I first met my friend Gary (not his real name) sometime during the initial year of my ministry here in central Saint John- not through any particular church program- but simply through our frequent encounters on the street. Gary might fall under the category of what many would call “the working poor”- those who toil away at multiple, low paying, part time or seasonal jobs, hustling to scratch out a living in an economy that is far from burgeoning. Currently, Gary is between jobs- spending his days circulating resumes and not-so-patiently waiting for interviews that never seem to come his way. This might explain why I found Gary in such a state during a recent chance meeting at the Saint John City Market.
A word about my friend: Gary has the air of one who always has his life together. The wry grin that plays permanently upon his flushed, clean-shaven face reflects a default emotional setting that is seemingly one of cheerful amusement. One would think that that he has a perpetual arsenal of funny anecdotes and amusing observations all stockpiled in his head, ready to be deployed upon a moments notice at whatever familiar face he happens to bump into on the street. The way he dresses, the way he presents himself, his tone and his inflection all seem to scream, “Everything’s cool! I’m okay!”
The day I saw him, however, he did not seem okay. Approaching me from out of nowhere, the first words out of his mouth were, “Pray for me.” Even if he hadn’t vocalized the request, I still would have somehow heard his plea. His shirt and hair were drenched in sweat, a three-day beard adding to his exhausted and disheveled appearance. As he began to unburden himself, his whole body seemed to vibrate with desperation and anxiety like an overworked machine on the fritz, about to shake itself to pieces. I got the impression that he was trying, with all his might to hold back from either exploding in a rage or breaking down in a fit of weeping.
He managed to hold it together long enough to get his story out: For the past five days, Gary had been on a massive drinking binge. Small setbacks had triggered something in him- a suppressed woundedness, an inner vulnerability- and he spent the next couple of days in a fog of depression. Finally, he wandered down to the liquor store, bought a couple bottles of wine, and spent the next few days holed-up in his bachelor pad, drinking glass after glass and binge watching TV. Based on his appearance, I doubt he had showered or shaved in all that time. I’m guess that he barely ate. Whatever sleep he got was likely of poor quality- neither rich nor restorative. The only time he left the apartment was to stumble to the liquor store to purchase another bottle of wine, further draining a bank account that would soon be as empty as the bottle itself.
Naturally, I encouraged him to reach out to somebody- anybody- who could give him help. Professional help, ideally, but any help, for now, would do. Were there guys from his church that he could talk to? No, he explained: They all have their lives sorted out. They’re happily married and capable of raising their kids. They can hold down a job, manage their rent, pay their taxes and keep the electricity flowing. In short, they have their act together. Gary didn’t. How could they possibly understand what he was going through?
“But,” I insisted, “How do you know that they’re not hiding anything? Are you positive that they’re not playing the same game as you are- trying to put on a front of respectability when inside they’re falling apart? What if they’ve been through what you’re going through and could possibly offer some help?” I’m not sure if he had an answer to this question and I didn’t want to press the matter. He was obviously in an extremely fragile state and I didn’t want to make things any worse than they already were. But what about his pastor- a wise man whom Gary deeply respected. Could he talk to him? No. His response here was even more vague: “I just can’t imagine sitting in his office, across from his desk, telling him this stuff,” he explained with his eyes downcast.
At the end of our conversation, I did pray with him. I also checked in on him a couple of times over the course of the next few days- worried about whether his body was capable of enduring what he was putting it through. Eventually, he stopped binging, resumed his job hunt and adopted the same, cheerful demeanour that I described earlier. As far as I know, he never did seek any kind of help.
Gary’s reluctance to share his struggles with the members of is own church- even with those with whom he was the closest- betrays something about his understanding of what Christian community is all about. To him (and, indeed, to many of us) the church is not a place where we can be open about our brokenness or our struggles. It is not a place where we can be fully honest about our need for help. Quite the opposite: It is the one place where we must hide our true selves at all costs. “Nobody here must know that we’re having so much trouble in our marriage” or “nobody here must ever find out that I’m having serious doubts about my faith.” Or, as some pastors might think, “Nobody here must know that I’m depressed and that I detest my job.” It’s as if we assume that the Christian community to which we belong is the Club of the Perfect Ones and if any one were to find out that the fact that we wake up at two o’clock each morning, crying and sweating over a recurring dream of drowning, we’d be kicked out. And so we dawn the mask, put on the phoney smile and pray that nobody finds out about who we really are.
I don’t think that this is something that only people with substance abuse issues do. Nor do I think this kind of behaviour is limited strictly to the religious. It’s human nature to want to hide the parts of ourselves that we assume would be ugly to the rest of the world. This is why Jesus spent much of his time in what I call “a ministry of unmasking.” Like the time he met the Samaritan woman at the well- a woman who may have been seeking to fill the terrible emptiness of her soul with men.
“Go and call your husband,” Jesus invites her midway through their conversation.
“I have no husband,” she answers.
To which Jesus replies: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
She has been unmasked. Only now that her true self has been revealed- in all of its loneliness and emptiness and need- can she receive the gift Jesus has to offer her: the life-giving waters of his Spirit.
I certainly don’t want Christian community to be a place where people feel forced to share the most fragile and intimate parts of their souls with absolutely everyone they see on Sunday morning. Much less do I wish to see the church become a place where people are “outed” without their consent- not so much “unmasked” but “stripped” in a way that can be cruel and humiliating. I do, however, wish that Christian communities were places where it was truly recognized that everyone is, in some way, crippled and needy. In a community such as this, people might feel free to unmask themselves- setting aside the tiresome work of faking it and simply allowing themselves to be. Only then can people like my friend, Gary (and you and me) find true healing in Christ.
By Terence Chandra