In her wonderful book Breathe, author Keri Wyatt Kent names four crucial commitments necessary to finding our way into a saner kind of life today. I like the way she puts these, because they sum up so succinctly what the Bible teaches on this subject that we have been exploring. If you want to enter into that healthier way of life that is the Kingdom of God, writes Kent, then "you must learn to live slowly, to live simply, to live in the present, and to live in reality." In my words: Slow down. Simplify. See the present. Stay real before God, others, and yourself.
It is by leaning into these intentions and practicing the spiritual rhythms that assist us with them that God enables us to overcome the demonically destructive pull of a world that can make us pretty crazy. In our Scripture lessons this morning, Jesus invites us to think further about the fourth of these steps toward greater sanity. He challenges his audience to live in reality. Allow me to describe what I think he's getting at by way of a contemporary counterpoint.
How like Hyacinth?
One of my wife's favorite television programs is that old British sitcom, Keeping Up Appearances. The program features a middle-aged woman named Hyacinth, whose life is obsessively focused on presenting to her suburban neighbors the appearance that she and her family are people of consummate nobility, control, sophistication, and success. Hyacinth spends an enormous amount of time peering out the window to see what other people are doing or to note who may be watching so that she can impress them when she goes out on the street. She is endlessly dropping names. She perfumes the performance of her family members. She snidely or subtly runs others down. This is Hyacinth's life.
Those of us who've watched this show don't know whether to laugh at Hyacinth or cry for her. She is comical and tragic at the same time. Nobody is actually watching Hyacinth anywhere near as closely as she imagines. It's like she's stuck in a high school mindset. When I was a teen, for example, I believed that having straight, feathered-back, David Cassidy hair was the thing to have. The fact that I then had wavy hair seemed an argument against the existence of a loving God! And so, each morning, I got up early, wet down my hair, and lay against a pillow until my mop dried flat. The full foolishness of this didn't occur to me until my dad ran for Congress and we had to take campaign photos of the family. At just the moment when my father offered a perfect smile for the camera, a gust of wind came up and lifted my flat mat of hair up at a right angle to my head. This picture appeared life-size on the sides of buses all over Westchester County!
I didn't want to go to school. I was completely convinced that everyone was watching me. But they weren't. They were worrying about their own hair! This is the way it is with Hyacinth. Most of her neighbors are either utterly oblivious to her act or else have long since written her off as wacky and self-deluded. What is more tragic still is the fact that the real self and the real family behind the managed image she presents is a whole lot more interesting and inspiring of compassion than the false self she works so hard to project.
In my senior year in high school, a girlfriend broke up with me on the grounds that she found me "too smooth." I thought it was good to be smooth. But Pam didn't: "You never let anyone see your cracks and crevices, Dan. You don't realize that it is those real things that would let me hold onto you. And if you could just get real about your issues, you'd have something more significant to work on than your look."
Hyacinth is stuck in this place. She's all about polishing the outside of her life. She naively idealizes the lives of people she sees who have better hair than she does. She foolishly ignores or writes off those whose exteriors make them obviously below her ideal image. But in none of these ways is Hyacinth living in reality. Her effort to keep up and dwell on appearances is vanity magnified to the level of insanity. In too many ways this has been my life. How like Hyacinth are you?
In our two lessons from Matthew's gospel this week, Jesus encounters a whole group of people with this Hyacinth Complex. The Pharisees were, in a sense, the rising middle or upper-middle class of their day. They had the education, money, and means to rise above the common folk, and they very much enjoyed the sense of success and superiority this gave them. They not only devoted themselves to keeping up appearances, but also looked down at those "sinners" who did such a poor job of managing their image. Not all of them, of course, were as obvious as Hyacinth. Some were far more sophisticated in their style. To use a golfing metaphor, some simply saw themselves as playing at par or actively pursuing it, and therefore felt contempt for the many obvious hackers around them.
David Brooks of the New York Times offers some insight into how this more subtle form of the Pharisaical mindset insinuates itself into contemporary life. "The modern suburb enshrines the pursuit of par," says Brooks. "The suburban knight strives to have his life together, to achieve mastery over the great dragons: tension, hurry, anxiety, and disorder. [She] tries to create a world and a lifestyle in which she can achieve that magic state of productive harmony and peace." When you're living on par
You can glide through your days without unpleasant distractions or tawdry failures. Your DVD collection is organized, and so is your walk-in closet. Your car is clean and vacuumed, your frequently dialed numbers are programmed into your cordless phone, your telephone plan is suited to your needs, and your various gizmos interact without conflict. Your spouse is athletic, your kids are bright, your job is rewarding, your promotions are inevitable …. You look great in casual slacks …. You radiate confidence and calm.
You may not be the most intellectual or philosophical person on the planet, but you are honest and straightforward, friendly and good-hearted. As you drive home, you observe that the lawns in your neighborhood are carefully tended, so as to best maintain the flow of par. Your neighbors all know that one cannot allow too much time to pass between mowings, and one cannot mow when the grass is wet, lest it lead to clumping …. One cannot cut the grass too short, lest one stress the lawn. One cannot leave one's [recycling bins] out long after the garbage has been collected, lest one disturb the par of the streetscape.
If we're not careful, we can become a Hyacinth, a Pharisee in one form or another. Life becomes consumed with projecting and managing an image. We may put out an appearance of being more loving, competent, creative, happy, in control, spiritual, noble, or something else than we are. We may put others down because it makes our score in these areas seem higher. But the effort to maintain this smooth image is exhausting. It is not the truth about us. And both comically and tragically, this effort separates us further from God, others, and the healthier self we might become.
This is why the two messages Jesus offers us in Matthew's gospel are ultimately so important and so liberating. The first thing Jesus says to us is this: You can stop pretending you're something that you're not. We may succeed in fooling the neighbors by our "beautiful" exteriors, but no amount of whitewash deceives the one person whose opinion truly counts in the end. As the prophet tells us in 1 Samuel 16:7, "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." God sees our "hypocrisy and wickedness," says Jesus in Matthew 23:27-28. He sees what's "dead" and "unclean" about us. He sees through our Hyacinth act. He knows how far from the par of real righteousness all of us play. And "woe to you" and to me if we don't realize this. Woe to us if we don't see that we, just like our neighbors, are, every one of us, desperately in need of love and mercy. How different life would be in suburbia today if we stopped the pretending and frankly admitted to God, ourselves, and one another how very desperately sick and in need of healing we all are.
I wish you knew my friend Ira. Ira and I roomed in college for four years. He went on to med school and became a prominent cardiologist in New York. He was the only guy from my graduating class who travelled all the way across the country to attend Amy's and my wedding in California. Ira was a fantastic roommate. He shared my passion for keeping the room clean. He didn't mess with my stuff. He cared about getting good test scores like I did. He hardly ever pried into my private life and never bled all over me with his stuff. Both of us put a lot of energy into keeping our lawns well-groomed and our surfaces well-polished. In fact, Ira was so good at keeping up appearances that he died of cancer without ever telling me he was sick. We never said "I love you." We never said "goodbye." And I wonder to this day how my insistence on maintaining an image of my own smoothness and invulnerability might have made it harder for Ira to let me into his disease.
If only we could admit how sick and unclean we are so that we might find love and mercy. Not everyone will offer it to us. Some Pharisees won't. But God and his genuine servants will. This is the second and final message Jesus offers us today. The first message is that we can stop pretending that we are something we are not, because God knows our reality. And the second truth is this: Hope begins at the point of authenticity. "Why [do you] eat with tax collectors and sinners," the Pharisees asked in Matthew chapter 9. Because, said Jesus, "it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
In other words, I can't do anything with those who are all about keeping up appearances, who are mainly about superficial righteousness, who fool themselves about how close to the par of real holiness they are playing. But for those who are authentic about their condition, so much is possible. Real forgiveness of our sin is possible. Real intimacy is possible with those who will not give themselves to us until they know we have cracks and crevices in us like they know they have in themselves. Real transformation is possible for those willing to say, "Search me, Jesus, I need your healing touch from the inside out."
If you dare such vulnerability, it will look crazy to some of the neighbors. But living in reality rather than pretend-land is a major part of how we ultimately find our way to living in sanity.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.