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Clowns in Ministry?

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One creative communication of gospel concepts in contemporary terms is clown ministry. In 1983 I attended a clown-ministry workshop, and the clown within me was born. When a friend and I started clowning in local religious settings, we found few helpful published skits. All the skits we performed we created ourselves. We wished we could buy a large published collection of skits to use as a resource.

Those wishes and skits were the seeds for writing The Gospel in Greasepaint.

"But what do clowns have to do with church?" you may ask. "Don't clowns belong in a circus?"

Yes, clowns bring a vital act to a circus. In a circus we can marvel at, but not really identify with high-wire performers or lion tamers. Their skills, daring, and experiences are beyond us. We can, however, easily relate to the clowns. Clowns are the bumblers who identify our own faults and weaknesses. Clowns are the servants, with no apparent power, who put themselves down in order to lift others up.

Clown figureClowns as servants can also be found at a rodeo. At the rodeo, clowns are always playing around, but they serve a critical function. When a cowboy is thrown from a bull, clowns are responsible for distracting the bull until the cowboy can safely get away. In their imitation of the bull and hiding in the barrel, the clowns become a kind of "savior," risking their own lives to save the life of a cowboy.

Clowns have not always been just in circuses and rodeos. Prior to the 12th century, the clown symbol was often used in the church community. Clowns provided comic relief, they acted out gospel meanings, they "held up mirrors" for people to see themselves. When they parodied the abuse of indulgences and other forms of church corruption, they were accused of being satanic and eventually cast out of the church. Excommunication and condemnation is an old tool of religious groups. Centuries earlier the Pharisees and chief priests accused Jesus of being satanic and eventually had him killed.

Jesus would have loved clowns. Jesus used dramatic symbols and parables to teach people about the kingdom of God. Jesus took on human flesh, walked among us, and died on the cross to show God's great love for us. In a world saturated with words, clowns show rather than tell. Clowns can act out symbols and parables of life, death, and resurrection. Clowns are one method of visually demonstrating what being a Christian means. Clowns can dramatize the gospel in greasepaint.

The visual picture of a clown's face has religious significance. A white face is a universal symbol of death. Color is a symbol of life. A clown's color applied over white symbolizes life triumphing over death in the resurrection.

Clowns can justify their actions by quoting 1 Corinthians 4:10, "We are fools for Christ," and 2 Corinthians 11:1, "I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness." Foolishness may not always be what it seems. God's wisdom may not always seem rational or wise to us. 1 Corinthians 1:25 says, "The foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom." God's wisdom does not always seem rational or wise to us. Jesus told his followers to do very strange things such as loving your enemies, giving your money away, and dying in order to live. The wisdom of God's apparent foolishness can be dramatized by clowns.

Clowns can serve as symbols for Christian paradoxes. One such paradox is that hope always follows tragedy. In tragedy there is only defeat. In comedy there is defeat followed by victory, there is a fall followed by a lifting up. In that sense the gospel is a comedy. Grief and tears are followed by joy and laughter. Death is followed by resurrection. The clown demonstrates resurrection. "The clown is constantly defeated, tricked, and tromped upon," wrote theologian Harvey Cox. "He is infinitely vulnerable, but never finally defeated." No matter what happens the clown rises and comes back for more.

Clowns help us laugh at sorrow and defeat. Laughter counteracts fear, anger, and depression. Laughter is good medicine for body and soul.

Read "Shepherd Saves Silly Sheep," an excerpt from the book
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