Susan SparksBelow are selected writings, including my award-winning nationally syndicated column.

Justice Kindness

We’re in the Same Boat Brother

Multiple tragedies have struck in the recent weeks, including the death of Tyre Nichols, mass shootings, and the continued bombing of Ukraine.

This message is dedicated to finding a better way . . . 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is not an overstatement to say that the future of this planet — our future — is dependent upon our individual and collective decisions. We are a hyper-connected society in which one isolated disruption can quickly ripple through the whole. Just consider the Coronavirus outbreak—a world health crisis that mandates a collective global effort.

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

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

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

Hope joy Kindness Religion and Spirituality

A Place Called Grace

This column was also featured as a chapter in my book,

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

 

Some days, I just have an inordinate need for “grace.” And by “grace,” I mean the theological concept, but even more so, I mean my grandmother. A tiny, rather squishy woman, “Ganny” gave hugs that felt like being pressed into a fluffy feather pillow.

I called her “Ganny” because I had trouble pronouncing all three syllables of “grand-mo-ther.” That was ironic, given that my other grandmother, a woman of German and Scots-Irish descent required all three syllables to be pronounced along with her last name: “Grand-mo-ther Whit-mire.” (While I adored them both, their naming preference should tell you something about the difference in the two women).

Ganny lived with “Grand-dad” (I could manage those two syllables) in a modest little house next to the A&P Grocery in Gaffney, South Carolina. And thanks to that grocery, I’ll always remember the weekly visits we made to their home.

Upon our arrival, Ganny would grab me up in an inordinately long, squishy hug and call me “her precious little thing” (even though there were many days my parents would disagree with that title). Then she would scurry me off to the kitchen to enjoy some kind of treat.

My favorite was the cherry pie filling from the A&P. Ganny knew that I didn’t like pie crust, so she would peel away the shell and feed me spoonfuls of the cherry insides. (And no, I was not spoiled. Okay, maybe a little.)

While her nickname was “Ganny,” my grandmother’s real name was Grace—Grace Foster Sparks. And while the great theologians like Martin Luther and St. Augustine have attempted to describe grace in powerful ways, I believe the home of Grace Foster Sparks provides the best image of all.

To me, grace is not necessarily a thing, but a place—a place of grounding and belonging where you feel special, like you are wrapped in an inordinately long, squishy hug, eating the filling out of a pie.

We all need to find that place. Every day we are bombarded by corrosive voices from the world outside and from inside our own hearts. We are assaulted by words that slowly tear us down, bend us over in shame, make us feel less than the beloved children of God that we are. We need to find that place called grace.

One of the best places to find it is in scripture. In fact, I’ve put together a list of what I like to call “squishy scriptures”—Bible verses that make me feel like I am wrapped in an inordinately long, squishy hug, eating the filling out of a pie. I have included a few examples below.

I hope that you will take a moment throughout your week to pause and read them, reminding yourself that you are called as God’s precious one.

Then spread that joy.

This week, think about three people who need to hear from you. Perhaps a family member, friend, or spouse needs your words. Maybe it’s someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, or maybe it’s a stranger on the street. Share a hug or a some “pie-filling-eating” kindness with someone to remind them of their divinity as a child of God.

While I miss sitting in Ganny’s kitchen eating A&P pie, her legacy lives on. And through that memory, I learned that living a life of love and beauty is not that hard, even in these difficult times. It’s all about recalling who we are. It’s all about remembering from whence we came.

It’s all about finding a place called grace. 

Psalm 57:1 Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by.

“Squishy Scriptures:” Isaiah 41:10, 2 Timothy 1:7, Psalm 55:22, Isaiah 43:1-2,

Exodus 23:20, and Isaiah 40:31.

Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness

The Politics of Sweet Potato Casserole

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

Way more than politics and religion, my family’s passionate holiday fights revolve around food. Specifically, the battle lines are drawn over whether marshmallows or brown sugar and pecans are the best topping for the always wondrous sweet potato casserole.

I, myself, am a brown sugar/pecan warrior, while other, lesser beings in my family (distant cousins we don’t claim), believe that white sticky goo should be used as a topping. And so, every year, there’s a stand-off. Eyes narrow, arms fold, and the fight begins.

When you think about it, the actual casserole conflict is pretty lame. Both toppings are sugary, both will put you into a diabetic coma with equal speed, and both—in the end—make a great casserole. Surely, somewhere in all this goodness, there has to be a happy medium. There’s too much yumminess here to waste on petty infighting.

Sadly, the infighting in our nation is much like my family’s sweet potato feud: tragically polarized. It’s like the San Andreas fault has jumped out of California and imbedded itself in the hearts of the American people.

We’re right; they’re wrong. End of story.

Our national perspective is like a greeting card I saw recently that depicted two ladies from the 1950’s smoking cigarettes, one saying to the other, “All I know is one of us is right . . . And the other is you.”

That is American down to the ground.

What if we come at our conflicts in a different way? What if, instead of a direct marshmallow/brown sugar pecan throw down, we use the wisdom of St. Francis, who said, “Let me not seek as much . . . to be understood as to understand?”

Conflict resolution experts call this interest-based negotiation; meaning that you focus on why the issue is important to the other side, rather than the rightness or wrongness of your respective positions. By identifying shared values, you find common ground, and it is from that place of commonality that solutions more easily flow.

If I apply this to my family’s great marshmallow debate, I quickly see that our shared value is our delight in sweets. We’re just fighting over which ingredients can best lead us to that shared value.

Our political issues can be approached in the same way. In almost every conflict, there is common ground. For example, we all want a better world for our children, fair and equal treatment for our citizens, protection from terrorism, and clean air and water. We’re just fighting over how we get there.

Maybe this Thanksgiving holiday, we can consider a new recipe. For our wonderous sweet potato casserole, how about a sugary topping of all three ingredients: marshmallow, brown sugar AND pecans? Or half brown sugar/pecan and half marshmallow? Or how about we use neither and top the sweet potatoes with Cap’n Crunch?

So, too, let us consider a new recipe for this nation—our wondrous casserole of ethnicities, races and religions. We need a fresh approach that focuses our commonalities and then finds a way to combine our needs, hopes and dreams into a dish that feeds us all.

America has too much to offer, too many blessings, and too rich a history to be brought down by petty infighting. Partisan politics have no place in a nation where all are created equal. Let’s celebrate Thanksgiving this year by acknowledging our commonalities and giving thanks for what we share as a family of Americans. Surely, somewhere in all this goodness, there has to be a happy medium.

Empowerment Hope Kindness Self care

Feel the Burn – Find the Power: Honoring the Caregivers Among Us

I grew up in a North Carolina high school where football was a big deal, which is ironic, considering that in North Carolina, basketball is the state religion. But for whatever reason, in my high school, it was football. I remember the players in the gym lifting weights with the football coach—a drill sergeant if ever there was one. There was this one exercise they would do—maybe you’ve tried it—where you take a dumbbell and hold it straight out to the side for 60 seconds. Then you hold it out to the front for another 60 seconds. You could see those players wincing in pain, but the coach was right in their faces, yelling the same phrase over and over: “Feel the burn; find the power!” As goofy as it was, it appeared to work.

It’s not unlike Moses in Exodus 17. There’s Moses standing on a mountaintop, watching Joshua and the Israelites fight the tribe of the Amalekites. Moses is holding out the staff of the Lord. When his hands are raised, the Israelites are winning. But when he lowers his hands, the Amalekites start winning. At some point, Moses’s arms get tired, so Aaron and Hur stand beside him—one on each side—holding up his arms to ensure that the battle is won. When Moses felt the burn, he found the power to go on.

This is such a visceral image. It can bring tears to your eyes—really—if you’re being honest. Picture someone standing in solidarity with you, side by side, holding you up when you are at your most vulnerable.

Like Moses, we’ve all felt the burn while holding up the weight of the world. Maybe some of you are feeling that right now, especially if you are a caregiver.

Perhaps, you are caring for a relative or friend. Maybe you are a nurse, doctor, or other medical care provider. Perhaps, you are a foster parent, therapist or hospice worker. Or maybe you are a teacher, coach, or mentor to someone who needs guidance. Bottom line: If you offer support to another human being, you are a caregiver, and I want to dedicate this message to you. To all those who hold others up. To all those who assist, who support, who help. To all those who step in and provide the power when the burn gets to be too much.

Being a caregiver is holy work. As Galatians 6:2 says, “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” Or as 1 Corinthians 13:7 puts it, “Love bears all things.”

I like to think of this idea in architecture terms. Being a caregiver is like being a cornerstone in an arch or a buttress on a great cathedral. You share the burden; you support; you steady; you stabilize. In caring for another human being, you become the essence of love—someone who bears things up.

Caring for others is holy work. It is also bone-wearying work. When we feel the burn, we must find the power. Sometimes that power can be found in others who stand by our side and hold us up. And, like Moses, we must be willing to accept that support. It’s the only way the battle is won. Of course, those who are caregivers are also the embodiment of an even greater power. As Isaiah 53:4 tells us, God is the ultimate one that bears our griefs and carries our sorrows.

When it comes down to it, some days we’re Moses, and some days we’re Aaron and Hur. Some days we need help, and some days we give help.

Who in your life is feeling the burn right now and could use your power? And, equally important, who steps in and holds up your arms when the burn gets to be too much?

Everyone in this life is fighting a hard battle of some kind. I pray that we are all inspired to aspire to the mighty and difficult calling of caregiver. As inaugural poet Amanda Gorman wrote, “To love just may be the fight of our lives.” When you feel the burn, find the power. For it is only then that the ultimate battle of healing and wholeness can be won.

This piece is an excerpt of a sermon I delivered on August 8, 2022
at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC.
The video of the full sermon 
can be seen HERE starting at minute 37:30.

Empowerment Hope Self care

Find a Center That Will Hold

How do you heal?

Me? Among many things, I find healing in the stars. And specifically, the spectacular images from the James Webb telescope like the “Cartwheel Galaxy” (above) published just this week. Those images bring me perspective — a sense of belonging to something bigger than our stressful, angst-filled world.

The stars are our old ones, our wise ones, for we as human beings carry their genetic imprint. Joni Mitchell sang the famous lyrics “we are stardust,” and as it turns out, she’s right.

Literally.

Our human bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, and sulfur—most of the materials that we’re made of—come out of the star dust kicked off by those explosions and scattered across the universe. As Astrophysicist Karel Schrijver explained in National Geographic, “We have stuff in us as old as the universe.”

We have much to learn from the heavens. In fact, the stars actually share the secret to life. (Brace yourself—a liberal arts major is about to explain physics . . .)

There are basically two stages to the life of a star. The first stage is when a star is born. As 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 second stage, when the star’s center can no longer hold. Because the star has too little fuel left to maintain its core temperature, its 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. Sometimes we draw our energy toward the light and reflect its warmth to all around us. Other times, 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. And 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 that can hold.

Sadly, we tend to put all kinds of crazy things at our center that weaken our core, such as ego, anger, status, stuff, and other people. Inevitably, there comes a time when these things can’t hold anymore. The latch on your designer purse will eventually break. Human beings let us down. Botox lasts for only three months (or so I’ve heard). Like a dying star, we begin to collapse into the darkness, and our light goes out.

Which brings us to the secret of life—we must find a center that will hold.

We need look no further than the scriptures to locate that strong center. Consider Isaiah 40:31:“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”

What do you have at the center of your life?

Is it strong enough to hold you through the good times and the bad?

If your light is starting to go out, get a little starstruck. Find a place where you can look up into the heavens. Or just Google “Webb telescope” and enjoy the images of those incredible galaxies. Then, remember the creator of those stars — the ultimate center that can hold. It is through that true center that you, too, can hold strong in the hardest times, radiating light and warmth to all creation.

Empowerment Justice Kindness

We’d Better Dial Up Our Sleep Number

This piece was taken from a sermon delivered at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC on April  10, 2022.

 

I don’t know about y’all, but I love to sleep.

Love. It.

And, at the risk of sounding a bit arrogant, I’m really good at it.

Maybe this resonates with some of you? Apparently, it resonates with a lot of people, as sleep has become a billion-dollar business. Leading the way in this billion-dollar business are all the fancy mattresses you can buy.

These include DreamCloud, Tempur-Pedic, and the one I find most interesting—the Sleep Number Bed. You may have seen their commercials. These are the mattresses that adjust with the click of a button or a tap on your phone. The settings run from 1-100; the higher the number, the firmer the mattress.

For example, if your mattress were set on 100, it would be like sleeping on a piece of granite, but if your mattress were set on 1, it would be like sleeping on a Krispy Kreme doughnut just taken off the conveyor belt when the Hot sign is on. Not that I know anything about that.

Because inquiring minds need to know, I did a little research, and I found that the most popular Sleep Number is 35, which, I’m sorry, sounds a bit on the soft, squishy side to me. I mean no judgment—everyone has their thing—but here’s my concern: our preference for soft, squishy mattresses parallels the way many of us approach life.

We can all agree, I believe, that people tend to like not only soft mattresses, but also the soft, squishy, safe side of life. It’s human nature. That’s why it’s so hard for people to get out of their soft beds in the morning and face the world. It’s also why we tend to avoid things like unpleasant conversations and why we so often turn away from other people’s misfortunes. Just like a 100-level mattress, those things are hard.

But friends, we’re not called to take the easy way out. Life is like a Sleep Number Bed because we have a choice: we can stay in our soft, squishy, comfortable spaces, or we can dial up our resolve, step out of our comfort zones, and take a firm stand in the hard places.

As Dumbledore says in the Harry Potter series, “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” And yet so often, we choose easy over right.

How many times have we stood in solidarity with people during the warm, fuzzy, fun times, but refused to dial up our resolve when the going got tough?

Recently, I’ve been watching a friend sink into the clutches of dementia. This is a man who has been beloved by many and respected in the business world, a man who has always been surrounded by friends—until now, when the easy times are gone. Now that a firm stand in a hard place is required, his “friends” are few and far between.

Where do we stand when the going gets tough for those around us? When the divorce hits, when the addiction crisis spirals, when the cancer diagnosis is made, when the job is lost? Do we step up when the racist and/or judgmental comment is made? Do we publicly claim our faith in the face of wrongdoing? As our Madison Avenue Baptist Church sign says this week, “While we all may not be in the same boat, we are all in the same storm.”

What is your comfort level with standing firm in hard places?

This is no time to dial it down. The world is a terribly hard place these days. The most important thing we can do in this life is dial up our resolve and stand firm with each other in the hard places. Remember, in the end, we are who we protect.

Empowerment Hope Religion and Spirituality

Beethoven on Inner Peace

I’m sure you have all heard of the great composer Beethoven and his famous piece the 9th Symphony. It was heralded as a work of genius because Beethoven did something that had never been done before: he added voices in the fourth and last movement. He basically turned a symphony into an opera.

But here’s the real kicker. He wrote that breath-taking piece toward the end of his life.

When he was deaf.

In fact, when he conducted the Symphony for the first time, one of the soloists had to turn him around at the end to see the that the audience was furiously clapping.

What a great lesson on the power within. Beethoven could have could have focused on his deafness – could have focused on the silence he heard coming from the outside world and never composed again. But instead, he focused on the music inside. He listened to the beauty inside and brought forth one of the great musical pieces of all time.

How many times have we shunned our inner voice for the opinion of the crowd.

How many times have we based our self-worth on what other people say?

How many times have we given up a dream because someone “out there” said it couldn’t be done.

We have to tap the power and beauty inside to offset the evil and ugliness out there.

Let me give you one example of how to do it. Recently I had a phone call with my dear friend, Paul Lambert. A Broadway producer, Paul was sharing with me his idea for a new show. Paul also talked about how he was praying constantly about the project. He said, “I think about it like visiting with God. Every day and every night we have the opportunity to ring the doorbell of the most powerful force in the universe. And so I do!”

Amen to that.

The next time we are fighting the corrosive voices of the world, remember the voice of wisdom and power and beauty inside our own heart; remember that we can ring the doorbell of the most powerful force in the universe – anytime — and bring forth the greatest that dwells within; remember to tap the music within.

 

 

Empowerment Hope Justice

What is True and What is Right

This piece was featured by Baptist News Global and delivered as a sermon at Madison Avenue Baptist Church on January 2, 2022. 

 

Due to the recent spike in COVID infections in New York City, our church has returned, once again, to virtual-only services. It was the right thing to do. It was the smart thing to do. But it was also the thing that finally broke my spirit and released all the anger that has been brewing in my heart — rage even — directed at those who refuse to take actions to bring this killer under control.

On this Epiphany Sunday and New Year’s weekend, I want to look to the Biblical story of the wise men for strength and wisdom during this difficult time.

We all know what happened when the wise men came to Jerusalem in search of the Messiah. They approached King Herod, the ruler at the time, and asked where they could find him. Based on the prophesy of the book of Micah, Herod told the wise men to go to Bethlehem to find the Messiah, then return to tell him where he was so that that Herod could “come and worship Him also.” The wise men went to Bethlehem and found the Messiah, but afterwards, thanks to a warning in a dream, they protected the baby Jesus by going home another way instead of returning to Herod.

It’s a short story, and we don’t have a lot of detail about these characters, but even so, there are two relevant lessons for us at the dawn of 2022:

Follow what is true, and do what is right.

The wise men followed what was true. In the story, they followed a star and trusted a dream. They weren’t swayed by Herod’s disingenuous comments (aka his lies). There was a bigger power guiding them, for God spoke to them in a dream and warned them that Herod intended to harm the baby Jesus. In their hearts, they knew what was true, and because of that, they did what was right.

In this world, we have so many opportunities to do what is right. But apropos of our frustration around the status of our pandemic-ridden world, I want to focus on just one opportunity. In my mind, THE most important opportunity that we have to do right today is the opportunity to get vaccinated.

Friends, as of now, over 815K Americans have died of COVID-19. That’s 1 in 500 of us.

The studies are crystal clear: vaccines are safe, stop the spread of COVID, and drastically reduce the severity of the virus and the mortality rate. In fact, according to a recent study, an estimated 160,000 COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented in the last six months by vaccination.

The harm is manifestly clear. Yet, 30% of adults in this country have not taken the vaccine. And let’s not pull any punches here—many of our fellow citizens have refused vaccines because of what our modern day “Herods” have said.

The voices of the power structure are not our ultimate source of truth. In fact, many times, they are the opposite. The late Bishop Desmond Tutu cut through the noise and highlighted what is truly important: “Our maturity will be judged by how well we are able to agree to disagree and yet continue to love one another, to care for one another, and cherish one another and seek the greater good of the other.”

Consider this: Jesus spent the bulk of his life’s work performing physical healing—healing the blind, the deaf, the sick, the lame, the lepers, the deformed, the speechless. Are we not followers of his ministry? If we refuse the opportunity to heal ourselves and others, how is that not a sin?

Let me put it in legal terms. Let’s say that even being aware of the harm you could inflict, you choose not to be vaccinated. You then become infected with COVID, and before your symptoms show, you go to a social gathering and infect another person, who then dies.

In Christianity, that would be considered a sin.

In jurisprudence, that could well be considered involuntary manslaughter.

Does this sound harsh to you? Well, it needs to be. Let me quote President Joe Biden: “I’m using every power I have as President of the United States to put us on a war footing to beat this virus. It sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it: a war footing.”

Friends, we are in a war right now. We can choose to fight each other over politics and religion and claims of personal freedoms, and COVID will win. As Galatians 5:15 warns, “[I]f you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.”

Option B: We can choose to pull together and fight the true enemy at hand—the COVID virus.

On this new year’s weekend, let me share a vision of what can be if we follow what is true and do what is right. Appropriately, it’s a vision based on a war tactic. It is an ancient military formation called a phalanx dating back to the Greeks. Soldiers would line up shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight formation, and when an attack was imminent, they would raise their shields and form a continuous, impenetrable defense. Each shield didn’t just protect the warrior holding it; it overlapped with the shield of the next soldier and provided him protection as well. However, it would work only if the entire army stood in solidarity and raised their shields.

We need to form a 21st-century phalanx and stand tightly, side-by-side, to face down our mutual enemy in solidarity. When the virus and its variants come, we will raise our collective shields, protecting ourselves and our comrades in battle.

This is the start of a new year, a new beginning, a second chance. Let us stop fighting each other. Let us stop listening to voices that lead us astray, voices that spout ideas and urgings from places of fear and an insatiable need for power.

Follow what is true. Do what is right. Get your vaccine. Remember that the baby in the manger is reflected in the eyes of every child of God on this earth. And as the wise men protected him, let us raise our shields and protect one another.

Empowerment Hope Religion and Spirituality

The Metaverse and the Manger

This piece was featured as an article in The Christian Century as well as broadcast as a sermon at Madison Avenue Baptist Church NYC.

 

I am a liberal arts major from the disco-era who is enamored with the metaverse. My obsession is partly driven by a yearning to counteract the march of time. To be fully transparent, I am terrified that I might be one of those characters in the Progressive Insurance commercials who have turned into their parents. But parentamorphosis aside, there is more to my fascination.

As a pastor, aunt, mentor, and grandparent, I wonder every day what life will be like for our children. The world they are about to inherit is changing at warp speed, and one of the biggest changes gleaming on the horizon is the metaverse.

If you have so much as glanced at the news in the past few months, you’ve seen countless articles on the topic, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg investing north of $10 billion to mine this new frontier. He has even renamed Facebook “Meta.” For those of you who skip anything that involves Facebook or tech babble (and trust me, I get that), let me offer you my Baby Boomer explanation of the metaverse.

In simple terms, the metaverse is the next generation of the Internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. Let’s say you’ve Googled an image of the Grand Canyon on your laptop. On the computer screen, you see a one-dimensional image. In the metaverse, through things like a virtual headset or cameras embedded in your eyeglasses, you’re in the Grand Canyon via a 360-degree virtual 3D experience. Put another way, it’s like you’ve wrapped an Imax movie screen around yourself like a blanket.

Tech folks are predicting that the metaverse will soon be used to experience things like virtual sporting events, concerts, clothes shopping, architecture, and medical research. Already, people can attend business meetings as avatars or holograms.

Sound crazy? Before we judge, let’s remember that the skepticism when the Internet first appeared. Consider this Newsweek article from February 27, 1995 entitled, The Internet: Bah: “Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries, and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems . . . Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense?”

Friends let’s not make the same mistake. The metaverse is not some crazy, futuristic, make-believe world.

It is the world that our children will inherit. The question is how we can best prepare them to step into this new frontier.

The answer can be found in two places: the Gospel of John and the words of one of my disco-era heroes, Casey Kasem. For those of you who don’t remember Casey Kasem, he was a radio disc jockey who broadcast one of the first Top 40 countdowns. He ended every show with same words: “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” Those simple words are the secret to maintaining our humanity as we negotiate the cyber world.

It’s hard to imagine a better time of year than Advent to remind ourselves to keep our feet on the ground. Advent is the celebration of the incarnation—the embodiment of God in human form here on Earth. The Gospel of John makes that crystal clear: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). I’d like to offer a more modern translation from “The Message” that adds a poignant spin: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

And what neighborhood was that? A manger in a Bethlehem barn.

The manger is the ultimate symbol of God setting up shop on the very ground on which we stand. It represents our real, broken, messy, beautiful, tragic, and miraculous world. It represents the embodied here and now, or, as Joanna Novak recently wrote in a New York Times article, “the tactile joys of being alive.”

Keeping our feet on the ground means keeping our connection to the holy, and since the holy chose to take human form, that means keeping our connection to God through and with each other. In fact, human touch is one of the ultimate tools of healing.

Science has shown that something as simple as a hug or a hand squeeze can boost our immune system, improve our sleep, and ease our anxiety and depression. Gentle massage of preemie babies has been shown to promote weight gain 47 percent faster. Human touch also increases empathy, trust, and compassion toward others.

One of the many criticisms of our increasingly electronic world is that we are losing our human connection. We’ve all experienced that devastating loss firsthand during COVID quarantines. As our cyber world expands, we must keep our feet on the ground through our holy human connection. That’s where we draw our strength and remember our humanity.

However, we aren’t called to permanently stay on the ground. We must also reach for the stars. Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned to cringe when we hear that phrase, interpreting it as a new-age “believe it and you can do it” self-help idea. But I want to us to consider a broader, more significant “reach” that we must pursue: our call to reach into the farthest known universe to bring the Good News of the manger.

Think about how God reaches out to heal us. Consider Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

Friends, if God is willing to go to such lengths, we should be too.

Theologian Andrew Byers put it this way: “[I]f God is willing to become flesh . . . then there is no sphere—physical, social, cosmic, or virtual—safe from the relational intrusion of the Triune God. If the church is now the body of Christ, then we will find ourselves not only penetrating spatial realms but also the virtual realm of cyberspace.”

Mark my words: in twenty years, the church will be based in the metaverse. Sure, it will most likely maintain a local physical footprint, but its primary reach will be exponentially larger and different in form. In fact, it’s already happening.

Recently, I bought a virtual reality headset (to erase any parentamorphosis concerns), donned my best avatar outfit, and attended a church in the metaverse. I was expecting something otherworldly like the Jetsons, but it was much more familiar. There were pews, a preacher, music, and scripture. The difference? It was held in a virtual 3D sanctuary full of people from all over the world who were represented by avatars that spoke in their own human voices.

Okay, at first glance, it’s kind of cute and funny, but then the import sinks in. Today, there are more than 171 million users of virtual realityworldwide, and behind those 171 million avatars are real people with real human pain who are hungry for a word of healing and a sense of community.

We are God’s hands and feet in this world. While grounding ourselves in the manger, we must bring God’s healing to all by reaching for the stars in the farthest realms, including the virtual world of the metaverse.

A few weeks ago, at the end of our church service, I noticed a father lifting his one-year-old son up to his shoulders. The little boy’s eyes got so big as he looked at the world from his new and higher perspective. That is exactly what we are all trying to do: lift the next generation up to a higher and better place, give them a sense of personal and spiritual grounding while encouraging them to be bold, take risks, and reach for the stars.

It’s a daunting task. But don’t worry, we’re not alone.

For God so loved the world that he sent his son into the neighborhood, so that he could walk with us on our ground and teach us to reach for the stars.

Cancer (and other road hazards) Empowerment Hope Judgment and Forgiveness Self care

Am I Gonna Ride This Thing or Not?

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

There are a lot of things that the Bible doesn’t tell us.

For instance, what did Jesus do between the ages of twelve and thirty?

Why did God create platypuses before people?

Or this question, with which I have struggled my entire adult life . . .

What did Mary say the split second after Joseph told her that at nine months pregnant, she had to ride a donkey ninety miles up a 2500-foot mountain from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to answer questions for a census guy?

While the Bible doesn’t tell us specifically, I don’t think God would mind if we read between the lines a little bit. In fact, in imagining what might have been said (and done), we may discover some important lessons of our own.

My best guess at what happened after Joseph’s shocking announcement? Mary turns, looks at the donkey, and thinks to herself, “Am I gonna ride this thing or not?” In short, do I have a choice in this situation?

We should ask ourselves the same question when faced with difficult circumstances. Sometimes the answers are crystal clear.

For example, do I need to go to IKEA and wait in line for three hours to buy a bookshelf that will take seventeen hours to put together just because it will make my house look slightly more tidy when my relatives visit for thirty minutes?

Answer: No, I’m not riding this.

Do I need to get one more gift for cousin Lu Lu because her stocking looks slightly thinner than cousin Ned’s?

Answer: No, I’m not riding this.

Do I need to respond to that personal slight from my work colleague, friend, or family member?

Answer: No, I’m not riding this. (Just FYI, not everything requires our response.)

These are the easy situations, the ones in which we have full power to say “no.”

But sometimes the answers are not so easy. Sometimes we are faced with situations completely out of our control.

Do I have to face down this cancer diagnosis?

Answer: Yes, I have to ride this.

Do I have to deal with this grief after my loved one’s death?

Answer: Yes, I have to ride this.

Or for Mary, do I have to ride this donkey 90 miles up a 2500-foot mountain?

Answer: Yes, I have to ride this.

Once she realized she had to ride, Mary probably said a second thing to herself, “Better find some padding.” Maybe she put a blanket on the donkey, or perhaps she made Joseph shave a sheep to make her a fluffy pillow. Whatever it was, a little padding goes a long way to help a bumpy ride—for Mary and for us.

We can find padding in all sorts of places. One source is asking for outside help. There’s no shame in asking! In fact, when we reach out for assistance, it can be a gift to others, helping them to feel needed and useful.

Another good place to find padding is perspective. Ask yourself, what is the long view here? What truly matters to me? Keeping your gaze on the goal can help you see past the bumps on the road.

There is a third thing I’m sure happened on that journey (although again, scripture doesn’t say it): Mary prayed constantly. I’ve often wondered if that trip to Bethlehem marked the invention of the rosary because for every step the donkey took, Mary was probably counting the hairs on his neck, praying each time, “Have mercy.”

Sometimes we may feel that way, too. We hope and pray that every difficult step we take will be the last. We may even think we can’t go any further. But when we raise our voices in prayer like Mary did, every angel in heaven comes flying to our aid, and we access a power beyond our pain.

There are things in this life over which we have no control—things that we simply have to get on and ride. But there is a silver lining: if we are riding, we are climbing. And every step we take is a step closer to Bethlehem.

In the end, you never know what can come out of a difficult ride.

Renewed hope? New life? Maybe even a Messiah.

Happy New Year!