By Rev. Paul Graves
Arguably the most famous unmasking of a movie character came in the 1983’s “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.” Do you remember how Luke Skywalker cradled his father, Darth Vader, as Vader was dying and took off that infamous helmet? Vader’s unmasking showed a much more vulnerable human being than the scary presence and voice of Darth Vader.
Perhaps that’s why most of us prefer wearing our many layers of mental and metaphorical masks. We want that protection, however we’ve constructed it and projected it to those around us. Maybe that’s why COVID-19 mask-wearing has become so controversial for too many.
I don’t know anyone eager to wear the pandemic-induced mask. Maybe not enough people do, but a good many of us put up with those masks to protect others and ourselves.
Yet in the midst of this very understandable need to mask ourselves, I’m here to affirm that 2020 is a time to UNMASK ourselves. Embrace the blessings and burdens that unmasking reveals!
Authentic, courageous spiritual journeys always involve unmasking our false selves. Doing so helps us experience a vulnerable life-strength found only in the very act of unmasking.
Besides, why do we need the layers of masks we’ve spent our lives putting on? One common human reason is to hide our spiritual pain, or the physical/emotional pain we live with.
I so appreciate Fr. Richard Rohr’s awakening me to this truth-piece: “Spirituality in its best sense is about what you do with your pain.” One of his favorite reminders is that if we don’t transform our pain, we are bound to transmit it. It’s a centrifugal pain, shooting out at anyone, everyone. We can see examples of that just in these recent weeks.
I suggest but two dramatic, headline-grabbing examples: the COVID-19 pandemic, and the tragic results of racism and its resulting racial injustice in recent weeks. The masks involved with the volatility of those experiences are complex, because the spiritual, physical and emotional pains are complex.
Unmasked COVID-19 burdens may cause us to deny the virus’ realities or shout our likely unfounded fears about loss of personal liberties, or grieve the loss of loved ones and disconnect from vulnerable loved ones. Countless other burdens, too.
Unmasked COVID-19 blessings may show tenderness toward/from other people, incredible step-up kindness and support for vulnerable persons, so much community graciousness. And much more.
Unmasked racial injustice burdens include dismissiveness, disrespectfully angry attitudes of explicit and implicit racial bias, street violence camouflaged as “protest,” people with guns pretending to be “protectors” of their version of freedom. And so much more.
Unmasked racial injustice blessings include healthier angry attitudes bending toward social change and personal transformation, peace-minded protesters marching and engaging public officials, more honest soul-searching about personal racial attitudes. And so much more.
Masks are the tools of play-actors, or “hypocrites.” Jesus famously called the religious Pharisees hypocrites because they corrupted righteousness while holding common people to a higher standard. We are all hypocrites, friends, religious or otherwise. Let’s unmask ourselves!
The blessings of unmasking ourselves free us from some fears and pains those masks can protect us from admitting to ourselves or others. Many of us who wear the masks profess to follow Jesus. Some really make the effort. Some only play at it.
Jesus didn’t play the victim like we’ve learned to play it. He wore no masks. His love for all persons offers healing of our pain and forgiveness that we couldn’t muster up ourselves.
We still wear our masks. They burden our search for abundant love. The blessings of freedom from our fears are often still masked over.
The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair for the Council on Older Adult Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.