NEW YORK — The "joyful Christians," spreading through the country across denominational lines, are convinced that faith is fun, seasoned with cheer and laughs.
They delight in the lightsome aspects of their commitment, bubbling with jokes about themselves and fellow believers, such as:
A burglar, brandishing his gun in a minister's bedroom, says: "If you stir, you're a dead man. I'm hunting for your money."
Minister: "What money? Let me get up and turn on the light and I'll hunt with you."
Pastor to little boy: "Have you been saying your prayers at night?"
Boy: "Yes, sir."
Pastor: "Have you been saying your prayers in the morning?"
Boy: "No, I ain't scared in the daytime."'
These are the kind of religious sparkles fancied by the growing membership of the "Fellowship of Merry Christians" based in Kalamazoo, Mich.
"We feel there's too much solemnity and dourness about religion," said Cal Samra, editor of "The Joyful Noiseletter," a bimonthly that knits the blithe spirits together.
"We're trying to recapture both the joy and humor of early Christians. They had an absolutely contagious spirit of joy," he said in a telephone interview. "Even the martyrs laughed and sang in the face of persecution."
Started last spring, the organization has a membership of more than 3,000--Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, many of them clergy.
They pour their funny church tales into Samra's offices, such as: Woman to her pastor: "I can't tell you how much your sermons have meant to my husband since he lost his mind."
The movement's motto, "Humor is good for your health," is taken from Proverbs 17:22: "A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones."
Samra, a Greek Orthodox member, whose book, "The Joyful Christ: The Healing Power of Humor," was recently published by Harper & Row, said humor is a "peacemaking tool among the churches."
"We're trying to to knock down some of the walls," he said. "Humor gets people together, lets them forget some of the old ferocious denominational infighting and gets them laughing at some things.
"They quit taking themselves too seriously."
The Rev. Tal Bonham of Columbus, Ohio, executive director of Ohio's Southern Baptist state convention, is among a score of associate editors of the Noiseletter--priests, ministers, bishops and lay people.
"I think preachers ought to be able to laugh at themselves," said Bonham, who has turned out six "clean jokes" sequels to his collection of funny stories, "A Treasury of Clean Jokes."
"The Christian life is a life of joy," he said. "All of us need to laugh. After all, one who laughs, lasts."
Indicating something to that adage, many of the influential figures in the group have shown considerable staying power in terms of age. They include:
- Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood, 86, of Richmond, Ind., whose book, "The Humor of Christ," is a key item in the movement's book catalogue, called "Books to Tickle You to Life."
- The Rev. Martin Clarke, 76, a Franciscan chaplain at New York's Cabrini Medical Center, whose ministry of humor includes distributing pictures of the "The Smiling Christ" to patients.
- The Rev. Canon Alfred Price, 86, an Episcopalian of St. Petersburg, Fla., who stresses humor as a healing tool.
- Catholic Msgr. Arthur Tonne, 82, of Marion, Kan., author of several sprightly volumes of "Jokes Priests Can Tell."
"We suspect humor has a good deal to do with longevity," Samra said, adding that many medical authorities consider "mirth and a cheerful attitude" a key factor.
Other influential clergy in movement include the Rev. Bill Peckam of Springfield, Ill., United Methodist founder of "Holy Fools," an ecumenical clown ministry in hospitals and nursing homes, and the Rev. Tom Walsh of Scottsdale, Ariz., who does seminars on "Humor, Hilarity, Healing and Happy Hypothalami."
Also involved are the Rev. Dave Buehler of Fall River, Mass., a Lutheran who uses humor in his chaplaincy at Charlton Memorial hospital, and Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, newly elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who sprinkles humor in his column in the diocesan weekly.
The fellowship is launching "playshops," rather than the customary workshops, at church retreat centers.
"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord," the Psalmist urged repeatedly.
Jesus, however bleak the circumstances, advised, "Be of good cheer."
Samra said many Christians tend to "focus always on the sorrowful" side of the faith, such as the Crucifixion, without accepting the flood of joy unleashed afterward by the Resurrection.
"There's a lot of depressed people and depressed clergy out there," he said.