When It’s No Joke

A few summers ago I was counting down the days until I would drive across the state to pick up my son from the Christian camp where he’d been working as a counselor. It’d been almost 6 weeks since I’d seen him and 10 since he’d been home. The experiences and relationships that filled that time in his life had a huge impact on him then and for the future, and I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to share.

It’s with a certain amount of confidence that I feel I can say that I never was a helicopter mom. Simply by virtue of the fact that my children thank me for not being a helicopter mom, I think I am in pretty good shape there. 

But even the most stoic of moms must be allowed to show some excitement at being reunited with one of her children after so long, and especially after such an eventful summer as this had been for him. He reported many late evening talks with co-counselors and group prayer sessions, restoring souls and deepening faith in Jesus Christ.

I remember being a camp counselor and have enjoyed hearing from my friends about the life-changing experiences they or their spouses had during their tenures working for Christian summer camps. For me, my 6 summers playing in loco parentis for a dozen or more pre-teen and teenaged girls at a time recall early morning line-ups, KP duty, volleyball games, and nighttime group games of blob tag and red rover. There were the hours assisting in the studio and the evenings soaking in lectures or performances of local classical musicians or thespians or dancers (we were a performing and visual arts camp). There were the pranks and late night movie nights and doing rounds an hour after lights out to make sure lights were really out.

It’s here that a creeping discomfort edges into my thoughts and memories. There was a lot more going on after lights out as well.  Ours was most certainly not a Christian camp, and to my knowledge, none of the staff were professing believers—including me. In fact, most of us hailed from the more progressive end of the spectrum, both in our politics and in personal behavior. Bed-hopping was, if not universal, accepted and never questioned, and controlled substances were in plenteous supply. Along the scale of participation were a few who merely observed, to the other extreme where the most charismatic led the assault on our senses and sensibilities. Suddenly, in the midst of these memories, I feel dirty and sick. I feel I can’t even comment on the days of blessing that my son and his co-workers had in the same breath that I reminisce what happened at that Maryland camp more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t really fun, no matter how much we tried to convince ourselves that it was. None of it was the growth and maturing that should have been going on in our individual lives at that time.  It was damaging and it was desperation and we were blind to the ruin it was wreaking on our lives. 

Spurgeon says, “Satan puts things very prettily when he means to ruin us.”

How easy it was for me to conjure up a warm memory about that time at camp. Yes, it is undeniable that redeemable things happened amidst the folly. There were kids who discovered their gifts and there were beautiful expressions of art, and there were even some good friendships that were made there. But it is dangerous for me to remember only the good and neglect to recall the wastefulness of the time there, because in remembering the latter, I am able to 

  1. be sorrowful for the damage I contributed to my and others’ lives and be thankful the Lord has redeemed me and erased that from my account,
  2. pray for those many hundreds who passed through the gates of the campus who are who-knows-where today, that they might know the surpassing greatness of Christ and come to hate the sin that ensnared and blinded us then,
  3. resolve to hate sin and not to let myself be mesmerized by its “prettiness”,
  4. devote myself even more to the loveliness of redemption and the Author and Finisher of our Faith, Jesus Christ.

Grace, grace and more abundance of grace covers that time in my life. Praise God for His mercy. I am not stagnant in this place in my walk; Jesus has taught me much, but I have more to learn. Chief among them is the exhortation to guard my mouth and heart from whitewashing the folly and prettying up the ruins around me. 

As Psalm 141:3-4 pleads: 

     Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth;
keep watch over the door of my lips.
     Do not let my heart incline to any evil,
to busy myself with wicked deeds
     in company with men who work iniquity,
and let me not eat of their delicacies.

Clearly this does not mean believers should not call out sin when it’s evident, particularly in the life of another professing believer, as Paul instructs Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:20“As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”

No, it is clear that we are to exhort others to forsake folly and pursue godliness. I am referring to a habit of finding delight in the evil and iniquities of others. The most obvious form this takes is gossip, which is conduct that receives sharp rebuke from God. I think it must escape the reason of those brethren who engage in slander and malicious gossip that they are guilty of lobbing attacks against Jesus Himself.

Another more insidious way that Satan sets up the prettiest little ruinous traps for us is to convince us that it is godly to make light of and laugh at certain sins and sinners around us. Believe it or not, years ago, there was a popular joke book around that was titled, 101 Uses for a Dead Cat. It didn’t take long for the popularity to extend to other titles that ran along the same theme, even 101 Dead Baby Jokes

I can’t imagine the recoil in disgust in horror going on out there right now, but there was a time when this was considered funny, and if not funny, certainly nothing to get upset about. How horrid, how rank and vile, to laugh about dead babies. Indeed, and it upsets me even to use this episode in our society’s not too distant past as an example, but I do so to point out that as repulsive as the sin is that is being made lightly into fodder for a joke, so are some of the sins that are at the root of many jokes and light conversation popular among Christians today.

Consider how often you hear “gay” jokes, and particularly among men, liberally spiced up with epithets like “faggot” and “homo”. What about pranks that involve showing another person pornographic material? Do we too easily smile at prettily crafted comments that deride race or ethnicity or handicap? Do we pass around the “naughty” props? What about casual comments about infidelity, adultery and divorce*? There are abortion jokes (usually aimed at siblings) and sexual impurity jokes (usually aimed at the clergy of another religious tradition), and there are way too many jokes about the sober event to come:  the Judgment Day.  

These are sins, deadly and poisonous and repulsive to God. Sins keep people, those people we see and talk to every day, separated from God, in direct line of His wrath, and at risk of damnation forever if they don’t repent. Some of them, in God’s mercy and providence, may be your brethren not yet revealed. And when they are reborn and come to Christ, they will need discipleship and, very likely, encouragement and help in their struggles against the most addictive of these sins. They won’t need jokes that trivialize their sin. Sin is not funny business. Theirs nor yours nor anyone’s. 

Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4)

Sorry to sound so much like the caricature of a Puritan, but if that’s what I am, then it looks like Paul was, too, as was the writer of Proverbs 26:

Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I am only joking!” (Proverbs 26:18-19)

Cue the pet protests that Paul was no prude and swung a dirty bat when he wanted to. Yep. Paul was writing with a gospel mission in mind, not rehearsing his favorite schtick for the junior high campout, and Paul was Paul. You’re not.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount:

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. They describe people who are altogether different from all others, as different as light from darkness, as different as salt from putrification. If then, we are different essentially, we must be different in our view of, and in our reaction to, everything. . . .  Remember that our Lord put it like this: “If you salute your brethren only, what do you do more than others?” That is it. The Christian is a man who does ‘more than others.’ He is a man who is absolutely different. (emphasis mine)

We could thwart Satan, you know. We could be those who will guard our mouths and our hearts, who will dispel with all desire of being the best at clever and cute repartee and banter. We are, after all, absolutely different. We could start by asking ourselves, before the words leave our lips, “Is it ruinous?”

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