Bruce Larson on Joy: Let Go of Your Balloon

Some years ago we were doing a renewal conference in a great Gothic cathedral-like Presbyterian church in Omaha. As people came in they were given a balloon filled with helium. They were told to release it at some point in the service when they felt like expressing joy in their hearts””during the anthem, the hymns, the prayers or the sermon. Since they were Presbyterians, they were not free to say “Hallelujah,” or “Praise the Lord.” Letting go of the balloon would represent praise going up to God. So all through the service, brightly colored balloons were rising up to bounce off the ceiling, visual signs of praise to the Lord. But oddly enough, when the service was over, about a third of those balloons were still left unreleased. Those Presbyterians either felt no joy, or, feeling it, could not bring themselves to express it. You may have had parents who have hung onto their balloons. They can’t rejoice at your birth if they are unable to rejoice at all. At John [the Baptist’s] birth, parents and neighbors alike released their balloons.

–Bruce Larson, Luke: The Preacher’s Commentary, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002), p.43


Posted in Pastoral Theology, Theology, Theology: Scripture

13 comments on “Bruce Larson on Joy: Let Go of Your Balloon

  1. MarkP says:

    “either felt no joy, or, feeling it, could not bring themselves to express it”

    I think I know just what they were feeling. When they felt joy, they thought, “this is great, but maybe there will another moment down the road which I’ll enjoy even more!” When they got to the end of the service, they looked back a little wistfully at all the moments of joy they had missed the chance to celebrate, but at least they had a balloon.

  2. Clueless says:

    Why is it necessary to force people to advertise their inner communion with God? Why a helium balloon, anyway? Why not simply require everybody to wear large flashing lights that say “I’m happy, I’m sad, I need a hug, I am having a momment of awesome intimacy with the Lord?

    Are these people really so narcissistic that they cannot imagine that some folks just go to church to pray rather than to have “happenings” with whatever loony clique comes up with these ideas?

    If somebody handed me a stupid balloon at the beginning of the Mass it would:

    1. Automatically decrease my happiness because instead of allowing me to focus on what God it telling me, I would be focussing on my inner happiness barometer, trying to figure out how “joyous” I felt.
    2. Be a distraction from the dignity and solemnity of Christ Cruicified, sharing his Body with us.

    Me, if they gave me a stupid balloon, I would either release it immediately so as to be able to get on with the service saying “I’m happy right now”, or else I would tie it to the rail until the service ended so it would be less of a distraction.

  3. Terry Tee says:

    This alleged analysis in censorious mode of what people felt during a liturgy is one of the silliest things I have read.

  4. evan miller says:

    I’m with you, Clueless.

  5. Catholic Mom says:

    Maybe they just don’t like being manipulated? And why are we picking on the Presbyterians?

  6. J. Champlin says:

    Obviously predates the awareness that releasing helium balloons is harmful to other living things (although I suppose it was OK, since it was inside). Still, this is so obviously a period piece as to be pretty much depressing and nothing else. In addition to seconding all the comments already made, I am struck by the glaring contrast to the far more sensitive reflection from C.S. Lewis (“Notable and Quotable” above) — the person next to me may be, quite rightly, pursuing an “alien vision” that has nothing to do with balloons. Keep to something truly common (oh, maybe, let’s say, something like the Prayer Book) and there is room enough for all.

  7. Ross says:

    I am reminded of one of my favorite anecdotes, told to me by a college friend of mine.

    One year when he was in junior high, his homeroom teacher was a freshly-minted teacher right out of school herself, filled with eagerness to transform young minds and all that. And on the first day of class, she decided she would begin with this exercise that she’d read about in one of her books.

    So she handed out to each student a small piece of paper, and told them to write down on it their dreams, their hopes, their fondest aspirations. The students did so, with varying degrees of seriousness. Then she handed out balloons and bits of string, and told them to blow up the balloons and tie their papers to the balloons with the string. Somewhat mystified, the students did.

    Then she took them all outside, and told them to release their balloons and watch their dreams, hopes, and aspirations soar into the sky. And so the students released their balloons, and watched their dreams, hopes, and aspirations drift gently down to the ground, because of course the teacher had forgotten the part of the exercise that said, “helium.”

  8. MarkP says:

    One more thing. I hope I never have to remember the worst anecdotal hooks I’ve ever used in a sermon to get to talk about something I want to talk about!

  9. lostdesert says:

    That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of. Totally foolish. Clueless said it all.

  10. Kendall Harmon says:

    While I would not have expressed it the way he does, what is important in the quote is the point about joy being part of the Christian life, but, alas, not part of the life of enough Christians in the West.

  11. AnglicanCasuist says:

    I know you’re absolutely right KHarmon about the lack of Christian joy, but the above responses to the balloons are hitting on something. A couple of years ago I had a hard lesson.

    Ever since I was a kid I enjoyed a good stand-up comedy routine. So, when our annual parish talent show came around I agreed to go on as a Borscht Belt comic. The thing was, I killed them. The crowd thought it was great that the rector was having some fun. I enjoyed doing something a little crazy. I did maybe five minutes, and all clean material. It was great, and maybe I did feel a little bit of what it’s like to be a comedian.

    The following summer my wife’s sister invited us for the July 4th weekend, and there was another talent show. You guessed it – I did the same routine, and I bombed. I didn’t have good rapport with some of the guests. Some of them knew I was a minister. Maybe they didn’t quite get why I would do this. My father is Jewish, and I grew up in New York City. Maybe I sounded a little Jewish, and as if I was making fun of Jews, etc. Anyway, it is a terrible feeling to bomb as a comedian. But it is an interesting experience. It is very clear what is going on. You get on the stage. You sell them the jokes, and they buy them – or they don’t. That’s it.

    The thing I learned through this experience is that when I get up in the pulpit, and I’m tempted to say or do something funny – I should remember that the people in the church are being well mannered and patient, and I should not take advantage of the situation. Manipulative stunts are never appropriate. I should go find a hostile audience to practice on first.

    Now this balloon thing isn’t a sermon, and it isn’t comedy. It’s something else. It’s a group exercise, and it’s manipulative. I think someone could make the same point about joy without leaving a bunch of people holding on to balloons. And I bet a good number of those people simply didn’t like balloons in church, and didn’t like seeing them rise up and stick to the ceiling, but they were too polite to do anything about it. Preachers and church conference planners should try stand-up comedy some time and they would appreciate their congregations more.

  12. Terry Tee says:

    A late additional comment. About two years ago during one of my visits to Arizona I went to Mass in Oro Valley. At the start of the Mass the priest asked visitors to put up their hands. Wisely, I kept mine down. The visitors were then given a flower to hold to identify them to regular members of the congregation who would make them welcome. Trouble was, the visitors were left holding those flowers all through Mass and I could see felt a little foolish. Ideas for homilies – or in this case welcome ministry – which are too coercive and leaden might, as was noted above, end up making people feel manipulated.

  13. Larry Morse says:

    And #11, it is childish as well. It assumes the congregation is simple minded, incapable of grasping anything more complex than a circus clown or the tooth fairy. The balloons aren’t a symbol, they’re a sales pitch, giving lollipops to the kids. Larry