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.
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.
People can usually be divided into simple categories:
Beach people vs. mountain people;
Salt lovers vs. sugar cravers;
Those who believe Sasquatch exists vs. those who don’t;
And the most common division (certainly the most personal to me): those who hate spiders vs. those who hate snakes.
Me? I hate spiders. I would rather swim in a bucket of copperheads than be in the same zip code as the tiniest garden spider. Growing up, I hated it when people read Charlotte’s Web. I will NEVER watch a Spiderman movie. And I get cold chills every time I walk past a glimmering, shimmering web.
In short, Spiders. Are. My. Enemy.
I had a personal encounter with the enemy on a cold May morning last year. Nestled under my electric blanket in the bedroom of our 110-year-old uninsulated Norwegian cabin in northern Wisconsin, I was happily dozing in that I-don’t-have-to-get-up haze when suddenly, I had the feeling that someone or something was watching me. Opening my eyes, I saw what looked like an eight-legged avocado. His eyes stared at me with a vicious evil, and I knew, just knew, that I was about to die.
I threw off the covers, screamed bloody murder, and ran into the kitchen to get my husband Toby (who has no problem with spiders or snakes), to deal with the intruder. Of course, when he marched into the bedroom with the mini vac, the evil avocado was nowhere to be found.
Feeling defeated, I returned to the kitchen to warm myself by the woodstove and plot my revenge. How dare that evil creature deny me my warm bed! My fingers tapped the mini vac as I contemplated my enemy’s demise.
Just as I was about to head into the bedroom for another flyby, Jesus’ words from the book of Matthew came into my head, although the wording was a little different than I was used to: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy—the spiders—and pray for those spiders that persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).
It’s rare that I call out Jesus as wrong, but I knew there had been an error in transmission.
Love a spider? Never. Not doing it.
Eventually, I got too cold in the kitchen and decided to return to my warm bed (with the mini vac just in case). As I sunk down under the toasty electric blanket, I started thinking about Jesus’ words. Love your enemies, I get. But pray for them? I went through my list of personal enemies to see whether I could:
The next-door neighbor with the yappy dog? Sure, I could pray for her.
The guy who cut me off in traffic yesterday? Yeah, I could pray for him.
Politicians and political parties with whom I disagree? Sigh. In a pinch.
Spiders? [Long pause] Let’s try.
So . . . what’s loveable about a spider? For a long time, I couldn’t think of anything. Then, I remembered Genesis. “And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25).
I pulled out my iPhone and googled spiders. Wikipedia quickly informed me that without spiders and the insects that they eat, crops would be decimated, and livestock diseased; the earth as we know it, would probably not survive. In short, that spider had as much if not more reason for being here than I did.
Finding some forgiveness for my friend who creepeth upon the earth, I then asked myself, what would the spider want me to pray for? What could a spider possibly want or need on this cold morning? As my breath blew tiny puffs of condensation out from under the covers, it dawned on me: maybe that spider had not been coming to sink its gigantic fangs into me and wrap me up in its web as a midday snack. Maybe that poor little guy was just cold and looking for a warm place to sleep.
Tears welled up as I envisioned his little creepy crawly legs shivering in the frigid Wisconsin morning. I pictured him stepping onto the furry, warm blanket, and letting out a wee spider-sized sigh of relief, and then, just as he started to relax, BAM, he was flung through the air, smack into a wall.
Guilt rained down. I closed my eyes and prayed: “Please let the avocado with legs—I mean the spider—be okay and help him find a warm spot to sleep.”
In that moment, my heart began to soften. And I realized Jesus was right.
When you pray for something or someone, by default, you think about them. And when you think about them, you find yourself wondering things. What do they need? What do they want? What scares them? What makes them angry? What do they hope for? It’s then that you begin to see them in a different light. You come to understand their motivations in a new way.
For example, maybe your boss is short with you. Rather than fire back a terse response, try saying a quick prayer: “Lord, bring peace to this person.” When you take a moment to change the dynamic through prayer, your response changes. Empathy opens hearts. Who knows, maybe you’ll find out later that she was short not because she’s mean or wanted to make your life miserable, but because her kids were up sick all night and she got no sleep.
It’s the same with any relationship. Maybe your co-worker tends to railroad over people, not because he’s a self-centered ego-maniac, but because he is maxed on his credit cards and is terrified about losing his job. Or maybe someone you’ve just met who talks too much about herself or dismisses you isn’t actually arrogant or rude; maybe, she’s compensating for the fact that no one has ever listened to or valued what she has to say.
It’s like the old saying, “never judge anyone before you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Of course, I like the alternate version: “Never judge anyone before you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Because then you are a mile away and have their shoes.” Whichever version you prefer, prayer is the fastest way to walk that path.
Who are your enemies?
What about them is loveable?
What can you ask for them in prayer?
My message today? Pray for the spiders. Or the snakes or the Democrats or the Republicans or for anyone who is different or threatening and scares us.
Pray for them.
And then watch as your own heart softens, transforms and begins to engage the world in a manifestly different way.
This piece was featured as a syndicated column by GateHouse Media.
Our modern society can best be described in three words: fast, immediate, and instant! We speed walk, speed dial, and speed date. We disdain anything that takes extra time, including the US mail, which we affectionately call “snail mail” (an ironic nickname, given that 150 years ago, mail delivered by horseback was called “the pony express”).
We even speed pray. Recently, while waiting in an inordinately long line at the DMV, I mumbled through gritted teeth, “Lord, give me patience.” Almost without thinking, I then added, “And make it snappy!”
It’s hard to have patience in a sound bite world. That said, it is a virtue worth cultivating. We see this lesson over and over in scripture.
Consider Hebrews 12:1: “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”In short, life’s a marathon, so pace yourself.
Patience may be one of the best things we can do for our stamina and our health. Exhibit A: my Dad, Herb. A twentieth-century Buddha with a North Carolina accent, Herb was never in a hurry. Nothing ruffled him, and nothing phased him. His heart rate stayed the same through thick and thin (roughly seven beats per minute). Even though he lived on a diet of fried chicken, cream gravy, Frito scoops, and pecan pie, Herb made it to the ripe old age of 89. Why? Because he was patient. It’s like the old saying goes, “It’s better to be patient, than to become one.”
Patience also brings perspective. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Similar advice came from a partner in my old law firm. He used to say, “always wait twenty-four hours before firing off an angry response.” That suggestion has saved me from much unnecessary angst.
How many times have you fired off an email or a text in a knee-jerk reaction that you regretted, or spewed out words that you wish you could take back? With the buffer of time, you might have been able to see the issue or the person differently. In the end, what’s the downside of waiting to respond? If it’s that big of an issue, it’ll be there tomorrow.
The opportunity for growth is perhaps the most important gift we receive from practicing patience. The Bible says, “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters . . . See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains” (James 5:7). It’s too bad that we don’t treat others like farmers treat their crops, enabling their growth through patient tending.
Too often we get impatient with people—finishing their sentences, tuning out if they take too long to tell a story, or taking over their jobs if they don’t do the work quickly enough or in the way that we want.
The author Paulo Coelho tells the story of a man watching a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. The man decides to help the butterfly by cutting open the cocoon to free it. What he fails to realize is that the effort required to break free from the cocoon is nature’s way of strengthening the butterfly’s wings. By trying to accelerate the process, the man destroys the butterfly’s ability to fly.
Similarly, we can clip people’s wings through our own impatience. It takes time for things and people to strengthen and grow into their potential. We must have patience to allow them that room.
This week, when you feel your patience waning, ask yourself: is this worth my health? In twenty-four hours, will my perspective change? Is this something or someone that needs extra time to develop fully?
Patience is a virtue worth cultivating. Try it. Just breathe. Take a beat before you respond. Be gentle with those you love. And if all else fails, then use this simple prayer to get you started: “Lord give me patience . . . and make it snappy!”
This piece was recently featured by The Christian Citizen.
A few weeks ago, my husband Toby and I were sitting on the dock at our cabin in Northern Wisconsin. It was around 4:30PM, and we were doing what we usually do about that time: fishing, eating cheese curds, and sipping a festive beverage or two. In short—nothing.
As we sat doing nothing on that lazy Wisconsin afternoon, we heard a rumble of thunder in the distance. Within minutes, the sound grew closer and stronger. Then, almost out of nowhere, a ferocious storm blew in. As we scurried into the cabin, the winds began howling across the lake, and the storm sirens in town started to wail.
Huddled in our living room, we listened to the tempest outside. Then, shockingly, amidst the claps of thunder, we heard a knock on the door. We peered out and it was our next-door neighbor. Utterly drenched, he came in and told us that his 2000-pound pontoon boat had just been picked up in the storm and flipped upside down on the lake.
In the middle of telling his story, another knock is heard and there was our neighbor who lived across the lake. She was in the area when the storm hit and got stuck because all the streets were blocked with downed trees. We lite some candles, pulled out food and drink, and sat together in the shelter of the cabin as the storm raged on.
What else could we do but welcome them in from the storm? It’s too bad we don’t follow that ethic in our nation and our world.
Every day, our neighbors come to our house, at our door, to find shelter from the storm.
And everyone is fighting some type of storm. We may not see the tempests immediately. People love to pretend that everything is perfect and lovely—God forbid we show vulnerability or admit we need help. But notwithstanding the faces people show, everyone has their storm.
Some storms are personal, like the storm of a difficult relationship or a family issue. A personal storm could also be a physical one, such as chronic pain, or a financial storm.
It could also be part of a national or global storm, like the storm of hatred and judgment toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Or the storm of racism and bigotry towards our brothers and sisters of color. There is the storm of ignorance waged against our Muslim brothers and sisters. And then there is the immigration storm that is raging in our country.
Every day, people from all over the world come to our house, and stand at our door, asking for shelter from the storms of poverty, tyranny, oppression and religious persecution.
And what do we do when our global neighbors come to our door?
We slam it in their face. And if that’s not bad enough, we take their children. While there are no hard and fast numbers, the estimate is over 3000 children separated from their parents at the border.
I imagine God in heaven, watching all this going on, preparing to yell down to earth:
“People! Have you read my book? It’s pretty well known. I bet you’ve heard of it . . . It’s called the BIBLE! If you had read it, you would see that I ‘execute justice for the orphan and the widow, and love the strangers, providing them food and clothing’ (Deuteronomy 10:17).
You might also remember that I said, ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).
If you’ve read nothing else, surely you remember my son Jesus’ powerful words in Matthew 25:42-45: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in . . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
Something must change. And it can. Sharing hospitality and welcome is not that complicated. Just like on that stormy night in our cabin, it comes down to two basic things: food and shelter.
First, we must feed the people. Sure, that can mean literally offering food through a food bank, or soup kitchen, or cooking something to feed someone in need. But food can mean so much more. People are hungry in their hearts—hungry for affirmation/acceptance, hungry for respect and dignity, hungry for love. And we must be the ones to provide that food to all we meet, no matter storm brings them to our door.
We must also offer shelter. That can mean literally providing a place by supporting a homeless shelter or participating in the national sanctuary movement to help protect our immigrant brothers and sisters. It can also mean providing people with a spiritual or psychological safe space from the storm by welcoming them unconditionally and listening without judgment.
A few days after the storm on the lake, as I was flying back from Wisconsin to New York City, our plane banked right over the Statue of Liberty—the symbol of our nation—which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” How tragic that those beautiful words have been eclipsed by our nation’s hate, ignorance, and greed. But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.
As Rachel Held Evans writes in her new book, Inspired, “The story isn’t over. There are still prophets in our midst. There are still dragons and beasts. It might not look like it, but the resistance is winning. The light is breaking through.”
Brothers and sisters, every single person we meet is going through some type of storm. And every day, people come to our house, to our door, looking for shelter.
Don’t shut them out.
Welcome them with hospitality. Offer them food and shelter. Let the light break through.
“For whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.”
This column was drawn from a sermon given at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC on June 24, 2018.
Thanks to a back injury last week, I spent an inordinate amount of time stretched out on my living room floor. If you’ve ever hurt your back, you know how this goes. At first, it’s not so bad. You have quiet time to read and catch up on your work. Then you move to what I like to call the trashy stage, when you’ve finished your work, and you start binging on things like “The View,” “Dr. Phil” and tacky Hollywood magazines. (By the way, did you hear that Brad and Jen are back together?)
Eventually, the time comes when even Hollywood gossip is not enough. That’s when it gets ugly, because then you have nothing to do but lie there surveying the nooks and crannies of your house that you wouldn’t ordinarily see.
My line of sight was directly under my couch. Much to my embarrassment, I saw, hiding in the shadows, a collection of coins and pens, one sock, several dust balls the size of a ferret, an old Verizon bill, and a small yellow cube, which turned out to be a wayward cheese appetizer from a cocktail party we gave back in December.
I had no idea all that mess was under there. I guess I’d never looked.
In retrospect, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to look at your house — even your life — with a view from the floor. It may not reveal the carefully crafted image that you prefer or want others to see, but it can show you the raw truth of how life really is.
If you took an honest look at your life with a view from the floor, what would you see? What things have you brushed aside or hidden away?
Maybe it is as simple as the stuff in your inbox that you keep shifting to the bottom because you don’t want to deal with it. Or perhaps it is a deeper issue such as conflicts in a relationship you don’t want to face, a financial problem you are trying to hide, or an addiction, illness or other aspects of yourself from which you’re running.
Our tendency to brush aside or hide away things holds true on a larger scale too. Every day in our “global house,” we sweep issues under the couch because no one wants to face the view from the floor. Consider the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (that no one wants to acknowledge), global warming (that no one wants to claim) or the deep-seated racism and discrimination in our country (that no one wants to admit, let alone take responsibility for).
There is a sad irony in of all this because like a wayward cheese appetizer, if left hidden, these things can easily degenerate and get messy. These are the things that need light, not shadows. These are the things that need to be brought out in the open, not swept under the couch. These are the things that need a housekeeper who cares.
Fortunately, we have one: God. The Psalmist tell us that God knows all about what lurks under our emotional couches: “O Lord you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” (Psalms 139).
God sees with piercing clarity those troubled areas in our hearts, in our families, and in our world and still loves us unconditionally: “Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalms 139). If God is willing to look upon these hidden places with love, acceptance, even forgiveness, why shouldn’t we?
Last week, we lost Aretha Franklin, one of the world’s great creative artists. Of all her songs, my favorite was “Respect.” Aretha was right on so many levels — life really does come down to those seven letters: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We should respect our gift of life enough to claim who we are, deep down, in our hidden nooks and crannies. We should respect the lives of others enough to acknowledge their pain and suffering. We should respect our world enough to shine a light on injustice so that all can see.
What things in your life are hidden away that need to be seen?
What painful issues have been ignored that need to be discussed?
What parts of yourself do you need to “R-E-S-P-E-C-T?” enough to bring out into the light and heal?
Whatever it is, it’s OK. God already knows about it. And miraculously, we’re still unconditionally loved.
This piece was featured as a nationally syndicated column for GateHouse Media. Here it is, for example, in the Providence, RI paper.
Think about the last time you went shopping. When you got to the checkout counter, how many of the items in your cart did you actually need? Not all of them, I bet.
I, too, am guilty of buying items that aren’t exactly necessary. The last time I was at our cabin in Wisconsin, I visited a local butcher whose shop is known for its beautiful meat and creative flavorings. Intending only to purchase hamburger meat for our cookout, I was waylaid by a sign near the checkout counter that for me was like Odysseus’ sirens calling from the rocks (of the freezer section): “Mac and Cheese Hotdogs! A gooey favorite stuffed inside a premium wiener. Pasta and cheddar may ooze out while grilling.”
Four words rang in my head: Can’t. Live. Without. It.
Were these outrageous hotdogs absolutely necessary for my health and wellbeing?
Okay, no. But clearly, the line between what I truly needed and what I simply wanted had become blurred.
Honestly, what do we really need beyond food, water, clothing, and shelter? And please understand that by food, water, clothing, and shelter, I don’t mean truffles, Perrier, Prada, and a McMansion. You can also live well with Ruffles, Pepsi, Payless, and a motorhome.
Some of you may argue, “I’ve worked hard. I deserve more than just the necessities for survival, because as Luke 10:7 says, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”
As my grandfather used to say, “true ‘nuf.” But that mentality can also become a vicious cycle. We reward ourselves with things beyond what we actually need to the point that we can no longer tell the difference between necessities and luxuries. Soon we lose track of what is enough, which causes us to overwork, overload, and overstress. And then we find ourselves in direct conflict with another Bible verse, one of The Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). We can’t truly rest if we are constantly worried that we don’t have enough.
One way to break that cycle is to acknowledge what we have. Periodically, I like to pause and go through a list of five categories to remind myself of my blessings: health, means, love, beauty, and calling.
Health includes physical health and safety. Asking questions such as “Did I wake up this morning?” can help us focus on our most basic blessings with laser precision.
Means is the ability to provide for yourself. Can I afford to buy groceries (including a ridiculous luxury like mac and cheese hotdogs)? Can I pay my rent? Acknowledging the blessing of having the means to pay for what you need transforms the mundane task of writing checks into a sacred ritual.
Love is the blessing of family, friendship, and community. Do I have people around me who love me, honor me, and treat me with respect? Acknowledging love is also about reminding ourselves of the unconditional spiritual love that we all receive. As God says to us in Isaiah 43:1, “I have called you by name; you are mine.”
Beauty is anything that feeds the soul. Maybe you have a garden, or perhaps you have a Harley Davidson that you love. I have both in Wisconsin, but neither in New York City, so I give thanks for the wee plants in my apartment window and the tiny plastic model of a Harley Davidson Sportster on my desk.
Your calling is the reason you get up in the morning—a connection to something bigger than yourself. It could be your job or caring for your family or a loved one. Even if you are retired from your job and living alone, you still have a purpose. Your calling may be greeting the lonely person at the grocery store who is ignored by everyone else. Or it may be showing kindness to a telemarketer (unlike the rest of America). You matter, and for that, you should give thanks.
Will I give up my mac and cheese hotdogs? Maybe. Maybe not. What I will do is celebrate what they represent: the health that enables me to stand at the Weber and grill them, the means to buy them, the love of the family members who eat them, the beauty of the tiny pieces of pasta and cheese that ooze out, and the simple purpose of feeding body and soul. Most of all, I will try, before I even take a bite, to raise up a prayer of thanks and acknowledge that it is enough.
Such an honor to be mentioned in this powerful article by my friend Mitch Carnell on the Southern Baptist Church’s refusal to ordain women.
Here is an excerpt:
“Growing up Southern Baptist, my experience with women pastors is limited, but I have been blessed by hearing some of the best: Linda McKinnish Bridges, Amy Butler, Molly Marshall, Joan Brown Campbell, Cynthia Campbell, Julie Pennington-Russell, Susan Sparks and Martha Brown Taylor, to name only a few.
Not only have I been blessed by hearing these women, I have gained so much insight from them.
I regularly listen to and read Sparks, pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.
She places God in the center of our every action and has a sense of humor and such an awareness of God’s presence in the ordinary that you are compelled to listen and take notice.
. . .
How can you say that God rejects the work of these ambassadors of hope because they dare preach to men?
. . .
All of these women were gifted by God with talents far greater than the ones given to me. I think God brought me into contact with them because they had been given a message I was intended to hear.
I ask myself, “Where would I be in my spiritual journey if these women were not a part of my life?”
Complementarianism belongs on the ash heap of history along with separate but equal.”
Please take time to read the entire article linked above. It offers a powerful argument supporting women in ministry.