Empowerment Hope

Building Walls

This beautiful piece was written by my friend Brian Crowson, an artist, poet, historian and . . .   wall-builder. 


Over the last few months much has been made in the news about building walls and the question of who will pay for them.  And while the debate over erecting a barrier across our southern border has been rancorous, the idea of using a wall to keep people out – or in – is hardly a new theme.  Just look at the famous walls from our past:  the walls circling the ancient city of Jericho, Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain, the Great Wall of China, and the Berlin Wall.  As a former history teacher, I’ve long been interested in the stories behind these walls.  I even had the opportunity to walk a section of Hadrian’s Wall on a rainy Northumbrian morning many years ago.  But today I’m more interested in walls of a different sort.

Driving through New England, one can’t help but notice miles of stone walls lining the countryside.  Some still delineate clearly the fields and orchards laid down by our hardy ancestors who worked diligently to clear their land of the frost-heaved stones and make a living from the rocky soil.  Others seem to meander through the forests without purpose.  I’m always struck by their apparent permanence – their resistance to time and the effects of weather.  For Robert Frost, these stone walls provided a source for his famous poem, “Mending Wall,” and the line, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Frost may have questioned his neighbor’s wisdom and the need for a wall that only separated apple trees from pines.  Nevertheless, he continued the yearly ritual of walking the wall and making necessary repairs.  Frost understood their significant place in the landscape.

Last October I traveled to the headquarters of The Stone Trust in Putney, Vermont, to acquire the secrets of dry stone wall building – just stones and gravity – while enjoying the colors and advancing chill of autumn.  The Stone Trust is an organization dedicated to preserving the craft of dry stone wall building through teaching a new generation of builders.  I had signed on for a weekend beginner’s class.

After instruction from the Trust’s master craftsmen and about eight hours of deconstructing and rebuilding a section of wall, I must admit that it was very hard work, especially when one tried to muscle a 50-lb. stone into just the right spot.  I learned that building a stone wall is not such a straightforward process.  It requires careful planning, from a level foundation of larger stones to the more decorative smaller stones that often anchor the top.

Yet the most important component in a wall that should stand for a century or more – the part one doesn’t see when driving Vermont’s scenic back roads – lies at the center.  At the heart of any well-made wall is a tightly-packed collection of small stones, usually no larger than one’s fist, called “hearting.”  These stones keep out animals and others pests that like to build their nests in walls, and they limit the collection of excess water that can quickly compromise a wall’s integrity through the seasonal process of freezing and thawing.  Indeed, our instructors repeatedly emphasized that a wall without adequate hearting will fail in a surprisingly short time.

Reflecting on that weekend’s lessons, I’m struck by how the process of constructing a simple stone wall might seem analogous to building one’s faith, especially in the context of the season of Lent, just a few short weeks away.  Many of us will wonder, “what can I give up for Lent,” and the list of possibilities can seem endless:  sugar, Facebook, meat, alcohol, TV, caffeine.  But faced with this prospect of extraction – cutting something out of our lives – we too often give up and abandon such efforts in much the same way we discard New Year’s resolutions.

A few years ago an old friend, an Episcopal priest, suggested an alternative to the usual Lenten ritual.  Rather than giving something up, he suggested, take on something new.  Add a new stone to the wall of your faith, whether that means working on the foundation or adding “hearting” to its core.  Take on a new spiritual discipline.  The choices – just as with giving something up – are legion:  volunteer in your community, recommit to attending church, join a Bible study group, or start a daily prayer routine.  Moreover, recognize that just as erecting a stone wall requires hard work, building our faith requires no less effort.

Empowerment Religion and Spirituality Self care

Not Today Satan!

Last week on vacation, I bought this sign. The obvious reason I bought it? It’s hilarious. But I also found some great wisdom in its words: “Not Today Satan!”

The devil takes all kinds of forms. One sinister form is the negative voices in our heads. The great psychotherapist Carl Jung called these our shadow selves — our weak spots. A voice that says things like you’re not good enough, you’re not important, you’re not loveable. A voice that urges us to be right all the time, to be in control all the time, to think only of ourselves. A voice that steals our grounding, encourages us to make bad decisions or act in destructive ways.

To fight Satan and his corrosive words, I devised a short, sure-fire, three-point plan. It’s quick, easy and it’s simple to remember because the first letters of each step spell P-O-W.

Step #1: P  PIVOT – Pivot out of his line of fire 
It’s a simple concept. In life, if you see you’re about to get hit, you duck. It’s the same with negative voices. We know our weak spots. The things that drive us crazy, that wear us down. When we see them coming – pivot!

If it’s a person – then pivot and walk away.
If it’s the daily headlines, then pivot and take a news break.
If it’s the crazy people on Facebook… then pivot and get off line!

STEP #2: O – Occupy the light
We get so caught up in the dark shadow of negative messages that sometimes we forget what it feels like to walk in the light. Once we pivot out of that shadow, we have to restore ourselves with positive healing. We must occupy the light. It’s like the book of Philippians teaches: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

When we pivot out of the line of fire, and then occupy the light, the devil has no chance. And that’s where step three come in.

Step #3: W – Whack the devil upside the head
I am reminded of two things here. First, Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew: “Get behind me, Satan!” And second, a quote I recently saw on Pinterest:

The devil whispered in my ear,
“You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”
Today I whispered in the devil’s ear,
“I am the storm.”


We can’t afford to let our weak spots weaken us. We can’t afford to burn energy on infighting, and corrosive behavior. There is work to be done. There is life to be lived. So when the shadows come . . . and they will . . . we pivot, stand in the light, and proclaim, “Not Today Satan!”

For the full sermon, check out the YouTube video here!


Atlas Didn’t Shrug

Please mark your calendars for this blog scheduled to appear in Baptist News Global on Friday, January 20, 2017 – Inauguration Day. It puts Any Rand and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in conversation and is entitled, “Atlas Didn’t Shrug: An Inauguration Day Reminder of the Things We Must Hold High.” Here is an excerpt:

Today, we face a world where justice is not sure, where civil rights warriors are disrespected by side-liners who never marched or fought, and where the fate of the poor leans dangerously close to the pages of Atlas Shrugged. As my friend Ken Sehested explained: “It has become too easy to revere the dreamer but renege on the dream.”


A Star is Born

This blog is a transcript of my sermon delivered on December 18, 2016 at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. Video and audio of the sermon can be accessed here.

The title of my sermon is “a star is born.” Now some of you may be worried that I am trying to do a mash-up of the 1970’s movie and Christmas. I am not. That would be just too creepy. Barbara Streisand as Mary? Kris Kristofferson as Joseph? And the baby Jesus played by a young Gary Busey? That’s just wrong.

No, the title of my sermon is “a star is born” because I’m preaching about real stars. The kind that shine from the sky, not the stage.

Obviously with Christmas a week away, we think about the star of Bethlehem rising in the East to mark Jesus’ birth. And this week, I couldn’t stop thinking about that star.

For thousands of years, humanity has been drawn to the light of the stars. Watching the constellations, tracking the paths of the planets, studying the cycle of the sun all in an attempt to understand the great mysteries of life. NASA does it, Galileo did it, and 2000 years ago three Wise Men did it – tracked the stars – in an attempt to find the Messiah.

But the human draw to the heavens is more than just imagination and exploration. It is organic, even hereditary. The stars are our old ones, our wise ones, for we as human beings actually carry their genetic imprint.

Joni Mitchell sang the famous lyrics “we are stardust.” And it turns out she’s right. Literally.

In a recent article, National Geographic news explained that our human bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies. Carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, iron and sulfur—most of the material that we’re made of — comes out of the star dust scattered across the universe kicked off by those explosions. As the article explained, “We have stuff in us as old as the universe.”

Given that we are stardust, we should ask what can we learn from these heavenly bodies. I did a little research this week and let me share with you what I found:

There is a striking parallel between the life cycle of a star                                                                      and the spiritual life cycle of human beings.

There are basically two stages to the life of a star. The first stage is when a star is born. 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 the second stage where the star’s center can’t hold anymore. The star has too little fuel left to maintain its core temperature, so it’s 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.

We’ve all been there.

Sometimes we are in a place in life where we draw our energy toward the light and reflect it warmth and back to all around us. And sometimes 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. The holidays can do that. Between crazy schedules, and job stress, money worries, health issues, worries for our country, worries for our world, not to mention the fact that it’s dark all the time … it’s easy to find ourselves drawn to the darkness.

And just 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. A center that can hold.

William Butler Yeats wrote a poem entitled, “The Second Coming”, and it begins with these words:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Well that’s a lovely upbeat holiday message. Yet we all know that sometimes life can be like that poem. Chaotic, scary, unpredictable, ominous. Kind of like the explosive chaotic energy of a star. And in the midst of the chaos, like that star, we try desperately to hold onto some semblance of a core. Unfortunately, the centers we tend to create won’t hold.

There are all kinds of crazy things that we choose to put in our center that weaken our core. We put titles, and bank accounts, and status and stuff at the center of things. We look to other people—our spouses, partners, friends and family to fill our core. We put ego, anger, resentment and fear at the center.

And we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Just look at our scripture today from Ecclesiastes 2 that lists the types of things King Solomon puts at the center of his life to hold it together:

“I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces . . . So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.”

 But then, in verse 11, Solomon realizes that this earthly center cannot hold. “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”  

Inevitably, there comes a point in life where the things we have put in the center can’t hold anymore. The job won’t last forever, money gets spent, Botox only lasts for three months, the latch on the designer purse will eventually break, marriages falls apart. Like a dying star, when our center can’t hold, the light goes out, and we begin to collapse into the darkness.

We simply must find a center that will hold. And we need look no further than the scriptures to find that center. Consider:

Psalm 55:22 “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.”

Isaiah 40:31 “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”

Matthew 7:24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and DOES them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”

There is the center that will hold, there is a center that will not fall, there is a center that will never collapse. And that center is God.

Our message today reminds me of the 12 step program. The first three steps cut right to what we are talking about — finding a center that will hold.

STEP ONE: We admit we are powerless over ________. Here we fill in our addictions, our weaknesses (alcohol, drugs, anger, food, relationships).

STEP TWO: We believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity – is a center that can hold.

STEP THREE: We turn our will and our lives over to the care of that power.

What do you have in the center of your life? Is it strong enough to hold you through the good times and the bad? If your center is not holding, if your light is starting to go out, go outside and find a place where you can look up into the heavens and remember the stars. Remember how the stars take chaos and turmoil and transform them into light. Remember how their warmth and power is radiated far out into the universe. And most importantly, remember that it was a star that pulled the wise men towards the light – the true light of world.

We have the power to shine as brightly as the stars. In fact, our highest and greatest calling is to be like the stars, to draw our energy toward the light, towards God’s great power in our core, and then send that light back out bringing light and warmth throughout the world.

All we have to do is find a center that will hold.

All we have to do is find a place in our hearts . . . where a star is born.

Hope Religion and Spirituality

Why We Need a Little Christmas

Please enjoy this recent newspaper article from Great Bend, Kansas in which I talk about “Why We Need a Little Christmas.”  Here’s a preview:

“Christmas delivers hope in the form of a baby, and it reminds us not only of that baby’s potential, but our own,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks, pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.

“For 364 days of the year, we are bombarded by news of the inhumanity of the world: the violence, racism, hatred and callous disregard. On this one day, we are reminded that in addition to the inhumanity, we as a people carry a spark of hope and joy,” she said.

“These are gifts bestowed at birth, but often forgotten as life attempts to beat them out of us. Like the balsam tree needles we find six months later behind the couch, Christmas drops a hint of hope on our hearts — a hint that is hard to brush away.”


A Crack is Where the Light Gets In: A perspective on the 2016 election

(This piece was delivered as a post-election sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City on Nov. 13, 2016)

Recently, my husband and I were out in Arizona and Utah. We love that area of the country – red deserts, fantastical rock formations, and, of course, the canyons. Usually, when we think of a canyon, we think of something like the Grand Canyon where there is a gigantic hole in the earth. But there is another type of canyon that is my favorite, and those are called slot canyons.

What makes a slot canyon different is that the top of it is just a small crack – a slot – sometimes only a few feet wide. But hidden below that modest crack is a vast canyon carved over thousands of years by water and floods carrying sharp, abrasive sand, rocks, and debris in its torrents. It forms that way because the rock on the surface is harder than the soft sandstone underneath.

I couldn’t help but think of those canyons when we finally ended what seemed like seven lifetimes of an election cycle. That canyon represented exactly how I felt. The years of sharp, abrasive language, the torrent of accusations, the flood of racist, sexist, xenophobic debris had cracked my otherwise hard surface and begun to erode my core.

I know I’m not alone. This was an election like no other. When is the last time you can remember that the day after an election, the Canadian immigration site crashed?

There was such desperation in the air that the satirist, Andy Borowitz, crafted this headline for the New Yorker Magazine: “Queen offers to restore British rule over United States.”

The impact of the result was exponentially boosted because it felt personal. It certainly did to me as a woman with the sexist, abusive language thrown about like it was everyday dialogue. It clearly felt like that for people of color, for Muslims, for Mexicans, for all minorities as well. It was like no one cared, that no one heard us, that the hate-filled language we had endured for months – years even – didn’t matter, that we didn’t matter.

It’s a bad sensation to feel you don’t matter, to feel you’re not heard. It can produce a corrosive rage that can carve up your insides . . . like a slot canyon in the deserts of Arizona.

There’s another thing, though, about those slot canyons that makes them different from all others. And that is the light. Since the opening on the surface is so narrow, there is very little light that gets in. Everything looks dark, dank, and foreboding until . . . until the sun rises just high enough for a beam to pierce through the opening and the entire place lights up. You can finally see the canyon for what it truly is. Good and bad.

First you see the bad part: scorpions lurking in the shadows, a few lizards, and slithery snake trails in the sand. But you quickly move past those to the good. When the light breaks through, you see the wondrous diversity of colors and layers and strata; beauty that photographers and artists flock to see from all over the globe; things you don’t appreciate until the light breaks through the crack.

This election has cracked us as a people and as a nation. And like that slot canyon, cracks allow in the light. We see things we didn’t necessarily see before. Good and bad.

We see the scorpions, the slithery snakes, the haters, the underbelly of America that we have hoped and prayed never really existed. But the crack lets in the light and shows us they are there.

But there’s something else we see in that light. For through the cracks and brokenness, we also see straight through our core. We are reminded who we truly are as a nation and as a people.

For example, we are Americans. We may not be proud of it at the moment, but we’re still Americans. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote a letter consoling his daughter about the election this week: “America didn’t stop being America last night and we didn’t stop being Americans and here’s the thing about Americans: Our darkest days have always – always – been followed by our finest hours.”

I was reminded of that fact watching the New York City Veterans Day parade. Here we were, just a couple of days after a vicious election cycle that literally tore our country apart, and yet up and down 5th Avenue were waves of soldiers – fellow Americans – people from every race, gender, ethnicity, language, and religion marching in solidarity, commitment, and sacrifice for this nation.

America didn’t stop being America this week because of the politicians and the pundits. These messages of separation and hate are not what this country was built on. It was built on the ideals of freedom and opportunity; it was built on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That never left. And when we look through the cracks and brokenness, we are reminded that it is still at our core.

We are also reminded that at our core we are Christians, which means we fight for justice and equality, shining the light of hope and truth into every crack in the rock of bigotry and hatred we can find. It also means we follow the greatest commandment of all: love thy neighbor.

Of course, Jesus didn’t qualify that commandment along party lines. Everyone (Democrat, Republican, Independent, etc.) is our neighbor. Tragically, an aftermath from this election was a sense that we as Americans aren’t neighbors anymore. Many have said, “We don’t even know our fellow Americans.” Polarized by the media and the politicians into a mentality of us versus them, trampled by the racist, sexist, and bigoted language, it is easy to believe that all those who do not see the election as we do are haters.

Yes, there are racists and misogynists and scorpions in this country. They exist and they are vocal and many are powerful. They were part of this vote. Too much of it, in fact. But in my deepest heart, I don’t believe hate is what drives the majority of Americans. I can’t – for to believe that is to give up all hope.

Frank Bruni, columnist for the New York Times, explained it this way: “Donald Trump’s victory . . . does not mean that a majority of Americans are irredeemable bigots (though too many indeed are). Plenty of Trump voters chose him, reluctantly, to be an agent of disruption, which they craved keenly enough to overlook the rest of him.”

We may abhor that willingness to overlook, we may not agree with the vote, but when the light breaks through the cracks, we start to see that we aren’t the only ones who feel rage. We start to see, perhaps, that many cast their votes out of a familiar place: the personal pain and anger from feeling unheard and unimportant – not hatred of the other. And in order to rebuild, we have to start with what we have in common. As the book of Ephesians tells us, “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” (Ephesians 4:25)

When we look through the cracks and brokenness to our core, we are reminded that we are Americans, that we are Christians, and that we are also Baptist. We are a people whose forbears came together in response to intolerance. Manifestations of that ideal include supporting separation of church and state, advocating for worship free from discrimination, and lifting up respectful dialog as a healthy means to understanding.

One of the most important ideals of the Baptist is soul freedom: the idea that humankind was created by God to be free, to make decisions on their own – even if the decisions turn out to be wrong. This means we can disagree as individuals, but we stay together as family and as a people.

We stay together.

Brothers and sisters, we have two choices going forward: we can allow the corrosive anger to take us down, or we can use it to rebuild a new world. The book of Ephesians also tells us “to be angry, but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Instead of giving up, I say we gear up and use our anger for good.

We have come through a battle, and we are cracked to our core. But while painful, a crack is also how the light gets in.

Let the light remind us of who we are.

Let the light remind us of what we have to do.

And let the light remind us of our most treasured gift: the wondrous diversity of colors and layers and strata of this great nation, beauty we can too easily forget when the sun goes down.


Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

-Anthem, Leonard Cohen (9/21/34–11/7/16)



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