On the Sunday after Easter, our congregation celebrates Holy Humor Sunday with a worship service patterned after the PBS radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion." We call it "A San Anselmo Home Companion." This work of fiction, "The News from San Anselmo," serves as the proclamation of the Word.
Lesson: John 20:19-34
It’s been a quiet week in our hometown of San Anselmo, nestled against the edge of the Marin hills. Marin County: People love it …. and hate it. If you Google reasons to live in Marin, you’re likely to find out about hiking trails and protected open space, an easy commute to the City and excellent public schools. If you Google reasons not to live in Marin you’ll discover that what we lack in night life, we make up for in a high cost of living, great white sharks, and maximum security cells with a view. For some reason, the rest of the world associates Marin County with hot tubs. Are there really more hot tubs here than anywhere else? In 2002, George H.W. Bush called the kid who decided to help the Taliban, John Walker Lindh, “some misguided Marin County hot-tubber.” What he actually said was Mare-en County – but – hot-tubber? Is that even a thing? Have you ever heard anyone say, “I’d like you to meet my friend Alex; he’s a hot-tubber”? Just how often do you have to get into a hot tub to be an actual hot-tubber? And was Lindh misguided because he was a hot-tubber? Bush responded to the County’s outrage by saying he was “chastened,” and promising never to use “Marin County” and “hot tub” “in the same sentence again. I’m sure we are all profoundly grateful.
It’s hard to believe, but the political climate in 2018 is even more insane than it was in 2002. It seems as though chaos is the new normal. Plus the actual climate – the earth’s climate – is in even worse shape than the country. All this was getting to Jenna. At home in San Anselmo after a long day at work, she'd find herself watching cat videos just for a bit of relief. But she knew she needed something more than cat videos. Something that fueled her, not only to face life, but to act compassionately as God called her to do.
During Lent, Jenna’s church had focused on spiritual practices. She wasn’t sure what the difference between a spiritual “practice” and a spiritual “discipline” was, except a practice sounded a whole lot friendlier. She’d tried a few of the ideas her church suggested. She went to the Ash Wednesday service, but it felt so – heavy. She almost got the giggles when she saw the ashes. They were in a little dish the minister cupped in her hand and they looked exactly like toner from the copy machine at work. Jenna pictured an indelible cross on her forehead that wouldn’t wear off for weeks. Maybe she could just make copies on her forehead until it was gone.
She tried centering prayer, too, but that didn’t feel right either. It felt like wearing someone else’s clothes. And she knew exactly whose clothes, too – her mother’s. Centering prayer was the kind of spiritual practice her mother would relish. Except her mother probably would call it a spiritual discipline. She could just hear her mother now: “It doesn’t matter if you like it; it’s good for you.” As though it were a helping of liver, which, by the way, isn’t even all that good for you.
No, she needed something that felt like her. In one sermon, the minister had described listening to God in nature, and that was pretty intriguing. She headed up to Phoenix Lake. There, she was supposed to choose and cross a threshold, a place where she stepped from ordinary time to sacred space. On the other side of the threshold, she was supposed to have a conversation with – what? .. A flower, or a tree or a lizard? She wasn’t sure what this was going to look like but it was a gorgeous spring day, so what the heck?
Up by the lake, Jenna passed an old, gnarled tree. It was covered with moss and still just beginning to put on leaves. As she passed, it whispered to her, “I might be old and gnarled, but I am beautiful.” Now, on the one hand, Jenna thought this was uncanny, because earlier that day she’d lamented that a friend had decided to get a facelift. On the other hand – seriously? An old, gnarled tree says it’s beautiful? Isn’t that, well, a little obvious? “Isn’t that a bit of a cliché?” she said out loud to the tree. “I didn’t think nature would be so predictable.”
“Well, it may be a cliché but it’s still true,” said the tree. “Besides, what were you expecting? A stand up routine?”
“Ha-ha. I get it. You’re a tree. You, um, stand up.”
“It’s great to be here tonight, ladies and gentlemen,” said the tree. “Of course, I was here last night, too. And the night before that. And the night before that.”
Thinking this was just too strange, Jenna moved on. “Don’t leaf!” yelled the tree. Jenna groaned. “I was just about to do some impressions!” said the tree. “I do a great quaking aspen…”
Down the trail, Jenna passed a boulder. “Rock on!” it quipped.
“Oh, brother!” thought Jenna. She saw a waterfowl in the lake, but took a sharp u-turn because she was sure if she got close enough to it, it would tell her to "Duck!"
Jenna was drawn to a redwood just to one side of the trail. It said nothing – no jokes, no puns. She stepped off the trail, and put her palm against the rough, ropey bark.
“Hey, sister,” it said. “What are you running away from?”
“Running away?” said Jenna.
“Yes; that tree, the rock, and I’m pretty sure there was a duck waiting for you over by the lake.”
“I’m looking for spiritual practices,” said Jenna. “Not the Marx Brothers meet Nature.”
“What makes you think laughter and humor aren’t spiritual? For you, anyway. Could that be your way of being spiritual? Tell me: what is it that helps you heal when you’re hurting?”
“Uh – that would be laughter, I guess,” said Jenna.
“And what sustains and renews you when you are weary, burned out, or close to giving up?”
Just then, Jenna saw a group of hikers a short distance away, coming toward her. As interesting as this conversation was, she wasn’t going to be caught talking out loud to a redwood tree. After a furtive “Thanks,” she headed down the trail back to the parking lot.
What had just happened, anyway? A scene from one of her favorite books occurred to her. Harry Potter is somewhere between death and life, having just been hit with a killing curse by the villain, Voldemort. He’s having a conversation with the Hogwarts headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, who died in an earlier book. Dumbledore helps Harry decide to return to the world of the living to keep on fighting Voldemort. “Tell me one last thing,” says Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” Dumbledore answers: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”[i]
Was her conversation with the tree real, or inside her head, or both? Jenna recalled the Bible story she’d heard the week before in church, that story about Thomas. All the other disciples were there that first Easter night when Jesus appeared mysteriously, somehow passing through the locked doors and solid walls of the room where they cowered in fear after the crucifixion. Jesus voluntarily showed them his hands and side, without their even asking. But for some reason, Thomas wasn’t there. When Jenna heard the story, she’d wondered: Where was he? Did he have to take his daughter to a soccer game? Was he the one the disciples sent to pick up a pizza? There was probably a good reason he wasn’t there. When Thomas finally shows up at disciple headquarters, he tells the other disciples that he’s not buying their crazy story about Jesus’ rising from the dead until he sees it for himself. Just like they did. So why is it Thomas who’s forever stuck with the label, “Doubting Thomas”? We don’t call Peter “Denying Peter,”[ii] and we don’t call Mark “Run-away-naked Mark.”[iii] Shouldn’t Thomas be called Reasonably Skeptical Thomas or Appropriately Questioning Thomas? Or even Went-to-Get-a-Pizza Thomas?
Last Sunday, Jenna had thought she was being irreverent in her musings about Went-to-Get-a-Pizza Thomas. But maybe she was framing the story in such a way that not only allowed her to remember it better, but lifted up the most important part of the story: that Jesus was there for Thomas. Jesus showed up for Went-to-Get-a-Pizza Thomas. Jesus didn’t condemn him or call him “Doubting Thomas.” Jesus showed up for him, and he shows up for us, too; all of us Reasonably Skeptical Roberts or Appropriately Questioning Amandas.
Jenna laughed out loud. It felt like a gift. It felt – holy. Just maybe, humor was her spiritual practice.
And that’s all the news from San Anselmo, where everyone is spiritual, a few people are religious, and the Presbyterians strive to be holy.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
[i] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (New York: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2007), 723.