“Jack had whited too many sepulchers to be easily deceived.”
Jack Aubrey, the primary character in Patrick O’ Brian’s British naval books, is surveying the first ship of which he is given command. Having grown up around boats and being a lifetime navy man, he had viewed and participated in the preparation of myriad ships for inspection by the commanding officer. He knew the drill, knew the parts everyone was to play, knew what was expected, knew what to look for…and what to overlook.
He saw all of the imperfections that the crew hoped he would miss, while knowing full well that he would not. He saw them because he’d been there and done that, so to speak. He saw them because he knew better. He saw them because he had done the same. He saw them because ‘[he] had whited too many sepulchres to be easily deceived.’
I read this line and it grabbed my attention. It was in the middle of a page, middle of a lengthy paragraph. But it caught my eye nevertheless. Sure, this was due in part tot the fact that it alluded to Jesus’ words in Matthew 23.27-28: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. But, I believe there may be another reason as well.
‘Appearances can be deceiving.’ Or so the saying goes. But—and possibly more often than not—appearances can be anything but.
Particularly in the Church. More particularly, in your life and in mine.
I know I’m painting with broad strokes here. But my desire is not to stereotype or pigeon hole. Rather, my hope is to reflect and consider this question:
Is the Church collective, is my church and your church, are all the other myriad gatherings of believers who profess ‘Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord,’ more like open books or more like whited sepulchres?
I’ve grown up in the church. Been attending my entire life. So, I know what you can and cannot say; what you can and cannot confess; what you can and cannot pray…out loud, at least.
Masks are put on, metaphorically of course. (Though, if your church actually puts them on that would be an interesting and powerful reminder of what we all do, and hopefully lead to positive change). We pretend we have it all together—ministers in particular. Why? Well, after all, that’s what is expected right? You can’t question or struggle or doubt or wonder or hurt, right? Not in church where we always sing songs of happiness and triumph and overcoming…all…the…time.
So, we don’t open up, we don’t share. In sum, we don’t connect with God or each other much of the time. Because we’re too busy putting on the masks, putting up the fronts, putting up with all of the crap in our lives all alone. We don’t minister to one another where and on the level that truly matters. In reality, life is harsh, difficult, or unseemly. This is where we live day in, and day out.
And if the Church cannot speak to us there, what good is it? The hope is that it can and does, that God will meet us there if we but ask, and that he calls us to meet one another there if we’ll be try to set aside the preconceived notions about what is fitting and proper and right and just open ourselves to one another so that ministry can really happen. To set aside the bickering, to set aside the masks, to set aside the gossip sessions (often veiled as prayer requests) simply to be as we are before God and one another to be ministered to and to minister, all in humble recognition of our need for grace.
For, the truth is, we all know better. We too have seen and we too have whited enough sepulchres that we aren’t easily deceived.
So, there is the situation in my estimation. Maybe not in all the churches, but it is the case in far too many. So, what do we do? And where do we go from here? And what ought we to strive to become?
It is interesting to me that Jesus’ critique of the scribes and Pharisees was not that they erred or sinned or failed. After all, look at the cast of characters that he hung out with. Galilean fisherman, women, children, crippled, blind, lame, leprous, ‘sinners and tax collectors—in sum, the lowly, outcast, despised and/or overlooked in his society. These are those whom he rubbed shoulders with, ministered to and alongside of, shared meals with, and taught.
Jesus hung out, not with those who covered over and whitewashed their lives for appearance’s sake, but with those who were what they were and everybody knew it and let them know it as well. Jesus hung out with those that admitted who they were, what they’d done, left off with the effort to cover over faults and simply came in hope and by faith to the one whose words and deeds had the ring of truth and hope and life.
So, maybe it’s as simple as that.
To cease covering over or coloring or whiting our lives before God and before others, and instead seeking everywhere and always to follow Christ with integrity and honesty—viz. with transparency and openness. To stop acting as if we’ve got it all together or as if we have all the answers. Because we don’t. We know it, and others know it. Not one of us is that good of an actor. What is desired is not perfection by our own effort. What is desired it to ‘do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.’ This only comes with time and by grace. It is the natural outworking of a long obedience in the same direction (to borrow the title from a book by Eugene Peterson).
‘Come as you are. I come as I am. Grace covers shame.’
Watermark put it well, for this is the call of Christ and the proclamation of those who follow him. Come.
Put the bucket of paint and the whited brush down, and just come. In all honestly, openness, and transparency. With all your junk, your failing, your warts. With all your triumphs, your victories, your laurels.
Come, and find grace that not only covers shame, but transforms and redeems it.
And maybe, just maybe, when we do that, Christian faith will be more real, more compelling, and more believable to both believers and non-believers—all of whom have whited too many sepulchers to believe the front that is often put up.
So maybe it’s just that simple: To come as you are and I’ll come as I am to find grace that covers, redeems, and transforms your shame and mine; and through you and through me the sin, the shame, the guilt, the regret, and the sufferings of the world.
 Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), 38.