One of my early childhood memories is that of a classroom Halloween party when I was in kindergarten in which I was dressed up as . . . a dog! As I recall, it wasn’t that elaborate as costumes go – just a molded paper mask we’d bought at a neighborhood store, the kind with to holes cut where the eyes are supposed to be, and a rubber band to hold it up to your face. But even now what I remember is that when I put that mask on, I felt transformed! With that mask in place, I was a dog – growling, barking and rescuing wayward children in danger, just like Lassie did on TV (Even at the age of five, you see, I had an over-active imagination!).
I was convinced that with such a great disguise, no one in my kindergarten class would ever recognize me; but alas, when the time came for each one of us to be unmasked before our classmates, our teacher asked if anybody could guess who was behind the Lassie mask, everybody – and I mean everybody – shouted out, “It’s Mike!”
How did they know? Were my growls and barking not convincing enough? Did my “dog sounds” carry with it a Maine accent that gave me away? Or could it have been the telltale brown sweater I was wearing? Whatever it was, I remember feeling mildly disappointed that the other children had discovered my true identity so quickly. I may have felt like a dog; even tried to act like a dog, but I was still me – and they all knew it. I guess it’s true that a mask can never fully hide who you really are.
Over the years, that memory has become something of a parable for me, a reminder of the fact that even as grown-up people there are still times that we’ll put on a mask, so that we might cover ourselves up and become someone else for awhile – or at least put forth a new and improved version of ourselves! It’s true; for fear that someone might actually see our true selves, we put on a new face, one that will hide what we don’t like about ourselves, or that which we think others would find unattractive about us. This is especially true as regards our relationship with God, and in all honesty, it’s sometimes the way we approach our involvement in the church as well. Not to tell tales out of school (or out of worship, as the case may be), but as a pastor I’ve heard it countless times – the fervent hope (and mostly sincere desire) that engaging in some quick, new found spiritual discipline might compensate for a lifetime of bad choices and self-destructive behaviors.
Now, don’t misunderstand me – I’m not judging or dismissing such practices (we Christians, in fact, big time believers in redemption, and I’ve seen just how powerful a commitment to spiritual growth can be in turning a life around!) – but I do wonder how easily such good intentions become a way we try to cover ourselves up before God, a mask that seeks to “cover up” our flaws as men and women; blending out the blemishes that stand out in our lives and living to make ourselves more attractive before God than we really are.
Fortunately, “covering up” is not what’s at the heart of our Christian faith. In my mind, the greatest spiritual growth begins in recognizing and affirming who we are before God – with our virtue and our transgressions laid open and bare before the one who desires “truth in the inward being,” and yet who is both loving and merciful unto us. This is not about our trying to make ourselves look brand new before God, because that never works – as the Psalmist has sung, we know our transgression, and “[our] sin is ever before [us],” and ever before God.
No, no matter the mask we choose to wear, we cannot hide ourselves from God – but the good news is that God is relentless in seeking us out even when we try. This is because God longs to know us and love us as we truly are; to be reconciled with us and renew a loving relationship with us, so that in the end there is nothing to hide, nothing to cover up before God.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that perhaps our greatest blessing from God is that we are loved unconditionally as we are, and loved enough that we don’t stay that way. By grace we are recreated with a clean heart, a new and right spirit placed within us, and filled up anew with the joy of God’s salvation and the willing spirit to live in a new way; a way forged in love, faith and joy…
…with no need for any mask at all!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry