World Laughter Day, celebrated the first Sunday in May, was inaugurated in Mumbai, India, in 1998, in acknowledgement of the benefits of laughter to well-being and shalom. At Mennonite Mission Network, we want to counter-balance the oft-quoted Bible verse, noted for its brevity, "Jesus wept" (John 11:35 NIV), with a focus on God's delight in the goodness of creation.
Alisha has a laugh that gets people into trouble. And, by "people," I mean "me," Alisha's husband.
Emanating from deep within her being, this is no ordinary laugh. It resonates throughout her body. It has presence, character and volume, making it a force to behold. And it often catches people off guard, due to her small stature. When I've tried to imagine God's laughter, I hear something that sounds a lot like Alisha's laughter.
People who don't know Alisha will think I'm exaggerating, but I assure you, I am not. There have been a handful of times in which, while watching a stand-up comedian or attending some other sort of small, intimate performance, the artist is drawn to her mirth and inevitably brings one of us on stage.
I've spent over half of my life trying to evoke that laughter, and to be fair, Alisha has done her fair share of making me laugh my totally non-descript laugh.
"Alisha received the Student-of- the-Month award at our language school and they had somebody take her portrait. Her portrait looked on in my classroom. That gaze kept me in line," said Josh. Photographer: Josh Garber
However, neither of us had much success laughing this past year.
In retrospect, we can pinpoint the spring of 2021 as the time our laughter disappeared — when our four-year ministry in Barcelona began to fall apart. As concerns regarding COVID-19 began to ease, expectations in the local church community changed. Gradually, things arrived at a point where our family needed to step away.
The sounds of our family's laughter were replaced with sounds of — literal — weeping and lament. Nothing symbolized the wilderness times we were feeling more than our dining table. A once vital tool for gathering folks together, building community and being the gospel, the table sat empty. We simply didn't have the capacity for merriment.
We did our best and found moments of laughter — bright moments — with friends or while streaming something funny before bed. But the feelings created by these moments would often dissipate by the following day, and our hearts were overtaken by the heaviness of our situation.
It's hard to laugh when it feels like the world is crumbling around you. It's an act that feels almost audacious considering the state of the world: pandemic losses, church divisions, guilt and anger over White privilege and indirectly benefiting from systemic racism, environmental collapse, rampant economic ruin, and war. How can one laugh when the world we live in is so far removed from the one Jesus describes throughout the gospels?
The last few months have been a time of seeking discernment and healing during our sabbatical from the local church. Honestly, things got worse before they got better. But then, everything changed a few weeks ago.
Mennonite Mission Network sent our family on a brief learning tour, offering us a chance to get some space and perspective, as we encountered various projects that shared a kindred spirit with the one God has placed upon our hearts — that of partnering with Anabaptist-minded communities to engage in Christ-focused, radical discipleship that can transform the world. First stop: Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Our initial meeting with members of the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom — Gordon McDade, Karen Sethuraman (and her family), and Trish Whitestone — took place at a Chinese restaurant. As we walked in, I focused on a massive, round table in the center of the room. "I sure do miss finding community around the table," I thought.
To be honest, I don't remember much about the food, or even exactly what we talked about that evening. Rather, I remember laughing harder and longer than I had in months — if not years. Alisha's epic laugh returned! Her laugh made us all laugh that much more. The accumulated hurt and woundedness began to fall away.
In Matthew 18:18-20, Jesus promises that he is present with his disciples when they gather. "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven … For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them," (NRSV).
That evening in Belfast, we were the disciples. The table was the conduit. And the divine presence was manifest as healing laughter.