by Rev. John Howard Farmer
Laughter As medicine
The Bible allows my strange sense of humor. Laughter has buoyed me atop many a stormy sea. Read along: “All the days of the poor are hard, but a cheerful heart has a continual feast,” and “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones,” (Proverbs 15:15; 17:22).
Over and over again laughter that results from church-type issues really lifts my spirit. Years back a phone voice asked if I might update my resume. Let’s share that conversation again. The caller was charged with having to introduce me at some future gathering. He was looking for something about which he could brag—some people just can’t get used to knowing me as Farmer John or Santa. We were reading off items and checking them when it got funny. I began to chuckle, then dissolved into laughter.
I told the dignified gentleman that I would have to call him back after I regained my composure. He seemed relieved. He’d be relieved if he didn’t have to hear from me ever again. You see, my resume is full of unusual names and places.
A Weems, Wharton Grove raised-lad, a preacher’s son, took it upon himself to develop a little paperback epistle about how all the unusual, sometimes humorous, Northern Neck names came to be: Where’d that name come from? If you live or vacation here you need a copy. Try the White Stone Drug Store or yard sales? Jimmy Wharton (d. 1992) did a superb job of demystifying our geography. My sweet wife Hazel typed the original manuscript.
Back to my story: as a fourth-grader at parade-rest by the big cannon marking the entrance to Fork Union Military Academy (Fluvanna, Va.), I soon learned that everybody there had a nickname. I was reluctant to give up “Johnny.” It only took the upperclassmen minutes to label me Fanny Farmer (of late 1800s cookbook & popular chocolatier fame).
Say, how’d they know so much about my senior years anatomy? When my caller had first mentioned an unusual name I popped back with, “you’ve heard nothing yet,” and told him about the nickname. I guess that’s about the time his ears began to glass over. ‘Know what I mean?
My parents bought a house on the Corrottoman River in the 1950s on the land known as the Cow Shed. When grown and married, I moved to Skinquarter. After five years or so there, the Lord impressed me with a need for a seminary education. We packed off to Butcher’s Square (former Catholic monastery) Louisville, until we bought a house near the Blue Ball Baptist Church where I had been called to pastor. Do you see how my phone conversation was going? Oh yes, the caller made an honest mistake. When repeating the church name to me, he mistakenly pluralized the name. Our conversation was history. No matter the intent of the call, he knew he had a nut on the phone—and him representing so formal an organization too.
After we parted ears, I sat teary-eyed in my office, struggling to regain my composure. How sorry I felt for the caller. How sorry I felt to know I had to call him back. Laughter continued to pound me, and I began to ponder just what was the funniest thing that had ever happened to me in worship. Then I remembered. Let me share it with you. I realize that not everyone will find it funny. Humor really is in the heart of the beholder, which is why so many of us can look in the mirror and not laugh.
As the new pastor of the Blue Ball Baptist Church, Hardin County, Ky., it fell my lot to organize the 1976 community Easter Sunrise service. There was a cave on the far side of Blue Ball Hill. It had been an 1800s Civil War gunpowder-saltpeter mine. With the first rays of eastern light the cave was picture perfect: rugged rock outcroppings and an enormous gaping hole with wide rock ledges where the faithful could stand. It was more realistic than the smog-stuffed hill above the bus station in Jerusalem, where contemporary Christians gather these days. A dedicated, well known neighbor-soprano volunteered to sing glory down that Easter morn. I hadn’t actually heard her sing. No matter.
The community plans went well; everyone pitched in. Insulated coffee pots awaited the chilled but enthralled worshippers. I’d overlooked one thing. The church member who owned the cave property loved dogs and allowed them full run of the place.
There we stood. Remember the soprano? She erupted into “Because He Lives.” As that dear lady strained for her highest note, one of the dogs moved quietly up behind her. Yikes, we knew what was about to happen; but, were powerless to stop it. As if on cue, the dog cold-nosed her right behind her left knee. She hit a note completely off the musical scale: so high that it was previously known only to God. Stunned, her voice fell mute.
The fervent worshippers exploded with laughter. Eventually, our soprano recovered enough to chuckle as well. There was no saving the moment. …One of the all-time best outdoor worship events ever. Some laughed all the way home, forgoing coffee. Me? Here I sit in my study three decades later and I still chuckle.
When I did return my call to the gent, I suggested that he just “wing-it.” Those who know me are forgiving. Those who don’t, wouldn’t care.