Removing Our Masks

The following is a message I recently gave at my staff worship service (I know it sounds weird… but not so much when you work for a Christian denomination. But just for the record, these opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect my employer). Rich said I should turn it into a blog, so here you go! 

Easter is my favorite holiday. Not because of all the chocolate, although that is a plus.  Not because of the anticipation of spring, although that’s another plus… but because it’s a reminder to me about why I am here, why I was created by God, and my purpose here on earth.

To me it’s all very personal. Part of the path I feel God has put me on has to do with using my voice and telling my story so I can be a witness to God’s faithfulness. 

I’m learning it’s pretty simple. To be a witness requires we take off our masks, be ourselves, and share with others how God has moved in our lives, and then hopefully others will feel moved to do the same. Through this, we can learn to know God more.

For over 2 years I was involved in ministry called Celebrate Recovery. It is a 12-step recovery program for anyone who struggles with anything, and focuses on a relationship with Jesus.

I went through all 12 steps in this program in an effort to work through issues I have related to anxiety, infertility and trichotillomania and once I finished those steps I began facilitating the support group and giving messages on the steps. 

However, even as a facilitator, I continued to get so much out of the support group, because my struggles didn’t necessary go away completely. Instead, I just learned how to give them up to God.  

But the most important thing I learned in Celebrate Recovery was how to take off my masks, the masks that were keeping me from being real with people in my life and more importantly, from being real with God.

One of the scriptures we focused on in Celebrate Recovery is from 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul speaks about a vision he had and then the thorn put in his flesh and how God responded.  Paul said:

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Imagine, boasting about our weaknesses... When we are weak, God makes us strong… God’s grace is sufficient for us, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness. PERFECT.  It’s so hard to think that our struggles perfect God’s power, but I really think this is true. 

So many of the things I’ve gone through have brought me closer to God and others, but only once I allowed myself to take off my mask and really experience the struggle and let God lead me to a place of hope.

One of the struggles I’ve dealt with for over 20 years is trichotillomania, or compulsive hair pulling. I started pulling my lashes, brows and scalp when I was 10 years old. Trich is usually triggered by anxiety, stress or boredom, although scientists are still trying to figure out the root cause. The severity has waxed and waned over time for me. The most I’ve gone without pulling has been a few months.

Photo booth shot of me around age 11 or 12, my brother Christopher, and sister Vicki. Trich was at its worst as you can see from my lack of lashes, brows and widow's peak. But that didn't keep me from having fun that day!

Photo booth shot of me around age 11 or 12, my brother Christopher, and sister Vicki. Trich was at its worst as you can see from my lack of lashes, brows and widow's peak. But that didn't keep me from having fun that day!

Trich can be a very shameful disorder. A lot of people get it when they’re adolescents, and depending on how noticeable the hair loss is, kids are often bullied.

Because of trich, I’ve worn two masks for the longest time:

  1. The physical mask of makeup to hide any lack of lashes and brows. I also wore a bandana as a teenager to cover up a small thinning spot on my head.
  2. The emotional mask which allowed me to pretend that my problem didn’t exist… that I wasn’t ashamed of what I looked like or what I was doing to myself.

I often felt it was necessary to have boundaries to maintain some sort of order and comfort, because it was very stressful to tell people that I did this to myself. I had a very real fear of judgment and rejection.

It took me a long time to “come out” with this disorder.  And it wasn’t until my early-20s that I decided to be open about my struggle so I could help others. I decided to write a letter to the editor of the Syracuse Post Standard to let others know they weren’t alone, and start my own support group. A writer actually called me and interviewed me, putting my picture in the newspaper with my story. There was no turning back!  The next day I walked into work, and several people, including my boss, had seen the story. I was blown away by the support I received! The vice president of the company asked what he could do. I told him about the Trichotillomania Learning Center (TLC), the only national organization working to educate people on trich, and conduct research to find out more about this disorder. That day he wrote a check to TLC. I’m forever grateful!

I have found freedom through being real with people about my struggles, and even more so by being real with God about my struggles

Now I am open about having this disorder and am no longer worried about people staring at me or judging me. Although I don't usually go out of my way to tell people, I take advantage of situations that pop up. For example when someone is frustrated and says something like “it makes me want to tear my hair out,” I now use it as an opportunity to educate them on how that phrase is based on reality. I explain my story and what trichotillomania really is.  

Out of this weakness God has helped me learn he loves me no matter how much hair I have or don’t have. He has also helped me grow more compassionate towards other people, specifically those with self-image issues. And I am finally using the gifts God has given me to reach others. That’s one reason I started this blog in the first place. 

The best part of putting myself out there is hearing from other people who are going through similar struggles but had never been able to voice it before because they had the same fears I did. They finally know they are not alone, and now feel free to tell their story. That makes telling my story completely worth it. 

Disney World 2005 - with full brows and lashes and no makeup after months of not pulling. Looking at this photo reminds me that if I did it once - I can do it again! Celebrate the successes and never give up hope.

Disney World 2005 - with full brows and lashes and no makeup after months of not pulling. Looking at this photo reminds me that if I did it once - I can do it again! Celebrate the successes and never give up hope.

But it can be hard to tell our stories, because we get so used to putting on our masks and pretending to be someone else. We often feel we need to be something we’re not to be accepted and loved.

So are you like me? Have you established masks in your life that you wear?  Masks you’ve created to protect yourself? Masks that tell a lie so you will feel accepted?

How about a mask at church? You have to be the perfect Christian?

A mask at work? The one who can’t make any mistakes?

One mask with friends? The one with good advice, and all the answers?

Another with family? The one who has to keep everyone at peace or the martyr?

A mask while at the grocery store? One of invisibility hoping no one will talk to you?  

It’s so easy to become a different person depending on who is in the room, and who we think we’re expected to be.  I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing all the time. There is something to be said for knowing who you can trust with what, having certain boundaries, and acting appropriately for the situation.

But if we can’t be vulnerable and relatable, it’s very difficult to gain trust from others and build lasting relationships. When we humble ourselves, admit who we are to others, it opens the door for them to admit who they are to us, and then people realize they are not alone. We’re all in the same boat, trying to stay afloat.

So today I just really want to challenge you. Look at yourself. Look at the different masks you wear.

Which masks are keeping you from recognizing and getting help for your struggles?

Which masks are keeping you from building relationships with people you care about?

Which masks are keeping you from growing deeper in your relationship with God, and keeping you from accepting the hope and promises God has provided? 

Which mask is the one you put on when you don’t want to deal with anything difficult? 

Why are you afraid to remove your masks? 

Are you afraid of people finding out the “real you?”

Are you afraid of judgment and rejection?

Are you afraid that no one will understand you?

Are you afraid people won’t like you?

Are you afraid God won’t love you?

I just want to let you know that the resurrected Jesus is a God who loves you. The God who died and rose again on Easter, conquered death for YOU.  The real YOU.  The YOU God created.  The YOU God knew before you were even a thought in anyone’s eye.  God loves YOU.

We must challenge ourselves to not be afraid of judgment or rejection, but instead take off our masks, be ourselves, be who God calls us to be, and follow Jesus.

Understand it won’t always be easy – in fact it’s going to be really messy, but we’re not expected to go this alone.

Romans 8:1 says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. He came down to earth to walk beside us through the good and the bad and free us from our masks. And the resurrection represents that renewal of spirit and that freedom from the bondage of insecurity, doubt and shame.

It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or where you are now, how unworthy you feel of God’s love, God will meet you right where you’re at, in the messiness of it all. We may think we can hide from God through our masks, but he knows who we really are before even we do.

I’m in the middle of reading Love Does by Bob Goff (that will be my next review on The Bookshelf).  This is a man who exudes the love of Jesus like few other people I’ve read or seen. He loves people so much he put his phone number in the back of his book so people can call him anytime for any reasons. He also says he always picks up his phone, unless he’s on the other line. He craves relationships… He gets it.

Anyway, I came across a section in Love Does that speaks exactly to this idea of shedding our masks and pursuing a life of honesty and transparency.

“I realized that God doesn’t think any less of us when things don’t go right. Actually I think he plans on it. What He doesn’t plan on is us putting a fake version of ourselves out there to take the hit. God is the master artist and made an original version of us, a priceless one that cost everything to create. A version that can’t and won’t be created again.
He asks us to hang that version of ourselves for everyone to see. Despite our inherent beauty, each of us is tempted to hide the original so we don’t get damaged. I understand why, I really do. And the fake version of us, it’s not worthless. It’s just worth LESS because it’s only a copy of the real us, a version we don’t care about as much. When we hang the fake version out there, it’s not the version God created. In that sense it’s like an imposter, a poser, a stunt double is standing in for us and telling the world that this is the best we’ve got,  or the best we’ll risk. And when we put the cheap, fake version of ourselves out there, most of the time it probably comes off to God like a bad Elvis impersonation.
The Bible says people who are friends of God are new creations. The way I heard it’s supposed to work is that old version of us goes away and a new original is painted. I can understand that picture now, because I’ve purchased an expensive painting, and I’ve had a cheap copy thrown in so I could hide the real one. What I know now is that our infinite value, the original masterwork that we are, is placed in us because God is the master artist, not us. The best we could muster ourselves would be a fake.
God invites us to be new creations, original art, and to live a life of engagement. He says to leave the cheap imitation in a closet somewhere. He doesn’t say when you hang the real you out there – the priceless one – that things will go great either. It’s pretty clear from watching Jesus’ followers past and present that when you risk the real you, you’ll probably take a hit. God did when he hung Jesus out there. But one thing I do know is this: when we do take hits, and we will, God isn’t going to think less of us. Instead, he gets up early, lights a fire, sits in his favorite chair, and gazes at his masterpiece he made in us. And you know what? He loves us even more”

So Let’s take off our masks, and learn to love ourselves the way God loves us. Then we can grow in relationships with one another, real authentic relationships, and love one another for who we really are in God, not for the imposters we’ve been trying to be for so long.

I’m encouraged by these words from Romans found in the newest translation of the Bible called the Voice:

“Since we have been acquitted and made right through faith, we are able to experience true and lasting peace with God through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, the Liberating King.  Jesus leads us into a place of radical grace where we are able to celebrate the hope of experiencing God’s glory.  And that’s not all. We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness.  And hope will never fail to satisfy our deepest need because the Holy Spirit that was given to us has flooded our hearts with God’s love.”

My prayer is that we will all seek God to give us the confidence that we no longer need to hide behind our masks. Our struggles are not in vain, they are meant to connect us with one another, so we can encourage and comfort one another.  I also pray that through the resurrected Jesus we will all obtain a hope that satisfies our deepest needs and fills our hearts with God’s love.

What mask have you been wearing lately? What have you been hiding? What steps do you need to take or have taken to free yourself, and be the “you” God created you to be?

My sister Vicki and I - at our nephew's "Incredibles"  birthday party... taking off our masks!

My sister Vicki and I - at our nephew's "Incredibles"  birthday party... taking off our masks!