The other night I watched a television show that fascinated me. It was
about a street magician who travelled with a deck of cards, coins, and bits
of string, and stopped people anywhere simply to make them laugh by his
Of course the medium of television leaves one quite skeptical, thinking
the magic may simply be an illusion brought about by the cameras, but what
interested me was watching the people’s reaction. They were amazed and
responded with uncontrollable, doubled-over laughter.
Laughter is a physical reaction that is quite remarkably and universally
human. Scientists and psychologists have studied it for years, trying to
determine the exact nature of laughter, whether it is culturally determined,
or what it is that triggers our laughing mechanism.
It has been shown to improve everything from office morale to personal
health. For years, Readers’ Digest has run a section called “Laughter, the
Best Medicine.” (I’m sure that more than one of us has tried to procure that
$50 reward for sending in a joke.)
I believe the ability to laugh is one of the divine fires inside of all
of us. It blesses all: rich, poor, young, old, fat, thin, bald, fair, ruddy,
big feet or no feet. There can be simply nothing finer than laughing.
Our laughter is a distinguishing mark of who we are, and it multiplies
exponentially when shared with other people. After cooing, the first attempt
that parents make to draw some speech from their babies is to tickle them
into a laugh. We have acute enough hearing to be able to pick out our loved
one’s laughter in the room next door.
Even when our conscious mind muddies with disability, there is no
mistaking the laughter that still echoes from the person inside. (The last
time I saw my grandmother, as she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease,
her speech didn’t always make sense to me, but her laughter was the way she
was able to remember me and embrace me.)
Perhaps the reason that we cannot understand laughter, no matter how much
we study it, is that it is divine in origin and carries many meanings.
In a recent article on working with the people of Kiribati, an island
country in the mid-Pacific, Joyce de Gooijer, a Volunteer International
Christian Service worker, said this: “Laughter was something to get used to.
It is generally how all emotions are expressed there. Laughter could express
being nervous, angry, happy, supportive, or funny. I couldn’t always tell
which it was, though I got to know one person well enough to know if his
laughter was because something was funny or he was trying to find a way to
tell me that I was out to lunch!”
As far back as Abraham and Sarah, we see laughter in our human story.
When God sends messengers to tell them they are to have a son, their
reaction is laughter.
“Abraham prostrated himself and laughed as he said to himself, ‘Can a
child be born to a man who is 100 years old, or can Sarah give birth at
Later: “So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am so withered
and my husband is so old, am I still to have sexual pleasure? But the Lord
said to Abraham: Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I really bear a child,
old as I am?’ Is anything too marvellous for the Lord to do?” Gen. 17 and
“Sarah then said, ‘God has given me cause to laugh, and all who hear of
it will laugh with me. Who would have told Abraham,’ she added, ‘that Sarah
would nurse children, yet I have borne him a son in his old age” Gen. 21:6,
Laughter, awe, faith, love, sexual pleasure, all divinely instilled in
us, intertwine in this marvellous story. In bringing the great gift of Isaac
(“Yishaq,” the Hebrew form of the name, means “laugh”), God’s work in the
lives of Abraham and Sarah is rich and real. As our own “yishaq” grows, my
husband and I as the older parents are often struck with the same richness
and realize the gift that this child has been in our lives.
As with all divine fires, though, we run the risk of causing great harm
with laughter. It escapes so quickly, so easily. Sometimes we laugh at, not
with. We laugh at jokes meant to undermine the dignity of other people. We
laugh in cruelty, in lack of understanding or consideration. It just happens
All we need to do to understand the potential for harm is to think back
to our own childhoods. One of our greatest fears was to be laughed at by
other children. As adults it comes not only in being the butt of a joke, but
also, in being left out of the joke.
Laughter, as fire, can separate and burn as easily as it unites and
warms. I suspect all of us to a person have had regrets over mis-spilled
For a long time, I wondered why the evangelists omitted any reference to
Christ’s laughter. My guess now is that they had a very good reason. It was
probably the “you had to be there” effect, like a joke that has to be
explained. Words get in the way.
Jesus laughed, I have no doubt. He still laughs with us and through us,
and through those around us, a-tears-running-down-the-cheeks belly-laugh
filled with joy, wonder, and awe. Just listen for Him the next time you
laugh. His laugh is unmistakably rich and real.
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