It’s been a while coming, but after 50 years of following Jesus, I’m beginning to see that he’s telling a really good story, a funny story with a tiresomely long set-up but a terrific punch line, one that will keep anyone with a developed sense of humor laughing for a very long time.
One of the ten most remembered things my father said to me started me thinking down this path. It was March 1991. I was driving to a military cemetery outside Florence, South Carolina. Next to me in the front seat was Rachael, my wife. In the back were Mother and Dad.
Bill, my only sibling, four and a half years my senior, at the time 51, had just been killed in a plane crash. We were on our way to bury him.
The mood in the car was understandably somber. No one talked much. We were living in the middle of a tragedy. Then Dad spoke up with his naturally weak voice. He said, “No one’s going to tell us a joke today. They wouldn’t think it would fit. But it would. Not as a distraction, but to let us see what is sometimes so hard to see.”
I had no idea what he meant. But his words resonated somewhere in me beneath my understanding. I’ve heard them again, in my soul, at least a hundred times since. They’ve awakened the right side of my brain.
I’ve been sitting too long in a classroom. I guess I’ve always pictured God as a stern lecturer, standing stiffly in front of a blackboard with chalk in his hand and a whole box of back-up supply on his desk, turning regularly away from his small class of students to add more indecipherable symbols to an already ten foot long equation that would baffle Einstein. Along with a few other serious-minded stuffed shirts, I’ve been covetously sneering at the wild kids, lawbreakers all, who were skipping class to play dodgeball on the playground. I, however, good boy that I was, remained at my desk, taking notes, consulting reference texts, and trying hard to follow a really boring lecture I tried to pretend was gripping.
I was consumed with quietly seething jealousy at all the kids who were having fun outside, but I’d managed to keep it under wraps by telling myself, “They’re shallow. Their fun isn’t real. I’m studying truth. And one day it will set me free. Then they’ll be jealous of me!”
Maybe it’s the older-brother syndrome in me that accounted for my alternately resenting and then feeling drawn to the ringleader of the wild kids, that passionate, handsome guy who would every now and then poke his head in the classroom door and shout, “Hey, you’re never going to get what he’s teaching. He isn’t the real teacher anyway. He’s a fill-in. Don’t you want to have some fun? C’mon, follow your desire. Live a little. Grab your notebook and toss it in the waste can on the way out. We’re all having a blast. It’s party time—and you’re invited.”
I’ve mostly resisted that particular siren’s call for 50 years, and now I’m glad I did. That ringleader is a fool, an attractive heretic. What I want the most is not found away from the teacher—and he is the real one—it’s found by getting to know the teacher.
I can now see the smile on the teacher’s face and that changes my perception of the entire room. No longer are the symbols part of an obscure equation I have to understand; I can recognize them now as chapters in a divine version of It’s a Wonderful Life. And I’m Jimmy Stewart; I’ve been hating my life for a long time, but I’m just now waking up from a bad dream, and I can hear a party getting underway. No, it’s already in full swing. But I’m still leaning against the wall, like a junior high kid holding his punch, afraid to get out there and dance.
So, I’ve put down my pencil, put my feet up on the desk, and now I’m sitting back listening to the greatest storyteller of all time tell the greatest story I’ve ever heard. It’s sounding less and less like an academic lecture, and more and more like an invitation to dance. And it’s funny, in the style of Garrison Keillor. The punch line has already been delivered—right during the Ascension—and the Spirit (he’s the teacher) is doing all he can not to fall over laughing.
To be honest, I’m still not quite getting it. I feel like a kid listening to an old-timer telling other old-timers a joke that everybody is getting but me. It’s hard to laugh watching a six-foot box with your brother inside descend into the ground. But the divine joke is being told. Right then. It’s just hard to catch the humor.
A second sentence on my top ten list of memorable sentences from Dad was spoken after we got out of the car and were walking to the tent with rows of folding metal chairs lined up in front of a casket. Mother and Dad were ahead of Rachael and me, holding tightly to each other. When Mother saw the casket, she faltered. Dad held her more tightly and said, in an uncharacteristically strong voice that I could easily hear, “Remember, Izzy, he’s not there!”
Tears filled my eyes, but at the same time I almost laughed. Sorrow and joy together. For a moment, it all made sense. And as I watched the casket disappear into the freshly dug hole, I kept thinking, “He’s not there!” I was hearing the divine joke.
I want to learn to tell my story as one short (though not insignificant) part of a very funny story. Let me try, by first sharing a few defining snippets.
Therapists often think earliest memories mean something. My first clear memory is warm: Grandma’s front porch on Penn Street, in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Azaleas in full bloom, a pleasant spring morning, a pitcher of water with the whole ice cube tray sticking out of its top, Grandma and me rocking slowly together on the front porch swing. Sitting, swaying, sipping ice water, occasionally talking, watching a dozen bees busying themselves on the sweet blossoms, me saying, “Grandma, look!” when a hummingbird would furiously flap near the feeder.
Nothing to figure out, everything to enjoy. Not a bad first memory. I was a child of three. The promise of things to come? Hardly, unless you take a very long view.
My second clear memory involves that same house. I loved breakfast in Grandma’s kitchen. She would make my toast in what would now be a curious antique, then position so many thick chunks of butter you could no longer see the toast, and finally ladle on enough fresh peach preserves to hide all the butter. It was great!
One morning—and it’s my first memory of relational tension—Mother looked impatiently at Grandma, her mother, and said, “That’s too much butter and jelly. It’s not good for him!” I could tell she was mad. Grandma “tut-tutted” her, and Mother walked away in a huff.
I stayed sitting at the kitchen table, but I looked at my heavily buttered and generously jellied toast a little differently. I ate it, but didn’t give in to the pleasure quite as much. That’s the first time I remember thinking, “Something’s wrong here. Everyone’s not happy. There’s something to be afraid of. I better be on my guard. This toast might kill me. I wonder if Mother and Grandma will duke it out.”
Indulge my telling three more early incidents that shaped my understanding of life as anything but funny, and aroused my natural foolishness.
We were still living at Grandma’s (our home in the country took longer to build than Dad had hoped. We found out later the head contractor was a drunk). Grandpa was there too, but he was stern and aloof. When he prayed, I cringed. I have no memories of him other than watching him eat his one poached egg every morning and never smiling, never, at least, toward his wife. I saw my Mother cry two times. The first time occurred a few months after the toast incident when Mother came running out of Grandma’s kitchen, sobbing and screaming, “Mother, you’ve been drinking again!”
Years later, Dad, never Mother, told me that Grandma was an alcoholic. My first thought was “Married to Grandpa, no wonder. But drinking beats homicide.”
Mother ran upstairs to her bedroom and slammed the door shut. Grandma kept busy in the kitchen, Grandpa was working in his garden, Dad was at work on Queen Lane, and Bill was at a friend’s house playing. I stood in the hallway, stock-still, for maybe two minutes. I didn’t know what to do. I think it was the first time I felt responsible to help someone, but had no idea how to go about it. So I ran outside, found some friends, and played.
Looking back, the lesson learned was this: “There really is something to be afraid of: Something is seriously wrong. And I can’t do anything to fix it. But if I don’t fix it, I might end up alone!”
Then kindergarten, age five. Mifflin School was four blocks from Grandma’s house. It was full-day kindergarten, so I left school every afternoon to walk home at 2:30 and arrived before 3:00. No one ever thought of danger to a five-year-old walking four blocks by himself. This was before even Beaver Cleaver.
One afternoon, I managed to get lost. How, I don’t know. Maybe I chased a butterfly or picked up an acorn and looked at it more than where I was going. Suddenly I stopped. I was on a hill with red brick townhouses on both sides of a street I had never seen before.
So I did what any sensible, well-adjusted five-year-old child would do. I stood there and cried. A policeman driving by was the first to see me. “Where do you live?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your phone number?”
“ I don’t know.”
And then, right in the middle of a conversation going nowhere, a ’47 black Chevy pulled up. Dad!
I was late, and he was out looking for me. Everything was okay. I was rescued.
And that, as far as I can recall, was the first time I realized I needed rescuing, that things could go so wrong that someone needed to come through for me—or I’d die.
I felt weak, not just scared, but weak and needy. I can’t make it.
I can’t fix you, and I can’t fix me.
I can’t control anything important.
Someone please help! And Dad did. He was strong, he could drive, he knew the way home, and he would take me there.
Fast forward one year. We were now in our new house with unleveled joists and beer bottles left behind the insulation. I was a proud first grader, six years old, and just beginning to realize I learned more quickly than most of my classmates. I could throw a ball farther and run faster than most of the other boys, and I could do things that made kids laugh, especially Loretta. I liked to follow her up the sliding board ladder so I could see up her dress. I was coming alive.
Every Wednesday evening our little family of four would eat a quick dinner and drive to the Allen Lane tennis courts. Dad loved tennis. Mother would go along with a thermos of iced tea and chat with other wives. Bill and I watched Dad play doubles with Uncle Cecil, Frank, and another of Dad’s friends I can’t remember.
What I do recall, very clearly—I guess because it stirred so much shame—was Dad telling jokes while he played that no one laughed at. I wished he’d just play. I hated hearing him try so hard to be funny. It was the first time I saw that my father, the man who took me home when I was lost, was insecure. My strong rescuer wasn’t so strong after all.
It was after that realization I began lying out on our front lawn on summer evenings by myself, looking into the dark sky for up to an hour. I tried to picture how far away the stars were and how big they must be. It was strangely comforting. I know now I was searching for strength beyond myself, beyond my father, for someone who would allow me to swing again on Grandma’s porch. I wanted go eat her toast again and sneak a peak at Loretta’s underwear, or at least feel happy and alive again like I did then. I wanted to know someone good and powerful who would show up if I got lost or in trouble, and take me home. I was homesick for Eden.
But I couldn’t go back. So I moved on. Grade school, junior and senior high, and then college confirmed that I was pretty intelligent. My college psychology prof thought I’d make a good psychologist and urged me to apply to graduate school. Five years later, I finished first in my doctoral class at the University of Illinois in clinical psychology.
And I was athletic enough to enjoy myself and even show off a little bit. I took up fast-pitch softball, played tennis at a 4.0 level, and became darned good at ping-pong. I forgot about Loretta, met Rachael when we were both ten, and talked her into marrying me at 21.
The joke was developing. This little boy who had known snatches of pure delight, who then got scared that things might fall apart, who knew he could end up lost and alone and unrescued, who realized that even the strongest man he knew had clay feet, and who had begun a search for a reliable and kind power he couldn’t find, decided to handle things on his own. I learned that to survive I had to take matters into my own hands.
We laugh when children play grown-up, when little girls pretend to be mothers and little boys run outside to make a living. I’m big now. I can handle things. It’s all silly fun. But when growing-up humans think they can escape the helplessness of childhood and make it on their own, we should laugh at their silliness, but instead we applaud. Our approach to living is a bad joke. But we take it seriously and call it good.
If I must, and I guess I must, I can pull it off. That’s what I thought. Built into that resolve were three assumptions: Life is linear. B follows A. Things are predictable, so if I figure out the patterns, I should get along pretty well.
I’m on my own. Terrifying, certainly, but also exhilarating. Grandma’s gone, Dad’s weak, and God’s distant, so I’ll step up to the plate. I have to, but you know what? I want to. Independence feels good, good enough to hide the terror, at least for awhile.
A life that works well will make me happy, so that’s what I’ll live for. And I can make it happen. I can perform. I have what it takes,
I think, so let’s get on. Don’t cry when you’re lost; no one’s going to come anyway. So knock on the nearest door (admit you need a little help), ask directions, then follow them. You’ll be fine. Relax.
When I decided to follow Jesus as an eight-year-old at boys’ camp, I wanted him to get me to heaven. That was the one thing I knew I couldn’t handle on my own. When my eternal future was settled and in the bag, it was time to get on with controlling everything that mattered now.
And I’ve done pretty well. I’ve worked hard, made decent money, live in a nice home, enjoy my wife of coming up on 40 years, raised two responsible, Jesus-following young men, and have two great daughters-in-law and two beautiful grandchildren. I’m a success. Why then have I felt—and do I, so often feel—empty and miserable?
A close friend, the man I regard as my spiritual director, tells me my special gift is to feel depressed in the middle of blessings.
He’s right—it is a gift; it’s part of the detachment process, that awful experience where the Spirit helps me see that I’ve been laughing too hard at what really isn’t very funny, that cars and family and success have not been filling my soul as much as I thought they were. And He’s guiding me toward the attachment process. He’s refining my sense of humor and deepening my capacity for pleasure so that I can get my biggest kick out of the eternal comedy.
And to do it, to detach me from lesser pleasure and attach me to greater pleasure, he’s taking me through the cycle of Ecclesiastes (“I have so much. Why does it mean so little?”); Job (“Oh, my! I can’t get that part of my life to work. Life is not linear. I’m really not in control of anything that matters. Willfulness is the path to death.”); and on to the Song of Songs (“I’m not alone. God has been hiding behind the lamppost while this five-year-old’s been secretly crying, waiting for just the right time to jump out and say, ʻBoo!’ He’s here! He cares! He’s strong! I’ll be going home soon.”)
I’ve been reading Jesus’ parables. Talk about a strange teacher. “I’ll make sure you don’t get what I’m talking about. I’ll teach you in riddles.” What I hear him saying to me is this:
“If you think you get what I’m saying too quickly, you’ll just use your own corrupted version of my teaching to reinforce your linear, independent, self-sufficient approach to life.You’ll live to make everything here as nice as possible, you’ll expect me to cooperate, and you’ll end up as self-centered as you are now. I’ve got to confuse you, entice you through suffering to want me more than anything or anyone else, and to get you to stop thinking you can manage things on your own.
“Withholding blessings, or keeping you from enjoying them too much, is the best way to do that.”
I’ve spent my life denying mystery, even when I thought I had embraced it. The urge to figure life out and make it work dies hard. And I’ve denied my radical need to trust. I’m all for trusting Jesus, but only to help me the way a map does in getting me where I want to go. The idea of trusting Jesus in the absence of blessings is not entirely new, but actually doing it is.
And I’ve denied how proud I am. I am smart, I am reasonably athletic, and I am resourceful. With a little help from God, I’ll be just fine.
Through the emptiness of the Ecclesiastes experience and the suffering of the Job experience and the music of the Song of Songs experience (I first saw these three categories in Peter Kreeft’s writings), I’m learning I’ve had it all wrong.
And while I’m learning how wrong I’ve been, God is laughing, not at me, but for me. “Mystery is a thrilling adventure. Embrace it and you’ll find your center in me. And trust is freeing. When you stop depending on yourself, who you really are will be released—and you’re terrific. I’ve seen to that. And humility—well, that will open the door to enjoying someone a whole lot better than Grandma. And I’ll give you a breakfast treat that will make you forget that buttered and jellied toast.” So that’s what the blackboard hieroglyphics mean!
The kingdom of heaven still isn’t visible. When Jesus rose in the clouds, he left us in a mess. And we’ve been trying to improve things ever since. As if we could. No, get confused! Let go! Fix your eyes on Jesus! It’s all rather fun. It really is a wonderful life. Maybe my angel just got his wings. And I just might die laughing.