Flipping through the PBS channel of late has brought to mind one of the best, in my opinion, documentaries ever compiled on the Civil War. Ken Burns masterfully walks through the bloodiest and most important war in American history. His documentary style has created what is known as the “Ken Burns effect” when viewing photographs. Still photos have never made great live shots until he invented the art of zooming in or out, bringing action to black and white photos taken 150 years ago. But it isn’t the artistry of the documentary that caught my attention. Instead, it was the photos themselves. Interestingly, very few of captured individuals are smiling.
I realize that war is certainly not a motivating factor to smile, but looking at a variety of pictures from that time reveals the same intriguing phenomenon. Exploring other photos of other cultures often portray the same sentiment, even modern photos. There are no smiles to be found. I am not sure when culture in America began insisting on our happiness in photographs. It is possibly the prosperity of the 1950’s or maybe just the evolution of culture across decades. However the process developed, and the result is, “Smile!”
Perusing family photos of weddings, vacations, birthdays and gatherings, one could conclude that life is always good and we are always happy. It is positive and reassuring to fondly remember the good times. But it has also created a mask. We see it every Sunday morning. Masses of smiling faces pile into Kingsland. Some just finished heated arguments, yelling at uncooperative kids, and rotating outfits because of the toddler’s need to throw breakfast across the kitchen. But we are smiling! Worse, some marriages are crumbling, relationships with sons and daughters straining, and the pain of lost love ones wells just beneath the surface. But we are smiling…
Colossians 1:11 states, “May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy”. Displaying joy, when living by the power of Christ, is right and always appropriate. Demonstrating joy, however, is often not smiling at all. Attempting to look Christian, we can miss the source of much joy in the difficult journey of life. We miss His overcoming power because we rob the community of believers of our present reality. The Church, or body of Christ, is designed to love one another and support each other. Wearing the mask is only the illusion of strength. True strength in Christ is found in vulnerability with other believers. Joy then becomes a deep enduring foundation, held in the power of Christ, surrounded by His very body, the Church.
So the next time you feel the pressure to smile, make sure the mask is off first. The world looks on and knows our lives are not perfect, so let’s stop pretending they are. Who knows, we might discover real joy surrounded by the prayers and love of other Christians and the world might find our raw honesty refreshing.