Finding Joy by Laughing with Phil Callaway (Part 1)

John FarrellBy John Farrell13 Minutes

John Farrell: What was your inspiration for writing Under Par and Laugh Like a Kid Again?

Phil Callaway: Under Par was written over several years of getting relatively good at golf and being known as a humorist and speaking at a lot of golf tournaments. People wanted to hear from me about the topic of golf.

My forte is simply to tell stories so that’s what I’ve done in Under Par. They’re stories of golf from many perspectives. I think it’s sort of this picture of the spiritual life for me. It’s a walk; it’s not a sprint. It’s frustrating. I often need mulligans. I need God’s grace so badly in my life so I keep circling back to that and telling stories of grace that has been extended from other people to me and, of course, from God to me. And with the background of humor, it seems to help.

We get quite an amazing response to the books I think partly because of the humor, but also mixing that with hope and with joy.

Laugh Like a Kid Again was actually a response directly to a woman who, just before I got up to speak, came over to me, lifted her denim sleeve, and showed me her wrists. She was in her mid-twenties, I think, and scars were on it. Some of them were very fresh. She said, “I listened to you on the radio. I would not be alive if it weren’t for your ministry. Would you please put it in a book?”

So, what I did was I compiled short stories of joy amid hard times. It really was a response to someone who knew that laughter is a little bit like a windshield wiper. It doesn’t stop the rain, but it keeps you going.

It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve written 27 books and I have never experienced the volume of responses that I did with this one. People order them by the dozen to give to friends who are going through tough times. That’s been very gratifying.

JF: How do these two books differ and how are they similar to other books that you’ve written in the past?

Phil: They’re similar in a way that I began as a comedian—as a humorist. I began writing stories of family. Life was funny, and life was good. Suddenly, my wife began having grand mals seizures every half hour for a very long time. She was down to 90 pounds. I didn’t see how she was going to live. So, life took a different turn.

I had to really pursue … I’m not saying get serious but pursue a relationship with Jesus. And that more than anything else is what has gotten me through the difficult times. It hasn’t been laughter, though that’s a wonderful thing and a wonderful gift of God. It’s been coming up against hardship that forces us to go in one of two directions. One often seems to push people away from God. And in our case, it really pushed Him closer to us or us closer to Him.

So, with both of these books, Under Par and Laugh Like a Kid Again, I think that makes sense when you’re reading them. You understand. The humor that I use is clean. I think it’s funny humor. I’ve seen people laugh so hard that they couldn’t sit up. They fell off chairs while listening to me speak. That’s been gratifying, but in the midst of it all, it came from a place of wanting to know, “How do I find that joy?” And apparently other people have found it the same way.

The Importance of Laughter

JF: Would you say that’s the overall message you hope readers take from your books?

Phil: Yeah, it is—a message of God’s grace because I grew up in a very legalistic setting where people didn’t laugh a whole lot. Our church was not known as a place of laughter though there was tremendous truth and I’m very thankful for that. But I was well acquainted with cranky Christians and have come to a place of realizing that God is not this God who is up there with a lightning bolt ready to zap us. He is rather wild about us, and He loves it when we experience the joy that He has intended for us. That was a long time coming from me.

Here I am now with 13 grandchildren, and if you don’t laugh when you have 13 grandchildren in five years, you’re in trouble. They help me laugh. It’s just been crazy. We were just with them yesterday and Sophie, who’s five, was praying for her dad and said, “Dear Jesus, take daddy’s headache away and give it to Satan.” I started laughing. I don’t know where these things come from sometimes, but it’s very interesting to me.

We’ve never done this before. It’s usually the publisher that puts them in so many stores and all, but we’ve sent out over a thousand copies of Laugh Like a Kid Again because we’ve all experienced that life is funnier when we’re kids. They say that the average child laughs 200 times a day, but by the time we’re the average adult, we’re down to four laughs a day. I don’t know who studies this stuff. That would be nice to be paid to study that.

This definitely hits a chord with people when you say, “Here we are. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. We’re in the midst of whatever it is each one of us is facing and life is hard. So where do we go from there?” I think that’s really behind much of my writing. I keep circling back to that and people appreciate, I think, my honesty and forthrightness because I don’t always have it figured out, but God is with us. And because of that, we have joy. His promises we hang on to and in the midst of struggling, we have the promise from a God who has defeated death that we’re going to be with him for eternity. That keeps me going and keeps me writing and very appreciative when people seem to resonate with that message.

JF: Why is laughter so important in today’s world and maybe even more so in today’s society with all that’s going on around us?

Phil: Great question. As a background to my answer, I would say this, I finished Laugh Like a Kid Again a year ago having no idea what was ahead. But in hindsight, I was writing about anxiety and fear quite a bit. I think because I was experiencing that with certain things going on in my life. But I think it has resonated just because that is a big part of the message of scripture—God gets his kids back in the end, but I’ll tell you it’s quite a fight.

The Bible contains, I believe, humor. We could get into that, but it also contains tragedy and sorrow with a backdrop of triumphant joy. We see that when the giant Goliath proves that anyone who mocks God has rocks in his head and we hear it in the words of Jesus who is facing death and tells his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble.” He doesn’t say “be of good fear.” He says, “be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.” And because he did that, we have reason to rejoice, even to laugh. That, in a nutshell, is the message.

I think each ministry needs to weigh its effectiveness during times of difficulty because if we’re just preaching something that says, “Everything’s going to be wonderful the rest of your life” it doesn’t come from the Bible. If on the other hand, we have a proper view of suffering that can drive us to have more compassion for others then we will experience a little more humility when we’re dealing with hardship and looking for opportunities to spread that joy … to spread the hope that we have found. It just changes everything—the hope that we have.

I keep coming back to that and I’m sure you have during this time too where you just say, “Where would we be without the hope of Christ in the midst of all that’s going on?” When we turn the news on, the anchor bids us a good evening, then spends three hours telling us why it isn’t. I think a lot of people are just shutting the news off. They tell me, “We’re reading this book, and it is a great alternative.” It’s an interesting thing in the midst of all that we’re dealing with.

Once again, one of our grandchildren was looking down the stairs recently and said that there’s darkness down there. When a little kid says these words to you, you kind of go, “Ha, that’s funny.” And then when you think about it, you go, “Yeah, there is. This is a dark old world right now.” It’s a little bit frightening to introduce these children to the world.

We just had one born two weeks ago and I held that little girl, Hattie, in my arms. I repeated an old song Twila Paris sang years ago, “God is in control. We believe that his children will not be forsaken. There is no power above or beside him. We know God is in control.” That message means more in difficulty than ever before.

Order your copy of Under Par: Celebrating Life’s Great Moments On and off the Golf Course by Phil Callaway

Order your copy of Laugh Like a Kid Again: Live without Regret and Leave Footsteps Worth Following by Phil Callaway