Inspiration, Work, and The Spirit

I told the assembly yesterday that in spite of my best efforts last week, I couldn’t really get my sermon to work. I knew what I wanted to say, and I knew where the text sort of needed to go, but I couldn’t put it into words. They were gracious as I stumbled my way through, but I never quite landed the words or the ideas I had in mind. Odd, and frustrating. But as I talked to people throughout the day, the ideas crystallized and I begin to find ways to express what I had in mind.

Luke 24:45 says simply that Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to understand the scriptures. What interested me was Christ’s role in this moment, and what actually happened. Was it hocus-pocus, him waving his arms over their foreheads so that a sort of curtain dropped away from their minds? I’m kidding, of course, but as I told the church, there are any number of Greek words here that Luke could have used to describe Jesus’ action (as opposed to dianoigo, which is translated “to open”). It seems that something only Christ could have done was in play, something more than him simply explaining things more clearly.

As we move toward Pentecost, the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter) is coming into our conversation. Traditionally, for the folks in our religious heritage, the Holy Spirit’s work has been relegated to “teacher,” being the agent by which we understand scripture. Fair enough, but so often, all that really meant was that we thought rationality and intelligence were somehow purged by pious living, and that if we thought hard enough, we’d get doctrine right, get our facts right, and we’d be good to go–no mess about power and healing and all that stuff. We are children of the Enlightenment, and whatever power will be exhibited will be in the realm of the rational, and it will manifest itself in little more than better ideas.

Now don’t get me wrong–ideas, in some sense, are everything. And I absolutely believe the Spirit of God is the means by which we will discover and engage God’s ideas of living. And no question but that the realm of intelligence and rationality is one of the primary environments in which this discovery will occur. In fact, I called the church to confession and repentance over our slacking approach to scripture these days. We must be far more rigorous than we’ve been in our study and understanding. We used to be far better students than we are today.

That said, we also need to acknowledge that only God can instruct us as we approach the text. For hundreds of years (and still today), skilled scholars and students of scripture missed the fact that, according to our faith and understanding, Old Testament prophecy pointed to Jesus as the anointed one. Rigor, intelligence, hard work, strict logic–these things alone do not add up to the discovery of the wisdom of God.   And power?  Well, I’ll come back to that…

Here’s the analogy I wish I’d used yesterday. Robert Grudin, in his wonderful book The Grace of Great Things, suggests (as do many others) that artistic inspiration cannot be commanded or controlled. In other words, inspiration shows up when it shows up. But he suggests that an environment can be created where inspiration will show far more often than not. He calls it an “ethos of inspiration.” In brief, all he really means is that a certain work ethic and attitude will create smoother pathways for inspiration to travel. A writer that writes everyday is going to be visited by his mysterious friend Inspiration far more often than the writer who sits waiting for inspiration to show up.

In the same way, those who dig into the word with sleeves rolled up and concentration focused are far more likely to hear where the Spirit is leading them than those who skim the text in a perfunctory daily read. The quality of our attention means much, much more than we think as we engage the living word of God.

Off to work, praying for inspiration…

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