By Doyle Sager
OK, so maybe we can’t draw straight lines connecting TV celebrity Jimmy Fallon, the late baseball great Ernie Banks and Pope Francis. Perhaps the task will require more looping circles than straight lines. But it occurred to me recently: all three share one thing in common. They love (or in the case of Banks, loved) what they do, and it shows. In each case, looking at their life’s work, we see an effervescent joy that bubbles up from within them.
After Fallon took over “The Tonight Show” on NBC, I heard the comment over and over again: “He seems to really be enjoying himself.” And guess what. It’s more fun to watch someone who’s having fun!
Ernie Banks, who died this past January, was the first African American to play for the Chicago Cubs. He was known as Mr. Cub, but also as Mr. Sunshine. His most famous quote: “It’s a beautiful day for baseball. Let’s play two.”
And who can deny the incredible energy and joy which seem to emanate from the current pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church? In fact, one of Francis’ books is titled, The Joy of the Gospel. A biographer describes him as an “extraordinary humanity, on fire with Christ.”
When I was 15 years old and feeling called to vocational ministry, one of the hurdles I had to overcome was the image of a pastor, dressed in black and not having very much fun, or being very much fun to be around. Have you looked at Facebook lately? Gloom, doom, vitriol and hateful speech about people who are different in outlook, politics or religion. And that’s from Christians! Just as joy is contagious, so is its opposite. Have you noticed how hateful, negative words and attitudes suck the energy out of a room?
Are there some lessons here for followers of Jesus who wonder why people are not attracted to our churches? When we consider how many people choose to stay away on Sundays, we have to conclude they’re not buying what we’re selling. Could it be because what we are selling is vinegar-based? Sour religion never captures a very large market share.
None of this is to minimize the reality of pain and struggle in each of our lives. Suffering is a part of being human. But surely God’s people realize that pain and joy are not opposites. Jesus, for the joy that was set before him, endured the Cross. Paul and Silas, having been beaten and imprisoned in chains, were singing at midnight.
One might argue that Jimmy Fallon, Ernie Banks and Pope Francis could afford to be positive. Each had or has reached the pinnacle of his career. Yet each seems to have loved his life’s work even before he made it big. Though I have not researched Fallon’s life, his early work on “Saturday Night Live” seems to reveal a man full of joy. Ernie Banks’ career bridged the segregated and desegregated eras of professional baseball. He started playing when black players slept and ate separately from the whites. Yet even then, he loved what he did. In other words, conditions did not have to be perfect for him to seize each day as a gift.
I am currently reading a biography of Pope Francis. Despite physical illnesses, messy church politics and struggles with his own failures, Jorge Bergoglio, as he was known before March 13, 2013, brought joy and brightness to his life’s work — even during his years of relative obscurity.
Someone might raise the concern that only one of my three examples is a professed Christian. That’s precisely my point. If others can find a way to brighten this earth, how much more should the followers of Jesus? Perhaps this is what the Apostle Paul was trying to say to the Philippian believers when he wrote, “Whatever is true. .. honorable … just … pure … pleasing … commendable, if there is anything commendable … think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
Scholars acknowledge that the virtues listed here are not distinctively Christian. That is, they were known and accepted in pagan culture. Paul’s point? If the pagan can live into these positive, life-giving realities, how much more should people of the Resurrection?
We profess to know a peace and joy which are literally out of this world. Perhaps we should start acting like it.