May 17, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“The Key to Mental Health”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 5: 27-30
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
I decided to do an informal survey this week. Not a long questionnaire; it was just one question actually. I asked: what do you want? Big, small, profound, mundane: What do you want? And, something other than, the virus goes away and life returns. Got that one. What do you want right now?
My first answer to the survey came from my wife. She said, “I would like someone to clean the stove top.”
“Really?” I said.
“Really. That is what I want.”
As the survey moved forward, I found there were other desires.
Brenda Day answered the question this way, “I’d like to see the choir in front of me.”
So far, I have talked to or heard from almost 100 people. Not exactly a national survey, but more than just a handful. The overall winner, resounding winner, was to hug the ones we love. A hug. People want to hug their kids, their grandkids, their friends. Some are willing to extend this: just hug anyone; hug those who feel isolated. One was heartbreaking. A dear friend just wanted his wife to be with him having lost her not that long ago.
The second runner up was a bit of a three-way tie. People wanted calm, freedom, and purpose. Each of these got roughly the same number of votes and each is a basic need of the soul. One could take from this very informal survey that the pandemic and the shelter-sin-place for two months have clarified very basic needs of the soul.
The only other large vote getter was going to a restaurant. People want to go to dinner with friends and according to one group, go shopping at TJ Maxx afterwards.
There was a unique desire: to find missing keys that must be in the house somewhere. This is almost my favorite. Although no one said, “listen to more sermons,” there were two who expressed they wanted to sing with Brenda and one of those would be willing to just sit here and listen to you warm up.
My survey was not meant to prove something or generate “hard data” as a mathematician seeks to prove. That nearly 50% of the people who responded to my question used the word “hug” is interesting and not surprising. Which means it is most likely quite authentic.
The purpose of my survey was simply to bring desire to the surface. What do you desire is important to ask when reading this passage from Matthew. In order to step into this teaching of Jesus, it is best to have desire close at hand. Again, all I wanted to do was to introduce the notion of desire. What do you want?
Knowing what you want seems simple, but like most important things, it’s tricky.
No one made this challenge clearer than Frank Capra the movie director. He made It’s a Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take it With You, It Happened One Night, and many, many others. Almost all of Capra’s movies come down a moment where someone needs to reckon with how much of their life is spent chasing things that don’t really matter. All his movies reveal how people are not quite sure yet what it is they really want. And the obvious desires (money, success, fame) Capra helps you see the shallowness of such desires and begs you: go deeper into your heart; find the good you truly desire.
Whenever I think of people who are struggling to understand what they want, I think of George Bailey who is trying to escape Bedford Falls in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
Many times have my children heard me quote the line in the movie where good old George, played by Jimmy Stewart, shouts at his future wife, Mary, “I don’t want any plastics, I don’t want any ground floors, I don’t want any marriage.” And then, in a moment of pure surrender he grabs Mary and they kiss and sob together in tender bliss.
In this scene Capra captures the long time of confusion followed directly by the moment of clarity. This moment of clarity reveals what George really wants. The clarity is gained and lost as the story moves forward. Spoiler: George realizes in the end, in yet another moment of clarity, that friends are what really makes life worth living and he has friends.
You could say that each of Capra’s movies are built around this moment of confusion and clarity. “What do you want? What do you really want?” each film begs us to answer.
Yet, when I think of desire and a person who helped clarify it, the person I think of most is Norman Vincent Peale. Peale is most well-known for his book, The Power of Positive Thinking. I have read his books and love Peale. A number of pastors scoff when they find his books in my library. True, they are a bit chicken soup for the soul; and yes, they can devolve into a kind of wish dream sort of prayer. Both of these are not the best. But Peale begged his readers so artfully, like Capra, to ask, what do you really want?
If you read his books simply as a moment to find the power of knowing what your heart desires, you will be blessed. At the heart of the power of positive thinking is a moment where you see, perhaps for the first time, what it is you really want: big, small, profound, mundane. No matter what, it’s yours.
You would think that finding the heart, your own heart, would not be that hard, but it is. Some folks are too fearful to look within; some folks are too busy pleasing others; and some folks don’t even know it’s there.
I am sure you know where your heart is and what you desire in general. But I am also sure that from time to time it is not altogether clear what it is we really want, or if what we want is good and right and true.
I have heard many people say we should take time to assess our lives during this pandemic. We have time to think or ponder. So, we should take stock.
We do have time that is for sure. But I am not convinced this is a good time to assess. I would say it is enough to recognize the profound need for embrace, for the presence of the ones we love and the need to have peace, purpose, and freedom. Right now, it is enough to see the need. Assessment, taking stock, well, that is lot of work.
After the pandemic, when the dust settles, and my friend Drew has found his keys and the choir has returned, after this we can take stock, measure what we have gained and lost. But not yet. It is enough right now to simply know what it is we desire. As Frank Capra made so apparent in his movies, clarity of desire is a gift when it come.
Taking stock of what you desire, really digging deeper into the heart, that is exhausting. And that is the challenge of our reading today. The challenge, as Sheryl Crow said so well, it’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you got.
The teaching of Jesus about lust is quite fascinating. At first glance it is crazy. Pluck out your eye; cut off your hand. In Mark Jesus adds that you cut off your foot too, not to offend the foot I guess by omission.
It is easy to see how this is about desire, for lust is a desire. And Jesus talks about the heart, a very important part of his teachings. Again at first glance we can see this is about desire, but what this all means and how we are to live this is not clear; confusing is what I would call it.
After the pandemic is over, I would strongly encourage you to dig into this teaching. When you do, you will be able to navigate through the crazy and find that within this little passage is the key to mental health.
Right now, there is too much crazy already to add this crazy. But again, when the dust settles and there is a viable vaccine and children go to school where they are taught by folks trained to teach and we hug each everyone else who is desirous of a hug, then we can dig into the complexity of our tenuous ability to keep what we desire, to live with peace purpose and freedom.
Right now most of us would hug even the boorish brother in law who gives arrogance a unique spin, but later on, when things settle, we will or can or should ask, why is it so hard to love people; why is desire so complicated?
That is what Jesus is driving at with the eye. How we look at people, define them, seek to categorize or determine who they are or what they should be. The eye is what spoils relationships with expectations. How we see people, how we view them and define them: this ruins a lot of love, spoils desire.
And spoiling our desires, making peace and freedom elusive, is the hand too. We not only want what we want, we want to control what we want. We are given to each other freely in marriage, but sometimes our giving freely becomes possession. We want to be in charge of life, others, our stuff. Our hands grip too tight and take too much.
Again, these are really tough parts of the heart to explore. A whole lot of therapy simply seeks to sort out not only our desires, but how our eyes define or determine and how our hands control or possess. Understanding this, how we are to cut out, remove, the impulse to determine and control, this takes work, hard work. If you do the work, you will be a better person. You will find inner freedom, peace, and purpose. You might even become someone people are more likely to hug.
This is my first pandemic, so certainly not an expert, but we are already doing enough work right now. Dig into the complexity of desire? Too much work. The good news: part of the work is being done for us. We can clearly see our desires and this is a big piece of the mental health pie.
If you don’t know who you are and what you want and what it means for you to have purpose and freedom, then (not to give away the ending) you are all too human. This confusion is part of us. Yet, if at the end of the pandemic, you can see these things clearly, well, that is quite a bonus. You can count yourself a lucky one.
But that is enough. Again, first pandemic, but not my first disaster or tragedy or heartbreak. In a time such as this, we can see things. Things that we thought important vanish and what is actually important emerges.
In this clarity you can see the profound importance of finding your keys—which my friend Drew did; he found them; or, having a clean stove top, or going shopping at TJ Maxx. You can see the great value in this because you can see the joy of the mundane.
My answer to the question was this. I want Tuesday to just be Tuesday. And right now, “just Tuesday” is still far off. I want to go to the office, work hard, and come home and not try to figure out if and when I can pray at a beside or just shake hands with folks.
Later on, after the dust settles, I will get back to the really hard work, the challenge of understanding how the eye and hand spoil love and rob peace. And they do.
I’ll get back to this and I will invite you to do the same. I will because mastering the temptation to determine and control what we love is the key to mental health. Letting loose of possessiveness and fear where those we love speak for themselves and we release the hold we keep on others, trying to make them a possession; losing this, cutting it out, brings peace and freedom and purpose. And that is very healthy, mentally that is.
For right now it is enough to know what we desire: we want to sing together, we want to go to TJ Maxx, and we want to hug and hold the people we love. What we want is very clear and this is a good thing; enough work for now. Amen.
- Matthew 5:27 - 30
- Matthew 5:31 - 32