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Hollywood and the Holy Spirit

Hollywood and the Holy Spirit

    Okay, okay, I know it's a small thing, but it bothers me every time I hear it assumed.

    That the surest evidence of the Holy Spirit in human lives is when someone is moved to spontaneous outbursts of speech and passion.  Just the other Sunday I listened in quiet opposition to a preacher introduce his pastoral prayer with the warning that he would begin by reading someone else's prayer and then would offer his own, and, as to the latter, you never know where it will go or how long it will go on when the Holy Spirit is in charge.

    Please don't feel compelled to remind me of Jesus' words to Nicodemus in John 3, about how the Holy Spirit blows where it chooses and God only knows where it comes from and where it goes.  I've been there and expressed that; and, more often than not, wondered after an outburst, however eloquent it might have been, if it was divinely inspired or the consequence of a somewhat less lofty motivation, like anger.  In the pulpit.  In the board room.  At the dinner table.  One should not be quick to blame the Holy Spirit, but would be wiser to wait until the fruit of the outburst becomes known (hmm, that too comes from Jesus, Matthew 7:20).

    Call this erroneous assumption about the way the Holy Spirit works the Hollywood doctrine. 

    As in the scene, maybe in "A Man Called Peter," when Peter Marshall (Richard Todd) sets aside his prepared message for the Annapolis cadets on Jap attack Sunday, December 7, 1941, before the news had reached the States, and preaches extemporaneously and eloquently instead on life after death.  Maybe it really happened that way; but if it did or didn't, it sure made for grand drama.

    Spontaneity, spur of the moment eloquence, ah, sweet heaven-born fluency and persuasion, that, Hollywood would have us believe, is the power and proof of the Holy Spirit.

    I stood in the pulpit one Easter Sunday in Brooklyn, after a long and uninspired Saturday night, warned the crowd of a congregation that I wasn't really prepared and hoped the Holy Spirit would bale me out.  It didn't, and numbers of those greeting me at the door told me so.  Of course, there are more than a few who would insist that I have long been bereft of the third person of the Trinity.

    Hollywood's idea of preacherly inspiration is... well, a crock.  My homiletics professor, Paul Scherer, more than once repeated the old saw that genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Same for effective preaching. Following Dr. Scherer's advice I have rarely stood in the pulpit without a full manuscript of the sermon in hand.   The Holy Spirit and I struggle, like Jacob with the angel at the river crossing, sometimes, like them, through the night, hours of preparation for the seventeen minutes of preaching on a Sunday morning.

      Somewhere on this website I have named the greatest preacher of our generation, Garrison Keillor.  Yes, that's right, the black-browed raconteur of Prairie Home Companion, whose musings about Lake Woebegone always contain a theme worthy of the pulpit.  Recently I spoke with someone who attended one of the shows live.  He reported that Garrison did his monologue without a note in front of him! (my friend's exclamation mark, not mine).  I am not in the same league with the Minnesotan, but I do know a little about the creation of the written and spoken word.  If you were to ask Mr. Keillor what he does for a living, he would tell you that he is a writer.  Not a raconteur.  Not a TV host.  Not a preacher. A writer.  A writer writes.  And, you can bet on it, that what a writer says is something he has already written; that is, thought through and expressed with a felicity and specificity of words.  The phrases and turns of thought emanating from Lake Woebegone are simply too sharp and too funny to have been made up on the spot week after week.

    Or Jesus: the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7) should be read as a compilation of sayings, not as a once-in-a-lifetime hillside presentation.  The words betray a polish, as from being repeated and carefully rephrased again and again. Heaven knows, those three chapters contain sufficient content to provide a preacher with a lifetime of sermon texts... another clue, the pithiness, I detect from my own efforts at preaching, to the Holy Spirit's inspiration through prior thought, much prior thought.  And Jesus, no Christian would ever dispute it, was possessed by the Holy Spirit.   

    The trick, of course, for the preacher (and the raconteur) is to make it look easy, like the words just flow with the tides of inspiration.  That's where the perspiration comes in, the time and effort to commit to memory the precious nuggets deposited in solitude by the Holy Spirit.

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