Posts Tagged ‘God’s love’

“I am not really myself. I am someone else. When others see me to talk to me, they are talking to a stranger. Not me. I am kept hidden away, safe from discovery or attack, behind the cover of my masks. Each day, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. As I sift through my closet, choosing which clothes to wear, I also search my mental mask menagerie, carefully selecting the image I want to project. Like an actor, I have learned to portray many roles. Many faces. Many moods. And I use a different mask for each.”

In this moment of honesty the young woman poet says what many people want to say, but have a hard time admitting. Very often in one way or another people often hide behind masks. Masks of happiness, because we want to be happy, though we may not be. Masks of the socialite because we want to have friends, though we are afraid people may not like us if they knew our real selves. Masks of self-sufficiency because we want to take charge of our lives, particularly when life seems beyond our control. Masks of “I’m fine” even when I am suffering from an illness or disease that threatens my life and I’m in denial. Masks of confidence when I don’t want to admit mistakes, weakness or hurt. Masks of superiority to tamp down feelings of being a fraud just waiting to be outed. Masks of all kinds to fit all the situations life presents to us each and every day.

I have often wondered why we wear these masks. Is it because it’s simply easier to go along to get along? Have we been rejected so many times in our lives that we choose not to risk being real? Or, is it as Henri Nouwen suggests that we live in the house of fear when he wrote, “The more people I come to know and the more I come to know people, the more I am overwhelmed by the negative power of fear. It often seems that fear has invaded every part of our being to such a degree that we no longer know what a life without fear would feel like.”

Or, is it because we feel like a bowl that a friend of Joyce Rupp owned. This friend had a bowl with a lovely oriental design on it that was used at every family gathering for years. Over the years the design faded, one side received a crack and was chipped in several places. Pat, Rupp’s friend, admitted she turned the bowl, so that its “bad side” faced the wall and the bowl’s flaws were less noticeable.

Whatever the reasons, the downside of hiding behind masks creates more problems for us as the poet reminds us, “As I continue to wear these masks they begin to feel too comfortable. Natural. Necessary. As I get used to my masks I begin to believe they might really be me rather than merely a façade. Yet, meanwhile, my true self lies dormant within me. Isolated. Forgotten”

This is what has happened to the Pharisee, who has come to the Temple to pray, though he doesn’t realize it.

The Pharisee stands with his hands upraised and his face looking up in the traditional posture for prayer. Then, he begins his prayer without realizing how where he stands combined with the words he is speaking betrays the mask he wears. Now, to be sure this Pharisee believes he is a good man. In fact, there are a number of congregations that would welcome him with open arms, including this one. After all, he is not a crook, not a timeserver, not a womanizer. He takes nothing he hasn’t honestly earned, he gives everyone a fair measure, and he is faithful to his wife, and patient with his children. And, he is religious. He fasts twice a week, he puts his money where his mouth is: ten percent of all his income is for God, and he gives God thanks. Or at least he thinks he does.

You see the Greek phrase “pros heowton” can be translated as “standing by himself” or “praying within himself’ or “praying to himself.” By the first way of translating the phrase he is standing aloof from all the other people praying suggesting he has physically separated himself from the community as one who is too pure to stand near them, thus his words, “Thank God I’m not like other people,” and his actions of standing off by himself reinforce each other. By the second and third way of translating the phrase, he is mainly talking to himself in a narcissistic soliloquy and has separated himself from God.

Perhaps Jesus means he has done both, since the words of his prayer separates him from his community in its very opening, “Thank God I’m not like all these people” and he separates himself from God by listing all the things he does to justify himself-to save himself without God having anything to do with it. This is a man who has little need of God or the community. This is a man who leaves the hour of prayer self-assured and self-justified in his mask of self-righteousness, sort of like Ann Coulter or Bill Maher.

But, he has forgotten the one very important truth.

The truth known personally and deeply by the other man who is praying in the Temple’s shadows. The tax collector is a man, who knows he is only fit for the shadows and barely has any right to be in the Temple because he has sold out his neighbors and taken up with those who are oppressing them. He is the Tony Soprano of the first century enforcing Roman tax laws on his neighbors as well as bleeding them dry by adding on top of the Roman taxes his own greedy sum of money. He is hated by his neighbors as a collaborator and oppressor and treated with disdain by the Romans overseeing his operations. He has no place in the community, except in the shadows, where he stands with his eyes fixed on his feet, beating his chest the way men of the Ancient Near East did in heart-wrenching anguish, saying only a phrase adapted from Psalm 51- “God, have mercy upon me- a sinner.”

Which is absolutely true. He is a sinner. He knows he is a sinner and is not about to pretend to be what he is not. He has come to prayer hoping for God’s mercy because only God can forgive him. Only God can save him. He cannot save himself.  By the simple words of his prayer he takes off the mask he has been wearing and admits he has separated himself far away from his community and from God. He knows that on his own he cannot be reconciled to his community or be reconciled to God, only God is able to do that. He has come to the truth novelist Douglas Coupland writes, “My secret is that I need God- that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”

This tax collector has come to this moment because, I suspect, somewhere before he arrived at the Temple he discovered that one important truth the Pharisee has not yet discovered. We can hide from our neighbors by the masks we wear. We might be able to hide from ourselves even when we look in the mirror. But, we can’t hide from God.

God knows us as the psalmist tells us, “ O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.”

There is simply no place where we can go that God is not present. There is no thought we might think that is hidden to God. Nor words, nor actions. Like the Psalmist, we encounter God who knows us through and through. God knows our daily habits, our most intimate thoughts and intentions. God’s knowledge, moreover, is not casual or indifferent. It is searching, penetrating, disturbing. It lays bare the innermost core of our being. We are surprised to find that God is not only near, God is uncomfortably near. God is before us and behind us; we are surrounded and if we are as aware of God as the psalmist is then we too will feel the constraint of God’s hand upon us.

Such a God is disturbing, disquieting, unsettling. God threatens our self-sufficiency. God does not confirm us as we are. Rather, God upsets the compromises we have made with the world and ourselves. Like most of us, the Psalmist yearned to know God. Obviously, neither he nor us had expected such a God as this. One may discern in the shadow of the psalmist’s surprise that the God he yearned to know was a projection of his own wishes and values, the champion of his cause. Isn’t that the God we have often yearned to know? The one who will do what we want, who will answer our prayers as we deem best on our terms and on our time tables? However, the encounter with the One who is truly divine is too much for the Psalmist. It requires a revolution in his life he feels he cannot make.

Yet, here is the good news Jesus brings into the world like the rising sun lit dawn chasing away the darkness of night, “God loves us.” Loving us not for our perfections, but with our flaws and imperfections readily apparent. That’s why Jesus called a tax collector to be one of the twelve disciples. That’s why Jesus constantly ate with thieves, prostitutes, lepers, and all who were sinners and beyond the bounds of the community of respectable people. That’s why Jesus so infuriated those who opposed him. They thought they had the in with God and when the Messiah came they would be confirmed. They are like the older brother in the prodigal son story, who gets angry when the ne’er do well younger brother is forgiven and is welcomed with a lavish feast, but forgets he is already blessed by his father. They have forgotten they have already received God’s grace because they have become so comfortable behind their masks of self-righteousness and have forgotten they too are sinners just like all those other people. They too need God.

They too need God’s mercy to see that their flaws are some of their greatest treasures, being irritated and grated by the sand of God’s presence in Jesus, so they become pearls. The pearls that keep our ego in check by reminding us daily of our need of God’s grace. The pearls that keep us growing and becoming more the real persons whose lives resemble Jesus’ life. The pearls that helps us to be more understanding and compassionate with the inadequacies and flaws of others. The pearls that help us to continually grow into being more loving persons, seeing what our flaws tell us about our relationship with God and with others. Reminding us not to hide behind masks or to turn our flawed side to the wall, but to rejoice in the grace of a God, who knows us inside and outside and still loves us and wants us to walk God’s path of life where there is fullness of joy and peace.

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