Susan SparksBelow are selected writings, including my award-winning nationally syndicated column.

Empowerment Hope Self care

Find a Center That Will Hold

How do you heal?

Me? Among many things, I find healing in the stars. And specifically, the spectacular images from the James Webb telescope like the “Cartwheel Galaxy” (above) published just this week. Those images bring me perspective — a sense of belonging to something bigger than our stressful, angst-filled world.

The stars are our old ones, our wise ones, for we as human beings carry their genetic imprint. Joni Mitchell sang the famous lyrics “we are stardust,” and as it turns out, she’s right.


Our human bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, and sulfur—most of the materials that we’re made of—come out of the star dust kicked off by those explosions and scattered across the universe. As Astrophysicist Karel Schrijver explained in National Geographic, “We have stuff in us as old as the universe.”

We have much to learn from the heavens. In fact, the stars actually share the secret to life. (Brace yourself—a liberal arts major is about to explain physics . . .)

There are basically two stages to the life of a star. The first stage is when a star is born. As gravity begins to pull gases towards a center core, the temperature begins to rise, and eventually, the density of the gases causes a nuclear reaction. It’s then that the star begins to shine, drawing energy toward the light, to its core, then radiating that light back out into the galaxy.

This can go on for billions of years until we come to the second stage, when the star’s center can no longer hold. Because the star has too little fuel left to maintain its core temperature, its light goes out and it collapses under its own weight, drawing everything around it into a dark abyss.

Tell me that doesn’t sound familiar. Sometimes we draw our energy toward the light and reflect its warmth to all around us. Other times, we have lost all fuel; our light goes out and we collapse, emotionally or otherwise, into a dark abyss.

These days, it’s easy to find ourselves in that abyss. And like the stars, the only thing between a heart that draws in the light and a heart that collapses into a black hole is a strong center that can hold.

Sadly, we tend to put all kinds of crazy things at our center that weaken our core, such as ego, anger, status, stuff, and other people. Inevitably, there comes a time when these things can’t hold anymore. The latch on your designer purse will eventually break. Human beings let us down. Botox lasts for only three months (or so I’ve heard). Like a dying star, we begin to collapse into the darkness, and our light goes out.

Which brings us to the secret of life—we must find a center that will hold.

We need look no further than the scriptures to locate that strong center. Consider Isaiah 40:31:“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”

What do you have at the center of your life?

Is it strong enough to hold you through the good times and the bad?

If your light is starting to go out, get a little starstruck. Find a place where you can look up into the heavens. Or just Google “Webb telescope” and enjoy the images of those incredible galaxies. Then, remember the creator of those stars — the ultimate center that can hold. It is through that true center that you, too, can hold strong in the hardest times, radiating light and warmth to all creation.

Empowerment Justice Kindness

We’d Better Dial Up Our Sleep Number

This piece was taken from a sermon delivered at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC on April  10, 2022.


I don’t know about y’all, but I love to sleep.

Love. It.

And, at the risk of sounding a bit arrogant, I’m really good at it.

Maybe this resonates with some of you? Apparently, it resonates with a lot of people, as sleep has become a billion-dollar business. Leading the way in this billion-dollar business are all the fancy mattresses you can buy.

These include DreamCloud, Tempur-Pedic, and the one I find most interesting—the Sleep Number Bed. You may have seen their commercials. These are the mattresses that adjust with the click of a button or a tap on your phone. The settings run from 1-100; the higher the number, the firmer the mattress.

For example, if your mattress were set on 100, it would be like sleeping on a piece of granite, but if your mattress were set on 1, it would be like sleeping on a Krispy Kreme doughnut just taken off the conveyor belt when the Hot sign is on. Not that I know anything about that.

Because inquiring minds need to know, I did a little research, and I found that the most popular Sleep Number is 35, which, I’m sorry, sounds a bit on the soft, squishy side to me. I mean no judgment—everyone has their thing—but here’s my concern: our preference for soft, squishy mattresses parallels the way many of us approach life.

We can all agree, I believe, that people tend to like not only soft mattresses, but also the soft, squishy, safe side of life. It’s human nature. That’s why it’s so hard for people to get out of their soft beds in the morning and face the world. It’s also why we tend to avoid things like unpleasant conversations and why we so often turn away from other people’s misfortunes. Just like a 100-level mattress, those things are hard.

But friends, we’re not called to take the easy way out. Life is like a Sleep Number Bed because we have a choice: we can stay in our soft, squishy, comfortable spaces, or we can dial up our resolve, step out of our comfort zones, and take a firm stand in the hard places.

As Dumbledore says in the Harry Potter series, “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” And yet so often, we choose easy over right.

How many times have we stood in solidarity with people during the warm, fuzzy, fun times, but refused to dial up our resolve when the going got tough?

Recently, I’ve been watching a friend sink into the clutches of dementia. This is a man who has been beloved by many and respected in the business world, a man who has always been surrounded by friends—until now, when the easy times are gone. Now that a firm stand in a hard place is required, his “friends” are few and far between.

Where do we stand when the going gets tough for those around us? When the divorce hits, when the addiction crisis spirals, when the cancer diagnosis is made, when the job is lost? Do we step up when the racist and/or judgmental comment is made? Do we publicly claim our faith in the face of wrongdoing? As our Madison Avenue Baptist Church sign says this week, “While we all may not be in the same boat, we are all in the same storm.”

What is your comfort level with standing firm in hard places?

This is no time to dial it down. The world is a terribly hard place these days. The most important thing we can do in this life is dial up our resolve and stand firm with each other in the hard places. Remember, in the end, we are who we protect.

Empowerment Hope Religion and Spirituality

Beethoven on Inner Peace

I’m sure you have all heard of the great composer Beethoven and his famous piece the 9th Symphony. It was heralded as a work of genius because Beethoven did something that had never been done before: he added voices in the fourth and last movement. He basically turned a symphony into an opera.

But here’s the real kicker. He wrote that breath-taking piece toward the end of his life.

When he was deaf.

In fact, when he conducted the Symphony for the first time, one of the soloists had to turn him around at the end to see the that the audience was furiously clapping.

What a great lesson on the power within. Beethoven could have could have focused on his deafness – could have focused on the silence he heard coming from the outside world and never composed again. But instead, he focused on the music inside. He listened to the beauty inside and brought forth one of the great musical pieces of all time.

How many times have we shunned our inner voice for the opinion of the crowd.

How many times have we based our self-worth on what other people say?

How many times have we given up a dream because someone “out there” said it couldn’t be done.

We have to tap the power and beauty inside to offset the evil and ugliness out there.

Let me give you one example of how to do it. Recently I had a phone call with my dear friend, Paul Lambert. A Broadway producer, Paul was sharing with me his idea for a new show. Paul also talked about how he was praying constantly about the project. He said, “I think about it like visiting with God. Every day and every night we have the opportunity to ring the doorbell of the most powerful force in the universe. And so I do!”

Amen to that.

The next time we are fighting the corrosive voices of the world, remember the voice of wisdom and power and beauty inside our own heart; remember that we can ring the doorbell of the most powerful force in the universe – anytime — and bring forth the greatest that dwells within; remember to tap the music within.



Empowerment Environment Gratitude Hope joy Second Chances

Walk Out and Look Up

This piece was featured by The Christian Citizen as well as delivered as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC.


Today, I’d like to share the secret to life.

Where might I have found this great wisdom?

Oprah? No.

Dr. Phil? Nope.

Tik Tok? Definitely not.

No, I found this great wisdom by doing something very simple: walking out and looking up at the winter trees.

How could trees—let alone dead, lifeless, winter trees—hold the secret to life?

In order to grasp this great truth, the first thing we need to do is to get off our human high horse. We aren’t all that, especially when you compare us to the world of trees.

Trees have lived longer than we have. In fact, trees are the oldest living organisms on the planet. Trees, mold, and jellyfish are older than human history. The oldest tree is a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California that scientists date as around 5000 years old. That is Tigris and Euphrates, early Mesopotamia, Bronze Age stuff. Its name, appropriately, is Methuselah.

Trees are also smarter than we are. In the book, The Hidden Life of Trees German forester Peter Wohlleben shares some astonishing discoveries. He talks about trees as social beings and explains how they actually communicate with each other, give warnings to other trees in the forest, share food through their root systems with their own species, and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors. Why? Because one lone tree is vulnerable, but a forest offers strength and safety. In short, trees nourish community.

If only human beings could learn that simple lesson.

At least the writers of the Bible realized the importance of trees. In fact, there are three things the Bible mentions more than anything else: God, people, and trees. The Bible speaks of the great cedars of Lebanon and tells how Moses used acacia wood for the ark of the covenant. Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree, and Jesus’ followers are described as oaks of righteousness. David crafted his musical instruments from the wood of a fir tree. A branch from the olive tree signified safety after the flood. A tree formed the wooden manger, and a tree formed the cross.

Trees are an intimate part of the holy narrative, but they’re even more than that because out of all creation, God chose trees for self-revelation. We see this in the beautiful passage Isaiah 41:19-20, where God recognizes the suffering of the people and offers them a sign: “I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together, so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this.”

God chose trees—the myrtle and the olive, the fir and the cypress—to reveal God’s self, making trees the sacred keepers of holy wisdom.

This brings us back to the secret of life, which, in my humble opinion, is to be found in trees. Specifically, it’s in winter trees.

The day I walked out to look up at the trees was dim and dreary. The trees, leafless and bare, formed an almost lace-like pattern against the gray winter sky. To a brief passerby, they probably appeared lifeless, dead even.

I think we all know how that feels. Sometimes everything in life can feel and look bare and brittle, lifeless, even dead. However, there is way more going on under the surface than we realize.

Consider those bare winter trees. Inside their seemingly dead branches and trunks, a magical transformation is happening. Months before, in the fall, the trees dropped their green leaves in order to conserve water and centralize and focus their energy. I think of a tree in this stage as being like a sprinter in a quiet, motionless crouch before a race. All energies and focus are drawn down into that moment before the runner springs into action. What appears in winter to be a quiet time of death for those trees is, in fact, the combustion engine of life.

We always think of the season of spring as the beginning of life, but in fact, spring is not the beginning. It’s the manifestation of the transformation happening inside those great trees right now, in the winter.

In writing about wintering trees, the author Katherine May explains, “The tree is waiting. It has everything ready. Its fallen leaves are mulching the forest floor, and its roots are drawing up the extra winter moisture, providing a firm anchor against seasonal storms . . . It is far from dead. It is in fact the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly.”

We see the same pattern in human life. William Bridges in his book, Transitions talks about the passages of life, such as those that take place in a job, a relationship, a move, or another life change. He explains that all transitions are composed of three things: (1) an ending, (2) a neutral zone, and (3) a new beginning.

The ending is when we let go of the old. The neutral zone is that time of unknowing when we listen, focus, think, and wait. Then, eventually, the new beginning gleams forth. The key is that it all starts with an ending.

The problem is that unlike trees, we humans tend to fight this truth. We want to focus only on the new beginning. We think that to figure out our plan, to make our choices, we’ve got to get going. If we aren’t producing something, who are we? Endings are seen as unpleasant, and the neutral zone is seen as unproductive. It’s also scary.

When we’re in the neutral zone, we stand bare, like the trees in winter. It’s a time when we can no longer hide our truth behind our agendas, lists, or busyness. Who are we without our leaves? We humans hate asking that, but vulnerability is the place of greatest beauty.

There is a tiny, wonderful book called Trees at Leisure written in 1916 by Anna Botsford Comstock. In it, she talks about the beauty of winter trees: “In winter, we are prone to regard our trees as cold, bare, and dreary; and we bid them wait until they are again clothed in verdure before we may accord to them comradeship. However, it is during this winter resting time that the tree stands revealed to the uttermost, ready to give its most intimate confidences to those who love it.”

The true secret to life lies in the deep wisdom of trees, the place where God chose to reveal God’s self. The trees know that spring is not where life is truly generated. Transformation takes place in winter—that time of ending, that quiet neutral zone, that gap that exists when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully formed.

What parts of your life feel like those bare, brittle, lifeless branches? Who are you without your leaves?

While life can sometimes look and feel like a tree in winter, remember that there is more going on under the surface than we realize. Like the energy humming inside those trees, there are unseen things happening within us. We are changing, churning, transforming inside.

If you doubt that, just walk outside and look up.

While it may feel like loss, while we ourselves may feel lost, winter is simply a time when our energies are gathered deep into our souls, waiting like a sprinter in a crouch ready to spring into new life.

Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet, put it best: “If nothing else, this must be known: Even as we’ve grieved, we’ve grown . . . We are battered, but bolder; worn, but wiser . . . If anything, the very fact that we’re weary means we are, by definition, changed; we are brave enough to listen to, and learn from, our fear. This time will be different because this time we’ll be different. We already are.”


Empowerment Hope Justice

What is True and What is Right

This piece was featured by Baptist News Global and delivered as a sermon at Madison Avenue Baptist Church on January 2, 2022. 


Due to the recent spike in COVID infections in New York City, our church has returned, once again, to virtual-only services. It was the right thing to do. It was the smart thing to do. But it was also the thing that finally broke my spirit and released all the anger that has been brewing in my heart — rage even — directed at those who refuse to take actions to bring this killer under control.

On this Epiphany Sunday and New Year’s weekend, I want to look to the Biblical story of the wise men for strength and wisdom during this difficult time.

We all know what happened when the wise men came to Jerusalem in search of the Messiah. They approached King Herod, the ruler at the time, and asked where they could find him. Based on the prophesy of the book of Micah, Herod told the wise men to go to Bethlehem to find the Messiah, then return to tell him where he was so that that Herod could “come and worship Him also.” The wise men went to Bethlehem and found the Messiah, but afterwards, thanks to a warning in a dream, they protected the baby Jesus by going home another way instead of returning to Herod.

It’s a short story, and we don’t have a lot of detail about these characters, but even so, there are two relevant lessons for us at the dawn of 2022:

Follow what is true, and do what is right.

The wise men followed what was true. In the story, they followed a star and trusted a dream. They weren’t swayed by Herod’s disingenuous comments (aka his lies). There was a bigger power guiding them, for God spoke to them in a dream and warned them that Herod intended to harm the baby Jesus. In their hearts, they knew what was true, and because of that, they did what was right.

In this world, we have so many opportunities to do what is right. But apropos of our frustration around the status of our pandemic-ridden world, I want to focus on just one opportunity. In my mind, THE most important opportunity that we have to do right today is the opportunity to get vaccinated.

Friends, as of now, over 815K Americans have died of COVID-19. That’s 1 in 500 of us.

The studies are crystal clear: vaccines are safe, stop the spread of COVID, and drastically reduce the severity of the virus and the mortality rate. In fact, according to a recent study, an estimated 160,000 COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented in the last six months by vaccination.

The harm is manifestly clear. Yet, 30% of adults in this country have not taken the vaccine. And let’s not pull any punches here—many of our fellow citizens have refused vaccines because of what our modern day “Herods” have said.

The voices of the power structure are not our ultimate source of truth. In fact, many times, they are the opposite. The late Bishop Desmond Tutu cut through the noise and highlighted what is truly important: “Our maturity will be judged by how well we are able to agree to disagree and yet continue to love one another, to care for one another, and cherish one another and seek the greater good of the other.”

Consider this: Jesus spent the bulk of his life’s work performing physical healing—healing the blind, the deaf, the sick, the lame, the lepers, the deformed, the speechless. Are we not followers of his ministry? If we refuse the opportunity to heal ourselves and others, how is that not a sin?

Let me put it in legal terms. Let’s say that even being aware of the harm you could inflict, you choose not to be vaccinated. You then become infected with COVID, and before your symptoms show, you go to a social gathering and infect another person, who then dies.

In Christianity, that would be considered a sin.

In jurisprudence, that could well be considered involuntary manslaughter.

Does this sound harsh to you? Well, it needs to be. Let me quote President Joe Biden: “I’m using every power I have as President of the United States to put us on a war footing to beat this virus. It sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it: a war footing.”

Friends, we are in a war right now. We can choose to fight each other over politics and religion and claims of personal freedoms, and COVID will win. As Galatians 5:15 warns, “[I]f you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.”

Option B: We can choose to pull together and fight the true enemy at hand—the COVID virus.

On this new year’s weekend, let me share a vision of what can be if we follow what is true and do what is right. Appropriately, it’s a vision based on a war tactic. It is an ancient military formation called a phalanx dating back to the Greeks. Soldiers would line up shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight formation, and when an attack was imminent, they would raise their shields and form a continuous, impenetrable defense. Each shield didn’t just protect the warrior holding it; it overlapped with the shield of the next soldier and provided him protection as well. However, it would work only if the entire army stood in solidarity and raised their shields.

We need to form a 21st-century phalanx and stand tightly, side-by-side, to face down our mutual enemy in solidarity. When the virus and its variants come, we will raise our collective shields, protecting ourselves and our comrades in battle.

This is the start of a new year, a new beginning, a second chance. Let us stop fighting each other. Let us stop listening to voices that lead us astray, voices that spout ideas and urgings from places of fear and an insatiable need for power.

Follow what is true. Do what is right. Get your vaccine. Remember that the baby in the manger is reflected in the eyes of every child of God on this earth. And as the wise men protected him, let us raise our shields and protect one another.

Empowerment Hope Religion and Spirituality

The Metaverse and the Manger

This piece was featured as an article in The Christian Century as well as broadcast as a sermon at Madison Avenue Baptist Church NYC.


I am a liberal arts major from the disco-era who is enamored with the metaverse. My obsession is partly driven by a yearning to counteract the march of time. To be fully transparent, I am terrified that I might be one of those characters in the Progressive Insurance commercials who have turned into their parents. But parentamorphosis aside, there is more to my fascination.

As a pastor, aunt, mentor, and grandparent, I wonder every day what life will be like for our children. The world they are about to inherit is changing at warp speed, and one of the biggest changes gleaming on the horizon is the metaverse.

If you have so much as glanced at the news in the past few months, you’ve seen countless articles on the topic, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg investing north of $10 billion to mine this new frontier. He has even renamed Facebook “Meta.” For those of you who skip anything that involves Facebook or tech babble (and trust me, I get that), let me offer you my Baby Boomer explanation of the metaverse.

In simple terms, the metaverse is the next generation of the Internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. Let’s say you’ve Googled an image of the Grand Canyon on your laptop. On the computer screen, you see a one-dimensional image. In the metaverse, through things like a virtual headset or cameras embedded in your eyeglasses, you’re in the Grand Canyon via a 360-degree virtual 3D experience. Put another way, it’s like you’ve wrapped an Imax movie screen around yourself like a blanket.

Tech folks are predicting that the metaverse will soon be used to experience things like virtual sporting events, concerts, clothes shopping, architecture, and medical research. Already, people can attend business meetings as avatars or holograms.

Sound crazy? Before we judge, let’s remember that the skepticism when the Internet first appeared. Consider this Newsweek article from February 27, 1995 entitled, The Internet: Bah: “Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries, and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems . . . Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense?”

Friends let’s not make the same mistake. The metaverse is not some crazy, futuristic, make-believe world.

It is the world that our children will inherit. The question is how we can best prepare them to step into this new frontier.

The answer can be found in two places: the Gospel of John and the words of one of my disco-era heroes, Casey Kasem. For those of you who don’t remember Casey Kasem, he was a radio disc jockey who broadcast one of the first Top 40 countdowns. He ended every show with same words: “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” Those simple words are the secret to maintaining our humanity as we negotiate the cyber world.

It’s hard to imagine a better time of year than Advent to remind ourselves to keep our feet on the ground. Advent is the celebration of the incarnation—the embodiment of God in human form here on Earth. The Gospel of John makes that crystal clear: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). I’d like to offer a more modern translation from “The Message” that adds a poignant spin: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

And what neighborhood was that? A manger in a Bethlehem barn.

The manger is the ultimate symbol of God setting up shop on the very ground on which we stand. It represents our real, broken, messy, beautiful, tragic, and miraculous world. It represents the embodied here and now, or, as Joanna Novak recently wrote in a New York Times article, “the tactile joys of being alive.”

Keeping our feet on the ground means keeping our connection to the holy, and since the holy chose to take human form, that means keeping our connection to God through and with each other. In fact, human touch is one of the ultimate tools of healing.

Science has shown that something as simple as a hug or a hand squeeze can boost our immune system, improve our sleep, and ease our anxiety and depression. Gentle massage of preemie babies has been shown to promote weight gain 47 percent faster. Human touch also increases empathy, trust, and compassion toward others.

One of the many criticisms of our increasingly electronic world is that we are losing our human connection. We’ve all experienced that devastating loss firsthand during COVID quarantines. As our cyber world expands, we must keep our feet on the ground through our holy human connection. That’s where we draw our strength and remember our humanity.

However, we aren’t called to permanently stay on the ground. We must also reach for the stars. Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned to cringe when we hear that phrase, interpreting it as a new-age “believe it and you can do it” self-help idea. But I want to us to consider a broader, more significant “reach” that we must pursue: our call to reach into the farthest known universe to bring the Good News of the manger.

Think about how God reaches out to heal us. Consider Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

Friends, if God is willing to go to such lengths, we should be too.

Theologian Andrew Byers put it this way: “[I]f God is willing to become flesh . . . then there is no sphere—physical, social, cosmic, or virtual—safe from the relational intrusion of the Triune God. If the church is now the body of Christ, then we will find ourselves not only penetrating spatial realms but also the virtual realm of cyberspace.”

Mark my words: in twenty years, the church will be based in the metaverse. Sure, it will most likely maintain a local physical footprint, but its primary reach will be exponentially larger and different in form. In fact, it’s already happening.

Recently, I bought a virtual reality headset (to erase any parentamorphosis concerns), donned my best avatar outfit, and attended a church in the metaverse. I was expecting something otherworldly like the Jetsons, but it was much more familiar. There were pews, a preacher, music, and scripture. The difference? It was held in a virtual 3D sanctuary full of people from all over the world who were represented by avatars that spoke in their own human voices.

Okay, at first glance, it’s kind of cute and funny, but then the import sinks in. Today, there are more than 171 million users of virtual realityworldwide, and behind those 171 million avatars are real people with real human pain who are hungry for a word of healing and a sense of community.

We are God’s hands and feet in this world. While grounding ourselves in the manger, we must bring God’s healing to all by reaching for the stars in the farthest realms, including the virtual world of the metaverse.

A few weeks ago, at the end of our church service, I noticed a father lifting his one-year-old son up to his shoulders. The little boy’s eyes got so big as he looked at the world from his new and higher perspective. That is exactly what we are all trying to do: lift the next generation up to a higher and better place, give them a sense of personal and spiritual grounding while encouraging them to be bold, take risks, and reach for the stars.

It’s a daunting task. But don’t worry, we’re not alone.

For God so loved the world that he sent his son into the neighborhood, so that he could walk with us on our ground and teach us to reach for the stars.

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!


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 Justice

The Power of a Pinwheel

I was in the parking lot of the Walgreens recently and heard squeals of laughter coming from a Kia Soul nearby. Not knowing a drug store to be a place of great guffaws, I walked around to find the source. Leaning out the window of the small SUV was a little girl no more than five years old holding a pinwheel that was spinning furiously in the wind.

There’s something so magical about a pinwheel. Show a kid one of those brightly colored toys whirling in the breeze, and they’re hooked. In this age of robots and video games, that makes absolutely no sense. Who knows? Maybe the attraction is the colors, or maybe it’s the fun of making the sails spin around.

Personally, I think it’s a deeper draw to the power of the wind. A pinwheel was created to capture and manifest that power, and when it does, amazing things happen.

From a theological standpoint, it’s not hard to see the parallel. We were created to channel the power of God. Unfortunately, like a pinwheel without wind, we tend to block that holy power with things like fear, doubt, and judgment. It’s when we free ourselves from those human failings and allow the spirit to work that magic can happen. My friend Dr. Michael B. Brown once offered a prayer that says it best: “Lord, speak through me, and don’t let me get in the way.”

What would life look like—what would the world be like—if we freely channeled God’s power for this higher purpose?

I think it would be like the great wind farms you see in the western United States, where hundreds of giant pinwheels—wind turbines—stand side by side as far as the eye can see, channeling the power of the wind to irrigate crops, grind grain, and generate electricity. Those turbines stand in solidarity to change the world.

Think of the things we could accomplish if we stand side-by-side in solidarity as far as the eye can see and channel the ultimate source of renewable energy, the power of God?

Friends, the world needs bold leaders and courageous givers. It needs you. This week, think about how you might raise your sails, lean into the wind, and let God speak. Together, like those great wind turbines, we can truly change the world.

joy Laughter Religion and Spirituality

Preaching Punchlines

Please enjoy a recent interview I did with my publisher Smyth & Helwys on my book Preaching Punchlines. 


As a trial lawyer turned standup comedian and Baptist minister, Susan Sparks is America’s only female comedian with a pulpit.  A North Carolina native, Susan received her B.A. at the University of North Carolina and a law degree from Wake Forest University.

After ten years as a lawyer moonlighting as a standup, she left her practice and spent two years on a solo trip around the world, including working with Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and driving her Jeep Wrangler solo from NYC to Alaska. Upon returning home, she entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she earned a Master of Divinity and wrote an honors thesis on humor and religion. In May 2007 Susan was installed as the 15th Senior Minister of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. She was the first woman pastor in its 170-year history and she remains there to this day.

What was your hope with writing Preaching Punchlines: The Ten Commandments of Comedy?

I believe that smart, focused, joyful communication is a matter of life and death—especially in preaching. Who could forget in the book of Acts when Eutychus fell to his death from window because he was lulled to sleep by the Apostle Paul’s long and boring preaching.

Words can slay people’s spirit, eradicate their joy, gut their passion. Words can alienate, divide, shame, and destroy community. They can corrode budding spiritual seekers through boredom, irrelevance or confusion. Now more than ever, we need to harness the power of joyful words to heal our broken world. Preaching Punchlines was my humble attempt to do exactly that.


Why did you decide to break down your book’s structure through “The Ten Commandments of Comedy”? How did you decide each commandment?

Laughter happens when two unexpected ideas clash together. That is why I put comedy and the Ten Commandments juxtaposition. The lessons demonstrate how tools from my twenty years plus as a professional standup comedian and ordained preacher can transform our preaching and help us better honor this message of “good news.” Lessons include getting to the point (editing); framing messages that people will listen to, remember and share; finding your creative voice; authenticity in the pulpit; forming instant trust and rapport with your congregation or audience; and building bridges and defusing conflict. There are also QR codes throughout the book that link to videos or additional resources.

In your book, you share about using humor in sermons to better relate and connect with your audience. Why you think humor does this?

I believe that ministers and standup comedians have the same job. We both are called to stand in solidarity with people during the crazy, annoying times of life and the times of tragedies. When done right, both ministers and comedians make people feel a little less alone. That’s because when you laugh with someone, whether it’s a friend, stranger, or enemy, your worlds overlap for a split second, and you share something in common.

Preaching with humor also helps present important ethical and spiritual teachings in a fresh way that people will hear, remember, and share. One example is an Easter sermon I preached called “The King Lives.” However, it was not the standard expected Easter message. The sermon was based on a trip I took to Graceland and presented what Christians had to learn from Elvis fans; namely, Elvis fans believe that the King stills lives.

What can humor teach us about our faith?

Allowing humor and joy into our spiritual lives invites a more wholistic approach to faith. We can’t be whole if we don’t give God all the pieces – and that includes the tears, the anger, the fear, and the laughter. It’s all holy.

Ecclesiastes says that there is a time to weep, and a time laugh.  Unfortunately, we’ve allowed the balance to get thrown off.  The church is more about judgment and shame than joy and hope. Which is crazy since the word “gospel” translates to “good news.” Our places of worship have gotten too caught up in self-importance and solemnity; the idea that we must be serious in church to be serious about church. We must remember that we are children of a God with a sense of joy and humor. We are made in the image of the divine, and we laugh, therefore a part of the divine must also encompass joy and laughter.

In the end, the gift of laughter offers us two powerful tools to live our faith more deeply and authentically. The first is hope. As a cancer survivor I know first-hand that if you can stand in the face of crisis and find a way to smile or laugh, that is the moment you take life back and reclaim your power. Laughter also brings us empathy and forgiveness. Here is my entire philosophy in a nutshell: If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And, if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others. With the tools of hope and forgiveness (as generated through the gift of laughter), we can face anything life throws at us.

To me, it seemed that one of your important points wasn’t that church sermons and Christianity can’t mix with comedy, but rather that Christianity has developed into bonding comedy with danger. Why is Christianity afraid of laughter? How can this be transformed?

The philosopher Voltaire wrote, “God is a comedian playing to an audience who is afraid to laugh.”  Historically, Christianity and the church has tended to label humor and laughter as evil – a sign of the fall. But as the theologian Conrad Hyers pointed out, it’s the absence of humor that is the problem, for that absence signifies the pride that caused the fall. Bottom line, humor threatens power. If we laugh in holy realms, God forbid that might mean there is some wiggle room in the dogma. Yes, humor can be dangerous . . . but so can sanctity.

How can we, as a people of faith, believe that our own heart is worthy to receive joy, as you mention in the early pages of Preaching Punchlines?

To paraphrase Erma Bombeck, think of all the women on the Titanic, who, on that fateful night, said no to dessert.

Okay, so we may not be on the Titanic. But sometimes life can make us feel like we are sinking, whether it’s under the weight of stress, work demands, family issues, medical problems or difficult people. Sadly, thanks to low self-esteem or high self-doubt, some of us don’t believe we deserve to be happy.

Many of us are walking this earth physically alive but dead of spirit, operating at the level of our social security number—existing, rather than living. But time is ticking . . .   As the words from the Jewish Talmud warn, “when we are called to our maker, we will each be held responsible for all the opportunities for joy that we ignored.”

One of the best ways to remember our blessings is to start our day with a prayer of gratitude. The actor Denzel Washington once suggested a great way to ensure that prayer happens. He explained that you should put your shoes way under the bed at night because then, you’ve got to get down on your knees each morning to find them.

As Jesus taught, “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (John 15:11).

To flip the perspective a little, how has being a Christian effected your experience as a stand-up comedian?

I’d like to tweak the question and answer it from a more general perspective: How can religion elevate comedy to its highest and best use? I have been privileged to be part of a twenty-year comedy tour called “Laugh in Peace”staring, me, a standup Rabbi, and a Muslim comic. Appearing everywhere from The World Bank Headquarters in Washington, DC to the Palestinian Fest in Houston, Texas the goal of the tour (which started right after 9/11) is to build bridges and reconcile differences through humor.

In the show, Rabbi Alper explains about the differences in language and culture: “After three years at seminary I took a year off, to study in Israel. I had some Biblical Hebrew under my belt, but it was difficult during the first weeks. For example, I can still see the look on the cab driver’s face when we pulled into our neighborhood and I said to him, in my Hebrew, ‘BEHOLD! Here I descend.’”

I talk about the sometimes-limited worldview of Christians — especially Baptists: “One nice thing you can say about the Southern Baptists is that their theology is always short and sweet. Like their idea of heaven: ‘You ain’t Southern Baptist? You ain’t coming.’ That’s like 6.5 billion people not coming. If you look at a world map, that’s every landmass on the face of the globe … except Texas and Alabama.”

Alternatively, Azhar Usman rifts on what it’s like being Muslim in America: “It’s nice to be back home in America, where I get dirty looks for being a Muslim. I was just overseas, and it felt totally different: people hating me just for being an American. I felt so patriotic.”

Our audiences span every imaginable face: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists. And for two short hours, the differences are forgotten, and we all laugh together. Given the current headlines, it’s hard to imagine a message the world needs more.

As you were published prior to the pandemic, how do you think your approach to Preaching Punchlines would have changed if you wrote it now?

Not at all. In fact, I created a free YouTube course called “Preaching in a Pandemic.” It takes the same lessons from the book and applies them to virtual preaching.

Finally, do you have any suggestions on how we can stop burying our own punchlines?

Of all the times we need to share our punchlines – to share joy – it’s now. For sharing joy can literally change the world.

Psychologists and scientists as far back as Charles Darwin have argued that emotions can be regulated by behavior. We usually think the opposite—that we smile when we are feeling happy. But science has shown that we can create happiness by the act of forming a smile. Translated: we can change our inward emotion by changing our outward expression.

Consistently reminding ourselves to smile throughout our daily lives may eventually change our hearts. And when our hearts change, the way we encounter the world changes. That is when we can truly begin to affect those around us. The Benedictine Nun Joan Chittister once said that we have to the potential to be the human beat of the heart of God. Being conduits for God’s joy is the way to bring that heart to life.