I have been reading a little book this week called, "Take the Dimness of My Soul Away." It was written by William Ritter and includes several of the sermons he preached in response to his son's suicide some 13 years ago. The book is filled with sadness and hope, reflections and encouragement. While much of the book has spoken to me this week, there is a quote in the book that has really struck a chord in me. Quoting the great theologian Albert Outler, Ritter includes these words:
Mrs. Outler and I live in a quiet, peaceable neighborhood, and we take long walk-talks in our five-block area almost daily. Over the years we have come to know many of our neighbors. And the better we get to know any one family, the more we learn of the tragic mixture of human happiness and wretchedness in a setting that looks as if it were as favorable an environment as one could find. There is not a single family in our area, as far as we know them, without its share of heartbreak (William A Ritter, Take the Dimness of my Soul Away, Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2004, 18).
Outler is right on target. Our lives so often appear to be right on target. We tend to live our lives in such a way that the white picket fence is the norm and not the exception. The favorable environment is the environment we want others to see, so we often hide what is really happening inside of our houses, our lives, our minds and our hearts. We are afraid that if people see inside the picket fence - if people walk beyond the door of the "perfect" house - then people may not know what to do with us. People may not want to be our friends or our colleagues if they know everything about us. We may scare people away if they know what is really happening on the inside.
It seems as though the city I live in breeds this fear of being known more than many other places. I live in a city in which you are whoever you say you are. You are a White House intern, a Senate staffer, a lobbyist, an attorney, a staff assistant. You are whoever you say you are. In fact, the most common first question asked in this city is, "What do you do?" Rarely do people ask "How are you?" And if they do ask you this question, then people only want to hear a simple, easy answer, "Fine thank you."
But the more time I spend with people, the more I realize how all of us have our own share of heartbreak. Each one of us has a "tragic mixture of human happiness and wretchedness" in our lives. We are sad at times. We are lonely at times. We have so much debt that we have no idea how we can possibly get out of it. We do not feel like we really belong even though we live in a house with four other people and have coworkers surrounding us all day long. We wonder what we will do on Friday night, fearing another weekend night alone. We yearn to be known - to fall in love and live happily ever after with our spouse. We are depressed. We drink too much. We don't eat well. There are some days when it takes everything in us just to get out of bed.
But what would people think about us if they knew the truth? How would people react if they really knew what is happening on the inside?
And so we put on a mask. We appear to be people living lives where everything is just fine. We act as though life is rather perfect. We keep the mess tucked away inside our neat packages. We hide behind whatever mask we can find.
I have learned more about life during the past two and one-half weeks than any manual on life could ever teach me. I have gained more insights in what it means to be a pastor than I could have ever learned in a seminary course. And, I have also been reminded of what our call is as the church.
The church is called to be a place where it does not matter what you have done or what you have failed to do. We are called to be a community in which everyone is accepted regardless of who they have loved or who they have failed to love. We are called to be a place where it does not matter what we wear, what we believe, or what we choose not to believe. We are called to be a place where we can come - just as we are - and be embraced, welcomed, accepted, cherished - not because of who we work for, but because we are beloved children of God, made in the image of God.
Last night I had dinner with a young couple who are new to Mount Vernon Place. When I asked them what they like about our church and what keeps them coming back, they told me how they love the diversity of the congregation and how what I say in the beginning of worship about how all are welcome in this place, regardless of anything else, is true - it is really being lived out.
There are not many places in the city like this one. Still, we are trying to be such a place, and we are going to continue to work hard to make sure that we continue to be such a place.
If you yearn for a place where all are welcome and no one is sent away, please join us. If you are hungry for a few moments in life where you can be exactly who you are - baggage and all - then come join us. If you want someone to listen to you - your fears, your doubts, your frustrations and your failures - then come join us. Come, remove the mask.