Susan Sparks: When religion and humor intersect

By Linda Bloom

Susan Sparks at NYC Chapter meeting (photo by Bud Heckman)

Susan Sparks has made a career – make that several careers – at the intersection of religion and humor.

Her philosophy, honed through a personal journey that has taken her from trial lawyer to standup comedian to pastor, is a simple one:

"If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself and if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others."

Sparks, who leads the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Manhattan and still occasionally takes the stage, was the featured speaker at the Sept. 20 lunch meeting of the New York Chapter of the Religion Communicators Council. The event took place at the Episcopal Center, not far from where world leaders were convening at the United Nations.

She kept her audience chuckling but also touched on more sobering situations – encountering a deaf and blind child at an orphanage who loved to "feel" laughter and receiving a diagnosis for breast cancer. In that instance, humor "was the reminder that what I was going through was not who I was."

Laughter gives perspective, Sparks pointed out, but also helps you remember we're just human. "We (the human race) are 99.99 percent the same, which means all the things we're fighting over that .01 percent."

The problem, she added, is "our inability to forgive" that tiny bit of difference.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Sparks has performed in the interfaith Laugh in Peace tour with Rabbi Bob Alper and Muslim Comic Aman Ali. "That tour is something that allows us to see life, to see the .commonality of it all," she said, noting that their audiences leave “with a different view of the other.”

Susan Sparks at NYC Chapter meeting (photo by Ryan John Koch)

Sparks shared her Ten Commandments of Standup Comedy with New York RCC members.

The first commandment to edit, “the longer the setup, the bigger the punchline must be” – based on “an old saying in standup” – is the most important, she said.

Sparks, a Union Theological Seminary graduate, currently is working on a book called "Preaching Punchlines" about the power of humor as a rhetorical tool. Her book, Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor, was named one of the best spirituality books of 2010.

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