Guest column: Susan Sparks addresses finding her way as an ordained comedian

grew up with a God who wasn’t very funny. Then again, neither were Jesus nor the disciples or the prophets.

From an early age, I knew God to be a stern combination of Walter Cronkite and Clint Eastwood in “High Plains Drifter.” Jesus had the same Cronkite-Eastwood personality, just contained in a body that had the obvious Aramaic features of a Nordic Viking.

Of course, I grew up knowing other things about God. I knew God lived in heaven — a gated community with pearls — where all the saved Southern Baptists got houses based on the size of their church tithes. God put all the rest of the people (about 6.5 billion) in a place that resembled Phoenix in August.

I was also sure that God spoke in a Southern accent. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard God say, “Be steahul and know I am-um Gawd.”

This holy image, along with my love of fish sticks and a fear of spiders, is one of the many legacies I carried from my childhood. Actually, I dropped the gated community and Southern accent ideas long ago.

However, the image of God as a somber, not so funny, even fearful character stuck for a long time. Need I explain what a huge problem this was for a comedian who felt called to ordained ministry?

Ministers (like God) were somber, tee totaling, big-haired versions of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. I, on the other hand, lacked hair height, liked Yellow Tail Shiraz and, most troubling, was a trial lawyer moonlighting as a stand-up comedian. (Oh, and I was a woman.) How could I be called to be a minister?

After a few years, I decided that maybe I should mention this “call” to a few friends, just to see if I was missing something. Their responses ranged from laughter combined with coughing fits to blank stares.

“Who would call a comedian as their minister!” one cleric said, while rolling his eyes. Others offered thoughts like, “You’ll never get a job,” and, “The ministry requires serious theology.” The doubters kept doubting, yet the call kept ringing.

Now 15 years and a seminary degree later, I know that my hunch was right: Not only can a ministry of humor work, it is desperately needed.

Good ministers, like comedians, stand in solidarity with their audience — not just through the silly, frustrating challenges in life but in the places of our greatest pain. Comedy says we are all in this together.

It makes us feel a little less alone.

Laughter is the global positioning system (GPS) for the soul. Humor offers a revolutionary, yet simple, spiritual paradigm: If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others. Laughter heals. It grounds us in a place of hope.

My one regret? I wish I had realized earlier that my call was not a wrong number. Every person has a call, an invitation to bring all of who we are to the spiritual search. If we want healing, we must give God all the pieces. That includes the things that “don’t fit the mold” — the tears, the anger, the joy and the laughter. It’s all holy.

I’ve studied theology, and I’ve studied stand-up. And between the two, if I were looking for the presence of the Holy, I’d take stand-up any day. Trust me on this. If you open your mind and your heart, I am convinced you can laugh your way to grace.

The Rev. Susan Sparks is the first female senior pastor at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. In addition to her ministry, Sparks is a professional comedian who tours nationally with a rabbi and a Muslim comic in the “Laugh In Peace Tour.” She is the author of Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor. This column is an adaptation of an excerpt from that book.

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Susan Sparks

The author Susan Sparks