“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I’m not sure where Paul Laurence Dunbar — widely known as one of the first premier, african-american poets of the 19th century — was with the Lord . But his famed poem, “We Wear the Mask” seems like one that would resonate all the more deeply with American citizens given all that’s gone on in the media, cities, and minority/police relations. The reason the piece struck me is because it basically sounded like a modern Psalm — uninspired, of course. The plea to Christ in the last stanza rings of a Davidic lament — a cry from a “tortured soul.” This past Sunday, my preacher heralded the glories of Luke 12 for his sermon. In verse 50 of this passage, the Lord says, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” This baptism refers to his death, but what struck me was his distress; surely, the torture his soul went through was not only on the cross. So for any tortured souls out there, for any wearing a mask of a smile but who scream on the inside, turn to Christ this day. He is able to sympathize like none other. Hebrews 4:15-16: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

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!

“Jesus of the Scars” by Edward Shillito

Everyone suffers. But not everyone responds to their suffering in the same way. Many try to find the answers in religion, and some even in a religion of a god who does not know suffering. But John Stott’s words echo my curiosity on this: “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” Christian, ours is a God who has felt agony like none other and this for our sake and His glory (2 Cor. 5:15). Not only does he know our suffering and thus can empathize with it, but he spends our sorrows well (Rom. 8:28). Stott affirms this powerfully by quoting a playlet entitled “The Long Silence,”

At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly — not with cringing shame, but with belligerence. 

‘Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?’ snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror…beatings…torture…death!” 

In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched…for no crime but being black!” In another crowed a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyed. “Why should I suffer” she murmured, “It wasn’t my fault.” 

Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said. 

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a Negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever. 

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth — as a man! 

‘Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.’

‘At last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.’ 

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the the throng of people assembled. 

And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No-one uttered another word. No-one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence…

Often, we’re like Thomas, not convinced of God’s goodness and care until we see his scars. “Edward Shillito,” Stott writes, “shattered by the carnage of the First World War, found comfort in the fact that Jesus was able to show his disciples the scares of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem, ‘Jesus of the Scars’:”

If we have never sought, we seek thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-marks on thy brow,
We must have thee, O Jesus of the scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm.
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know thy grace.
If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of thine;
We know today what wounds are, have no fear;
Show us thy scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

Stott, John R. W. The Cross of Christ: 20th Anniversary Edition. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (quotation found on p. 335-337).