The Gift of Temptation – March 7, 2021

While any talent has since faded, I was a bit of a musician when I was younger.  Having no real desire to play sports in school, I still craved being part of a group which gave me a sense of belonging.  So I decided to join the band.  I was never one who liked to conform, to do what everyone else was doing.  While everyone was choosing an instrument like the flute or the trumpet to play, I began searching for something a little more unique.

It was around that time that a movie called “Never Cry Wolf” came out.  I don’t remember a lot about the details of the movie other than it told the story of a man living alone in Alaska or some other similar wilderness.  There was a scene in which the man was sitting on the edge of a cliff playing an instrument I had never seen.   And picturing myself as a rugged outdoorsman, sitting on the edge of a cliff in wilderness isolation, I immediately decided I wanted to play it.  And that is how I claimed the identity of a bassoonist.

Bassoonists are not the most common instrumentalists.  And even though I wasn’t particularly talented at playing it, I was often given the opportunities of better musicians simply because bands and orchestras wanted to have a bassoon play.  One time I was invited to play with an orchestra of students from various schools throughout the area.  I had no real desire to go – didn’t really want to travel and spend a weekend with people I didn’t know just to play in a concert.  But our band director encouraged me to do it.  And as you will come to be aware, I am incapable of saying no.

I was not very confident in my skills as a bassoonist.  And many of the musicians participating were well out of my league.  But I wanted to do anything I could to impress the conductor and to make my own band director proud.  One of the songs we were to perform was “Thus Spake Zarathustra.”  The beginning of this song starts with a very low note which was supposed to be played by the tuba.  Unfortunately, the tuba player was ill and did not show up.   But someone had to play this note to start the song.  So the conductor asked me if I would play it on the bassoon.  It was an incredibly low note, a note I barely knew how to play.  But always the pleaser, I immediately said yes.  And I also immediately began to sweat whether I would be able to play the note at all.

Today we examine our next gift of the Dark Wood.  So far, we have considered the gifts of emptiness and of uncertainty.  The gift of emptiness allows us to be filled with something greater than what we have been emptied of.  And the gift of uncertainty allows us to develop a trust which means more than having certainty.  Today we consider a gift we would never think of in a positive light – the gift of temptation.

In all of the gifts of the dark wood we have examined so far, we have begun to learn that the obstacles life places in our way as we walk the path of life do not need to be seen simply as negative.  Rather, they provide opportunities for us to navigate our way provided we do not succumb to fear, provided we are paying attention to the way those experiences can enhance our lives.  And this is particularly true with the gift of temptation.  Perhaps more than with any other gift, recognizing how to respond to this gift will do more to reveal our path through the Dark Wood than any other.

When we think of temptation, there is generally one thing which comes to mind.  That temptation is like a little devil sitting on our shoulder urging us to do something we shouldn’t.  We think of the times in our lives when things were simpler, when the difference between right and wrong was so much clearer.  That being a person of faith means rejecting temptations to do wrong – resisting the urge to lie, to cheat, to steal.  That to overcome temptation, all we need to do was say “no” to those things which are identified as bad.

But today we consider temptation from a different angle.  Not the temptation to abstain from things labeled as evil.  Today we consider the temptation to do good.  Now I am not saying that we are never tempted to do wrong, that the temptation to do evil should not be a consideration.  But sometimes we think this is the only temptation we face. And because we think it is the only thing we need to be watchful for, we forget the other side of the coin.

When I speak of the temptation to do good, I am speaking of our tendency to do good work that is not ours to do, to be influenced by others around us or our own desire for the recognition or security which comes with doing that work even when something within us tells us we should do otherwise.  When we succumb to this temptation, we can learn pretty quickly whether we are on the path that we are supposed to be on.  We become exhausted.  We become disenchanted.  And while we may feel that we are doing the right thing simply because it pleases others or gives us a sense of security or esteem, we wonder if we are following the right path.

When we become disenchanted on this path, we typically turn to logic.  We look to the results we have accomplished in making the decision whether we should continue.  We think of the people who rely on us – what would happen if we made a change?  We think of all of the good things we are accomplishing.  We worry about losing our safety net.  Would we be sacrificing our security if we did something different?  Who would we be disappointing?  We think we can always do something more meaningful later, maybe when we retire.  But the problem is, we become so used to doing what everyone else wants us to do that we lose a sense of who we are, what we are called to do, and how to say no.

Finding the path that we are supposed to be on is more than just finding something good to do with our time and energy.  And it is often a lengthy process – taking shape little by little over many years, through trial and error.  It emerges through a conversation within ourselves, with our friends and loved ones.  It emerges from listening to the inner promptings of the Divine.  It emerges from focusing our eyes so we can see the path that is being revealed to us.

While we often succumb to it, the temptation to do the wrong good is often one of the best gifts which we receive.  Because it challenges us to discern between the good which we are meant to do and the good which we are meant not to do.  Rather than being guided by logic, by the expectations of others, or the rewards we think we can obtain, we are called to follow the path which brings the best of who we are to the world, to face the temptations which erode the fullness of who we are and steal us away onto a path we were not meant to follow.

This provides a different way of viewing the temptation of Jesus recorded in the gospels.  Doing the acts suggested by the tempter does not appear to harm anyone.  In fact, they all seem to be good options.  Jesus is tempted to turn stone to bread, to feed not only himself but potentially all of those who are hungry in the world.  Jesus is tempted to seek political power, creating the possibility of establishing a peaceful regime.  Jesus is tempted to engage in public demonstration of his power, a possibility he could recruit more followers to his cause.  The Gospels, after all, record Jesus performing acts like each of these during his ministry.

But engaging in these acts was not what Jesus was primarily called to do.  Jesus did not see his mission as feeding a few people who were hungry centuries ago in Palestine.  Jesus did not see his mission as becoming a short-term ruler of the Jewish people, to overthrow of the Roman occupiers.  While these things are not bad, that didn’t mean Jesus should define himself by those things.  These were not the acts of good which Jesus was called to do.

At any age, we can overcome the temptation to do the wrong kind of good.  This is not limited to what we do as a career, what we devote our lives to.  It impacts every aspect of our lives.  It impacts how we engage in this community.  NCC is going through a time of transition.  And part of this transition will require each of us to examine what role we should play.  How should we best contribute to the future of this community?  It is easy in the context of a community like this to take on roles because we feel that we have to, we have always done it, there is no one else who will.  But that work may drain us, be joyless, and pull us from the work which would not only fulfill us but be the greatest gift to those around us.

The best way to overcome this temptation is to follow the words of Mary Oliver, to determine what brings us joy and to embrace it.  As Oliver states, “joy is not meant to be a crumb.”  What we devote our lives to, the work in which we engage, should not be a continual drain on our energy only to be interrupted with brief glimpses of happiness.  And when we are lucky enough to find those things which bring us joy, it is within our power to overcome the temptation to do the wrong kind of good, to not hesitate, and to make a change.  Because no matter where we are in our lives, as Oliver says, “life has some possibility left.”

When the time came for the concert, I was nervous.  I had practiced hitting that low note many times. Sometimes I was able to play it, and sometimes I just couldn’t make it happen.  I dreaded the moment I would open that song all day.  I knew all eyes would be on me when the fateful song began.  When the time finally came, the conductor held up his wand and pointed at me to begin.  Nothing came out.  I kept trying to make it happen.  And eventually a sound came out.  Not a beautiful low note to begin the song, but more like the last sounds a moose would make as it met its demise.  Seeing the horror on the conductor’s face and realizing that same horror was likely on my band director’s face, I realized I should have said no.  That while I wanted to step up and help, while I wanted to make a good impression, playing that note was not something I was capable of doing.  Overcome with the temptation to do something good, I only ended up taking the opportunity from someone who surely could have done it better.  And I humiliated myself in the process.

Today we tie a ribbon as a prayer that we will learn to embrace the gift of temptation.  And that by doing so, we will be able discern between the good which we are meant to do and the good which we are meant not to do.  That by overcoming the temptation to do the wrong good, we are not only discerning the path we should be on as we leave the Dark Wood, but that we find the most fulfillment and most joy in the journey.  That in embracing the gift of temptation, we find our true purpose.