Smile Therapy

To say that my eight month old daughter smiles at everyone is not an exaggeration in the slightest.

She smiles at everyone, and we haven’t quite figured out why. Maybe she thinks people are sad and wants to cheer them up. Maybe she’s just excessively happy. Personally, I think it is part of a little game that she enjoys playing. She smiles at you until you smile at her, and then she wins.

Annika has a great record with predictable groups of people, like older women, pastors, and other young children. But she also isn’t afraid to tackle trickier targets: TSA agents, teenage grocery store baggers, instant oil change workers, and businessmen on the bus or subway. Many times I have marveled at the transformation of extremely serious, even sour people into joyful, giggling ones as they exchange smiles with her. 

I’ve seriously considered bringing Annika to the church budget meeting later this month to see if she could be of some assistance.

By all accounts, these are difficult days. News organizations remind us of threats and conflicts around the world. We hear our financial system described in terms of “crisis,” “recession,” and “collapse.” We struggle to pay our youth directors and the heating bill, while trying to support organizations and ministry partners who work with those who have much less than we do. Encouraging generosity during these times is a challenge; speaking of hope can be downright difficult. 

Last month, my grandmother, Helen Marie Alquist, died at the age of 86, and my family returned to my home congregation for the funeral. We entered the sanctuary in procession, following the casket and singing “How Great Thou Art.” As we made our way down the center aisle, Annika suddenly got very wiggly, and I turned to see her flashing her trademark smile over my shoulder.

She was smiling at those who had gathered to honor and grieve her great-grandmother and be with my family in our loss. They were wearing appropriately serious expressions, but most couldn’t help themselves. As I watched, one by one, they broke out in genuine smiles, sometimes coupled with laughter.

As people who confess “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” we have a distinctive call during these troubled days. We are the ones who continue to speak of joy and hope during times of pronounced fear. We preach resurrection and new life, despite the ache of loss. We encourage generosity when others believe there isn’t enough to go around. We claim that the last shall be first, the old becomes new, and life follows death.

The Good News that we are asked to proclaim can make us seem hopelessly naïve, like a child who smiles at everyone because she isn’t aware she is supposed to be sad. But we smile at funerals, and encourage all to do the same. We smile, not because we deny death or diminish the pain that accompanies loss, but because we witness to God’s presence and promise, God’s insistent smile, in the midst of it all.