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Building Family Ties with Laughter

Laugh together like you mean it

At the tender age of 16, Matt landed his first job as a delivery boy for a florist. Things were going pretty well until one day he had two deliveries to make on the same run. One of the arrangements was to go to a church that was having a big dedication service for their new sanctuary. The other, to a funeral home.

A few hours later the florist got a phone call from an irate preacher. "We have a big problem," the pastor said. "Our dedication service starts in thirty minutes, and up in the front of our new sanctuary is this huge basket of flowers that says, 'Rest in Peace.'"

"You think you've got problems?" the florist said. "Somewhere in this town next to a casket, there's an arrangement that says, 'Good Luck in Your New Location!' "

A study conducted by the University of Maryland shows that laughter is good for the heart. Laughter releases chemicals into the bloodstream that relax the blood vessels. It reduces stress, blood pressure, and heart rate and can improve your immune system (Reuters News Service and CBS Radio News, November 15, 2000). The Bible said it, and medical science confirms it: "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones" (Proverbs 17:22). No wonder a sense of humor is consistently one of the top characteristics desired in friendships, among coworkers, and in a spouse.

Take a Lesson from Jesus

In case you are humorically challenged, a brief tutorial on the subject might help. Longtime Christian comedian and speaking coach Ken Davis understands the role of humor in speaking. Years ago he shared with me that in order for something to be funny, it must always have one of three elements: exaggeration, truth, or surprise.

My kids were very young when I taught them the Big Three. They learned those faster than their social security number. And for years the premise has been validated—anything we laugh about falls into one of those three categories.

Jesus had a great sense of humor. He captivated crowds for hours. Children flocked to him. He excelled at building relationships with people of all backgrounds. Why? Because love and laughter can break down the strongest of defenses.

People often ask me if Jesus ever used humor when he taught. Fact is, he actually used all of the Big Three in his talks. He primarily used exaggeration, because in first-century Jewish culture, humor was based on hyperbole. Jesus was a master at the technique; the bigger the exaggeration, the funnier the joke. So when Jesus said, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and fail to notice the plank in your own?" (Matthew 7:5 Phillips), people in the crowd weren't reverently murmuring, "Amen." They were cracking up because of the gross exaggeration.

Jesus spoke with vivid, humorous word pictures to drive home his message: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). The contrast would have elicited laughter from his listeners, and the laughter would provide an opening for the truth. Jesus knew that humor was a disarming equalizer—perhaps that's why he used it throughout his ministry. Maybe that's why he was so approachable.

In Matthew 23, in his denunciation of the Pharisees, He used the element of surprise. Here are the respected religious leaders of the day, and Jesus compared them with whitewashed tombs that look good on the outside, yet are filled with dead men's bones. While the crowd might not have laughed in front of the Pharisees, they would have gone home, retold the story, and laughed about how the Teacher's unexpected words caught everyone off guard.

Then Jesus rounded out the trifecta by simply stating the truth. When behaviors are already ridiculous, sometimes the truth can be downright side-splitting. All Jesus had to do was point out the legalism of the Pharisees' tithing practices—all the way down to giving 10 percent of each stalk from their gardens!

Did Jesus have a sense of humor? You bet he did. Hebrews 1:9 even points out that God the Father anointed Jesus with "the oil of gladness beyond [his] companions" (ESV). He must have been joyful—even absolutely hilarious.

Goofing Around

Being a preacher I do a lot of weddings and funerals, and sometimes people ask me which I prefer. The easy answer is "Funerals, because there's one fewer person to complain if things go wrong."

Since my pet peeve is "generic funerals," I always ask the immediate family—usually the adult children of the dearly departed—to share their favorite memories going back to childhood. Once someone begins sharing funny memories, the floodgates open.

"Every July 4 we'd go camping at the river, and Mom would act like she didn't know how to cook on a grill—so the other ladies would do it for her!"

"My Uncle Phil had memorized entire scenes from The Princess Bride."

"Dad bought a deep fryer, and he would deep fry anything. He would freeze a Snickers bar and then deep fry it!"

The more they share, the more they laugh. There will still be tears, but there's also joy from the memories made and the traditions kept.

This is a common thread for families who enjoy spending time together. The technical term is … goofiness. Even the most staid individuals, the ones who aren't exactly known for being hilarious or entertaining, sometimes let their hair down around family members.

Laughter helps a house become a home.

Spontaneity

The great preacher Vance Havner, known for his incisive one-liners, said, "A rut is nothing but a grave with both ends kicked out." If you want to get your family laughing, you've got to get out of that rut. Be spontaneous. Change things up.

When I was very young our family would take off in the car for our summer vacation in the family station wagon. After a while Dad would get a worried look on his face. "Oh no!" he'd say. "There's something wrong with the steering wheel of the car. I can't control where it's going."

After the first few times this happened, we would start giggling, because we were familiar with the script, and we loved the ending. But Dad would stay in character; he'd turn down some street, shouting, "What's happening? The car is out of control!" In a matter of seconds he would pull the car into some remote Dairy Queen restaurant that he'd masterfully located.

He'd turn to Mom. "Honey, I know we don't have money to be buying ice cream, but this car has a mind of its own!" We'd squeal and cheer and then go indulge in some decadent desserts.

If you have young kids, some of your spontaneous activities will not require much advance planning. Take advantage of that luxury now! Come bedtime, say, "Get your PJs on and meet me at the car. We're going to the drive-through at Krispy Kreme doughnuts." Or, on the spur of the moment, surprise the kids with an overnight campout. Pitch a tent in the yard and make s'mores on the grill.

Unfortunately, the older the child gets, the more reluctant we parents are to risk doing something spontaneous. We fear having our crazy whims backfire, and so we're hesitant to step out in faith. We struggle to keep up with what our kids like this week—or maybe even this afternoon! But don't let it keep you from taking some risks and raising the joy quotient for your family. And remember that even when you get it right, your teens may never let on that they're really having fun.

Here's a radical concept: In order for your family to have fun together, they must spend time together. So get out of your comfort zone and breathe life, joy, and camaraderie into your family.

I call it "planned spontaneity." On numerous occasions I've surprised one of my kids by taking them with me on a one- or two-day business trip. (If you drive, it doesn't cost any more money except for food.) That extended time together, just the two of us, always deepened the family ties. At first they might not have been excited, but once they got out of town, everything changed.

Avoid the ruts and take some risks. The money you'll spend on a Dairy Queen Blizzard is a drop in the bucket compared to paying for braces or college tuition. Your kids will never forget the car that had a mind of its own or the parent who cared enough to make a road trip fun.

Create Memories that Last

What are the memories that mean most to the Stone family?

• Game nights at our home with neighbors or new friends

• Having the employees of our favorite restaurant over to our home for a party in their honor

• Friday night "family night" when the kids were young

• The annual Christmas gift delivery and caroling around town wearing goofy elf hats (If one of us is going to look stupid, we all are. There's safety in numbers!)

• Stopping at O'Charley's Restaurant on our family's drive back from picking up one of the kids from summer camp (The rest of us would eat while the camper recapped the entire week—in detail.)

• Our annual hide-and-seek game at church on the evening of Christmas Day (My master key may be the greatest perk of my job!)

• The entire family camping out on the floor of my office to stay up and watch the opening afternoon and evening of March Madness (You're a good sport, Beth!)

Beth and I have always tried to have a purpose behind our activities. We've planned conversations and competitions, vacations with a purpose, even the trivia test I'd unveil on the final day of vacation (with a whopping $10 prize to the winner). We knew that every experience can be both a teaching opportunity and a bonding time for your family.

Whether it's an annual activity or a spur-of-the-moment surprise, be intentional about it. Use it as a chance to connect with your family and help them connect with God. When the kids were toddlers, we'd sit on a blanket imagining we were on a raft surrounded by water—and the living room became a world of adventure. That's a great adventure for preschoolers, but—news flash—it ain't gonna fly with your teenage son.

One of our main staples for years has been inviting people to come over for a game night. Some games are brainteasers, and others are just downright simple so the intellectual giants tend to struggle. On those nights we laugh hard, and usually one of the guests will burn our family with a mind game.

One night we had the Duggar family to our home for dinner. You may have seen their television program on the TLC network, "19 Kids and Counting." The house was packed with people and, more importantly, with laughter. It didn't take long for us to see that the Duggars have a blast together as a family. They are quite intentional about serving and laughing together. After two hours of our games, they suckered me into a game they called "I Saw a Bear"—which might have alternately been called "I Embarrassed Dave."

To add to my humiliation, Jim Bob Duggar videotaped it on his phone and then showed it to my congregation in a church service. (That is so unspiritual, to make fun of a pastor! Ha-ha.)

Despite my humiliation—or perhaps because of it—everyone had a wonderful time. It's a memory we'll cherish for years.

Believe it or not, you can have fun without a TV, computer, iPad, or other electronic device. You can teach your children how to communicate with adults and how to be comfortable in their own skin.

You can establish family bonds and create lasting memories. And you can make those traditions unique to your family, so that your kids will carry on the tradition as they become adults.

Laughter and joy shouldn't be guests in your house; they should be permanent residents in your everyday life.

The Limits of Laughter

It was the mid-seventies: I was fifteen and Jeff was seventeen. The church we were attending was between preachers, so each Sunday our dad would close out the worship service by reading the first-time visitor cards and asking the individuals to stand. This became the setting for a wonderful, wicked idea.

Jeff and I knew that our father understood absolutely nothing about rock-and-roll music. So each week we filled out one bogus visitor card with a false name. Since we are true connoisseurs of practical jokes, our hope was to milk this for as long as we could.

The first week at the end of the service, Dad began to read the names, and the church acknowledged the visitors. When he came to our card, he said, "Okay, would Pete Frampton please stand?"

No one stood up, of course. Jeff and I (along with all of our high school buddies) fought back the laughter. Dad, oblivious to what was going on, said, "Oh, I guess he had to leave early."

The next week we came back with another strong entry.

That Sunday, as Dad recognized visitors, he read the name of Alice Cooper. The icing on the cake was when he said, "Is she here?" All of us teens were nearly on the floor of the sanctuary attempting to stifle our laughter.

But the third week we went too far. The scene replayed itself, but this time as Dad was recognizing the guests, he came to our card and stared at it a little too long. His face turned red. He glared in our direction and moved on to the next card.

Uh-oh.

I turned to Jeff and whispered, "Evidently he's heard of Ozzy Osbourne."

And the consequences? I'd rather not go into it, if you don't mind. Let's just say that my brother and I repented. We learned the hard way what it means to go and sin no more.

Humor is a lot like gasoline: The right amount used at the right time and for the right purpose can be a great blessing and resource. But if used improperly or as a weapon, it can start a fire that's tough to extinguish.

Laughing with someone is exhilarating; laughing at someone is disrespectful. As a parent you must be aware that criticism and ridicule tears the fabric of the family. If you allow your children to mock or disrespect their siblings or your authority as the parent, then you will diminish the joy and weaken the family bond.

Regardless of what they may let on, kids' egos are fragile during adolescence. Your children will progress through seasons of awkwardness and stages of hypersensitivity. At times a child's self-confidence will be shaky at best. But when they see you laughing about your own idiosyncrasies, then it becomes easier for them to do the same concerning their own flaws and quirks.

Like me, many of you have been blessed (or cursed) with the gift of sarcasm. If you have this gift, you are no doubt well aware of it, because your spouse has pointed it out to you more than once. Admittedly, sarcasm does not appear in any of the biblical passages that list spiritual gifts, but with all the new translations and paraphrases, it's only a matter of time until it shows up …

Solomon said, "Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, 'I was only joking!'" (Proverbs 26:18-19). Teach your family that laughter, which leads to joy, will refresh and not wound.

Laughter Starts Now

At this point, some of you will commence with the excuses:

"Dave, I'm an introvert."

"Humor doesn't come naturally for me."

"Some of the things you've mentioned wouldn't work with our family."

Well, I understand that we're all wired differently. You don't have to do everything I've mentioned, but you can do something. You can get out of your comfort zone and attempt to take a baby step and try one of the ideas in this chapter.

My good friend Rick Atchley asks this question: "Anyone else notice the time warp of parenting? The days are so long, but the years are so short."

Now is the time to get serious about having some fun. Let your hair down. Be goofy. Laugh like you mean it.

Time's a-wastin'. Don't put it off. Set down the remote and slowly back away from the couch. Take a break from paying the bills. Put this book aside—for a little while anyway—and step into your child's life.

Your tasks and responsibilities will still be waiting for you when you return. Your effort at family time will not be forgotten by your kids. It will pave the way for more smiles, giggles, and laughter.

If he's four, get out a blanket and set sail on the living room floor. If she's eight, go find a box of old clothes and play dress-up. If he's thirteen, ask him to teach you how to play his favorite video game.

And if your kids are breathing … go get ice cream together.

Excerpted from Dave Stone's Building Family Ties with Faith, Love & Laughter (Faithful Families series from Thomas Nelson, 2012). www.PastorDaveStone.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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