I had no idea that a deeply spiritual lesson would be lurking in my picnic table this week. On Monday (my day of rest), I took the day to refinish the weathered redwood table that had come to look more like a "graywood" table from years of rain, dirt, and neglect. Sit on those benches and splinters just might needle their way into your hamstring. It desperately needed some work.
If you didn't know how to refinish a picnic table, and you knew that rain was in the forecast, you might say, "I should go buy some varnish to coat this so that it has a protective layer against the rain!" You'd be well-intentioned, but painfully misguided. Not only would the varnish trap in all of the accumulated dirt and mildew the table has collected over the years, but it also would eventually chip and peel in the sun leaving you with an even uglier table that is even more difficult to refinish.
So why would you do that? It struck me that this is exactly what most of us do all of the time with ourselves, our souls, our identity. The difficulties of life "weather" us, dull our color, and make us rough around the edges. And, when we finally recognize we need refinishing, we often choose the quick and dirty method of "varnishing" over our dirt with a false self, a protective exterior that looks glossy and (we mistakenly think) will protect us from the elements.
Maybe your false self is the perpetually-sacrificing, never-complaining parent. You look glossy on the outside, but your perpetual smile is trapping the mildew of resentment inside of you. Maybe your false self is the successful, career-driven person who is always climbing the ladder of life. Your "varnish" of success hides your perennial exhaustion that whispers to you on occasion, "You should just give it all up." Maybe your false self presents you to the world as the absolutely unwavering, hopeful, and stalwart crusader for justice, whose true moments of cynicism and hopelessness are quietly rotting away your resolve.
My friend Chuck Degroat writes in his book, Toughest People to Love:
In a mysterious combination of conscious choosing and subconscious coping, we develop an acceptable persona, a false self that keeps our deeper, hidden self protected from the disapproval of others.... We're often so unfamiliar with or ignorant of our true selves that we're out of touch with our deepest being. (39)
This is what Jesus refers to in the Sermon on the Mount when he calls us to not be like the "hypocrites" -- the actors, the people who are not so much deceiving the people around them as they are disastrously self-deceived.
If you want to truly "refinish" your soul, you can't just protect the dirt with a glittering exterior. You have to go through it. Like a table that you have to sand down, exposing the naked fibers of the wood, the first step in wholeheartedness is exposing your vulnerable true self, which means working through the dirt. (This is what underlies the Christian practice of confession.)
But what lies underneath the gray is not only vulnerable, it is gorgeous. There are colors, shapes, and grain patterns in my picnic table that I didn't even know where there! Likewise, hidden beneath all your (and my) posturing and coping is a truly unique and breathtaking human being. Beauty and vulnerability go hand in hand.
Do you know the last step in properly finishing an outdoor picnic table? You treat the freshly sanded wood, not with a varnish, but with a penetrating finish that soaks into the fibers and protects it from the inside. That treatment soaks into the cracks, the broken places, faster than any other part of the wood, and it still leaves the wood exposed for you to touch.
I believe this is part of what the apostle Paul means when he says, "Your life is hidden with Christ in God." What protects you and preserves you is not some false exterior, but a deeply interior communion with God himself that soaks into every part of who you truly are. When the weather of job loss, betrayal, the daily grind, and setbacks in the work of justice and peace come...the penetrating communion of God will sustain you. And you'll have no need for the varnish.