Ever heard the song A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash? It was a favorite in my household growing up [we had it on vinyl] and I remember singing along as a little girl and giggling at the lyrics and feeling so sorry for that boy named Sue, just a-kicking and a-gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer. Poor guy. He had to fight his whole life through, being a boy named Sue.
They just don’t write songs like that anymore.
Every once in a while, when the songs about trucks and beer on the radio begin to blend together into one boozy, bro-country blur, I get a hankering for Johnny Cash. I flip through our own stack of dusty vinyl until I find one of his records, just to be reminded how good songwriting can really be.
On the cover of my favorite album, an adoring audience is grappling to touch Johnny’s foot or his pant leg or his hand. They’ll take anything at all - they just want a piece of him. What is it about him that they’re so drawn to? As far as men go, he was pretty far from perfect. He may have had a handsome face and an impressive set of vocal cords, but he also had a lot of problems. He did drugs. He committed adultery. He abandoned his wife and children for someone new.
But the thing about Johnny Cash is that he told the truth. When he sang, he never pretended that he was perfect, or that the world was, either. He gave his audience the delicious gift of unpretentiousness.
It takes a lot of courage to tell the truth like that, perhaps now more than ever. This week’s episode of The Second Cup Podcast covers just that issue: the way we’re so tempted to hide or harden our hearts from others out of fear of being hurt. We generally prefer to squirrel away our soft spots and shortcomings; it’s a defense mechanism we’ve learned to protect ourselves from the harsh judgment of this world.
In Ruthless Trust, the sequel to The Ragamuffin Gospel**, Brennan Manning writes:
“Defense mechanisms are useful ploys to warp our perception of self and protect us from rejection, loss, and emotional pain… Unable to accept our brokenness, we wear a thousand masks to disguise the face of fear.”
What masks do you regularly wear? I have a few in my repertoire: the self-assured writer, the saintly and gentle mom, the selfless wife, and the high-capacity individual all come to mind. The world expects a lot from us, yes, but we probably expect more from ourselves than anyone else does. And falling shy of these standards we set for ourselves feels shameful. We worry people won’t like us if they see how insecure/selfish/messed-up/awkward/tired/broken we are. So we sweep all that behind the veneer of perfection, picking up whatever mask suits the occasion and hoping that we’re fooling everyone. [Bonus points if we manage to fool ourselves.]
Unfortunately, though, this comes at a huge cost: isolation.
Because who wants to be friends with someone who’s perfect in every way? We’re all broken, baby. We all just want to see a little of ourselves in someone else. That’s where connection happens. Think of the connection that people had - and still feel - with Johnny Cash. He extended his unmasked brokenness to the world, and people didn’t turn away from him. They came running.
And the most glorious part? God redeemed that. In the later years of his career, Johnny sang more and more about Jesus. He was able to share Jesus’ love with his audience, because he had spent years building a rapport of truth-telling with them. Honesty blew open the door for love.
“I've had mountains to climb and I always will But I don't have to climb Calvary's hill But I have somebody who did that for me The miracle man of Galilee” (The Miracle Man, 1972)
What does this mean for all of us?
If honesty can blow open the door for love, then I propose it’s high time for a mask-tossing revolution. What would happen if every one of us here decided to ditch our masks and walk out the door tomorrow with bare, naked hearts?
How might we see differently?
How might we feel differently?
How might we love differently?
It sounds beautiful and terrifying, doesn’t it?
Where could we possibly find that kind of courage?
Jesus. The answer is always Jesus.
See, he’s in the veil-tearing business. Before he came to earth, there had always been a veil in the temple between God and his people. People just couldn’t stand directly before God - he’s that powerful, awesome, and mighty. And humans just… aren’t. But in the moment that Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple was literally torn in half (Matthew 27:51). It wasn’t a freak accident. It was Jesus becoming the intercessor between us and God, giving us direct access to the Father: no veil needed.
“We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Did you catch that? Unveiled face? When we’re with Jesus, we can just let all of our masks lay unused around us. We don’t need to hide anything from him. We don’t need to protect ourselves. We can simply be, soaking up his glory and allowing it to transform us, too.
Jesus’ glory shines so radiantly that its warmth will make us radiant, too. We won’t need masks, because we’ll know we’re known and loved without them.
And that, dear friends, is where we’ll find the courage to leave our masks at home. After having spent time with our unveiled faces tipped toward Jesus, and seeing his face smiling at us in approval.
That’s when we’ll be able to step towards someone else with open hands and shining eyes and present our hearts to them. Here, we’ll say with that gesture. Here I am. Want to help each other be a little less broken?
I am telling you from experience: people won’t just walk toward that kind of offer. They’ll run.
So. We may not be Johnny Cash. But we can sing honesty in our own ways. We can be truth-tellers who invite others to do the same. Our unmasked faces will not only please the Lord - they’ll make others feel brave enough to drop theirs, too.
Who’s with me? What masks will you toss?
** If you’ve never read The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, go buy it now. Like - now. It truly changed my life and I’m confident it will change yours, too. It’s one of those books I buy wherever I find it, just so I can give it away to everyone I can.