When I first joined Kiwanis, I asked what the name meant. Everyone agreed: “It’s an American Indian term.” The official Kiwanis site says it means: “We make ourselves known.” Kiwanis makes a noticeable difference through community service – particularly to children. Great.
But, what about “Sinawik,” the other new word I heard? I was told, “That’s ‘Kiwanis’ backward. It’s our time for a joke – for laughter.”
But, a first time visitor might wonder: “Sinawik comes right after a patriotic song, the Pledge of Allegiance, and prayer. Does Sinawik belong there?” Good question.
When I turned 50, I bought Cotton Mather’s (1663 – 1728) diary of his 50th year. He graduated from Harvard at 15 – was the lead pastor of Old North Church by 22 – and wrote over 400 books! In his diary, he condemned laughter because it was often cruel. He then justified his position by saying that the Bible never depicts Jesus as laughing.
What do you think? Where do we look to respond to Mather?
When we turn to our word laughter, we find it is from an Old English word dating from the late 14 century; the word is hlæhhan. Along with that old word are listed another ten ancient words that seek to imitate the sound of laughter. But, we need more than imitation to answer Mather’s concern. He might say we were simply imitating fools.
And we might reply that our language shows what we value. Supposedly, the Eskimo language includes hundreds of words for different kinds of snow. We invent words for the things we need to talk about. I consider it a good sign that we have so many words for laughter. A partial list of synonyms for laughter: cackle, chuckle, chortle, giggle, guffaw, snicker, snigger, titter, twitter (Patrick Madden, “Quotidiana,” p. 19). But, are our values true?
Can history help us? When we look at history, first, let’s not be biased about Puritans. If they could, they dressed in velvet. It was the Quakers who dressed in black. And, “joy” is the characteristic word of Puritan writings. Joy! Why “joy?”
Let’s get further back. What about Jesus and humor? It is true that he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. But, Jesus also partied. For his first miracle he turned lots of water into lots of great wine. Jesus told humorous parables.
But, what about the abuses Mather worried about? Certainly, Jesus emphatically warns us against speaking words of contempt to our neighbor – even words spoken in “humor.” But, did Jesus go through his life on earth without laughing? No.
How can we be sure?
Consider the even more foundational question: “Does God enjoy life or is he a killjoy?” God has revealed himself truly in Scripture. Although we, like Mather, can be blind, here is where we scratch our heads regarding Mather. God could not be clearer about his sense of humor. Wisdom, in Proverbs 8:30says: I was constantly at his (God’s) side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing (sahaq) always in his presence, 31 rejoicing (sahaq) in his whole world and delighting in mankind. Note, Proverbs uses “rejoicing” twice. The Hebrews repeated what they thought was important. How significant is a good guffaw?
Rejoicing, the Hebrew sahaq, is related to the Hebrew name, Isaac. God came to Abraham (100) and Sarah (90) and told them – in a sense – they were going to have to come out of retirement – they were going to have a son! And God told them to name him “Isaac.” It is not too far of a stretch to say his name means: “Joke” – “Belly laugh.” The contrasts between normal life and this child were too great. People were dumbstruck. In effect, God was saying: “Giving you two a child now is a BIG clue to the sense of humor I have. I want you and others to remember that. Give him the name, ‘Isaac.’” Genesis 21:6 Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And, “everyone” included God!
What better than the deep joy of laughter to describe the overwhelming emotion we feel at the safe delivery of a child? What better to describe the profound emotion we feel at the adoption of a child? Now, Christian, imagine God feeling that kind of joy – for you – when you are adopted into his family! And our joy is just the beginning of his.
Did Mather miss Hebrews 12:2 – “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God?” What was that joy? – rescuing us and bringing us home to God. If joy characterized the improbability a 100 year old father and a 90 year old mother having a baby, how much more joy is there for the astonishing impossibility of a holy God finding a way to bring sinners like us home? What can we say? Grace happens.
One response to God and his grace is sahaq – joy, laughter, playing, making merry, celebrating. Like Sinawik. Better: “To Sinawik and beyond!” Let’s pile up the evidence:
- We bring glory to God by enjoying him.
- Proverbs 17:22 – “A cheerful heart is good medicine.”
- “It is the heart that is not yet sure of its God that is afraid to laugh in His presence” (George MacDonald).
Zephaniah 3: 17 “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice (sahaq) over you with singing.” Return the favor, laugh along with God. Let’s have a good guffaw!
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,
I just finished reading J.I. Packer’s classic Knowing God before listening to this lively lexicon. I put the book down on a table in Mexico and turned to my wife and said. What a book and what a God. I could not help but think after listening and reading laughter that most certainly we are blessed to have a God who takes great delight In what he has created. It is no stretch for me to imagine a good God belly laugh with his humored comment, if you only new all of the joy and laughter still available. Just open your eyes and laugh with me.