Posts Tagged humor

Comic and Preacher Pens How-To Book on Sermon Prep  

Susan Sparks reflects on humor that is joyful and therapeutic in her book, “Preaching Punchlines.”

She is not speaking of humor that is scornful, rude, hateful or judgmental, but humor that lifts us up and honors. She quickly banishes any thoughts that she is advocating delivering sermons that are theologically light.

Sparks, who is pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, knew that her calling was to be a pastor at age 6.

Yet, her dreams were ridiculed and squelched by religious leaders in her native Southern Baptist upbringing, and so she delayed that dream until mid-career after becoming a successful attorney.

She delights in being a pastor, and this book stresses the hard work that delivering a sermon, speech or comedy routine requires. She is part of a standup comedy troupe that includes a rabbi and an imam.

The heart of the book is the fifth chapter, in which she demonstrates the humor of Jesus in example after example.

Sparks is enthusiastic about how Jesus uses ordinary circumstances to connect with his audience.

He uses every technique available: exaggeration, humor, voice, irony, timing, silence, parables and repetition to capture his listener’s attention.

Follow Jesus’ example, she urges. Use every means possible including humor. This is important because the audience will remember only 10% of what you say.

Providing step-by-step instructions on sermon preparation, she emphasizes always keeping your congregation in mind. What are members of your congregation interested in? What keeps them awake at night? What’s going on around you?

Observe people and listen to them, she advises. Always keep a notebook or recording device with you. Make a note about your observations. Develop a file system that will let you find illustrations that you have experienced, observed or read about. Talk about the hard stuff.

She stresses that congregations need more than they can Google. They need to be given real food by someone they trust.

“A sermon is bigger than us,” she writes. “In its purest form, a sermon should be a message inspired from a higher power given through you to a congregation. God is the power source. If we don’t feel the power, it’s not God.”

Learn to write like a comedian, Sparks says. Build your scenario. The punch line comes last. Wait a moment to let it sink in before you start talking again.

Boil your sermon down to your core message. Put that at the top of your page. Read your sermon out loud at least twice. This will help you weed out unnecessary words or extraneous material.

Narrow your sermon to what is direct and necessary for your one-line summary. Reserve the rest for another time.

Finally, she follows and recommends the practice of praying your sermon out loud.

One commandment Sparks gives is the one many ministers ignore, but its observance is essential: “Thou shalt not be exhausted by the Sabbath.” Rest and sleep are essential.

Sparks believes that being given an opportunity to preach before a community of faith is one of the highest honors one can receive. If one is to perform at her or his best, time apart, rest and reflection are mandatory.

So, she emphasizes that ministers must take a day off. Get away. At least stay away from the church once in a while. She and her husband take motorcycle trips.

Always remember why you are doing what you are doing, she says. Tap into the source. Always keep a copy of your sermons. Review them, taking note of common themes. What excites you? What do you preach about most often?

Her final commandment is my favorite, “Thou shalt have joyous communication.” This is true for comedians, motivational speakers and preachers. “No matter how we feel, we must radiate joyous communication into the rafters and far corners of the sanctuary.”

As I travel around and hear sermons from preachers in various denominations, this element most often is missing. Where is the joy of living the Christian life?

I already know my failures. If the joy is lacking in your speeches or sermons, Spark’s book will lift your spirits and help you rekindle your zest for preaching.

She reminds us that we are enough, and that God always has our back.

“Preaching Punchlines” contains ample references and numerous QR codes that allow you to scan even more. This book is pure gold for anyone who wishes to improve her or his sermons.

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Laughter – The Shiny Side Up – Rev. Susan Sparks

Hi Y’all, welcome to the Shiny Side Up! A journal of infectious inspiration that will lift you up, make you smile and leave you stronger!

Recently, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to two immunotherapy researchers for their work on unleashing the body’s immune system to attack cancer.

As a breast cancer survivor, I say “Amen!” Thanks to advances like this, including innovative treatments, and early detection, I am a twelve-year survivor.

Well . . . innovative treatments, early detection, and, of course, laughter.

Laughter?

Yes. As a comedian, minister and cancer survivor, I believe that laughter is one of the most powerful tools we have for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. And in this month of Breast Cancer Awareness, it is something we should celebrate.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of humor. For example, we know that the extra intake of air from laughing can lower our blood pressure, boost the immune system, enhance heart and lung function and increase endorphins. It can even bump up our calorie burn. In fact, laughing for fifteen minutes can burn 80 calories. That’s enough to justify a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup!

Humor is now being used in hospitals and treatment centers as a healing tool for cancer, Alzheimer’s, autism, and mental health issues. The Big Apple Clown Care Unit, for example, sponsors programs across the country in which clowns help children cope with the intimidating atmosphere of a hospital.

Another program, Standup for Mental Health, uses stand-up comedy training to reduce the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness. As its founder, David Granirer, explains, “The idea is that laughing at our setbacks raises us above them. It makes people go from despair to hope, and hope is crucial to anyone struggling with adversity.”

Humor and laughter can also bring psychological healing. During my cancer struggle, I realized I had three choices: be mad, be sad, or laugh. I soon learned that the most powerful approach was to laugh. One day, a new patient walked into the radiation center with a T-shirt that read: “Yes, they are fake; my old ones tried to kill me.” The entire waiting room burst out laughing, and that moment of laughter reminded us that cancer was not who we were; it was only something we were experiencing.

Laughter changes our perspective and invites us to see things in a fresh new way. The ability to step back and laugh at ourselves also reminds us that we are only human and that we should be more forgiving of ourselves.

It’s like the serenity prayer teaches: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Of course, I like the senility prayer better: “God, grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones that I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.” Either way, laughter helps us see ourselves in a more forgiving light.

Spiritual healing may be where laughter is most powerful. As Proverbs teaches us, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones…”

The Hebrew word “ruach” means both “spirit” and “air.” Therefore, it can be said that when we laugh, we are inhaling and exhaling the spirit. Or, as author Anne Lamott describes it, “Laughter is carbonated holiness.”

And why not? God has a sense of humor. Consider 1 Samuel 5:9 where God strikes the entire male population of Philistines with hemorrhoids (harsh, but funny), or the fact that we are made in the image of the divine. Humans laugh and feel joy, so a part of the divine must also laugh.

The willingness to laugh with God also allows us to express anger with God. Sometimes we blame or get mad at God for what we are going through. But in order to work through that anger, we have to share it. In order to be healed, we must bring God all our pieces: anger, sadness, fear, and laughter. It’s all holy.

So, here’s to the immunotherapy researchers; to the doctors, nurses, and technicians and to everyone whose life is dedicated to caring for and healing us. God bless them. And most of all, God bless the gift of laughter—the one thing that may save us all.

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Morning Worship: Put trash in mulch pile and let new, beautiful things grow

by MARY LEE TALBOT on 

“Humor and laughter are the most powerful gifts in life,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “The congregation this morning is a visual reaffirmation of faith in the church, in that the numbers here this morning rival the numbers at a screening of ‘Harry Potter.’ ”

Senior Pastor Susan Sparks Delivers Her SermonDuring The Sunday Morning Worship Service . PAULA OSPINA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Her sermon title was “The Mulch Pile,” and the theme was letting go. The Scripture reading was Colossians 3:1-2, 8-14.

Sparks said she and her husband were traveling across the country, and to the west of Minneapolis they saw a billboard that had a picture of a casket “Minnesota Cremation Society — Think Outside the Box,” it read.

“That is what humor does — helps you think outside the box, see in fresh ways, and it builds community and bridges,” Sparks said.

Sparks quoted theologian Karl Barth, saying that humor is the closest thing we have to God’s grace.

“We can feel hope in our hearts,” she said, “because humor is there even if the world tries to beat it out.”

Sparks recently ended a three-month sabbatical. For the first month, she and her husband rode their Harleys around the country.

“That’s right, you have a biker chick and a comedian for a chaplain this week,” she said.

The second two months they spent in their cabin in Wisconsin — a place they visit regularly. It is near a town much like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon: 2,000 people and 17 Lutheran churches.

They have a ritual for their first morning — first, making “really bad coffee,” and then fishing for bluegills and other small fish and then cooking breakfast. During one visit, they threw the fish guts and egg shells into the trash after breakfast and went out to run errands. They had no air conditioning and the day was 93 degrees — “you can see where this is going,” Sparks said. When they got home, they were hit with the smell.

“I made a small gas mask out of wet paper towels and went in and got the trash and ran it out to the mulch pile,” Sparks said. “As you gardeners know, the trash turns into rich, dark soil that grows daylilies or tomatoes.”

In the Scripture reading, Paul tells the Colossians to get rid of their anger and malice and clothe themselves in a new self.

“Paul was writing in 60 A.D. and the danger he was writing about was gnosticism,” Sparks said. “He urged the Colossians to clothe themselves in the teaching of Christ. Paul is reaching out to us in the same way today and asking two questions — What trash are you carrying that needs to be put in the mulch? And what beautiful new thing can grow in its place?”

This is the arc for the week in her sermons: to look at what the trash is that needs to be put out on the mulch pile and, on Friday, to sum up what beautiful new thing might grow in its place.

“What trash are you carrying?” she asked. “Do you even know? Are you carrying anger, resentment, fear or self-doubt? Are you carrying racism, homophobia or other hatreds?”

Sparks said that sometimes when we are in denial, we don’t know that we are carrying trash or we have lived with generations of disregard for the problems. As an example, she said she threw her back out once and had to lie on the floor for almost a week. On the fourth day, after having read every newspaper and magazine in the house and binge-watched reruns of “Dr. Phil,” she was bored and her only view was under the furniture.

“I saw dust balls the size of ferrets, some leaky pens and paper and a strange orange square thing. It turned out to be a cheese appetizer from a cocktail party two years before,” she said. “I would not have known it was there unless I had been forced to look. You can’t take out the trash if you don’t know it is there.”

The second action in taking out the trash is letting go, and that is easier said than done. There are many things that we are used to but are useless to us.

“My father had a big old Buick boat of a car and he kept two spare tires, food, water, blankets and a foil space blanket in his trunk — in case there was a blizzard — to drive the 0.1 mile to from our house to his office in Charlotte, North Carolina,” she said.

We, she told the congregation, need to let go of privilege, apathy and ego as much as a foil blanket. She told the story of a man who fell off a cliff and was dangling from a tree, calling for help. A voice came from the heavens, saying, “Let go, my son, I have you.” The man thought for a moment and said, “Who else is up there?”

It can be hard to let go, but if we carry this trash too long it begins to define us. Ralph Waldo Emerson said what we worship, we become.

“I have a friend who calls it the 3Bs — believe, behave, become,” Sparks said. “What we believe drives our behavior and what we believe drives who we become.”

Sparks cited the first part of the Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, which reads: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

She prefers the Senility Prayer: “God, Grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones that I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.”

“We have got to let go and throw things onto the mulch pile and in that moment, greater forces will take over,” Sparks said. “When we hand things over to a greater power, to Jesus Christ, it fades and changes into something beautiful and new.”

For instance, she said, we have to throw out our judgmentalism of others in order for mercy, empathy and forgiveness to grow.

“We judge people by the craziest things, like color, language or religion that have nothing to do with their being a child of God and our brother and sister,” she said.

She told a story from Jack Kornfield about two prisoners of war. The first one asked the second if he had forgiven their captors. The second one said no. “Then they still have you in prison,” the first one replied.

“We have more in common than we think and we have to start living like it,” Sparks said. “We have to begin with ourselves and forgive ourselves so we can forgive others. We have excuses for why we can’t do that, but if we have any lesson for today, it is that this body is our house, this heart is our house, this country is our house, this world is our house and it is our responsibility to take out the trash even if someone else brought it in.”

Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“If you care about this gift, don’t waste it on what weighs you down,” Sparks said. “Fling it on the mulch pile and clothe yourself in something beautiful and new.”

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Take No Bitterness into the New Year

 

          Many people regard New Year’s Resolutions with the same disdain they attribute to the much maligned fruitcake. I am a proponent of both. For several years now I have made the same New Year’s resolution and I ask God to help me to keep it.  I will take no bitterness into the New Year. Whatever has happened during the past twelve months that tends to sour my disposition, cause me pain and create separation, I resolve to let go. Whatever offenses I have suffered will not be dragged into the New Year. Forgiveness is not as easy as it might sound. Partly it requires developing a thicker skin and realizing that I take far too many things personally. I need to lighten up. This is one of the concepts my friend, Dr. Monty Knight, discusses in his book, Balanced Living; Don’t Let Your Strengths Become Your Weakness. Continuing with Monty’s philosophy, I don’t have to go to every fight to which I am invited. That is a major concept. Let it go. Tom Newboult, a minister of religious education, once told me that sin is giving more importance to the moment than it is worth. In other words, don’t dwell in the negative. I think Tom hit the nail on the head. What a great concept! Turning a negative into a positive is another methodology for dealing with difficult situations. Since I administered a not-for-profit agency for most of my career, I would often be attacked with, “Well, Mitch, you are just an idealist.” My reply became, “Thank you. I hope so.” The main thing about forgiveness for those of us who are Christian to remember is that we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven. Susan Sparks in her book, Laugh Your Way to Grace, suggests that we rediscover the power of humor. She maintains that we take ourselves far too seriously. We need to repackage some of the comments that cause us pain. Bitterness is a terrible task master. It will ruin your life and suck all the goodness you receive into a dark hole. I recommend a proactive approach. Go on an active campaign to make those around you glad that you are there. Build them up by helping them feel good about themselves. Say something nice. Compliment him or her in a real genuine way. Call the person by name. Offer a specific compliment about a real accomplishment. On the other hand when you receive a compliment acknowledge it graciously with a simple “thank you.” In my book, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, I discuss the power of words, but I am by no means the first to come to that conclusion. The psalmist said, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto thee, oh God, my strength and my redeemer.” Dr. Arthur Caliandro gets right to the heart of the matter with a three word solution. “Life is now.” That statement is stunning in its simplicity. Live in the present. Don’t drag past hurts into today. I was part of a vivid demonstration of this principle. We were planning one of the annual John Hamrick Lectures while Dr. John was still living. A potential speaker was being considered. I called the speaker to extend an invitation. He told me that because he and Dr. Hamrick had been involved on opposite sides of a controversy, he would only come if Dr. Hamrick approved. When I told Dr. Hamrick of my conversation he didn’t hesitate. “That was then. This is now.” Wow!

            I make no claim that getting rid of bitterness is an easy task. You and I have experienced great hurts. Unfortunately we have also inflicted great hurts. I know that I am in the process of becoming and that God is not finished with me. Practicing my resolution of taking no bitterness into the New Year has helped me live a more productive, less stressful life. I believe you will experience the same happy results if you give it a try.

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