Below are selected writings, including my award-winning nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media distributed to over 600 papers reaching 21 million people in 36 states.

Empowerment Hope Laughter Religion and Spirituality

THE KING LIVES!

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with Gannett. 

 

Five years ago this week, on January 8th, 2015, my husband Toby and I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Memphis, Tennessee.

Yup, I said Memphis. Why? Because Memphis is the home of “The King,” Elvis Presley, born January 8, 1935. And for many, the King has reached an almost holy status.

I know this to be true from our tour of Graceland. As we waited in line for tickets under a sign that said “Enter the Blingdom,” I turned to one of the guides and asked, “So, Elvis would have been 80 years old today?”

The surrounding crowd gasped. The guide looked at me with shock and whispered, “We don’t use the past tense here.” She then pointed to her t-shirt, which read “Graceland, where Elvis LIVES.”

It didn’t matter that no one there had actually seen Elvis since he stopped walking the earth over forty years ago. Elvis fans don’t care.

Without any concrete proof, they believe he lives. Elvis lives, baby. The King lives!

It’s a shame we don’t all have that kind of faith in our heavenlyKing. Oh, how our lives might change.

For example, because Elvis fans believe he lives, they share their love of the King in all they do.They wear Elvis clothing, decorate their homes with Elvis paraphernalia, even water their yards with Elvis. In fact, my favorite item in the gift shop was an Elvis sprinkler that swivels his hips as he waters your grass.

What if we shared our faith that clearly? As 1 John 2:6 says, “Those who claim to belong to him must live just as Jesus did.” If we believe the King lives, then we should share his love in every aspect of our lives.

Elvis fans also work to build community with other believers. There are over 400 Elvis fan clubs worldwide. There are also Elvis churches, such as The First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine. (That’s not a typo. Google it if you don’t believe me.)

Elvis fans understand the power of community, and so should we. Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Living a life of faith is not easy. We need the support of others to stay strong and grounded on our journey.

Elvis fans serve as role models in another way, too: If you believe the King lives, you will actively seek him. Elvis fans are constantly looking for the King. And sometimes they find him! There have been Elvis sightings all over the world—from a spa in Tokyo to a Burger King in Michigan. There was even a woman who claimed that she saw Elvis’ face in a taco shell at Chi-Chi’s.

If we believe the King lives, we will seek him as Jesus commanded in Matthew 7:7: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” If we begin to seek Christ truly, we, too, may start to see his face materialize in places we never saw him before, such as in the eyes of a stranger, the face of an immigrant, or the expression of someone who is hungry, thirsty, or homeless.

The Christian faith is not passive. It is a faith of action. It should make us want to bring in the kingdom—or the blingdom—or whatever it takes to ease the suffering of this world. Perhaps Elvis said it best: “Music and religion are similar because both should make you wanna move.”

Sometime this week, find a quiet moment and ask yourself, “Do I believe?” From the deepest parts of your heart, the answer will surely come.

He lives. He lives, baby. The King lives!

 

— A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. The author of Laugh Your Way to Grace and Preaching Punchlines, Susan is a nationally known speaker on the healing power of humor. Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

Cancer (and other road hazards) Empowerment Hope Judgment and Forgiveness Self care

Am I Gonna Ride This Thing or Not?

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with Gannett. 

There are a lot of things that the Bible doesn’t tell us.

For instance, what did Jesus do between the ages of twelve and thirty?

Why did God create platypuses before people?

Or this question, with which I have struggled my entire adult life . . .

What did Mary say the split second after Joseph told her that at nine months pregnant, she had to ride a donkey ninety miles up a 2500-foot mountain from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to answer questions for a census guy?

While the Bible doesn’t tell us specifically, I don’t think God would mind if we read between the lines a little bit. In fact, in imagining what might have been said (and done), we may discover some important lessons of our own.

My best guess at what happened after Joseph’s shocking announcement? Mary turns, looks at the donkey, and thinks to herself, “Am I gonna ride this thing or not?” In short, do I have a choice in this situation?

We should ask ourselves the same question when faced with difficult circumstances. Sometimes the answers are crystal clear.

For example, do I need to go to IKEA and wait in line for three hours to buy a bookshelf that will take seventeen hours to put together just because it will make my house look slightly more tidy when my relatives visit for thirty minutes?

Answer: No, I’m not riding this.

Do I need to get one more gift for cousin Lu Lu because her stocking looks slightly thinner than cousin Ned’s?

Answer: No, I’m not riding this.

Do I need to respond to that personal slight from my work colleague, friend, or family member?

Answer: No, I’m not riding this. (Just FYI, not everything requires our response.)

These are the easy situations, the ones in which we have full power to say “no.”

But sometimes the answers are not so easy. Sometimes we are faced with situations completely out of our control.

Do I have to face down this cancer diagnosis?

Answer: Yes, I have to ride this.

Do I have to deal with this grief after my loved one’s death?

Answer: Yes, I have to ride this.

Or for Mary, do I have to ride this donkey 90 miles up a 2500-foot mountain?

Answer: Yes, I have to ride this.

Once she realized she had to ride, Mary probably said a second thing to herself, “Better find some padding.” Maybe she put a blanket on the donkey, or perhaps she made Joseph shave a sheep to make her a fluffy pillow. Whatever it was, a little padding goes a long way to help a bumpy ride—for Mary and for us.

We can find padding in all sorts of places. One source is asking for outside help. There’s no shame in asking! In fact, when we reach out for assistance, it can be a gift to others, helping them to feel needed and useful.

Another good place to find padding is perspective. Ask yourself, what is the long view here? What truly matters to me? Keeping your gaze on the goal can help you see past the bumps on the road.

There is a third thing I’m sure happened on that journey (although again, scripture doesn’t say it): Mary prayed constantly. I’ve often wondered if that trip to Bethlehem marked the invention of the rosary because for every step the donkey took, Mary was probably counting the hairs on his neck, praying each time, “Have mercy.”

Sometimes we may feel that way, too. We hope and pray that every difficult step we take will be the last. We may even think we can’t go any further. But when we raise our voices in prayer like Mary did, every angel in heaven comes flying to our aid, and we access a power beyond our pain.

There are things in this life over which we have no control—things that we simply have to get on and ride. But there is a silver lining: if we are riding, we are climbing. And every step we take is a step closer to Bethlehem.

In the end, you never know what can come out of a difficult ride.

Renewed hope? New life? Maybe even a Messiah.

Happy New Year!

 

Hope Kindness Religion and Spirituality

All God Wants for Christmas is You!

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with Gannett.

 

The Christmas holiday is in full swing, which means that from now until December 25th, we will hear … Mariah Carey.

Every day.

Everywhere.

At CVS and Walmart. At Ace Hardware and Macy’s. Even the Salvation Army volunteers will play it on the corner as they collect money.

To what song am I referring?

“All I Want for Christmas is You.”

If this doesn’t sound familiar, then apparently, you have not left your home in the past 25 years. This catchy holiday love song from 1994, which reminds us about the joy of reuniting with loved ones, has sold over 16 million copies.

But I had a thought this week. What if we took this ubiquitous song and made it an anchor—a reminder of something deeper than human love? What if we heard it as a love song from God?

Sounds kind of crazy, right – God singing Mariah Carey’s song to us. But the lyrics are spot on, as God longs to reunite with us. Ezekiel 34:11 explains, For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.”

It’s true. God yearns to be with us – at all times, in all places.

Consider what happened a few years ago at the Holy Child Jesus Church in Richmond Hill, Queens. Jose Moran, the custodian, had just finished setting up the Nativity scene and gone to lunch. When he returned about an hour later, he heard the cry of an infant. He went into the sanctuary and found a tiny baby boy, umbilical cord still attached, swaddled in purple towels on the floor of the manger.

Later, the police identified camera footage from a local 99-cent store that showed a young mother with a baby, buying the purple towels. Minutes later, she appeared in the church and laid the baby swaddled in the purple towels in the church Nativity scene. The congregation named the baby “Emmanuel,” Hebrew for “God with us.”

Like the Christ child, this little baby entered the world in a place of shame, abandonment, and brokenness. But God was there—at the manger in Bethlehem, at that Nativity scene in Queens, and with us.

Always.

Now, if that is the power of God’s love for us, then shouldn’t we share that same love with others?

Recently, I met someone who did just that. It happened while I was in line at Walgreens. I was behind an elderly Russian woman who was bent over a walker packed with plastic bags that were stuffed to the brim. For several minutes, she shuffled through the bags looking for her wallet, and as the line got longer, people got more aggravated.

All of a sudden, a tall, smiling man with a Walgreens nametag reading “Ababacar” walked up to her. He turned out to be the manager of the store and was from Senegal. When she saw him, a huge smile broke across her face. He called her by name, gave her a hug, helped her find her purse, and walked her to the door.

I found out later that she lived by herself above the store, and that he’d been helping her for years, including preparing food, and bringing her medicine. When I thanked him for what he’d done, he simply said, “If we don’t care for each other . . . who are we?”

Amen.

This week, when you hear Mariah Carey’s song for the 97thtime, stop and imagine that God is singing it to you. Wherever you are, whoever you are. God is longing for you.

Then, take that love out and share it with others. Be a blessing for everyone you meet. Live each day knowing you are part of something greater.

Because all God wants for Christmas is you!

 

 

Gratitude Hope Kindness

The Holiday is Pronounced THANKSgiving

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with Gannett. 

 

It’s hard for me to believe that New York City (where I now live) is part of the same country as North Carolina (where I was born). Everything is different: food, clothing, the pace at which people walk, and the accents. Oh, the accents.

I don’t mean any disrespect, but New York accents are just wrong—meaning they fall in the wrong place.

For example, in the south the object one holds over one’s head in a rainstorm is pronounced, “UM-brella.” New Yorkers talk about some foreign object called an “um-BREL-la.”

The southern word for the flat screen on your wall that allows you to binge on Netflix is “TEE-vee.” New Yorkers use some alien multi-syllable conglomeration of “television.”

Some may see this to be a meaningless linguistic tussle. However, when you consider the word describing this week’s national holiday, you realize that there is more at stake than you may think.

Unlike New Yorkers who say, “ThanksGIVING,” Southerners call this holiday “THANKS-giving.” Why? Because that’s what the holiday is about! THANKS. Not giving.

The thanks must come first because you can’t truly give FROM the heart, unless you have gratitude IN your heart. It’s as 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “God loves a cheerful giver.”

This is an important lesson as we begin this holiday season. While loving, joyful giving should be the focus of the coming weeks, giving usually turns into an exhausting act of duty. Like the conviction that you have to make two potato dishes—sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes—for the holiday dinner. Or the belief that you must fight the Black Friday crowds to get a generic scarf and mitten set for a great aunt twice-removed because she sent you a Whitman’s Sampler.

This is not joyful giving. This is giving cause you gotta. And this type of giving rarely produces anything heartfelt. What it does produce is heartburn. It also generates stress, resentment, and the worse of all things: the martyr syndrome.

To break from this pattern, we must put the emphasis on the “THANKS”—in the word for the holiday and in our lives. And the best way to do that is to ask yourself the following question:

What is good in my life?

When you focus on what you have, even if it’s the tiniest of things, you begin to feel gratitude. And when you have gratitude, everything changes: your mood lightens, your heart opens, and your mind starts to alter its perspective. Eventually, you see past the angst and realize that you are surrounded by blessings—blessings that you want to share.

So, what is good in your life?

Maybe you woke up feel physically stronger than usual. If so, find someone who needs physical help crossing the street or carrying groceries.

Perhaps, you have a plant blooming in your house. Take a photo and send it to someone whose heart is not blooming.

Is your blessing putting on a warm coat this morning? Find a way to share something warm, like a cup of coffee, with someone who needs it.

Or maybe you are one of the lucky people with the biggest of blessings: a job. (And please understand, I didn’t say a job you love. I mean a J-O-B with a C-H-E-C-K.) If that’s your blessing, then remember those who don’t have a job this holiday. Volunteer to serve a meal or be like the anonymous donor who recently paid off holiday layaway accounts at a Walmart.

This week, as you make your multiple potato dishes, and shop in the Black Friday chaos, raise thanks for what is good in your life, then share that blessing with joy. Give with a grateful, not grudging heart. Put the emphasis where it belongs. And remember, as we do in the South, that the holiday is pronounced THANKSgiving!

 

Empowerment Hope Kindness Self care

Wisdom from the Kmart

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column 

through GateHouse Media. 

 

When I want to lift myself out of the dumps, I go to the Astor Place Kmart in the East Village of New York City. Sure, I could default to other solutions, like walking around Central Park, watching a rerun of Chopped, or, on a really bad day, breaking out the French onion soup packet, sour cream, and Ruffles.

But my first choice is the Kmart.

Specifically, I favor an area in the far back corner of the Kmart basement. It is devoid of windows or natural light and has a back wall of clear glass that faces the dark, dungeon-like tunnel of the Number 6 subway train. There, you will find the most unexpected of things—a plant nursery.

Sprouting in this dreary prison are woven ficus trees, begonias, African violets, scheffleras, Christmas cacti, and spindly spider plants. I feel so sorry for those little plants. They struggle to grow in their stale, lifeless chamber. And if the fake light isn’t bad enough, every five minutes the train roars by, shaking them to the base of their wee roots.

That’s why every once in a while, I head to the Kmart to stage a prison break for a few lucky leafy inmates, so that they might recover in my home (or given my gardening abilities—die in peace).

But at least they have a chance. And that’s all we as humans want, too.

Our environment is not so different from that of the plants in the basement of the Kmart. We live surrounded by toxicity, in places where we are often denied light, love, and sustenance, places where we can be shaken to our roots by unforeseen circumstances.

Although we sometimes give up in the face of such obstacles, those wee plants continue to fight, to use whatever they have to stay alive, and to stretch their roots and strain their stems to convert even the tiniest bit of artificial light into energy and life.

One of the reasons I love rescuing them is the tiny plastic tab that peeks out of each plant’s pot. On it is an image of what that plant could grow into if it receives proper light and care, an image of its true potential.

We all have that same divine potential—that metaphorical plastic tab with our best self embossed on it. And sometimes we need a reminder of what that looks like so we don’t lose our way, something that’s all too easy to do in this world.

Our true potential has nothing to do with what anyone else’s “plant tab” looks like. Consider the marigolds in the Kmart. They don’t try to grow into another kind of flower, like a rose. They don’t question whether they deserve love or whether they are valued or paid enough. Their only quest is to grow into that one unique image appearing on their little plastic tab, to evolve into their divine potential.

The next time you are feeling low, consider a little wisdom from the basement of the Astor Place Kmart. Find a place in your community where you can rescue an imprisoned plant. Or better yet, rescue another person who finds him or herself trapped in a toxic place with little light or love. Maybe you reach out to a friend in need. Or perhaps, you volunteer at a homeless shelter or nursing home. Or maybe you write a letter to our troops, veterans and first responders through organizations such as Operation Gratitude. Reaching out to others can do wonders to help them—and you—grow.

The Benedictine Nun Joan Chittister once said that we have to the potential to be the human beat of the heart of God. Don’t waste that gift. Don’t give up the fight just because you find yourself in an unhealthy, unsupportive place. Each one of us has a divine potential. We just need to stretch our mind, body, and soul towards its light.

 

 

 

Empowerment Hope Risk and Reinvention

Dancing Skeletons

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media. Here it is in The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Florida.

 

“It’s just a coat hanger, Susan,” my mother would sigh, pointing at the flimsy wire triangle.

But I knew better.

It was not JUST a coat hanger. Together with the other hangers, it formed the lair of the evil skeleton who lurked in my closet.

By day, his cave looked all too innocent with Garanimals and Sesame Street fashions hanging peacefully side by side. But by night, the clothes mysteriously faded away, and the wiry hangers morphed into the bony fingers of my enemy. Every cell in my body urged me to jump up, slam the closet door, pull the covers back over my head, and pray that the skeletal specter would disappear.

One night, after months of trying to convince me that there was no skeleton in the closet, my mother concocted a new plan. When she came to tuck me in, and my eyes fixed on the closet, she said something that changed my entire view. “Susan, why don’t you just invite the skeleton to come out and play? Who knows, he may be fun.”

What a brilliant move: concede the existence of scary things, and invite them out to play. Apparently, my mom was not first to think of this approach, as the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best take it out and teach it to dance.”

Today, even though I’ve stopped using wire hangers and Garanimals, I still use that same twist of perspective because the skeletons we fear as adults are at least as big and scary as the ones from our childhood.

Some of us worry about the skeleton of money who rattles his bones every time we hear rumors of layoffs, read about impending recessions, or see towering stacks of bills piling up on our kitchen table. Others tremble at the health skeleton who sends shivers down our spine when we discover yet another person who has been diagnosed with cancer. There is the skeleton of shame which hides in the closet of many a heart, constantly threatening to lurch out. And then, there are the ugly skeletons of hatred, prejudice, and racism.

The effect of those skeletons on us as adults is exactly the same as it was when we were kids. We feel an overwhelming urge to slam the closet door, pull the covers over our heads, and pray that the bony specter goes away.

This reminds me of a skeleton joke:

Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road?

He didn’t have the guts.

Okay, I know, I know. Groan. But here’s the point: the only way we can get past the paralyzing fear of the skeletons lurking in our hearts is to have the guts to invite them into the light. It is then that the problems fade, change, even transform, and our fears start to subside.

The prophet Ezekiel understood this same struggle when he stood in the valley of lifeless dry bones (Ezekiel 37), but he found the guts to face the bones through the word of God. In that moment of faith, those scary dead bones began to come together, to stand up, and to play and dance in their newfound life.

What’s the biggest, baddest skeleton in your closet right now?

What would happen if you found the courage to hold it up to the light?

We all have our scary skeletons. But nothing in our dark closets is stronger than the holy promise made to us of a second chance and a new life. If we can find the guts to invite those bony fears out, then we can be sure that God will make them dance.

 

— A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. The author of Laugh Your Way to Grace and Preaching Punchlines, Susan is a nationally known speaker on the healing power of humor. Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gratitude Hope Justice

A Veteran’s Day Message

This message by my husband, Carl T. Solberg, Vietnam Veteran, was also given as a sermon in 2011 at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC (www.mabcnyc.org )

I was honored when Susan asked if I would like to offer a message for this Veteran’s Day.   As I am a veteran, you might expect my message to be straightforward – a gung-ho voice celebrating our military, evoking the patriotic feelings we experience when  the Veteran’s Day parade goes by.

My view is a bit more complex.  As a Christian and a veteran, I have found the issues of war and service and faith complicated .  I have two themes for this Veteran’s Day message: as Americans, we should support our vets; and as people of faith, we should think long and hard about wars, particularly the voluntary kind.

First, I believe whole heartedly that we should support our vets, current and future.  Not long ago I was on a domestic plane flight, and before leaving the gate the pilot announced that we had to wait a few more minutes, for some special passengers.  Shortly the hostesses ushered into the cabin a group of young men and women, wearing the fatigue uniforms of our nation’s military, as the pilot announced that they were headed for service in Iraq.  The passengers broke into applause.  The pilot – obviously himself a veteran – poked his head into the passenger cabin to watch, with a smile.  We were all proud of them, our young folks heading overseas to serve and do battle, for us.

My experience was a bit different.

My service came in the Vietnam War, the most unpopular war in American history.   When I traveled around the country in my uniform, no one cheered, no one clapped; people looked anywhere but at me.  The rare kind word or smile came only from veterans.  When I came home in 1970 from my combat tour in Vietnam, we got off a transport plane at an air force base outside Seattle and walked under a big sign that read, Welcome home, soldier!  America is proud of you!  24 hours later, I was dropped off at the Seattle airport by an army bus, and I stood on the sidewalk, wearing a new uniform for my trip home and clutching my new orders, discharging me from the Army.

I wasn’t quite ready to go home.  My head was spinning from the abrupt transition from the jungle, thousands of miles away, to a cool April evening in the Pacific Northwest.  I found a pay phone and called a college friend, who was then a graduate student in Seattle.  Before long Bob was pulling up in his car at the curb.  He did a wonderful thing for me – he took me skiing in the nearby Cascade Mountains for a couple of days.  It was a great transition – everywhere I looked people were smiling, no one was shooting, and it couldn’t have been farther from the jungle.

But before we went skiing, we stopped at the house Bob was sharing with several other graduate students.  Bob introduced me – this is my friend Toby – he just got home from Vietnam!  None of them would shake my hand.

The sign I’d walked under – welcome home, soldier, America is proud of you – was a lie.  America was not proud of me – America was ashamed of me.  Definitely a Veteran’s Day contradiction.

I started law school that fall; I didn’t tell anyone I was a veteran.  I pushed Vietnam into the back of my mind, and buckled down to building a life for myself.  Some 15 years later, another vet stuck his head into my office and called my attention to the Veteran’s Day parade outside; he said there were Vietnam veterans marching, and they were being cheered.  Time had passed, attitudes had changed.  But I will never be able to shake the memory that I once put everything I had on the line for my country, and my country was not grateful.

Vietnam – and Korea – were departures for Americans.  The wars that had gone before were easy to understand: the Revolution to make us free, the Civil War to keep our country together and abolish slavery, – and above all World War II: the worldwide struggle against tyranny, totalitarianism, hatred, cruelty, the Holocaust.  And all Americans dug deep for that one.

I think of my grandmother, who lived in Eau Claire, WI her entire life.  She had 3 children; all 3 went to war – one son to England to train with the 101st Airborne Division for the invasion of France, another son on a destroyer in the Pacific, and a daughter, my mother, in the Red Cross on the distant Pacific island of New Caledonia.  And one day an Army car pulled up outside, and an Army officer got out, along with the pastor from Grandma’s church.  They gave her the bad news – her son John had been killed in action in Normandy.  He’s buried in the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.  On his cross, below his name, rank, unit and dates, it says Wisconsin.  When you look around at the other crosses, some of them Stars of David, you see Texas, and California, and Iowa, and North Carolina.  A long way from Eau Claire, WI.  A war that touched all Americans, and that was easy to understand.  Not like Korea or Vietnam.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud to have served, whatever the merits of the war.  I hold with Stephen Decatur, the soldier and statesman who made his reputation by flushing pirate bands out of Tripoli in the War of 1812.  Decatur once gave a toast: to my country: may she always be right, but right or wrong, my country.  I’m proud to have served my country.  Support the vets; it’s the right thing to do.

That said, back the Vets, but question the wars.

The truth is – wars are a little too easy for us to wage these days.  They’re fought on the other side of the world, far from our daily view, by volunteers.  I always felt that we’re very lucky to live in America, and that we citizens have an obligation to give something back, be it military service, alternative service, Peace Corps, Teacher Corps, whatever.

Our lives today are pretty cushy, and apart from 9/11 we’re far removed from the trouble spots of the world.  We have to read history to remind ourselves that a lot of blood was spilled here in the United States by our forefathers to get us to the liberties and luxuries we enjoy today.  New York City was occupied by our enemy during the Revolution.  There were battles on Long Island, in White Plains; George Washington moved his army across the Hudson River right where the GW Bridge is today.  We haven’t had a war on American soil since the Civil War.  In today’s global society, we send our troops far away.

And the troops we send are volunteers.  The bulk of service in the Vietnam war, at the level of the ordinary soldier, was borne by draftees, like me.  We didn’t volunteer.  We went under compulsion.  Imagine if you can that today every male as he turns 18 gets a letter saying, you’re 1A – you’re ready to go; you can be called at any moment.  And you will be called.

Today there is no draft.  Today’s wars are borne by our professional military, supplemented by the Reserve and the National Guard, all of them volunteers.

One thing ties all wars together: they tend to be declared by old people, our politicians – and fought by young people.    A former business colleague of mine, a venture capital banker then in his 60s, had a brilliant idea.    Bill pointed out that wars have always been fought by young men – why?  Young men think they’ll never die, they think war will be an adventure.  Bill suggested we send our old people off to fight instead.  Think about it: older people are less likely to cooperate.  Picture the World War I scene of the troops in the trenches; an officer shouts, over the top, boys!  Charge!  The troops in the trenches, average age say 65, respond: my back’s a little stiff today, it’s not really a good day for a charge.  Maybe tomorrow.  They’re also more likely to argue: why should we charge?  They’ve got machine guns!  It’s dangerous, not to mention pointless.  This idea  could be the end of warfare – at long last.

Support the vets.  But the best thing we could do for our vets is to save their lives; decide NOT to wage a voluntary war on the other side of the world.  Question the wars our politicians propose.

These are important moral issues.  Maybe we could find some guidance in our faith.  Well – if there are any two features of this world more intertwined than religion and war, I don’t know what they are. In the 2000 years since the birth of Christ, try to find a war that wasn’t fought over religion; that didn’t invoke religion on one or both sides; that didn’t represent people trying to pull God into their human disputes.

There’s hardly been a period in Christian history without a Christian war going on somewhere: Christians against Muslims, Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Protestants.  Everybody against other faiths, considered non-believers, like Aztecs, Incas and other Native Americans.  Wars without declaring war, like the Inquisition, in which the only Christian church of the time virtually declared war on its own people over minor matters of church dogma, all in the name of Christ.

And if the war wasn’t directly over religion, religion was invoked, often by both sides.  Think of the Civil War, with famously pious generals – mostly Protestants – on both sides praying to God for strength to kill each other.  And thanking God afterwards for giving them the victory.

All this involves some basic human presumptions, none of them consistent with the teachings of Christ: the presumption that God would approve of war; the presumption that God would take sides in a war; the presumption that God would want to get involved in such human stupidity at all.

There’s always been comfort for Christian warmongers in the Old Testament, in the concept of an eye for an eye, and in the many accounts of ancient wars: the righteous extinction by God Himself of the pharaoah’s army at the Red Sea.  The reduction of Jericho.  David and Goliath.  Yet the Old Testament also has Moses on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments, one of the most memorable: thou shalt not kill.  Not, thou shalt not kill Christians.  Not, thou shalt not kill good guys.  Thou shalt not kill, plain and simple.

And then there’s the New Testament: the life of Christ, the ultimate pacifist.  Can anyone reading the Beatitudes think that Christ would think it was OK to kill Southerners?  Or Northerners?  Or members of another faith, or members of no faith?

The teachings of Christ – the very essence of Christianity – tell us that killing is a sin.  Despite 2000 years of human effort to the contrary, there is no justification in the story of Christ for killing each other. Quite the contrary.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t there on Christmas Eve of 1969 when my little fire base in the Central Highlands of Vietnam was attacked.  Or maybe He was there, and we just didn’t have time to consult.  There wasn’t an opportunity at Pearl Harbor for our soldiers and sailors to ask what to do.  Is it wrong to defend yourself?  To defend your country?

Like most American veterans, I consider myself a religious man (there’s a famous saying in the military: there are no atheists in foxholes) – and so I am conflicted about Veteran’s Day.  I’m conflicted about the Vietnam War, torn between pride in my service, shame at my country’s reaction, regret that my country saw fit to spend my service in so poor a cause, guilt at surviving the war when so many did not.  I’m conflicted about the use of Christianity throughout its history by my fellow humans as an excuse for systematically violating the most fundamental precept of our faith.

That’s a lot of conflict, for a holiday.  There’s a parade, with bands, waving flags, cheering children, and a lot of old men marching in uniforms that are a bit too tight.  The Shriners show up at a lot of these parades, and buzz around Fifth Avenue in their little cars.  Maybe I ought not to take myself so seriously; maybe I ought to forget about contradictions and conflicts, so natural to our human condition.  Maybe I just ought to bask in the cheers and thanks of my countrymen, however flawed, and not worry about my equally flawed self.  After all, we’re only human.  And maybe that’s the answer: even God doesn’t expect us to match Jesus’s idealistic teachings – just to do our best.  And that’s what our veterans did, all of them, in every war: we did our best. So let’s do our best for them, take care of our veterans, and maybe at long last, we can all believe in that sign: welcome home, soldier!  America is proud of you.

 

Cancer (and other road hazards) Empowerment Gratitude Hope Laughter Self care Uncategorized

Breast Cancer and the “F” Bomb

This piece was featured as a nationally syndicated column by GateHouse Media.

“Brace yourselves. I’m gunna use the ‘F word’ to talk about my battle with breast cancer.”

While the audience gasped, the speaker, a slight, scrappy blonde, smiled. She knew the impact of her words. Pausing with perfect comedic timing, she then, as promised, dropped her “F” bomb:

“Faith.”

And so began last week’s breast cancer survivor event—“Celebration of Life” in Watertown, South Dakota. As a survivor myself, I had been invited as the featured speaker, but the words spoken by Colita, a stage two survivor and the founder of the local support group, were what everyone remembered.

Faith is the key.

But let me be clear what I mean by faith. Do I mean faith that God will let me live through a cancer diagnosis?

No.

And none of the survivors I met last week understood faith that way, either. In fact, not one person there uttered a word of questioning or judgment about WHY God let this happen or WHY God allows suffering. These women didn’t have time for that. They were too busy fighting for their recovery and, most of all, fighting for each other.

For them, and for me, “faith” means a belief that you are not alone, that you have a greater power walking with you and beside you. In fact, one of the survivors at the gathering said to me, “I don’t look to God as the source of my pain. I look to God as the source of my healing.”

Thousands of years earlier, the Psalmist wrote nearly the same thing: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

Even with such powerful assurances, it’s still hard to have faith during our times of crisis. For example, Colita talked about another “F” bomb: fear—the fear that set in when she first heard her diagnosis. Everyone in that room understood what she meant. Whether it’s rooted in breast cancer or some other crisis in life, we all know about the power of fear. It seeps into our psyche and changes our perspective on what is possible. It makes us doubt our capabilities. It shuts us down.

But faith can reverse that process. Silent screen actress Dorothy Bernard once said, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” When we pray, we take our focus off ourselves and lock on to the holy power that surrounds us all. It’s then that our fear shrinks, our courage roars back, and we muster our reserves to fight. As Colita so artfully said, “It takes faith to bring the fight.”

And all of us must fight. We must fight to live well each day we are given. We must fight to appreciate the gift of every moment we have. Some days we must fight for our very lives. But even in the heat of those personal battles, we must also remember to fight for each other.

Some of the survivors gave examples of that kind of fight—kindnesses offered them, such as when someone showed up at their door with a casserole to feed their family, a friend drove them to a treatment ninety miles away, or a neighbor organized care for their children. Just as we have received God’s protective presence through faith, we must turn and channel that healing to others.

Colita was right. The “F word” is the best way to approach a cancer diagnosis, or any crisis in this life. Faith reminds us what is important, who is in charge, and why we are here. Faith is what brings the fight. And with God on our side, that’s a fight we will never lose. As Psalm 23 promises, surely goodness and mercy shall follow usall the days of our lives: and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 

— A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. The author of Laugh Your Way to Grace and Preaching Punchlines, Susan is a nationally known speaker on the healing power of humor.Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

Empowerment Risk and Reinvention Self care

The Long Way Around

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media. 

I have decided that New York City is the best place to live if you want to take the long way around. Last week, I had to take four detours in order to get home. The first was on Park Avenue, where police were sending everyone north because of construction. We turned again because of a parade, and then we took another detour due to a street fair. Finally, traffic came to a stop when a man chose to rant about the issues of the day in the middle of Third Avenue.

And so it goes in our fair city. You’re trying to go one way, but thanks to construction, a parade, or a man ranting in the middle of Third Avenue, you have to take the long way around.

We’ve all been there, perhaps in more ways than one.

Perhaps you’re in a relationship that seems to be taking the long way around.

Maybe your career path is unfolding with unwelcome twists and turns.

Or perhaps injury has forced a delay in your life.

It’s frustrating when these things happen. But as frustrating as it is, taking the long way may be the best thing that can happen to us.

Thousands of years ago, God led the Israelites the long way around: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer” (Exodus 13:17). But God had a reason: “For God said, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea” (Exodus 13:17-18).

God knew the Israelites—their fears, their hopes, and their capabilities—and designated a route based on what they could do. It may not have been the fastest route. In fact, it was a roundabout way through the wilderness. But it was a route that took them away from dangers and threats that would have thrown them off their quest. Long as it was, it was still a path that would get them to the promised land.

That’s a lesson we all need. Sometimes the long way around is the best way because we’re not ready for the direct route. In fact, the long way around may be the quickest way to success.

Think about it like this . . .

What if you found your dream job but hadn’t fully developed the right skill set? What if you discovered the perfect relationship, yet lacked the emotional bandwidth to nurture it? What if a great opportunity presented itself when you didn’t have the depth or grounding to step into it?

Sometimes we need time to mature into our best selves before we start down the fast track.

We can see the same principle at work in nature. For example, consider the growth cycle of Chinese bamboo. It grows only about two inches a year for the first four years. Then, if nurtured correctly, it grows up to eighty feet in the fifth year. It takes time in those beginning years to generate a sufficient root system to support the exponential growth at the end.

– Where in your life do you feel you are on the long way around?

– Why do you think you’ve been led that way?

It’s hard when we feel we are not on the fast track. We worry about being delayed. We fret over arriving late. But late on whose schedule?

Our timetable is not the one that matters. What matters is the timeline God has placed in front of each of us. We can choose to fight it. Or we can trust the process, knowing that long way or not, God will eventually lead us home.

 

Justice Kindness

Check Your Weapons at the Door

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column for GateHouse Media.

I had an unfortunate collision on my motorcycle . . . with a bug. You might think something like, “Aww, how sad for the bug,” but in fact, I was the one that ended up visiting a local hospital. Although the bug incident was jarring, the large sign at the entrance of the clinic—“Check Your Weapons at the Door”—was more alarming. Who knew that in seeing a doctor, one needed to come packing heat?

The bug injury healed. but I’ve never forgotten that sign, and over time, I have decided that the message “check your weapons at the door” is great advice for life.

There are a lot of weapons floating around these days. On the international scene, there are nukes, drone strikes, and WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). In the United States, there’s the scourge of assault weapons. But there’s also an equally scary and perhaps even more dangerous weapon at large in the world: the human tongue.

We’ve all been on the receiving and giving end of words that sting like hitting a bug at 70mph—words of anger, fear, or hate that can tear relationships, families, and hearts apart. Proverbs 12:18 explains it like this: “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Every one of us is packing heat. The question is whether we will check that weapon at the door.

The unfortunate truth is that human beings love to run their mouths, to tell others what they think, to lecture others about what is right and wrong. Just look at all the talking heads on television. But we’re just as guilty.

We fling words like I cook spaghetti: sloppily. Never being an exacting kind of cook, I just throw the noodles against the wall and see what sticks. As you can imagine, I have a pretty messy kitchen.

Like with spaghetti, we randomly throw out words and see what sticks. But unlike spaghetti, words always stick, and we can’t take them back. And please understand those words can be both spoken and written. Think about texting, emailing, and posting on social media, especially the vicious words exchanged on sites like Facebook.

I think the Psalmist were right: “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3) If only we would check our harsh and angry words at the doors of our mouths before we spoke them. God forbid we actually listen before we speak.

The author Steven Covey wrote, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.” It’s true. We want to have something sparkly and intelligent to say in return. But more so, we want to be right.

In any conversation, there are two parts: the mouth and the heart. When we listen to reply, we’re listening only to what comes out of the mouth. When we truly listen to understand, then we hear not only from the mouth, but also the heart.

Power does not come from weapons targeted at intimidation and destruction, such as WMD’s or words. Power comes from deep, empathetic listening with an intent to truly understand.

In the end, I am sorry for that bug. But he did not die in vain. He (and the sign at the hospital) made me think. Flinging out angry sentiments and constantly fighting to be right will get us nowhere. We have to stop this arms race. Let’s check our weapons at the door and give each other—and this old world—a momentary chance to heal.