Stairs, Elevators, and Empty Bowls of Ice Cream

Unitarian jokes
I love a good Unitarian joke.

My favorite is the one about how the last time “Jesus Christ” was heard in a Unitarian Universalist church was when the janitor fell down the stairs.  For some reason that one just never gets old.

What I love most about UU jokes is that they aren’t just about making each other laugh, they also tell a story about our faith in a way that our silly “elevator speeches” cannot. A good Unitarian joke tells a story about who we are and how we do things; it gives our religion character and puts our faith into context for us and for those who have no clue about who we are.

This is probably why I shamelessly brag every time I hear a well-played Unitarian jab on TV.  Just tune into an occasional episode of “The Simpsons” to see what I mean.  For some reason equating Unitarianism to an empty bowl of ice cream makes me feel so… loved.  I mean, it is one thing for Garrison Keillor to make fun of UUs; you make a Unitarian reference on NPR and it is pretty safe to assume that a good 75% of the listening audience are members of a UU congregation, and the rest probably would be if they absolutely had to join a church.  But if the writers for “The Simpsons” believe that their viewing audience knows enough about our religion and our quirks to actually laugh at us, I’ll take it.  It makes me feel famous. It pleases me to think that we are culturally significant enough for people to make fun of us.  It means we aren’t totally invisible.

In a recent UU World article, Doug Muder addresses the problem of our invisibility as he talks about the difficulties of explaining our faith within the time constraints of an elevator ride.  He points out that, for the most part, our dominate culture has no frame of reference for Unitarian Universalism, and we are left with nothing left to do but to give our listeners a laundry list of religious ideas that we have rejected over time.

The problem with the whole elevator speech idea is that, while this is a great exercise for personal theological reflection, Unitarian Universalism does not and cannot exist in the vacuum of an elevator shaft.  The beauty of who we are is lost if we do not include a glimpse into what our faith means to us and how we are everyday. Our faith has evolved over time and will continue to do so, and explaining Unitarian Universalism should never be the same at any two given moments as told from two different people.  Context is so important to who we are because we are always striving to discover the most “right” thing for us and our world at that time.

If people want to know how to define “Unitarian Universalism,” then they can look it up in a dictionary; but it probably won’t tell them what they want to know.  If someone wants to know what our faith means to you and our world, I suggest taking the stairs and rambling off a few good UU jokes.

Give yourself permission to laugh at the fact that our churches often feel called to involve about three committees and two subcommittees in the decision of how, when, and why to change a light bulb (and those of you who are involved with the Green Sanctuary Program know what I am talking about).  But be sure to take the time to lift up that it is so funny because we really do earnestly recognize the impact of one little light bulb and we do our best to honor the voice of every person that is connected to it.  This says a whole lot about our faith.  I truly believe that it is what we do that leaves a lasting impression on those who don’t know us.  And to most of the world, especially to those who will converse with someone of a different faith during an elevator ride, our theology (or lack thereof) makes no difference.

Our “essence of UU,” or our “UU-ness”, if you will, comes out in our jokes and in the stories of our everyday lives of how we are together at home.  Our faith shines when we share that many of our congregations do not talk about Jesus much, if at all, (even if you do), and that UUs are known to celebrate about 5 different winter holidays.  You may even let it slip that UU communion takes place at coffee hour and our potlucks are second to none, and then find yourself accompanying a guest to your church next Sunday.

Besides that, laughter is a great spiritual practice and it is good to learn to laugh at yourself a bit (and at the quirks of our faith, for that matter).

So if you find yourself getting a little too upset when someone makes a joke about how many UUs it takes to change a light bulb or you start to become a little too overly concerned for that mythical janitor that fell down the stairs, relax and remember that our jokes play a vital role in creating our UU culture and help us share our light, if not our lightheartedness, with the rest of the world.  We have plenty of time to be serious in the name of making change in our world, and if I have to share one thing with someone during a ride on an elevator, it should be a good laugh.