Our Lenten journey into the Dark Wood continues as we explore the temptation to follow the expected path rather than the right path, to value the safe choice rather than the one that leads to abundant life. The gift of temptation may surprise.
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Reflection – April 7, 2019 on Matthew 4:1-11: Gifts of the Darkwood – The Gift of Temptation
by Ken Irwin
There is a remarkable story in the news this past week of a woman who doesn’t experience pain, or fear or anxiety. Doctors and scientists who have studied her determined she likely has a genetic mutation. I don’t know what her life has been like, not experiencing so much of what the rest of the world does, and yet I suppose that is all she knows. It seems that her genetic condition mutes the seemingly negative things in life, and I wonder if it also mutes other things like love, empathy, joy. As I read about her, I wondered if that genetic condition also prevented her from feeling temptation.
Once again, we find ourselves in the Dark Wood, exploring, as we have throughout the season of Lent, what that means for us. I understand that this place is darker and more forbidding for some of us. It is not an easy place to be and one that we might not intentionally choose, a place to which we might not want to go; and yet, this is where our Lenten journey is taking us and, as we have discovered, there are gifts to be found in the Dark Wood.
· The gift of uncertainty teaches us to trust, to let go, to dig up the hard soil of this life and let something new grow.
· The gift of emptiness helps us to clear the clutter and make space, to be still and quiet and listen for God’s gentle call on our life.
· The gift of being thunderstruck opens us to the sudden flashes of insight and awestruck awareness that God’s guidance and love is present and reverberates through our lives.
· The gift of getting lost reminds us that the holy Spirit is present wherever we are, that the trees that surround us are not lost, and that we are found, always, by the God of love.
On this fifth Sunday of Lent, we are talking about the Gift of Temptation. Hmmm. Gift of Temptation…each week we pray, in word or song, “lead us not into temptation.” We have grown up being told to resist temptation, to not give in to that little voice telling us to eat another Danish, to have that last drink, to buy one more pair of shoes, well, because we can. We are faced with temptations every day; some we give into, usually the ones that are most benign, and others that are more hurtful, hopefully we can resist. When was the last time you were tempted to do something really evil or sinister? I don’t imagine that happens at all (well, hardly at all!). Occasionally one of those seven deadly sins – sloth, gluttony, lust, etc. – might tempt us, but that’s not what we are talking about here.
What we are talking about is the temptation…to do good. Now, I can hear you say, “How can being tempted to do good be bad?” Well, this temptation is not about good or bad, it’s about right or wrong. Eric Elnes, who wrote the book The Gifts of the Dark Wood, describes the Gift of Temptation this way: “In itself, doing good is not the problem. Doing the wrong good, however, is entirely the problem. By the wrong good, I mean any good work that is not yours to do. It may be someone else’s good to do, but not your own.”
To explain this, Eric talks about the poet David Whyte who worked as an administrator in a non-profit organization. He believed strongly in the mission of this organization. It did good work for a lot of people, but after a number of months his enthusiasm began to wane, he felt drained and exhausted. He came to realize, with the help of some discerning friends, that this good work that he was doing, was not his to do, it was not something he could do wholeheartedly. David’s call was to be a poet, not an administrator, and eventually he took the plunge and left behind security, and a regular pay cheque, to swim in his elemental waters as a poet. As Eric said, “David has been wholeheartedly swimming there ever since.”
Do you see yourself in David Whyte’s story?
My dad (Doug’s dad, Susan’s dad) fell in love with flying in his late teens. It was the early 30’s in Calgary and in the early years of flight. After secretly taking lessons and getting his pilot’s license, Dad bought a crashed Syrris Moth bi-plane, rebuilt it and then barnstormed throughout Alberta, taking in supplies to logging and mining camps all over the northern part of the province. When WWll began dad became a flight instructor teaching hundreds of young men to fly. Near the end of the war he was stationed in England with the Royal Fleet Air Arm and ferried military officers up and down the British Coast. When he returned home, at war’s end, his dream was to fly for Trans Canada Airlines. But that was not to be. There were thousands of young pilots returning from the war, and many of them wanted to continue with flying careers too. Trans Canada set an arbitrary age limit and Dad found himself on the wrong side of that. Canadian Pacific was just a small bush pilot operation then, so dad hung up his wings and took a job in sales with Carnation Milk, BC Honey and then McGavin’s Bread. He was good at that job. Dad became a sales manager; he was respected and well liked, loved, by those who worked for him. He was a gentle, quiet, humble man who loved his family deeply and did what he had to do to provide a comfortable life for us. But I have always wondered how much happier and healthier Dad would have been if he had been able to follow his passion, to continue his dream of flying.
Do you see yourself in my Dad’s story?
This morning’s scripture passage takes us back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has just been baptized by John in the River Jordan and is now being led by the Spirit into the wilderness (his own Dark Wood) where he will fast for 40 days and spend time discerning his call and preparing himself for what God wants him to do. At the end of his wilderness time, famished and exhausted, he has a visitor, one known by many names…the Devil, Satan, the Tempter, the Adversary. He comes, not with horns and tail and an evil demeaner, but as a ‘friend’; as one who is concerned about Jesus’ well-being; offering him, or rather tempting him with ‘good’ things to ease his plight:
· “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Why not? Seems reasonable. In a world where the majority of people are hungry, where thousands die of malnutrition, where there is enough food for all, but not enough people are getting it – turning stones into bread seems like a good idea, an easy solution to a real-world problem. But Jesus says no, “One does not live by bread alone.” The Tempter is perplexed, “C’mon Jesus, you’re starving and the world is starving, this is a good thing.” Of course, later in his ministry, Jesus will feed his people – but this is not the good that he came to do.
· Then, the Adversary took him to the Holy City, to the highest pinnacle of the Temple and said, “Throw yourself down; for it is written, He will command his angels concerning you, and on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Can you imagine the stir that this would create; all the doubters would be convinced; even the scribes and pharisees and Temple Priests would be stunned into submission, and probable think, “Surely, this must be the Son of God.” But again, Jesus says no. “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” In the days ahead, he will do some pretty miraculous things, but this temptation to show his glory will not be one of them. This too was not the good Jesus came to do.
Finally, Satan took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and then said to him: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” I know Jesus says no, again. “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” But, can you imagine how accepting this temptation could change everything. Politics would never be the same: Jesus could write the laws, put all the public and private resources to their best use, and create world peace. So much suffering could be circumvented by becoming the ‘guy’ in charge. This would be good, wouldn’t it? Well, apparently not. This is also not the good Jesus came to do.
There is the possibility of good in all three of these temptations, but the danger for Jesus is being enslaved to a power whose purposes are quite different from the God who gives him life and whom he has chosen to follow. Eric Elnes says this: “The point is none of these activities would harm anyone. Not initially, anyway. And Jesus does feed the hungry, change the political equation, and perform miracles at various points in his ministry. Yet, none of these individual activities were ones that Jesus was called to devote his time and energy to…part of Jesus calling was to live more fully into his human identity than anyone else had ever done before.”
There is much good to be done in this world and the gift of temptation helps each of us to discern the right good that we are called to do. For some, that comes easily but for many of us it is a dark wood struggle to let go of the expectations that others have for us or we have for ourselves. How often do we choose our path based on logic, and reason and strategy, rather than passion and joy and spiritual contentment? Poet and theologian, Frederick Buechner offers this wonderful quotation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (repeat)
God’s deep desire for us, for you, is to find that place – that place where your unique gifts and passions come alive and are being used in such a way that you are fulfilled and the world is being fed, all at the same time. There is much good to be done in this world…trust that others are called to do the good that doesn’t call to you.
As teacher and writer, Parker Palmer would say, “Listen to your Life…and let your life speak.”
God speaks to us in that quiet space in the Dark Wood, encouraging us to listen to the still, silent voice of our soul that calls us and urges us towards fulfillment. And God also speaks to us in the lightning flashes and thunderclaps – those moments of intuition and awesome imagination that tell us…we were made for so much more than ordinary lives, it’s time for us to more than just survive – we were made to thrive.
May it be so. Amen
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