Why are these college kids laughing? A rabbi???

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0919_university_students_laughing_at_bob_alper.jpgCAUGHT ON VIDEO! College kids laughing at Rabbi Bob Alper. (Photo courtesy of Bob Alper.)ReadTheSpirit is nationally known as an advocate of peace and Peacemakers.
So, we had to respond when we heard the news: “Bob’s on college campuses—and he’s killing!”
Translation: This is comedian-speak for “He’s going over big! They’re laughing like crazy!”
This bizarre chemistry is true: White-haired, bespectacled rabbi—plus—college kids—equals laughs.
There’s nothing more helpful in peacemaking than laughter.

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I spoke at various 9/11-related events in recent weeks. During one Question-and-Answer session with a college audience, a man asked, “I’m concerned about all the jokes I’m hearing about religion. I think some of the Christian-targeted humor is offensive. And there really aren’t any Muslim comedians are there? What do you think about the state of humor when it comes to religion?”

My answer: Book Bob Alper and his friends in the Laugh in Peace comedy tour!
Bob Alper, whose appeal among the young is obvious in this video (which you can watch below), works with comedian (and New York City Baptist pastor) Susan Sparks and Muslim comedians as well.
Want more? Here’s Bob Alper’s Schedule page, where you track his tours nationwide.
Here’s Susan Sparks’ Laugh in Peace page, where you can learn more about her part in these joint shows.

CLICK on the video screen below to watch Alper in action with college kids.
No video screen in your version of this story? Click the headline to reload the story and the video should appear. Or, visit Bob Alper’s website where you can watch this video and others.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Susan Sparks on 9/11: The Lifeboat of Laughter


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0831_Susan_Sparks_Laugh_Your_Way_to_Grace.jpgSusan Sparks is nationally known for her preaching, writing and—most of all—for her firm belief that the joy we find through our faith should spill over in laughter! Recently featured in Oprah magazine for her unique approach to ministry, Susan is the author of Laugh Your Way to Grace from which she has adapted this piece. As you can learn on her website, she is both a professional comedian—and (seriously) is the first woman senior pastor at the 164-year-old Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.

Table of Contents:
All of our 9/11 reflections you can use …

9/11/2011: The Lifeboat of Laughter

By Susan Sparks

The day after 9/11, I was working for the Red Cross taking inbound calls for missing persons in the fallen towers. Somewhere mid-morning I received a call from a woman whose husband was missing. Her call was like all the others I had received: she offered a description of him, information about where he worked, what time he left. Then something totally unexpected happened. She began to laugh.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you! He left the house with the worst tie on. It was this horrible green color with flamingos. I told him it didn’t match,” she laughed, “but you know men.”

I was so stunned, I didn’t know what to say. For several moments we sat at opposite ends of the phone line in silence. Finally she said, “I’m sorry. Maybe laughter seems inappropriate right now. But it’s all my family and I have left.”

I learned something about grief—and about laughter—that day. While most of us think of laughing as something we do only in comedy clubs, in fact laughter may be the most powerful healing tool we have. For some it’s a way of lifting the crushing burden of crisis to allow for a brief moment of reprieve. For others, it is a tool to help get through the stages for grief. For the woman on the other end of my phone line, it was a lifeboat in a great sea of despair. 

Since that day, I have lived and worked in New York City and have witnessed first-hand the pains of healing and transition, especially the violent reactions to our Muslim brothers and sisters. If I have one hope for our city, our nation and our world, it is that in the years to come we may find a way to dialogue, to listen and eventually, together, to laugh.

Some may bristle at that suggestion. For many, to laugh with someone means you forgive them—that all is okay. In fact, laughter is much more complex. In its purest form, laughter is a not about giving up, it is about opening up.

As a minister and also a professional comedian, I’ve found a great example of this power. A few years after 9/11, I started working with a standup rabbi and a Muslim comic in the “Laugh in Peace” tour. Created by Rabbi Bob Alper, “Laugh in Peace” is an interfaith comedy show targeted at building bridges between diverse communities. Our audiences span every imaginable face: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists. And for two short hours, the differences are forgotten and we all laugh together. 

The bottom line? Humor highlights our commonalties. When we laugh with someone, whether it is a stranger, a friend, or an enemy, our worlds overlap for a tiny, but significant moment. It is then that our differences fade and our common connections gleam forth. As the poet W.H. Auden wrote, “Love your crooked neighbor with your own crooked heart.”

There is much healing left to do. And many hearts are still broken. But on this—the tenth anniversary of 9/11—we all face one simple question: Will we leave a legacy of retribution or one of restoration? It is my deepest hope that we will not give up, but open up; open up our minds to understanding, open up our hearts to the stranger and open up our spirits to wholeness and healing.

Give our children the legacy they deserve. Show them the tools to heal and move forward. Give them (and ourselves) permission to laugh. In the end it may be the lifeboat that keeps us all afloat.

Care to read more about Susan Sparks?

Q-and-A WITH SUSAN: Enjoy our earlier interview about her book Laugh Your Way to Grace.

GET HER BOOK FOR MORE WISDOM: Laugh Your Way to Grace is published by SkyLight Paths.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)

Interview with comedian, preacher Susan Sparks

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-dc_Susan_Sparks_Laugh_Your_Way_to_Grace.jpgNow this is funny!
AND, it’s an important insight for anyone who cares about congregations: In building her community, Susan Sparks pulls together all sorts of different worlds, even realms that seem to clash. For example: “Hey! Did you hear the one about the preacher, the lawyer and the standup comedian who all walked into a bar?”
Pause, then: “You just met Susan Sparks.”

She’s actually all those things and that’s the big, refreshing insight she shares with the rest of us. Yes, she wants to help us loosen up, take ourselves less seriously, laugh our way to spiritual health. All that’s on the cover of her new book, which we’re recommending to you this week. (In Part 1 of our coverage of Susan, we introduced her list of 15 all-time funny movies.)

But, there’s more.
Much more.

Like any smart comic, Susan knows how to slice ruthlessly to the essentials. Check out the website for her church in New York City, Madison Avenue Baptist Church. What are the pillars of a healthy church these days? Susan’s congregation boils it down to four words: “Know. Be. Feel. Do.”

Or, check out her personal website SusanSparks.com. She’s far from your average pastor! This preacher has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, ABC and Psychology Today. In short, her voice echoes far and wide. (On her website, the CNN video clip shows a bit of her interfaith comedy connection with Rabbi Bob Alper and Muslim comics, as well.)

In the Introduction to her new book, Susan puts it this way: When you mention humor and religion in the same breath, most people think of Noah jokes and nun puns. And those are great—at least some of them. But the power of humor on the spiritual path radiates far beyond the realm of punch lines. Laughter is, in fact, a way of coming at the world. It challenges how we perceive ourselves and our circumstances, it reframes how we see others, and it changes the very way we engage with God.

Sounds sort of like another famous preacher who liked to use humorous stories to score spiritual points as he and his 12 followers wandered through the ancient world. Remember the one about the foolish son who thought he struck it rich by grabbing his father’s inheritance before the old man died—only to wind up living in a pigsty? That story of a foolish son could be fodder for Prairie Home Companion.

In fact, the first words in Susan’s new book come from Garrison Keillor himself: “Humor is not a trick, not jokes. Humor is a presence in the world, like grace, and shines on everyone.”


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-dc_Laugh_Your_Way_to_Grace_cover_Susan_Sparks.jpgDAVID: You started your career as a corporate lawyer. You’re also a veteran standup comedian. You felt a call to the ministry, went to seminary and you’re now the pastor of a landmark church in New York City. But, I have to tell you that I smiled when I read that you now earn 40 percent of what you did as a lawyer. My first reaction was: Wow, your church pays you well!

SUSAN: (laughs) I’m not going to kid you. This is hard work! It’s especially hard getting through seminary and then starting out in ministry, first as an intern. It’s a long hard process. Here’s the bottom line: In my law practice, I also worked really hard, but at night after a long day I’d ask myself: What did I do today that helped anyone? If I passed on tonight, would the world be any better because I was here? My answers kept coming up: Nothing and No. And that’s not a cheap shot at lawyers or my employers in that part of my life, but I realized that I wasn’t going to leave a legacy with my life as it was. Once I began thinking like that, I never looked back. Now, I go to bed at night very comfortable that something I did at church or something I said in a standup show lifted someone up.

Now, on the money issue? No, I’ve never made that much, not even back when I was a lawyer. Have I got anything against a little extra money? (laughs) No, I wouldn’t turn it down! But, in truth? Money’s not my life’s goal.


DAVID: You’re 47, but your book and your way of talking about life feels very young to me. I hear people in their 20s talking like you talk about honestly assessing the world and refusing to buy into a lot of the assumptions about success that motivated earlier generations.

SUSAN: Very much so! We are blessed to have a big growth spurt with the 20-year-old set coming through our doors. We put a face on the church that’s very different than what many of them have experienced. We’re inviting them back to a tradition they has alienated many of them. We offer a theology that’s more compassionate and opening. I also think that younger people are searching not only for home and family, which is one big thing we represent, but also for meaning in their lives. Every week in the pulpit, I put out the idea that we should leave our place better than we found it. And “our place” means our work, our home and our relationship with Earth. Let’s leave this place better than we found it.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-dc_angry_god_Michelangelo.jpgDAVID: You taught me a new word in your book: geliophobia, the fear of laughter. I thought I knew all the phobias, but that’s a new one for me. Why is it important to confront that fear?

SUSAN: Many of us were raised with an image of God as fearful, scary, imposing—and understandably so. Many stories in the Hebrew Bible that we heard when we were growing up presented a powerful figure who is judging, destructive, punishing. Think about human relationships we know. In a relationship with someone you fear, you’re going to hold back, protect yourself. I’m encouraging people to look past the fearful images of God we’ve encountered. God is much bigger than that one mask we’ve seen. Open up that mask and you’ll see a face of joy, compassion—and even a face of laughter. This can deeply affect our prayer life, the way we engage the holy.

DAVID: I agree with you. But let’s get down to a simpler level: A lot of people are flat-out afraid to laugh in church, right?

SUSAN: In my own congregation, our people know me well enough that they’ve moved past this. But there are a lot of people who fear that it might be blasphemous to laugh in the presence of the holy. What I’m talking about is not universally welcomed. In the blog world, I’ve had people criticize me as watering down the gospel or making it seem frivolous. Now, most of those people have never actually heard my message or attended my workshops. But there’s a part of us that actually wants an angry God. You know, sometimes we want a God who’ll strike down the mean people with lightening bolts. That becomes a serious issue we’ve got to work through.

There’s also an issue of power. Power and humor are not good friends. Humor breaks things open. If we laugh in holy realms, then there might be some wiggle room in the power of the church’s dogma. That’s where I’m finding a pushback. Power has trouble with humor.


DAVID: You argue that God has a sense of humor. “Laughter is at the very core of creation,” you write.

SUSAN: Think about our own human spirit. At the core of human beings is the ability to laugh, to feel joy and happiness. And Genesis says we’re made in the image of the Divine. It doesn’t take a law degree to see that, therefore, part of the Divine has to be joy. Look at how Jesus chose to communicate with people. Jesus was at his core a standup comedian, because the tools he chose to use in the parables were irony, juxtaposition and exaggeration—all basic standup comedy tools. Just think about shoving a camel through the eye of a needle! That must have been a hilarious image for his audience of shopkeepers and fishermen and farmers.

DAVID: Some of our readers may associate your Baptist denomination with a narrow view of the religious world. Your own website celebrates interfaith comedy shows you’ve done with Rabbi Bob Alper and Muslim comedians, too. But your book goes even further. You write about what you’ve learned from Zen. I found that section of your book refreshing—well worth reading for Christians. Over the years as a journalist, I’ve covered appearances by the Dalai Lama in various places. He’s often serious, it’s true—but he’s also got a terrific sense of humor. You aren’t afraid to pick up wisdom from other religious traditions.

SUSAN: Absolutely. I was privileged to take a long trip around the world after practicing law and before going to seminary. I had frankly been very disconnected from my own Christian tradition from an early age. And I hadn’t turned to the church in any substantive way for about 25 years. I needed that trip to connect with my own path. The irony is that my path led back to Christianity through the teachings of the world’s other great religions. Hinduism has many wonderful teachings about the many faces of God. That broke open a lot of new ways of relating to my own faith. Zen Buddhism opened up a lot for me, including the potential of laughter as a part of religious practice.


DAVID: We’re not talking about something that’s “frivolous,” to use that word you mentioned before. We’re really talking about tough laughter—about finding joy in the face of the world’s many tragedies that easily could crush us. One of the most remarkable books I’ve encountered on this theme is Desmond Tutu’s and Mpho Tutu’s new book, “Made for Goodness.”

SUSAN: Laughter is most powerful in times of crisis. I write in the book about doing counseling after 9/11. I’m talking about September 12, 2001. People were calling in to give us identities of missing men and women to help the search-and-rescue workers. One woman called in and was describing her husband and she began laughing. She said, “He left the house with the worst tie in the world!” She stopped and then she said, “That may sound inappropriate—but it’s all me and my family have left.”

In a moment like that you see it clearly: Laughter is a lifeboat.

I’m a breast cancer survivor four years out and I know that finding laughter in a place of fear is almost as though you are taking your life back. It’s so easy to become defined by places of pain and suffering. It was a revelation to me to sit in a waiting room getting ready to go in for radiation. I’m there surrounded with other people who are in various stages of cancer. And many of these people would come in each day with a joke they would tell. They would laugh. And when you laugh? You bring everyone around you up, too.

Ministers and comedians stand in solidarity with people through the goofy and the hard times that happen in all of our lives. When ministers and comedians do their jobs right, the outcome should be the same: We make people feel less alone.

You can order Susan’s new book, “Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor” from Skylight Paths.

ENJOY OUR ENTIRE GREAT SUMMER READING AND VIEWING SERIES: (Our series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” “The Lonely Polygamist,” “Rise and Shine,” “Saints,” “Beaches of Agnes,” “Mystically Wired,” “Creative Aging,” “Twelve by Twelve,” “Eyewitness 4,” “Connecting Like Jesus,” “NRSV: XL Edition” and “Putting Away Childish Things.”)

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