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Why So Serious?

An excerpt from Chapter 2 of Happy Now: Let Playfulness Lift Your Load & Renew Your Spirit by Courtney Ellis.

Published on:
August 3, 2021
Read time:
11 min.
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I take myself too seriously, probably because I’m a human being. –Maeve Higgins

“How’d your doctor’s appointment go?” my husband Daryl asked as he loaded the dishwasher.

“Oh, fine,” I said. “He’s sending me to an audiologist for tests since the ringing in my ear might signal hearing loss.” I passed him a handful of spoons from the sink.

“Any idea what’s causing it?” 

“Probably a virus. Or an autoimmune reaction. Or maybe—ha ha—a brain tumor.”

“Ha ha,” he said. We both fell silent.

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With three kids and three jobs between us, Daryl and I don’t go to the doctor unless we discover a really weird mole or break a bone. So when my right ear started ringing—a loud, unyielding, high A-flat—I ignored it. It didn’t hurt. Plus, our two oldest were late for swim lessons. 

But when my nearly deaf grandmother and I went out for lunch and she asked why I kept yelling—I couldn’t hear her over the din of the restaurant—I figured it was time for a checkup. 

An audiologist confirmed my hearing loss and sent me back to the original doc, who ran again through the list of possible causes. The autoimmune reaction was rare. 

“It could be a virus,” he said. “But you haven’t been sick. At this point—” 

“I’m thirty-six years old,” I protested. “Are you really saying I might have a—” my voice dropped to a whisper “—brain tumor?” 

He waited a beat. Looked me straight in the eye. 

“Premature,” he said at last. “We need more tests.” 

Daryl and I serve together as pastors at a Presbyterian church. We talk a lot about the grace God gives when we finally accept that we don’t control our lives. The beauty we discover as we learn to sit with uncertainty and embrace almost indescribable things like trust and hope. 

Yet God-as-mystery can feel cruel. In the Bible, outside of Jesus—God made human—God tends to show up veiled, hidden, shrouded. God appears in a burning bush, a cloud, a whisper. Frequently God sends messengers rather than going personally—angels, prophets, and in one particularly bizarre case, a donkey. 

Most often, God says nothing. God waits; we wait. The psalmist rails against this cosmic pause, writing: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?”13 How can we trust one who is so often inscrutable? So often silent? 

After thirty years of practicing the faith I was preaching, perhaps I should have been more comfortable living in the mist. Daryl and I were no strangers to waiting: from the small infinity between when I was ready to get engaged and when he proposed, to the achingly long weeks of nauseous pregnancy, to the seemingly eternally sleepless Kingdom of Newbornlandia. For half a decade, Daryl inched closer to finishing a PhD. For months, we waited for the church we’d fallen in love with to offer us an interview to be their pastors. For an entire decade, I pitched the same book proposal to publishers, a proposal which never made it past the opening salvo. (Sometimes waiting is just folly.) 

Still, as we waited together for a definitive diagnosis, mundane mishaps started to appear like symptoms of my impending doom. When I tripped on a Lego or forgot a parishioner’s name or erupted in a shout because one of the kids splattered spaghetti sauce for the third time in a single meal, an icy vise of fear gripped my chest. It didn’t help that the effects of kid-induced sleep deprivation and those of a brain tumor look essentially the same. 

“It’s going to be fine,” Daryl told me as I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. A leak in our air conditioner or a scratch on our car send him spiraling into panic and despair, but when the big, scary things of life hit, he is solid and unafraid. His faith wavers in the small stuff; mine falters in the big. 

“Easy for you to say,” I said. “If it is a tumor, complications include facial paralysis, deafness, balance issues, personality changes, and memory loss. On the other side of this, you’ll still be you. I don’t know who I will be.” 

He rolled over and took my hand, his beard wiry-soft against my cheek. 

“Don’t live there yet,” he said. 

I asked for healing and prayed for courage, but mostly I just sat there, quietly bewildered. Waiting.

As the days ticked toward my upcoming MRI—the test that would reveal God-in-the-cloud, giving us the answers we sought and maybe also the one we feared—our six-year-old needed to renew his library books. Our three-year-old built forts with every single pillow in the house. Our baby cooed and smiled and rubbed applesauce in her hair until tufts stuck out like feathers. 

We held our worry close, not yet ready to receive the well- intentioned anxieties of family and friends and congregants. The life of our church—worship services and funerals, Holy Yoga and AA meetings, English classes and Spanish classes and Sunday school—went on. We preached. Parented. Persevered. 

For weeks, I snuck away from my office midday to pray in a nearby Catholic church where no one knew me or that I was a pastor. Its bubbling fountain masked the A-flat; its flickering candles reminded me that I was not alone in my prayers; and its giant crucifix just beyond the altar showed me a God who wasn’t just silence and mystery, but blood and bone. I asked for healing and prayed for courage, but mostly I just sat there, quietly bewildered. Waiting. 

“Take a nap,” Daryl would say on Saturdays, gently nudging me toward our bedroom. If I hesitated, not wanting to give in to my deepest fear, he’d add, “It doesn’t matter why you’re tired.” 

In marriage, we pledged to love each other in sickness and in health, but what if this sickness would alter me until I was unrecognizable? How many blocks could be pulled from my tower of self until our marriage would crumble, Jenga-style? Unconditional acceptance is a beautiful sentiment, but I fell in love with a very specific person. I didn’t walk down the aisle to Daryl just because he was tall, or because of the tender way he held my face between his hands the first time he kissed me, or because of his passion for ideas and Jesus and good guacamole and well-polished shoes. But in another very real sense, I did. 

My singing voice first turned his head when we met as eighteen-year-olds in our college chapel. He asked me out on our first date because of our nerdy banter about literature, the crossword puzzles sticking out of my backpack, my abject failure at nearly all things math. Each quality that drew him to me was now in jeopardy from the tumor I was now almost certain I had. 

Except being bad at math. I’d probably get to keep that. 

Whether or not I had a tumor, how could I find my way back to the country of delight?

I faced a terrifying question I’d never considered before: if my life was about to change irreversibly, what regrets did I have about how I’d been living up until this point? Our family life was loving and stable, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing: an absence of an essential, biblical thing that would differentiate the mundane from the profoundly holy. 

We were missing delight. I’d been so busy working toward academic degrees and having babies and nurturing a church and chasing book dreams that somewhere along the way, I’d lost joy. I’d been trying so hard to serve God, I’d stopped just being with him, soaking in his love for me. I’d been working so diligently at maintaining a household and a marriage that I’d stopped being truly present to either. The proverbial trains were all running on schedule, but they were all headed to work. 

I began to ponder. Whether or not I had a tumor, how could I find my way back to the country of delight? 

Days later, as I lay on the table, magnets clunking and whirring around my head, contrast-dye running into my veins, it hit me that I never would actually know. I might have a brain tumor; I might not. But the only certainty was that if Daryl and I lived long enough, there would be another day like this one for each of us, another season of chilling questions and foggy waiting. Life is uncertain. God is often hidden. But here’s the thing: we are called toward joy anyway. Right now. Right here. 

And joy, like all deep and beautiful and true things, is built on the intimate trust that God is who he says he is and will do what he says he will do, though storms will rage. Hope rests on the belief that, entwined with God and one another, we can somehow be strong enough to withstand winds that would fell us on our own, and say even in the midst of the howling gale, “It is well, it is well with my soul.” 

I didn’t know how to begin saying this again. I’d said it as a child—not in so many words, but in an innate spirit of playfulness and trust, openness and delight. I witnessed this same spirit in my own children now, how effortlessly they’d celebrate, how quickly they’d move on from mistakes and scrapes, the ease with which they’d arrive at wonder, at awe, at connection. How could I rejoice again? I wasn’t sure, but I knew one thing for certain: brain tumor or no brain tumor, I had to try. 

A Communal Struggle 

I wasn’t the only one struggling to find happiness. Our culture has collectively swallowed the terrible myth that we must take almost everything—our lives, our work, our politics, our faith, our very selves—absolutely seriously. “My worry dolls are exhausted,” joked comedian Aparna Nanchurla.14 Hers aren’t alone. The majority of us are rowing the same boat of seriousness, together towing a humorless culture devoid of joy, unmoored from hope, and somber from stem to stern. 

By seriousness, I mean a rigid, somber gravitas, a sense of over-responsibility, a desire to control, an unwillingness to experiment, and a profound fear of failure.

The statistics bear this out. Despite living in one of the wealthiest countries on earth, Americans are among the most anxious people on the planet. Notes Harvard Professor Arthur Brooks, “One of the greatest paradoxes in American life is that while, on average, existence has gotten more comfortable over time, happiness has fallen.”15 According to a Gallup study, “Americans were more likely to be stressed and worried than much of the world. [America] beat the global average by a full 20 percentage points. The U.S. even ties statistically with Greece, which has led the world on this measure every year since 2012.”16 You guys, we tied with Greece at long last! Hip, hip, hoor—oh, wait. 

Perhaps a definition may be helpful here. When I write of seriousness, I do not mean weightiness, earnestness, or thoughtfulness. Truth has weight to it. Earnestness can be defined as doing one’s best out of genuine care and concern. Thoughtfulness is never not a good thing. Each of those is profoundly important, with shades of deep Christian virtue. But seriousness is a bird of a different feather. By seriousness, I mean a rigid, somber gravitas, a sense of over-responsibility, a desire to control, an unwillingness to experiment, and a profound fear of failure. Seriousness makes its bed with anxiety, anger, and frustration. It 

is a false grownupness that traps and binds us. It views even small matters as hills to die on. It is the opposite of wisdom, knowledge, and grace. It is utterly devoid of the whimsy, joy, and freedom of humor. It can also (obviously) make us pretty cranky and unpleasant to be around. As a quote most often attributed to actress Eileen Brennan goes, “If we can’t laugh at ourselves and the human condition, we’re going to be mean.” 

A Church Without Play 

Tragically, Christians all too often succumb to the myth that church should be the most humorless of all places and its congregants the most somber of all people. I wish I could say that pastors were immune to this unfortunate belief, but we have all too often modeled it with gusto. We tell our folks, whether implicitly or in so many words: Sit down. Keep still. Arrange your facial features into appropriate reverence. Shhhhhhhhh. Above all, remember that this is serious

While we may feel that we owe it to our churches and our Savior to take things seriously, in truth, when we create a humorless culture, everyone suffers. When organizations fail to embrace the creative practices of invitation, permission, and release, they develop increasingly destructive patterns. According to Edwin Friedman, “The relationship between anxiety and seriousness is so predictable that the absence of playfulness in any institution—including church—is almost always a clue” to its unhealth. 27 Faith leaders who encourage playfulness stoke spiritual growth, increase organizational health, and help to free God’s people from the stuckness of seriousness. 

Maybe if churches were a little bit more like high dives, we’d all be in a better place.

The other seriousness trap common to congregations comes when we begin to seek passive amusement from our worship, rather than encounter with the living God. This consumerism feeds seriousness in its own right, as churchgoers begin to see themselves as observers of the kingdom—commenting on spiritual things from a safe distance—rather than participants in it. We simply can’t have it both ways. The Gospel is not observational; it’s personal, all-encompassing, totally immersive. As Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3, “Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over- the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.”28 

Nicodemus wants to dip a toe in the metaphorical water, but Jesus waves to him from the top of the thirty-foot platform dive. Nicodemus is afraid of heights and would much rather just watch, thank you. Yet Jesus is too wild and kind to leave Nicodemus—or us—shivering by the edge of the pool. He beckons us higher in order to call us in deeper. It may feel safe on the sidelines, but all the fun is to be had in the pool, and it’s only when we let go, dive in, and submerge ourselves in the shimmering waters that we begin to learn that God will always keep us afloat. 

Maybe if churches were a little bit more like high dives, we’d all be in a better place. What if, as the writer Aarik Danielsen so beautifully put it, “They knew we were Christians by our play?”29 

Joining In 

Knowing I wasn’t alone in my struggles with seriousness, I sent out an SOS to a dozen friends asking what they did for fun and whether they’d be willing to invite me to join them, hoping that playing with them would help spark a playful change in me. It took a while to get answers back from most, both because they didn’t think I actually meant it, and because I tend to befriend people who have also become boring-and-serious-adults. Like attracts like, and all that. Plus, to be honest, Super Fun People™ kind of terrify me. 

Little by little, my friends’ responses to my email trickled in. I was invited to go mountain biking, beach walking, line dancing, and boogie boarding. Folks sent me their favorite book recommendations and challenged me to bedazzle cement farm animals and leave them in my neighbors’ yards. A couple of young adults took me to an archery range. Our babysitter told me to climb a tree. 

When the responses started to slow, I took matters into my own hands, cornering my friend Kassy in the church parking lot and asking her to take me surfing. 

“I’m afraid of sharks,” I told her. 

“No problem,” she said.

“I’m not a great swimmer,” I said. 

“That’s okay.” 

“I don’t actually even want to go,” I said. 

“It’s fine,” she said. Kassy is built straight out of kindness. “Really. I will take you.” 

But mostly I received the same basic response from people over and over again: that by and large, my friends had forgotten how to play; that they weren’t even sure what to make of the question. That they used to have fun, when they were kids or back in college, but then life became very life-y, draining both the time and the energy for playfulness. 

There is a distinct and important difference between simply not doing anything wrong and living into the fullness of life that God sets before us.

I reflected upon the fact that I wasn’t doing anything wrong—not really—spending my days serving my church, nurturing my marriage, tending to my children, trying to exercise and eat well and roll the trash cans in from the curb on time. But even with my earnest desire to faithfully follow Jesus in every area of my life, my happiness had largely vanished, replaced instead with a task-oriented drudgery, producing a series of utilitarian, grey days blending into one another without a spark of color. 

So what gives? 

Well, here’s the thing: there is a distinct and important difference between simply not doing anything wrong and living into the fullness of life that God sets before us. When God sets Adam and Eve in the garden amidst gorgeous flora and peaceful fauna, he proclaims it good. When God sings over the lovers in Song of Songs, he invites them to drink deeply. When Jesus speaks to his weary followers, he begs them to come to him, the master whose burden is light. We are not given the gift of life to spend it by simply avoiding the bad. We are called to embrace and seek after the good with all that we are. This is our one pass through this earthly veil, and we might ask what we will do with these priceless, fleeting, finite days. Our answer must not be: “The dishes. Mostly the dishes. And usually with a chip on my shoulder.” 

But then, what must our answer be? 

I had many more questions than answers. Questions like: how do we jettison this soul-sick seriousness and rediscover God’s gift of joy? Is it even possible? Is adulthood simply enduring until we die? Or is there something better—something more? 

I was beginning to suspect that there was. And that it was even better than I had hoped. 

Editors Note: You can purchase Courtney's full book now. 

Courtney Ellis
Courtney Ellis is a Presbyterian pastor, speaker, and author of UnclutteredAlmost Holy Mama, and Happy Now: Let the power of play lift your load and renew your spirit. She lives in California with her husband, kids, and a stash of candy that’s constantly running low. You can follow her on TwitterFacebook, or over on her blog www.courtneybellis.com.

Excerpt used by permission of Rose Publishing.

Cover image by Ines Pimentel.

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