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 Kindness

God Is Not Sheltered-in-Place

This column was recently featured in The Christian Citizen

It’s official. ZooBorns win!

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

This week: baby otters from Australia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God—life—is not sheltered-in-place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To laugh.

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

Joy is springing forth.

Life is springing forth.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Empowerment Hope Kindness

THIS JUST OUT: Coronavirus and Kindness Are Both Contagious!

 

The Bible says to love your neighbor.

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

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

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

Psychologists and scientists as far back as Charles Darwin have argued that emotions can be regulated by behavior. We usually think the opposite—that we smile when we are feeling happy. But science has shown that we can create happiness by the act of forming a smile.

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

What we feel in our hearts manifests itself in our behavior, and how we act over time is what we become. Consistently reminding ourselves to smile throughout our daily lives may eventually change our hearts. And when our hearts change, the way we encounter the world changes. That is when we can truly begin to affect those around us.

I think of the famous lyrics by Louis Armstrong: “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” Louis was onto something, as science has proven those lyrics to be true. Neuroscience has shown that merely seeing a smile (or a frown) activates mirror neurons in the brain that mimic the emotion. Translated: When someone smiles at us, we smile back. And vice versa.

This research has caught on in a number of industries, including the hospitality industry. For example, Walt Disney World as well as the Ritz Carlton use what’s called the 10:5 Rule. When a hotel employee is within ten feet of a guest, they must make eye contact and smile. When they get within five feet of the guest, they must say hello. Bottom line? A virus is contagious, but so is kindness.

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

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

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

 

— A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City and the author of Preaching Punchlines. 

Empowerment Gratitude Kindness

Sarah’s Purse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there any greater legacy?

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

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

Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness

We’re in the Same Boat, Brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empowerment Hope Risk and Reinvention Self care

The Magic of Chicken Poop

This piece was also featured

as a nationally syndicated column for Gannett. 

 

Have you ever made a mistake?

No? Then please stop reading immediately and take your perfect self somewhere far away from us other human beings who have made a slip or two in this life.

Here’s a message for all the REST of us 🙂 Three things are sure in this life: death, taxes and mistakes. We all make mistakes. The question is whether we use these slip-ups as an excuse or as an experience to grow.

I am reminded of my grandmother, Emma Sue Whitmire, who had a beautiful garden on her farm near Asheville in the North Carolina mountains. There she grew the biggest, Jurassic-Park sized tomatoes I’d ever seen. I asked her one day how she did it.

“Chicken poop,” she said dryly. “A garden won’t grow right without it.”

It took a few years before I enjoyed a tomato out of her garden again. But I never forgot the lesson: It’s the messy, unpleasant stuff that grows a great garden. Just like sometimes it’s the messy stuff in life—the mistakes and wrong turns, which grow a rich existence.

Yet we bemoan every tiny mistake. We begin to define ourselves by the wrong turns.

I think of my first Good Friday service as a newly ordained pastor. I was so nervous that I accidentally spliced the words to the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rdPsalm.

“Lead us not into . . . um. . . the valley . . . of the shadow of death? Because … um. . . it’s a bad place—that valley. Thank you? Forever and ever amen.”

Needless to say, there were some confused looks as the congregation raised their heads after the prayer. For the rest of the time, I sat behind the pulpit contemplating what other careers I might pursue. As the service ended, one of our senior members came up to me and said, “Well, I’ve never heard the Lord’s Prayer done that way, but it sure made me sit up and listen!” You never know what growth and learning will come from a mistake.

Then there are the times that your “slip-up” may not even be a mistake. The world is threatened by things it doesn’t understand. Many times innovation is labeled as a mistake. For example, in 1954, early in Elvis’ career,themanager of the Grand Ole Opryfired him after just one performance, telling him, “You ain’t goin‘ nowhereson.” What a tragedy if Elvis had taken that criticism as truth and walked away from his music.

Elvis wasn’t the only one. J. K. Rowling had her Harry Potter series rejected by twelve publishers before it made her a billionaire. Steven Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times. And Johann Sebastian Bach was the third choice for organist at the Saint Thomas Church in Leipzig.

If you are hand-wringing over a recent mistake, ask yourself two questions: Was it really a mistake or was it the world being threatened by something new? Either way, it can feel like chicken poop.

But that’s not the end of the story. Find a way to use that mistake, that criticism, that messy, unpleasant stuff of life to grow. Who knows? In the end, you may find yourself cultivating a bountiful garden.

Empowerment Hope Laughter Religion and Spirituality

THE KING LIVES!

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

 

Five years ago this week, on January 8th, 2015, my husband Toby and I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Memphis, Tennessee.

Yup, I said Memphis. Why? Because Memphis is the home of “The King,” Elvis Presley, born January 8, 1935. And for many, the King has reached an almost holy status.

I know this to be true from our tour of Graceland. As we waited in line for tickets under a sign that said “Enter the Blingdom,” I turned to one of the guides and asked, “So, Elvis would have been 80 years old today?”

The surrounding crowd gasped. The guide looked at me with shock and whispered, “We don’t use the past tense here.” She then pointed to her t-shirt, which read “Graceland, where Elvis LIVES.”

It didn’t matter that no one there had actually seen Elvis since he stopped walking the earth over forty years ago. Elvis fans don’t care.

Without any concrete proof, they believe he lives. Elvis lives, baby. The King lives!

It’s a shame we don’t all have that kind of faith in our heavenlyKing. Oh, how our lives might change.

For example, because Elvis fans believe he lives, they share their love of the King in all they do.They wear Elvis clothing, decorate their homes with Elvis paraphernalia, even water their yards with Elvis. In fact, my favorite item in the gift shop was an Elvis sprinkler that swivels his hips as he waters your grass.

What if we shared our faith that clearly? As 1 John 2:6 says, “Those who claim to belong to him must live just as Jesus did.” If we believe the King lives, then we should share his love in every aspect of our lives.

Elvis fans also work to build community with other believers. There are over 400 Elvis fan clubs worldwide. There are also Elvis churches, such as The First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine. (That’s not a typo. Google it if you don’t believe me.)

Elvis fans understand the power of community, and so should we. Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Living a life of faith is not easy. We need the support of others to stay strong and grounded on our journey.

Elvis fans serve as role models in another way, too: If you believe the King lives, you will actively seek him. Elvis fans are constantly looking for the King. And sometimes they find him! There have been Elvis sightings all over the world—from a spa in Tokyo to a Burger King in Michigan. There was even a woman who claimed that she saw Elvis’ face in a taco shell at Chi-Chi’s.

If we believe the King lives, we will seek him as Jesus commanded in Matthew 7:7: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” If we begin to seek Christ truly, we, too, may start to see his face materialize in places we never saw him before, such as in the eyes of a stranger, the face of an immigrant, or the expression of someone who is hungry, thirsty, or homeless.

The Christian faith is not passive. It is a faith of action. It should make us want to bring in the kingdom—or the blingdom—or whatever it takes to ease the suffering of this world. Perhaps Elvis said it best: “Music and religion are similar because both should make you wanna move.”

Sometime this week, find a quiet moment and ask yourself, “Do I believe?” From the deepest parts of your heart, the answer will surely come.

He lives. He lives, baby. The King lives!

 

— 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.

 

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!

 

Hope Kindness Religion and Spirituality

All God Wants for Christmas is You!

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

 

The Christmas holiday is in full swing, which means that from now until December 25th, we will hear … Mariah Carey.

Every day.

Everywhere.

At CVS and Walmart. At Ace Hardware and Macy’s. Even the Salvation Army volunteers will play it on the corner as they collect money.

To what song am I referring?

“All I Want for Christmas is You.”

If this doesn’t sound familiar, then apparently, you have not left your home in the past 25 years. This catchy holiday love song from 1994, which reminds us about the joy of reuniting with loved ones, has sold over 16 million copies.

But I had a thought this week. What if we took this ubiquitous song and made it an anchor—a reminder of something deeper than human love? What if we heard it as a love song from God?

Sounds kind of crazy, right – God singing Mariah Carey’s song to us. But the lyrics are spot on, as God longs to reunite with us. Ezekiel 34:11 explains, For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.”

It’s true. God yearns to be with us – at all times, in all places.

Consider what happened a few years ago at the Holy Child Jesus Church in Richmond Hill, Queens. Jose Moran, the custodian, had just finished setting up the Nativity scene and gone to lunch. When he returned about an hour later, he heard the cry of an infant. He went into the sanctuary and found a tiny baby boy, umbilical cord still attached, swaddled in purple towels on the floor of the manger.

Later, the police identified camera footage from a local 99-cent store that showed a young mother with a baby, buying the purple towels. Minutes later, she appeared in the church and laid the baby swaddled in the purple towels in the church Nativity scene. The congregation named the baby “Emmanuel,” Hebrew for “God with us.”

Like the Christ child, this little baby entered the world in a place of shame, abandonment, and brokenness. But God was there—at the manger in Bethlehem, at that Nativity scene in Queens, and with us.

Always.

Now, if that is the power of God’s love for us, then shouldn’t we share that same love with others?

Recently, I met someone who did just that. It happened while I was in line at Walgreens. I was behind an elderly Russian woman who was bent over a walker packed with plastic bags that were stuffed to the brim. For several minutes, she shuffled through the bags looking for her wallet, and as the line got longer, people got more aggravated.

All of a sudden, a tall, smiling man with a Walgreens nametag reading “Ababacar” walked up to her. He turned out to be the manager of the store and was from Senegal. When she saw him, a huge smile broke across her face. He called her by name, gave her a hug, helped her find her purse, and walked her to the door.

I found out later that she lived by herself above the store, and that he’d been helping her for years, including preparing food, and bringing her medicine. When I thanked him for what he’d done, he simply said, “If we don’t care for each other . . . who are we?”

Amen.

This week, when you hear Mariah Carey’s song for the 97thtime, stop and imagine that God is singing it to you. Wherever you are, whoever you are. God is longing for you.

Then, take that love out and share it with others. Be a blessing for everyone you meet. Live each day knowing you are part of something greater.

Because all God wants for Christmas is you!

 

 

Gratitude Hope Kindness

The Holiday is Pronounced THANKSgiving

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

 

It’s hard for me to believe that New York City (where I now live) is part of the same country as North Carolina (where I was born). Everything is different: food, clothing, the pace at which people walk, and the accents. Oh, the accents.

I don’t mean any disrespect, but New York accents are just wrong—meaning they fall in the wrong place.

For example, in the south the object one holds over one’s head in a rainstorm is pronounced, “UM-brella.” New Yorkers talk about some foreign object called an “um-BREL-la.”

The southern word for the flat screen on your wall that allows you to binge on Netflix is “TEE-vee.” New Yorkers use some alien multi-syllable conglomeration of “television.”

Some may see this to be a meaningless linguistic tussle. However, when you consider the word describing this week’s national holiday, you realize that there is more at stake than you may think.

Unlike New Yorkers who say, “ThanksGIVING,” Southerners call this holiday “THANKS-giving.” Why? Because that’s what the holiday is about! THANKS. Not giving.

The thanks must come first because you can’t truly give FROM the heart, unless you have gratitude IN your heart. It’s as 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “God loves a cheerful giver.”

This is an important lesson as we begin this holiday season. While loving, joyful giving should be the focus of the coming weeks, giving usually turns into an exhausting act of duty. Like the conviction that you have to make two potato dishes—sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes—for the holiday dinner. Or the belief that you must fight the Black Friday crowds to get a generic scarf and mitten set for a great aunt twice-removed because she sent you a Whitman’s Sampler.

This is not joyful giving. This is giving cause you gotta. And this type of giving rarely produces anything heartfelt. What it does produce is heartburn. It also generates stress, resentment, and the worse of all things: the martyr syndrome.

To break from this pattern, we must put the emphasis on the “THANKS”—in the word for the holiday and in our lives. And the best way to do that is to ask yourself the following question:

What is good in my life?

When you focus on what you have, even if it’s the tiniest of things, you begin to feel gratitude. And when you have gratitude, everything changes: your mood lightens, your heart opens, and your mind starts to alter its perspective. Eventually, you see past the angst and realize that you are surrounded by blessings—blessings that you want to share.

So, what is good in your life?

Maybe you woke up feel physically stronger than usual. If so, find someone who needs physical help crossing the street or carrying groceries.

Perhaps, you have a plant blooming in your house. Take a photo and send it to someone whose heart is not blooming.

Is your blessing putting on a warm coat this morning? Find a way to share something warm, like a cup of coffee, with someone who needs it.

Or maybe you are one of the lucky people with the biggest of blessings: a job. (And please understand, I didn’t say a job you love. I mean a J-O-B with a C-H-E-C-K.) If that’s your blessing, then remember those who don’t have a job this holiday. Volunteer to serve a meal or be like the anonymous donor who recently paid off holiday layaway accounts at a Walmart.

This week, as you make your multiple potato dishes, and shop in the Black Friday chaos, raise thanks for what is good in your life, then share that blessing with joy. Give with a grateful, not grudging heart. Put the emphasis where it belongs. And remember, as we do in the South, that the holiday is pronounced THANKSgiving!

 

Empowerment Hope Kindness Self care

Wisdom from the Kmart

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column 

through GateHouse Media. 

 

When I want to lift myself out of the dumps, I go to the Astor Place Kmart in the East Village of New York City. Sure, I could default to other solutions, like walking around Central Park, watching a rerun of Chopped, or, on a really bad day, breaking out the French onion soup packet, sour cream, and Ruffles.

But my first choice is the Kmart.

Specifically, I favor an area in the far back corner of the Kmart basement. It is devoid of windows or natural light and has a back wall of clear glass that faces the dark, dungeon-like tunnel of the Number 6 subway train. There, you will find the most unexpected of things—a plant nursery.

Sprouting in this dreary prison are woven ficus trees, begonias, African violets, scheffleras, Christmas cacti, and spindly spider plants. I feel so sorry for those little plants. They struggle to grow in their stale, lifeless chamber. And if the fake light isn’t bad enough, every five minutes the train roars by, shaking them to the base of their wee roots.

That’s why every once in a while, I head to the Kmart to stage a prison break for a few lucky leafy inmates, so that they might recover in my home (or given my gardening abilities—die in peace).

But at least they have a chance. And that’s all we as humans want, too.

Our environment is not so different from that of the plants in the basement of the Kmart. We live surrounded by toxicity, in places where we are often denied light, love, and sustenance, places where we can be shaken to our roots by unforeseen circumstances.

Although we sometimes give up in the face of such obstacles, those wee plants continue to fight, to use whatever they have to stay alive, and to stretch their roots and strain their stems to convert even the tiniest bit of artificial light into energy and life.

One of the reasons I love rescuing them is the tiny plastic tab that peeks out of each plant’s pot. On it is an image of what that plant could grow into if it receives proper light and care, an image of its true potential.

We all have that same divine potential—that metaphorical plastic tab with our best self embossed on it. And sometimes we need a reminder of what that looks like so we don’t lose our way, something that’s all too easy to do in this world.

Our true potential has nothing to do with what anyone else’s “plant tab” looks like. Consider the marigolds in the Kmart. They don’t try to grow into another kind of flower, like a rose. They don’t question whether they deserve love or whether they are valued or paid enough. Their only quest is to grow into that one unique image appearing on their little plastic tab, to evolve into their divine potential.

The next time you are feeling low, consider a little wisdom from the basement of the Astor Place Kmart. Find a place in your community where you can rescue an imprisoned plant. Or better yet, rescue another person who finds him or herself trapped in a toxic place with little light or love. Maybe you reach out to a friend in need. Or perhaps, you volunteer at a homeless shelter or nursing home. Or maybe you write a letter to our troops, veterans and first responders through organizations such as Operation Gratitude. Reaching out to others can do wonders to help them—and you—grow.

The Benedictine Nun Joan Chittister once said that we have to the potential to be the human beat of the heart of God. Don’t waste that gift. Don’t give up the fight just because you find yourself in an unhealthy, unsupportive place. Each one of us has a divine potential. We just need to stretch our mind, body, and soul towards its light.