In 1896 Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” was published. Originally, Dunbar wrote this poem as an expression of the frustrations of the African American (30 year after slavery was abolished) having to hide behind a mask of contentment. I first ran across this poem in my high school American Lit class. Ever since, this poem has had a profound impact on me. Here’s the poem:
WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Whether Dunbar intended it or not, I think this poem hits at a deeper issue of the masks that we all wear. Sometimes I call it “putting on our church face”. You know the face… it’s the one that says “Everything’s ok and fine… my life is great.” It doesn’t help the many a televangelist would have us believe that unless we truly have faith we won’t live our best life now. The other mask is the mask of self-righteousness. The one that says to the world… “I’m a Christian… therefore by my own actions I am holier than you.”
These masks are a nasty business. The fact of the matter is that in our communities and in our churches we are sinners amongst other sinners, we are people with real pains and struggles amidst other people with real pains and struggles.
A friend of mine who is the campus pastor at University Lutheran Chapel at UCLA sets up a table that says “Religion is for the Weak“. This, of course ignites quite a discussion… but the point that he drives home is that he is weak… and so are you. So stop hiding behind your mask (btw… this is called repentance). You are weak, and thanks be to God that we have a Savior in Jesus Christ who died for the weak.