Susan SparksBelow are selected writings, including my award-winning nationally syndicated column with the USA Today Network distributed to over 600 papers reaching more than 21 million people in 36 states.

Empowerment Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness Self care

Smoking in the Shower

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

 

I love smoking in the shower.

Not literally, or at least not in the way you might be thinking. I love “smoking in the shower,” which is the name my favorite diner gives to smoked salmon on a bagel. I don’t eat it often—only as a treat, and usually while alone in my apartment so I don’t have to share. Basically, the same way one would sneak a cigarette while hiding in the bathroom.

We all have our “smoking in the shower” moments: the things we do when no one is looking; the things that may feel good at the time but in the long run don’t make us stronger.

Like chowing down on a giant container of Ben and Jerry’s in secret.

Or binge-watching angry talk shows into the wee hours of the morning.

Or managing up at work. We all know people who are super-attentive and polite to their bosses but difficult and disrespectful to their subordinates when the higher-ups aren’t looking.

How about posting vicious social media posts and hiding behind anonymity?

Or saying judgmental, ugly, or racist things when no one else of that color, ethnicity, or religion is around?

“Smoking in the shower” moments happens in all aspects of life. But here’s the thing we have to remember: Over time, what we do in private drives who we are in public.

It could be as basic as what we eat or drink in private. Ten years ago, I did a cross-country drive from New York to Alaska. Trying to do it on the cheap, I ate a lot of McDonald’s and bought low-quality gas. It caught up with me somewhere in the Yukon when my Jeep could barely climb a hill, and I couldn’t fit in my overalls. If we abuse our bodies in private, we’re eventually going to give out in public.

It could also be what we feed our minds. If we spend our time in private filling our minds with negative, destructive things, then in public, we are going to speak and act on those harmful forces. In short, what goes in comes out. Not unlike garlic. If you eat it for dinner, you will share it with everyone you encounter.

In the end, what we do in private forms our foundation. It drives how we think, what we think about, and how we engage others. If our foundation is strong, our words, our work, and our purpose are grounded in value and significance. If, however, we draw on those negative forces, like road salt on a car frame, our foundation will corrode.

Here’s the good news: No matter what choices we have made in the past, no matter how many times we have found ourselves smoking in the shower, we can change. And here’s the double good news: We don’t have to do it alone. There’s a little something called prayer that can clean our deepest corrosion. As Mother Teresa said, “prayer changes us, and we change things.”

Prayer is actually the opposite of smoking in the shower. It is something we can do when no one is looking that makes us feel good AND makes us stronger. (It also has fewer calories than a bagel slathered with cream cheese and smoked salmon.)

Don’t let your choices in private corrode who you are in public.

Dig your foundations deep. Build your life on worthy, noble virtues. Make your stand on the rock of prayer. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you’ve built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That’s where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”

 

“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us, and we change things.”

 —Mother Teresa

 

Empowerment Hope

Grace Bats Last

This piece was also featured as one of my award-winning nationally syndicated columns for Gannett Media. 

I believe in the church of baseball.

Okay, yeah, I’ve written two baseball-themed columns back to back. And yeah, I stole that opening line from the movie Bull Durham. However, I’m not the only one who has said it or believes it. The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald called baseball “the faith of fifty million people.”

The idea is not that far off. If we look closely, there are helpful parallels between the sport of baseball and the spiritual path. Given the nature of our times, I’d say we could use help anywhere we can find it.

For example, in baseball and in life, there will always be a jeering crowd—people who love to scream judgment and ridicule, people who would rather destroy than delight in something great. I’m reminded of this old saying: “Beware of the masses, for sometimes the ‘m’ falls off.”

Babe Ruth experienced that when he stepped up to the plate in game three of the 1932 World Series. The Chicago crowd went crazy, yelling insults and even throwing lemons onto the field. Standing in the batter’s box and taking the full force of the insults, Babe suddenly called for a timeout. He stepped out of the box and pointed his bat toward center field, as if he were calling his shot—as if he were saying to everyone there, “Nothing you can do can touch me.”

After a moment, he stepped back in the box, and the pitcher, Charles Root, wound up and flung his best curveball at him. Babe connected with an earthquake-like crack, and the ball soared deep into center field, just where he had predicted. It was the longest home run in Wrigley Field history.

The lesson? Never let the crowd bully you into believing you are less than you are. As Isaiah 43:1 reminds us, “I have called you by your name; You are Mine.”

Another spiritual lesson from baseball is that we do not play alone. We always have a team surrounding us, even though sometimes we don’t see them.

It’s like the story about Yankees’ broadcaster Phil Rizzuto. One day, his colleague looked at Phil’s scorecard in the booth and saw “WW”—a notation he didn’t recognize. He asked Phil, “What is this?” And Phil replied, “Oh, wasn’t watching.”

When you aren’t watching, it can feel like you are all alone at the plate. However, if you step back and look at the whole field, you will see the team surrounding you. As Psalm 91:11 says, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”

The author Anne Lamott inspires a third spiritual lesson from baseball with her words, “Grace bats last.” In baseball lingo, people would say, “Grace bats cleanup.” The cleanup batter is always the fourth one in the lineup. The aim is to get the first three batters on base; then, with the bases loaded, the strongest hitter steps up.

We all know that feeling of working and sweating but ultimately reaching the point at which we can do no more. The crowd is jeering. We feel alone. We are being pitched nothing but curve balls and sliders. Nothing short of a miracle will do. In that moment, we must have faith that the strongest hitter—grace—will step in and bring us safely home. As Matthew 19:26 tells us, “With God all things are possible.”

Where do you hear the jeering crowds?

When do you feel most alone?

What miracle do you await?

Yes, I believe in the church of baseball, and all of God’s houses—sports, spiritual, or otherwise. They all offer us lessons that can help us through. So, when you’re surrounded by doubters and the bases are loaded, remember that the jeering crowd can’t touch you.

You are part of a team for which grace bats last.

Empowerment Hope

If You Build It, They Will Come

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

 

There are two ways to see life during times of trouble: pain or possibility. Don’t believe me? Then, believe Jesus and Kevin Costner.

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells the story of a landowner who entrusts his three servants with talents (currency) while he is away. He gives five talents to the first servant, who invests it and returns ten talents. Two talents are given to the second servant, who also invests and doubles his money. But the third servant, who receives one talent, is afraid, and he buries the money and returns only what he was given. The landowner shames him for not investing his gift.

Jesus’ lesson from this parable (among many) is that you must share, not bury, your God-given gifts. But there’s another important aspect of this story: There are NO exceptions. As with the third servant who buries his talent, fear is not an excuse. We might be unemployed, mourning the loss of a loved one, sitting in a chemo chair, or facing the prospect of a long, hard winter living through a global pandemic, but we still have the duty of making something of the gifts we’ve been given.

This brings us to our second piece of evidence: Kevin Costner who plays Ray Kinsella in the movie Field of Dreams. Kinsella’s Iowa farm is in crisis, and in that place of fear, he has two choices (similar to what we see in the parable): sell the farm back to the bank as is or take what his family has and build it into something more—a baseball diamond in their cornfield, a field of dreams.

Ray chooses the latter—taking what they have and building it into something more—thanks to three lessons whispered to him by a mysterious voice coming out of the cornfield.

The first thing the voice says is “ease his pain,” which for Ray means looking past his own fear to ease the pain of his late father. This lesson sounds counterintuitive, as it’s easy to think that when we are in pain, we should hunker down and focus on our own misery. However, the best way to ease our own pain is take our eyes off ourselves, and use our gifts to ease the pain of others.

A second lesson offered by the voice is “go the distance.” Like Ray and his farm, we, too, are in crisis—our lives turned upside down by COVID-19, our schools and children struggling, wildfires running rampant, and racial tensions at record highs. But even in the worst of circumstances, we must go the distance to live our gifts fully. As Hebrews 12:1 tells us, “We must run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

The third and final lesson is a phrase familiar to us all: “If you build it, he will come.” In the movie, that means building a baseball diamond in a cornfield where players of past eras would return, including his father. But what does it mean for us?

Here’s what it meant for a dear friend of mine. Pastor Ned Lenhart is the father of a beautiful, talented teen-aged daughter who also happens to have Down syndrome. When she auditioned for her high school choir, she was told that there was no place for her. Ned and his wife Jill then took that pain and made it into their own field of dreams by forming Hearts in Harmony, an adaptive show choir for special needs kids throughout their Wisconsin community.

-What pain are you in right now?

-Who else is suffering like you?

-How can you use your gifts and talents to ease their pain and build something great?

Whatever you are facing right now, know that there is a way to turn your pain into possibility. Go the distance. Ease someone’s pain. Share your talents no matter what the circumstances. Truly, if you build it, they will come.

 

 

Empowerment Kindness Self care

Love Your Neighbor . . . Unless Your Neighbor is a Squirrel

This was also featured as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City

as well as a nationally syndicated column with Gannett. 

I am an ordained minister who is expected to teach people to “Love your neighbor.”

And I do.

But recently, I found an exception to that rule. Love your neighbor . . . unless your neighbor is a squirrel.

My discovery happened several weeks ago, when my husband, Toby, placed a fresh loaf of sourdough bread on our kitchen counter to cool. We left to run errands, only to return to find a giant hole gnawed through the kitchen screen and my enemy, the squirrel, sitting on the counter. While his eyes conveyed a “who me?” look, his bread-stuffed cheeks told the full story. Furious, we chased him around the house until Toby caught him in a fishing net and tossed his furry behind out of our home.

We repaired the screen, but several days later, the same thing happened again. A week later, we installed “chew proof” screen, and that afternoon, we discovered my now ARCH-enemy, the squirrel, with his head buried in a casserole of mac and cheese cooling on the counter.

Mac and cheese, people.

The book of Revelations 6:8 talks about such things: “And I looked, and behold a pale squirrel . . . and hell followed with him.”

Or was it a horse?

Either way. While you may not have a furry creature breaking into your home and eating your mac and cheese and sourdough bread, but we all have our squirrels—the things that wiggle their way into our psyche and eat at the good things in our life, the things that devour our sense of happiness and wellbeing before we even have time to taste them.

Maybe it’s the squirrel that sits on your shoulder and chatters that you don’t have enough money saved, that you might lose your job, or that you might not be able to pay your rent.

Maybe it’s the squirrel that burrows its way into every waking moment with worries that the tickle in the back of your throat is an early COVID-19 symptom.

Or maybe it’s the worry that your child, or you as a teacher, may have to return to the petri dish of a classroom this fall.

Whatever your squirrels, you must find a way to keep them at bay before they devour everything good and sustaining around you.

My suggestion? Follow our blueprint.

First, do what you can to screen out your squirrels. That may mean turning off the news every once in a while so you can avoid the headlines blaring at you 24/7. It could mean stopping the constant scrolling through social media posts. And it definitely means screening out the negative, judgmental people in our lives. (Can I have an amen?)

It’s amazing what a strong screen can do to hold at bay the things that gnaw away at our happiness.

But as Toby and I found out, squirrels can still get through even the strongest screens. That’s when you need a strong hand to toss them out of your house.

One such hand is a strong sense of self. Loving your neighbor doesn’t mean loving someone or something to the point of your own destruction. It doesn’t mean leaving your windows open so that the world can come in and eat away at your happiness. Remember, the commandment “Love your neighbor” came with a crucial counterbalance: Love your neighbor . . . as yourself.

While personal boundaries are important, Psalm 34:4 shares the most powerful hand we can find: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” God is the only one who knows all the nooks and crannies where those pesky squirrels can hide. All we have to do is acknowledge our fear and ask for help. Then God will usher out the most troublesome invaders.

The moral of the story? Protect the good things in your life. Screen out your squirrels. And when the screen can’t hold, find a strong hand to toss them out. You are worthy of joy, and as a child of God, you have the right to all the mac and cheese life has to offer.

Empowerment Hope Justice Uncategorized

Little House on the Pandemic

When I hear the word “pioneer,” I think of Rosa Parks, John Glenn, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Whether on the frontiers of racial justice, space, or the Midwestern plains, pioneers have always drawn our imagination and inspired our respect. It’s no wonder that Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie became a wildly popular television series during the 1970s and 80s. The New York Times even listed it as suggested comfort viewing during the pandemic.

And why not? The pioneers in Little House on the Prairie were brave people uprooted from their familiar lives and surrounded by a vast, unknown territory. And today, we find ourselves in the exact same position: uprooted from our familiar lives by a rampant virus and surrounded by a vast, unknown territory permanently transformed by COVID-19. In fact, many of us probably feel that we are living on the set of “Little House on the Pandemic.”

But COVID-19 is not our only new world. We are in the midst of a new world of racial reckoning. We are on the cusp of a new world of globalization, environmental deterioration, political altercations, and personal aggravation. Even the tax deadline has been changed!

We are the new pioneers. And we must find our way by embracing the ways of those pioneers who have gone before.

There’s an old saying that to discover new lands, you have to be willing to lose sight of the shore for a very long time. In short, finding a new path means giving up the old one. The early pioneers understood this. They founded this country through blood, sweat, and tears. They made colossal mistakes and monumental discoveries. They all gave up something dear—their homes, their families, their livelihoods, even their lives—for the dream of something better.

To move into our new world, we, too, must give up something dear. Living through COVID-19 is like being on a wagon train that just left the last outpost and is plodding through a territory that is vast, unknown, and dangerous. To survive—and hopefully thrive—we will have to release our attachments to “the way things were.” That is the horizon of which we must lose sight if we are to discover new lands. It’s a loss that must be mourned. But in letting go of the old, we can begin to believe in something new.

Like freedom.

In theory (emphasis on “theory”) that’s the idea upon which this country was based, as evidenced in the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

And yet, how far we’ve strayed. We aren’t welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses. We are walling them out. Or worse, bringing in those yearning to be free and indenturing them. That’s the reality now, and it has been for hundreds of years of our American history.

But the dream isn’t lost just because of our history and current reality. We, as the new pioneers, must hold on to the vision of something better: our belief in a disease-free, post-pandemic world, our faith in the possibility of a racially just world in which everyone breathes free.

That’s the dream that gleams on the horizon. But let’s be clear: Just because that dream beckons, that doesn’t mean we will get there. Between us and the promised land, there is some harsh territory that we must traverse. It will take blood, sweat, and tears. It will take colossal mistakes and monumental discoveries.

But we can do it.

We are strong, and we are brave.

So let us fortify our little house on the pandemic, and homestead in the wilderness of racial reckoning. Let us let go of the old and give birth to the new. Let us turn and head into the unknown together, so that eventually, we can create a better world on the other side.

Hope Justice Kindness

All You Need is Love, a Tiara, and a Cupcake

How do you hold on to hope in the midst of despair?

To answer that question, you can read the seven trillion self-help books on Amazon, or you can spend hours listening to YouTubes and Ted Talks.

My preference, however, is to go the simple route. All you need is love, a tiara, and a cupcake.

Let’s start with the cupcake. Who doesn’t love a cupcake? Maybe it reminds us of childhood. Maybe we just love sweets. Maybe it’s because it’s tiny. Whatever the reason, a cupcake just makes us smile.

We all have our own cupcake—that person, place, or thing that brings lightness and joy. What’s yours?

Of course, some of you may be thinking that given the state of the world, you just can’t smile. You don’t even remember what makes you smile. I get it. But when I need a way to remember my smile, I read Psalms 43:5: “O my soul, why be so gloomy and discouraged? Trust in God! I shall again praise him for his wondrous help; he will make me smile again, for he is my God!”

So, we start by remembering our cupcake, our inherent gift of joy. Then, we need a tiara. Everybody knows that you need a little swagger to wear a tiara. You need a little pride in yourself to wear a crown. These days, however, pride is hard won in the fight against the constant shame of the world.

People love to shame. But we also know, at least intellectually, that the need to shame comes from that person’s own shame. It comes out of their own fear, their own self-loathing, their resentment about what’s not right in their life.

Here’s the good news: we all have the power to refuse to be shamed. Again, hear the Psalmist, this time in Psalm 34:5: “Those who look to the Lord are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.”

Our pride comes from the knowledge that we are perfect and beloved children of God. In other words, when we were born, God crowned us with a radiant tiara—a holy stamp of approval, a sign of our belonging. And when we refuse to be shamed, that tiara shines like a beacon declaring our holy worth. Just as important, it reminds others that they, too, have the power to refuse to be shamed.

And so we find our cupcake, put on our holy tiara, and then march out into the midst of the world’s excruciating pain and begin to love.

Recently, I received an extraordinary email from a woman of color in my congregation. She said, “Right now is such a tumultuous time, but I have hope because among all this unrest, human compassion has never shined brighter.”In the crosshairs of racist violence, it was love that kept her hope alive.

Brothers and sisters, the power of human compassion—of love—is dazzling. It can build bridges, mediate anger, and comfort our fearful hearts. Never has the world needed it more.

The human heart is an amazing thing. Science has estimated that within an average human lifespan, it beats approximately 2 billion times.

Here’s my question: How do you want to spend them?

Do you want your heart burning through those beats in fear, stress, and anger?

Or do you want every one of those precious rhythms to be a beat of love, compassion, and kindness?

It’s a painful, aching time in this life. But even now, we can be brave and cling to hope. Out of the chaos of these times can come a better day. And it’s up to us—you and me—to usher that day in.

Find your joy, don your radiance, and open your arms in compassion. In the end, remember that it’s just three simple things can change the world: love, a tiara, and a cupcake.

 

— A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian, Baptist minister (and Harley rider), Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City and the author of three books, including her newest, “Miracle on 31st Street: Christmas Cheer Every Day of the Year – Grinch to Gratitude in 26 Days!” Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

Hope Kindness Laughter Self care

Put on Your Mask . . . and Smize!

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

 

Going to the grocery store these days makes me feel like I’m one of the astronaut characters in the movie The Martian. Just this morning, my husband and I made our once-every-two-weeks early morning trip to the Fairway Market on Second Avenue and 30thStreet in New York City. Donning masks and rubber gloves, we left our apartment with two backpacks, a rolling cart, and several container bags, just as if we were preparing for an interplanetary mission.

Of course, everyone else who was out and about on their own Mars mission was wearing a mask too, but this morning, we noticed something different. While most people kept a fairly flat facial expression behind their mask as they passed, one young woman looked up and smiled. Instinctively, both my husband and I smiled back at her.

How do I know she smiled? Because she smized.

For those of you who are not fans of the television show America’s Next Top Model, “smize” is slang for “smiling with your eyes.” First coined by the host of the show, supermodel Tyra Banks, “smize” combines the word smile with the sound of the word eyes. In these days of COVID-19 and the new era of masks, what could be more important than to smize?

Smiling (or smizing, these days) can transform our entire outlook. 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.

For example, scientists have discovered that when a person smiles, it triggers physiological changes in the brain that cool the blood, which in turn controls our mood, which causes a feeling of happiness. Translation: we can change our inward emotion by changing our outward expression.

And that’s just the beginning. What we feel in our hearts manifests itself in our behavior, and how we act over time is what we become. 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.

I think of the famous lyrics by Louis Armstrong: “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” Armstrong was onto something, as neuroscience has shown that merely seeing a smile (or a frown) activates mirror neurons in the brain that mimic the emotion. Translation: When someone smiles at us, we smile back, and vice versa. And now, thanks to my empirical research on the way to the grocery store, we know that seeing a smile expressed through the eyes has the exact same effect.

This idea has caught on in a number of industries, including the hospitality business. For example, both Walt Disney World and the Ritz Carlton use what’s called the 10/5 Rule. When hotel employees are within ten feet of a guest, they must make eye contact and smile. When they get within five feet of the guest, they must say hello. The bottom line? Joy is contagious.

Here’s the moral of the story: Just because you are wearing a mask and feeling like you are on a Mars mission doesn’t mean you can’t feel and share joy. In fact, this is a time when we need joy more than ever!

Try it this week. Put on your mask and smize! As my dear friend Rabbi Bob Alper once said,“when we are called to our maker, we will each be held responsible for all the opportunities for joy that we ignored.”

— 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 and the author of three books, including her newest, “Miracle on 31st  Street: Christmas Cheer Every Day of the Year – Grinch to Gratitude in 26 Days!” Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

Hope Justice

Be Like the Little Children

I was awakened this morning by the sound of helicopters overhead. Turning on the news, I heard that the Macy’s flagship store had been vandalized – just three blocks from us and Madison Avenue Baptist Church. An hour later, I went outside to find that a “666” had been spray-painted on the side of our apartment/hotel building and a local coffee shop next door to the church had been broken into. The windows of the building in which I live are being boarded-up by the owners for protection. And this morning we boarded up the outside stained-glass windows of the church as well.

As a white woman clergy watching these protests engulf our country, I am painfully aware of my lack of awareness for what my black and brown brothers and sisters are feeling in this moment, and have felt for generations under the anvil of racism. I am angry about the continuing injustice and violence toward people of color and the lack of concern that seems to ooze from our leaders.

I am also angry and disgusted at the destruction of the small businesses and legitimate family enterprises that are being looted and destroyed. While I realize that the damage is being perpetrated by a small minority, I still wonder — why would one tear down one’s own community in protest? Why harm your brothers and sisters? Then again, if you feel the system has failed you to the point that your people are being systematically slain . . . how could you not?

From the riots, to the police violence, to the ugly inflammatory language being publicly Tweeted about – brothers and sisters, we are better than this.

I can only ask that we raise prayers in support of our nation and each other. And I share this vignette to help us remember that there is hope . . . if only through the next generation.

Last year, I was in the Atlanta airport waiting on a flight and I noticed a Muslim woman of color in full burka with two boys and a girl between the ages of three and five. The kids, also in traditional clothing, were nestled on the floor watching a video. Across from them was a white woman with a little boy, also about five. She occasionally eyed the woman in the burka with what looked like suspicion.

After a few minutes, when his mother wasn’t watching, the little boy slowly sneaked over behind the Muslim kids and began watching their video. Something funny happened in the piece and he and the other kids started giggling. Without hesitation, he sat down, curled up beside the little girl and kept watching. Without even looking up, the little girl turned the iPhone a bit, so he could see it. The moms looked down, looked up at each other, then smiled and shrugged.

Those kids didn’t allow the differences — clothes, race, nationality, religion — to prevent them from finding common ground. And that, my friends, is what could happen in our world.

Could happen.

But we have to be the ones to make it happen. And it starts with us white people. It will take a calm faith and righteous fighting – of the racism in the world and in our own hearts – to win the day. But if we remember the children – the next generation for whom we are fighting . . .  justice can and will roll down.

“And Jesus said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'”   (Matthew 18:3).