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

Empowerment Hope joy Self care

Not Today, Satan!

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column

with the USA Today Network. 

Some days, you just feel it. It’s like a disruption in the force, a heaviness, a weight. It can take many different forms—negative voices in our heads, anger, resentment, dread, fear, anxiety, or hopelessness. And let’s be clear, this intruder has a face.

The great psychotherapist Carl Jung called it our shadow self, our weak spot. It’s a voice that says you’re not good enough, not important, or not loveable. It’s a voice that urges us to be right and in control all the time, to think only of ourselves. It’s voice that steals our grounding and encourages us to make bad decisions or act in destructive ways.

Sounds familiar.

While Jung called that voice our shadow self, other sources, such as Greek mythology and Native American traditions, call it a trickster: a character who exhibits intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks and defy conventional behavior.

Check. I know one or two of those myself.

Although I like the names shadow and trickster, being a Baptist (and a fan of the “Church Lady” from the old Saturday Night Live skits), I prefer to call that voice “Satan.”

That’s why from the beginning of my ministry, I’ve had a sign on my desk that says, “Not Today, Satan!” In fact, to fight what I call Satan and his sneaky, corrosive messages, I have devised a sure-fire three-point plan. It’s quick, easy, and 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 that 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 and wear us down. When we see them coming, we should just 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 offline!

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 need 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.”

POW!

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 the negative voices start to shout (and they will), just pivot, stand in the light, and loudly proclaim, “Not today, Satan!”

Environment Justice

POOPING IN THE BIRD FEEDER: An Earth Day Message

(Also given as a sermon at Madison Avenue Baptist Church and published by the Christian Century under the title “This Earth Day, remembering the fragile balance between us and our home.”

I love watching bird feeder webcams on YouTube. Okay, yes, it is a geeky thing to do. However, my husband Toby and I don’t have a view of trees, grass, or birds out of our New York City apartment window, so we enjoy virtual bird feeders.

Or did.

Recently, as we watched all the happy little birds flit in and out of a feeder, enjoying the tasty seeds, a giant greedy blue jay suddenly swooped in, bullied all the other birds out of the feeder, ate an inordinate number of seeds, then turned his back, pooped in the bird feeder, and flew away.

Pooped in the bird feeder.

Contaminate their food source? Spoil their life support system? Who would do such a thing?

A blue jay. And, ummmmm, us?

Our bird feeder is planet Earth. It is our food source. It is our life support system. And yet, we’ve been polluting and contaminating it for centuries. Brothers and sisters, I hate to say it, but we’ve been pooping in our own bird feeder.

Why would we do that? For a long time, we have used the Bible as an excuse. In Genesis, God says, “Let them [human beings] have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” Notwithstanding the fact that the Hebrew word for “dominion” (radah) translates as caregiving, even nurturing, many of us have interpreted the word “dominion” as a license for exploitation.

The Bible says let them have dominion over the fish of the sea. So, we have hunted the blue whale until it is almost extinct.

The Bible says let them have dominion over the birds of the air. So, we have sprayed DDT, which has thinned the eggshells of bald eagles and decimated the species.

The Bible says let them have dominion over the wild animals of the earth. So, we have killed baby seals for pelts.

And the Bible says let them have dominion over the creeping things of the earth, so we have created snake-skin cowboy boots (which between you and me, I’m fine with).

But in general, we have treated the earth like a cheap rental property. And why not? We own it. And, as most Americans believe, there is always another option.

There’s always more wilderness; we’ll always have more wild spaces. Yet, the reality is that plastic waste and toxic chemicals have been found even in the remote parts of the Antarctic.

There are always the oceans. Yet, scientists studying the deepest parts of the ocean have found traces of PCBs in lifeforms there.

No problem, we still have space! Yet, according to NASA, there are already 500,000 pieces of space debris floating around the earth.

There are no other options. Not in land, sea, or sky. There is nowhere else to go.

To use another poop metaphor, when the chips are down, the buffalo is empty.

Remember Jesus’ parable about the talents? A landowner leaves three workers with talents (money). The first two invest it and make more, but the third buries it and gives it back in its same amount. Remember how mad the landowner gets because the guy just buries it and doesn’t grow it into more? Can you imagine how angry God must be watching us not just bury creation, but destroy it?

In our defense, we’ve made some progress. I mean, most of us don’t throw our McDonald’s bags out of our car windows. But we are still woefully ignorant of the extent of our daily damage to the planet.

Here’s an embarrassing example. Toby and I decided to buy a fake Christmas tree this year. Save the trees, right? The problem was that the house didn’t have that fabulous Christmas tree smell. So, I bought balsam-scented AEROSOL spray. We often don’t stop to think about the carbon footprints we are leaving with almost everything we do.

Another example that we wouldn’t otherwise think of as a polluter: Crypto currency. Due to the massive energy demands from all the global data centers and the digital mining, the amount of electricity bitcoin miners consume in one year is more than the amount of energy used to power the entire country of Argentina.

We’re pooping in our bird feeder, and the worst thing is that many times, we don’t even realize it.

Xiye Bastida, a contributor to All We Can Save, an anthology of essays by female climate leaders, writes: “A vibrant fair and regenerative future is possible, not when thousands of people do climate justice activism perfectly, but when millions of people do the best they can.” In short, just do one green thing a day. Pick up one piece of trash, turn off the lights when you leave a room, or cut your shower by a few minutes. It’s in those micro-steps that we begin the critical work of change—a change that is needed in all aspects of life.

In the end, our disregard for taking care of Earth is, I’m afraid, a sign of a much larger and more sinister problem. It represents our failure to recognize the holy connection we have not only to the planet, but to each other. The Native American Chief Seattle put it this way: “All things are connected like the blood that unites us all.”

This week is an excruciating reminder of the breach of that connection. We mark Earth Day while surrounded by the reality of our utter disregard, disrespect, and violence toward creation—a holy gift from God. As we acknowledge that break of the holy connection to creation, we also bear witness to the disregard, disrespect, and violence done to another holy gift from God—each other. Eyes on Minneapolis, the world awaits the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd. In the midst of that trial, we watched with horror as another black man was murdered in Minneapolis with a gun “mistaken” for a taser. To date in 2021, over sixty people have lost their lives in US mass murders. Immigrant children are imprisoned at our borders, and rampant violence is being waged on our Asian American brothers and sisters.

We have lost our connection to each other—human being to human being and human being to creation. We have lost our understanding that we belong to each other. We have lost our sense of responsibility for the care and protection of each other.

Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

We are in that space right now, facing a choice of how we will live both with each other and on this planet. We can bully all of the other birds out of the feeder with greed and malice, take the seeds of justice and hope for ourselves, pollute the resources that were meant for everyone, and go down together. Or we can remember who and whose we are. We can remember the fragile balance between us and our home. We can remember that we are stewards of our planet and stewards of each other’s well-being. And we can survive.

It is in that collective effort to survive—and only in that option—that the ending words of our scripture from Genesis will truly come to fruition:

“And God saw all that had been made, and God saw that it was good.”

Empowerment Gratitude Hope joy Second Chances Self care

Eat, Pray, Love . . . at Home

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with the USA Today Network

The Coronavirus has changed everything about our world, including our language. Words that were unimaginable just a year ago are now everyday vernacular. For example, “blursday” is a term describing the inability to remember what day it is due to the disorientating effect of lockdown, and a “covidiot” is someone ignoring public health advice. My favorite, however, is “covexit,” which refers to how we exit lockdown.

Covexiting has become a national pastime at this point. What will we do when we are vaccinated? Where will we go? What trip will we take first? While we ponder these questions and wait our turns for Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson, we can expand our horizons, even while on lockdown.

I tend to use the wisdom found in one of my favorite books, Eat, Pray, Love. Written by Elizabeth Gilbert about her extraordinary trip during a difficult time in her life, the book offers three simple lessons for healing. While it’d be great to apply those lessons during a luxurious trip around the world, we can find the same healing simply by doing a version of eat, pray, love . . . at home.

Eat

In the book, Elizabeth Gilbert eats her way through Italy, reclaiming a fresh, new affection for food. I think the pandemic has encouraged all of us to reclaim an affection for food. (Perhaps, too much of an affection?) So, maybe we should consider digesting something else. How about the food of new ideas, stories, wisdom, and dreams? One of the best ways to digest new ideas is to read.

Consider one of the great readers: Jesus. Luke 4:17 presents the story of Jesus reading the scroll of Isaiah in the Temple. He’s not talking about the scroll, not repeating it from memory, but reading it. Considering that the literacy rate in ancient Rome was at best 10%, it is a powerful statement about Jesus’ priorities that he, an itinerant preacher from a rural area, would be able to read.

Every day, we should take time to read something new. You don’t have to consume all 1,200 pages of War and Peace. It could be just one page a day of a book of your choosing. This practice is about digesting new ideas. As the old saying goes, every book is an adventure waiting to happen.

Pray

Gilbert also visits India, where she learns about the power of prayer. You don’t have to visit a guru in India to find that union with God, though. In fact, a quiet place in one’s home may provide the most powerful connection.

Jesus offers the best suggestion in Matthew 6:6: When you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to God in private.” Praying amidst the noise of the world is like being on Zoom and seeing the warning, “Your connection is unstable.” Prayer requires a secure connection which is often best found in a quiet corner of home.

Love

Finally, Elizabeth Gilbert visits Indonesia, where she finds love. While it sounds romantic, the truth is that you don’t have to travel thousands of miles to find love. The singer Stephen Stills had it right: “Love the One You’re With.”

The truly rich gifts of life are the things right in front of us, like the love seen in a crayon drawing from our three-year-old, the beauty in a morning run with the sun coming up, or the joy of finding a $5 bill while doing laundry. Some of us don’t see those gifts because we have stopped looking. In the words of a Jewish prayer, “Days pass and years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”

Travel is great. No doubt about it. However, as the vaccines progress and we plan our covexit strategies, just keep in mind that the answers aren’t all “out there.” The ability to experience new things, to enrich our spiritual life, and to find love is right in front of us. All we have to do is eat, pray, love . . . at home.

Empowerment Hope Self care

Just Keep Swinging

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with the USA Today Network. 

 

If Jesus came back, I think he would return as the late, great Hank Aaron.

It seems like the perfect fit, as they experienced and valued many of the same things. Like Jesus, Hank loved children, and he cared for them through his extensive philanthropic work. Thanks to hatred and racism, Hank experienced deep pain, shame, and suffering, as did Jesus. They also had a shared philosophy—a common way of approaching the world. Hank explained it this way: “My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.” That’s exactly how Jesus lived his life—he just kept swinging.

One of the best examples of this can be seen in how Jesus responded when he was tempted by the devil. After his baptism, Jesus went into the desert, where he fasted alone for forty days. There, the devil chose to show up with various temptations.

Ain’t that how it goes? The devil never picks a fair fight. He could have shown up in the moment of Jesus’ greatest power, at his baptism when God announced, “This is my beloved in whom I am well pleased.”

But no. He waited until Jesus was alone, hungry, and vulnerable, then struck him with temptations, like food, drink, ego, and power, that played on core human weaknesses.

I understand a bit about how Jesus must have felt. Perhaps, you do, too. My demons always seem to show up around 3AM, that vulnerable time when all of life’s problems seem magnified as if through a giant NASA telescope. In those susceptible times when the devil pounces, we have three choices: run, give in, or keep swinging

Running is never a good plan. When you hide or pretend the demons aren’t there, you give them power. It’s kind of like an iceberg. It’s not the shiny stuff on the surface that will get you; it’s the jagged stuff underneath.

The second option is giving in. This choice may feel good in the moment, like acting on the urge to say a stinging word to someone who “deserves it” or having just one more Reese’s Cup stuffed with salty pretzels. (Have y’all had those evil things? They are the devil’s newest invention.) But everything the devil offers comes with a price. Stinging words cost relationships, and a Reese’s Cup with salty pretzels costs an extra ten pounds.

That leaves us with Option 3: keep swinging. In the same power-packed way that Hank swung a bat, Jesus swung scripture. With every temptation, Jesus kept swinging the same response, over and over: “It is written . . . .”

Jesus didn’t run from the devil. He didn’t give in to the voices. He stared down the devil by standing on the word.

We can do the same. Whatever the devil throws at us, we can swing back with the word of God. Is the devil tempting you with an urge to say a stinging word? Swing back with Psalm 141:3: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!”

Is the devil tempting you with just one more Reese’s Cup stuffed with salty pretzels? Swing back with 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.”

What demons are you staring down?

What weaknesses are they attacking?

Like Jesus, we are God’s beloved in whom God is well-pleased, but we can’t live into that blessing when the devil is screaming in our head.

Stare down your inner demons by standing on the word. Just keep swinging, and eventually, as with Jesus, the devil will flee, and the angels will come flying to your aid.

Empowerment Justice

Preach Like a Girl

This piece was also featured by The Christian Citizen

I dedicate this column to all the women who have been harmed physically, emotionally, spiritually, and vocationally by the Southern Baptist Church.

You are not alone. 

 

I knew I was called to be a preacher at six years old. While there were many signs, the clearest was my weekly Saturday night ritual of lining up an audience of stuffed animals so that I could do some preachin’ based on the Sunday School lesson for the next day.

The animals seemed to love it.

My Southern Baptist Church home, however, did not.

It all came to a head one hot July day when our Vacation Bible School teacher asked our class what we wanted to be when we grew up. I flung up my hand and quickly announced that I was going to be a preacher. The teacher sighed, looked over her reading glasses, and curtly spit out the message that literally changed the trajectory of my life: “Susie, God only calls men to preach.”

What else can you do at six years old when you hear such words?

You change your dream. So, I became a lawyer (same job as preacher, just different clients).

I spent ten years as a litigator, but the voice from that tiny preacher kept circling back and eventually became too strong to ignore. At age 38, I joined the American Baptist Church, a denomination that ordains women, and entered seminary.

Yet here in 2021, after ten years as a trial lawyer, two graduate degrees, an honors thesis in seminary and fifteen years as the Senior Pastor of a historic Baptist congregation, I am still not allowed to preach in that Southern Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I grew up.

Why?

Because I’m a woman.

As a lawyer, I can’t help but scratch my head at the logic. The Southern Baptists have no problem with women on the U.S. Supreme Court. They are happy to send a woman into space as an astronaut. Heck, they would have put Sarah Palin in the White House (bless their hearts, as we would say in the South).

But a woman preacher—in a pulpit?

No. Way.

Their argument is that scripture excludes women from ordination and leadership. Of course, all those who interpret that scripture within the Southern Baptist Church are . . . men. So, how does that work?

Their position hangs on a literal interpretation of passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in which the Apostle Paul writes, “Let the women keep silent in church.” Of course, a literal interpretation of this passage would also mean that women may not sing or verbally praise God in worship. Anyone who has attended a Baptist service knows that is a manifest impossibility.

Paul makes a similar statement about the need for male authority and female silence in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Even if we set aside the historical context of this scripture (his words were directed at marital issues and not ministry), there is the larger problem of selective enforcement. This same passage forbids women to wear gold jewelry or pearls, but we don’t hear much about that section. I guess the Southern Baptists decided that would be too much to enforce on us bling-lovin’ Southern sisters.

We also don’t hear much about Romans 16:7 where Paul describes Andronicus and Junia (a woman) as “outstanding among the apostles.” (Not surprisingly, some later translations changed the female name “Junia” to the male “Junias.”)

If you want to adopt a literal interpretation of the Bible, consider Acts 2:17-18: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”

As I used to say in my prior legal career, “I rest my case.”

In one of his most famous parables, Jesus said that the Kingdom of heaven is like the landowner who entrusted his three workers with certain talents (money). Two invested the talents, doubled their value, and were rewarded. The third worker was punished, because he buried the money and barely returned what was given.

The Southern Baptist Church is burying the divine gifts borne by over fifty percent of God’s children. It is wasting these talents.

We can no longer afford this unjust denial of vocation.

We can no longer afford to stifle God’s call.

Given the broken nature of our world today, I say we need all the help we can get—Supreme Court Justices, astronauts, preachers, and all.

 

 

Empowerment Hope Self care

You Gotta Have a Visual

This piece was written as a Lenten devotional for Park Minster Church in Toronto, Canada, Dr. Peter Holmes, pastor. 

Let me begin with a confession: I have an unfettered weakness for cheeseburgers, Reese’s Cups, and onion dip.

Not served together.

Usually.

Most of the time, I can keep these evil demons at bay. Occasionally, however, they gang up on me. Like a few years ago when they combined forces and caused my favorite item of clothing to get too tight—which was quite a feat, since the item of clothing was overalls.

While the clothing fit was alarming, I needed something more than tight overalls to inspire me to change my behavior. I needed a visual—an aspirational goal. I needed to see the end game. That’s when I decided to pull out all the stops and tape photos of the uber-fit actress Linda Hamilton from the Terminator movie series to my refrigerator door. Every time I went into the kitchen in a moment of weakness, I’d come face to face with the image of what I was working toward. That visual would hold me steady, enabling me to close the fridge, put on my gym clothes, and start the necessary work to be that vision.

Everyone needs a visual for their goals, including the disciples. That’s why I think Jesus transfigured in their midst. The disciples needed a vision—an aspirational goal. They needed to see the end game.

In the chapters before Mark’s transfiguration story, the disciples show nothing but weak faith. Like a dog on wet linoleum, they are all over the place. They whine about their circumstances, confuse Jesus’ teachings, and question Jesus’ ministry and purpose. Finally, Jesus takes the ring leaders—Peter, James, and John—up a high mountain, and there he transforms into an otherworldly spectacle. His face shining like the sun, his clothes dazzling with light, Jesus stands in front of them with the great prophets Moses and Elijah while a voice from the heavens proclaims, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

In this moment, the disciples get their visual—their aspirational goal. They see their end game, that they are serving Jesus, the messiah, God’s chosen one. This is the vision that will support them, hold them steady through the difficult times, and inspire them to carry out the necessary work for their life’s purpose.

We, too, are children of the most high serving God’s chosen one, yet sometimes we forget that. We forget the dazzling, shining light within us, the voice that proclaims inside our hearts, “You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” When we forget that birthright, our light goes out. Our demons gang up, and we lose our way. We need a visual to remind us of what is possible, for if we don’t develop a vision for ourselves, the world will impose its own.

I am reminded of a story from Pastor Ned Lenhart, a dear friend who is the father of a beautiful, talented teenage daughter who also happens to have Down syndrome. When she auditioned for her high school choir, she was told that there was no place for her. That was the world’s vision for her. But Ned and his wife Jill had another vision—a dazzling, shining vision that honored their beloved daughter. They formed a group called Hearts in Harmony, an adaptive show choir for kids with special needs that now performs throughout their community and beyond. It’s just as the author Martha Grimes said, “We don’t know who we are until we see what we can do.”

This is true in life and in death. Have you ever read those stories about after-death experiences? Every patient tends to recall the same moment. They encounter a brilliant white light full of warmth, love, and life, similar to what the disciples experience in that moment on the mountain with Jesus in Mark’s transfiguration narrative. We all carry that same light within us. It’s a holy light, a light of the spirit. In life as in death, we, too, have moments of transfiguration—shifting our visual from our small, human limitations to dazzling glimpses of potential and life.

Perhaps I will always battle with cheeseburgers and Reese’s Cups, but because I can visualize my dream of becoming Linda Hamilton, I know that ultimately, I will win. If a simple image from a cyborg movie can drive that kind of change, think how much more our lives would blossom if our visual was Jesus.

Never give up on the possible. Never give up trying to see and live your holy potential. Remember who you are and whose you are. That is the end game . . . and He is our ultimate visual.

PRAYER: Gracious God, help us to remember that we are your beloved sent to serve your chosen one. Remind us that we are your children in whom you are well pleased. Grant that we may fulfill your purpose for our lives by giving us a vision of what we should be—what we can be—when we accept your unconditional love. Amen.

Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness

Shadrach, Meshach, and To Bed We Go

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with the USA Today Network. 

Until I entered seminary, I thought that the three Bible characters who were saved from the fiery furnace were named Shadrach, Meshach, and “To bed we go.”

Okay, maybe the seminary timing is an exaggeration. However, it’s true that I believed those were their names. You see, in order to get me to go to sleep when I was a kid, my Dad would read me Bible stories—this one from the book of Daniel being one of my favorites. While he pronounced “Abednego” correctly (albeit with a thick Southern accent), I heard “to bed we go” because I knew that was what was coming.

Sadly, Shadrach, Meshach, and “to bed we go” weren’t the only names I got wrong. In elementary school, there was “Elemeno,” that peculiar letter in the alphabet that came before the letter “P.” As a teenager (and for many years afterward), I sang some embarrassingly incorrect lyrics from Starship’s hit song “We Built This City.” Instead of “We built this city on rock and roll,” I would happily croon, “We built this city on sausage rolls.”

Apparently, I’m not the only one. Recently, I discovered that there’s actually a term for this; “mondegreen” means a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting a statement or song lyric. In fact, it’s quite common in human behavior. A study at the Baylor College of Medicine concluded that when our brains attempt to process imprecise information (like a song lyric that we’re not sure about), the blanks are filled in based on our own biases, prior beliefs, or expectations.

If you ask me, there’s a lot of “mondegreening” going on in our world these days. That’s understandable because as a society, we are terrible listeners. We form our answer or opinion before someone else’s sentence is even finished. We make assumptions that aren’t in evidence (as we used to say in the law). We form conclusions about what people are saying, filling in the blanks based on our biases, prior beliefs, and expectations.

In fact, we worship assumptions just as the ancient Babylonians worshipped the golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar from my favorite “to bed you go” story in Daniel. There, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into a fiery furnace because they refuse to worship the golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar, but an angel joins them in the fire, not only saving them, but transforming the heart of the king.

Sadly, we continue to worship at that golden idol of assumptions. Maybe it’s when our spouse or partner starts to tell us something, and we cut them off because we already “know” what they are going to say. Maybe it’s when we quickly click the remote because we’ve “heard all we need to hear.” Or maybe it’s when we refuse to listen to another side of an argument or story or dismiss an insight from someone with whom we disagree. However it occurs, this refusal to listen tends to result in incomplete and inaccurate understandings of what is being said. We then fill in the blanks with our assumptions – kind of like when you know that your dad is trying to get you to sleep, so you hear “to bed we go” instead of “Abednego.”

The bottom line is that we repeat what we think we hear. And if we repeat it long enough, it becomes our truth.

Listening is a holy ritual that we should perform with grace and love every day. What if we refuse to worship at the idol of assumptions? What if, instead, we lean on our faith to give us more patience, empathy, and understanding? When we step out in faith, powerful forces will come to our aid—like, perhaps, an angel standing by us whispering, “take a breath; let them talk; hear their story.”

Sure, I’ll continue to belt out incorrect song lyrics that will mortify my family and friends, but I hope the inaccuracies will stop there. Singing a song lyric that the writer never intended is a wrong, but putting words into other people’s mouths is a whole ‘nother kind of wrong.

 

— 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. A nationally known speaker and preacher, she is the author of four books, including her new devotional, “Grace-Filled Gratitude: A 40-Day Joy Journal” available on Amazon. Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

Empowerment Risk and Reinvention Second Chances

Etch-A-Sketching Life

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with the USA Today Network.

 

Emotional healing can come from many places: prayer, meditation, Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Ice Cream . . .

One of the most powerful sources is the feeling of having a clean slate.

That’s why The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book by Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo, has sold more than 8.5 million copies in forty languages and is now a Netflix special.

That’s why confessing in church feels good.

That’s why “Tomorrow is another day” is one of the most famous lines in movie history.

It’s also why the Ohio Art Company made a fortune on the Etch A Sketch. A mechanical drawing toy with a flat gray screen and red plastic frame, it allows you to draw something, then turn it upside down, shake it, and start over with a blank screen.

The lesson? No matter how badly you mess up, you can always make a fresh start. No wonder it’s one of the most popular toys of all time. It reminds us that we have the power to change.

That’s why we need to do a little Etch-A-Sketching in life. Between soaring COVID numbers, government insurgencies, fraught transitions, and families who don’t know how they’ll feed their kids, we could use a clean slate.

The good news is that an Etch A Sketch is not the only mechanism that offers one. We have—in our collective possession—the power needed for physical, emotional, and spiritual regeneration.

For example, the mechanism of the human body is built to regenerate naturally. Every time we take in a breath, then exhale, we get a clean slate in our lungs. Every beat of our heart offers us a clean slate of oxygen-fed blood moving through and cleansing our body. Every moment we are alive, our cells change, regenerate, and grow, giving us a cleaner slate of health.

In addition to our human bodies, creation can offer us emotional renewal (if we take a moment to notice its lessons). Every morning when the sun comes up, life starts anew—literally. Babies are born; oxygen is pumped back into the atmosphere by our forests; rain and sunlight bring growth. Creation, by its nature, offers us the daily hope of a clean slate.

Perhaps the most powerful intimation is on a spiritual level. The Bible is full of reminders like the one in Psalm 51:10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

And now, let me say something that you have probably never heard from a Baptist minister: let’s consider some pagan wisdom. The month of January was named in honor of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions who is usually depicted with two faces—one looking to the past and one looking to the future. Janus is right—we need to consider both the past and the future to appreciate our course. However, we must eventually release the past to allow the power of a clean slate to drive our future. It’s like Marie Kondo’s philosophy about tidying your house: If an item doesn’t spark joy, thank it for its service and let it go.

Do you need a fresh start?

Do you want a do-over?

Do you long for a second chance?

This week look at the state of your physical, emotional, and spiritual house. If you don’t like what you see, shake it clean, look to the future, and start again. We all deserve a clean slate. Just  nibble on a little Cherry Garcia and consider Etch-A-Sketching life.

 

Empowerment Hope joy

Duct Tape, Bailing Wire, and the Grace of God

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

You never know how a sermon will turn out, but I knew the one on December 20th was going to be good.

My message was framed around the metaphor of a tiny Christmas cactus that sat in the windowsill of our guest bedroom. It had, that very week, produced a wee pink bloom—a sign of life in the darkest days of December. It was the perfect illustration.

But as the old saying goes, we plan, and God laughs.

The day I had to record the sermon, I walked into the church holding the tiny cactus like a newborn baby bird, its bright pink bloom dangling precariously off one of its branches. Placing the cactus just out of the view of the camera, I hit record on my phone and began: “The title of my sermon is . . . .”  I was six words in when all of a sudden, the little pink blossom detached itself from the cactus branch, dropped to the carpet, and lay lifeless next to my foot.

I hit pause on the camera and stared down at the pink dot. My entire sermon was lying on the floor. Panic began to creep in. What was I to do? I couldn’t rewrite the whole thing. The only thing I knew to do was pray.

“Dear Lord in heaven, please make that blossom fly up and reattach itself.”

The lord heard my prayer, for when I opened my eyes, I spied the Scotch tape.

Praise baby Jesus.

Quickly taping the blossom back on the cactus, I hit record and finished the sermon.

In that moment, I couldn’t help but think of the old saying: “held together by duct tape, bailing wire, and the grace of God.”

Amen. Ain’t that the truth?

We’re all just trying to hold it together by any means possible. Whether you’re a teacher trying to hold a virtual classroom together, an essential worker trying to prevent a hospital from falling apart, a government leader attempting to keep the seams of America from ripping apart, or a human being trying to maintain your sanity, we’ve all been pushed to the breaking point. Many days, like that little blossom, we feel like we just can’t hang on.

The grace of God is all we have left.

Here’s the good news: That holy tape is stronger than you think. As Colossians 1:17 teaches, “In him all things hold together.” If we hold on to God, we can be sure that God will never let go of us.

Bottom line, we have two choices:

We can admit defeat, let go, walk away, and allow the forces of evil to run roughshod over all things good and true.

Or we can pick ourselves up, Scotch tape what we can back together, and keep moving forward. If we choose this path—if we fight to hold it together—eventually our strength will return. Our hope will come back. Grace will take over, and things will start to blossom once again.

Trust me, I know. A few days ago, and several weeks after the sermon, I noticed the tiniest stain of pink on the end of another branch of my Christmas cactus. It was so faint that I had to put my face right next to the plant to see it, but it was there . . . just barely peeking out.

Sometimes you have to Scotch tape things together until hope peeks back out again. And it always does. Granted, we may not see even the tiniest stain of hope on the horizon right now, but with a little faith and patience, righteousness will overcome. In the meantime, if we hold it together with a little duct tape and bailing wire, the grace of God will do the rest.

 

— 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. A nationally known speaker and preacher, she is the author of four books, including her new devotional, “Grace-Filled Gratitude: A 40-Day Joy Journal” available on Amazon. Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

Empowerment Hope Self care

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 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 COVID, hatred, and a time of untold unrest, 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, sadness or 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.