Retiring the Smiling Jesus (for Lent)

Growing up in a preacher’s home, a picture of Jesus graced our family room. Hanging high on the wall above my head (when I stood no taller than a yardstick), I got the feeling that Jesus was always watching over me. The picture was unusual in that Jesus was sporting a grin from one side of his face to the other. My first impressions of God were those of a God who smiles on all creation.

So many other pictures of Jesus show a very somber presence. There’s rarely any sparkle in his eyes…little evidence of joy in his heart. What’s that all about? Last year, I found out what that’s all about.

Mission to Haiti

Last year before Lent, I returned from a week in Haiti. I went as part of a small team to evaluate some of the Christian schools sponsored by Trinity/HOPE, an organization dedicated to feeding children so they can be educated and also learn about a loving God in Jesus Christ. The reddish hair in the picture is a revealing sign of malnutrition in these Haitian children.

As we traveled on the dusty, rocky back roads, it was like stepping into the first century. The founder of the school feeding program was my partner in mission. He’s led numerous trips to Israel. I said to him, “For some reason, this makes me think of Israel, maybe in the days of Jesus. Is this anything of what Israel is really like?”

He said, “Yes, there are many similarities in the terrain and environment.”

Depths of Human Despair

I began seeing the depths of human poverty on a Monday, and by Thursday, I could only muster the thought, “Now I know why there are so few pictures of a smiling Jesus.” How can human beings with any compassion allow their neighbors to live in these conditions?

My first impulse was to run home and remove the picture of a smiling Jesus that hangs in the lobby of our church entryway. How can I imagine Christ is pleased with us when our abundance is so great that it spills into our garbage containers with little usage, while children are severely malnourished only five air hours away? How will they ever find happiness and joy?

Happiness in Beans and Rice

Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. For 17,100 children in the heart of Haiti, the kingdom of heaven will be found today in a bowl of beans and rice. That’s all they will need to believe that God is smiling on them. Someone in the world cares enough to give 26 cents so that one more child can eat a meal in this day.

That’s the hope Trinity/HOPE brings to children in Haiti. Once the body has been fed through one person’s response to God’s grace and abundance, then the mind can hear the story of God’s goodness and mercy. Yet, until a hungry stomach is filled, the good news of a God who will provide for them sits on a houseboat somewhere in the middle of a lake in the United States.

I won’t retire my smiling Jesus pictures permanently. They will come out again on Easter Sunday as a continuing affirmation of my belief in a God of goodness and love. But as I enter the season of Lent in which the Christian church calls me to consider the depths of my own errors – and how my self-indulgence connects with the depths of poverty and despair in the world – I’ll remove the smile from Jesus’ face for the next six weeks. It will be a sobering reminder of my responsibility to care for my neighbors in need.

I will hope, then, that a renewed sense of purpose will add value and meaning to my life. And what more can a person ask for than purpose in life and to know that what you have done is making a difference in another person’s life?

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