When you really want to wear a mask to church

February 15th, 2016

One Sunday, our five-year-old foster son wanted to wear his Ninja Turtle costume to church. “Not today, buddy. You can’t wear a mask to church.”

While he and I were going through our usual Sunday morning routine before people started coming (which often consists of playing catch in the sanctuary), a thought struck me: Don’t we all wear some type of mask to church?

I remember the point in my life when I started resenting the church.

I started seeing and noticing just how awful some church folks would treat my dad (a pastor). I saw the heavy expectation that the church placed on me because I was the pastor’s kid. I couldn’t wear this, say that, do this, eat that, watch this, listen to that…

I got tired of seeing people act a certain way on Sunday mornings and then completely different every other minute of the week.

Then I heard the call to ministry. I’ve always said that the pastors’ kids who goes into ministry are the really crazy ones. We have seen, experienced, and know what our parents went through… and we still follow the same path.

When I entered into ministry, rather than become disillusioned by the double lives people were leading, I began to see the tragedy of the expectation of perfection placed on people by the church — whether intentional or not.

Don’t we all carry some sense of burden of guilt and/or shame? Yet, instead of finding solidarity, a friend, common ground, grace, we’re worried that we’ll be “discovered” as a “fraud” and be met with judgment, contempt, and/or condemnation — whether this is deserved or not.

So we play charades. We wear our masks. We put on our Sunday best. We wear that smile that let’s the world know “all is good.” But underneath all that, we’re barely hanging on; our world is falling apart; we’re lost and broken.

And for whatever reason, we’re afraid that someone will find out how we’re really doing. Afraid that someone will see through our facade, through the show that we’re putting on.

We may worry that we’ll be excommunicated. Or that we’ll scare God away with our secrets. We may think that the power of grace isn’t powerful for us if people find out what I did or who I really am.

Perfection is as realistic as Superman is.

The idea that one person can follow all the rules, have their entire life in order, have the perfect job, the perfect family with the 2.5 kids and 3 dogs and 2 cats, perfect home, perfect in-laws — that’s unrealistic.

That’s not the type of perfection that God wants for us anyway. More than be “perfect” in our terms, I think God wants us make us whole.

The first step to wholeness begins by refusing to wear a mask — at the least in front of God.

The crazy thing is, we’re never too far from redemption. Not only do we have a God who’s relentless in pursuit of us, we also have a God who, like a loving father, waits on the edge of his chair for us to come home so he can embrace us with a big hug and a loving “Welcome back!”

You’d be surprised at how loving and understanding some of the folks at church can be when you stop pretending and start being real. Sure, there are awful stories of people who judge and scoff and turn their nose up. But I have faith in the church. I have faith in humanity. There are more people who will open their arms and hearts than there are people who’ll turn their backs with an air of snobbery, judgment and condemnation.

I regretted not allowing our foster son to wear his costume.

Yes, I was worried what someone folks would say, “The pastor let his kid wear that to church? To church?!?” (Even though no one would say or think that because my church has wholly embraced our foster son, who has autism.)

He wanted to express himself and how he was feeling, and I said to him, “No, buddy. Be someone else. Be more acceptable to the community.”

For all who’ve heard a message like that from the church, well, I apologize. That’s the church being more afraid than loving.

It’s not who the church is, and it’s not who God is. God loves us just the way we are — scars, flaws, and all.

And that love urges us toward the path of wholeness.

Joseph Yoo is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of Practical Prayer and Encountering Grace. He blogs at JosephYoo.com.

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