How laughter turned a trial attorney into a Baptist minister.
After 10 years as a trial attorney in New York City, Susan Sparks was burned out. “I was so sapped of energy that I couldn’t do anything but quit my job and drop out of my life,” recalls Sparks, 46. In 1997, she began on a two-year journey around the world to figure out her next move. In the process, she found her faith—and a sense of humor.
Sparks applied to seminary school before setting out on her trip, but she wasn’t sure she’d attend if accepted. “For a long time, I’d been contemplating two paths that seemed totally unrelated and yet somehow connected: humor and religion,” says Sparks, who grew up Baptist in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The turning point came while she was volunteering at Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Calcutta, where most of the children were disabled. “There was a little girl, Anna, who couldn’t hear or speak,” Sparks says. “A nun told me to hug her to my chest. When I did, an amazing thing happened: She laughed. We communicated through the vibrations of joy and I couldn’t help seeing that as an act of God. It gave me faith I was on the right track with my desire to bring more laughter to the church.”
Sparks returned from her journey to find she’d been accepted at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. When she announced she wanted to write her thesis on laughing your way to grace, she got a lot of blank stares. But soon her research turned up links between humor and the sacred.
The oldest known written record of the synergy between laughter and the divine is the Akkadian myth of Adapa, written between the 14th and 15th centuries BCE. The story describes the God Anu laughing at the mortal Adapa’s attempt to achieve eternal life. Similarly, the Mesopotamians employed humor in their myths, such as the love lyrics calling flatulence the enemy of intimacy. In ancient Greek culture, laughter provided a direct, if sometimes frenetic way to merge with the divine. One Egyptian creation myth says the human soul was created through divine laughter.
Since 2003, Sparks has been the pastor of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church. On Saturday nights, though, you can often find her onstage in smoky comedy clubs doing a routine that features gags about being a Southerner in New York City (“How is it that Southerners can make 18 syllables out of the word ‘hey’?”) and occasional Biblical references (“I can’t understand why people don’t think God has a sense of humor, given 1 Kings 5:9, where the Lord strikes all the Philistines with hemorrhoids.”) She’s also a frequent guest pastor at churches around the country, as well as a speaker and workshop leader for hospitals, businesses and schools.
Her sermons are often humorous (“Lord Grant Me Patience—and Make it Snappy”), but wise. In “Trust Jesus and Elvis,” she explains what Christians can learn from the King. “Elvis fans believe the King lives, baby—there are sightings every day, from a beach in Singapore to a Burger King in Detroit,” Sparks says. “If only Christians had that kind of faith.”
Laughter is the GPS system of the soul, Sparks says. “Humor offers a revolutionary yet simple spiritual paradigm. If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others. Laughter heals and grounds us in a place of hope. It fosters intimacy and honesty in our relationships with each other and with God. And isn’t that what grace is all about?”