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.

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).

Empowerment Gratitude Hope Kindness Self care

In the Shelter of Your Wings

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

During this COVID-19 crisis, I’m drawing inspiration from an unexpected source. It isn’t quiet meditation, connecting with loved ones via Zoom, or even large quantities of Lipton’s French onion soup dip with Ruffles (my go-to emotional balm).

Nope. My greatest sense of calm is found—every day—at Dollywood.

I’m not talking about the rollercoaster or waterpark. Unbeknownst to many, Dollywood has the largest exhibit of non-releasable bald eagles in the country. Better yet, in that sanctuary, tucked inside an eagle’s nest, is a live webcam. And every day while I work, I keep the webcam broadcast playing in the background.

As I write this column, I am watching the mother eagle (named Glenda by the sanctuary) use her wings to shelter a tiny, fuzzy, greyish fluffball that looks like an earmuff with claws. The fluffball (whom I have affectionately named Sam) has had his breakfast, pooped, and is taking a nap. Glenda is snuggling sleeping Sam and nibbling on some dirt.

My blood pressure is at an all-time low.

Apparently, I’m not alone. All across the country—and the world—people are tuning in not just to eagle web-cams, but to all types of live nature videos. There are puppy cams, kitten cams, and panda cams. There is a jellyfish cam at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There is even a live solar-powered safari cam posted next to a remote watering hole in Kenya.

Why wouldn’t we be drawn to such things? We are sheltered-in-place. We are craving nature, normalcy, routine, and comfort. And what better way to meet those needs than to watch the Earth continue to turn, the sun continue to rise, and creation continue to go about its business, oblivious to a global pandemic, undisturbed by a wildly fluctuating market, and utterly unmindful of what the future holds?

For me, this eagle webcam offers a powerful reminder of the importance of the basics. Glenda and Sam’s day is simple. Glenda’s duty is to keep Sam safe, warm and fed. Sam’s job is to eat, sleep, stay alive, and grow. Occasionally, the dad, Grant, shows up with food and takes a turn with Sam, but the routine is the same.

It’s too bad our priorities as human beings aren’t as focused. It’s easy to lose our way in the avalanche of alarms, noise, news, and demands of our current world order. But what really matters in the end is the same for us as it is for the eagles: caring for our loved ones, creating a safe, nurturing home, staying warm and fed, and ensuring that we eat, sleep, stay alive, and grow.

The rest is gravy.

I’m reminded of the many biblical images of eagles as guardians. “The lord shielded him and cared for him . . . like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young” (Deuteronomy 32:10-11). One of my favorite passages is from Psalm 57: “Have mercy on me, oh God, have mercy. For in you, my soul takes refuge. In the shadow of your wings I take refuge. Until the destroying storms pass by.”

Apropos at this moment, Sam is peeking out from under Glenda’s wing. All you can see is his head; the rest of his body is nestled under hers, taking refuge, toasty and protected. Truly, that tiny eaglet has what every human being yearns for, longs for, aches for: to be safely surrounded by love, life, and belonging.

When this pandemic is over, I hope to drive down to Tennessee to see Glenda, Grant, and even Sam if he’s still there. Or, perhaps, a new fluffball will be snuggled next to Glenda as the cycle of life continues. In the meantime, I’ll just continue to write while watching from afar . . . a mother eagle and her eaglet in the shelter of her wings.

— 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 31stStreet: Christmas Cheer Every Day of the Year – Grinch to Gratitude in 26 Days!” coming May 3, 2020. Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

 

 

 

Gratitude Hope Kindness Risk and Reinvention

Healing the Humbug

This piece is a sample chapter from my new book:

Miracle on 31st Street: Christmas Cheer Every Day of the Year – Grinch to Gratitude in 26 Days!  

COMING MAY 3RD on AMAZON!

 

To add a little punch to this meditation, grab a keychain or anything else that will make a rattling noise. Drop it on a hard surface for a sound effect every time you encounter the word “CHAINS.”

 

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Scrooge. Not the newer versions. I love the one with the great British actor Albert Finney as Scrooge and Alec Guinness (Ben Kenobi in TheEmpire Strikes Back) as Marley, Scrooge’s late business partner. As you probably remember, the movie is based on A Christmas Carolby Charles Dickens.

The story begins with Marley’s ghost returning to warn Scrooge about the dangers of ignoring Christmas, forgetting charity and joy, and wrapping ourselves up in want and worry.

His ghost stands in Scrooge’s bedroom, rattling his chains and wailing, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link. Yard by yard. I girded it of my own free will, and by my own free will I wore it.”

(CHAINS)

I know how he feels. Maybe you do, too. Have you ever gotten out of bed and felt like you were dragging three hundred yards of heavy iron chains with you? Maybe you were dragging the chains of self-doubt. Perhaps you were straining and pulling the chains of worry. You might have slogged through some days with the chains of greed and selfishness. Other days, you might have clanked around with the particularly heavy chains of anger, resentment, and fear. Scrooge knew all about that.

(CHAINS)

After Marley visits Scrooge, three additional ghosts (past, present, and future) appear to take Scrooge on a painfully raw inventory of his life, his choices, and his changes—all in an effort to warn him off his destructive path before it is too late.

The first ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Past, shows Scrooge how he began to forget Christmas early on in his life. He chose work and money over love, family, and happiness. “Humbug!” he would say to these things. “Bah, humbug.”

The second ghost shows him that as the years went by, those choices changed him. Scrooge watches how he became withdrawn, sullen, selfish, and judgmental. Over time, he turned into a person who resented the happiness of those around him. He became a person who couldn’t feel joy.

Then the scariest of all—the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—arrives to show him that those changes will have consequences. For example, in this future world, Tiny Tim dies because Scrooge doesn’t pay his dad enough to get medical care. But the suffering isn’t only about others. The last thing the ghost shows him is a graveyard, where a cheap tombstone on an isolated, unkept grave bears his name.

We see Scrooge’s life as a chain reaction of choices, changes, and consequences, and in the end, Scrooge’s chain is far longer than Marley’s.

(CHAINS and add a “Humbug!”)

I’d like to say that we can leave that scary moment at the movie theater, but in fact, we forge the same chains in life. We all make choices, some good and some bad, and that’s fine. But when we continually repeat the bad choices, that’s when we forge the first link. And over time, that link becomes two links, then three, then ten, then fifty. And before you know it, you’re dragging one heavy weight.

It’s then that your mood and personality start to change. People around you begin to be affected. And to all things good and true, you say “Humbug!” As the great essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “[I]t behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

Dickens was right—for Scrooge and for all of us. Every once in a while, we must take a “Marley test.” We must periodically ask ourselvesthis: If we were visited by the ghost of ourChristmas past, the ghost of our Christmas present, and the ghost of our Christmas future . . . what would we see? What choices have we made over the years? What have we prioritized? And, most importantly, if we keep going down the same path, where will we end up?

(CHAINS)

These are sobering questions, but here’s the good news. The story doesn’t end at the cheap tombstone on an isolated, unkept grave. There is still a chance to heal the humbug.

Ultimately, Scrooge awakes with his arms wrapped around his bedpost and realizes that he has gotten his wish. He has gotten a second chance! And from that moment on, he lives differently, sees the world differently, treats other and himself differently.

The moral of the story? It’s never—ever—too late to change. I don’t care how old you are, how entrenched you’ve become, or how many chains you have forged. It’s never too late to alter a decision, change your mind, make amends, take a new path, pursue a long-lost dream, or find love again. Re-evaluating our choices and priorities is like adjusting the rudder of a great ship. The slightest movement can change its entire course.

Sometime today, set aside a few moments to take the Marley test. Look at your past choices, your present priorities, and the future consequences of both.

(CHAINS)

If you don’t like what you’re seeing, then remember it’s not the end of the story.

We can find hope again. We can change our ways. We can change our life and thus change our world. All we have to do is tap into that place in our hearts that is full of good tidings and great joy.

All we have to do is heal the humbug.

Empowerment Hope Kindness

God Is Not Sheltered-in-Place

This column was recently featured in The Christian Citizen

It’s official. ZooBorns win!

At a time when many of us—soon most of us—are sheltered in our homes, life has become an ongoing contest about how to stay connected (and sane). After much deliberation, my newest winner is the YouTube site ZooBornsthat features fuzzy, newborn zoo animals.

This week: baby otters from Australia.

When we are “sheltered-in-place,” we’re in a constant fight to keep our momentum, to keep our hearts buoyed, and to keep our sense of belonging and community. Even the smallest things can affect it, such as staying in your pajamas too long. While it is tempting to drape a colorful scarf over your cowgirl pajamas to field a conference call (I’ve heard), it may not be the best long-term plan.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, “going through an entire day in loungewear, it is easy to lose yourself and your sense of purpose and focus.” The article goes on to explain that getting dressed in the mornings “reminds us we are part of something.”

So, we get dressed and watch our newborn zoo animals, but there is still something significant missing. There’s a hole in our hearts that can’t be filled by Calvin Klein or soothed by baby otters. It’s a void that can only be filled by the one thing that never shelters-in-place: God.

If you have any doubt about this statement, spend thirty seconds flipping through one of the great ancient works of wisdom: the Bible.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened . . . for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.(Joshua 1:9)

The Lord your God is in your midst.(Zephaniah 3:17)

Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.(Matthew 28:20)

Notwithstanding the separation created by sheltered, earthly walls, we are all intimately connected through the presence of God. That is the common thread that holds our humanity together, a thread that will remain intact forever.

God is in our midst. And coronavirus or not, the power of God surrounds us. The evidence is everywhere . . . if we look.

For example, while we are surrounded with illness and infection, we are also celebrating the first days of spring. In fact, according to the Farmers’ Almanac, it’s the earliest first day of spring in more than 100 years.

All you have to do is look out your windows. Tiny yellow forsythias are starting to bloom. Brilliantly colored tulips are sprouting. Pigeons are starting to do embarrassingly intimate things on rooftops. Spring is springing.

God—life—is not sheltered-in-place.

It reminds me of the ending of the movie How The Grinch Stole Christmas—specifically, of the scene in which the Whos down in Whoville burst into song without the trappings of Christmas: “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.”

So, too, even in the midst of a global pandemic, the power of God—the power of hope, love, and compassion—bursts forth in our world. And just like in the movie, it’s here without restaurants; it’s here without bars; it’s here without Broadway, gyms, or NASCAR.

Every day, God bursts forth in our world. From sheltered-in-place residents singing to each other across balconies in Italy, to Canadians “caremongering” for those in need, to two young cellists who gave a concert on an elderly woman’s porch so that she could enjoy the music while homebound, evidence of God’s presence through human kindness is everywhere.

Scott Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut who spent a year isolated on the International Space Station, put it like this:

“Seen from space, the Earth has no borders. The spread of the coronavirus is showing us that what we share is much more powerful than what keeps us apart, for better or for worse. All people are inescapably interconnected . . .  One of the side effects of seeing Earth from the perspective of space, at least for me, is feeling more compassion for others. As helpless as we may feel stuck inside our homes, there are always things we can do . . . . “

Perhaps the most poignant example I have witnessed came from within my own congregation. One of our newest babies, appropriately named Hope, was born in early November with a significant heart defect. So far, she has survived two open-heart surgeries and numerous hospitalizations and procedures. This week, her mom wrote me that in the midst of their family’s unimaginable pain and fear, something remarkable happened: baby Hope learned to laugh.

To laugh.

Within that little family, within our communities, within our nation, and within our troubled world, hope is springing forth.

Joy is springing forth.

Life is springing forth.

And yet, while these words and stories carry some power, it is still easy to get discouraged, to ask why me? Why now? That line of thinking is a waste of our precious, much-needed energy. It is the siren-call of ego and insecurity. It is a decoy created from anger and fear.

Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ringsoffers the best response:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not   for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given  us.”

Brothers and sisters get out of your pajamas and put on your clothes. Watch a few minutes of ZooBorns, then turn to the work at hand. Discover new ways to connect. Find ways to heal yourself and others. While we may be confined to our homes, the one who created us is not. Latch onto that life force. Leverage that connection, and always remember that God is not sheltered-in-place.

 

Empowerment Hope Kindness

THIS JUST OUT: Coronavirus and Kindness Are Both Contagious!

 

The Bible says to love your neighbor.

Alternatively, some people on this earth apparently believe that the Bible says love your neighbor unless you are in a pandemic and shopping for groceries.

Last week I saw this real time in my local store. Tempers were hot, anxiety was high, and people were just down right rude. There was a butcher who seemed to be the target of much of the anger, as the store had simply sold out of much of their stock. When I finally got to the front of the line at the meat counter and saw his face, I just involuntarily blurted out, “Are you okay?” and tears began to stream down his face.

Love your neighbor has no exceptions. No time limits. No restrictions on circumstances. Of all the times we need to be kind to each other—to our families, to our friends, to our community, to strangers—it’s now. Kindness benefits not only the person to whom we offer it but ourselves.

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, there is scientific evidence to show that when a person smiles, it triggers physiological changes in the brain that cool the blood, which in turn controls our mood, which in the end causes a feeling of happiness. Translated: we can change our inward emotion by changing our outward expression.

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.” Louis was onto something, as science has proven those lyrics to be true. Neuroscience has shown that merely seeing a smile (or a frown) activates mirror neurons in the brain that mimic the emotion. Translated: When someone smiles at us, we smile back. And vice versa.

This research has caught on in a number of industries, including the hospitality industry. For example, Walt Disney World as well as the Ritz Carlton use what’s called the 10:5 Rule. When a hotel employee is 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. Bottom line? A virus is contagious, but so is kindness.

While the restrictions on social distancing may prevent us from offering a smile in person, we can share kindness in other ways. Pick up the phone. Call three people a day to check on how they are. Pick up a pen. Write one letter a day to tell someone you care. Pick up a world map, put your finger on a place you’ve never been, then raise up a prayer for a stranger in that land who is fighting the virus.

We can still maintain community while being apart. It is about being contagious with our kindness by connecting our hearts, our spirits, and our prayers. It is about loving your neighbor at all times without exception. And when fear takes over and kindness wanes, remember the words of the mystic Julian of Norwich, who herself lived through a pandemic in the 1300s, and yet, wrote these words of kindness and hope from the isolation of her monastic cell:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

 

— 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 Preaching Punchlines. 

Empowerment Gratitude Kindness

Sarah’s Purse

I always knew it would be a great day when Sarah Goodson walked through the door of our church carrying her big purse. Raised during the Depression on a share-cropper’s farm in the South Carolina low country, Sarah loved two things in this life more than anything: her family and taking care of others. She moved to New York City in the 1940s to give her family a better life, and she became a nurse in order to care for others.

She shaped her life around making those two things a priority, including what she carried in her purse.

I’m not going to kid you, I love all my congregation, but I especially loved to see Sarah coming in with her big ole purse because I knew what was in it. After each service, she would open that overstuffed pocketbook and pull out the newest photos of her grandkids (not individual photos, but books of photos). Then, as the picture albums were being passed around, little Ziploc bags and Tupperware containers would magically emerge from that purse—bags full of fried chicken, collard greens, shrimp and okra gumbo, oxtail stew, hot corn muffins with blueberries, and, of course, peanut butter pie.

One time I asked Sarah how she got all that stuff in her purse, and she told me about a ritual she performed every Saturday night. She would sit at her kitchen table, remove all the extra, heavy junk in her bag that she had collected during the week, then fill it back up with the important things: photos of her grandkids and food to feed her church.

It was such a simple thing, cleaning out a purse. Yet it had such an impact—the smiles on people’s faces as they looked at the photos of the grandchildren and the comfort felt by all who ate that delicious food made with pure love.

Perhaps we should all do a little Saturday night purse cleaning of our own hearts. Let’s start with this question: What emotional baggage are you carrying today that you should unload?

Everyone’s answer is probably different, but I’m going to pick one that I bet most of us carry: worry. Easy to do, fixes nothing. Rev. Joyce Myers once said, “Worry is like a rocking chair—it’s always in motion, but it never gets you anywhere.”

Worry can take over our lives, crowd out any and all things that matter, even make us sick. But we have an alternative. We can clean out the purse of our heart and hand our worries over to a greater power. Jesus said, “Come to me all ye who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Bottom line: worry or believe. You can’t do both.

This leads to my next question: What will you put in the place of worry? What is important to you? For what purpose are you here?

I suggest that we follow Sarah’s lead in this, too. When I had the great honor of performing Sarah’s funeral after she passed away several years ago, the message that people shared over and over was that she had brought them joy and made them feel loved.

Is there any greater legacy?

This week, I invite you to do a Saturday night purse cleaning in your life. Identify the things that are weighing you down emotionally, physically, or spiritually. Let them go. Then, take your newfound time and energy and focus it on the things that are important. Spend time with your family. Share photographs that make people smile. Stuff a Ziploc bag of yummy food in your purse or pocket and share it with others.

Bring a little love and joy to this hungry world. And do it today. Life is too hard and too short to carry things that just don’t matter.

Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness

We’re in the Same Boat, Brother

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

I love a good blues tune. Part of my affection is driven by the melodies, but it’s the lyrics that get me. Somehow, those haunting, mournful songs manage to capture the immense span of the human condition in tiny, concise sound bites.

For example, one of my favorite blues songs is “We’re in the Same Boat, Brother,”sung by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. In one simple refrain, Lead Belly calls out the human tendency to judge and the long-term dangers of doing so:

We’re in the same boat, brother. And if you shake one end, you’re gonna rock the other.”

We see this song play out in our own lives every day. For example, last Wednesday I was riding in my “boat”: the New York City subway. As usual, everyone was in their own mental space, listening to their music, watching their phone, eyeing their neighbors. We were all locked into seeing the world as divided between “me” and “them.”

Right before my stop, a musician got on, launching into his festive Mariachi music. People began tapping their feet, nodding, even looking at each other and smiling. All of a sudden, there was no “me” and “them.” The entire car had become “we.”

For a fleeting moment, we were one, united in enjoying this lively music. Then the train stopped; the musician got off, and we all closed back into ourselves, reverting to “me” and “them.”

It’s a sad truth that as human beings, we tend to default to “me” and “them.” But we hold the power to change our lens. No matter what boat you find yourself in, whether it’s a New York City subway, a dysfunctional family unit, a difficult work environment, or a massive planet with millions of diverse faces, adopting a more open, compassionate, and universal perspective is possible. It’s all about finding common ground.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained it this way: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This week, I challenge you to look around your boat. How many times do you find yourself seeing your world through the “me” and “them” lens? Think about the person or people against whom you are drawing a boundary, and ask yourself, “What do we share in common? What pain do we both face?”

Here’s another way to approach it: when you read news, make the person in the story resemble you—your race, your ethnicity, your nationality, your religion. Does this change how you feel? If the story is about an unfamiliar place, change the location to your home and your family. Does that alter your perspective?

It is not an overstatement to say that the future of this planet—our future—

is dependent upon our individual and collective decisions. We are a hyper-connected society in which one isolated disruption can quickly ripple through the whole. Just consider the current Coronavirus outbreak—a world health crisis that mandates a collective global effort.

We can no longer afford to live in our artificially manufactured separation. It’s not sustainable, and it’s not right. As the scripture teaches: Love each other like brothers and sisters. Give each other more honor than you want for yourselves . . . Share with God’s people who need help. Bring strangers in need into your homes” (Romans 10:12, 13).

The best teachers of this are the next generation. Watch small children. They don’t see “me” and “them.” They see past color, age, ethnicity, and gender. They see “we.” That’s the greatest legacy we can leave our children—a world that truly is as they see it.

This week, remember the children. Look around your world and find common ground you did not see before. Notice hidden connections. Discover mutual understandings. We’re in the same boat, brother. Now, let’s row it together.