Hi. I’m Ken Jones, and this is A Classic State of Mind, with a Word About … Masks

I grew up in a neighborhood that had tar and gravel streets. Once a year, usually late summer or early fall, men would come by our neighborhood with street-sweeping machines to sweep off all the old gravel on the street and haul it away. Then they’d put a new coat of tar and gravel down. They never let kids like me play near where they were working. The danger of the big trucks; the hot tar they sprayed on the streets was extremely dangerous, too. But after they left—after they had finished all their work and moved on, the kids in my neighborhood would get together to play with the tar.

When the fresh tar cooled, it formed small puddles around the edges of our sidewalks that looked like black taffy. If you were lucky, you could find a piece the size of a dinner plate. You could mold it into all sorts of shapes. Most of the time, the pieces were smaller pieces, but they were still perfect for making things.

On one late summer day, I became particularly creative with a small piece of tar I had found and made a mask. It covered the upper portion of my face and nose. I left holes for my eyes so I could see. I didn’t need a string to keep it on. It stuck to my face like it had been molded there. I raced inside my house to see how I looked in the mirror. And I looked just like him—the Lone Ranger, I mean. I put my cowboy shirt on. I got my hat and my guns on and I walked outside in the light of my neighborhood. Incredible. I was the envy of every kid on my block.

Eventually, though, I got tired of playing. I guess it was about three o’clock or so before I finally went inside for a rest. I carefully placed my tar-mask on my dresser and went into the living room to wait for my folks to come home from work. That’s when it started.

My face started to blister as the late afternoon wore on.

My dad had worked in construction all my life. He took one look at me when he walked in the front door from work, as I lay on the couch. “Burned,” he said. “How did you get burned?” I told him I hadn’t been around fire all day long, and all I had been doing was playing cowboys and Indians with my friends.

He finally said,” Tell me exactly what you’ve been doing since I left this morning.” All I had been doing was playing Lone Ranger, I said. I made a mask, but not with creosote. I just used some tar I found in the street.

“Tar has creosote in it, son,” my dad said. “When you put the mask on your face and left it there, the creosote began to burn. There’s not a lot to do now but wait for the burn to go away.”

Over the course of the next ten days or so, every time I looked in the mirror, I saw the outline of that mask, etched by my own peeling and flaking facial skin. In my own reflection, I saw an epidermal reminder of the pain caused by wearing a mask.

Almost everyone I know puts on a mask now and then. Over the course of my life I’ve caught myself occasionally playing a role—wearing a mask—pretending I was something or someone I wasn’t. I’m not sure I ever fooled anyone, especially God. There isn’t a lot of difference between putting on my black mask made of tar and putting on a mask to hide my insecurities and frailties. Beneath both of them, harm and hurt are the certain result, because God has never cared for things hidden and “pretend.”

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

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