The Joyful Journey: Masks and Unmasking

October 07, 2021

October. Cool breezes and bright colored leaves. High school football on Friday nights and college football on Saturdays. Perhaps our first flakes of snow. The month ending in Halloween.
When I was in elementary school in Duluth, I remember going to school in costumes, with a costume parade for parents. In the evening, we walked the neighborhood collecting treats just by going house to house and asking. Costumes varied from those made at home to those purchased at a store, the latter typically a hard plastic mask and a very cheaply made outfit to accompany it.

Masks were and are a lot of fun. They invite a certain playfulness and encourage a certain creativity. They allow us to play with our identity. Yet masks also limit our vision. We can see only what the eye holes in the hard plastic allow.

If we are honest with ourselves, we sometimes wear masks in our daily lives. They can be useful, even necessary. As leaders, it is important to be able, at times, to conceal our own pain and disappointment at crucial moments. In leading, one might mask one’s anxiety to allow a certain calmness, which is also real, to be the emotion that is showing. Masking is necessary sometimes, but it becomes harmful when a person never unmasks, never finds times and places to express or acknowledge feelings that, while better left unexpressed in a particular public moment, still need to be acknowledged. When I was a child, wearing a plastic mask for too long became uncomfortable, hot, and sweaty.

Masks are fun. Masks are useful and sometimes necessary. Masks can be harmful when they obscure our vision or hide us from ourselves. Unmasking is then also necessary.

Unmasking can happen involuntarily. The coronavirus pandemic has unmasked some interesting realities in our society. It has unmasked some of our uninformed attitudes toward science. Science is a form of critical thinking. It is rooted in experimentation, experience, and critical thinking. Science, at its best, invites good questions about its findings. Yet COVID has uncovered a certain un-thinking, anti-science skepticism within our society, an attitude that has not been terribly helpful to us in the midst of a pandemic that has now taken more than 700,000 lives. Science cannot answer all our questions in life, but it does a pretty good job of helping us navigate a pandemic when we are willing to listen and learn.

The pandemic has also unmasked an idea of freedom that I find troubling. For some, it seems freedom means that I do what I want when I want to, regardless of the circumstances or the impact. A better understanding of freedom is to see it as our ability to choose, and that its best use is to make choices that contribute to the common good. Galatians 5:1 says, “for freedom, Christ has set us free,” and the chapter goes on to encourage wise use of that freedom. Speaking of masking, unmasking, and COVID, masks—when they are face coverings for protection from COVID—are a genuine good. Let’s not unmask unwisely or too soon.

In recent months, I have been encouraging United Methodist congregations in Minnesota to engage in a study involving anti-racism, intercultural competence, or building beloved community. I consider this work soul work, essential to our journey with Jesus. One significant dimension to this work is unmasking—that is, uncovering events in our history that we have often hidden, events that have harmed our non-white friends. It is important to unmask how real estate practices prevented African-Americans from purchasing homes in many neighborhoods. Beyond that, “beginning in about 1890 and continuing until 1968, white Americans established thousands of towns across the United States for whites only” (James Loewen, “Sundown Towns,” 4). We are unmasking the harm done by Native American boarding schools, many run by churches. The boarding school movement was motivated by the idea to “kill the Indian to save the man.” The Native American International Caucus of The United Methodist Church called on all United Methodists to observe Oct. 6 as a day for truth-telling and repentance for the harm done to native children through the boarding schools.

In unmasking these difficult moments and events in our history, we need not ignore the good and noble in our history. We need to remove the mask that limits our vision of that history. We need to see the good and noble in our history and the traumatic and harmful in our history. We then are better able to be healers in the name of Jesus Christ.

Unmasking is about wanting to be more honest and more kind. Honesty and kindness. Here I am going to set aside the mask metaphor as I speak a word about our United Methodist Church. In recent weeks, curiosity and anxiety have risen regarding the future of our denomination. Most of you are aware that General Conference 2020, now postponed to 2022, was scheduled to vote on legislation that would create a path for the creation of new expressions of Methodism. The postponement of General Conference due to COVID initially lowered anxiety about and focus on this potential denominational division. Anxiety, concern, and curiosity are increasing.

Two groups have done work to create new denominations. The Wesleyan Covenant Association has done significant work in shaping the Global Methodist Church, offering a “Transitional Book of Doctrines and Disciplines” for this emerging denomination. While this denomination has not launched, it is well-organized. The Liberation Methodist Connexion has also declared a “grassroots denomination,” though with significantly less structure proposed.

I think some form of separation within The United Methodist Church is inevitable. There are a number of things we don’t yet know about the exact manner of separation. Conference staff and I are committed to being honest, fair, and kind. I am committed to working to provide accurate information about how a division might happen, how congregations might engage with all that is happening, and what transitions for clergy and churches may entail. We will provide materials for healthy and helpful conversations, and those materials are in preparation. As a bishop for The United Methodist Church, a primary obligation I have is to describe the continuing United Methodist Church and the vision of the Minnesota Conference. In doing so, I will also provide accurate information about other emerging Methodist denominations, often by referring you directly to their materials. Honesty and kindness. I continue to approach this wanting to embody “unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (I Peter 3:8). I know you want to join me in that.

Unmasking is about honesty, and kindness is important to that process. One final comment about a denominational division: There will be legal and administrative issues involved in any separation, which means there will be complexities. We need to be honest about that, too.

And in the midst of pandemics and difficult truth-telling and reckoning and denominational division, we are not people without hope (I Thessalonians 4:13). In fact, we might be described as “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12). As people of hope, I invite us to also be people of joy, people who in the midst of challenges and struggles and weariness make time for wonder, beauty, and joy.

So what are you going to be for Halloween this year? Enjoy the mask, but don’t wear it too long.

Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.

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