I’m not a super disciplined person. But recently I’ve taken up a new spiritual discipline, and I’m quite excited about it. Let me explain.
At night, when the rest of the family is in bed, I have been regularly and routinely seeking time alone to contemplate and commune with the Divine. You know, like one of the Desert Fathers or a medieval monk cloistered in the prayer closet.
Except my prayer closet is that weird Ikea reclining chair in the living room.
And my spiritual practice is watching The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
When I was a teenager struggling through the isolation of an unhealthy family and church life, I found myself turning to late night comedy shows for comfort and hope.
I know it’s weird, but it’s true. There was something about the cold sarcasm of Letterman that saw my pain and spoke the truth. There was something about the irreverent sketches on Conan O’Brien that offered escape from harmful authority. There was something about the wickedly funny players on Saturday Night Live that toppled all the power games and posturing in my church experiences.
Comedy was a way out.
And truly, the power of all good comedy, especially sarcastic humor, is that it is born from pain and speaks the truth, in order to expose that which causes pain in the first place.
It calls out inequality, oppression, injustice, arrogance.
It does this, often without you even noticing – ironically, satirically, sarcastically.
It does this, all while you are laughing your head off.
My sometimes-pastor father used to talk about the difference between happiness and joy.
Happiness is a “flesh” thing – it’s based on your circumstances.
But joy is a “Spirit” thing – it’s based on your relationship with Jesus.
That’s why the famous biblical refrain was so often repeated whenever there was any hint of sadness or frustration or boredom at our house: “The joy of the Lord is your strength!” It was a defeater statement, a kind of Jesus-juke meant to stifle any real emotions we might be feeling. Stop being sad/mad/bored/whatever and be JOYFUL! After all, you have a relationship with Jesus!
It reminds me of the similarly famous refrain, from a currently embroiled Christian leader, to be spoken as a response whenever someone asks how you are doing: “I’m doing better than I deserve!” The thinking behind this is that we are all sinners, all equally condemned by God’s holy standard, all under the fierce wrath of God, all deserving of hellfire for eternity. Therefore, if you are a Christian, then no matter what you are experiencing in your life, it’s better than you deserve! Don’t complain! Be JOYFUL! After all, you have a relationship with Jesus and you’re going to heaven!
(Of course, we now know all kinds of horrible manipulation and abuse from church leaders can be justified by telling people it’s better than they deserve.)
Now that I’m a grown-up, I’m frankly not interested in any kind of “joy” that stifles and denies real emotions, or justifies abuse and manipulation with a theologized “get over it.”
But that has left me wondering: What is joy, anyway?
Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show this year after a weird ratings-driven mixup with Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno had all but sullied the show’s reputation. SNL alumnus Fallon had been quietly injecting new life into the late night talk show category during his time hosting Late Night at 12:30, becoming a regular in the next-day viral video rotation online. And he was the perfect choice to take the esteemed 11:30 slot upon Leno’s (long awaited) retirement. Many say he’s the one to return the show to its former Johnny Carson glory.
And I agree.
What makes Fallon different from the others is the kind of childlike, optimistic, inclusive comedy he creates. While he can certainly engage in thick sarcasm, he is decidedly anti-cynicism. And rather than make guests the butt of his humor (as Letterman was often known to do) or the straight men to his punchline, Jimmy always gets his guests in on the joke, creating sketches, games, and bits that include his celebrity talkers and magically transform them from performers into just…people.
People having a hell of a lot of fun:
Watching Jimmy has become a spiritual discipline for me precisely because it restores my faith in the reality of joy. And not just any joy. A divine kind of joy. A joy beyond circumstances.
The joy of the Lord.
I am not interested in an inauthentic emotional life, one which lauds brazen denial as true spirituality.
I am not interested in lying about the pain or covering for the inequality, injustice, oppression, arrogance.
I am not interested in sunny-side superficial spirituality that ignores lament and tells the prophets to declare peace, peace when there is no peace.
But I am also not interested in a life obsessed with the cold darkness, unable to see the brilliant light that is shining all around, all the time.
Because the joy of the Lord is my strength.
That joy doesn’t deny the pain, but embraces it in its warmth.
That joy doesn’t cover for injustice, but stands against it, offering another way.
That joy isn’t a stranger to biting sarcasm or revealing satire, but still seeks a childlike, optimistic, inclusive perspective in the midst of it all.
Because the joy of the Lord isn’t a defeater, a stifler, a cover, a Jesus-juke.
The joy of the Lord is my strength.
It doesn’t deny my circumstances, but it doesn’t depend on them either.
It pervades my whole emotional reality, soothes my suffering, reminds me of untold blessings, brings me to the Source of them all.
The joy of the Lord saves.
It is saving me right now.
Even as it emanates from a TV screen lit up by glorious lip sync battles.