My Dad was a minister of small church in rural Kansas so I spent a great deal of my life sitting on old oak pews. Dad had a great sense of humor and laughed so hard at times we had 911 on speed dial. Even though Dad had a great sense of humor away from the church, he couldn’t tell jokes very well. He’d be laughing so hard by the time he hit the punch line that we found his telling of the joke funnier than the joke itself.
However, that sense of humor rarely manifested itself in church because church was serious business and he wasn’t real sure God had a sense of humor in church. The prevailing norm in our circle of faith was that if you were having fun, it was probably sin.
Perhaps because laughing in church was literally frowned upon and, in the most severe cases elicited the dreaded glare from Mom or the finger-snap from Dad, I developed a sick sense of humor that erupts in forbidden moments. If I’m not supposed to laugh, I find even the silliest thing to be rib-hugging-hilarious.
Because the little band of adolescent derelicts that occupied the back row frequently got in trouble for laughing, we developed five levels of laughing that we found useful.
Level One Church Laugh
This was canned laughter, pretty much like you’d hear on a sitcom. Dad would make a feeble attempt at humor and, since we wanted Dairy Queen after, we’d laugh.
Level Two Church Laugh
This laugh was reserved for visiting speakers who didn’t know church wasn’t supposed to be fun. One missionary in particular made a lot of jokes about cannibals and we were deranged teenagers so it was a good combination. However, we made sure Dad was laughing before we started.
Level Three Church Laugh
We used this when something funny actually happened in church like the time Dad was baptizing a new convert and banged their head on the side of the baptistery. I was that convert but it was still pretty funny and I bubbled underwater.
Level Four Church Laugh
Now we enter the forbidden laugh zone. The previous levels of laughing were permissible, but a Level Four Church Laugh was naughty but pleasurable. One example is the time Old Roy Brenner called our attention to a woman breastfeeding. That practically sent us into orbit.
You could spot this laugh because the person was trying so hard not to laugh that they’d close their eyes, pinch their nose with each of their pinky fingers, and stick their thumbs over their ears so they couldn’t hear the person around them laughing, too. But we’d feel somebody tremble with internal laughter and that would set us of again pinching our noses and holding our ears. If it got too bad, we could excuse ourselves to the bathroom and calm down.
Level Five Church Laugh
We just got up, left the church and collapsed in heaps on the ground outside. I can only recall this happening twice and it was worth not getting an ice cream cone.
The most memorable was one Wednesday evening as Dad was about to wind down. The pews were divided into two sets and, on these evenings, the adults sat on the right side, the kids on the left. Two of the girls had decided not to set on the back row with the boys so they sat near the front on the left side of the church.
One quiet and shy young girl -whom I’ll call Sarah to protect her identity- sat by my niece, Deanna. The boys on the back row had already received the glare from my Mom and the finger snap from Dad so we had crossed out any hope of Dairy Queen after.
The chili we had for school lunch that day turned into a gaseous brew for Sarah and about halfway thru Dad’s prayer, she tried a one-cheek-sneak. However, wooden pews are not an appropriate platform for such flatulence and instead of a silent escape, it sounded like a machine gun going off.
Deanna quickly realized that no one knew who the culprit was so she quickly shoved Sarah under the bus by whispering loud enough for everyone to hear, “Sarah! How could you?”
Dad grew silent, then snickered. The boys on the back row ran outside and collapsed in the parking lot.
We got an ice cream cone after all. Furthermore, from that moment on we were all convinced God had a sense of humor, too.