CRYSTAL LAKE, IL–Despite his deep commitment to the sanctity and seriousness of the Word of God, Pastor Clark Lundegaard likes to incorporate a little humor into his weekly sermons, the spiritual leader of Holy Christ Almighty Lutheran Church admitted Sunday.
"Humor is a great way to reach people. Often, at the start of a sermon, I'll drop a little joke in there just to set people at ease," said Lundegaard, 54. "After all, the church isn't just about dogma, obedience, doctrine, and the maintenance of strict proprietary standards–it's also about having fun."
Examples of Lundegaard's humorous antics abound. On a recent Sunday, the reading was Ezekiel 6:14, in which God angrily tells the prophet, "And I shall stretch forth my hand upon them: and I shall make the land desolate and abandoned, from the desert of Deblatha, in all their dwelling places: and they shall know that I am the Lord thy God." To offset the stern passage, Lundegaard "lightened things up a bit" with a humorous story.
"He told a joke about a Norwegian, a Dutchman, and a German who were ice fishing when they heard a booming, angry voice from above telling them that there were no fish under the ice," said Patricia Dundee, 36, Holy Christ Almighty choir director and mother of four. "It turned out, the voice wasn't God at all; it was a loudspeaker saying, 'This is the rink manager. There are no fish under the ice!' So we all had a little laugh over that one."
"Because you'd have to be pretty silly to try ice fishing in a skating rink," Dundee added.
Dundee's husband Bill enjoyed the joke, as well. "The nice thing about it was that lots of us here at the church are German or Dutch, but since Pastor Clark himself is Norwegian, he wasn't just poking fun at us, but at himself, too."
When he first arrived at Holy Christ Almighty in 1984, Lundegaard stirred controversy among parishioners with his unorthodox use of humor. But over time, a majority of the flock has come to appreciate his slightly irreverent approach.
"Pastor Clark is a real cut-up up there in the pulpit," said Grace Manheim, 67. "Some of his jokes can be pretty corny at times, but as long as it doesn't get in the way of the sermon's message or undermine the solemnity of the Bible lessons for the day, I don't see anything wrong with it."
"Oh, sure, often during services, you might hear a big, collective groan from the congregation once they see what's coming," said Lundegaard, who also enjoys drawing comical "parody" cartoons for the church bulletin. "But even though they sometimes act like they hate my jokes, I know that deep down, they really love it."
Humor also comes in handy for Lundegaard during the special "children's sermon" portion of the service, during which the youngest church members are called up to the front to sit in a circle on the floor as Lundegaard speaks to them directly. Though many children are nervous at first, the pastor's use of humor helps "break the ice."
"A few months ago, when Pastor Clark did a children's sermon about baptism, he put on a little puppet show, and the puppets got blasted with one of those big super-soaker squirt guns," churchgoer Fran Helger said. "Our three-year-old just loved it."
"Boy, nobody saw that one coming," said Lundegaard when asked about the incident. "It was a real 'laugh riot,' as the young people say." Though he admitted that some of the older church members felt it was a little inappropriate to have squirt guns in church, Lundegaard said that if a joke works, one shouldn't shy away from mildly controversial material.
"Speaking of children's sermons, here's a funny little story for you," Lundegaard said. "This pastor was talking to a group of kids and, to illustrate a point, he asked, 'Does anybody know what's small, furry, has a bushy tail, and runs up trees looking for nuts?' All the kids were silent but, finally, one little boy said, 'Well, I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!'"
Lundegaard then laughed good-naturedly for 15 to 20 seconds.
"That's a good one!" he added. "Isn't that a cute one?"
Lundegaard's wife, homemaker Patty Lundegaard, who has heard the humorous anecdote an estimated 1,400 times over the course of their 26-year marriage, groaned audibly.
Despite Lundegaard's standing as a community leader and man of God, his humor is not always 100 percent wholesome. Parishioners say that during social outings, in the presence of couples he knows well or if he's had a few glasses of wine, he will tell the occasional "blue," or dirty, joke as long as there are no children nearby.
"I had no idea there were so many religious-themed dirty jokes, but Pastor Clark's got a million of them," said Len Branniff, church-council treasurer and Lundegaard's longtime golfing buddy. "Like the one about the elderly Lutheran who got a waterbed, and his wife called it 'The Dead Sea.' Or the one he told me about the dizzy blonde who went to church because she heard there was a guy in there that was hung like this–"
Branniff then outstretched his arms in the posture of the crucified Christ, visually delivering the joke's risqué punchline.
"Sure, it's a bit off-color," Branniff said, "but nobody here in town questions Pastor Clark's sincere love of Jesus or his commitment to the church's mission. His jokes are a big part of fostering fellowship here at Holy Christ Almighty."
For all his joking, Lundegaard stressed that the most important humor is that which has meaning and can help people understand the mysteries of faith in ways they can apply to their everyday lives.
"Sometimes, when confronted with the majesty and mystery of God's vast creation, we can get a little overwhelmed. That's where jokes can help us keep our feet on the ground and bring the whole process down to Earth," Lundegaard said. "It's like the time Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went camping. There they were, staring up at the stars, and Sherlock asked, 'Watson, what does this beautiful sight mean to you? What can we learn from this?' Well, Watson thought about it as hard as he could and, finally, he said, 'Well, Holmes, it means we are all just insignificant dots in a larger whole, and that even though the universe may be unfathomable, there is a larger plan,' and this and that, on and on, until he was so confused he didn't know what to think. Finally, Watson gave up and said, 'What do you think, Holmes?'"
"And Holmes said, 'Elementary, my dear Watson,'" Lundegaard said. "'It means somebody stole our tent."
Lundegaard then laughed for several seconds, adding, "Ain't it the truth, though?" with a sly wink.