And, as God often does when He wants to make sure I'm paying attention, it seems for the past two days those convicting words from Isaiah and David have been everywhere--songs on the radio, e-votionals, and the Ash Wednesday service I almost didn't attend.
After a busy day of job interviews and getting mom to a doctor appointment, I'd almost talked myself out of going to an Ash Wednesday service. (At this point, I should probably be honest and tell you one of the "fasts" I feel called to this Lent is to fast making excuses because of fear, discomfort, cynicism, etc.)
So, reluctantly, I went. (Why is it the Holy Spirit always shows up in "reluctant places"?)
The service was held at a church I've been wanting to visit, Apostles Anglican. As the different speakers began reciting those increasingly familiar words from Isaiah and David, I knew it was the Holy Spirit who had pushed me past my excuses, out of my comfort zone, and onto that wooden pew.
And, I believe I'm supposed to share some of Reverend Bryson's words with you. After the words from Isaiah and David, Reverend Bryson read the following words from Jesus (as translated in The Message):
"Be especially careful when you are trying to be good
so that you don't make a performance out of it.
It might be good theater,
but the God who made you won't be applauding.
When you do something for someone else,
don't call attention to yourself.
You've seen them in action, I'm sure—
'playactors' I call them—
treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage,
acting compassionate as long as someone is watching,
playing to the crowds.
They get applause, true, but that's all they get.
When you help someone out, don't think about how it looks.
Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively.
That is the way your God, who conceived you in love,
working behind the scenes, helps you out.
And when you come before God,
don't turn that into a theatrical production either.
All these people making a regular show out of their prayers,
hoping for stardom!
Do you think God sits in a box seat?
Here's what I want you to do:
Find a quiet, secluded place
so you won't be tempted to role-play before God.
Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage.
The focus will shift from you to God,
and you will begin to sense his grace."
(Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, The Message)
Rev. Bryson pointed out that, whenever we see the word "hypocrite" in our English Bibles, it's translated from the Greek word for "actor" (hupokrites). In Biblical times, actors typically wore masks, depending on the character they were playing. So, with that background, here are some words from his sermon:
"Most of us live our lives behind a mask. We're afraid that if people see behind our mask, they won't love us.
....There is even a mask called 'no mask'.
....Our masks do nothing to heal us--they only hide us.
....But, Jesus already sees and knows all the ugliness behind the mask, and He says, "I love you child...this much"...and He stretches out His arms on a cross and dies.
....Lent is a time to let God help us take off our masks and offer our unmasked selves wholeheartedly to Him. Doing so is vulnerable and can make us feel completely naked.
....He has not called us to be actors--He has called us to be ambassadors. He has called us to be 'a rebuilder of walls, a restorer of homes, to raise up the foundations of many generations'--that means for our children and our grandchildren and their children....Could there be anything more beautiful than to live like that?"
At this point in the service, I stood in line for the "Imposition of Ashes," yet another occasion where I had to "fast" fear. As the Holy Spirit would have it, when my "turn" came, I stood before this man who had just spoken those powerful, convicting, comforting words. As he traced the ashes on my forehead, he said quietly: "My sister, from dust you were formed, and to dust you shall return."
And I began to cry. My heart and mind flashed back to a conversation with mom from earlier in the day. She couldn't remember something she wanted to tell me, and became frustrated and angry. She asked me, "Am I ever going to be normal again?"
NORMAL. What a loaded word for 6 little letters.
Over the past few years, I've lost count of the times mom has said to me, "I just always wanted to be normal." The sad irony is that her definition of 'normal' and the choices she made trying to achieve it brought even more chaos into her life.
But, if I'm honest, I have to confess that 'NORMAL' is a mask I wear. I too want to fit in and "just be like other people." And, inevitably, that 'normal' mask causes me abnormality, confusion and sin.
It strikes me as no coincidence that, the morning after Ash Wednesday service, when I opened my favorite Lenten book, the page fell open to some words I wrote years ago: "Before Jesus shows us who He is, He has to show us who we are."
Wow! Those words still rattle my masks.
So, here are some questions I've been thinking about. Maybe they'll speak to you too:
*What masks am I wearing? (In other words, how might Jesus be trying to show me who I am so He can show me who He is?)
*How might the Holy Spirit be trying to "unmask" me so I can offer my wholehearted, unmasked self to God?
*What is an "ambassador"?
*Where have I been an actor instead of an ambassador?
*How can I be "a rebuilder of walls, a restorer of homes", starting with my own family, this Lent?
(FYI, in the Old Testament, when Isaiah wrote these words, "walls" provided protection from the enemy.)
*How do I define "normal"? Does that definition help or harm my spiritual growth?
With these questions in mind, let's turn these words from a forgiven, grateful David into a prayer:
"The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD’s love is with those who fear him,
his righteousness with their children’s children—
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts."
(Psalm 103:8-18 NIV)