Comedians often use humor as social commentary. A joke can slip through our defenses, expose our hidden hypocrisy, question our cherished beliefs, scrutinize our preconceived notions, and all this while making us laugh at ourselves. Such jokes are nearer parables than we often realize. They are humorous precisely because we recognize some grain of truth in them. Sometimes the truth is about us. Sometimes it is about the comedian.
Now let this be said: I have a sense of humor, and a good one, too, thank you. I can tell a joke and I can take a joke, even one like this from a brother priest:
I just got my first tattoo – of a potato. It’s a tater tat.
So, far be it from me to skewer another for use of humor. I have used it as a vehicle for serious – though not solemn – instruction for decades, in public education and in Christian education. I have often expressed difficult truths with self-deprecating humor, with a joke saying we’re all in this together. Some jokes are just silly – tater tat jokes – while others are deadly serious. Sometimes one masquerades as the other, and it is difficult to discern intent, as with an Anglican Meme posted on Facebook recently, a rather dour-looking Thomas Cranmer with the caption:
Yes, of course I laughed when I saw it. It’s funny. But then, just as I was poised to click Like, I actually stopped to think about the joke and the nature of its humor, and I paused. Is this meme silly – like tater tots – or is it pointedly serious? And, if it is serious, toward whom is the humor directed?
I have been an engineer and a teacher. In both these professions, I have spent a goodly amount of time and energy on tasks that did not seem directly related to my professional purpose. I suspect that anyone who works for a living can truthfully say the same: “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” we say, or “herding cats.” A priest is surely no different. We – and I hope I do not speak amiss in the name of my brother priests – would like to spend more time in prayer and study, in lesson and sermon preparation, in pastoral care, in spiritual direction, in evangelism and mission and service, and in all the host of responsibilities stated and implied in our ordination vows. If this meme pokes fun at the way we sometimes actually spend our days, and, if it calls that into question and makes us examine our use of time, then it is both funny and serious. The joke’s on us.
It could even remind us that the seemingly trivial activities that engage us might just be as integral to our ministry as our pastoral and sacramental duties. Peter did not want to take time away from prayer and preaching to wait tables, but someone had to do it for the sake of the church, its unity, and its mission. With utmost respect for St. Peter, it might not have hurt him to do it once in a while. Humility is good for the soul.
If the meme is directed inward toward the priest, then yes it’s funny and serious. But what if it’s directed outward toward the parish, toward those we serve? Still funny?
Do we view our parishioners as unruly cats running in a thousand directions and needing to be herded? We are pastors, yes – shepherds of the flock of God – but catherds?
Well, I’ll admit that the parishioners at the church I serve are constantly running in a thousand different directions. One has been running to Kenya for years to supervise the orphanage she founded while another runs to India to train slum church pastors and to offer medical care while two more run to Rwanda to bring tools for hope. Another runs to take handcrafted beds to children who will no longer have to sleep on the floor. Others run to lead Bible studies, to prepare the altar in the beauty of holiness, to make the coffee that lubricates fellowship, to practice the music that graces our worship, to visit the sick and elderly, to “mess up” our fellowship hall for the neighborhood kids, to take Holy Communion and holy casseroles to the homebound, to support single mothers – many of whom are abandoned and formerly abused – in a local residential program, to march for life, and to do countless other things that I do not, and perhaps never will, know. A thousand blessed “cats” running in a thousand blessed directions to do the blessed work God has given them to do. God forbid that we priests should ever try to herd these saints.
Becoming a priest has opened my eyes in many ways. I see brokenness everywhere I look now, the fall writ large over all creation. But I also see grace everywhere, the redemption and restoration of all creation through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is this grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit, that scatters our parishioners in a thousand different directions like so many cats. We priests might guide them into church for worship, but afterwards we need to throw open the doors and send them out for ministry. No, wait. They’ve already scattered while we weren’t looking. Thanks be to God!
Maybe I’ve taken the joke too seriously. Maybe I’m losing my sense of humor. But what I’m gaining is a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of God in building for his kingdom not just through the few catherds, but through the many cats.
Featured Image (cats): Public Domain