“Smiling Jesus” Revisited

I don’t like talking about my faith outside the guise of poetry.

It brings with it too much of a stigma – a connotation and connection with negative emotions for far too many people.

That also includes myself, sadly.

Let me begin with an honest disclaimer.
I’m not here to convert anyone. Or say how important, special, and necessary a belief in God really is if you happen to feel otherwise.

I acknowledge and validate all paths to understanding the divine or lack thereof – culturally, emotionally, and spiritually from whichever background you come from or path you may pursue. The universe reveals itself in different ways to all of us. And that’s just too beautiful to deny or question.

This is just my story.

I can only share what happened to me when for the briefest of moments in my life, I actually doubted the “Smiling Jesus.”

You see, not very long ago, I stopped writing daily. Against all inclinations of my better judgement, the thought of having to be so vulnerable to the world once again was just far too difficult to bear.

So what was the alternative? Relative silence. Introspection. A lot of time with video games and isolating hobbies that kept me thinking about why I chose to walk away for a time.

The catalyst was losing my blog. After nearly 10 years of consistent posts, amassing nearly 5 thousand honest followers, and composing poetry almost constantly, I had no choice but to shut it down due to an influx of trolls who were incited by a poem called “Smiling Jesus.”

Originally, this was just a painting.

The particular picture known as “Smiling Jesus” hangs over my wife’s computer desk in an attempt to inspire her during her work routine each day. She sought it out purposefully, believing how Christ’s expression should never be one of sadness but absolute joy – a reflection of the truth that is His undying love even at our darkest hours.

When she initially purchased the print, little did I know that it would take on such extreme relevance for the both of us.

This image very quickly became a point of contention at first. Growing up Catholic, Christ was a figure that inadvertently incited fear in me. He was a paradoxical part of a wrathful Father – ready to punish, to chastise us, to be disappointed and threaten us with damnation if we should ever trespass against His teachings.

How could they ever both be one and the same?

My mental unrest kept making me explore this inquiry.

After the pandemic, division and hatred became commonplace. I kept feeling like we were becoming increasingly abandoned by our Creator. The world grew prejudiced, bigoted, spiteful towards any act of kindness and skeptical of the souls trying to bring about genuine change. Everyone had to pick a side and take a name. I couldn’t help but feel like God was being mean. Aggressive. Punishing us into oblivion for failing to come together when the world needed it most.

The violence and injustice continued on the TV. Inside me, my words were dying.

And thus “Smiling Jesus,” the poem, was born of a writer’s desperate gasps.

I couldn’t see Him. My wife swore He was there, but for me, that was a supreme fallacy. All I could perceive was a system out to divide, money becoming even more of a deity than it already was, and brothers against sisters in an all out war on human compassion.

Decency didn’t exist.

But there was Jesus, watching me everyday from that wall and seemingly grinning to mock these catastrophic states of affairs in the most offensive display of irony I had ever witnessed.

Where was God’s hand when economic, racial, gender, and class/social inequality ran rampant alongside a killer virus that was never going to go away? Where is the radical hope in a country falling apart at the seams and a world following suit?

That was all I asked in my poem.

Some people apparently didn’t understand. My blog got flooded with numerous negative comments and even threats.

I did the only sane thing I could have said possibly done.

I left.

And with leaving came the emptiness and vapid idleness of losing my expression. In turn, I started to veer my hatred towards God even more.

I wanted to believe how my wife did again – to have that purity and innocence once more , to truly cherish the numerous blessings in my life leading up to this point.

Well, I learned the hard way.

Anyone who reads my work knows how much Danielle, my spouse, actually means to me.

She is more than a partner and best friend – she is evidence of a miracle. She has saved my life in ways I didn’t even think possible.

For many years, I believed I was undeserving of even having a woman marry me, let alone an angel who looked past my inability to be like everyone else and accept me just as I am (talk about selflessness and unconditional love).

I never thought so early on in our marriage that I would have to help her find a way to literally save herself too.

In the last few months, Danielle has been diagnosed with a severe cardiac illness. It is congenital. She was born with it and never even knew she had it despite being tested.

We are at a crossroads facing decisions that have impacted our future in a manner that has ripped many choices from us.

Our autonomy as a couple has been compromised – we didn’t even have a chance to try and have the things many other marriages take for granted. Though surgery and major interventions will help her survive for what we are being told is a long life, we may not ever be able to lead that life how we expected.

Hearing this news, attending doctor’s appointments almost every other day, facing my own declining health at the same time, and finally not having my poetry to cope just became too damn much.

I gave up. I quit believing.

I yanked the picture of the “Smiling Jesus” off the wood paneling and threw it down on the ground.

I was fed up.

God just wasn’t there.

Until the day came where I started feeling even sicker. My rage, anxiety, and outright negativity caught up to me. I was growing mean and selfish, aggressive and vengeful towards whatever good things remained in my life.

My heart couldn’t keep up. I started having arrhythmias daily. This body that was already prone to an irritable heartbeat now was facing a doomsday scenario in the period where my wife was needing me the most.

I started to pray.

I never felt farther away from God, but it was all I could do for help.

I would take my medication and just pray I would survive another bout of these insane flip-flopping, dangerous episodes.

I prayed that Danielle will be okay, that I will be there for her to grow old together as we vowed.

I prayed that the world can heal just as we are attempting to heal, that somewhere out there an answer exists and maybe (just maybe) that Jesus Christ is more than a story told in a church but a testimony to the collective good in mankind that’s just as powerful as the bad.

I prayed that time can bring me back to my words, to the joy of sharing who I am with all of you, and once again to my God and Savior who continues to share His grace and redemption even after I punched Him in His proverbial mouth and threw Him down on the basement floor.

They say some acts can never be forgiven. But with Christ, that isn’t true. He just kept on smiling. Even after hitting the tile.

Last week, Danielle got me a surprise. Another canvas of the “Smiling Jesus.”

I tried to replace hers anyway (even though it didn’t break interestingly enough). She beat me to the finish line.

Inside of the package was a picture – a free gift with the image. It was another illustration of Christ holding a baby lamb over his shoulders, with an even bigger grin spread across his beaming visage.

On the backside was a note:

“For you, Jonathan. Forever radiant in Christ,” signed by the artist.

Danielle didn’t plan this or ask. It was just there, as if he knew I needed that – to hear that even when we stray and engage the very darkness we fear or might even become, we are all just little lambs trying to find their way back to the one who promises genuine happiness.

It’s hanging now in 2 places – in my den and in her office again too.

Throughout the day, I stop and take look at the picture of my God shining down His joy – dented from the many wars in which we all endure wounds, but eternal in His smile that carries the weight of our battlescars and burdens regardless of what dissent remains.

That smirk sits steadfast high above me.

For the first time in a long while, I actually smile too.

Keep the faith. Whatever that faith may be.

  • J. Pigno

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