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Holy Humor

It may not make the short list of spiritual virtues, yet spiritual people often exhibit a delightful sense of humor.

Why humor helps our spiritual side.

It seems an odd prayer: “Don’t let me lose my sense of humor.” After all, sense of humor is not generally found on the short list of spiritual virtues. And yet, the spiritual people who have spoken to me often exhibit a delightful sense of humor.

I remember back to my college days. The dean of the Princeton University Chapel was a legendary figure, Ernest Gordon, a Scots Presbyterian with a thick burr in his speech and a hero’s biography.

Back in World War II, he fought with the Scottish Highlanders in Southeast Asia and was taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1942. He was in that group of prisoners who were forced to build a railroad through the jungles of Myanmar and Thailand, made famous by the epic film The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Read More: The Positive Power of Humor

Their treatment was brutal, their rations minimal, thousands of men died. At one point Gordon came close to death. A tall strapping man, he told us students that he was once so thin that when he put his hands around his waist the fingers touched.

Suffering from multiple illnesses, he lay in the camp morgue, but was saved by his fellow prisoners, who shared their own meager rations. “Faith thrives when there is no hope but God,” he later wrote.

At war’s end, after being nurtured back to health, he entered seminary, was confirmed in the Church of Scotland, came to America and was appointed the dean of the chapel.

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During chapel services, from my vantage point in the choir, we listened to Dean Gordon’s sermons with the intent of imitating as best we could his thick Scottish accent.

“Ourrrr God ourrrr help in ages past, ourrrr hope in yearrrrs to come,” he would say, announcing a hymn, “ourrrr shelterrr midst the storrrrrmy blast…” Yes, sometimes we had to stifle our laughter.

I assumed that Dean Gordon was oblivious to our high jinks, but now that I think of it, I’m not so sure. He knew what it was to be a kid. At Princeton he challenged the status quo more than once. He certainly risked censure when he welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his home.

His criticism of the Vietnam War must have upset some deep-pocketed alumni. In my own era, his outspoken embrace of Christianity was considered, at best, old-fashioned. He was grand, imposing, bombastic at times, but there was often a hint of humor in his words.

I remember one spring day passing him on campus. “I enjoyed your sermon last Sunday,” I said.

He paused, looked me up and down, and then with that accent that we loved to imitate he said, “Well…at least it didn’t put you to sleep!”

A sense of humor can indicate a person’s humility, the holy perspective that what we do on earth pales compared to what God can do. Dean Gordon had that Christian humility. He might never have prayed, “Lord, don’t let me lose my sense of humor,” but I’m sure he would have understood.

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