Look at all my trials and tribulations
Sinking in a gentle pool of wine
Don’t disturb me know, I can see the answers
‘till this evening is this morning life is fine .
Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice “Apostles chorus, Gethsemane” from “Jesus Christ Super Star”
The Maundy Thursday service tone was very subdued. As we walked into the silent sanctuary I could see that there was not going to be any kidding around tonight. No shared laughs with the fellow congregants, no open jokes in the sermon, this was serious stuff.
The District Superintendent, our former Pastor, began reading from St. Matthew. We covered the Last Supper and had moved onto Gethsemane where Jesus had taken three of the disciples with him while he went off to pray, facing the darkest moment in his life. He leaves the three behind, tells them to “sit here and watch with me” and goes over by himself to pray. At least one gospel has him literally sweating blood. After some time of prayer regarding the coming ordeal, he comes back to the disciples, less than an hour later and finds them all sound asleep. Jesus gets a little miffed and tells them so in a “spirit is willing and the flesh is weak” kind of way. He urges them to try a little harder as he goes off to pray again.
Now I have heard this story a number of times. Here my mind races ahead of the text, recalling that Jesus is going to come back and find these guys a sleep again. Suddenly this strikes me as sit-com material. A video runs in my mind showing Jesus walking back and finding these three guys (one who will be the first Pope)leaning against rocks or lying face down in the sand, snoring away. I suddenly see Jesus throwing his arms up skyward in the classic “not again !” comedy, shrug while his face breaks into a hilarious “can you believe it ?” look. You got the picture. This strikes me as funny, maybe not so much funny as hilarious. My visage breaks into a wide smile and from my throat I feel the gurgling of involuntary laughter starting to rise up.
Now scholars often disagree about passages in the Bible, but I think that we can probably all agree that St. Matthew was not in any way going for a cheap laugh here. If Matthew had wanted to break the tension, he had a perfect opportunity for a classic comic “spit scene” as the wine was being passed around at the Last Supper.
Jesus: This is my blood you drink
Apostle: (spraying the wine out of his mouth) wooooomph ?
No, St Matthew was playing it straight.
My mind focused and I quickly realized that breaking into involuntary laughter in this silent sanctuary was not going to be looked on favorably by God or man. With great effort, I stifled the laugh and saved my reputation, however temporary that saving (of my reputation or soul) may turn out to be.
Involuntary laughter is a scourge of the species. Last night I began to think of the many times it has embarrass me.
Once, in high school, a friend of mine and I were in the next room over from a third friend who was being screamed at (for good reason) by his mother. The kid screamed back and my friend and I in the next room were so embarrassed to be hearing all of this we began to laugh. I recall pinching myself trying to keep from laughing out loud. Our third friend came into the room, his face darkly flushed with anger and motioned for us to come with him. Still we held our laughter He drove us over to a 7/11 (I have related this part of the tale before) to try to illegally buy beer. Upon approaching the counter we saw that the cashier was a Sikh with a full beard and turban(and for all we knew ceremonial sword). This was years before you ever saw anything except a Texas Redneck working at a 7/11. The damn burst, so shocked were we to see this fellow who looked to us to be a “bearded holy man” that all three of us broke into laughter, dropping the beer and running to the car, almost hitting another car as we drove away, our driver having been stirring the car from a position mostly on the floor. That may have been the lowest moment of my childhood, but I could not stop laughing. I avoided that 7/11 thereafter.
Then there was the time that my wife and I were given tickets to a chamber music concert performed by a semi-famous string quarter. It was in a small place, maybe 50 seats. All very formal. After intermission, two girls who looked like car hops at a West Texas Dairy Mart walked in, looking around, carrying enormous cups of beer. The scene was so out of place that my wife and I burst into laughter, having to get up and leave so that the audience could hear the music.
Then there was the time that I was sitting in a formal case conference when I worked for the Supreme Court of Texas a s a Briefing Clerk. There were ten clerks and two of us had been startled for a time that one of the Justices was non compos mentis (truly). As he had escalated his bizarre behavior over the course of the term we had taken to looking at each other in disbelief. One Judge had suggested that we might want to “stop the cutting up in conference” while they were arguing over cases, but even he was astonished at the goings on of his brother Judge. At this particular conference the “challenged Judge” mentioned that he had been talking to a lawyer for one of the parties regarding one of the cases that was being decided that day. For you non-lawyers, that is about as bad a thing as a Judge can do, is strictly forbidden, and the fact that the fellow was casually talking about it proved just how far gone he was. After he was blasted by his fellow Judges, he asked if he could go call the lawyer and tell him what was going to be done with the case. Eight cries of “nooooooooooo” were then heard. I could not withhold the laughter and neither could my fellow clerk, we both pretended to cough but I, being the wiser one, pretended that my cough was so bad that I had to go outside to get it under control. I left my friend to his fate while I sat on a bench outside and laughed for a full 15 minutes. My friend did not speak to me after conference and when he finally did, he chastised me for running out on him. I hung my head, but have never been sorry.
Finally, when I was a young lawyer, I was traveling around with three other lawyers from three different firms working on a case. We had an expert witness in Kansas City, an engineering firm. We had been up several times and had met the usual three guys from the company whom you meet in those situations. The head guy, who has no idea what is going on, the middle guy who gives the orders and sort of knows what’s going on, and the third guy who does all the work, knows everything that is going on, but is too big a geek to be trusted by himself with the customers.
This geek was a piece of work. He had a very funny voice, was very short, was about thirty years older than we were and had the funniest way of shaking hands of anyone I had ever met. He grabbed your hand and pulled your whole arm straight up to shoulder level, all the while pumping and then brought your hand back down, well below handshake level and kept shaking. You had to pry your hand away from the guy, only the survival instinct of the human kept his handshakes from going on forever.
At any rate, we had all just sat down at the conference table and one of us asked where to get a steak in Kansas City. That’s about like asking where to find coal in Newcastle, but we were young. After a couple of good suggestions from the bosses, the geek pipes up with “I know where you can get the best pickled beets in Kansas City. “ This was an inane statement, but certainly not as funny as it struck me. I struggled to control my laughter. I pulled out a tissue and pretended to blow my nose but recognized that I was well past any possible stifle point, so I stood up and exited on the run.”They will think I’m sick “ I thought to myself, “and running to the bathroom”. Unfortunately the laugh over came me right as I closed the door behind me. Now imagine my three counsel, trying to look business like and six feet away, behind a thin door they hear uproarious and unstoppable laughter, getting only a little less noisy as they hear my footsteps running down the hall. One of them later told me that it had been the most embarrassing display of his legal career. Unfortunately for me, in looking back on it, I’ve been a lot more embarrassed over the last quarter century.
I suppose that everyone has similar story, the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” immortalized the situation in a story about the funeral of “Chuckles the Clown”, Jerry Seinfeld set Elaine off at a piano concert by placing a Pez dispenser on her leg. These things happen in life, although I have noticed that true spontaneous laughter greats rarer and rarer as you get older and older, just when you need it most. I miss it.
I think God would have understood last night if I had not been able to hold it in, and, of course the Minister has to forgive you, that’s part of the job. But I probably never would have gotten over it with the congregation. Trying to ask people to imagine Jesus in a sitcom in the middle of Holy Week is not much of a defense. Even if you flesh out the story, “ No, listen, think about it, all those Apostles had been drinking that night, right ?” You would just get yourself in deeper and deeper. I probably saved myself a church transfer, if anyone else would have had me.