Behind the Mask

Nov 20, 2008 |George Halitzka

If you want to know and be known, try practicing forgiveness, integrity, humility and community.

I had a best friend once. It was kindergarten and he lived next door and we played every day in the front yard, except for afternoons when he tried to get his own way by crowing, "I ain't gonna be your friend no more" because I wouldn't let him use my cool magnifying glass. Of course, I got wise to that: I knew he'd be back the next day knocking at my door. So I crossed my stubborn arms and let him stomp away.

Yes, Luke had his flaws, but he was a good pal; a made-to-order companion for a 5-year-old. Unfortunately, he moved across town after first grade.

I didn't see him again until junior high. By then, I'd turned into a brainy geek while he'd become a slacker too cool to be alive. He occasionally visited my lunch table with new buds, but only because he found me a convenient target for trash-talk.

I had another best friend in third grade. Jeremy walked a few blocks to my house every day after school; we pretended we were the heroes in a make-believe world and talked about how cool computers were.

Then one day something happened — I don't remember what — and we got in a fight in my backyard. With a distinct lack of weapons available, we threatened each other with pieces of rope. (Welts are a big deal in third grade, OK?) There was a prolonged standoff. Finally, we finally made a truce — Jeremy and I would lay down our ropes at the same time.

I put mine on the ground. But instead of complying with the terms, he picked both of them up and chased me across the driveway. So I played the only card I had left: I threw him off our property with threats of hollering for my mother.

After that, Jeremy didn't come over to play anymore.

All of us would love to find some real friends, an authentic community — a place to know and be known. Even as adults we're longing for folks to call us by name. But we discovered in grade school that life hurts, and grown-ups can do far worse than pick up your welting-rope.

Take a third-grader's word for it: If you trust people, you're a dummy-pants.

Knowing and Being Known

Knowing another person is a fearsome proposition. When I meet someone new, he's already been living for years on a screwed-up planet. What bruises has he picked up along the way? I've formed the beginning of relationships only to discover people were clingy addicts or incorrigible gossips ... and I had no idea at first. It's enough to make me afraid to shake hands after church.

Being known means revealing your own scars from 20-odd years of wading through life. You're opening yourself up to rejection on a deeper level than those junior high insults when people said your Mama dressed you funny. The eighth-grade clowns could only pick on your looks. If a person knows you, he has power to stomp your dreams.

So most of us crave intimacy at the same time we're running from it, and who can blame us? We've tried to be more open and gotten ignored in return. We figured church might to be a safe place to build relationships, then found out most "Life Groups" should be called "Pretending-I've-Got-My-Life-Together Groups." If you share your real prayer requests, you'll earn three super-spiritual lectures and a rumor that you're a prideful doubter.

Yet we instinctively realize there's something greater than surface conversations! There must be hope for penetrating the platitudes.

Personally, I've found three major keys to building community, whether it's with one friend or an entire group: forgiveness, integrity, and humility. If you're longing for depth, try them at church. Try them with your friends or family or fiancé. They can bring intimacy that you've never experienced before!

But getting there is a rocky road, because you'll have to adopt a new approach to life. Your profound openness is liable to get your heart run over before you encounter the community you're longing for.

Forgiveness

It was April Fool's Day 2002, and I hadn't pulled a decent pranks since college. So I decided it was time to go toilet papering. I stopped at Walgreen's for 20 rolls, then headed for church, where my friend Kevin was the tech director.

I already knew Kevin's "studio" would be the perfect place for my redecorating project. It was best described as a starship control room masquerading as a sanitary landfill. Filled with everything from high-end computers to mountains of scrap paper to dismantled sound gear, Kevin's hangout was the perfect environment for hanging Charmin.

When I arrived, the office was wide open — and empty. It was almost like Kevin was expecting me. I kept wishing I had a camera. The TP went in and out of filing cabinets, over and around audio equipment. It was one of the best indoor jobs I've ever seen.

Unfortunately, when Kevin got back to his office, he was not amused. He'd been stressed all week and couldn't believe he was facing this enormous mess. He wasn't sure about the guilty party, but was so mad he went to his boss, who suspected the youth pastor.

The next day, I got a terse e-mail: "George, are you the one who messed up my office? I need to know."

I was in trouble.

It had been really juvenile to do that at someone's workplace — Kevin had every right to be ticked. I apologized to him, because he was my bud, but I figured we were through. I'd embarrassed us both, caused him extra work, and screwed up his whole week.

But Kevin modeled a little bit of God's forgiveness for me when he demonstrated — not in words or a single moment, but in actions — that he accepted my apology. We could move on, continuing to thread the treacherous road of friendship-building.

Forgiveness may be the hardest part of community. Some of us have gotten hurt so many times the smallest slight makes us look for the door. Yet canceling a debt is the first key to taking your relationship beneath the surface.

Without grace, no friendship can last a month.

Integrity

An anonymous writer penned these words in an essay called "Please Hear What I'm Not Saying":

Don't be fooled by me. Don't be fooled by the mask I wear. For I wear a mask. I wear a thousand masks — masks that I am afraid to take off, and none of them are me. Pretending is an art that's second nature to me. But don't be fooled, for God's sake, don't be fooled! I give you the impression that I'm secure, that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well as without, that confidence is my name and coolness is my game, that the water is calm and I'm in command, and that I need no one. But don't believe me. Please.

When we think about integrity, we usually figure that means we don't lie or cheat. And hopefully, we'll dare to confront a friend when he's screwing up his life. But there's one more dimension to integrity that's far rarer: the courage to be yourself.

Pretending you're invulnerable is easy; we spend most of our lives convincing people we're more intelligent and attractive than we really are. But we're also dying to be known the whole time. Our masks prevent people from ever calling us by name.

I was a skilled mask artist in my younger days. I corresponded with a cute friend during college, and one day she wrote, "George, your letters are funny, but I don't see any part of you in them. They're like a string of one-liners."

She was right. I couldn't tell people what I was really feeling 300 miles away from Mom, or the doubts about my faith that were scaring me. I was sure people would think I was a freak and a lousy Christian.

Vulnerability is still hard for me. It's easy to sit on a pedestal as the Bible College Graduate in Ministry. It's hard to admit sins and how little I understand about life with God. Vulnerability is an invitation for rejection.

If you're the first one in your relationship to share a secret joy, you might be rewarded with blank stares and derision. Your integrity may be someone's excuse to turn you into their personal target. Yet until you take off the mask, you'll never get past the surface to build an authentic community.

The anonymous writer said it best: "Don't be fooled by the mask I wear. Don't believe me ... please."

Humility

Six or eight years ago I signed up for an accountability group, and got paired with two random guys from church. When I met one of them — I'll call him "Bill" — my first thought was, "I never believed I would so stoop so low."

Oh, Bill's a nice guy, but he's a maintenance man. Never went to college, a recovering alcoholic. He's 40-something with a long scraggly beard and a pot belly. Bill doesn't talk a lot until you get to know him, so — if you're judgmental like me — you figure it's because he's not bright enough to say much.

When I met him, I knew we had nothing in common. Why should we bother building a friendship?

Uh ... maybe because I was wrong.

Bill and I actually share a lot. We both love Jesus poorly, but long to do better. We struggle with lust about every day and are prone to depression. Bill and I love telling bad jokes — but his are usually about somebody walking into a bar, proving that I'm more spiritual. He's a phenomenal listener; Bill has endured my venting for almost our entire weekly meeting sometimes. He may seem "simple" on the surface, but then he unexpectedly spouts wisdom from the school of hard knocks.

One week something extraordinary happened. At the end of our meeting, we were having such an interesting conversation that he invited me to ride along while he picked up his daughter for volleyball practice. Now, I'm sure he was embarrassed to have a friend in his work van. I sat on a wooden bench covered in dirty shag carpet, the best seating he could offer. But as he drove, we talked ... about our shared faith; about ideas that, in my arrogance, I had thought were over Bill's head. I saw a new part of his world for the first time while we rattled and bumped along.

It was one of those defining moments in a friendship where you recognize, only in the aftermath, that you've been invited deeper into someone's world than you've ever been before. I knew then I was proud to be called Bill's friend. Of course, I almost missed the opportunity ... because I was far too good for him.

If you're too good for someone in your life, guess who deserves the blame for your lack of community?

Love and Loss

So if you want to know and be known, try practicing forgiveness, integrity, and humility. Your friendships are guaranteed to reach a deeper level.

But remember that without one more quality — love — community is still an empty word. Friendships can't hurt nearly so bad ... and they also won't mean a thing.

Grandpa was one of my heroes. He was always well-spoken and well-dressed; the respectable gentleman who wore a suit to church every Sunday. Practically everyone we met knew and loved the guy behind the counter at his corner store. Fred's Food and Variety was an old-fashioned place where the owner was usually present; where you could run a tab if you were behind that month; where you might even find an anonymous bag of groceries on your porch while you were between jobs.

When we went to his house, where the driveway seemed as long as a city block, he had bicycles standing by that we could ride up and down the blacktop. Sometimes he took me and my brother into the backyard to play football. Sure, he had to throw underhand because of his back, but that was OK — we were more likely to catch it anyway.

Well into retirement, Grandpa rented a booth at the flea market and designed custom-made trophies in his wood shop. I tried to keep up by opening a stationery store in my bedroom and publishing my monthly newspaper, The Halitzka Journal, in grade school. Without ever realizing it, he got me started as a freelancer.

Few people embodied forgiveness, integrity, and humility in my life like Fred Holfelder. I remember looking forward to the day when we could relate as adults; when Grandpa could be proud of me for making my way in the world. But unfortunately, when I was a sophomore in college, Grandpa had one more lesson for me about living in community, and it was the hardest one:

Loss.

Every relationship has an ending. That's why community is so rare — and so painful. We hire undertakers to handle our dead so we don't have to face mortality. If you dare to form intimate friendships, those people will move out of state someday. If you don't break up with your boyfriend, you'll marry him. Then years hence, when you love him far more than you do now, he'll die.

I remember standing up at Grandpa's funeral with my voice breaking and sharing memories. I loved him too much not to cry. Today, I still wish he was here to see how I've followed in his footsteps and maybe become a man he could be proud of. I hope he's looking down from heaven to enjoy the view.

Unfortunately, building a community, with one person or one hundred, is difficult. It calls us to bravely face loss; not running from grief but passing through the Valley of the Shadow. Knowing and being known will wound you so badly you'll never completely heal. Yet if friendships are to be worth having, and life worth living, you need to care anyway. A daring love called agape is the essence of authentic community.

Grandpa probably didn't know the Greek word for God's love; he never went to college. But from a lifetime of experience, he definitely knew what agape was about.

Copyright 2008 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.

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