she swooped down in a huff and grabbed up all the spoons from the center of our game in her small fist and ran off to hide them. For a stunned second, the family and I sat in surprise watching the little imp scamper away with our spoons and then a bubbling laughter erupted around the circle! Laughter that embraced and connected us together as a family.
Laughter has a way of breaking down the barriers between us. The differences that stood between us inherent in our diverse cultural expectations, linguistic knowledge and socioeconomic status melted away. As Grant Lee once said, “Shared laughter creates a bond of friendship. When people laugh together, they cease to be young and old, master and pupil, worker and foreman. They have become a single group of human beings, enjoying their existence.”
What is laughter? The dictionary defines laughter as: “Expressing certain emotions, especially mirth or delight, by a series of spontaneous, usually unarticulated sounds often accompanied by corresponding facial and bodily movements.” Laughter is a mystery to us. We can describe the scientifically observable facts about laughter, but it falls far short of answering the question of why laughter is so instinctive and universal. Dr. Robert Provine in Psychology Today had this to say about laughter after doing studies observing the phenomena, “Indeed, laughter is a “speaking in tongues” in which we’re moved not by religious fervor but by an unconscious response to social and linguistic cues. Stripped of its variation and nuance, laughter is a regular series of short vowel-like syllables usually transcribed as “ha-ha,” “ho-ho” or “hee-hee.” These syllables are part of the universal human vocabulary, produced and recognized by people of all cultures.”
It is simply a gift that we arrive with.
In the Scriptures, the main story that centers around laughter is the birth of Isaac. In fact, the name “Isaac” literally means “He laughs”. The story is about laughter because God surprises us by turning the normal expectations upside-down in a dramatic way and we find ourselves caught flat-footed along with the characters of the story. Even before Isaac is born God sets the stage for a drama – will it be a comedy or a tragedy? At first it seems like a tragedy, Abraham is 100 years old and considers his body “as good as dead” and Sarah is 90 years old and they have been waiting for a child – God’s promised heir – for over 25 years and still nothing. Most would say at this point “game over”. Maybe this is what Sarah thought – nothing else to wait for… except to die. It is too late now. Too late for her to have a son.
It is into this moment that three guests walk into the scene and Abraham invites them into to house and tells Sarah to prepare a meal for them. After the meal is prepared, one of the guests leans back under the tree and asks for Sarah. And then he declares the last thing Sarah expected to hear – next year she is to have a son!
She gasps and then laughs! What else can she do? Such an impossibility to even imagine! There is no dignified way she can have a baby at 90 years of age. And yet the punchline comes a year later when she does indeed have a son. The visitor had asked her that day, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” She must have shook her head in wonder and laughed many times during that next year. The very picture cannot be imagined in detail without cracking a smile. Sarah, this once great beauty, now grey-haired, slowed and stooped with age, humbled through years of waiting, face full of wrinkles now finally preparing a nursery, watching as her belly swells forth with life, and her breasts grow heavy with milk.
We like to live within the safety of our comfort zones because we know what to expect. But the living with the God of all grace is nothing like that. We never know what to expect next as grace crashes into our life story like a boulder set free from the mountainside. There are surprises of grace around every turn.
We have been forgiven for no reason at all except for the crazy love of God. Once we yield our lives to His lordship, there is no knowing where He will take our story and what unexpected and surprising things He will do. No one works like He does.
Our only option is to surrender our dignity and release our death grip on control and learn to laugh at ourselves or choose to go back to being a slave to self-protection and our futile attempts at self righteousness. Sarah chose laughter and grace over control and her sense pride. When Isaac is born she says, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:6-7) God’s impossible grace shocked Sarah by showing up in this bitterly disappointing place in her life – her life-long barrenness – and transforming it into a funny and fruitful reason for celebration.
God wants to do the same in our lives. Once we see ourselves from God’s point of view – as beloved children, but also weak and foolish and needy without Him – we too can laugh with Him. We can share in the shocking scandalous laughter of grace that shatters pious pride and self-importance. I learned this truth first hand as I shared in the laughter with my Uighur family who welcomed me and cherished me even when they saw how little I could accomplish on my own.
Author Walter Lanyon writes about his own encounter with this wild and freeing laughter of holy grace resounding in joyous echoes and crashing in around him, ”Deep in my soul I heard the Laughter of God, ringing in silvery cadences through the timbers of my being, breaking the human bonds and limitations as a strong yet gentle wind in the forest sweeps aside the strands of cobweb….The river of my human life, frozen by a thousand and one false ideas and teachings, broke joyously into expression and went bounding to the infinite sea of Life, to be lost and found at the same time…God laughing at me, and my puny efforts to make things happen; to make heaven appear; to attain Sonship. Not the laughter of derision, but of infinite compassion, a laughter so deep and sweet, so pure and glorious that everything in the nature of struggle gave way before it.”
May we open wide our hearts to be embraced by God’s full-bellied laughter of grace and be forgetful of our precious dignity that has kept us back in the shadows of fear for so long. I encourage you to take time today for laughter as you drink in the unexpected ways God is at work in your story.