Essays and Other Non-fiction


James Harbeck Home Page

institute Sesquiotic


To Have or Not to Have

(Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, February 17, 2002)

(The gospel reading was the temptations of Christ)

I'd like to start off with a story. It's fictional, which isn't to say that it's not at all true.

Once upon a time there was a guy called Jack. Jack was a pretty smart guy, pretty nice, pretty well-off, liked to go to church, so forth. Jack had a couple of good university degrees and had found himself a useful job. He wasn't always ecstatically happy, but who is?

So anyway. One evening Jack's going through some boxes in his basement. Memorabilia. Childhood fancies. And he starts flipping through a book, a novel he really liked 20 years ago. He doesn't read novels much now because they don't give him hard information, just flights of imagination, which are fun, but. But he starts to read this book again and he takes it upstairs and he actually can't put it down before he goes to bed. It's been years since he read a book he couldn't put down.

Now, the thing is, Jack's a writer. (He could have been something else, but I'm just making this up with stuff from my own experience.) But he doesn't write fiction. It's not that he never wanted to. It's just that he never got a good start on it. And, ultimately, he can see that he's quite good at writing non-fiction – articles about how to live a better life, be healthier, so on. The sort of thing that fills popular magazines. It's a decent and reasonable career. Sometimes he almost has to force himself to do it, but he's old enough to know that life is like that.

But after he goes to sleep, somewhere in the middle of the night, he has some kind of visitation. Is it a dream, or a hallucination, or what? He wakes up, or he doesn't, who knows. Doesn't matter so much. What matters is that there's this voice. But it's not some whispering from somewhere in the room, the sort of thing that makes your hair stand on end. It's definitely inside his head. And the voice is saying, "Jack. Write a novel."

"But, no, you're kidding," Jack thinks or says or whatever.

"I'm not kidding, Jack. Write a novel."

Jack's kinda tempted. He remembers the old passion. He also remembers how he never got very far when he tried. "I don't have that kind of time to toss away," he says, or thinks, or whatever. "And I can't afford it. I have bills to pay."

"You toss away enough time doing trivial things," says the voice. "You also make enough money to live comfortably and save some. You know you want to write a novel. Make you happy. Mean something to other people. What's stopping you?"

"I may have enough to live comfortably, but not by much. And I have responsibilities. I give a good amount to charity. And what I'm doing is something useful. Not everyone is as lucky as I am. I've been blessed, and I certainly owe it to the world to use what I've got."

"Jack, you're a writer. I'm asking you to write. What's the problem, honey? Take the leap! Just an hour every day on your novel. In a year you've written one, easily. Need a subject? Write about this dream visitation! Not everyone gets one, you know."

"Dream hallucinations? Every time I get a flu, I hear voices. You're maybe a bit more coherent than most, but I'm inclined to think I'm dreaming. I know what I should be doing. When y' grow up, you have to be responsible. So go away."

And, surprisingly, the voice does go away. And he drifts off to sleep, or slips into another dream, or whatever.

And then an angel appears to him. Jack's lying there, trying to sleep, and this angelic being appears, hovering over the foot of his bed. Says, "Jack!"

Jack sits up, or dreams he's sitting up, who cares, and says, "What!" And then sees what he's talking to and says, "Holy unrepeatable-in-a-sermon! Who are you?"

"I'm the angel Annette."

"The angel who?"


"Never heard of you."

"I'm in the Bible. Matthew 4:18. Simon and Andrew threw me into the lake."

Jack has to admit that Annette looks pretty angelic. Wings, spotlight, stage fog, the works. So he says, a bit more humbly, "Um, who am I that… uh, what, uh…" And then he thinks about his previous visitation. The temptations! "Is this about those temptations?"

The angel nods. Jack pauses, expectant. The angel spreads her wings and says unto him, "Jack, you schmuck."


"We give you three chances, you blow every one of them. Fff!"

"What? Wait! Who are you really?"

"I'm the angel Annette! Look!" The angel produces an identity badge with a flaming golden signature. "I work for the Boss!"

"But… I passed those temptations! With flying colours!"

"If you had passed them, I wouldn't have to be here at" – the angel looks at Jack's clock radio – "quarter to four in the morning. But God wants you to live in the fullness of God's gifts and stop being addicted to narrowness, lacking and doubting."

"Wait. That voice was trying to tempt me to go astray."

"Honey, you went astray a long time ago. Those weren't temptations. Those were chances. Look: You chose to believe that material things are what matter – you have to put bread on the table, and on other people's tables. Bread's nice, but you need some spirit, you know! Why not give a gift from your heart? A bit of joy, perhaps? You chose to believe other people when they told you you have to live a certain way, that you won't be complete without accomplishing certain things. Why not believe what your heart says? Who exactly are you serving here? Shoot, man, a voice from God – from your heart, to be precise, which is one of God's favourite ways of communicating – manages to break through into your skull and lead you towards a nearly-forgotten joy, and you don't even believe it. So an angel has to come tell you! Is this enough of a performance for you? You humans! Your greatest temptation is not to have, it's not to have!"

And, lo, Jack realizes that he has, in fact, been a schmuck. And he starts his novel the next day, and begins reading more books that he can't put down. I'm not saying he quits his day job. But it serves him, not the other way around. And perhaps he finishes his novel and writes others, and people enjoy them more than they enjoy his articles, and maybe they're inspired and provoked by them. The point is, he's doing something for the joy of doing it, not because he feels a need to get something from it.

So, yes, the details are pretty much fiction. But the idea… is it true? Are we really all so addicted to not having?

Well, let's look at these temptations again. The first one – bread from stones – is the temptation of narrowness. I could also say it's the temptation of laziness. It's the temptation to look at what we see, these material things around us, and believe that's all there is, and therefore that it's what really matters. It's the temptation to make the spiritual a set-dressing for the material.

The second temptation of Jesus – which, for the sake of narrative, I put in third position in my story – is the temptation of doubting, testing God. Now, when you look at it, that's pretty similar to the temptation of narrowness. It may assume the existence of God, but it assumes that God isn't sufficient. It asks for proof, which means it has the idea that God might not be up to the task, that God might not take care of us. We doubt that anything will be enough; we always strive because we think we need more, and so we're busy grabbing things for ourselves, which ends up creating the very lack we worry about.

So, yes, that brings us to the third temptation, lacking. We could also call it the temptation of needing. And this is really the root of it all. The idea that we're incomplete, that the whole world isn't ours already. That we have to serve someone else's desires, because they have what we need. That you gotta be thin, for instance. Or have the right education or live in the right neighbourhood or wear the right fig leaves or or or. That we can't be enough, our faith can't be enough, that the spirit's all nice and everything but only goes so far.

This is the temptation of the Garden of Eden. It starts with the idea that some things are desirable and others not – perfectly sensible. But then it makes the next step: that there are some things you need. And when you accept that, you immediately see yourself as insufficient – yourself, your world, your God, all that is, insufficient. Suddenly there's something wrong with you and, therefore, with the world.

But wait. Without saying some things are desirable and others undesirable, how can we have creation? Creation proceeds on the idea that there are things that don't exist that could; it uses desire; it starts with absence in order to have presence. Isn't this the same thing?

Of course I'm going to say it's not. Creation proceeds on the basis that you have something to give. The temptation of need is the idea that you have something to lose. It's attachment. You don't need attachment in order to create; in fact, attachment is inertia that fights against creation. Creation is change; the temptation of lacking is a temptation to believe in loss, which implies that change can be a bad thing.

From the moment we're born, we have all we need – God provides – and we have within us all we can want to be. And we won't believe it. We insist that need is real and loss is necessary. So Jesus tells us our sins are forgiven and dies on the cross to get us over loss. And we still doubt.

But how can we avoid it? When can we say for sure we're following our hearts and our joy and not just being lazy? Can we tell between hard work that's a good thing and hard work that's chasing chimeras? Is it ever really that simple? No, of course not. It's not all roses. God doesn't usually cast a net and drag us in. But we can try to find out. It makes a good challenge. And if it's fun to do something difficult – and I really do believe it is – then we can have a great time in this adventure of life.


All contents © 2000–2004 James Harbeck