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

Empowerment Hope Risk and Reinvention

Dancing Skeletons

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

 

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

But I knew better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This reminds me of a skeleton joke:

Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road?

He didn’t have the guts.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gratitude Hope Justice

A Veteran’s Day Message

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

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

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

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

My experience was a bit different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Breast Cancer and the “F” Bomb

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

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

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

“Faith.”

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

Faith is the key.

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Empowerment Risk and Reinvention Self care

The Long Way Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or perhaps injury has forced a delay in your life.

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

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

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

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

Think about it like this . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Justice Kindness

Check Your Weapons at the Door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Hope

The Stars of New York City

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

 

Here’s the thing that I hate about living in New York City: you can’t see the stars. Oh sure, you can watch movie stars sip their lattes in the hipster restaurants in Brooklyn. You can observe television stars through the glass walls of the talk show studios near Rockefeller Center. And you can see the Broadway stars on . . . well, Broadway.

But I’m talking about real stars. The kind that gleam from the sky. Sadly, those stars are hidden by the lights shining from the city. That’s why every once in a while, I have to leave the Big Apple and head to a place where I can actually see the stars. I need remind myself that they are still there.

Last week, I did just that in Dubois, Wyoming. There, at a spiritual retreat center named Ring Lake Ranch, the night sky exploded with more stars than I could ever have imagined. Pulsing overhead were constellations and shooting stars and the dazzling Milky Way that seemed to leap out of the sky in three dimensions.

There’s something about looking up at a sky full of stars that transports us past our tiny, limited worldview. To see the stars on the darkest night brings a sense of hope. In fact, I think finding hope is just like trying to find the stars in New York City.

Sometimes in life, hope seems so near and clear to us, like the stars in a Wyoming sky. But then, sometimes hope feels more like the night sky in New York City where the celestial light is dimmed. During those dark times, we must have faith that hope still exists, even though we can’t see it or feel it. It’s as Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

A few years ago, a dear friend of ours, Ed Charles, passed away. Baseball fans may remember Ed as a member of the 1969 World Champion Mets and one of the first black players in the major leagues. Ed used to tell the story of when Jackie Robinson came to Daytona Beach where he grew up. Ed and his friends sat in the segregated section of the park and watched Jackie play, and after the game was over, they followed Jackie to the train station, running down the tracks and listening for the sounds of that train as far as they could. When they couldn’t hear the train any longer, they put their ears to the track so they could feel the vibrations.

That train carrying Jackie Robinson gave Ed hope, and he held on to that hope as long as he could. We, too, must hold on to hope. And when we can’t see the light of hope anymore, then we must listen for it. And when we can’t hear it, then in faith we must hold on to the memory of it through prayer, meditation, or scriptures such as “Do not fear, for I am with you,do not be afraid, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).

Hope is always in our hearts. It may not seem like it, for the world tries its best to beat hope out of us, but the operative word is “tries.” We might have to dig, excavate, search, and wait for it, but hope is there—and if we have faith, we’ll find it. It’s just like living in New York City where even though you can’t see the stars, you know in your heart they’re still there—watching over us, shining down on us, and lighting our way.

— 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. She is the author of two books, Laugh Your Way to Grace and Preaching Punchlines, as well as a nationally known speaker on the healing power of humor.Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

Judgment and Forgiveness Religion and Spirituality

FaceTiming with God

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

Recently, I got to wondering what it would be like to FaceTime God. You know, like when we FaceTime our friends or family with a real-time video image on our smart phones. If we did this with God, who would we see?

In a way, prayer is like FaceTime. We bow our head or close our eyes, ring God up, and perhaps an image pops into our mind.

Growing up, I was pretty clear that God looked like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter. And why not? The scriptures I remember hearing were ones like Deuteronomy 28:22: “The LORD shall smite thee with consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish.”

Yup. High Plains Drifter.

And the images I was exposed to in church didn’t help. Every Sunday, this scary judgmental God stared back at me from the stained-glass windows surrounding our pew. On the right-hand side near the front was a depiction of God drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. On the left-hand side was a very unhappy Jesus hanging on a cross. The window in the back had God destroying the world with a flood. This was not a God you wanted to annoy.

Think about your own upbringing. What holy images did you learn to see? What do you see now? Is God male or female? Black or white? How old is God? If God talks back, what does God sound like? Does God speak English or Spanish or Farsi? What is God wearing? What is God doing while you pray? Reclining in a chair or a throne? Taking notes or staring out the window?

None of us is born with a genetic code or microchip that has “the” image of God. From birth on, we gather information from sources such as our families, our religious upbringing, and our culture to construct our own personal view of God.

Why does this matter? Because the image of God we use in prayer drives how we engage with God.

For example, most of our liturgy today is couched in male language—specifically, father language. This is not necessarily a problem unless it is the only language we use. When God is father, we tend to project all the parental baggage around that term onto God. And if God is mother, we do the same.

Think of how you communicated with your mother versus your father. There were probably things you felt more comfortable telling one than the other. One parent may have encouraged more of a “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” interaction, and the other an intimate conversation for hours. Thus, our prayers may be very different based on which image we use.

And that’s just gender. What if you imagine God as a young person versus an old person? Or as someone of a different race or culture? What if you imagine God as someone who smiles and laughs? Or as someone who cries with you during prayer?

We all know that God is beyond titles or descriptions. But it is human nature to want to imagine or “see” God during prayer. As you pray and “FaceTime” God this week, try to open yourself up to new images of God you haven’t considered. You may well discover a level of intimacy and honesty you didn’t know was possible.

 

— 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. She is the author of two books,Laugh Your Way to Grace and Preaching Punchlines, as well as a nationally known speaker on the healing power of humor. Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

Hope Justice

It Takes Heat to Bring the Grace II

 This is part two of a two-part series about finding blessings in the midst of pain.

It was featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media. 

 In my last column, I wrote about my opportunity to visit two holy shrines in Birmingham, Alabama. The first was Eugene’s Hot Chicken. It was there that a local resident shared why hot sauce makes fried chicken so fabulous. Sporting a mischievous twinkle, she explained, “It takes heat to bring the grace.”

Ain’t that true—for chicken and for life. Sometimes the hardships we face (the heat) come bearing divine blessings (the grace).

Which brings me to the second holy shrine I had the honor of visiting: the Civil Rights Trail. My trail walk included Kelly Ingram Park, the site of some of the most vicious confrontations over civil rights in Birmingham. Truly, a place where heat cracked open the door for grace.

The park is encircled by sculptures memorializing the violence, including fire hoses pointed at the crowds of protestors and cement walls you walk between that have three-dimensional police dogs lunging out on all sides.

Of all the powerful installations, perhaps the most visceral is “The Four Spirits.” It depicts four little girls around a park bench preparing for worship at the 16thStreet Baptist Church. On September 15, 1963, a bomb planted by the KKK exploded under the front steps of the church, killing those four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.

The deaths of those tiny civil rights warriors spurred an international outrage that marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and fueled support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, the tombstone for Addie Mae Collins reads: “She died so freedom might live.”

I walked to the church located across the street from the park, and there I discovered a huge stained-glass window on the back wall near where the bomb exploded. It glimmered in the sun, a black crucified Christ in its center.

A member of the church pointed out to me that the right hand of the Christ is flexed to represent the pushing away of hatred and injustice, while the left hand is outstretched, palm open, offering forgiveness. Under the image are the words “You do it to me,” based on Matthew 25:40: “What you do to the least of these, you do it to me.”

She then explained the window’s remarkable history. As the news of the bombing spread worldwide, John Petts, an artist in a tiny coastal village in Wales, heard about the tragedy and offered to create a window to replace the destroyed back wall of the church. Rather than have a few wealthy individuals fund the project, donations were capped at half a crown (around 15 cents in current value) so that the window would be a gift from the people. All over Wales, people lined up to give. School children brought pocket money to donate. That tiny nation, more than six times smaller than Alabama, pulled together and created that window to help rebuild the church.

Sometimes it takes heat to bring the grace.

I walked home at the end of the afternoon, moved yet utterly disheartened. Here we are, fifty years of heat later, and the grace of true civil rights still hasn’t come. Violence is still aimed at our brothers and sisters of color. Racist hearts are still hardened against them. Equality is still held far from their reach.

I returned to Eugene’s for dinner, hoping for solace and grace from the heat of the chicken. But before I ate, I paused to pray for a larger grace, a grace for which Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley made the ultimate sacrifice. A grace that was and is the legacy of the crucified Christ. A grace that will come only if all of us—side by side, hand in hand—face the heat together. For it is then that we the people will bring the ultimate grace of freedom.

Empowerment Hope Risk and Reinvention Self care

It Takes Heat to Bring the Grace

This is part one of a two-part series about finding blessings in the midst of pain.

It was featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media. 

 

Recently, I had the great privilege of visiting two holy shrines in Birmingham, Alabama. The first was Eugene’s Hot Chicken. For those of you who don’t know about hot chicken, my condolences. It’s one of God’s greatest inventions. You fry up chicken nice and crispy, and then right as it comes out of the fryer, you pour on some hot sauce that seeps into the batter.

Everybody prepares it differently. Eugene’s, for example, has four different levels of hot: southern (no heat), mild, hot, and what they call “stupid hot.”

When I reached this holy chicken shrine, I stood in line, pondering which heat level to order. Just as I was about to say, “hot,” I heard a voice behind me say, “get the stupid hot.”

I turned around, and standing behind me was a local elderly woman (I knew she was local because she pronounced the word “hot” with two syllables).

“Really?” I asked. “Should I go that hot?”

She smiled with a mischievous look in her eye. “Well, as I’ve always said, it takes heat to bring the grace.”

Honey, she was exactly right. After the fire of my first bite subsided, grace descended like a dove. Grace . . . and heartburn. But grace nonetheless.

I learned an important lesson at Eugene’s that afternoon: good things can come from moments of fire. The Bible shares the same lesson in the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel-type figure in Genesis. Rather than give up, Jacob holds on and does something audacious. He looks the figure in the eye and says, “I won’t let go until you give me a blessing!”

The nerve! Yet, what happens? God gives him that blessing: a new name—“Israel”— which translates to “God prevails.” By refusing to let the struggle defeat him, Jacob turns it into a blessing, something that makes him stronger for the days ahead.

What do you wrestle with in your life? What “stupid hot” things are you facing right now? What would happen if you took hold of one of those issues, looked it in the eye, and said, “I won’t let go until you give me a blessing?”

Do you face a job loss? Perhaps you would receive a blessing of faith.

Are you facing a medical crisis? Maybe you would receive a blessing of courage.

Do you have a relationship problem? Perhaps you would receive a blessing of humility.

Even something as minor as sitting in traffic, asking for a blessing might bring you a lesson in patience.

In the end, we’re all just trying to be better people, striving to be more like our creator. And perhaps God is offering us a little help through situations that challenge us.

There’s an old myth in metalworking that says a silversmith knows the metal is fully refined when he can see his reflection in it. Perhaps God is doing the same: refining us through fire not only to make us stronger, but also to make us better reflect our creator’s image.

Consider the possibility that each hardship in life comes bearing a divine blessing. Rather than turn from it, wrestle with it. Look it in the eye and face the fire.

Demand a blessing.

Hey, who knows what might happen? Like with Eugene’s hot chicken, sometimes it just takes heat to bring the grace.

[Stay tuned in two weeks for the second part of this series on finding blessings in pain when we visit our second holy shrine in Birmingham: the Civil Rights Trail.]

Self care

Looking for a God App

This blog was also featured as a nationally syndicated column at GateHouse Media.

I recently found myself in a place of spiritual disconnection. (Yes, it happens to ministers, too.) Sadly, I got wrapped up in running my world and conveniently skipped chatting with God about how God wanted that world run.

In corporate America, if you went rogue and spent weeks planning a project without checking in with your boss, you’d probably be fired.

Thank goodness, unlike Citibank, God is merciful.

To remedy this disconnect, I decided to spend a little quiet time at our beautiful lake cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin. Remote, isolated, and wild, this place is like Eden, but with a lot of Scandinavian Lutherans.

The first morning on the dock was spectacular—the sun was just coming up, the mist rising off the lake. And in this pristine setting, what did I do? I pulled out my iPhone. Why? Because of course, the best way to connect with God is to find a good God app.

Within seconds, I was in the dungeon of the App Store, oblivious to everything around me. As I perused the religious wallpaper, games, and virtual meditation sites, I suddenly stopped, having the distinct feeling that someone or something was watching me. A huge shadow floated over, darkening the iPhone screen. I looked up to see a bald eagle silently gliding about ten feet above me, heading out across the lake.

I couldn’t help but think of the words from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” How ridiculous was it that I was sitting in the midst of Eden, surrounded by the very face of God, searching for the holy in a tiny electronic box?

God is not in our cell phones, our iPads, our Instagram, or Pinterest accounts. Sure, they’re great tools for sharing news of inspiration or healing, but if we find our spiritual tanks empty, the best way to refill them is to walk outside and look around. Nature is God’s greatest work.

Consider the work of other great artists. You get a peek into the mind of Picasso when you look at his paintings; you listen to St. Matthew’s Passionand get a glimmer of the heart of Bach; you taste a Shake Shack burger and find out a bit about restauranteur Danny Myer. In the same way, when we stop and notice the beauty of creation—God’s finest artistic work—we see a spark of the holy.

After the eagle soared overhead, I turned off the iPhone and began to look around, noticing some of the smallest, most intimate things in my vicinity, such as a spider web that was gleaming in the sun. The dew had caught in its intricate pattern, revealing a beautiful, sophisticated work of art.

The shimmer of the web made me ask myself this question: Who taught the spider to do that? No architectural school in the galaxy could impart that kind of talent. I immediately thought of the line from the book of Job when God gets annoyed at Job’s doubts, and says: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) Every day we must take time to acknowledge nature, the evidence of a higher power in our midst, for it is a poignant reminder that we are not in charge—not even close.

It’s easy to allow ourselves to become spiritually disconnected in this loud, demanding, secular world. But the fix is easier than you think. As the old saying goes, “If God feels far away, guess who moved?” God is always there waiting. We just have to pry ourselves from the apps, iPhones, and computer screens and step outside to admire the work of the greatest artist of all.