What do pastors do when Sunday morning is barreling down on them and they realize they have absolutely nothing to say from the pulpit? Women-in-the-pulpit theology aside, I’m awfully glad I will never be a pastor. The burden to create life-changing sermons week upon week must weigh on a man, especially if he is naturally a shepherd, a hand-on-the-shoulder guy, or just rhetorically average.
Inspiration is a tricky cat. If you believe in the Holy Spirit—and I do—you want to believe that God can zap our intellect, give us supernatural insight, and use his Holy Scriptures to shape our teaching. Yet I’m pretty sure God didn’t deem sacred the seven-day cycle of insights, where the Holy Spirit punches his time clock at certain intervals just in time for the church secretary to print the sermon title every Wednesday for the church bulletin. Our church system seems to have nudged out the natural growth cycles of Inspiration and his sister crop Revelation. But here we are in a system where the vast majority of churches operate on the expectation of a sturdy Sabbath harvest, delivered by the local pastor / farmer right on cue.
What if by Friday afternoon that farmer’s got nothin’ but rocks and weeds?
Zadie Smith in her intellectually demanding collection of essays Changing My Mind, believes inspiration happens in two ways. The first comes from absorbing everything you can find—great novels, comic books, the daily news, essays, conversations—in an attempt to allow great thinkers to wash over you in some kind of intellectual marinade. This, many believe, is a legitimate way of boosting inspiration, and some go so far as to suggest that no insight ever happens in isolation. Even that burrito you ate last night shifted your midnight thoughts and led to a new conclusion in your grand idea.
The other, fiercely independent, strategy is to shut yourself off from the world of ideas, fasting, as it were, from the rich foods of books and essays. In this way, you are assured that your inspiration comes from within (or in the case of pastors, from God himself), safe from the plagiaristic temptations of men.
So what would God ask of our pastors and teachers? What would he ask of me, a writer? Should I be looking for objects on the ground from which to create a Found Poem, a musical cover, a refurbished engine? Or should I search only within myself to find the heart of God himself, the mystical union of mind and spirit?
I have no great answer. But the man or woman who spends his life in both realms is better equipped, I think, to discover God’s spirit. God works within and without, using the supernatural and the mundane to push us toward elevated thoughts, both methods working like sun and water to bring a harvest of inspiration.
If I were a pastor (and since I never will be, I find it easy to throw out such an audacious proposal), I would tell my congregation to go home some Sunday mornings. I got nothin’ I would tell them. Go home and write your own sermon today. And if salaries weren’t such a pesky detail, I might also gather ten teachers together, young and old, internet trollers and pensive thinkers, deep philosophers and rhetorical comedians—all wedded to sturdy doctrine—and I would say Let’s all teach this year. Whenever you get a crop, let the rest of know and we’ll let you show up on Sunday. The rest of us will enjoy your food and wait until our sprouts are green.Now I think I got something.