24 June 2017
New Vice-President reflects on the importance of laughter and lament in Church life
- The audio and video of Jill Baker's address are available here.
- Photographs of Jill at the Conference are available here.
In her inaugural address made earlier today, Jill Baker, the newly elected Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, reflected on the need for both laughter and lament in the Church's life.
At the Methodist Conference, taking place in Birmingham until 29 June, Jill Baker, a Methodist local preacher and former President of the Methodist Women in Britain, shared a mixture of humorous and touching stories to reflect on how the Church needs laughter and lamentation in its rhythm of life.
Reflecting on the story of how her father was converted through Methodist laughter, Jill asked: "Do we ever consider laughter as a mission strategy? Laughter touches on something important…
"We love laughter, we need laughter, we accept laughter as a gift from God. Let's make it our aim to laugh more!"
She continued: "Life is not all laughter… Darkness is another arena of God's revelation…
"As a Church too, we need sometimes to express our sense of grief that the world is hurting … lament may not change the past, but it can change us, which, in turn, can change the future."
Vice-President's Address below [some anecdotes have been redacted at the request of the speaker]:
I was travelling on a train - nothing unusual in that - a train from Fitzwilliam to Wakefield Westgate in Yorkshire. It was a full train and I was standing, as were many others. A few yards away from me stood a young woman who was not lurching around with the bending and braking of the train, but who was quietly rocking backwards and forwards on the balls of her feet.
She had long hair and I didn't immediately notice the ear phones she was wearing, but I did notice her elegance, her poise and a certain sense of peace which seemed to emanate from her. She was probably commuting to work, but she was almost dancing to work, energised and, it seemed to me, blessed by an internal rhythm which I couldn't share, but could appreciate.
A favourite film of my boys as they grew up was Disney's "Jungle Book" (maybe it still is, Tim?) - I confess I haven't seen the new version, but every word, every note, every image from the original 1967 film is imprinted on my soul. Do you remember the scene when the irrepressible bear, Baloo, is supposed to be looking after the orphan Mowgli, but instead becomes captivated, one might almost say drugged, by the jungle rhythms of the ape, King Louis, and almost allows the evil snake Kaa to kidnap the boy…?
Or the song "Bare necessities" (a song which makes many profound theological observations) in which Baloo again is carried away with his own rhythms and can't understand how Bagheera, the haughty panther, can resist them. Playfully he pulls Bagheera's tail, "Get with the beat, Baggy!" Maybe we have, on occasion, felt sympathy with this. "Get with the beat, Baggy!"
Life is all about rhythm; the essential rhythm of our heartbeat, the daily rhythm of darkness and light, the seasonal rhythm of summer and winter, growth and dormancy. Rhythm is everywhere; rhythm is the building block of life. Over the past few years I have been exploring ways of doing pilgrimage and whilst pilgrimage doesn't have to involve walking it often does and the rhythm of walking is vital to that.
The theologian and author Belden Lane, in his book "Backpacking with the saints" talks about the joy of allowing the body's natural rhythm of walking to carry us on a journey. Whereas panic, he says, comes from the mind, he suggests, and we need to guard against allowing panic to disrupt our rhythm but rather learn to trust the rhythm. Extending that thought, we recognise that some of the worlds greatest disasters in the life of the world occur when the rhythms of seedtime and harvest is broken down. And perhaps some of our personal disasters too are also a result of the breakdown of rhythm?
Having said that, I recognise that there can be a shadow side to rhythm as well - for some of us, perhaps for all of us at certain times in our lives, too rigid a rhythm can feel stifling, threatening, life-sapping. We can become slaves of habit, bound to rituals or rules, captured by inertia as we see no way out of a predictable cycle which leads to death and decay. Life seems to consist of nothing but the pointless rhythms of work, sleep and eating; why get out of bed day by day just to go through the same futile circle day in, day out.
The desert fathers and mothers, living in the 4th century in isolated communities in Syria, Egypt, Cappadocia and other Middle Eastern regions, those wise men and women who seemed to have faced every difficulty of every succeeding century and who still have so much wisdom to share, knew about this listlessness. They called it acedia, sometimes understood as "sloth" - but it's not laziness, rather an inability to be energised, an overwhelming sense of futility. Such acedia is not unlinked to depression; the desert sages saw it not as a sin, but as one of the "passions" of the spiritual life; something which comes without invitation, but which needs hard work to overcome and they recognised that it may in part at least, be brought on by investing too much in the rhythm itself, rather than the life to which the rhythm points. Like everything else, rhythm needs balance and poise - back to the woman on the train.
So "day by day", the theme Loraine and I want to develop during this year, focuses on the rhythms of our Christian mission and discipleship - rhythms which can be life-giving and refreshing. Rhythms of prayer and worship, of study and sharing, the rhythm of the Church's year as it passes through times of feasting and fasting, of celebrationa dn preparation, of penitence and praise.
Loraine will be saying more about all this tomorrow and we invite you to share with us in that during the year ahead. And we invite you all to get with the beat this year.
For a little while this afternoon I want to dig deeper into one particular rhythm of our lives; the rhythm of laughter and lament.
My parents would have very much liked to be with me here today, so I brought them along, and here they are.
[Photo on screen]
I am very proud of the fact that my father was converted through Methodist laughter! When he started studying at Cambridge in the early 1940s, week by week, on a Monday evening, he heard gales of laughter from the student bedroom immediately above his. In the end he went upstairs and knocked on the door; "What is it that takes place here every Monday, and can I join in?" What took place was the weekly meeting of the "MethSoc" group, the university Methodist Society, and, of course he was welcome to join them.
Through that group my father learned about Methodism and about Christ and made a commitment to which he held until his death in 2005. I very much hope he was not the only person ever converted through Methodist laughter, but I can't say I know of any more such stories - perhaps you do? Do we ever consider laughter as a mission strategy?
I fear we don't. I think if anything, we sometimes seem to suppress or ignore the rich humour in so many of the stories Jesus told. We feel guilty if something sets us off laughing during a service. Perhaps God doesn't mind that too much. I had a conversation not long ago with a woman who has very poor health but sheis always laughing; "God has given me the gift of a sense of humour so that I can cope with my life." What a great philosophy and she's right, laughter can be the very thing which gets us through the hard times - ask any funeral director!
Perhaps our fear of laughing in the wrong place or at the wrong time dates back four thousand years ago to Sarah. To be quite honest, I don't think marriage to Abraham would have given Sarah very much to laugh about for the first few decades.
Traipsing around the deserts of the Middle East in response to the call of an invisible God, twice handed over to other men in order to protect her husband and openly scorned by him on more than one occasion.
But at last, in Genesis chapter 18 she overhears good news, amazing news, the unbelievable news that, at the age of ninety and with a husband of a hundred, she is to bear a son, and she laughs.
Well this may have been out of sheer incredulity, it may have been out of a deeply suppressed hope, it may, of course, have been a reflection on her husband… whatever, she laughs, and she's challenged by the angels for laughing and she swiftly denies it. It's almost a scene from Jungle Book!
Happily just three chapters and twelve months later, she has cause to laugh again and this time with more joy, for she does indeed give birth to a son and declares, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me" and she names him "Laughter", "Isaac".
And "Laughter" grew up to be the second of the patriarchs, that's how important laughter is in our history. "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob", "Father of many, Laughter and Supplanter" - I know which name I like best! That's how important laughter is!
Sometimes to laugh about our deepest anxieties and fears is the best coping mechanism. We're all on an ageing journey, even my two little one year old nephews.
But the writer of Proverbs, in that book's one reference to laughter, touches on something important to which we now turn. Proverbs 14:13 says, "Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief." Is this the Old Testament way of saying "It will end in tears"? Or is the writer correct in bringing laughter and grief together like this? We love laughter, we need laughter, we accept laughter as a gift from God, let's make it our aim to laugh more! But we know that life is not all laughter.
Our youngest son, Peter, loved to laugh - at dramatic comedy be it Fawlty Towers or the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe, and at the comedy of errors which family life so often is. But, as many of you know, he was also in touch with the tragedy of being human and of trying to grow up in a confusing world and he ended his own life at the age of eighteen in 2012.
I want to use this opportunity to say thank you now. Thank you for the remarkable way in which you, our own family and close friends, and you all, our wider family of Methodism, in Britain and around the world, supported Andrew, Tim and me, held us, prayed for us, walked with us through the valley of the shadow of death and still do. So many tears, so many "What ifs?" Nicola wrote for the Methodist Recorder that my grief will always be a significant part of who I am, and she is right.
My grief will travel with me around the Connexion this year, I don't have a choice about that, I can't find a way of leaving it behind - I hope you will be able to accommodate that, as well as me. I may still need the tissues she mentions. But I hope, furthermore, that we as a Church can continue to be a Church which is willing to walk alongside those whose hearts are breaking, without needing to hurry them, or make false attempts to cheer them up. Without saying "at least…" or "looking on the bright side…" sometimes there is no bright side. But I have discovered, we have discovered, that darkness is another arena of God's revelation and darkness has much to teach us.
Lament is not only something personal and individual. Throughout the history of God's people, there runs a strong thread of communal lament which recognises that God may well be in God's heaven, but all is NOT right with the world. Last year, at this point in the Methodist Conference, my predecessor Rachel challenged us so powerfully to recognise and inhabit God's longing for "oceans of justice", God's heartbreak for a world of injustice and suffering.
Throughout this past year Roger and Rachel have taken that message of "Holiness and Justice" far and wide and they've helped us to move forward, but I think they would be the first to say that there is still so much in the world, in these nations which make up British Methodism and in our churches about which we should we weeping and lamenting. "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night" laments Jeremiah (9:1) and he is not a lone voice in the narrative of Scripture.
Lament is, perhaps, the first response to injustice, to sorrow, to things which are wrong. In time it may well lead on to an activism, but even in its helpless rawness, lament is a very real and important response.
After Gandalf's death in "The Lord of the Rings" the frightened, grief-stricken fellowship of the ring take refuge in the woods of Lothlorien. And there the unearthly beauty of the elves' lament for Gandalf expresses something of the deep sorrow they all feel. Even though the hobbits can't understand the words, the lament is part of the necessary outpouring of their hearts.
Grief has to be uttered. As Church too, do we need sometimes to express our sense of grief that the world is hurting, and that, over the centuries, we have missed opportunities, we have not always lived up to the Gospel, sometimes, sad to say, we have been the cause of people's suffering, or we have stood by and allowed abuse to happen in our own communities. It is not about apportioning, or even necessarily at this point assuming, guilt or blame, but about giving expression to the groaning of all creation of which Paul writes in Romans.
By lament I suppose I mean trying to understand the heart of God. Beginning to try and understand what makes that heart break as God looks at the world and at the Church; feeling that heartbreak ourselves, and, in response, voicing our lament. "How are the mighty fallen", weeps David, after the death of Saul. This is not an empty, formal expression of condolence on the death of a King and former friend, but a heart-wrenching cry for all that went wrong between Saul and David, for all that might have been if things had been different and for the death which means things can no longer be put right on this earth.
If we, like those travellers through Lothlorien, are quiet now and listen to the sounds of heaven, for what might we hear the Spirit of God lamenting?
I live now in Glasgow, where there is still a very real divide between Catholics and Protestants. Things are changing, but we're still on a journey. Formal unity may be years away, or it may never come, but we might all call to mind the ancient text from which Wesley preached his sermon on the Catholic Spirit; "If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand". Division.
For two years from 2011-2013 I was President of Methodist Women in Britain. During that time I met some amazing women doing some amazing things. During that time, I'm sorry to say, I also had some very angry letters and emails from people who didn't feel there should be a women's movement in the Church and who expended quite a lot of energy in telling me so.
Sometimes I really didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Are we not all called to different roles and different ways of service? Yes, some of us will shudder at the thought of getting ensnared by women's group, or radicalised by radicals or incensed by sacramentalists…
Some of us would die to defend the pipe organ and some of us would cheerfully replace them all with drum kits. Some of us would have liked bagpipes to open Conference today, but others of us threatened to walk out… Some of us think we should have five Charles Wesley hymn in every service and some of us think we should have one… I believe there may be people here today who may not have any at all.
But I would like to belong to a Church where we really can "live with contradictory convictions", or, in plainer language, where we can "live and let live". Where we can celebrate our diversity in all its outworkings instead of trying to find fault with each other and somehow prove that our own opinions are right?
"There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea… but we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own".
Learning to disagree well continues to be the path ahead.
Division; disagreement… my third idea doesn't being with "D", unless it's "Difficult" for it is quite difficult to put into words what I want to say.
As a Church, we have not always behaved well towards all sorts of people. Perhaps my generation in particular needs to lament - perhaps publicly - for the people we have alienated by intransigence, intolerance and hard-heartedness. I meet too many people who used to be Methodists but are no longer to be found in any church at all and often that's because they've been hurt. Their marriage broke down and they felt alienated in the congregation, they came out as gay or lesbian, and the Church rejected them, they brought a different culture into worship and were made to feel foolish, they got into debt and were condemned. Read Jeanette Winterson, read Philip Pulman to see how some of the most influential voices of our culture have been wounded by the Church. And within the Church structures too, we have not always treated each other with kindness and grace. I believe that causes God to lament, and I hope it causes us to lament as well.
Lament may not change the past, but it can change us, which, in turn, can change the future. A rather strange verse in the letter of James challenges us to take very seriously the state we are in; in a chapter which begins with a rebuke about division, we find the verse, "Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection" (4:9).
Hard words! Words which seem to be the precise reversal of the psalmist's cry of joy that "You have turned my mourning into dancing for me!" This coming week, for those who remain here as members of Conference until Thursday, we have the opportunity through our conferring to take seriously the state we are in and, at times, to lament, mourn and weep for past hurts.
As Loraine and I have begun getting to know each other over the past year, I have been so impressed and encouraged by her passion for mission. And we've all been impressed by that this afternoon. We both recognise that, as a Church, we do need to take seriously the state we are in, but she is teaching me not to be depressed into inactivity by it. "Day by day, exploring the rhythm of mission and discipleship" is our summary of where we think the Church is now and how it could move forward.
I hope that both laughter and lament might become part of our mission strategy in this coming year; for the people we long to reach, the people God made and Christ died for are people whose lives are made up of highs and lows, joy and sorrow, laughter and lament. Let's feel that rhythm, let's get with that beat.
Living in Scotland for the past two years has been a wondnerful priv and blessing.