I Corinthians 13:12-13: II Corinthians 3:17-18
The Rev. Tom Herbek
November 1, 2015
Erma Bombeck tells the following story:
Halloween. She was 4 years old. Sitting at the dinner table, her legs dangled like they were hollow. They cleared the floor by a good 20 inches.
She divided her time between chasing a cherry tomato around the plate with a spoon and looking anxiously out of the window pleading, “It’s dark already. Isn’t it time to go?”
Her costume had been finished for a week. She couldn’t wait another minute to put it on.
First came the padding…large pillows secured with belts from everyone in the family. Then, large boots to disguise her feet. The baggy pants were next, held up by a rope threaded in the loops and a pair of suspenders.
Charcoal covered the cheeks and a bulbous nose looked incongruous on the small face. Large glasses, a large black mustache, and red fright wig completed the outfit.
It was a long drive and a familiar one as she sat on the seat in silence. As we turned the corner, we doused our lights and quietly eased into the driveway to avoid being seen.
“Can you breathe?” I whispered from the bushes.
“Yes,” she whispered back.
I pushed the bell and jumped out of sight just as the porch light came on. The door opened and a big voice boomed, “Well,what have we here? It’s a beggar, Mother. Do we know any beggars?”
From behind the red fright wig, the slouch hat, and the mustache came a small voice, “You’ll never guess who this is, Granddad!”
Of all the holidays on a child’s calendar, Halloween seems to be the best. It’s supposed to be a prelude to a religious celebration of All Saints’ Day, but no one will ever convince me it was not started by a group of mothers who were art majors and seized the opportunity to publicly humiliate the rest of us.
I chose a bad neighborhood from the beginning. The real estate agent tried to warn me. He said, “See that mailbox next door to you? The one with the flowers and butterflies hand-painted? Mrs. Walters did that….freehand.”
I thought I could overcome women who shaped their hedges into farm animals, hand-smocked yokes for their daughters’ dresses, and made necklaces out of old potato peelings. But it was Halloween that did me in…that one day when your children turn to you for your imagination and creativity.
I knew I was in trouble when I saw a hand-carved pumpkin in the window across the street…with capped teeth!
The woman on one side of me had been sewing sequins on her daughter’s fairy godmother dress since July. The one on the other side was dressing her son as a dragon with a smoke vent on his mask and a bag of dry ice around his neck. It was going to be another year where my kids would stand under a bright porch light with a brown bag over their heads and someone would say, “What are they, Margaret? Am I missing something?”
My next-door neighbor would never put her cat on her kid’s head and tell him to go as Davy Crockett. She would never stick a couple of magazines under his arm and tell him to go as a magazine salesman.
She would never dot her daughter’s face with lipstick and send her daughter out as a contagious child. (The worst idea I ever had!) She would never spray-paint her son green and tell him he’s dressed as a leftover.
In retrospect, I don’t think there was any part of childhood so hard for my kids to relinquish than Halloween. They wanted it to go on forever. At first I thought it was a matter of how much humiliation they would endure for a crummy pillowcase full of popcorn balls and bubble gum that turned your tongue blue. But it was more than that. It was the last magic kingdom where they could pretend they were someone else. After the land of make-believe came reality, and people who lived there didn’t seem to have a whole lot of fun. So they left the night of goblins and witches rather reluctantly.
- Erma Bombeck, Family – The Ties That Bind….and Gag
At Halloween, it is fun to be someone else, to wear a mask. And the nice thing about a mask is that it hides your identity from other people. When I was growing up, it was not unusual to see my heroes on television wearing a mask. The Lone Ranger and Zorro used masks to hide their identity so they could do good. And, of course, someone always had to ask in each show, “Who was that masked man?”
In the Old Testament, to look at someone’s face was to know them. The Psalmist invites God to look on the face of his people. And Paul writes of seeing dimly now, but seeing God face to face in the future, and God seeing us face to face, knowing God fully, even as we are fully known, and he says that what enables this to happen is love. Paul talks about us being transformed into God’s image, which is love.
The healing that we all seek deep inside is to find a place where we can finally take off our masks, and see each other face to face. It is not easy. It may even be a life-long struggle. Masks can help us to feel safe for a time. But eventually we realize that the reasons we put on the masks in the first place are long since gone. Now it is the time to know the blessing of being maskless, of seeing face to face.
Wendy Lustbader, in her extraordinary book on aging called Life Gets Better, describes what can happen when masks get removed, or at least, get lifted for a few seconds:
A 57-year-old man knew little about his father’s childhood, except that his grandfather had gone off to World War I when his father was an infant:
Raising us, my dad showed no emotion, only toughness. All he ever did was give orders and pick at us – to make our rooms neater, to get our homework done faster, to do our chores better. He growled instead of talking. There was never any praise, not a drop of affection. I considered him an unfeeling autocrat and got away from him as soon as I could. About a year ago, I happened to watch a program called trench warfare. They showed photos of soldiers’ faces, shell-shocked and broken, and it hit me that my dad was raised by a father like that. I had heard stories, but never connected the dots before. His father must have been blank, like a robot. My dad had learned about being a father from a shattered one. The anger I’d been carrying all these years drained out of me. I just felt bad for him. I felt bad for myself.
A few months after having this realization, he visited his father for Thanksgiving. The 83-year-old readily assented to taking a long walk after dinner, just the two of them. “I told him about the program I’d watched and how I had imagined his father being like a zombie with his little boy when he came home from the war. My dad started sobbing. I couldn’t believe it, out there on a quiet county road. I put my arm around him and he cried his heart out. Then he told me a bunch of stories about his growing up that I’d never heard before, each one of them really heartbreaking.”
From that point on, their relationship had a strong undercurrent of warmth. His father was still awkward with expressing affection or giving praise, but the son could detect what was flowing beneath the surface. “It might sound really strange, but now I can feel what’s going on during his silences. When he does say something, I catch different tones in his voice. It’s like the emotion was there all along, but now I can read him.” The inheritance of World War I was finally coming to a close.
Our masks often become a way to separate us from our memories, or to keep others from knowing our past. But we need our memories, and we need to remove our masks in order to live life fully. As Joan Chittister comments in The Gift of Years:
Memory is not about what went on in the past. It is about what is going on inside of us right this moment. It is never idle. It never lets us alone. It is made up of the stuff of life in the process of becoming the grist of the soul.
There is an energy in memory that is deceiving. The assumption is that since a thing is past, it has no present meaning for us. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Whatever is still in memory is exactly what has most meaning for us. It is the indicator of the unfinished in life. It gives sure sign of what still has emotional significance for us. It refuses to allow us to overlook what must yet be acknowledged if we are ever to be fully honest with ourselves. Most of all, memory and the way we deal with it is the only thing we have that makes us authentic teachers of the young. It tells us what we did that now we miss doing, and it reminds us of what we didn’t do that now we wish we had. And such things live in memory forever.
The wonder of being able to see life as a whole, at any time and all times, is the great gift of memory. It makes all of life a piece in progress. With one part of the soul in the past and another in the present, we are able to go on stitching together a life that has integrity and wholeness. Because of memory life is not simply one isolated act after another. It all fits into the image of the self and the goals of the heart. It makes them real. It makes them whole.
We all long to be whole, to be real.
We Congregationalists don’t talk about saints very much, but with other churches talking about All Saints Day, maybe we should remember the saints around us. The saints have learned what is important in life: how to quietly, creatively care for others, how to just be who they are, maskless to those who meet them and those who know them.
The saints can teach us what it means to be whole. Robert Brightup describes one of the saints of his life:
During the first year of my marriage, I lived in Richmond, VA, for work, and my wife lived in Raleigh, NC, for her last year of college. Every weekend I drove the three hours to Raleigh to spend the weekend with my wife.
One Friday evening, I found myself in Eastern VA because of work. I realized my five-hour trip back to Raleigh wasn’t going to have me in town early enough to attend a banquet where my wife was being honored.
I decided to head South on back roads until I could hit a major highway. I drove the curvy roads of Sussex County, VA, and only passed one other car in an hour.
I realized I was going to make it on time and was feeling pretty smug with myself, until I found myself face to face with a big black pickup taking up both lanes. I headed my car for the side of the road, but the soft earth sucked my car into the ditch.
Now I was stuck in a ditch in the middle of nowhere. I was just crawling out of my car when an older gentleman in a red pickup drove up and asked, “You need a hand?” It turns out he lived only about a mile up the road, and said he’d return with a tractor and chain to pull me out. Little did I know that this man’s name, which he hadn’t told me, would be marked in my memory forever.
Here’s why: seven more cars drove by during that time, each one stopping to offer a hand in any way they could. Each time I said, “Some guy in a red pickup went to get a tractor to pull me out.” Each time I was greeted with the same response, “Oh, that’s Bobby Proctor. Good man. He’ll help you out.” One of the seven was a local mechanic who offered to look the car over for me once we got it out of the ditch, and waited with me until Bobby Proctor returned.
Before long my car was out of the ditch, with a clean bill of health. Neither Bobby Proctor, nor the mechanic, would accept any money. In less than 30 minutes from the accident, I was on my way, and made it to my wife’s banquet in time.
The real story is more than the fact that somebody stopped to help me. It was how everyone who came along knew Bobby Proctor. I don’t know how, but I can assume, if his actions that day were any example, he’s a local hero to many. I realized that if I had to be stuck in a ditch in the middle of nowhere, this was the best place to be because Bobby Proctor was there to help.
The saints, the Bobby Proctors, are all around us, those who have learned to care. And by their caring, they call forth in us the desire to care for others, to become the person God created us to be, to remember that we don’t need our masks any more because we have within us the ability to be the hands of God.
So let us remove our masks and invite others also to do so, so that we all might be blessed. We are no longer children. It is time for us to see each other face to face- maskless. It is time to bless those parts of ourselves that we have hidden and judged for years. It is time to discover the healing power of these hidden parts of ourselves- both for us and for the people we are able to genuinely meet each day.