Inspired - thrive UMC Official Blog


For the next several weeks, we’re going to talk about inspiration, and the process by which we become inspired people. But I just wanted to start off this morning with a quick survey: how many of you feel like you’re inspired people? Raise your hand if you think you’re inspired?

Of course, most of us, when we hear the word ‘inspired’ we think it means to be ‘energized’ and ‘creative.’  But it’s actually a word we get from the ancient Greeks, around the time of Jesus, and it literally means ‘to be blown into.’ And the image that we’re supposed to have, to go along with the word, is like we’re being inflated, or filled up, kind of like a balloon.  Which, by the way, how many of you have seen the movie (it’s pretty old now) called American Beauty with Kevin Spacey? Do you remember that scene with the kid who films the plastic bag?  If you’ve never seen the movie before, the only thing you need to know about this clip I’m about to show you is that there’s a creepy kid who always goes around with a video camera running.  And he has a crush on the girl next door, and he invites her over so he can show her something.  And this is what he wants to show her.

Now, if you’re like me, the first time you see that, especially in light of the announcement, ‘this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed –spoiler alert: it’s a plastic bag’- you’re thinking: this kid needs to get out more!  I can remember when this movie came out, and it won all sorts of awards, and several people I knew would point to that bizarre bag scene and talk about how it was the most moving part of the whole movie.  People told me how it made them cry.  And I could not comprehend how people could be so moved by liter!

But then, years later, Katy Perry created what many consider to be her own magnum opus –a little ditty called “Firework.”  And if you’ll recall, that inspirational tune opens with the line: ‘do you ever feel like a plastic bag; drifting through the wind; wanting to start again.’ So when I first heard that song in my car, I was like “what is it with the stupid plastic bag again?” But in the next moment, I finally got it (it only took me about a decade to understand a 1-minute clip) –I finally got what that scene from American Beauty was all about: the thing that makes the plastic bag so strangely emotionally-charged in that scene is that people can relate to it. It touches us at some level we might not even understand, because this plastic bag gives us an image of what it’s like to be ‘inspired.’ This dead thing is having life breathed into it by the wind, so that it can dance. For just a brief span of time, the bag becomes a container for this constant and invisible, but wildly amazing force, making it present to us in a way that we couldn’t have noticed on a windy day, without the bag.  And that’s what we’re like, when we’re inspired. We’re a dead thing until the wind breathes into us, and lets us dance for our 15 minutes.

“That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever.”  So says Ricky, the weird kid.

That pretty much sums up my hope for this new series.  My hope, for all of you is that you too can come to a realization of some benevolent force that wants you to know there’s no reason to be afraid, ever.  Which, by the way, for those of you who have been around for a while, does that sound like the message of anyone else you might know? My hope is that, when the wind starts to pick up, we, as a community, might make the most of our 15 minutes.

But of course, the question soon becomes: how do we do that?  How do we become ‘inspired’ people, who have these beauty-filled moments, where we can –however briefly- take on a life of our own?

Now, a quick word of caution here: this is one of those questions where the answers can actually get in the way of actual discovery. For instance, if, when I asked the question of how you become ‘inspired,’ you inwardly went, ‘Zoomba and Katy Perry,’ or ‘the Bible and Starbucks,’ or the beach and Instagram, or like me: ‘Kierkegaard and Fight Club,’ then I think you’re automatically going to miss something really crucial about how inspiration works.  Because, to a large extent, inspiration is an unrepeatable event.  We all know this, right? If you felt moved by some experience you had, you can’t just recreate that experience and expect to be moved in the same way a second, or a third, or a thousandth time. That’s why re-watching a movie we loved as a kid, when we’re adults is so often disappointing: because it’s now a different ‘you’ having that experience.  So adult-you already knows everything kid-you was still discovering when you first saw that movie.  And the excitement comes with the discovery, not with the experience itself.

And this is also why we will just ‘love’ some songs for a little while, but then, eventually, they all grow old.  So at first, we might put a particular tune on repeat, because it has something to teach us or show us about who we are, and how life works.  And with the really great songs, that tour isn’t exhausted in the first or second time through. But instead, the song takes us on a journey (kind of like we talked about last month), and it speaks something deeper than we can recognize with mere words, which takes time and repetition to settle in.  But then, eventually, the only place that song can take us is to nostalgia-land. After that, it won’t take you somewhere new; it can only return you to comfortable, familiar territory.

I already mentioned the Katy Perry song, ‘Firework’ that talks about a plastic bag in the wind, and how it immediately reminded me of the scene we watched from American Beauty.  But the weird thing is that, in the movie, a plastic bag in the wind looks like inspiration; but in the song, a plastic bag in the wind looks like the exact opposite. Two different people looked at the same image, the same phenomenon: a bag in the wind –and one saw ‘dancing’ and the other saw ‘drifting.’  I look at a plastic bag in the wind, and I see liter. Isn’t that weird –how we can all look at the same thing and have wildly different experiences?

So again what makes the difference? What makes a bag look like it’s either drifting or dancing?  What does it have to say about us and where we are?  And what does it have to say about the nature of the wind as blows?

Just.  Sit with that for a while.

Already I’ve pointed out a couple of examples of what inspiration looks like in our modern, scientifically-informed ‘secular’ culture; but the word itself has overtly religious connotations, because for them breathing is a spiritual act.  They pictured every inhaled breath as some kind of spirit blowing into you.  And at the same time, when you breathe out, the inspiration leaves –you literally ‘expire.’  And when there’s no more inspiration, no more breath, no more spirit, you’re dead, you’ve expired in a very final way. And now-days, strangely enough, we even say the same thing about milk –after a few weeks, it ‘expires’ it’s not good any more.

And we’ve done this with a number of the words we use today to name our experiences of personal excitement, came from ancient forms of pagan worship.  For instance, the words ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘ecstatic.’  We hear these words and think of being really happy and energetic.  But we inherited these words from old cultic rituals –the word ‘enthusiasm’ means a ‘god was within’ –or god-possessed (which was either good or bad, depending on the god in question), while ‘ecstatic’ refers to the experience of being spiritually disembodied in the attempt to steal the secrets of the heavens, like what will happen in the future, or what was going on in the land of the dead.  In these ancient rituals, they used to engage in orgies of food and wine, and sacrifice, and sometimes sex and mind-altering drugs, to try and enter different states of consciousness, so they could find out what the spirits were up to.  And this was scary business, because if you weren’t careful –if you didn’t follow the prescriptions of the ritual to the ‘t’, you could open yourself up to be possessed by something evil. Not all winds were known to be benevolent in the ancient world.  They knew sand-storms and hurricanes that would drown unfortunate travelers and topple great cities.  They knew of spiritual forces that did not want you to dance, or even just drift –they wanted you to suffer and die!  They thought that a sneeze signified that an evil spirit was trying to ‘inspire’ you, and perhaps evict you from your own body –which is why we still, to this day, say ‘bless you’ or words of health when someone sneezes. Because we hung on to ritual, but not to the spirit that informed it.

So while we hear the words ‘inspire’ and ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘ecstatic’ we think of bubbly people like cheerleaders, the ancients would have pictured something more like the girl in The Exorcist –head spinning and pea-green soup everywhere. And that’s a portrayal of our truth. Because here’s the rub: the only spirits that wanted to have anything to do with mere mortals in the ancient world, were spirits that wanted to control people. And these were most often spirits of violence. And the revolution of Christianity –the revolution of the Jesus movement- is that you all, as human beings, are worthy vessels for good things.  Your bodies are great temples for the divine kind of love.  Your spirits were meant to dwell with heavenly things, even here on earth. So if there are evil spirits out there, there is yet a greater Spirit.  And that Spirit is good.  So inspiration is good.  And the moment we see this happening is recorded in the Pentecost miracle that we’ve been talking about over the last couple of weeks: that the Holy Spirit, like a great wind, swept through the city of Jerusalem, and inspired the followers of Jesus to speak new languages. That was it –that was the moment when history changed and inspiration was revealed to be good and to be empowering for humanity.  That was the image –the snapshot- of what inspiration can look like at its best, where it brings about atonement –where it offers unity instead of control and violence.  That’s why they call the spirit in that story the ‘Holy Spirit’ –because it’s different from the spirits they were used to.  It’s not like the ones that tries to use them up and destroy them as it goes about its personal, or its political, agendas.  This spirit –the Holy one- seeks to empower you without possessing or displacing you. And that, I think, is the spirit we’ve all been looking for.

So again we ask: how does this inspiration work?  What does it look like for someone to hold themselves so that the Holy Spirit might breathe into them, and give them power? We find that picture today.

We’re reading again in the Acts of the Apostles, at the end of the second chapter.  Starting in verse 42, it says this:

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

Brothers and sisters, to be inspired is no difficult thing.  It’s as simple and as ordinary as breathing.  Each new breath is an exchange with the Spirit that gives life.  But if you want to go further –if you seek more than just ordinary life and beauty –if your pilgrimage brings you to a state where you not only receive life, but where you also give it, then hold on to this focus: be devoted to the teachings of those who were sent. Be devoted to the community.  Eat together.  Pray, together.

You see, it’s all very simple: to be inspired, you only need to be connected. You only need to be in relationship. Like a plastic bag waiting to dance, you only have to be outside and open –the wind is already there, dancing always.  There’s no need for elaborate rituals, or for moments of magic for that which is holy –that which is sacred- to become apparent.  But the holy is there, waiting to surprise you in very ordinary things.  It will surprise you in songs you’ve heard a hundred times that suddenly whisper or even shout who you are to your own spirit. It will surprise you in bits of profound wisdom that pop up in teachings you thought you already knew.  It will surprise you and transform you in the act of sharing.  First you receive, and then you grow to give.  And you’ll be surprised to find that giving really is the better blessing.  And you’ll be surprised too at how routine prayers can guide you into an extraordinary life.

The final image –which also happens to be my personal favorite- we have for what inspiration looks like comes to us in the form of a simple meal.  Here we discover that the recipe for the holy is startlingly simple: you just need bread and wine and companions. And there, always, the Holy Spirit will show up and give life to us, and form us, in profound ways.

There’s a common wisdom here that reliably rings true: when we take the time to sit and enjoy a meal together, we’re inspired. In those moments, we have life and breath, and love, and stories –everything we need to live and thrive.  So we’re going to celebrate that act this morning.  In our tradition, it’s one of only two sacred acts: we call it communion –which mean ‘community-making.’  Here we remember the teachings that matter most, and we share.