Saturday, May 29, 2010

I am Thankful for Church Laughter

I suspect congregations in all denominations have their embarrassing moments. Surely a priest has fainted during a wedding, a Lutheran usher has stumbled in the isle somewhere, sometime, and a Presbyterian minister has misread his own sermon. But these are churches of order, beauty and dignity. They are churches of careful planning and control. In my limited experience even their laughter is carefully controlled.

Several sociologists of religion (Walter Hollenweger, Harvey Cox) have pointed out that Pentecostals are characterized by chaos. The mainline churches work hard to keep chaos out. Pentecostals bring the chaos of their lives into the presence of God who has the power to tame it. Historically this finds expression in exuberant worship and occasional wild gesticulation. Sometimes the chaos creates the absence of social restraint and bubbles over into hilarity.

Some of the humor arises out of the physical environment of churches financed by the poor. When we moved to Alabama we joined the Eastlake Church of God. It was the one closest to our house. Eastlake worshipped in an old storefront. When it rained the roof leaked and we put out pots to catch the dripping water. One Sunday we had a downpour. As the service progressed more leaks sprouted. The pastor’s wife would go get another pot until she finally ran out. I counted seventeen old pots of all shapes and sizes and leaks kept springing. It reminded me of the woman in the Bible who was instructed by the prophet to borrow pots to fill with oil, when she ran out of pots the oil stopped. In the abundance of God’s provisions that day the water kept flowing long after we ran out of pots and the pots were full.

The restrooms of our cathedral were up front. The men’s room was on the right and the women’s room was on the left. Well when you've got to go you've got to go. More than once someone took care of necessities right in the middle of the sermon. It was not too distracting to see them walk up front or return to their seat. It was the flushing of the commode that commanded my attention. Of course a good Pentecostal preacher can out preach any distraction.  It was during this season of life I learned to practice the spiritual discipline of bladder control.

One Sunday an official from the state office was our guest preacher. (I will leave him un-named although he went on to some prominence in the denomination.)  During the service, shortly before time for the sermon, he went to the men’s room. (There’s no need to be uncomfortable when you’re preaching.) Unfortunately, the light bulb was out in the room and he had to leave the door slightly ajar in order to find the toilet, but it must have still been very dark. You could hear him feeling his way around in the darkness. Suddenly there was a commotion and a little boy hurried out of the men’s room and ran straight for his mother seated on the second row.  He franticly tried to tell her something. When the dignitary stepped out of the dark, wiping his washed hands on his pants, the little boy jumped up, pointed and yelled out, “That’s him Momma; that’s the man that peed on me.”

Now I cannot imagine there has ever been an Episcopalian, Lutheran, or Catholic anywhere in the USA that has heard a testimony like that in church.

I don’t want to go back to worshipping in a rundown storefront, but I am thankful I have worshipped and laughed there and I could do both again.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 29, 2010

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