What inspires you? I was at Shir Tikveh on Friday night for a farewell Shabbat service for Rabbi Melissa Simon who is moving to Allentown, PA to become a campus minister. She is one of my inspirations. She and I shared the stage at Bethel University almost two years ago to talk about the marriage amendment. She spoke with grace and wisdom, exegeting Torah right there in that largely Baptist school. She and I received some hateful things directed at us or the communities we loved from some members of the audience, even the opponent of the debate, saying that love between two people of the same gender was deception and not real love. I beg to differ and I have seen it on display even here. But rather than get defensive and throw back another insult, like I was tempted to do, she opened her Bible and talked about the wonder of creation and the ability of Adam to name everything and call everything good. When I see grace under fire like that I am inspired. And I think that it’s a gift of God.
Music is another form of sacred inspiration. I’m glad that we have five people playing keyboards today. It’s wonderful to have you play for us. But all musicians know that there’s a point where you know the notes so well that you play and can tap into another form of reality. You can close your eyes and let your fingers dance over the keys. And you can tap into that spirit that makes it no longer a complex mathematical set of notes and rhythms, but a song, a piece of music. You tap something of the spirit. You know, math is a left brain function. It’s where all of those numbers and facts are stored. Art is a right brain function where creativity and wonder are stored. Often stroke patients can’t access their left brain functions. They lose the ability to speak. But they can still sing because music is in the right brain. Music, this inspiration, can bridge the gap between the right and left brain. Kim talks about teaching people how to speak again through singing.
One of the things that draws us to our sister church in Nicaragua is their inspiration. They feel the indwelling of the Spirit and will talk about it. That inspiration has caused them to do amazing things, like start a school with no money and no space. They deal with the comings and goings of members as they seek employment in the states or the community fractures as they are wont to do. And yet they keep pressing on. And when we go down there, we can’t help but be caught up in their spirit. And it causes us to reconsider what we prioritize in our lives. That exploration is what I call sacred inspiration.
So what is sacred inspiration? Is it scripture? People say that the Bible is divinely inspired, which is different than saying it is written by the hand of God.
Maybe sacred inspiration has something to do with Sophia, the personification of wisdom found in today’s scripture reading. Sophia, as she is known, provides sacred inspiration to the people and encourages us to unlock our potential. Sometimes that means opening closed minds and hearts. I was especially drawn to verses 17 and 18 of today’s scripture. The writer says of those who seek after Sophia, “At first she will walk with them on tortuous paths; she will bring fear and dread upon them, and will torment them by her discipline until she trusts them.” Plenty of us have walked tortuous paths trying to do what is right, being thwarted by powers, principalities and even our own proclivities. It’s a dark night of the soul that we endure on our way toward wisdom. And sometimes we only see it in the rear-view mirror.
My daughters have gotten me hooked on a book by John Green entitled, “The Fault in Our Stars”. It’s about a group of teenagers who have cancer. They are in varying stages of health and illness. And they reel at the platitudes that well-meaning and often hurting adults hurl at them about strength and hopefulness. What that is all a way of avoiding is talk about death. The teenagers talk with each other about death all the time. But it is not profane pessimism. It is no holds barred messy, uncomfortable reality. Feeling demand to be felt and expressed. “That’s the thing about pain” one of the characters says, “It demands to be felt.” (p.63)
One of the people that Amanda and Becca find inspiring is Zach Sobiach. He was a young man struggling with bone cancer who was very public about his disease and wrote music and did art to fight the taboos of life in all its messiness. He wrote the song Clouds, which many people know.
But once we have been through the ash heap of pain and despair, then we can receive the promise of verse 18. “Then she will come straight back to them and gladden them, and will reveal her secrets to them.” If we endure, then we will receive inspiration. Sacred inspiration. The opposite of profane pessimism or maybe its antidote.
Someone asked me last week why I run marathons. Well, I suppose there’s a little bit of madness involved. There’s also a bit of masochism. There’s the inevitable fight against gravity and age. Since I’m running grandma’s marathon next week, I think it would be fitting to meet people at the finish line with walkers. Then there’s the thought of pushing yourself beyond the limit of sensibleness. When your legs are cramped and your mind tells you to stop and you find some kind of reserve to fight off the urge to quit. And you think, if I can run a marathon, I can do anything. And if you have done anything tough then you can run a marathon. But what really keeps me going is the people along the race course. You can’t do it by yourself. You feed off of their energy when you don’t have any left. I call that a form of inspiration. I take some of their spirit in.
Last night, I participated in a rain and wind-swept pre-solstice, light-rail lovin’ event called Northern Spark. The dusk to dawn festival featured music, art, culture, food and of course thunder and lightening. I was with about 50 sacred harp singers in the Wiseman art museum singing louder than the thunder. About 20 of them made it to the 5:26am ending time. When I left around 11:30, no one was tired. In fact the energy was ramping up. Call it inspiration. Call it madness. Call it primal screaming. There’s something about singing at the top of your lungs surrounded by other people singing at the top of their lungs and adding passion to passion that lifts my spirit. Add on top of that the gospel-laden lyrics of the songs and you have sacred inspiration.
A friend asked her Facebook community what to do on her one-month sabbatical in August. She travels for work, so travel was not something that was going to be renewing for her. I suggested to her: “the "product" is your own renewal. Don't spend it trying to produce something, like a sermon series, an article, a book. Do something fun that makes your spirit sing.” I would add, find something that inspires you. It’s sacred work.
What are your sources of sacred inspiration? Who knows, there might be a book on the table in the hall that can help you get there. There might be a CD to help you transition to that place. One of my most inspiring CD’s is the one made by Connecticut Choral Artists on their 25th anniversary. Kim and I went back for that reunion and there are 45 men singing Biebl’s Ave Maria in seven part harmony, holding back until the final glorious Amen. The Concert ended with a jazzy version of “Down by the Riverside” where we sing that we ain’t gonna study war no more. We could use that kind of sentiment and wisdom these days.
Think about these. But don’t only think about these sources of sacred inspiration. Think about the sources of profane pessimism that bring you down, that narrow your world-view, that sap your energy, that throws off your equilibrium. Some of that is unavoidable. So we need to balance the profane pessimism with sacred inspiration. We need to find ways to remember our place in the larger narrative. We need to sing, to dance, to get lost in a novel, to wonder, and to plant. For when we do that, then Lady Wisdom will come and gladden us and reveal her secrets to us.
I am looking forward to attending the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s summer conference in the Toronto area in a month. I go to renew friendships and to play music late into the night. I go to see my kids have great youth programming. I go to support an organization that does great work in the world. But mostly I go because I get inspired. Some seed is watered in those workshops and late night jam sessions and Bible studies. And I become inspired. A few years ago, we heard Rita Nakashima Brock talk about her book Saving Paradise: How Christianity forsook love for this world in favor of sacrifice and empire. We came back and focused an entire worship year on that topic. And that language of paradise still resonates with me.
I’ve told you this before, but 25 years ago, I was denied ordination twice because I wouldn’t say homosexuality was a sin. The Baptist Peace Fellowship decided to do a makeshift ordination-like service for me at one of the evening gatherings commissioning me to a ministry of peace and justice. One by one, people laid their hands on my head and offered a word of encouragement. I have often thought back to that day as a kind of sacred inspiration. When things get me down or I consider throwing in the towel, I remember those hands. I remember the words of encouragement. I remember the Gospel message of peace and love and justice and inclusion. And I feel like I had received a bit of Lady Wisdom’s secret.
The secret is that we are not alone. We do this audacious, ludicrous, get your head and feet wet ministry because it is good news to us and to a world in need.
So what has God inspired you to create?
What has God inspired you to do?
What has God inspired you to pay attention to?
What has God inspired you to pursue?
What secrets has Sophia whispered in your ear?
Think on that, and create away.
Thank God for sacred inspiration.
It’s what makes us tick and makes us rock.
It’s how God continues to move in the world. Through inspiring people. Through putting the sacred spirit into us. And then we can’t help but do great things. Be great people. Share that inspiration.
That’s why we come to church. To witness to it all, and to share in that inspiration. Thanks be to God.