Laughter is a gift of God that improves an individual’s spiritual, emotional and physical health, the leader of the Theologian-in-Residence series at Tusculum College said on Tuesday.
“A sense of humor is life-giving,” said Dr. Al Staggs, a performance artist who is leading the 2010 Theologian-in-Residence series. “What did Jesus say, ‘I have come that you might have life and that you might have it more abundantly?’”
This year’s series is the 20th for the annual event, which is co-sponsored by the Holston Presbytery and Tusculum College. More than 120 people attended the session.
Dr. Staggs began the session by doing more than an hour’s worth of comedic impressions, ranging from W. C. Fields to Robin Williams. He explained that he and his siblings developed their sense of humor as a survival technique to deal with a frequently volatile environment at home with an ill-tempered father prone to fits of rage and a mother who sometimes suffered from debilitating depression although she was a model of Christian faith, hard work and persistence.
Laughter allows people to cope when life gets unbearable and impossible, Dr. Staggs said, adding that he had seen it often in his 20 years as a pastor and hospital chaplain as he visited those who were dealing with serious illness and other difficulties.
A study of survivors of the Holocaust documented in the book, “Laughter from Hell: Humor in the Holocaust” found that those who survived had a sense of humor, he noted, and humor was an important way they coped with the unbearable conditions of the concentration campus.
With an uncertain economy and an increasingly changing society, many people today are feeling fear and anxiety of the unknown, Dr. Staggs said, but Christians need to remember that God is in control, which can help them laugh in the midst of difficult times.
Paul speaks of joy as one of the fruits of the Spirits in his letter to the church of Galatia, Dr. Staggs said, and one theologian has called joy a right of a Christian.
In Ecclesiastes, the Scriptures say that there is a time for everything, including joy, a lesson that needs to be better realized in the Christian community, whatever the denomination, he said.
Christians are prevented from feeling more of that joy because they do not fully realize how wonderful God’s grace truly is, he said. As he was training for the pastorate, Dr. Staggs said his peers would tell him that he delivered good sermons about grace but what he illustrated through his daily life was a vision of God as a policeman ready to punish for the least infraction, a characterization he had learned as a child.
His theology and vision of God have changed much since then, he continued, and he also realized that as he was condemning himself for his wrongs and flaws, in his mind he was making that vision of himself into how he thought God saw him.
“Your brain can make you feel like a wretch … but that is where God’s grace is most abundant,” he said, adding that a sense of humor helps people keep a proper perspective and not take themselves so seriously.
“Laughter is medicine to the soul,” he said and told of am experience at a leading oncologist’s office after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. In detailing treatment, the oncologist told them a “humor cart” with comedy videos visited patient rooms daily and patients were asked to watch at least one of the videos each day. The doctor had found that the patients who watched the videos generally did better than those who didn’t.
Humor helps people emotionally as laughter helps defuse the seriousness of the moment for a moment, Dr. Staggs continued.
The process of laughter releases endorphins into the body, similar to those causing “the runner’s high” in long-distance running, he noted.
The Theologian-in-Residence series for 2010 will conclude next Tuesday, Feb. 21, with “William Sloane Coffin: A Priestly Prophet,” focusing on the American Protestant social activist who was a leader in the Civil Rights and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s and in the nuclear disarmament movement in the 1980s. The session will begin at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum campus. The session ends around 1:45 p.m. and lunch is included.
There is no admission fee for the series, but reservations are required. Please call 423-636-7319 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to make reservations.