Smile…

I don’t think I am getting my point across too well. But I saw the sticker and it frustrated me. I know today is World Mental Health Day yet I’m not sure how much that will be spoken of in churches tomorrow. I know that there are 27 million plus people trapped in modern day slavery, yet so many don’t know. I know the world is in turmoil, and we grapple for solutions. I know millions live in abject poverty, whilst I live a life of comfort. I know there are thousands in children in the UK in the care system without a family, and so many homes closed to them. I know there is darkness and despair. So I just think that ’Smile Jesus loves you’ doesn’t always cut in.

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A few (quite rushed) thoughts on World Mental Health Day…

So yesterday I noticed in our offices a yellow ‘Smile, Jesus loves you’ sticker.  I was reminded that I used to have that as a pencil sharpener in 6th form.  Along with my pencils, pens, notebooks, badges and anything else I could get covered in Bible verses or Christian mottos, I thought it was the best thing and of course the best form of evangelism.  Little did I know that it wasn’t the sharpener, the pen or even the ‘Mix CD’ I made for my RE teacher of 2003’s Christian hits (I know!) that would really show Jesus’ love, but my actions and my story.  I learned over the years that the fact I was smiling; the fact that I have joy in my heart despite all I had been through, that I was so full of God’s grace and forgiveness that it spread across my face- that was the true evangelism.

Don’t get me wrong, those things or similar can be a really great conversation starter and they were for me in 6th form.  In my RE class especially there was a girl who was Jehovah Witness and sometimes witch and a guy who was atheist but also dabbled in dark things and my teacher who used to be a Christian, had clearly been damaged by fundamentalism, yet cried when he recounted the story of him and a friend finding a dead lamb beside the road and being overwhelmed by Jesus’ sacrifice.  The pens and bracelets and mottos helped start dialogue that continued into class and we often had huge clashes, particularly myself and the atheist as he claimed I was ‘burning through him’ with my eyes when I looked at him, and he once stared he would ‘kill me and chop me up’.  Clearly a spiritual battle was taking place.  I was a brand new Christian, likely overzealous, but utterly convicted by the transformation that had taken place in my life.  I really believed I should smile because I knew for the first time that Jesus loved me!  I thought it was a great thing to have on my pencil sharpener!

I even managed to get ‘thrown out’ of my History class for smiling too much.  I was asked why I was grinning, to which I responded that I wasn’t grinning just smiling because I was happy, and like to smile.  My teacher told me to stop, which of course meant I couldn’t and when he thought I was making fun of him asked me to leave the class.  This was rather awkward to later explain to the head of 6th form when I was sat in the common room enjoying a cup of tea instead of enjoying my History lesson.  My RE teacher a while later said that he often ‘debated’ with my history teacher about the things I said about faith.  I to this day don’t know why he took my side, as he certainly didn’t agree with me about Jesus, but it seems he agreed enough to defend me against the History teacher.  Again- a spiritual battle.

This was at a time when I still didn’t fully realise what a spiritual battle was.  I didn’t know that Satan had been trying to claim me from the moment I was born, and often so nearly did.  I didn’t know that so much of the darkness that had surrounded my life and those closest to me; anxiety, poverty, depression, feelings of worthlessness, pain, addiction, self-injury, hopelessness, and fear were all things that should not surround you- part of the backdrop of the ultimate battle of good vs evil, life vs death, eternity vs darkness.  I had now claimed life and light but that didn’t mean that the darkness did not still try to overcome.

When I was younger, I forget how old perhaps around 13 or 14, one of my favourite songs was ‘smile’ by Michael Jackson.  I used to hear the lyrics and tears would float down my cheeks.  I know it’s pretty melancholy and perhaps dramatic to say but I used to think the song was actually speaking to me; I used to think each word was telling the story of my life and that it really would one day get better somehow even though I didn’t know how.

Songs like this, the pink blossom tree that sat in the garden on our estate and the love for my siblings willed me to push against the darkness. To not give up with life.

Smile, though your heart is aching

Smile, even though it’s breaking

When there are clouds in the sky

You’ll get by… 

If you smile

With your fear and sorrow

Smile and maybe tomorrow

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile

If you just…

Light up your face with gladness

Hide every trace of sadness

Although a tear may be ever so near

That’s the time you must keep on trying

Smile, what’s the use of crying

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile

If you just…

Smile, though your heart is aching

Smile, even though it’s breaking

When there are clouds in the sky

You’ll get by…

If you smile

Through your fear and sorrow

Smile and maybe tomorrow

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile

If you just smile…

That’s the time you must keep on trying

Smile, what’s the use of crying

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile

If you just smile

I found hope, as I have said before, when I was 15 and my life changed.  I entered into a new phase, with a new family and new revelation.  I was told again and again that I was loved, valued, precious and forgiven.  Not just through words, but more often in the way I was treated.  I (like the pens and sharpeners said) was told ‘Jesus loves me’, but more importantly I was shown it in small acts of love, in edification, in forgiveness when I didn’t deserve it and in being cared for and respected.

I was learning that I didn’t need to be afraid of death, which I had so feared so deeply from a young age when my half-brother had taken his own life and I cried myself to sleep thinking of the void.  I was learning that I shouldn’t have thoughts of throwing myself from a high window or into traffic to escape the numbing pain.  I was learning that I should give my body all that it needs and deserves.  I was learning that I had something unique and beautiful to offer the world. I was learning that I had a voice.  I was learning that it shouldn’t be so hard.  I was learning that community and time with people and opening yourself up is important.  I was learning that self-destruction won’t solve anything.  I was learning how to smile, and finding so many reasons to do so!

I wish however that someone had told me more clearly, that when you become a Christian, when you know outstanding grace, love acceptance and forgiveness, that the darkness does not disappear.  I mean, I do know this.  My life had seen the darkness that the world can offer and I knew that even though I had God’s love and protection, that the darkness was still there.  I was still in the battle.  But I think that’s why I kind of hate those pencil sharpeners, bumper stickers and bracelets sometimes.  They over simplify things.  Of course Jesus loves me and of course I should smile, but, because Jesus loves me doesn’t mean I will always be smiling.  Life is more complex than that.  In my opinion it doesn’t give enough gravity to the darkness that is real.

I kind of like Job for his honesty…

Job 9:

27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
    I will change my expression, and smile,’
28 I still dread all my sufferings,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 Since I am already found guilty,
    why should I struggle in vain?
30 Even if I washed myself with soap
    and my hands with cleansing powder,
31 you would plunge me into a slime pit
    so that even my clothes would detest me.

In the novel ‘The Fault in our Stars’ which grapples with teenage cancer, the male teen’s parents have a house full of ‘encouragements’.  Little notes and pillows and signs.  Things like ‘in the darkest days the Lord put the best people in your life’.  Whilst these things are true and in the novel encouraging to his parents, it doesn’t change the fact he has cancer.  Part of me feels like those kind of encouragements sometimes take away from acknowledging the reality and the pain.  It’s a fine balance of course as we don’t want to give into the darkness or allow it to swallow us (which I naturally sometimes do), but little cute words don’t always cut it.  In the novel, *spoiler alert!* the boy dies.  His girlfriend delivers a heart-breaking eulogy in a ‘pre funeral’ for him, but when it comes to the actual funeral she says an ‘encouragement’- something twee about laughter or rainbows.  She says that funerals are not for the dead but those left behind.  I think sometimes these stickers, pencil sharpeners or notes are more encouraging to Christians than they are to everyone else.  As I said I know its true Jesus loves me and I should smile, but this is not necessarily the message the world needs to hear.  It’s not always even the message the church needs to hear.  We need the ‘pre- funeral eulogy’.  The words that speak of hurt but also hope.

Christians suffer unthinkable tragedy; death, miscarriage, loss, and pain.  Christians suffer from mental illness.  Christians go through divorce.  Christians are broken and hurt and torn apart.  We don’t need cute messages or to be told to cheer up.  We shouldn’t have to expect to smile all the time.  We do need the truth and the miracle of the Gospel.  We do need powerful prayers and Bible verses spoken over us.  And we do have access to a peace that can pass understanding and a joy that can remain in the midst of unspeakable pain.

I don’t think I am getting my point across too well.  But I saw the sticker and it frustrated me.  I know today is World Mental Health Day yet I’m not sure how much that will be spoken of in churches tomorrow.  I know that there are 27 million plus people trapped in modern day slavery, yet so many don’t know.  I know the world is in turmoil, and we grapple for solutions.  I know millions live in abject poverty, whilst I live a life of comfort. I know there are thousands in children in the UK in the care system without a family, and so many homes closed to them.  I know there is darkness and despair.  So I just think that ’Smile Jesus loves you’ doesn’t always cut in.

We have a hope, a joy, and promises of new and better tomorrows.  We have so many reasons to smile, but that needs to come from a place of people being told the truth.  Not just to smile because you’re a Christian so you should be happy.  Not just to tell someone who doesn’t know Jesus that it will all be ok of they just follow him.  Not just to tell the world that Jesus and the Church have an answer to the suffering, but to actually live it.  We need to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  We need to give people a reason to smile.  We need to feed the poor, give homes to the orphans, set people free from slavery and do all we can to spread hope.

We need to tell people why we can still find joy and are able to smile even in the depth of suffering because of the hope we have found.  I need to tell people how I have learnt to smile rather than put it on a sticker.

I am thankful now that my story and my smile can bring hope to others.  I want people to know that God is good even when life isn’t.  I want them to see that it can get better, that life can turn around.  I want them to believe that people can be forces of good and miracles can happen.  I believe my life is a miracle.  I believe there are so many reasons to face tomorrow with a smile.  I know it can be hard and seem hopeless and hurt.  I know that having Jesus in your life doesn’t magically change that.  But salvation is, being delivered from dire situations or harm.  I know now this doesn’t mean we won’t get hurt.  I know it doesn’t mean we won’t face terrible situations and see unthinkable things.  But it does mean that we will survive them, we will get through, and we have hope and a future.  In the end of the story Jesus wins.  Love wins.  Hope wins.  That gives me reason to smile.  I hope it does you too.

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing'” -Mother Theresa

If you are suffering or struggling there is hope and there are places you can get help and people who can help you.  you are not alone…

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