by Emily Cook
Sunday morning, people in tight shoes and uncomfortable clothes greet each other:
“Hi, how are you?”
“Oh, pretty good. Busy of course. You?”
“Yep, pretty busy, but we’re hanging in there!”
And off we go to sit in the pews.
We keep most to ourselves, not wanting to burden every one we see with our problems. We do this because we are strong, or proud, or afraid, or kind, or just in a hurry. We control how much of ourselves we expose, and this is not entirely a bad thing.
As I sat in church this Sunday in my itchy nylons and tight mask, I wondered what it would be like if one day, all the masks were shattered. What would it be like if we really shared the heart of things with each other, even the ugly stuff? What if I could really see the deep-down struggles or the person sitting next to me, and they could see mine?
“Good morning, how are you today?”
“I’m feeling pretty small actually. I just screamed at my kids. I know I hurt their little hearts. I can’t stop seeing their sad little eyes.”
“Really? Well, I’m doubting the goodness of God because of a news story I just heard. Those suffering children… they just haunt me. Where is God in all this?”
“Did you have a good weekend?”
“I did, but mostly because I got drunk again, and now I’m feeling awful. Why do I do this to myself?”
“I don’t know…I’ve been sticking to my diet ok… but I think I use it as an excuse to be nasty to my family all the time. Everybody’s angry, especially me, and I don’t know how to fix it.”
Can you imagine if our sins just hung out there for everyone to see? If our mouths were incapable of vague, safe conversation, but could only cut right to the heart of things?
Of course, if you spoke this way to me next Sunday, I probably would be too shocked to know what to say.
“G’morning, how are you?”
“I am mad at myself for being the worst mother in the world. I do not deserve my children or anything else. I am a selfish, horrible jerk.”
I’d stare, stammer, and probably spit out some hollow words to try to boost your self-esteem.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s not all that bad, really. You did crafts with your kids this week. . . that’s more than I’ve done with mine! We all have bad days…” and so on. But those awkward words wouldn’t help the sinner oppressed by sins, would they?
But our Father knows what we need. And so on Sunday, I stand in my itchy clothes, wanting desperately to look like I have it all together, and breathing in the stale air trapped behind my mask. Right at the beginning of the Divine Service, I receive the correction I need. Together, with the put-together people sitting beside me, I am forced to speak from behind the mask, speak the true words of a weary sinner longing for grace:
“We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.”
“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We say it together, standing side by side as beggars before God. We are weary, desperate for grace. Before Him, there is no hiding. There is no pretending to be “fine.” There are no masks that His eyes do not penetrate.
The liturgy– our weekly dance with God’s Word– cuts right into the heart, forcing us to speak aloud of our aching need for grace. We do not list our sins out loud, individually, yet God brings them to mind as we speak the familiar words of repentance.
When we set down the mask, what remains? We are served no peptalk, no 5-step plans, no self-esteem boosting to soothe our singed consciences. Instead…only Jesus.
We hear that earthly voice, that mere human who is given for us and to us. We hear our pastor, called and ordained, speaking on behalf of God and by His authority:
“Almighty God in His mercy has given His son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins.”
We inhale the grace, and let it down deep into our lungs. Why should we continue to suck down the stale air of our own making? God’s free, fresh forgiveness like a strong wind blows where His Word is preached.
Lord, open our lips, our ears, our hearts, our hands, and our lungs, and our lives will declare your praise. — Amen
Emily Cook is a mother of six, a sinner, a child, covered in the blood of Christ, and freed from the burden of pretending she is strong. She lives with her husband and their six children in the arms of the church where he is a pastor. Read more by Emily at www.weakandloved.com
Quotes taken from Lutheran Service Book Divine Service Setting One. This piece was originally published on weakandloved.com Feb 2014, updated March 2015.