Ripping Off The Mask – Steve’s Letter May 2015
MAY 6, 2015
I’m writing a new book—the working title is Hidden Agendas: How the Masks We Wear Hurt Us and Those We Love—that should be out in…well…sometime. As I’m now up to chapter 9 (out of 11), this “horse is headed for the barn.” Frankly, some of what I’ve written is so good I can hardly stand it, some of it isn’t half bad, and some of it is so horrible that I don’t think I can fix it. As I write, I can hear the angels laughing at me…they can’t believe I’m doing this again. But I don’t care. I plan to keep writing books until I get it right.
Before one writes a book, the publisher requires (and it’s a good idea) a basic outline, chapter titles and some of the central ideas in each chapter. I did that a long time ago but the surprise (and this happens every time I’ve done this) is how, in the writing, the book goes in directions one doesn’t expect. I trust that those “different roads” are the Holy Spirit…but it might be indigestion.
At any rate, one of the roads I didn’t expect came from a statement Brenda Smith (the daughter of my late mentor, Fred Smith) gave me from her father. Fred said, “The reckless ripping off of a mask is the kiss of death for friendship.” I thought about that and decided I should write a cautionary chapter, “Ugliness in a Nudist Colony.” I remembered what Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6).
I got the title for that chapter from a fairly edgy daily talk show we used to do at Key Life. It didn’t last very long because Christians don’t do edgy very well. While the talk show had a serious purpose to it, we did a lot of comedy (Christians don’t do that very well either). Someone told our producer about a “Christian” nudist colony in our area, so we decided to send some of the staff to check it out. We sent two guys whose wives wouldn’t let them go unless they (the wives) went with them. I suppose the wives had visions of erotic scenes with sexy women running around naked, and that was just not something they could sanction…at least not unless they were there.
Their fears were misplaced.
It turned out to be a funny, interesting and controversial segment, but do you know the most interesting thing about the reporting from the nudist colony? It was how ugly the nudists were. It’s not that Christian nudists are particularly ugly or more ugly than the average Christian with clothes on, it was just that those things that make ugly less ugly (i.e. clothes) were set aside. (My friend, Tony Campolo, once asked me what I thought was the best birth control method for older couples. I allowed that I didn’t know. He laughed and said, “nakedness.”)
Just as clothes have a purpose, so do masks. Fred was right about the “reckless ripping off of a mask.” Doing that at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and with the wrong people is not only the death for friendship, it can cause great damage.
When Christians first get the fact that they are loved and forgiven unconditionally, and experience the freedom and joy that truth gives them, they have a tendency to quickly take off their masks. We’ve all heard the testimonies of new Christians and, if you’re like me, you’ve probably winced at some of the things that were confessed or revealed. I decided it was important that Christians (while still being authentic) recognize they need to “be careful out there.”
Years ago a friend gave me a copy of Gracian’s Manual: A Truth-Telling Manual and the Art of Worldly Wisdom. It is a compilation of the rather cynical and sometimes wise words written by a seventeenth century Spanish Jesuit. This is what Gracian wrote about masks:
“He is not a fool who commits foolishness, but he who having done so does not know how to conceal it. If your merits should be kept under seal, how much more your demerits. All men go wrong; but with this difference, the intelligent cover up what they have committed, and the fools expose even what they may commit. A good name rests more upon what is concealed, than upon what is revealed, for he who cannot be good, must be cautious….Let it be a mistake to confide your errors even to a friend, for were it possible, you should not disclose them to yourself; but since this is impossible, make use here of that other principle of life, which is: learn how to forget.”
Since I planned to spend most of the time in the new book telling people why Gracian was wrong, I decided to say something about why he was right.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that masks can kill you. A part of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is to erase “phony” (John 16:8). But it is one thing to tell the truth and it is quite another to tell the whole truth before it is time, to tell inappropriate truth to people who are inappropriate, and to tell the whole truth to people who don’t want to hear and can’t handle it.
We live in a time when secrets are hard to keep. With social media, cameras around every corner, YouTube, email hackers and viral tweets…town gossips have pretty much been put out of business or maybe now they have a much bigger platform. If you don’t want everyone to know what you say, write and do, don’t say it, don’t write it and don’t do it. It will come back to bite you. Just ask those whose lives were destroyed by an online revelation, a Google search, or a camera about which they weren’t aware.
Still, until the church, the world and our communities become safe places, a wise man or woman will be careful about an inappropriate authenticity that is more akin to stripping than honesty. Let me remind you of a couple things that are very important to remember.
First, for instance, timing is important.
When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, he said, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7). Then later in John, Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). Jesus is talking about timing.
The late George Buttrick, the minister at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, used to say that there are some things a preacher can’t say to a congregation until he’s been with them a year and other things he can’t say until he’s been there 20 years. That’s true of preachers but it’s also true of us all. There is a process of “soul trading” that must always be respected.
Second, remember the issue of appropriateness.
There are some things that are appropriate and some things that aren’t. In Luke 7 there is a story about a forgiven prostitute who crashed a dinner party for Pharisees. She was not only a prostitute…she was a dumb prostitute. In her line of work, it’s best not to show up at a party for Pharisees. I get the fact that she desperately wanted to see Jesus, but if she had been “street smart” she would have waited until after the party and met Jesus as he was leaving. She didn’t do that. She came right in. She fell at his feet, worshiped him and anointed him with precious oil. It’s an amazing story and a wonderful one! Jesus accepted her, loved her and used her as an example of what forgiveness and acceptance meant.
But then that was Jesus. He’s always safe. Almost everybody else isn’t…at least at the beginning. So if you’re a prostitute, a liar, a sinner, an adulterer, unfaithful, have hurt people or have stolen from a bank (and we’re all one of those), you have to be careful about what you say and where you say it. Some things just aren’t appropriate for some people. I teach seminary students to be authentic; but at the same time, to be careful about details. I tell them, “Don’t do or say anything that will cause you to lose your job unless you’re absolutely sure God told you to do it or say it.”
Sometimes there are people who don’t need to see what is behind our masks. When Jesus said that we shouldn’t throw our pearls before swine, among other things, he was talking about necessity. There are people who are so into lying that they lie when the truth would have served them better. And just so, there are people who tell the truth and all the truth when silence would have served them better.
Your casual acquaintances don’t need to know your sins. Your mother doesn’t need to know that which would shock and disturb her. Your co-worker doesn’t need to know every thought you think and every stupid thing you’ve done. There are levels of relationships that grow and flourish with authentic self-revelation, but remember that you don’t have to tell the world everything. “That’s more than I wanted to know” is the reaction of a benevolent stranger to our authenticity. The others will beat you over the head and try to destroy you with it.
You get the idea. There’s a lot more in the chapter, but I’ve run out of space so you’ll just have to read the book. Key Life will need the money.
But if you’ve read what I’ve written here, I’ve probably saved you from considerable pain.
Don’t thank me.
Besides Jesus told me to tell you. Thank him.