I will begin with a preemptive apology to the fine folks of Paskaloochee, most of whom have heard – and told – this story enough times to rob it of all interest. It is, however, not toward my hometown that I direct this retelling, but to the wider world. I do so with the hope that there might be someone beyond our clueless town who may yet shed some light on the tale’s enduring mystery.
It should also be noted I do not attend the Adjunct 3rd Restored Church of the Original Revelation, Reformed. I do not attend any church, for that matter. Like most, I follow in the faith of my upbringing. Though I am an inconsistent acolyte when compared to my true-believing father, on the day in question, I was most definitely and obediently nursing the required Sunday morning hangover. On occasion, it seems the spirit(s) can overwhelm even me.
What I am getting at is that I was not there to witness the event. I got the story from Jenk Pierce, who was there, making this version as reliable as any. That said, should any portion of this account smack of embellishment, the blame should be laid my feet and mine alone.
As is his custom, Jenk was nestled attentively in the third pew on the right. He would have been closer had the first two pews not been reserved for seniors. Jenk is not yet a senior, though his professional laziness has oft times been mistaken for semi-retirement. According to him, the church was full that morning. The congregation, having been sung to their seats by the choir, had just sealed Pastor Hi Ballyhoo’s introductory prayer with a hearty “Amen”. That is, by the way, Hi as in H. I., as in Herbert Irving.
As always, the pastor gave his sermon right after the congregation greeted each other and well before the passing of the tithing plates. As the church treasurer, Ms. Marjorie Pullwell, would be quick to tell you, this might have been a slight oversight. Regardless, as Jenk best remembers it, Pastor Ballyhoo began by saying, “I wish to talk to you today about temptation.”
Now, the thought might initially strike you as odd, but upon further consideration, I think you’ll agree that church is a sensual place. There are provided feasts for each of the 5 chief senses, as well as for the mind, which the Buddhists rightly recognize, in a certain manner, as a 6th sense. Take, for example, the pied gaiety of the congregation’s Sunday best, the glossed sheen of the choir’s robes, even the swirled colors of the stained-glass windows – rendered, through Protestant severity, as more muted and less representational than their Catholic counterparts. Then there is the uplifting harmony of the choir itself, in balance with the grounding thrust of the sermon; each feeds spirit and body respectfully. There is the longing, grasping flesh of the greeting as you enter and the fellowship among your neighbors in the pews. This briefness of encounter lies in stark contrast to the hard posturing of the pews themselves; one cannot be allowed to get too comfortable. There is the succulent glut of the post service meal, anticipated in the air of the deep sigh that secretly admits relief to be out of the cloying sanctuary of the church. And there are the thoughts of the sermon itself, ideas which the pastor agonizes over for the preceding week, only to deliver them like an inoculation: painful and starkly real upon presentation but fading from memory, with only a mildly discernable itch to mark their passing.
So it should come as no surprise that, at the first mention of the word temptation, the deaf could have heard the old oak of the pews creak as the congregation leaned forward in rapt attention. Of all the many topics that rattle about beneath a church’s rafters, such as faith, love, charity, forgiveness, etc., nothing enraptures like the discussion of temptation – excepting sin, of course. Kids dumping their take on the carpet after a night of trick-or-treating do not possess this keenness of observation.
“We are daily presented with countless, various and sundry temptations. Yet, for something so common to us and so constantly with us,” the pastor continued, “temptation remains poorly understood.”
“Creak, creak,” went the pews – or was it the sound of nearly three thousand knuckles as fingernails pressed into the thin fabrics that covered so many tensing thighs?
“There are none of us so fortunate as to be free of this endless whispering in our hearts, these sweet and seductive voices which would lead us to stray from the path which God has laid before us. We read, in Luke, chapter 4, verses 1 through 15:
1 And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,
2 being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered.
3 And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.
4 And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
5 And the devil, taking him up into a high mountain, showed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
6 And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will, I give it.
7 If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
8 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written,
Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God,
and him only shalt thou serve.
9 And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence:
10 for it is written,
He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee:
11 and in their hands they shall bear thee up,
lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
12 And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
13 And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season.
14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about.
15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all.
So you see, even the Lord Jesus, just prior to embarking upon his ministry, was thrice tempted – and by none other than Satan himself! But Jesus resisted and is said to have lived a blameless life, free of sin from womb to cross. Indeed, his sacrifice would have been in vain had he committed even a single sin.”
Pastor Ballyhoo paused for a moment, allowing these words, these revelations, to sink into the wide-open hearts and minds of the congregation.
“I ask you,” he continued in earnest, “Why do we then condemn temptation as though it were sin? If the Lord was susceptible to temptation, yet remained blameless, must this not also be possible for us, in so much as we may not resist every temptation, but may still resist some?”
When he removed the microphone from its clip and stepped from behind the podium, no one was surprised. It always meant that he was getting to the meat of his preaching. Lips were licked and air was drawn in through clench teeth. Beads of sweat gathered along necklines and in hollows of flesh as the heat and humidity of the room rose subtly. “More,” they parishioners out hungrily, though not a word disturbed the telling silence of that sacred space. Then the pastor did something they did not expect.
“I’d like to see a show of hands,” he said with the easy demanding of those in authority, “Who here has ever been tempted to lie?”
Any creaking now heard had to have been the neck-bones of the congregation, as heads cocked and chins drew in. The passion they could not admit to themselves was rewarded only with confusion. Not a hand was raised as nails dug more deeply into thighs.
“I do not ask who has lied. I only ask who has been tempted.”
Slowly, a hand rose. Necks creaked again as curiosity and thinly veiled accusation whipped heads around, seeking out the culprit. No one now remembers – or will admit – to whom that hand belonged, but like applause after an awkward performance, other hands hesitantly joined in until critical mass was achieved. Soon, the entire congregation was raising their hands high. Some were raised with an air akin to enthusiasm, the most hesitant now lifting with the least humility.
Pastor Ballyhoo smiled and nodded. “And stealing,” he continued, “Who has been tempted to steal?”
A good dozen hands dropped, particularly among those the town referred to as old money. Some of the nouveau riche did as well. The arms of the poor didn’t move an inch, nor did their faces twitch. Encouraged, the pastor pressed on with this litany of temptations, moving through gluttony, sloth, gossip, etc. as arms rose and fell like an uncoordinated wave among a Rose Bowl crowd. When he got to adultery, more than a few arms swiftly came down, accompanied by the piercing stares and clenching jaws of better-knowing spouses – mostly wives, truth be told. The white noise of butts shuffling in seats announced the growing discomfort of the crowd, but shock or fear or some other paralyzing emotion kept them in this game that had lost all pretense of entertainment.
Murder came next – the word he used was kill – and the change in hand distribution was more marked than ever. Many hands dropped, but some that were raised stretched a little higher, as though proud of having been tempted so. This was common, though not unanimous, among the youthful men, particularly the ten or so recent military recruits yet to be shipped off to basic training or overseas. The hands of the many veterans came up more slowly than their younger, inexperienced counterparts, with most of the oldest vets showing no trace of pride in manner or visage.
Finally, Pastor Ballyhoo said it, the very word that everyone awaited in expectant dread. The ensuing drop of arms was so fast and desperate that it raised up a gust of wind. Following close on its heels was the thunderclap of pale palms slapping against rigid thighs. The blast of air was so strong that service programs fluttered to the floor and sweet ole Widow Gerber’s new hat was blown clear off of her head. Then all was still and silent. There was no creaking of anything nor was there the turning of heads. It seemed all the fun had gone out of this exercise.
“No one,” asked the incredulous man, pausing to let his narrow-eyed glower produce its desired effect, “No one in this entire congregation has ever been tempted toward homosexuality? I must say that amazes me. You must be a righteous people indeed. Either that or it must represent an irresistible temptation – one that has mercifully not been felt in our fair, little town.”
With a deliberate slowness, he walked back to the podium and returned the microphone to its holder. The plastic clip creaked, sounding like an accusation in the stiff silence. He looked down for a moment as his white knuckles gripped the worn edges of the pulpit from which he had, for the past 15 years, led this now speechless flock.
“One final question,” he said, raising his eyes in another tight stare, “How many of you were tempted to lie in church today?”
He did not bother looking to see how many hands were lifted as he walked down the empty center aisle and through the broad, white doors that opened to the outside world.
Thereafter was much hemmin’ n’ hawin’ about the pastor’s dirty trick and how distressing it was to think that such a learned man could misinterpret scripture so. Unfortunately, Pastor Ballyhoo was not around to defend himself or his actions; no one has seen him since the day in question. It turns out that he had been covertly planning to leave the town. His house had already been sold to a nice, young couple from rural Massachusetts. A moving company took care of relocating his belongings, though he was not present to supervise. They were uninformative as to where the items were headed and rumors abounded for days. The most popular of these was that he had taken up with a man half his age and they were now calling the San Francisco Bay Area home, but how this information had come to be known wasn’t quite clear.
The runner-up in the rumor mill seemed, at least to me, to be not so pleasant an ending. A couple of people who shall remain nameless have stated – on more than one occasion – that they would not be surprised if Pastor Ballyhoo’s dead, bludgeoned body wasn’t lying in a shallow grave somewhere outside of town. This statement never fails to raise a few eyebrows and corners of mouths. “Of course,” someone always adds, “no one in our town would do such a thing.”
Indeed, none of them could ever even consider doing such a thing.