I remember a fun 'n' games night around the supper table in our house. It was wild. First of all, one of the kids snickered during the prayer (which isn't that unusual) and that tipped the first domino. Then a humorous incident from school was shared and the event (as well as how it was told) triggered havoc around the table. That was the beginning of twenty to thirty minutes of the loudest, silliest, most enjoyable laughter you can imagine. At one point I watched my oldest literally fall off his chair in hysterics, my youngest doubled over in his chair as his face wound up in his plate with corn chips stuck to his cheeks...and my two girls leaning back, lost and preoccupied in the most beautiful and beneficial therapy God ever granted humanity: laughter.

What is so amazing is that everything seemed far less serious and heavy. Irritability and impatience were ignored like unwanted guests. For example, during the meal little Chuck spilled his drink twice...and even that brought the house down. If I remember correctly, that made six times during the day he accidentally spilled his drink, but nobody bothered to count.

All is quiet now, a rather unusual phenomenon around here. It's almost midnight and although my bones are weary, I'm filled and thrilled with the most pleasant memories a father can enjoy — a healthy, happy, laughing family. What a treasure! The load that often weighs heavily upon my shoulders about this time each week seems light and insignificant now. Laughter, the needed friend, has paid another dividend.

If you ask me, I think it is often just as sacred to laugh as it is to pray...or preach...or witness. But then — laughter is a witness in many ways. We have been misled by a twisted, unbalanced mind if we have come to think of laughter and fun as being carnal or even questionable. This is one of Satan's sharpest darts and from the looks and long lines on our faces, some of us have been punctured too many times. Pathetic indeed is the stern, somber Christian who has developed the look of an old basset hound through long hours of practice in restraining humor and squelching laughs.

Looking stern and severe is nothing new. The frowning fraternity of the sour set got started in the first century. Its charter members were a scowling band of religious stuffed shirts called Pharisees. I hardly need to remind you that Jesus' strongest words were directed at them. Their super-serious, ritually rigid lifestyle nauseated our Lord. This brings me to a related point of contention I have with artists who portray Jesus Christ perpetually somber, often depressed. You simply cannot convince me that during thirty-three years as a carpenter and discipler of the Twelve He never enjoyed a long, side-splitting laugh. Wouldn't it be refreshing to see a few pictures of Jesus leaning back with His companions, thoroughly enjoying a few minutes of fun with them? Surely that isn't heresy!

Picture in your mind Martin Luther, the Reformer. What do you see? A stern-faced, steel-jawed, frowning fighter with his German fist clenched and raised against wrong? Wrong!

Several of his biographers inform us that he abounded in an unguarded, transparent sincerity...plain and pleasant honesty...playful humor and mirth. Small wonder he attracted the oppressed, browbeaten people of his day like flies to honey. The reformer, you see, wasn't afraid to laugh. In one word, surprising though it may seem, Luther was winsome.

Let's try another famous name: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great preacher of London. What do you see? A sober, stoop-shouldered pastor who dragged the weight of sinful England around with a rope? Try again!

Spurgeon was a character. His style was so loose he was criticized again and again for bordering on frivolity in the Tabernacle pulpit. Certain incensed fellow clergymen railed against his habit of introducing humor into his sermons. With a twinkle in his eye, he once replied:

"If only you knew how much I hold back, you would commend me.... This preacher thinks it less a crime to cause a momentary laughter than a half-hour of profound slumber."
Spurgeon dearly loved life. His favorite sound was laughter — and frequently he leaned back in the pulpit and roared aloud over something that struck him funny. He infected people with cheer germs. Those who caught the disease found their load lighter and their Christianity brighter. Like Luther, Spurgeon was winsome. Winsomeness. That tasteful, appealing, ultra-magnetic quality...that charisma...that ability to cause joy and genuine pleasure in the thick of it all. When a teacher has it, students line up for the course. When a dentist or physician has it, his practice stays full. When a salesman has it, he gets writer's cramp filling out orders. When an usher has it, the church is considered friendly. When a college president has it, the public relations department has a downhill slide. When a coach has it, the team shows it. When a restaurant owner has it, the public knows it. When parents have it, kids grow it.

Winsomeness motivates. It releases the strangle-hold grip of the daily grind. It takes the sting out of reality. Winsomeness simplifies. Things suddenly become less complicated...less severe...less bothersome. The hole at the end of the tunnel becomes far more significant than the dark passage leading to it. Winsomeness encourages. Without ignoring the wrong, winsomeness focuses on the benefits, the hopes, the answers. Even when it must deal with jagged disappointment or inescapable negatives, winsomeness stands tall and refuses to spend the night in such dwellings.

Winsome humor is an asset beyond value in the life of a missionary. Indeed, it is a most serious deficiency if a missionary lacks the ability to find something to smile about in diverse and difficult situations. I recently read of a Swede who was urged by friends to give up the idea of returning to India as a missionary because it was so hot there. "Man," he was exhorted, "it's 120 degrees in the shade!" "Vell," countered the Swede in noble contempt, "ve don't alvays have to stay in the shade, do ve?"

Some frowning, neurotic soul is reading this and saying, "Well, somebody's got to do the job. Life is more than a merry-go-round. Laughter is all right for schoolgirls — but adults, especially Christian adults, have a task to perform that's deadly serious." Okay, pal, so it's serious. So it isn't all a joke. Nobody's going to argue that life has its demands and that being mature involves discipline and responsibility. But who says we have to have an ulcer and drive ourselves (and each other) to distraction in the process of fulfilling our God-given role? No one is less efficient or more incompetent than the person on the brink of a breakdown, who has stopped having fun, who is nursing a bleeding ulcer, who has become a pawn in the brutal hands of relentless responsibilities, who has begun a one-man crusade for whatever, who has lost the ability to relax and laugh and "blow it" without guilt. Our hospitals are full — literally jammed — with victims of the let's-cut-the-fun philosophy of life. And today, quite frankly, they really aren't much of an asset to society — nor to the cause of Christ. That is not a criticism — it's reality.

By a sense of humor, I am neither referring to distasteful, inappropriate, vulgar jesting, nor foolish and silly talk that is ill-timed, offensive, and tactless. I mean that necessary ingredient of wit — enjoyable, delightful expressions or thoughts — which lifts our spirits and lightens our day.

How is such winsomeness cultivated — and communicated — in our homes and among our other contacts? What practical steps can be taken to yank us out of the doldrums? I suggest three specific projects:

1. Start each day with pleasant words. Your family will be the first to benefit (better have the glycerin tablets ready). No need to dance around like Bozo the Clown or force jokes into your sleepy mate's ears. Just be pleasant in your remarks, cheerful with your greetings. As you are slipping out of bed, thank God for His love...His calm, fresh reminders that this new day is under His control. Quietly state the encouraging truth: God loves me.

2. Smile more often. I cannot think of many occasions when a smile is out of place. Develop a cheerful countenance. A frowning face repels. A smile reaches out and attracts. God gave you this gift that radiates encouragement. Don't fence it in...loosen up, break that concrete mask — smile.

3. Express at least one honest comment of appreciation or encouraging remark to each person you are with during the day. As a Christian, you want to share Christ's love. You want to lift up hearts that are heavy. Spot strengths — and say so. Steadfastly decline to camp on other's weaknesses. Ask the Lord to make you genuinely interested in others instead of so occupied with yourself. Ask Him to enable you to take the risk and reach out. Ask Him to be winsome through you.

In spite of bleak and serious surroundings about us, I firmly believe we need another good dose of Solomon's counsel. Listen to David's wisest son:

A joyful heart makes a cheerful face, but when the heart is sad, the spirit is broken. All the days of the afflicted are bad, but a cheerful heart has a continual feast (Proverbs 15:13,15).
A joyful heart is good medicine (the Hebrew says, "...causes good healing...") but a broken spirit dries up the bones (Proverbs 17:22).

Honestly now...how's your sense of humor? Are the times in which we live beginning to tell on you — your attitude, your face, your outlook? If you aren't sure, ask those who live under your roof, they’ll tell you! Solomon talks straight, too. He (under the Holy Spirit's direction) says that three things will occur in the lives of those who have lost their capacity to enjoy life: (1) a broken spirit, (2) a lack of inner healing, and (3) dried-up bones. What a barren portrait of the believer!

Have you begun to shrivel into a bitter, impatient, critical Christian? Is your family starting to resemble employees at a local mortuary? The Lord points to a better way — the way of joyful winsomeness. "A joyful heart" is what we need...and if ever we needed it, it is now.

Deepening Your Roots

Genesis 21:6; Psalm 126:1-6

Branching Out

1. At 3:30 p.m. every day this week take a creativity break (stop what you're doing and find another person, if possible) and have five minutes of some light-heartedness or laughter. Shoot rubber bands at a target, read the comics, or — better still — speak with someone you don't know very well.

2. Laugh, just to laugh, and see if others join in.

3. Offer a smile and a pleasant word to each person you see this morning.