By Phillip Breden
John 3:1-17 NRSV
As we travel through this Lenten journey this year, alone or with friends and family, many of us take up more traditional practices, while others are trying new things. A common practice is to give up some kind of privilege or luxury to make more time for spiritual contemplation or practice. Others enjoy the challenge of listening for the Spirit to inspire them into a new practice—something different from what they have experienced in years past. Last week we read about Jesus entering the wilderness to be tempted, and Joan introduced a theme of creativity and the hesitancy that we are often faced with when we think of acting on it. Like Joan, I have various art supplies and musical instruments that I wish I had the courage and dedication to use more. Where do those inspirations come from, and how can we find the courage to finally unpack those boxes and put our creativity into practice? Perhaps part of the answer comes from the very word “inspiration”.
In-spire. To breathe in and be filled with the Spirit. The Breath of God. In the book of Genesis, it is said that God breathed life into humanity. Where does the inspiration come from? When you experience a creative inspiration, it seems to come out nowhere, and unfortunately many don’t have the courage to act on it. We fear not being good enough. We are afraid of falling short of our own high expectations. We are our own worst critic. A lot of us find our creative inspiration from the wilderness, from the edge lands. We will actively seek out nature as a muse for creativity: gazing out at a fiery sunset or watching a cascading waterfall. The edge lands, liminal places between the wilds and civilization have a power to inspire us and are strong places where we can experience God’s self-revelation in creation.
Psalm 121, as written by Nan C. Merrill, uses incredibly beautiful imagery and language for the concept of inspiration. To trust that such inspiration can come from God, and we can rely on the Holy One to strengthen us and awaken our Hearts to the Light. Not only are we inspired towards creativity, but we can also be inspired to live out our faith in acts of kindness and love. A strong theme in this psalm is God’s continuous presence, and unlike many of the other deities of the time, God offers the people constant love and support. If we are made in the image of the Creator, then being creative is breathed into every cell of our body; creativity being a divine purpose.
Being inspired by the Holy to live out acts of kindness and justice are a beautiful way to live out unity with God, but the divine can also use our gifts of creativity to enrich our public worship and our private lives. In her heartfelt book Worship for the Whole People of God, Ruth C. Duck speaks on how the arts inspired by our creativity can be used, and are essential, to embodied worship together as the Body of Christ. She says that worship depends on human arts to illustrate the mystery of God, and that art can provide dialogue or inspire compassion. She speaks on how art can allow for such incredible expression that words alone cannot.
Music is one such element of human creativity that has been in use in worship since the very beginnings of the Christian faith and beyond. This creativity has led people to express their gifts of playing soul-moving music through instruments and voice, and music is also a communal way of how we can gather and be creative by joining our voices together in song. Think of your favourite hymn; how it makes you feel and calls to your very heart and soul.
Also consider the way we decorate our chapels and buildings; how not only the art can inspire meaning and beauty within us, but even the way we use that art and other things to decorate. The Spirit of inspiration can flow through us and on to other people. I cannot count the amount of times I was inspired by someone else’s creativity, and it led me to having more fulfillment in my life and my spirituality. Think of the story that we heard last week. The girl who didn’t think she was good enough to draw. That she was no artist. But once she found that courage, her tapestry of dots inspired the other child to indulge in his inner creativity as well and led him to his own masterpiece of squiggles.
In John chapter 3 we have a prominent member of the Pharisees, Nicodemus, who approaches Jesus with questions in the night. We aren’t told why he chose the darkness to approach Jesus, but perhaps it was a time when he was both inspired and filled with that self-doubt. Nighttime can be like that, can’t it? A time when we are unsure, a time of fear and scary imagination, but also a time of creativity. Sometimes I find that I have my most creative ideas when I’m trying to go to sleep, and my brain won’t be quiet! I feel that Nicodemus is inspired by the words and acts of Jesus and is confronted with his own hesitancy and self-doubt that we all sometimes struggle with and confronts Jesus asking for proofs and signs. Verse 8 says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” This passage sounds very much like feeling that call, that inspiration. Whether it is a creative idea or an impulse to do something good, the idea seems to just come out of nowhere as if blowing on a wayward breeze. Jesus seems to be encouraging Nicodemus, a man who is used to strict followings of the law and practices, to trust in his heart of hearts. To allow the Spirit to flow through him, lead him, and be born into the Spirit, and offers the promise of God’s constant love through Jesus. As the quote from Psalm 121 states that “we are nourished by the sun during the day and led by the stars at night”, I see Jesus as being that guide to the wayfarer that night. Being that loving presence and encouraging the Pharisee, and all of us, to follow one’s heart and trust in the Spirit.
Just as Nicodemus approached Jesus with his questions of self-doubt, we also are confronted with questions that hinder our creativity. Will I be good enough? Do I have the time to learn something new? What will people think of the finished product? Am I too old to learn?
What are the questions you have asked, during those times of darkness when you are unsure about your inspirations? As Jesus aided Nicodemus, how has the Christ answered your queries? Perhaps it was a good friend who encouraged you, or a teacher who taught you the foundations, or perhaps it was someone just as scared as you but dared to jump in feet first. The little girl from the story last week could well have been the Christ to the little boy just as Jesus was for Nicodemus.
The beauty of inspiration is that it is infectious. Creativity continues to inspire others, and through that process the wind of the Spirit blows where it will. We are encouraged by scripture that God is with us all the way, and by the Christs in our lives that offer encouragement and words of wisdom. A sun by day and stars at night. God uses our creativity to enrich our lives, embody our worship as a people of God, and to inspire everyone around us. Psalm 121 promises us that God is the Light of our Life. That within the trinity we have the courage, the inspiration, and the guidance to follow our hearts in our inspirations. With the continuous love of the Holy that these scriptures promise us, we can be the channel of God’s love in the world. Amen.