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Pavlov's Smiling Dog

Walk into a church on Sunday morning and what do you see?  A whole lot of smiling people.  Pretty exciting, huh?  All those smiles and no one high on drugs (OK, might be safer to say as far as we know there's no one high on drugs).  Smiling is good.  The act of smiling has been shown, in some circumstances, to actually lift people's spirits.  I would just like to point out that smiling is not our normal look.

When we see old photographs, we are struck by how somber everyone looks -- like they're staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.  Well, if the pictures were from the old west and photographer was really cranky, that just might be possible. But, the truth is that those sepia-toned people look normal.  You want to know how I know that?  Look around you right now.  If you're alone, look at your reflection in the computer screen.  Notice how people look.  That's right.  Normal.  People don't walk around smiling all the time.

But, you say, smiling makes us look better.  Makes us look friendly.  Happy.  Approachable.


Try this little experiment.  Walk around your local discount store or mall with a big grin on your face.  Keep it there.  As you approach people, just keep smiling a big big smile. 

Notice the people suddenly darting into aisles before you actually reach them?  Notice the floor managers whispering together and glancing your direction?  Notice the security guards trying to act like nothing's going on, all the while strolling closer and closer to where you are walking?  Yes, that's right. They are not thinking, "Hey, would you look at that friendly happy person over there.  I think I'll just stroll over closer to them so maybe I can absorb some of those happy thoughts."  No.  They're thinking, "Crazy person in aisle seventeen.  I wonder if my taser's fully charged?"

Unless you really are crazy, you don't smile all the time.  In fact, you don't smile most of the time.  Your normal face looks pretty much like those people staring at you in those old photographs.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was the Russian researcher who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1904.  His most famous work involved experimenting with dogs.  He found that dogs could be easily programed to react to the sound of a bell exactly as if you put a bowl of tasty tidbits down in front of them.  Ring the bell.  Dog immediately acts like they are about to chow down a happy meal.

We smile in church at least partly because we are programmed to smile in church.  One unmistakable evidence of this:  think of how difficult it is not to smile when you walk into church.  Try it.  You stand out like a pork sausage at a Pharisees' convention.  And, just like the grinning crazy guy at the mall, if you don't smile in church then other people notice your strange and very abnormal behavior.

"Hey there, mister down-in-the-dumps sad-face.  Smile!  Come on now, let's see a little smile.  Remember, God loves you.  It's a great day.  Let's see it now.  There we go.  Miles of smiles."

None of this is wrong.  I am glad to be in church (at least most of the time).  It probably is a great day.  God does love me.  I probably will feel better if I smile.  All true.  All good.  But, can we be honest, it is not really how we feel sometimes.  We smile whether we mean it or not.  We don't so much fake it to make it, as we fake it to fit in with everyone else.  The I’m-in-church bell rings, and we act like we are supposed to act.

The big hold-on-now comes when you ask yourself another question: What do I do when I feel really down and heartbroken and it's Sunday morning?  

For many, the answer is that we stay home.  If we can't at least fake a smile we just don't go.  A second option is to go to church and, well, fake it.  We know what that is like.  It's the big smile that never quite seems to reach up to include the eyes.  Fortunately, most church people don't look that close and so won't notice. 

But, how can we be living out authentic community if, every time it's Sunday morning and we walk into church, we step into a whole building entirely full of happily grinning people?  How can we be those who "weep with those who weep" if we give everyone present the impression no one is allowed to be depressed on Sunday morning?

I don’t need another place for trying to impress you
with just how good and virtuous I am.
I don’t need another place for always being on top of things,
ev’rybody knows that it’s a sham.
I don’t need another place for always wearing smiles,
even when it’s not the way I feel.
I don’t need another place to mouth the same old platitudes,
‘Cause you and I both know that it’s not real.

If this is not a place where tears are understood,
where can I go to cry?
If this is not a place where my spirit can take wing,
where can I go to fly?

If this is not a place where my questions can be asked
where can I go to seek?
If this is not a place where my heart cries can be heard
where can I go to speak?
    - from "If This is Not a Place" by Ken Medema


Kirra said...

Another great post I'll be sharing. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

So true, and yet, as a worship leader I've been guilty of both faking a smile and being internally iritated at the congregations' lack of smiles. Ironically, I was actually moved out of a worship leading position for not being "UP" enough. Makes it pretty hard to want to jump back into a ministry position.

Tom Lawson said...

Yeah - sad to acknowledge. I think one reason small cell groups, house churches, and other alternatives to the "big gathering" model are growing among young adults is the greater allowance for genuine authenticity. How can our worship be authentic if it starts with us pretending?