It had been a busy day of job interviews and getting mama to a doctor's appointment. I'd almost talked myself out of going to an Ash Wednesday service at a church I'd been wanting to visit. But, reluctantly, I went. (Why does the Holy Spirit so often show up in "reluctant places"?)
As different speakers shared the Ash Wednesday readings, I began to realize it was the Holy Spirit who had pushed me past my excuses, out of my comfort zone, and onto that wooden pew to hear their pastor read the following passage:
"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 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)
This pastor then explained to us 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 wore masks, depending on the character they were playing. So, with that background, here are some words I wrote down from his sermon (thanks to the shorthand I still use from time to time):
"Most of us live our lives behind a mask.
We're afraid if people see behind our mask, they won't love us.
....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"...
Then He stretches out His arms on a cross and dies.
....Lent is a time to let God help us take off our masks.
For us to offer our unmasked selves wholeheartedly to Him.
Taking off our masks is vulnerable and can make us feel completely naked.
....But 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'
--for our children and our grandchildren and their children....
Could there be anything more beautiful than to live like that?"
Then, I stood in line for communion and to have those cross-shaped ashes painted on my brow. As the man who had just spoken those powerful, convicting, comforting words traced a cross on my forehead, he said quietly: "My sister, from dust you were formed, and to dust you shall return."
And, right there, my 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?"
And I began to cry.
NORMAL. What a loaded word.
I lost count of the times mama 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, standing there in front of that pastor, I realized that, like mama, NORMAL is one of the masks I wear. I too want to fit in and "just be like other people." And, just like mama, inevitably, that mask causes choices in my life that bring more chaos, damaging comparisons, confusion and sin.
The morning after that Ash Wednesday service--with mama's words and that pastor's words still echoing in my heart--I opened my favorite Lenten book, and the page fell open to words I wrote years ago:
"Before Jesus shows us who He is, He has to show us who we are."
And those words rattled my masks. They still do.
"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)