Comic Spirituality

Coyote is a key trickster figure in Native American mythology. He’s a shape shifter, part human and part animal, combining within himself all that makes up the human character. In numberless exploits, he is portrayed as greedy and gluttonous, thieving and lecherous. Clever and foolish at the same time. Yet he is the one who created the world, created people, stole sun and moon and the seasons and made them available to the people he created, shaped the very character of the land.

Which makes what happens next so ironic. There he is, stuck in the log with no way out, and all of a sudden he hears the sound of a woodpecker pecking away at the hollow log. And while you’d think that Coyote would be overjoyed at this possibility of release, he’s cranky instead. “What a racket!” he says to himself. “What an irritating sound,” he says. Doesn’t even occur to him that Woodpecker was going to be his salvation. He just hates all the noise. So he shouts at Woodpecker to get away. “Stop that!” Luckily, Woodpecker keeps on pecking. He can’t hear Coyote shouting from within the log. He keeps on pecking away until he’s drilled a small hole that lets in a bit of the light.

And Coyote sees the light—in more ways than one. Suddenly he’s not at all irritated by the sound. Now he wants more of it! He starts shouting again, but this time, it’s to say, “Hurry up! Get me out of here!”

But now that there’s a hole, Woodpecker can hear Coyote more clearly, and Coyote’s shouting scares him away. He just flies away. It’s only when Coyote begins to appreciate the humor of his situation and disengages from all his anger and irritation and just shuts up that Woodpecker feels safe enough to come back and start pecking at the log again, according to a pace and a rhythm that is natural for him. Coyote just shuts up. Doesn’t say another word. Just waits until enough of the log is pecked away, and he is free, and then … he laughs!

For me, a story like this suggests some of the central themes of comic spirituality, which is what I want to talk about today. Comic spirituality is about being at home in the world amidst all its conflicts and struggles and dangers. Comic spirituality counters the temptations of the tragic point of view. Comic spirituality also says that, when life is at its worst (or when it just happens to be another round of Daylight Savings), a sense of humor saves. Laughter saves. Asbestos gelos. The person and the community and the world that laughs, lasts.

One of the things I love about Coyote stories is that they give us a behind-the-scenes look at how things came to be and how they are—which is playful. Coyote represents an unquenchable lust for being and life, and he creates and acts out of this lust, but he does not do this like the God of the Hebrew Bible, who always seems to know what he is doing and has everything in control. Coyote acts, but he is vulnerable to the surprising and unexpected consequences of his actions, so he can find himself stuck in a jam, and he’s got to figure a way out, and he does, and this results in yet another close call, leading to yet another burst of creativity, and on and on, and such is the process of the evolution of the world. Not by long-range planning—design established from the very beginning and then executed ideally without flaw—but experimentation, throwing yourself into it, seeing what happens next, facing loose ends and incongruities, experiencing breathtaking beauty and meaning but only to the degree you expose yourself to risk and therefore to pain. Shrugging shoulders at this fact of life; perhaps even laughing at the joy and absurdity of it all….

This is what Coyote stories reveal to us, as they take us behind-the-scenes of our everyday here-and-now. The heart of reality is not serious, but playful. Incongruity and pain are an integral part of the deal; sometimes it’s our fault, sometimes it’s not, and our best bet is to stay cool—to resist nurturing resentments and rage—to go with the flow, stay creative and loose. “One day,” goes another story, “Coyote was walking along. The sun was shining brightly, and Coyote felt very hot. ‘I would like a cloud,’ he said, so a cloud came and made some shade for Coyote. But he was not satisfied. ‘I want more clouds,’ he said, and more clouds came along, and the sky began to look very stormy. But Coyote was still hot. ‘How about some rain?” he said, and the clouds began to sprinkle rain. ‘More rain,’ Coyote demanded. The rain became a downpour. But now Coyote wanted a creek to put his feet in, so a creek sprang up beside him, and Coyote walked in it to cool off his feet.’ It should be deeper, said Coyote, and so the creek became a huge, swirling river, and now Coyote got more than he bargained for. He found himself swept up into the currents, rolled over and over, thrown up on the bank far away, nearly drowned. When he woke up, he saw buzzards circling him, trying to decide if he was dead, and he shooed them off. He looked around him. He had made the Columbia River. This is how that great river began.

I always think of Coyote when I sing “Bring Many Names,” #23 in the grey hymnal. There’s a verse that captures his essential spirit: “Young, growing God, eager still to know, / willing to be changed by what you started, / quick to be delighted, singing as you go: / hail and hosanna, young, growing God!” This is the only kind of God I could ever believe in, I think. Not a God that somehow stands outside of the natural order of the universe, who intervenes supernaturally in ways that favor one person over another or one tribe over another. Not a God that is locked inside the metaphor of maleness, or the metaphor of the human. Not a God that is all-powerful, with unlimited ability to act and yet appears to remain passive and uncaring when evil in the world is truly excessive, far beyond what seems needful for people to grow strong and wise. Especially not this last part, since then, how could the heart of reality be playful? How could anyone truly feel at home in a world in which a God existed who had the power to prevent evil but held back from using it? Allowed the very worst to occur?

There is a current in contemporary theology, called process theism, that takes very seriously the idea that behind-the-scenes is a playful force like Coyote, or the “young, growing God” of our hymnal. Process theism sees God as the creativity of the universe, and there are two sides to this. One is the body of the universe, the evolving interdependent web of all existence. Process theology tells us that it is sacred: galaxies and stars, trees and animals, you and I. All of it is part of God’s growing body. The world is God’s body. That’s the first side, and here is the second. God is a consciousness over and above the universe, just as you and I have a consciousness that is over and above our own bodies. You and I feel our bodies and think about them; we hope things for them and envision goals and futures; and it’s the same thing with God. God has a conscious side to complement God’s physical side. God is both the world and the consciousness of the world. Put the two together, and this is the kind of God that process theology envisions.

One of the immediate implications of this picture of things takes us right back to Coyote, and to comedy. God simply cannot force the universe to do whatever God wants. Therefore, things can get tangled up. Slapstick happens. Evil happens. God’s power is not unlimited. The universe has creative independence and freedom, just like your own body when it gets sick. Your mind doesn’t want it to be sick, but it is anyhow, and you have got to deal. Same thing with God. God doesn’t want the world to be sick, and yet the world has creative independence. God simply can’t enter into the world supernaturally, like a bull in a china shop, and stop this and start that. All God can do is influence the world from the inside—and I know this might sound strange, but think of how cancer patients participate in their own healing. Cancer patients visualize their immune system as strong, as powerful, as potent, and the immune system responds. Similarly, God visualizes blessing and healing for this world, and if we are open to it, we can respond and receive. Nothing supernatural here at all. God influences the world from the inside, showers continual blessing up on us, impartially, universally, and does it without us having to ask. But the world has creative independence too, and so the blessing might not be received, we might be so stuck in the log of our fears and angers and resentments that we can’t hear God’s still small voice…. The blessing might not be received. That is simply the reality and risk of freedom.

And by now you may be noticing something about comic spirituality. It’s not frivolous. It’s a way of being in the world richly, in the midst of incongruity of every kind—pain, suffering, death. It says, if the heart of reality is like Coyote, or like the God of process theism, then there’s nothing malicious behind-the-scenes for us to resent and rebel against, like some tragic existential hero. Life is an open adventure. Accidents do happen. We can get firmly stuck in logs of all kinds. But don’t forget about the woodpeckers out there, who are on their way. All we have to do is stay calm, and let them do their work to free us, so we can continue the adventure.

And this takes us to the next theme of comic spirituality, which has to do with resisting the temptations of the tragic point of view. The temptations are great. Two quick illustrations are in order. One has to do with an observation about kite string. Ever gone kite flying, and (wind being the trickster that it is) your kite takes a nose dive, and in the process of reclaiming your kite, you tangle up the string? If you are like me, trying to untangle it can make you impatient, and then angry, and suddenly you feel like a tragic hero. The world is unfair, the world is against me, the world is doing this to me … and before you know it, you have forgotten that your best bet is to finesse things. You are pulling on the tangles way too hard, jerking and tugging them, making a bad situation worse. What was originally just tangle is now a hard knot, an unredeemable mess.

Second illustration. Think Achilles, from ancient Greek mythology: his famous rage. Rage is the fundamental emotion that moves Achilles in the Trojan War—rage at being dishonored by the Greek general Agamemnon, so he will not fight; then rage at the Trojans who killed his close friend Patroclus, so now he will fight. Rage has him in its grip, and he is bursting with it, and not once does he question whether the Gods are on his side. He does not think: he acts. His deeds are larger-than-life and always to be remembered, but no one would call Achilles wise. The tragic mindset is not wise. Fundamentally reactive as it is, it simply cannot step back from the righteous heat of the moment and cool off; and this means it has a hard time being self-critical, or empathetic towards a different point of view, or creative. Every problem is a nail, to be solved by hammering. Our world—with all its curves and complexities and behind-the-scenes jitters—is just not a good fit for straight-arrow people like Achilles, and that’s why the traditional ending of a tragic story is not the journey that runs ever on, but the journey stopped short by the death of the hero. Tragic heroes are swept under and destroyed by the very life that they are so ill-equipped to understand and work with.

Succumb to the temptations of the tragic point of view, and the result is disaster. We never get out of the log, in one sense of another. Emotions like anger and sadness and fear sweeping us away, and out of these we react to whatever life sends us; we become so noisy we scare away savior woodpeckers for good. This is the key ingredient of the tragic mindset: stuckness in difficult emotions, endless rumination, which makes it difficult to stay loose and creative in our thinking, keeps things way too serious, causes us to feel discomfort with ambiguity and complexity, prevents us from being able to walk a mile in another’s shoes. In other words, low emotional intelligence. People finding themselves in a tangle, challenged by a diversity of valid perspectives and valid concerns, and before you know it, the tangle, which could have been finessed, has become a hard knot, another Middle East conflict. Well intentioned people wanting to fight for justice and for peace, but somehow they bring the fight to each other, and there is petty bickering and posturing and rigid political correctness and a party line; and suddenly these well-intentioned people, wanting to fight for justice and for peace, find themselves in the middle of a circular firing squad of their own creation. If you have ears to hear, then hear this.

But a comic perspective keeps things sane. It keeps us working together in world that is impure, keeps us hopeful even when the system we can’t extricate ourselves from is compromised and flawed. In this regard, I like what Chinese writer Lin Yutang has to say: “[T]he tremendous importance of humor in politics can be realized only when we picture for ourselves … a world of joking rulers. Send, for instance, five or six of the world’s best humorists to an international conference, and give them the plenipotentiary powers of autocrats, and the world will be saved. As humor necessarily goes with good sense and the reasonable spirit, plus some exceptionally subtle powers of the mind in detecting inconsistencies and follies and bad logic, and as this is the highest form of human intelligence, we may be sure that each nation will thus be represented at the conference by its sanest and soundest mind. […] Can you imagine this bunch of international diplomats starting a war or even plotting for one? The sense of humor forbids it. All people are too serious and half-insane when they declare a war against another people. They are so sure that they are right and that God is on their side. The humorists, gifted with better horse-sense, don’t think so.”

Amen to that. The temptation of the tragic point of view is ultimately a temptation to do violence and war—especially in the name of our highest and noblest ideals. But comic spirituality counters it. A sense of humor saves us. Which leads to the third and last theme of comic spirituality I want to address today: the power of laughter—unquenchable, invincible laughter. Asbestos gelos. The person and the community and the world that laughs, lasts.

Consider the experience of Captain Gerald Coffee, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. After three months in captivity, Coffee’s Vietnamese jailor ordered him to wash in a rat-infested shower room littered with rotting things and garbage all around him. As he felt the stream of cold water against his body, he was overcome with despair. There he was in a dismal hole, body broken, totally uncertain of his fate, pressure to do this, do that, hostility his daily fare, men dying every day, the fate of his crewmen unknown. That’s where he was, mind, body, spirit, as the cold water washed over his body. Then he raised his head, and saw something. There at eye level on the wall in front of him, scratched in by some other American who’d been there before him, were these words: “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” And he couldn’t help but smile. In that crazy place, woodpecker had come for him, and he laughed out loud. He felt such gratitude for the spunk of that unknown American who was able to rise above his own dejection and pain to inscribe a line of encouragement. And Captain Gerald Coffee, there in captivity in a Vietnam prison, found strength to go on.

Sometimes laughter takes us by surprise, and we find strength to go on. Better yet, though, is a conscious intent to nourish our sense of humor regularly. Never allowing the humor tank in us to go empty. Brush your teeth every day, top off your humor tank every day. Watch John Stewart, or Bill Maher, or South Park. Read The Onion. Whatever. Whatever can puncture our self-righteous pretensions, loosen us up, bring us back down to earth, keep us energized and plucky. We laugh so that we can last.

I want to close with some humor aerobics. It’s just like regular aerobics to get the blood pumping—humor aerobics to get the sense of humor pumping. To do it, you don’t have to feel particularly happy beforehand; although by the end, you might just be laughing like crazy, and it feels so good….

Here’s the exercise. It’s one of my favorites—it’s called The American Bat Face. It’s especially good to do right before you are about to enter into a difficult conversation. Let me describe it first:

1. Place your hand on top of your head, with the fingers pointing straight forward

2. Reach down with the middle two fingers and touch the tip of your nose—pull the nose up, flaring the nostrils

3. Flap your tongue in and out of your mouth while making a high-pitched squealing noise

4. Think to yourself repeatedly, “This is not stupid, it’s silly.”

If this feels too uncomfortable for you, you absolutely have permission not to do it. But I hope as many of you as possible will try it and see what happens. As you do it, see if you can hear Coyote laughing with you…

Ready? Let’s go on three…..


You see, there’s an important difference between “stupid” and “silly” that comedian Steve Allen’s son, Steve Allen Jr., points out. He says that “stupid” means ignorant and uneducated. But having fun and playing is not stupid—it’s “silly,” and “silly” is a word that comes from the Old English, meaning completely happy, completely blessed. Silly was a blessing you wished upon those you loved.

I wish that upon you today, and forever. Be more silly in your life, and be blessed.