October 31, 2020

“You Need To Smile More.”

frudel.jpegEvery day this summer school term, around 9:30 in the morning, I drive two blocks to the post office during a ten minute break from class. I get my mail, which often involves retrieving a package from the postal employee at the window. I know the postmaster well, but on days he’s off, he has an assistant. The new one just arrived and I don’t know her yet.

And today, the conversation went something like this.

“Hello. Spencer. Box 313.”

The young woman, maybe 30 years old, gets my mail and packages.

“Are you a preacher?”

You have to be a preacher to know what that question does to you.

“Yes, among other things. I preach, teach Bible and English up at the school.”

“You need to smile more.”


“That’s what people tell me.”

“I guess it’s just not your nature.”

***Quelling desire to say — “Like making personal statements to customers is your nature.”***

“I guess so. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

This isn’t the first time this has happened.

A few weeks ago, I was in the office of a new administrative employee. A preacher’s wife. Verrrry friendly and chipper. I have to stop in every so often to pick up and return files, and that means enduring something like this.

I say…

“Good morning.”

“Good morning Mr. Spencer. You need to have a better smiiiiiiile.” (Stretched out, very musical, delivered with a big grin.)


I pick up the folders. “Thank you. I’ll try.”

A couple of days later, I meet the same lady outside. She’s across the street, but that doesn’t stop her from shouting at me.

“Are we smiiiiiiiiiiiiiling today?”

***awkward wave. phony smile. Sort of like Nixon in a Christmas parade.***

I could regale you with these stories for a while longer, but you get the point.

I am not the smiling guy. Preacher or not, I’m not a perennial grinner. Neither, by the way, is my son. My wife is a a smiler, and my daughter has a beautiful smile (but there’s no telling what’s going on behind it, Ryan. Beware!) I do smile, I just don’t always smile. But I get the folks who don’t smile.

I get Mark Heard. I get Johnny Cash. I get Jeremiah.

I don’t get Joel- the smiling preacher- Osteen at all. In fact, watching Osteen’s endless grinning makes me want to break things.

I get the blues. I get rock and roll. I get why people are mad and sad and not glad when they read the paper.

I was taught to sing “I’ve got joy joy joy joy down in my heart,” but most of the time I don’t feel like it’s my job to look at my students, many of whom have fairly rotten situations they deal with in their families and personal lives, and cheerlead them in a bouncy soundtrack.

I get Easter, but I also get Good Friday. Jesus wept, yes he did. Paul was not giddy. Revelation — and the rest of scripture — are full of Lament. As Michael Card says, tears are older than the rain.

I may be a bit depressed sometimes myself. My parents are gone and I miss them. My kids have moved and I miss them. I feel old and I’ve got some serious stuff going on in my world right now that simply isn’t at the grinning stage. I’ve never thought that it made much sense to take in all of life, then filter out whatever moves me to sorrow, leaving only a southern Gospel chorus about mama and heaven.

I laugh a lot. I laugh at some of the right things. I laugh at some of the wrong things. I tend to be aware, most of the time, of what’s wrong with the world. The fall still reverberates with me. Shakespeare’s tragedies make perfect sense and his comedies are sometimes a little silly. What makes me want to smile is the reconciliations at the end of The Tempest or the weddings at the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Jesus gives me joy. The life that cost Jesus his- my messed up life- doesn’t make me happy, but the Gospel makes me happy. Part of the happiness is the sorrow now.

And these good folks who want me to smile more? God bless them, but listen: it wouldn’t be the work of the Spirit. It would be the work of the flesh entirely. It would say something that’s not true, preacher or not.

I’ll guess that both my amateur psychologists are 1) sincere in wishing me to be happy and 2) somewhat under the illusion that preachers are to have the temperament of Santa Claus. I’ll also wager that they believe ministers have the job of bringing a smiling ray of sunshine into your world. It wouldn’t be hard to kick up a lot of guilt for my lack of a smile for my co-worker and the lady at the post office.

If I have genuine joy, however, it won’t be a facade. It will be kind of joy that belongs to grieving people, dying people, people who are alone, people who’ve been turned away, and the last, the least, the lost and the little. This joy comes in the midst of the world that Jesus wept over. It is the world that sees Lazarus’s tomb as well as his rags on the floor of an empty tomb.

I often wonder why I haven’t had more opportunities to minister in local churches. Then I stop and watch the local religious television stations with the local pastors holding forth in mountain style, and I listen to the area preachers on radio and sometimes in person…and it’s not really a mystery why I’m not preaching in one of these churches.

Religion here in the mountains is a kind of high, an escape. It is victory over the devil, miracles and answered prayers. It is happy preachers and shouting pews.

It’s not the Gospel that I believe, and it’s not the human journey that I am on or want to be on. What God has shown me is not a facade, but the face and heart of Jesus.

As I type this, my English students are watching Little Women. Jo is about to watch Beth die, and in the aftermath, she will write her story. In the vacancy of a lost sister, she will find the voice she long searched for, and it will be a voice filled with power, truth and the deepest love for family. But only in the loss. Only in the moments when we are reborn in this fallen world by the Spirit of God and take our place in the sufferings and resurrection of Christ.

Ironically, it all makes me smile.


  1. Finally — someone else who gets the “You need to smile more” line! If I had a dollar for every time I heard that … well, you can bet I’d be smiling then.

    The latest instance was particularly galling. A person who had been a particular “thorn in the flesh” for me called my name and walked toward me. I must have flinched a little, bracing for the latest onslaught, when I heard “YNTSM.” Needless to say, I was not thinking happy thoughts at that moment.

    Yes, I know I LOOK unhappy. Often times I am. So what? Is telling me you have a problem with my expression going to make me happier? I do my best not to scare people with my appearance, and after working on it for close to half a century, I think that I’ve reached a plateau in the facial expression department.

    I have to stop now, because sometimes when I think about all the times I’ve been told “YNTSM,” I could just SCREAM!


  2. Michael, take heart: my German mother has for decades inveighed against American coworkers’ constantly nagging her to “smiiiile” (and she’s not even a preacher :))! Her retort: “I’m concentrating, what’s there to smile about?” If she has to constantly think about being sure to smile, she won’t be able to do the work right. (Self-consciousness ain’t a virtue.)

    I once told a Russian coworker (who was heartbroken about American cultural inanities), “Irena, always remember this: Russian society is an old man with Vodka, but American society is perennially, incurably, an infant with a rattle.” (Talk to the average German and you’ll find they can only roll their eyes, snicker, and make sardonic comments about the imbecilities of American society.)

    If you went to France, Germany, England—or Russia!—you’d never find a SOUL spouting the asinine smile-line at you. On the contrary, if you were constantly smiling, they’d most likely consider you one joke short of a farce.

    Next time someone pours that fatuousness over you, simply hand them a business card with this on it: “Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of the mirth is heaviness” and “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” (You can do that: you’re a preacher! 🙂 )

    (PS: Down with Osteen’s cotton candy! We need your burnt-almond substance! If you ever stoop to imitating his vapidity, we’ll all pelt you with virtual eggs!)

  3. PPS: He was a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief.

  4. Not great poetry, just my heart-response to what you say here ..

    The fellowship of the broken
    Have eyes that learned to cry,
    They know the bitter sorrow
    Of things that have to die.
    Where hype and cheer are huckstered
    The broken don’t apply.

    The fellowship of the broken
    Can’t wear a plastic grin
    It doesn’t fit their faces
    It chafes the truth within.
    Yet they have heard compassion’s heart
    Beat in a world of sin.

    The fellowship of the broken
    Have drawn from empty wells,
    They’ve wept for all the follies follies
    That open silent hells;
    Yet the fellowship of the broken
    Is the place where Jesus dwells.

  5. Jim Womack says

    For years I have been ‘chastised’ for not smiling more. I am seen as intense, even mean and scary by some. Yet, there are times when I cave to the critcism and try to smile more. This is when I felt the most hypocritical.Fake if you will. I, too, miss my parents. I, too, miss the days when my girl was little. I, too, suffer from depression. Lonliness is the best word. This road God has placed me on is at times surreal. My life and attitudes have changed. The way I look at church, people, my family- virtually everything has changed. I hope all for the better.

    Its hard to be ‘chipper’ when I consider the world around me. As I consider the Gospels, in particular the manner in which Jesus lived His life, I do get depressed. Because I see how far we are from His true mission for us. The wounded, hungry, naked, lonely, people all around me. The ones He lived with. Ministered to. I am about to leave for church. I will be in a place that I really do not like. Around some folks I would rather not be around. Playing church- now that’s depressing. I long for the day when I am part of a group of people that have a heart to live like He lived. Love like He loved. Served and ministered like He did. Then I will smile more- well maybe not. Then I will weep more…….

  6. Heaven defend us from the smile police. I’m sorry – constant “happiness” is just not natural. It’s creepy.

    However, a constant scowl does tend to put people off.

    BTW, Micheal, you’ve never said – are you an introvert or an extrovert? That might explain things – introverts tend to not have any time for insincere displays of emotion.

  7. I’m glad I’m not alone. My father fancies himself the next Ansel Adams and is always on me to smile. I tell him if he wants a picture of the way I really look he’ll have to get it without a smile. Needless to say, I get photographed by him very little. I understand your situation. Now I must go and not smile while I study.

  8. The “smiiile” people seem to have a deep distrust for anyone who isn’t visibly out of their gourd happy all of the time, as if it is somehow displeasing to God not to smile. I have even deeper misgivings about people who believe such things.

  9. I took a break from writing a newspaper story to check your blog (don’t hate me for working on the Sabbath, I have to get my stories done before I go on vacation tomorrow), so I’m in writing mode. This post is amazing. It would make a great guest column in a newspaper or journal.

    They say it takes something really funny to make a person laugh out loud if the person is alone. Not only did it make me smile, it made me laugh out loud.

  10. When I was growing up, a lovely, auburn-haired young woman taught me to play the piano accordion. But I had to give it up, because people expected me to grin all the time while I was playing. So I continued to play the piano, partly because you aren’t expected to look at people and grin while you tickle the ivories.

    However, having said this, sometimes I have a frown on my face, and my wife appreciates it when I relax and a smile appears naturally.

  11. Tom Huguenot says

    It’s not that Europeans have a problem with people smiling, but more that this constant, teeth-showing smiiiiiile looks so artificial and phoney that it makes people uncomfortable.

    I had to tell several times to my American co-workers that in my country, the only people who smile constantly are idiots or car dealers.

    Why, why should I look happy all the time? I am not, to start with, even though I have quite a blessed life (but, hey, we all have our scars from years before).
    It’s not like I want to carry all of the world’s burdens, but we live in a broken world and, as a christian, I can not just walk in life as if it was the “Shiny Happy People” video-clip. There is also the prevalent anti-intellectualism in evangelical circles: sorry, guys, but you can not really THINK when you’re smiling beatifically.

    I know I have a strong tendency to melancholy. No, it does not make me spiritually superior. But I refuse to be considered a second-class christian because of that.

  12. As I have read you over several months you strike me as a very real person. Not many people can take real. Our society, especially the Christian one, conditions us to put up a front and fake it, mostly so that other people don’t have to deal with your stuff.

    Along with the smiling thing, I cannot stand it when I am greated by a “hi, how are you?” I always “hi” and without fail get an eager “alright” in expectation of the overused response “how are YOU?!?” Too funny!

    Anyway, I just think most people cannot handle all of ourselves. They want the smilie, joy-joy-down-in-my-heart self (WHERE?). Great wisdom on finding our joy in Christ in the midst of the grittiness of reality.


  13. Fantastic post. Please remember, though, that there are those who are predisposed to smile (just like you are not), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as real… their predisposition is just more toward the smiling side of things!

  14. Jeremy said, “…mostly so that other people don’t have to deal with your stuff.” ***Pre***cisely, Jeremy. Especially ironic in light of the exhortation to “bear one another’s burdens” and “they will know you are My disciples by the way you love one another.”

    Could it be that in a society saturated with entertainment and RomperRoom antics from the classroom to the church, from the home to the workplace (my postoffice, for example, now plays bubblegum music non-stop), even the slightest reminder that there might be a thing called “seriousness” or “gravity” causes emotional asthma? In the SmileyBubbly Universe, anything non-Kap’nKangarooish is taboo; SmileyBubblerz are severely allergic to things like God’s wrath, disciplining kids, self-discipline, perseverance, silence, solemnity, chastity, moderation, communications (oral or written) requiring a vocabulary & cognitive development higher than that of a 2nd grader, following road rules, practicing even minimal common courtesy.

    Yes, thanks to the legacy of the 60’s, SmileyBubbly Society is addicted to froth.

  15. Hey — watch it there with Captain Kangaroo. There were quite a few characters on it who didn’t smile much. In fact, I don’t think Mr. Moose or Bunny Rabbit could make any facial expressions at all.

  16. 😉

  17. What about “meet and greet” time in a service? Let’s smile at each other and ask total strangers how they are doing. I remember feeling a sigh of relief when it was over in my church back home.

    People are always telling me I need to smile more. The ironic thing is that I have had people tell me at work that I need to smile at a time when I was having one those joy-in-the-Spirit holy moments when God is really revealing something to me or I was coming to understand something. Some of us just don’t have a good connection between our spirit and our face.

  18. Amen! Hey, I have dealt with this one many times. Why should I put on a happy face when it is not real? Perhaps everytime I’m around the lost I will work up some toothy smiles and win them over with a fake gospel. The good news of Jesus is about the Son of God lowering himself to take my sin and die in my place. This brings me great joy and but also breaks me to the core. Sometimes I feel like shouting, but many times I feel like crying in wonder of such a loving God. I’m thankful that He loves me even when I’m not Mr. Rainbow with a pot full of smiles.

  19. Yes!!!!! Thank you for this post. The Michael Card song is one of my 4-year-old’s favorite songs: “Mommy, play the falling tears song, where tears are older than the rain.” She also loves the very melancholy, “Walk with me, Lord” on the same CD. She’s actually quite an upbeat little girl, but since I play the CD a lot she has come to like it. That song puts words to many of my deep sorrows and I also find myself able to pray deeply for some of my hurting friends as I listen to the songs.

    I smile easily. But I also easily look serious (especially when I’m thinking) or sad (when life is hard, which it often is right now). People compliment me on my smile, but also get on my case for looking so serious (which they sometimes translate as “unspiritual”) at times.

    I probably look my most miserable during greeting time at churches! (Casper and Jim to to Church is a book with some interesting comments about pasted on church smiles from the perspective of an atheist who went to several well known churches at a Christian’s request, just to give feedback).

    Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sadness and how God meets me in my deep sorrow over “the way things are”. As in most anything, I think the direction of my sadness is what makes the most difference, rather than trying to just make myself feel more joyful. My thoughts aren’t all that developed yet, although I’ve been trying to put words to the thoughts on several of my own posts. I’m glad to see other people talking about this topic.

    Life is hard. There’s no covering that up, no matter how “spiritual” we get. And yeah, Jesus makes a difference, but as Scott Krippayne says in another song I lament and praise my way through, “The Best is Yet to Come”. It’s not here yet, and lamenting the realities of the here and now is what keeps the longing for something much better fresh.

  20. Amen to that, Josh! I hate that “Greet one another” time in the service; it has all the sincerity of a political fundraiser. But I do like when I go to a Catholic or Episcopal service and instead of doing that grinning glad-handing, you exchange “the peace.” I say, “the peace of Christ to you.” Then I’m wishing someone well in a concrete way, rather than feigning some vague affection. Plus, it seems like when Christ is involved, I’m a lot more concerned for my fellow man anyway. I believe that the lame evangelical greeting time is just a blurry shadow of this practice in a formal liturgy.

  21. ***smiling***

  22. Everyone is right, of course, to say that an insincere smile is bad, and right that just smiling alot is not a useful goal in itself. But there is a common assumption in all this that is not false but just not true enough — the assumption that your smile is true if you feel happy, false if you do not. No, it’s not always just about you.

    Your face, I mean. It’s not just about you. It’s not just an instrument of self-expression; it is also an instrument of community. So a smile can be a sincere liturgical act even when you are inwardly sad. A liturgical act, I mean, in the sense of an authentic ritual performed to make a connection with another person.

    WE — we post-evangelicals — have all had such awakenings in recent years that formal, planned acts in worship can not only be real, but can be blessed. The liturgy delivers us from the murk of our own subjectivity — Yeats’ “rag and bone yard of the heart” — into the clear, bracing air of the community. We pray what the church prays. We sing what the church sings. And then, like a grace, we disover we feel what the church feels. The act first, then the feeling.

    Why is a smile any different?
    We teach children to shake hands, don’t we? We teach them to open doors? Have you ever told your child to “smile at the nice lady, and say thank you”? What would you answer if he replied “I don’t feel it.”? A good father would say “I don’t care. It is an obligation of love. Smile, and mean it.”

    In none of this am I defending Joel Osteen, car dealers, or other fake smilers. I hate fake smiles. But these fakers fail in their smiles not for smiling too much, but for smiling too superficial. Think final cause instead of material cause: just like a written, liturgical prayer can be become authentic if the one praying brings his whole intention into the act, so a smile, acted in the face first but sincerely, will lead to its final cause: a connection between persons.

    So, maybe, Michael, what the lady at the post office is TRYING to say — admittedly, poorly — is “you are not connecting with me, and I’d like us to connect.”

    Jesus smiled on us when we hated Him, and I very seriously doubt He “felt” it.

  23. MJ: “Hey — watch it there with Captain Kangaroo.” LOL!

    Josh: “meet & greet”— Right on target, brother! Not having attended that kind of church in several years, I had (eagerly) forgotten about that synthetic practice. “Canned koinonia.” I always wondered: here we are, supposedly gathered together for a short hour or so of worshipping God; we have the whole week to socialize with other believers, so why are we robbing God of His time? If wife and hubby got together for a date in the midst of a really busy week, how would one of them feel if all of a sudden, the other one started paying a bunch of attention to the waitress or some other person in the immediate vicinity?

  24. I am with you – but only up to a point. Fake, cynical shallow demands to be happy (smiling but cursing people through gritted teeth) is saccharine – artificial sweetness, leaving a bad taste in the mouth. BUT real joy, contentment anchored in gratitude, leads to smiles which are genuine and real and therefore makes life sweet with the aunthentic sweetness of friendships built and people encouraged.

    I don’t want anyone to ‘smiiiiile’ (I could hear her in your writing, it set my teeth on edge) but I fear some suspect joy these days – not that I think you do or have, but I think some of my fellow commentators are getting there.

    Jesus went through sorrow but for what? the JOY set before him! (Heb 12). He understands our sorrows and our grief, and there is plenty to be understood, but God’s Word consistently exhorts us again and again, not to ‘smiiiiiile’ but to JOY – deep, lasting, satisfying sweetness which persists in sorrows and in smiiiiiiles! I am a preacher/teacher too – I’ve been known to weep from the pulpit and to have to pause because I’m laughing too hard.

    What I loved about your post is it’s reality: thanks for the honesty and the pause to think and (dare I say it) smile.

  25. “Are we smiiiiiiiiiiiiiling today?”

    Oh, this would so not work for me. “We” are not doing anything, thank you.

    Someone on a blog once threatened another commenter that if she didn’t do such-and-such, Joel Osteen would move into her basement and smile at her every time she went down to do the laundry.

    Now that cracked me up.

  26. I’ve been playing piano in church for 25 years. One of the best parts about playing piano is that you don’t have to catch everybody else’s germs, ahem, I mean, shake hands with other people during that “meet and greet” time.

    And, what is up with Guy Smiley Osteen anyway? Maybe he doesn’t realize how creepy he comes across with the constant smiling.

  27. Good post. I don’t think joy=smile at all though. But it does seem to be a bigger probllem in the US though – I did not see that much of it in South Africa, and even in Canada I haven’t come accross the “smiling cult” yet. Of course, as a non-American, I can insert a lot of aptg cultural comments here, but maybe I should desist…..

  28. We had a guy speak at our church about some work he had done in an orphanage in Botswana. He was showing us pictures of the kids there and none of them was smiling and he was saying, “See how sad and hopeless they look.” Now, I don’t know about Botswana, but in some parts of eastern Africa, it is a big deal to make sure you look serious and do NOT smile for pictures. As an outsider, I never fully understood all the reasons why (at weddings, it was important not to smile in order to show how seriously you were taking your vows. For other types of pictures I never learned why smiling was taboo.)

    While the Bible does speak of joy, and while smiles are an important part of showing relational “welcome” in America (your points were helpful to me, Tim and Andy), it seems pretty silly to make a smile the basis of judging another person’s level of (1) hope or (2) spiritual joy.

    I do get frustrated when people make sweeping assumptions based on the interpretation of nonverbals. Although they are an important part of communication which should be taken into account, they cannot definitively be nailed down to only one meaning, even within the same culture. A smile or lack of a smile can mean different things for different people.

    As for Joel Osteen, that’s another story. I don’t really have a problem making sweeping assumptions about his smile 😀

  29. Similar to this is the dilemma of people who want to be chatty all the time. If you don’t feel like talking but decide to just sit and listen politely, they think you are being “mean”.

  30. Have you read Alexander Schmemann’s Journals? He has much to offer regarding the place of joy. Chesterton isn’t bad either. Peace.

  31. Michael,

    First of all you have one of the great peels of laughter that I know. I’ve always put more stock in a good hearty laugh than a smile that seems to be there because it’s “supposed” to be there. As for being a preacher goes, folks I know want to stay away from a preacher who smiles all the time. It seems that they are of the opinion that if a preacher is always smiling, he must be up to something. mmmmmm….


  32. Though not a pastor, I get that all the time…especially from some of the older ladies at my church. Certain tragic events in my life (not embarrassed, just doesn’t seem right to mention specifically) has quelled that spirit.

    Perhaps that’s it: people think you have to have a reason NOT to smile!

  33. OK, I’ll contribute the vacuous comment.

    I hear that administrative assistant saying that you’ve “got a case of the Mondays”.

    Now I gotta go watch Office Space again.

  34. There oughta be a law. It has always gotten under my skin when someone tells me to smile as if I was oncoming traffic and I was drifting over the yellow line. A dentist once told me I don’t smile because I was subconciously hiding my crooked teeth. He was making a sales pitch for a set of caps.
    At work one day I was having a perfectly good day when a fellow comes walking down the hall and orders me to cheer up. I really was full of cheer until he opened his mouth.
    I haven’t found a good response to these people yet.

  35. i hear quite often from people that i look unhappy or that i seem depressed, and should smile more. i am content with my life. i am not the type of person who loves, or really even likes smiling. i smile and laugh when i find things to be funny not so that others are satisfied. i do smile now because i feel obligated to in order to get those people to shut up. i feel fake and that does make me unhappy. sometimes i just want to tell those people to back to the land of Oz!

  36. I was looking for ways to help me smile more and laugh more after watching my husband havign a wonderful time with another girl this weekend it really got me thinking perhaps I do need to smile more and laugh she didn’t even know him or him her and they looked like they were having such a great time. I wished right then and there that we looked like to others. It occurred to me how it does seem to others when they tell me to smile or laugh I was in their shoes or rather his. Now that I found this post and others who re like me and not only are not natural smilers, feel like fakers when they do smile and can’t stand it when others greet us with a “smile more, What’s wrong”as if something were. A lot of the time I am thinking or concentrating on something and not on how I should look. I am still confused I suppose. It was nice to know there are others like me.I am an introvert and think this does have a lot to do with things. As for captain kangaroo the same characters on Pooh the rabbit, donkey, and goffer.

  37. You ought to become a Lutheran. Not smiling is a mark of orthodoxy.

    : )