Laughing to Healing

How a pastor’s gaffe brought healing to a traumatized congregation

by Teri Thomas

Rev. Dr. Teri Thomas

In December 1996, the pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and his wife were brutally murdered in their home. The couple’s bodies were found beside their Christmas tree, bound with ropes and beaten with an ax.  A 16-year-old boy, a member of the church youth group, was eventually charged and found guilty. The church had some difficulty finding a new pastor after that.

A significant part of the congregation disappeared after the murders. Money was tight. People who stayed were sad. The investigations and trials lasted for three years. Folks were tired. Staff people were afraid. So much more than a pastor had been lost. Everything became serious and sober.

When I arrived in 2002 to serve as the next pastor, sorrow and depression lingered. People were friendly but distant. They were welcoming but leery of getting attached. My feeble attempts at humor in worship were met with polite smiles. I found myself yearning for any real sense of joy.

Then one morning I made a terrible mistake.

I violated my own rule about late parties on Saturday nights. The company was stimulating, but I really should have gone to bed earlier. As the 9:00 a.m. service began, fatigue made concentration difficult. Thankfully, the “Amens” covered my yawns and the lengthy prayers gave me a chance to rest my weary eyes.

Mistakenly unconcerned over my lack of focus, I started the sermon. The book of Esther was the text, and I planned to simply retell the story of the faithful woman who stood her own and found her purpose for such a time as this. Having taught a week-long class on Esther the previous summer, I knew the story well. Maybe too well.

As I began introducing all the colorful characters, I really didn’t need my manuscript. I could embellish and exaggerate their goodness and their flaws without much help. I knew these characters well. I knew their stories and what made them tick. The congregation was entertained by my amusing images.

“Now we meet the villain in the story.” I whispered in a melodramatic voice midway through the sermon. “Haman is appointed chief advisor for the king and his ego grows along with his importance. Now that Haman is an influential person with significant connections he expects to be treated as such.” With great theatrics I sensationalize the description of this little creep. “Haman thinks he is so special. He thinks he is top dog. He thinks he is the big kahuna. He thinks he is such hot $h*t.”

The entire universe came to a halt. The congregation sat frozen as I stood and stared. Did I really say it or did I imagine it? They aren’t reacting. Maybe I just thought it. But out of the corner of my eye I could see the associate pastors bent over in hysterical laughter. Oops. With both hands covering my wayward mouth I dropped down behind the pulpit. Completely hidden I heard it begin, first a giggle, then a snort and a snigger, followed by a guffaw and chortles and chuckles. They were laughing. They were really laughing. They were bent over in laughter, crying tears of laughter, and it was not showing any signs of stopping.

Mortified, I came out from behind the pulpit and faced the crowd. “I am so sorry. I am so sorry. I can’t believe I said that. I am sorry,” I stammered over and over, but they could not hear me over the laughter.

“Hot stuff,” I shouted as I pointed knowingly into the air. “Hot stuff. Haman thought he was really hot stuff.” My attempt at a correction only resulted in the laughter increasing.

I am not sure anyone heard me finish the sermon, “Esther’s story, even though it probably is fictional, is in the Scriptures because we believe that God can teach us some truth even through stories that are not true. We can learn about God even from people who never spoke God’s name. We believe that God’s truth can come in many forms, from many sources and if we get too set on how it ought to come, we just might miss it.”

At the close of the service I stood humbly in the customary spot to greet the worshippers, expecting the disapproval I deserved. They filed out with smiles and grins. Words of understanding were shared and sympathetic comments offered. People told me stories of times their tongues slipped. One man thanked me for showing that I am human just like him. A mother smiled and said, “I am so glad Katherine was in church with me today. She is learning naughty words in preschool. I keep trying to tell her that if she uses those words at home they may slip out somewhere else. You are a perfect example. Thank you.”

I was amazed by everyone’s good nature and acceptance of my humiliating slip. Then I spotted Harriet making a beeline across the narthex. The glare on her ancient face put the fear of God in me. With no place to hide, I waited for the tongue-lashing that was sure to come. Harriet grabbed my robe by the collar and yanked my head down to her level. “Girl,” she bellowed, “you better just learn that sometimes no other word will work.” Harriet turned and marched out the door.

It was a careless mistake on my part, but the results were amazing. The congregation came together in an experience they could laugh about. They could joke with me and with one another. They came to trust me as a person with some weaknesses and some faults and a willingness to let them show on occasion. Humor brought us all closer together. Laughing at the pastor seemed to give everyone permission to be happy again.

We have shared many laughs in the 12 years of my ministry at Northminster. We also have shared tears and sorrows. The good news is that none of them lasts forever. We heal, we come together and we move on, eager to share a new experience and whatever it may hold for us.

This article was awarded the 2014 Award of Merit for Reporting and Writing: Written, Humor by the Associated Church Press.

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