My father, the preacher, used to say that kittens are proof that God has a sense of humor.
And today I’m being told that, regardless of its ponderous reputation, religion can indeed be a laughing matter. Just as God planned it.
That’s the message of Susan Sparks — a New York City Baptist preacher, slash recovering lawyer, slash cancer survivor, slash Harley-Davidson rider, slash divorcee, slash cowboy boot stomper, slash stand-up comedian.
“Jesus was one of the greatest comedians of all time,” she told me by phone ahead of her show Friday night at First Presbyterian Church on Hilton Head Island, followed by a Saturday morning session on surviving cancer.
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She said the Bible does not record Jesus laughing.
But it does show him using tools of her comedian trade, such as exaggeration and irony.
“He took images that were familiar to his audience and made them laugh,” she said. “You can hear them laughing when he told them it would be easier to shove a camel through the eye of a needle than to get a rich person into heaven.”
She has taken the message of humor as a staple in healing and spirituality to media outlets worldwide, a TedX presentation in Atlanta, to Chautauqua, and a book called “Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Healing.”
She has even found laughs in the Dead Sea – doing a stand-up comedy tour with a rabbi and a Muslim comic called the “Laugh in Peace Tour.”
Sparks is a North Carolina native who got serious about comedy as a lawyer in Atlanta.
“As a trial lawyer, I watched the good-old-boy lawyers stand before the jurors and make them laugh and then have a special bond and rapport with them,” she said. “I said, ‘I need to start studying that.’ ”
She did study it. And the trial lawyer began moonlighting as a comedian. Soon enough, she “left her practice and spent two years on a solo trip around the world, including working with Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and driving the Alaska Highway,” her website says.
Then she took her humor to seminary, and a much different audience.
“It’s when I got to seminary that humor got complicated,” she said.
But she ended up doing her thesis on humor and religion.
A good laugh expresses theological tenets of hope, mercy and hospitality, she said.
“God laughs with us and cries with us,” she said. “There is a lot of laughter and joy within the world of theology.”
She said it helps people live a life of faith.
She said it expresses the obvious humor of God’s creation – perhaps like those great theologians, the little kittens.
(Sparks will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, at First Presbyterian Church, 540 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island. Cost: $25. For information, call the church office on Friday at 843-681-3696.)