Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Has shared laughter gone into hiding?  Shared laughter has become a stranger to our nation and the church.  I miss the merry heart, spoken of in Proverbs 17.  Expressions of common joy are secluded, perhaps kidnapped or a part of a gaiety-witness-protection-program buried underground somewhere.  Shared laughter, healing laughter, earnest and sustained laughter, seems hard to find.

IMG_4796I still laugh, but too often alone… or with people who think much like me.  Such singular pleasure is a place to begin.  Small signs of whimsy, mirth and delight are starting places.  When I miss those, I quickly get lost in my prejudices and despair.  I lose the lightheartedness that can serve as a lubricant to God’s desired wholeheartedness for me.  A little laughter keeps my ideological GPS in tune and my prejudice-constructed life-maps from being read upside down.  Recently I had a reminder of such a gift.

On a winding road in central Kentucky, the junction ahead at first confused me, then delighted.  I could turn left and go NORTH or turn right and go… uh… NORTHAnd the path straight ahead (NORTH by the way) was posted with a NO TRESPASSING sign.

If I wished to go NORTH, which way should I go?  I laughed out loud.  This reminded me of the certainty as to direction I hear from pundits and preachers who speak confidently of the only true way forward — their way.  Traveling this day and familiar with this particular road, I knew the path I would take.  I wondered about others who followed, who arrive at this junction — first timers.

I believe the certainty, that there is only one way, a best and only road ahead puts the nation, and the church, in hands of humorless demagogues.  For our nation  such certainty means that every choice is binary with no ability to value and learn from those who have different perspectives or life experiences.  Any sense of a commonweal is set aside.  In the church such certainty turns the theological task into a marshaling of doctrinaire pronouncements.  Instead of theology being “faith in search of understanding” we have one narrow set of understandings setting the limits of our faith.  Not much shared joy here.  I believe laughter can be medicine for the soul and oxygen for a suffocating nation and church.

On my wall is Wendell Berry’s poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.  Near the end, he counsels, “Laugh.  Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful even when you have considered all the facts.”

I am asking what has happened to shared laughter — among friends and with those who disagree?  I don’t mean the little individual chuckles coming from late-night television parodies or the smile after reading ironic memes about the state of the nation.  I mean the sense of well-being that is born of a shared hope beyond our calculations.  What I miss is the ability to laugh at ourselves, to visit with others who may hold differing opinions and enjoy each other’s company.  It is the joy of discourse and community that is creative and constructive and larger than our personal prejudices and proclivities.  Laughter is not sufficient for our salvation but I believe it may be a necessary vestibule to hope and renewal in finding a way forward.

Aimee Laramore writing in the March 7, 2018 blog Voices on Stewardship  helps me when she writes, “The great theologian Dave Chappelle introduced a concept that made me laugh out loud when he spoke about imperfect allies. In his most recent special, he offers a poignant description of not understanding some of the differences in societal demographics and ended with his personal truth on the matter. Is it possible in our faith communities to be honest about the things we don’t understand? He repeatedly said, “I don’t want to harm you. I want to support you. I just don’t understand you.” I believe we should do a lot more earnest laughing about our own discomfort about diversity in giving. At the very least, a heartfelt response is authentic.”

Much more shared EARNEST LAUGHING with IMPERFECT ALLIES is called for in the nation and church.  In these time of “Fake News,” made-up statistics and certainties that avoid scientific evidence, we might look again to the realism of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  In response to the horrors and potential devastation from threats of fascism he wrote “Laughter is the no-man’s land between cynicism and contrition.”  In his Children of Light, Children of Darkness, Niebuhr argues “Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer… Laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humour is fulfilled by faith.”

In an effort to offer something constructive for churches (and our society) I recently wrote a paper on what I see as the mistaken, and humorless efforts to repair the church by implementing certain business practices.  This is a well-meaning effort but of little purchase if it simply is composed of one perspective, outside of dialogue with those who view the church differently (see: FruitFixPubShare02-01-18).  My long and rather tedious musings needed the benefit of EARNEST LAUGHTER WITH IMPERFECT ALLIES.

I did find a chuckle when I read a quote from St. Louis area United Methodist pastor Diana Kenaston who captured my paper’s conclusions when she wrote:

So we look at statistics and we call them ‘vital signs.’  We commission a report and draw an electrocardiogram on the front.” 


In two sentences, Rev. Kenaston covered what took sixteen pages and forty-nine footnotes for me to say…  and this without ever reading my paper!  I LAUGHED.

I knew my research paper was insufficient.  (Even so, I inflicted it upon many friends and my students.)  Reading Diana’s quote helped.  However, some other uncommon laughter was needed.  Some candor from imperfect allies might help.  The ability to learn of my mistaken understandings, and laugh with those who had another view, might help each.  Until then I don’t believe much progress is made. 

Might I sit with those who disagree and talk, and learn?  Might we make a common alliance to agree to disagree?  Until then, good as any research might be, it would be of modest value.  Yes, I have reached out to my imperfect allies — several times asking to hear from them.  Might those who offer their products, known as “fruitful congregation” initiatives be open to dialogue that might lead to understanding?  As yet, no response to my multiple requests.  Still waiting.  Even more, I am eager to experience a little shared laughter.

Until then, or even if such shared conversation never arrives, I am helped by the poetry of the fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart.  He gives me a joy-filled perspective at this junction for our society and church.

He writes:

Do you want to know

what goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you.

In the core of the Trinity

The Father laughs

and gives birth to the Son.

The Son laughs back at the Father

and gives birth to the Spirit.

The whole Trinity laughs

and gives birth to us.

[Meister Eckhart, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translation and editor Matthew Fox (Bear and Company: 1983), p. 129.

Conclusion Jumping – #TodayMrRyan?

Conclusion Jumping – #TodayMrRyan?

So, following the murder of seventeen children and teachers in Parkland, Florida, in what has become an all too common strategy, alleged “leaders” like Paul Ryan suggest it is too soon to talk about gun use — including AR-15 style assault weapons.  Too soon to talk about how semiautomatic rifles are easier to purchase than hand guns?  Too soon to talk as we watch the murders of our nation’s children?  Too soon to talk following the murders in Las Vegas?  Too soon to talk after worshipers are slaughtered in Southerland Springs, Texas?

Using language about wanting no “knee jerk responses,” and no “jumping to conclusions,” or the need to “get all the facts,” Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and others complicit in these deaths, use the tired old avoidance strategy.soldier-uniform-army-weapon-41161.jpeg They are the ones who help make these battlefield weapons available to brutally slaughter our own children.  They need to be asked, every day, when is the time to talk?

Is it today, tomorrow, next week?  How about never?  Is this what you are saying Mr. Ryan?  The American public isn’t jumping to conclusions; rather you are the one jumping over the conclusions that a vast majority of our citizens have already made.  It is time, way past the time really, to start every day with the question #TodayMrRyan?



Let this Lenten Season begin in #WednesdayAshes. 

In a nation where far too many “Christians” hide beneath the umbrella of cover-churches and look-the-other-way-religious-leaders who give space for greed, racial bigotry, manufactured cultural divisions and self-centered nationalism, let’s offer a counter narrative.  Let’s proclaim messages of transformation and renewal?

In this season let’s encourage one another to think about the issue of wealth and poverty in new ways?  The book by Maricio Miller, The Alternative is a place to begin.  #WednesdayAshes is a way to share new understandings.  If you are in or around central Indiana, folks will be gathering to learn more on February 24th Register here.

What better time to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). 

We might be clear that the time for repentance and renewal in this nation so full of words designed to divide and demean is at hand.  Personally, I am sending my congressional representatives the passage from Isaiah 10:1-2 under the #WednesdayAshes.

10:1 Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.

Care to join?

The Gifts Behind Door #1408

The Gifts Behind Door #1408

It is a short, rather boring, walk from the elevator to our Chicago apartment. Twenty-three paces.  We rarely meet anyone in the hallway.  Nor is there anything particularly unusual about the tan walls and dark carpet.

It is this very ordinariness that makes what sometimes happens in the hallway so remarkable.  The first time it occurred I was rushing to bring in groceries.  I noticed the music — “what fine music,” I thought.  It was a piano sonata, probably on the radio or a recording.  Nice.

Shortly afterward, I heard the music behind the door again.  Chopin, I thought… and just then, the piano music abruptly stopped, then began again a few measures earlier. 

This wasn’t a recording at all!  There was an actual pianist — and a talented one at that — practicing in #1408.  It was my special gift, each time I walked past and listened to the artist at practice.  I suspect she didn’t know she was gifting me or any of the others of us who passed by. 

The Gifts Behind Door #1408

Then one afternoon, a violin was added to the piano.  On another occasion there was a flute.  Then I noticed a few times when the pianist wasn’t as accomplished. 

[I am both slow-witted and a bit dull, you see, because it took me weeks to understand that this was the apartment of a music teacher.  Of course, of course, there is a college of music nearby our apartment.  Students, with differing skills and who play various instruments were coming for lessons.] 

On one occasion, there was such a marvelous combination of violin and piano that I confess I stood in the hallway and luxuriated at the fine, hidden away, performance for several minutes.  So exceptional were the musical gifts being practiced behind the door they demanded my slowing down and listening. That is when I first met one of my neighbors.  A young woman.  We exchanged greetings.  She smiled, and stood with me for a moment, listening.  “Isn’t this wonderful” she said as she moved on to her apartment. 

The doorway to #1408 offers me a valuable lesson in a world chock-full of anonymous, mundane interactions.  All around — just on the other side of this anonymity, this troubling news and fear-filled analysis — there is often beauty that I otherwise tend to miss.  There is teaching and learning that is going on.  There are glorious gifts waiting to be heard, to be seen, to be understood or simply appreciated.  Sometimes the gift is offered as a solo, sometimes it is more than one who is sharing.

Then it happened, one afternoon, I met her, the pianist, the teacher. 

We were leaving our apartments at the same time.  She was almost as I had imagined her to be.  Petite, handsome, she was moving carefully to close her door, a violin case in her hand.  When I told her how I appreciated the music emanating from her apartment, she seemed surprised, a little worried.  “I hope my music isn’t bothering you,” she said.  “Bothering?” I reacted.  “Not at all!  Every time I leave the elevator on the 14th floor, I hope you will be playing.  It is the best part of returning.”

I still don’t know her name — this teacher, this beauty maker.  That will be remedied one day soon, I will make certain to learn more at the right time.  For now, even though we are still moving in anonymous worlds, I receive her gift as a reminder that my senses are often too dull to receive other offerings.

What gifts around us do we miss each day?  What gifts might we be sharing that we are unaware of at the time?  Where are there human and transcendent notes of joy and hope that are muted by the “normal.”

I find that by passing my neighbor’s apartment, even when there is no music, I am reminded to consider such questions — and I am able to approach my day with an anticipation of the gifts all around that I often otherwise miss.


(Our primary residence is in Bloomington, Indiana: we also keep an apartment in Chicago.  We love both cities and because we have a couple of grandsons in Chicago, well…)

A Mentally Ill, Lone Killer-Nation

A Mentally Ill, Lone Killer-Nation

I am not a certified psychologist or psychiatrist — and the world is a better place for that, I am sure.  Still, I will put out my analytic shingle today and offer this — the mental derangement we are experiencing is not just that of one lone-killer.  We, corporately, too, suffer from what might be diagnosed as a “Lone Killer-Nation syndrome.” 

The horrific events in Las Vegas are quickly assigned to one, single person, Stephen Paddock.  It is how we have come to think about such tragic events.  Here we have fifty-eight persons slaughtered and another 527 injured, many with life-altering physical and mental traumas.  Over the past thirty years we have had nearly double the number of mass shootings as the next twenty-four nations in the world combined. (see: US Ranking in Mass Shootings)

We stand ALONE among the nations.  Talk about American exceptionalism!  Is this to be a sign of our strength and what we model for the world?

Symptoms of our national derangement:

  • With 5% of the world’s population, we have over 30% of the mass killings by gun violence?
  • The U.S. experienced mass murders at the rate of more than one per day in 2017 (see for example the Gun Violence Archieve (Gun Violence).
  • By ever-widening majorities, our citizens want stronger background checks on gun purchases (90%+), especially military style assault weapons (60%+).
  • However, these desires by the majority are ignored by legislators who believe they owe their election to support from groups like the NRA.
  • Researchers now find it necessary to distinguish between “mass murders” and “mass shootings.”
  • Politicians this week, made uncomfortable by this tragedy, say that “this is not an appropriate time to discuss gun violence in our nation.”
  • Pundit Bill O’Rielly, in the wake of this tragedy, opines that events like those in Las Vegas are the “Price of Freedom.”
  • As these killings were being planned in Las Vegas, many in congress were putting together legislation that would offer the option of silencers available on all weapons.
  • Historically, NRA membership and the sale of assault weapons INCREASES following tragedies like the one in Las Vegas.  Stock values of companies that make these weapons increase following such tragedies!

gun-166507_960_720We suffer from LONE-NATION mental derangement.  For years the NRA, National Rifle Association, has blocked any effort to adopt common-sense gun control laws in the U.S.  Laws, like those that have been implemented in places like Australia, demonstrate that a cure to our illness is possible.  However, it will be increasingly difficult.  At this point, we have more guns than citizens in our nation.  Unwilling to control them, we have come to a point where these hundreds of million weapons are pointed directly at us, at our children and the children of every one of us — Republican, Independent or Democrat.  There was no discrimination at that concert in Las Vegas — and this is what we are accepting in the future?  Talk about CRAZY!

Yes, Stephen Paddock, committed an unimaginable atrocity — a lone gunman.  “Las Vegas,” is now added to our internal maps of fear, joining “San Bernadino,” “Orlando,” “Columbine,” “Aurora,” “Newtown,” “Virginia Tech” and dozens of other tragedies.

Stephen Paddock had 23 weapons of war in his hotel room.  Another 19 guns were found at his home.  This along with thousands of rounds of ammunition.  Many of these weapons used by Paddock were purchased at the Guns and Guitars store in Mesquite, Nevada.  The store’s manager reported that he followed all of the procedures and background checks required.  Really?  This is the price of freedom — Really?  

No, this is not the price of freedom, it is the cost of our societal derangement. 


Rim Walking to the Eternal

Rim Walking to the Eternal

Almost autumn; rouge-tinged leaves hint that a soon-to-arrive-change is near.  Rotund tomatoes have captured a summer filled with both promise and tragedy.  It is time… to remember, to move on.

Saturday morning and a visit to our hometown Farmers’ Market.  A much-needed respite, today’s early gifts.

Farmers Market, Bloomington, September 16, 2017

Our overripe national drama could cause one to despair, to wonder if a return to normal can be gained, or regained. 

From near and far are images of tragedy… a nursing home in Hollywood Hills, Florida, opioid overdoses down the street, a denuded Virgin Island paradise, mud, posturing politicians, mold, South Texas languishing, St. Louis marching in step with decades of accumulated grievance.  Politicians preen, speak sly words and pose for photo-op-displays-of-compassion.  These televised images vie for attention alongside heartless racist-tinged rhetoric.

Will our national identity be reduced to cheap reality television episodes?  Are we prisoners to shallow, disjointed actions and pathetic promises? “Everyone will be happy”!?  Is this reality?  Fake becomes real, while the real, the true, is declared fake.  Don’t lose your balance fellow pilgrims-of-hope.

Even here, especially here, there is truth… there is music, poetry and beauty.   So much fine produce at the market, stacked high, even okra (mostly for my spouse) and summers-end sweet corn (mostly for me).  The community band plays sweet summers-end music.  Abide With Me as it tunes up for the morning.  Tune to the “A.”  Some things do remind one of stability.  Abide…


Sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, sweet music and poetry abide.  Justice will prevail.  Our belief in respect and decency will survive this cruel passage.  It is clear in the acts of human compassion evidenced in the places of unimaginable destruction.  From St. Johns, a family shares space under their tarpaulin.  One visits a nearby hospital — just a brief word, a smile and a prayer.  We applaud as early response teams arrive in Texas and Florida, and ahead of them are thousands-upon-thousands of cleaning kits, (flood buckets), arriving along with a piece of our hearts.

How will we know the way?  What direction and pace shall we travel?  Poetry directs us beyond the limits of here and now.  Friend Walter Wangerin, Jr. calls our name:

The Wanderer*

I am the World-Rim-Walker.

I tread the sheer crags

Where night and daylight

Contour one other.

So we journey ahead as Rim Walkers toward the Eternal.  Between the tragedy and treat offered in the daily news cycles and our truest hope found in the dignity of human beings at their best.  Here and there… we move forward.

Bloomington Farmers Market

These are our compass points.  Smiles and greetings.  New friends met and old friends greeted.  Fresh eggs, ripe tomatoes, kale and spinach now join honey, music and poetry to point to our pathway ahead.  We journey together fellow Rim Walkers

May your late summer be filled with laughter, joy and the reminders of taken-for-granted beauty all around.  Together let us continue to walk in ways that rebut and rebuke the vapid efforts to divert us from the ways of our truest hope.


*Poem The Wanderer is from “The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible” by Walter Wangerin, Jr., Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, 2017.


Our Slow Disasters

Slow Disasters: Irma, Harvey and Storms of Denial

Hurricane Irma over Florida, September 10, 2017

September 12, 2017

One month ago, hurricane Harvey formed over the unusually warm waters of the Atlantic.  Hurricane Irma was not far behind.  Day by day since, we have been transfixed by images of calamity.  First the Caribbean Islands.  Then, the Texas Gulf.  Then, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina – a full month’s dosage of disaster.  Two of the most destructive hurricanes on record hit the United States only days apart.

What does this do to our limbic system, especially the amygdala, the mechanism in our brain that regulates responses to fear?  What happens to our moral compass?  Our spiritual perspective?  These disasters come on top of months of upheaval in our national body-politic.

In my consciousness at least, these tragedies have moved from my thinking “isn’t that sad for those poor folks; I might do something” to “these are my family and friends; I will respond!”

You might consider these hurricanes “slow disasters.” (Hurricane Harvey stayed for days over south Texas.  Rainfall was measured in feet, not inches.  Irma, moved ever so slowly, eventually covering the entire state of Florida.  Painfully slowly tracking up through Georgia and South Carolina, with ripping wind and record flood, and giving Atlanta the first ever “tropical storm” in its history.)

While these disasters seemed unending, they are but a tiny fragment of a much larger, slower disaster that has been unfolding over decades.  A few courageous folks spoke of this larger reality, this SLOW DISASTER.  As Hurricane Harvey approached his city, Republican Mayor Tomás Regalado said: “This is the time to talk about climate change.  This is the time that the president and the [Environmental Protection Agency] and whoever makes decision needs to talk about climate change.” Mayor Regalado told the Miami Herald “This is truly, truly the poster child for what is to come.” (See: Miami Mayor Calls on Honest Climate Change Talk.)  Brave man — truth teller he.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado in 2014

In contrast, last week EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt opined, “It is very, very insensitive to talk about climate change in the wake of such extreme storms.”  Astonishing denial, this. 

In the face of such clear evidence regarding the changes that have been slowly underway for decades, Pruitt seeks to somehow blame those who would tell the truth.  He continues his assault on those who have been warning of such horrors surrounding the environmental degradation of our common home for decades. 

“NO, Secretary Pruitt,” we need to say,  “YOUR deceits and those who join you in such chicanery are undermining the future well-being of our grandchildren.  You blow and blow and blow your hot air into a continuing SLOW DISASTER.”  On the hurricane scale this is a magnitude 5 level storm-of-denial

Painful as it may be to admit, we need to have the truth spoken, here and now.  Calling any talk of climate change now “very insensitive” reminds me of what was said by a few following the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook, when it was suggested that it was an inappropriate time to speak about gun control! 

It may be an uncomfortable time to speak — but speak we must.  The evidence is abundant.  Our climate is changing!  We can trust science — our arctic and our glaciers are melting.  Seas are warming and rising everywhere, threatening low-lying communities around the globe.  While no one can as yet exactly measure how the magnitude of the hurricanes is directly related to human activity, we are shifting more and more from awful storms to catastrophes.   As David Leonhardt writes, “Climate change doesn’t seem to increase the frequency of hurricanes, but it does seem to increase their severity” (David Leonhardt, New York Times, 9-12-17).

I remember well the late 1960s when we were told that research wasn’t yet clear enough to link cigarette smoking with cancer.   It’s time to work with facts on the ground and in the air.  Meanwhile Mr. Pruitt a climate change denier, is pulling the plug on critical research his agency has been carrying out for decades because he doesn’t like the science pointing to a SLOW DISASTER.

Yesterday, in Chicago, skies to the northwest were of a hazy orange hue, as they have been for weeks — this from wildfires in Saskatchewan and Manitoba Provinces in Canada.  Smoke dims our skies from over a thousand miles away.  And today, from the southeast, circles of clouds are arriving as left over signs from Hurricane Irma.  Our global ecology and our local ecology are interrelated.  Climate patterns covering thousands of miles these are.  And we have before us slow disasters that are decades in the making.

A part of our dilemma in speaking about these tragedies is our cultural propensity to extend too easy blame or to believe in retribution.  More astonishing than Secretary Pruitt’s comments were those made by television evangelists like Jim Bakker who suggested that the hurricanes were a part of God’s judgement on our nation.  In the process Mr. Bakker was quick to sell survival kits to prepare his viewers for the end times.  Yikes — now that is a stretch.  

Then there is Rush Limbaugh who decided the increasing severity of hurricanes was simply being fabricated by the media — or by corporate America to sell more products by creating panic among the people.  He suggested that the severity of the hurricane hitting Florida was overblown.  Tell that to the folks in the Keys, Naples or Jacksonville today, Rush.  Of course, Limbaugh managed to fly out of South Florida to safety elsewhere just before the hurricane arrived.  

How do these “truthers” prosper?  What gives them any agency in our world?  Perhaps it is our inability to live with the complexities around the unintended consequences we face.  Perhaps it is the hope that we will not be implicated in the creation of these slow disasters or that we can avoid the lifestyle changes that will be required.  Perhaps we understand that folks are too easily blamed for things beyond their control.  I live in Indiana —  a place where tornadoes often occur.   I don’t think I cause them.  Even so, they seem to be gaining in frequency, size and destructive power.  It is not my fault that I choose to live here. 

However, each of us has contributed to small changes in climate that aggregate and rebound — an unintended consequence to our society’s lifestyle choices.  In places like Houston and Miami, there have been patterns of development or loose zoning practices that clearly contribute to the scale of flooding and hurricane damage.   Unwise development and the loss of barrier islands has been going on for decades in Louisiana, Texas and Florida — it has been a SLOW DISASTER.

How then shall we live?  Three things have benefited me:

1) I have chosen to change the way I begin each day.  It has been good for my limbic system — prayer before work or the news.  Instead of beginning each day with the newspaper or some work project, I spend my first moments in prayer, reading scripture and writings from other religious traditions.

It helps.  Here are some examples: 

  • From Buddhist writings I found, “Teach this triple truth to all: a generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”
  • From the New Testament, Philippians 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
  • From the Prayer for Patient Trust by Teilhard de Chardain: Above all trust in the slow work of God.

2) Seek to be better educated and work with others on addressing climate change at your local level.  For me this has meant working with the Hoosier Interfaith Power  and Light ( group in Indiana and the Creation Care Alliance among United Methodists (

3) Support groups that work nationally and internationally to address the reality we face with the SLOW DISASTERS surrounding climate change. 

So, in the face of denial and systems of blame, there are ways to work with a quiet and joyful heart to seek to join with others in “the slow work of God.”

Many of you have been doing this for a long time — I learn from you — together let’s do what we can to turn SLOW DISASTERS into MOVEMENT FOR STEADY RENEWAL IN HOPE.