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  • Writer's pictureStephen Percy

Who's That Behind the Mask?

The less discerning reader (ahem!) may be familiar with the ITV programme, ‘Who’s That Behind the Mask’. For those who aren’t, the premise is that a bunch of celebrities dress up in some quite extravagant costumes and masks to conceal their true identity. They then provide a series of clues to tease the panel before singing live. The panel’s task is to figure out who’s behind the mask (sounds surreal, right? If you can’t picture it, click here to see ‘Mushroom’).

I re-read this quote by Tim Keller the other day:

“The church is a hospital for the sick, not a museum for the saints.”

It got me thinking. I wonder – and ponder this in your own heart and mind – to what extent this is the reality within our churches?

See, I observe a tendency within many Christians (and I’m certainly guilty of it myself!) to put an ‘everything’s alright, I’ve got it all together’ mask on when it comes to church community. We so easily fall into the trap of pretending and presenting as if life were hunky-dory and tickety-boo. And yet it often isn’t. So why do we do this? Why do we feel the need to act like everything’s okay?

There are probably many varied answers, some of which apply to certain people more than others, but could it be that one issue is that the prevailing culture within churches communicates that to fit in, to belong, you need to be ‘presentable’ or ‘respectable’. I wonder whether, in a thousand unspoken words, our culture communicates that the mess of broken lives, the awkward, inconvenient reality of the snot and tears of how people really are is not actually welcome in our community museum.

That may sound harsh; forgive me if it does. But don’t switch off just because it sounds challenging.

Do you remember the account in Mark 2, where Jesus was found eating with those who were marginalised, rejected and otherwise cast out from society? He was criticised for doing so, and in response said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” Jesus declined the company of those who were preoccupied with their own goodness and opted to spend time with those acutely aware of their need of Him. His kingdom community would never be described as respectable or sorted. It was made up of the broken, lost and sinful. Made up of you and of me.

Many among us battle a latent ‘self-righteousness complex’ and the Master Physician’s words above shine a spotlight directly on it. It’s possible to mentally assent to the understanding that we are sinners who have nothing to offer God of our own goodness or merit, but deep-down in an unspoken part of ourselves, something turns its nose up at the idea of being fundamentally sinful and broken. We see ‘proper cases’ of that and seek to distance ourselves from being ‘like them’.

Until we front up to the true state of our wickedness and waywardness by nature, the Gospel will remain a self-improvement model and church a sanitised museum for the sorted.

This denial of our true state – our own sickness (to use Jesus’ terms) fuels the need to project a type of ‘sortedness’. It gives ground to the irrational fear of ‘What would they think if they really knew?’ And so, driven by a fear of being found out, we put our masks on and play the part. Squeaky clean, act sorted Christian. Only when the door closes behind us when the show is over do we dare to crumble and deal privately with the reality and pain of life in a broken world.

This way, no-one wins. The struggling person loses because they ‘suck it up’ and slap on a smile, missing out on the opportunity to allow God’s people to be His means of grace to them. The body loses out because those willing to be Jesus’ hands and feet to the weary and broken don’t get the chance. And those who come through our doors in need of a hospital miss out because all they see are well-polished, got-it-all-together trophies in a museum called church.

The TV programme culminates with contestants being eliminated one by one. The judges state their final guess as to the celebrity’s identity, then the crowd chant “Take it off! Take it off!” Repeatedly. Slowly, the mask gets removed to reveal who was inside all along. What would it look like if you and I committed to taking off the masks we don and allowing people to see the real us – warts and all? How different would community life be if we embraced the twin challenges of vulnerability and authenticity, opting out of the façade and masquerade that church can easily become? How attractive would that community seem to the broken and needy who come through our doors, and how readily would they see the grace of God that draws us together – sin-sick strugglers – not based on our collective goodness, but upon a grace that is greater than all of our shortcomings and need?

As is often the case, the Casting Crowns make my point for more eloquently and memorably than I manage. Listen to Stained Glass Masquerade’ and consider God’s invitation to take off your mask and enter into authentic Christian community.

The snot and tears come free. You’re welcome.

Be blessed,

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