NEW YORK CITY — Susan Sparks, pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in the
Big Apple, is billed as “America’s only female stand-up comedian with a pulpit.” She is the author of Laughing Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor.
“Laughter is, in fact, a way of coming at the world,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “It challenges how we perceive ourselves and our circumstances, it reframes how we see others, and it changes the very way we engage with God.”
Nurturing Faith editor John Pierce posed some questions to the former trial lawyer turned preacher and comedian. The following conversation is adapted from that interview.
NFJ: Let’s start with your identity issues: trial lawyer, stand-up comedian and Baptist preacher. Which do you confess to being when asked by a seatmate on an airplane — and why?
SS: None (laughing). Seriously, I tend to follow the lead of my comedy partner Rabbi Bob Alper. Bob and I star in the “Laugh in Peace Show” with Muslim comic Aman Ali.
Bob says when he gets on a plane and is asked what he does for a living, he hedges.
“I could say I’m an ordained rabbi,” he explains, “heading to perform standup with a Baptist preacher and a Muslim comic at a comedy show sponsored by the Catholic Church and Hadassah. Which would be true. But then I think, ‘Naw,’ and answer nonchalantly, ‘I’m a consultant.’”
It is very hard to explain what I do. At first, people respond, “That’s so cool!” Then, inevitably, they pause, their faces changing from a smile to a cross between concern and fear, and exclaim “Why?”
It has become clear over time that my call in life is to demonstrate the connection between humor and the spiritual, and to encourage people to reclaim their joy. As Voltaire said, “God is a comedian playing to an audience who is afraid to laugh.”
NFJ: Often I express appreciation for speech and preaching professors but acknowledge that I learned a great deal from Johnny Carson’s monologues over many years. From whom did you learn? And how do you see comedy and preaching to be related?
SS: I remember watching Jack Benny — vaguely, of course, as I was only an hour or so old. His physical comedy — the ability to make people laugh without saying a word — was magic.
I was also influenced by storyteller comedians — which is more my genre — like Grady Nutt who could spin a wonderful tale, yet have laugh breaks throughout.
In terms of the craft of standup, I studied with Stephen Rosenfield at the American Comedy Institute (ACI) in Manhattan. The ACI is where I truly began to appreciate the art form of crafting comedy (which is all about editing), the discipline of silence and pauses, and perhaps, most importantly, joyful, heartfelt communication.
These skills are critical not only to comedy, but to preaching as well. In fact, I am working on a book titled Preaching Punchlines.
NFJ: You offer a qualifier about Madison Avenue Baptist Church: “Baptist — but not like you expect.” Why, and how has that been received?
SS: It makes people laugh and think, which is the point. I hate to say it, but many people in the world at large see the word “Baptist” and think conservative, bordering on crazy.
Apologies to my Baptist folk who are offended by that assertion, but I’m afraid it’s true. Thanks to some hateful, un-Christian and very un-Baptist rhetoric that is blasted out by certain voices, our reputation as Baptists has taken a serious nosedive.
In fact, thanks to that bad rap, our deacons met several years ago to discuss whether we should remove “Baptist” from our name. After a long conversation, the board decided to keep it.
“It represents our roots, who we are,” said our spry 89-year-old chairwoman, originally from North Carolina. “And I’m not letting that go. We’re going to keep the name Baptist, just redefine it.”
Thus, “Baptist — not like you expect” was born.
NFJ: Too often humor is equated with frivolity. In what ways is humor seriously good for the soul?
SS: Humor in the spiritual path is more than jokes. It is a way of coming at the world.
If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself; and if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others.
As a minister, I encourage a holistic approach to worship, prayer and daily life; one where all of who we are is brought before God — the tears, the anger, the fear and the laughter. It’s all holy.
Bottom line, you can’t be healed if you don’t give God all the pieces.
I’ve always believed that ministers and stand-up comedians have the same job. We both are called to stand in solidarity with people during the crazy, annoying times of life and the times of tragedies.
When done right, both ministers and comedians make people feel a little less alone. In short, comedy can bond people, whether delivered from a pulpit or a podium.
Sadly, I spent years as an adult estranged from the church because my early childhood was seeped in judgment and shame, not joy and hope. My early memory of worship was walking in, bracing myself for the body blow of shame, and then walking out bent and beaten down three inches shorter.
Now as an ordained minister and a stand-up comedian, I feel called to say, “Enough!” There is a time to weep and a time to laugh — and we have erred way too hard on the side of weeping.
NFJ: How have your understandings of God and life evolved through your various experiences in recent years?
SS: I have learned a number of things in my years as a minister and a comedian. First, it’s never too late to follow your dream.
We may experience multiple calls in our lifetime — many coming in our later years. Who are we to say that God has the wrong number?
In fact, one of the lessons here is that God speaks and moves in totally unexpected ways.
Meister Eckhart, a medieval theologian, must have had the same experience when he wrote, “God is like a person who clears his throat while hiding and so gives himself away.”
Also, I have learned about dealing with pain and loss. In 2006 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In was then that I discovered how humor can help us live our faith in places of pain.
The philosopher Camus said, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”
Humor is that invincible summer. When you find something to smile about in any place of pain, the balance of power shifts.
You remember that what you are experiencing is not who you are. It’s then you reclaim your invisible summer and take life back.
Because of this experience, I am now privileged to speak to breast cancer survivors all over the country about humor and healing.
Bottom line: We all have a call. The trick is to find the courage to jump when we can’t see the other side. I’m grateful every day of my life that I was able to take that leap.
While mine may not be the most orthodox of paths, it is one I believe feeds a great need in this world: a reminder of our God-given sense of joy and hope, a renewed sense of forgiveness for ourselves and others, and a call to leave the world better than we found it, one smile at a time. NFJ
By John D. Pierce