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"Temptations or Distractions?" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 5, 2017

posted Mar 13, 2017, 10:01 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

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We begin the season of Lent every year with the same stories: Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation in the Garden and Jesus resisting temptation in the desert.  These stories frame the whole season, a time of introspection and reflection as we prepare for Holy Week, the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Our Christian tradition, in beginning the season with these stories, wants us to look at the role of temptation in our own lives.  The message: repent of your temptations so you can be ready when Jesus comes.  And yet, I’ve come to wonder, is temptation the best way to understand our spiritual struggles in life?  Is temptation the problem?


After Fat Tuesday, I might say temptation is MY spiritual problem.  This year I hosted a church dinner at my house.  About thirty of us gathered for a pancake dinner supplemented with lots of treats - donuts, pastries, paczki. But we came for more than just breakfast served as dinner; our purpose was a discussion of immigration and the resolution of our Christian movement to make our state more welcoming to immigrants.  


Two things happened at the end of the meal.  First, about five people agreed to work on immigration issues.  I’m excited to see where their work leads us.  But second, people left behind their donuts, pastries, and paczki.  So Ash Wednesday, with all those sweets, turned into Fat Wednesday.  And then Fat Thursday.  


I’m not good with temptation.  And it’s because I’m a pastry whisperer.  Some people are dog whisperers or horse whisperers.  My brother has that gift; after three decades working with horses, he knows intuitively what they think.  But I’m a pastry whisperer.  Which means I can make a pretty good choux pastry.  Even more, I can hear the pastries crying to me on the counter.  “Don’t let us go stale!”  Eating them was an act of kindness.  


So there comes that moment on Ash Wednesday, when you see in the mirror, ashes on your forehead and the remains of the powdered donut massacre, and you think, “Holy Temptations.”

And so Lent starts.  Someone, something tempts; the donut whispers, the snake slithers.


Our primary Christian way to speak of sin closely connects to the language of temptation.  We remember the snake tempting Adam and Eve.  And the devil, following Jesus into the desert, testing and tempting him.  We even call the devil the Tempter.


But is that really true?  Is the source of our troubles outside of us?  Is it really the donut who tempts?  Or does this language of temptation allow us to “outsource” the cause of our troubles.  I may joke that the donut tempted me into breaking my diet - the donut made me do it - but my confession just seems lame.  Of course the pastry defense has been tried before.  Back in the late 1970’s the first openly gay politician in America, Harvey Milk, was assassinated by his colleague Dan White.  White mounted a “Twinkie Defense,” as if a sugary snack made him kill others.

 

A focus on temptation - a focus on someone or something tempting us into trouble - makes particular problems for those whom society regards as “the other.”  But the Twinkie Defense doesn’t make sense.  Nor does the “what she wore” defense.  


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The effect of a temptation-focused spirituality on people regarded as society’s outsiders can be seen in an old event in American history.  We’ve all heard of the Salem Witch Trials, the seventeenth century panic about witches taking over a small New England town.  But we often forget the racial component.  The ministers investigating the stories heard again and again about black devils tempting the young white women in the forests.  This would become the familiar racist troupe of our nation: the need for the white men to protect the white women from the black devils.  And this phobia about devils and witches arose just at a moment when people began to question the social hierarchies of New England.  The Witch Hunt ended a social movement for equality.  


Our society continually portrays people without power as the Tempter.  Blacks in Salem and up to the present, the female seductress, even the transgender person just looking to use a bathroom is now the demonic Tempter trying to lead children astray.  A spirituality guarding against temptations seems invariably to reinforce social inequalities.  And it’s never good for those who are poor, different, or of color.


So this Lent, this introspective season, I realized the need for a new language about sin and troubles for myself.  I heard it in the recent film about James Baldwin, “I’m not your negro.”  The film doesn’t offer a documentary review of Baldwin’s life.  Instead, it comes across like a video-essay, bringing Baldwin’s sharp insight to bear against the America of the his day and our day in such moments as when the film has Baldwin speaking about violence against African-Americans while the screen shows images of Ferguson, Missouri.  


So this Lent, this introspective season, I realized the need for a new language about sin and troubles for myself.  I heard it in the recent film about James Baldwin, “I’m not your negro.”  The film doesn’t offer a documentary review of Baldwin’s life.  Instead, it comes across like a video-essay, bringing Baldwin’s sharp insight to bear against the America of the his day and our day in such moments as when the film has Baldwin speaking about violence against African-Americans while the screen shows images of Ferguson, Missouri.  


At one point in the film, the screen showed images of American television shows like Jerry Springer while Baldwin says:

To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly. These images are designed not to trouble, but to reassure. They also weaken our ability to deal with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.

This powerful critique gets right to the heart of the matter.  “We’re trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.”  And trapped not by some external power, trapped not by some Tempter, but trapped by our own refusal to see ourselves.  The shows Baldwin scorns don’t come as temptations but distractions.  Baldwin saw the lengths to which we will go to distract ourselves from reality, to refuse to see and hear and know what was being done to our neighbors.  o-jamesbaldwin.jpg


I find the language of distraction much more powerful than the language of temptation.  Perhaps this is too forced a distinction, but it feels like temptation comes from outside of myself but distraction from inside.  Temptation threatens purity; concerns about temptation are all about purity.  But distraction affects purpose; distractions keep me from my purpose.  I care far more about purpose than purity.  


The story of Jesus and the devil in the desert speaks to this distinction.  Jesus faced distractions.  Just before our reading from the Gospel came the story of Jesus’ baptism, that amazing moment when he heard from heaven, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Now, in our reading, Jesus goes into the desert to reflect and pray about this blessing he heard.  Or, to restate it in more contemporary terms, he went off to a quiet place to think about his purpose.  Concentrating on his purpose became the springboard to his frenetic action and teaching until he landed in Jerusalem.  From the desert to the cross he demonstrated a tremendous concentration of purpose, a clarity about himself and what he would be.  


But in the desert something happened.  The gospel writer speaks of the devil, a Tempter, coming to him.  But I think all these temptations resided in his own heart, more distractions from his purpose than attempts on his purity.  Distractions about the use of power - make some bread.  Distractions about importance - see if God will save you.  Distractions about vanity - make yourself king of the earth.  All of these distracted Jesus from his purpose.


Each of them wasn’t bad in and of themselves.  Afterall: Jesus would make bread, feeding thousands.  Jesus would see God save him, the resurrection.  Jesus would become celebrated as king of the world by disciples in every nation.  And yet at that moment in the desert, each of these came as distractions from his purpose.


Distractions keep us from our purpose too.  The movie about James Baldwin sent me back into his books.  In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin spoke to the deep and abiding power of emotions like hatred to distract us.  He said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”  


Isn’t this what unfolded in Kansas a week or two ago?  A white man filled with hate saw two Indian immigrants relaxing in a bar.  He spoke scornfully to them and was asked to leave.  But hate filled him.  And he returned with a gun, killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounding Alok Madasani.  He used hatred to avoid the pain of his own life and failures.


But Baldwin - when he spoke of the distraction of hate - was not talking about racists in America but his own heart.  Baldwin hated his father with a shocking intensity.  In his father’s death he confronted this distracting hatred of his own heart.  The hatred distracted him from the pain of his longing for a real relationship.  


Jesus had to face the distractions in his heart before he could pursue his purpose.  And likewise with Baldwin, whose greatest contributions and deepest insights came after he faced his own distracting hatred.  For both men, their searing insights came because they deeply knew themselves as they were.


Traditionally, Lent comes as a season to face our temptations.  To give something up that tempts us.  But this year I’m going to use Lent to face my distractions.  To focus; to take Baldwin’s challenge to deal with myself as I am.


Recently I heard Tim Ferriss describe his own practice to deal with distractions.  Ferriss, a Silicon Valley tech investor, makes a habit of “social media fasts.”  For him this means a screen-free Saturday, a screen-free sabbath.  


Ferriss explained why such fasts matter to him.  As a tech industry insider, he knows the whole business model depends on distracting us, incentivizing us to click on things, until we can’t focus on our primary work.  In this way, we get conditioned to be reactive.  Stress mounts; leading Ferriss to ask, “Are you using your tech or is your tech using you?”  


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I hear in his question the same challenge Baldwin gave.  Do we entertain away any insight into the world and ourselves?  


Ferriss’ solution came as a fast.  He explained, “The intention is to help bolster yourself to be more resilient in an economy - online at least - based on distraction.”


So I’m trying a fast (not of those tempting donuts); a weekly fast from email this Lent.  I decided to try fasting from checking my email from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown, the Biblical sabbath.  Conveniently this lets me check email before Sunday service.   


So far, it was a rough start this weekend.  Fasting hasn’t led to some blissful spiritual insight; mostly I just realized how often I’m on email.  And how hard it might be for me to take on Ferriss’ “no screen” level of fasting.  But I think next Saturday will go better; and probably the Saturday after that too.  I’m interested in how the time reclaimed from the distraction of email will allow me to see and hear and know more deeply.  


We pattern Lent on Jesus in the desert.  He spent forty days; we spend forty days.  This year I’m going to use it as a season to look at the distractions in my own heart.  And to seek the clarity to, as Baldwin challenged us, see the world and myself as we really are.


Amen and Amen.





Sources

  • “Here and Now - Hour One,” National Public Radio, Feb. 8, 2017

  • “James Baldwin and the Struggle to Bear Witness,” The New Republic, Feb. 3, 2017

  • Kendi, Ibram X, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

  • “Review of Niza Yanay’s The Ideology of Hatred,” in Smith College Studies in Social Work, 2013.

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