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Sunday Message for November 12, 2023


Several years ago, I heard about a pastor who was once told by a church member, "Your sermon today was like the peace and mercy of God." The pastor thought that was a very nice compliment until the church member added, "Your sermon was like the peace of God in that it passed all understanding, and it was like God's mercy in that I thought it would never end." I certainly hope that this sermon will not be like that!

I'm sure you've heard the saying, "Practice what you preach." Well, today I hope to preach something that I practice. I'm sure that you, too, have practiced it to some degree, but you may have practiced it without really thinking much about its value or importance. You have probably experienced it without being fully aware of what you were doing.

The title of this message is "The Worth of Mirth." I thought about some other titles such as "Laughter Is Seriously Needed," but I like the sound of the word "mirth" too much not to include it in the title. The dictionary definition of mirth is "gladness as shown by or accompanied with laughter." It seems to me that there's no better topic right now in this economic situation than laughter and humor.

The primary text for this talk today is a rather familiar verse from the Book of Proverbs. It is the 22nd verse of chapter 17. Let me read it to you in 2 different translations. The King James Version reads, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones." The New Revised Standard Version, which I use, reads "A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones."

This is one of the proverbs that is attributed to Solomon, so it is about 29 centuries old. This verse of Scripture states very simply that a person's psychological condition directly affects a person's physical condition. The words "heart" and "spirit" in this verse refer to the mind or psyche. Our emotional outlook in life has the power to bring about changes in the health of our bodies.

It's fascinating to realize that as old as this proverb is, it has only been in recent years that most health professionals have begun to accept the truth of this idea. Writing less than 10 years ago in a periodical called Nutrition Health Review, Conrad Narrow observed the following: "Less than half a century ago, the suggestion that laughter or any other positive emotion could have medical or psychiatric value would have been laughable. With the realization that stress and anxiety might have physical consequences, only then did some health professionals begin to take seriously the importance of positive emotions."

In fact, there was a very recent study done using four groups of nuns. They rated them on happiness. And the interesting thing was they found that the happiest nuns actually lived nine and a half years longer than those in the other three groups.

Today there is a new scientific field of study about the physical effects of laughter called "gelontology." Some medical and psychiatric professionals have learned that laughter has definite therapeutic benefits and they are using humor in the treatment of their patients. Marion Dolan, a registered nurse in New Hampshire and a humor specialist, says, "Humor is the one drug you can use liberally with residents." Those of you who have seen the movie "Patch Adams" know that the movie is based on the real-life story of a doctor in West Virginia who uses clowning and humor as part of his treatment of patients. There are also some hospitals that have humor carts for their patients with funny videotapes and joke books.

Listen to some of the physical benefits of laughter that have been reported in medical journals: restoration of balance in bodily functions, oxygenation of blood, stimulation of vital organs, improved circulation, relief of muscle tension, relief of the spasm-pain cycle in neuralgia and rheumatism, facilitation of digestive processes, and improvement of such chronic respiratory conditions as emphysema. Laughter benefits our "muscular, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and central nervous systems." You probably never realized what a workout you were having just by laughing!

Although there has been no scientific research thus far to verify it, there is a theory that hearty laughter stimulates the release of endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers. Endorphins are chemically related to opiates such as morphine. The idea that laughter brings relief from physical pain received a lot of attention following the publication of a book by Norman Cousins in 1979.

In the book he told the story of his own experience with a serious illness that he suffered beginning 15 years earlier. Doctors had given him little hope of recovering from a disease that was causing the connective tissue throughout his body to degenerate. The bones in his spine and nearly every joint in his body felt as if he had been run over by a truck.

He checked out of the hospital and into a hotel where he took large doses of vitamin C and surrounded himself with joke books and comedy films. Before leaving the hospital though, he discovered that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter gave him at least two hours of pain-free sleep. Gradually, without the aid of any prescribed pain-killing drugs, he recovered to the point of being able to go back to work and to do such things as playing tennis and playing the piano. He certainly had reason to believe that laughter was good medicine. He said there was only one negative side-effect of the laughter while he was in the hospital and that was that his laughter disturbed the other patients! ( they were too busy being miserable to be bothered with laughter)

In the Bible, there are relatively few direct references to laughter, and most of these are examples of people laughing in ridicule or mockery. Abraham and Sarah, for instance, laughed at the prediction that Sarah would bear a child in her old age. Of course, their laughter of disbelief turned into laughter of joy when Sarah did bear a son, whom they named "God Laughed" (Isaac). One of the other better- known Biblical references to laughter occurs in Ecclesiastes 3 where the writer states that "There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven," including "a time to laugh."

I was surprised to learn, from that article I mentioned earlier, that "during long periods in human history laughter was considered to be impolite. Many in the clergy pronounced it to be sinful." For example, listen to what Robert Barclay, author of Apology for True Christian Divinity, wrote in 1676: "It is not lawful to use games, sports, plays, nor among other things comedies among Christians under the notion of recreations, since they do not agree with Christian silence, gravity, and sobriety." I sure hope he was wrong because if he wasn't, I'm in a heap of trouble.

I like what someone else has written, "If we are sure of our God we are free to laugh at ourselves, and artists have helped heal with laughter--from ...comedies poking fun at the human condition, to ...some of Bach's mirth-filled ...cantatas. It's all part of what helps keep us in proportion; we can best take ourselves seriously if we are free to laugh at ourselves, and to enjoy the laughter of God and his angels."

People like to defile the sacred. So poking fun at religious leaders is a source of a lot of jokes, such as this one.

A rabbi, a minister, and a priest were playing poker when the police raided the game. Turning to the priest, the lead police officer said, "Father Murphy, were you gambling?"

Turning his eyes to heaven, the priest whispered, "Lord, forgive me for what I am about to do." To the police officer, he then said, "No, officer; I was not gambling."

The officer then asked the minister, "Pastor Johnson, were you gambling?" Again, after an appeal to heaven, the minister replied, "No, officer; I was not gambling."

Turning to the rabbi, the officer again asked, "Rabbi Goldstein, were you gambling?"

Shrugging his shoulders, the rabbi replied, "With whom?"

Some of the most humorous stories arise out of real-life experiences. For example, I've enjoyed reading about verbal exchanges that have actually taken place in the courtroom.

There was one lawyer who met his match while questioning a medical doctor on the stand:
Q: Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?
A: No.
Q: Did you check for blood pressure?
A: No.
Q: Did you check for breathing?
A: No.
Q: So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?
A: No.
Q: How can you be so sure, Doctor?
A: Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar.
Q: But could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?
A: It is possible that he could have been alive and practicing law somewhere.

I think the ability to laugh is one of the most important gifts God has given us. I have read that humans are one of the very few creatures with the capacity to laugh; in fact, some contend that humans are the only species who can laugh. What an asset it is when we can begin to laugh at ourselves and our problems. It enables us to rise above self-pity. Humor and laughter are wonderful coping mechanisms. Seeing the humor in discouraging situations helps us to reduce our anxiety, to overcome depression, and to adjust to loss. To laugh in the midst of the situations that are threatening and overwhelming us is a healthy expression of hope.

There is a wonderful book written by a cancer patient. It is entitled Now That I Have Cancer, I Am Whole. It is a great gift for cancer patients or for their loved ones. It is a journal of the author's thoughts and feelings after colon surgery and during a year of chemotherapy. One of the sections is entitled, "Now that I have cancer, I laugh." He comments, "Any laugh you can muster...especially when the pain is at its worst, is not only a strike in the healing lane but a laugh in the face of the devil." He tells several humorous stories and jokes in his book, including some about cancer.

For example, one of them is about a cancer patient who was told by his doctor, "You have six months to live."
The patient replied, "But, doc, I can't even pay your bill in six months."
Then the doctor said, "In that case, you have twelve months to live."

The truth is that not one of us here today knows how much longer we have to live. This much is certain, though. The more we laugh and the more we see the humorous side of life, the better off we will be and the greater the legacy we will leave to those whose lives we touch. "A cheerful heart is a good medicine."

So, I'll leave you with one last joke.

A man lost two buttons from his shirt and put them in his pants pocket. But the pocket had a hole, so the buttons fell into his shoe. Unfortunately, the shoe sole also had a hole, so he lost the buttons.

As pockets with holes, holes without buttons, and shoe soles with holes are useless, the man ripped the buttonholes out of his shirt and the pocket from his pants and tossed them in the trash along with the soles of his shoes.

A police officer who was observing the man asked him for some identification. The man gave the officer a document that showed he was an ordained minister of the gospel.

When the officer began to escort him to a mental institution, the minister protested violently, asking why he was receiving such unjust treatment.

"Look, we both know it's the best place for you now," the officer replied. "Anyone claiming to be a preacher who doesn't save souls or wear holy clothes has probably lost his buttons."

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