The image of Chelsey Thomas was enough to demand my attention, though I had intended only to browse the headlines on the evening news. She was only 8 years old. At first glance she seemed rather ordinary. Ordinary, that is, until she tried to smile. Chelsey was born without the muscles that make that simple facial gesture possible.
The culprit is a rare illness known as Moebius syndrome. It attacks early in fetal development and inhibits the development of the facial nerves. As a result, the muscles don't function. One in 2 million children are affected by the disorder. They have trouble sucking or swallowing, and their fingers may be stubby and webbed.
Chelsey Thomas's case brought attention to Moebius syndrome as none other before. The pictures of this Palmdale, California, schoolgirl also brought hope to others who might never have understood the reason for their plight. When her story first hit the airwaves, one side of Chelsey's face had already been surgically repaired. Dr. Ronald Kuker skillfully executed a procedure that gave her the ability to flex one cheek and lift that corner of her lips. Her heroic effort was touching.
Chelsey was eager to have the next operation. This one would enable her to control both sides of her face and generate a symmetrical smile. Her ultimate desire was to be able to express herself in a way that most people take for granted. She simply wanted to smile.
Without the ability to smile, people who suffer from Moebius syndrome are often perceived as stupid. They appear unaware of or unconcerned about people or events that surround them. They are severely limited when it comes to forming relationships, because they seem arrogant or unkind. Evidently smiles are more important than we realize.
Under normal circumstances the effort to produce a smile barely seems worthy of prolonged discussion, but smiles are becoming more and more rare these days. The dangers that confront people who live in thickly populated urban centers practically demand the projection of a "city face." Conventional wisdom suggests that a hardened exterior tends to lessen one's vulnerability to scams or even physical attacks. Since television tends to present urban society as the norm, the city face is gaining ground. Society in general seems to be less cordial.
People probably have a right to expect Christians to be more pleasant than others. If one of the fruits of the Spirit is joy, an occasional smile is the least that a Christian should be willing to show the world. Nevertheless a long face worn to signify religious virtue has tended to outdistance the simple mes sage in a smile.
The smile of Christ, though seldom mentioned, takes center stage in the following quotation: "I tried to shield myself from His gaze, feeling unable to endure His searching eyes, but He drew near with a smile, and, laying His hand upon my head, said: 'Fear not.' The sound of His sweet voice thrilled my heart with a happiness it had never before experienced. I was too joyful to utter a word, but, overcome with ineffable happiness, sank prostrate at His feet....
At length my strength returned, and I arose. The loving eyes of Jesus were still upon me, and His smile filled my soul with gladness. His presence filled me with holy reverence and an inexpressible love."1
In view of our troubled times, some might think that it is time for Christians to trade in their pleasant countenances and adopt appropriately serious faces. After all, the trials that are foretold in the Bible cannot hope to inspire a joyful spirit. Could it be that even Christ would be challenged to appear happy in these times?
"It is often said that Jesus wept, but that He was never known to smile. Our Saviour was indeed a Man of Sorrows, and acquainted with grief, for He opened His heart to all the woes of men. But though His life was self-denying and shadowed with pain and care, His spirit was not crushed. His countenance did not wear an expression of grief and repining, but ever one of peaceful serenity. His heart was a wellspring of life, and wherever He went He carried rest and peace, joy and gladness."2
We are called upon to reflect the "peaceful serenity" that marked Christ's visage despite the challenges that we must overcome. The capacity to be pleasant in spite of apparent difficulties is not really possible within our own strength. We must conscientiously rely on our dependable Source.
Prayerfully consider the gesture that means so much to Chelsey Thomas. Seek to be a channel of light for someone you meet, even if you only share a smile.
1. Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1882), p. 80.
2. ____, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 120.