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

Hope joy Kindness Religion and Spirituality

A Place Called Grace

This column was also featured as a chapter in my award-winning 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. (I’d love to hear about your own “squishy scriptures.” Please share them with me via my email below!)

Gratitude

“There are People Who Would Love to Have Your Bad Days.”

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

 

Our church is famous for its catchy signs on the marquee out front. Some of my favorites include:

“What happens in Vegas is forgiven here.”

“Lower your expectations and claim a victory!”

“The secret to life is to eat half, walk double, laugh triple, and love without measure.”

“Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him.”

While the texting Jesus sign definitely wins the award for funniest, the most poignant award goes to a sign with a question we posted last year:

“What if you woke up tomorrow with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?”

That one stopped me in my tracks. What if that happened? What would our world look like?

Let’s think about it. What did you thank God for yesterday? Anything? Can you remember? The reality is that for many of us, if that scenario came true, our tomorrow would be one bleak world.

Let me back up a second and offer a word in our defense. It’s hard to remember to be grateful when all that stares us in the face is hardship. This country is looking at a long and hard winter lockdown thanks to spiraling COVID numbers. Our family gatherings have been cancelled or drastically downsized. Our economy has been hit; our confidence has been shaken, and we are surrounded by daily headlines that leave little room for gratitude.

So, what does one do? There’s an old saying that we cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust our sails. Author and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl put it this way, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances . . . .”

With every negative, there is a positive, and if we look hard enough, we’ll see it. Here’s a simple example. This morning I opened the refrigerator to get milk for my coffee. It was in the very back, behind stacks of other food. As I mumbled about having to reach past guacamole, sour cream, leftover rice, and two bins of blueberries, it dawned on me that there are others who would give anything to have a refrigerator packed with food. Just like that, the negative became a positive.

How about the alarm clock? While most of us cringe when it goes off, we should give thanks! Hearing an alarm clock ring means that you’re not dead—you woke up to another day! It means that your hearing works, and your eyes can focus. It means that you have a bed and a roof over your head. It means that you have electricity (many people in this world do not). And the ring of that alarm clock probably also means that you have a job. At a minimum, it means that you have a reason to get up.

Or maybe your Thanksgiving plans have cratered, and you won’t be cooking a giant dinner or traveling to see family. Perhaps, this negative has a positive. Think of all the years spent grumbling about the stress of cooking that dinner or getting in the holiday traffic. Maybe now – when you can’t have the traditional holiday dinner – you can see past the grumbling to the true blessings of food and family that you enjoyed.

So, back to my question: What did you thank God for yesterday? Anything? If you focused your time on what went wrong, stop and find the positive in the negative. Then, go back and offer a prayer of thanks. (FYI: God accepts retroactive prayers.) Be grateful in all things. And if you find you’re having trouble, just remember the words of one of our most recent church signs:

“There are people who would love to have your bad days.”

 

 

Gratitude Hope Judgment and Forgiveness Kindness Laughter Self care

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF JOY

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

 

I thought we all needed a reminded that joy can be found in all circumstances. You simply have to follow the Ten Commandments (of joy):

1-Thou Shalt Not Worry

News flash: Life is not a holy contract in which God promises a calm passage; the only promise is a safe landing. Therefore, instead of asking God why this is happening TO you, thank God for being WITH you. Worry or believe—you can’t do both.

2-Thou Shalt Not Let Anger Steal Your Joy

The biggest thief of joy is anger. The classic example: Someone did you wrong, and you just won’t let it go. Fine. But be clear, to accommodate all that anger, your heart has to make room, which means things like joy get squeezed out. As the old saying goes, the one who has the most influence in your life is the one you refuse to forgive.

3-Thou Shalt Believe You Deserve Joy

Joy and laughter are the most important healing tools we have. Sadly, thanks to low self-esteem, high self-doubt, and negative people in our environment, some of us don’t believe we deserve to be happy. Do you? If not, why not? Is the reason true? If not, why do you carry it around? Who could you be without that excuse?

4-Thou Shalt Laugh with God

We were created in God’s image, and we laugh and feel joy. Therefore, laughter and joy must also be aspects of the holy. Bottom line? We are children of a God with a sense of humor. To be whole, we must be willing to share all of ourselves with God—the anger, the pain, the tears, and the laughter. It’s all holy.

5-Thou Shalt Pray It and Say It: I’m Grateful!

Start your day with a prayer of gratitude. Acknowledge your blessings. Then, act on that gratitude. Say “thank you” to at least three people during your day—preferably someone you don’t know. Share a kind word, a written note of thanks, a smile. Pray it and say it! Gratitude is the autobahn to joy.

6-Thou Shalt Laugh with Your Neighbor—Even if Your Neighbor is a Telemarketer

When we laugh with someone, whether family, friend, or telemarketer, our worlds overlap for a split second. We share something. It’s then that the differences fade, and the commonalities gleam through. Remember: You can’t hate someone with whom you’ve laughed.

7-Thou Shalt Laugh and Eat Chocolate and Chili Peppers

All three make us feel good. The increased oxygen from laughing, the serotonin in chocolate, and the capsaicin from chilis produce a boost of endorphins, nature’s own “happy pill.” You can also do an hour on the treadmill to get that same endorphin high, but I’d suggest laughing while nibbling on a chili dark chocolate bar.

8-Thou Shalt Be Like the Little Children

Children are said to laugh approximately 300 times a day and adults less than 20. Somewhere between cartoons and carpools, our laughter gets lost. Spend a few minutes watching a little child squealing with laughter, eyes full of awe at everyday miracles. When was the last time you laughed out loud or were awed by something wonderful? Start today.

 9-Thou Shalt Lean on Laughter in Times of Trouble

Laughing in a place of pain is the most courageous and rebellious thing you can do. That pain does not own you. It is only what you are experiencing. By tapping into your ability to laugh, you are reminding yourself, and everyone around you, that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

10 -Thou Shalt Not Waste ANY Opportunities for Joy

To paraphrase Erma Bombeck, think of all the women on the Titanic, who, on that fateful night, said “no” to dessert. It’s easy to postpone joy in times of crisis or pain, but time keeps ticking. No matter where we find ourselves in life, it’s still life—it’s still a gift. And we must honor that gift in all we do.

 

Looking for more joy? Try my newest award-winning book of Advent meditations. Go from Grinch to gratitude with “Miracle on 31st  Street: Christmas Cheer Every Day of the Year – Grinch to Gratitude in 26 Days!”

 

Empowerment Hope Justice

Every Day is Election Day

This piece was delivered as a sermon at the history Madison Avenue Baptist Church on Sunday, November 8, 2020. It was also published by the Christian Citizen.

The Friday after the election, when we still didn’t have a president-elect, I wasn’t feeling so well.

The week had not been good for my health. Part of it, of course, was the stress of watching the excruciating election returns, but part of it was my choice of how to react to that stress.

While I could have chosen the grounded, rational, mindful way of dealing with stress—eat well, exercise, spend quiet time in meditation, stay close to the Lord—for most of the week, I did the opposite.

In fact, I kind of freaked out on election night, which was when it all started. Without going into detail, let’s just say it involved worshipping at the altar of a large meat pizza, some festive beverages, and a ten-pound bag of peanut M&M’s. Maybe some candy corn, too.

If it had been just that one night, okay. But election night went on and on throughout the entire week. There was no end to it. Day after day, we watched as impenetrable walls of red and blue locked down across the map of our great nation.

Day after day talking heads from every network spun dizzying scenario.

And if that wasn’t enough, in the middle of it all, Kanye and Kim Kardashian announced they were coming back in 2024.

What is happening to our country?

I know I wasn’t alone. My social media feeds were filled with people flipping out and acting out over the stress of election week. Sharon Stone tweeted “Is anyone else crying?” with a Tammy Faye Bakker-esque photo of herself in her bed, mascara running down her face. Rapper Cardi B posted a video while watching the election returns as she smoked three cigarettes at once.

The winner, however, was a post by my dear friend Andy Redeker. Redeker, a long-time Madison Avenue Baptist Church singer who joins our choir periodically, simply posted a photo that said, “election night.” It was a pile of Sour Balls, Reese’s cups, Mr. Goodbars, Paydays, cashews, sea salt and avocado oil kettle chips, two bottles of sauvignon blanc, and an entire box of Krispy Kremes.

You do what ya gotta do.

My point is that we all know a little about flipping out, and acting out, in the face of stress and crisis, doing things that make us feel better in the moment but do nothing to change the situation. So did the children of Israel.

Forty-seven days into their journey in the wilderness, the children of Israel found themselves at the foot of Mt. Sinai, with Mt. Sinai on fire.

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning. A cloud covered the mountain, and a very loud horn sounded. All the people among the tents shook with fear. Then Moses brought the people from among the tents to meet God. They stood at the base of the mountain. Its smoke went up like the smoke of a stove. And the whole mountain shook. (Exodus 19:16-18)

A fiery mountain that shakes with smoke, thunder, and lightning. Yup. Sounds like election night, all right.

But the next verse describes when things truly fell apart for the Israelites. The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, called Moses up, and Moses disappeared into the smoke and fire.

So there the Israelites sat — in shock – saying to themselves, “What just happened?” They had no clear leader. They had no coherent plan. They had no idea where the promised land was or if it even existed anymore. Worst of all, as the Bible later tells us, they were surrounded by enemy tribes that wanted them out of their country.

In that place of loss, shock, cynicism, disillusionment, and abandonment, it’s not surprising that the Israelites started to flip out. In the verses and chapters that follow, they started to act out. Like us on election night, they started worshipping idols that brought them short-term comfort: food, drink, sketchy behavior, a golden calf…things that made them feel better in the moment but did nothing to change the situation, things that led, in the long run, to destruction.

Oh, children of Israel, we get it. More than you can imagine.

After wandering in our own desert—our desert of COVID, economic uncertainty, injustice, police brutality, and an election like no other in this country—we, too, are staring at a fiery mountain that looms in front of us, and we’re wondering, “what just happened?”

We have a deadlocked country poised to blow, with leadership throwing gas on the fire. When the election is settled, the loss, shock, cynicism, disillusionment, and abandonment so many are experiencing will remain.

We have no idea where the promised land is or if it even exists anymore. It’s a time when many in this American family feel that they are surrounded by enemies who want them out.

This election reminds me of an intervention in which some family members gather face-to-face and speak their raw, unfiltered truth, while other family members watch and listen in horror.

That’s what you believe? I had no idea. That’s how you felt? I had hoped you didn’t.

David Brooks echoed this in a recent op-ed: “The voters reminded us yet again that the other side is not going away. We have to dispense with the fantasy that after the next miracle election our side will suddenly get everything it wants. We have to live with one another.”

Let’s switch gears for a moment, shall we? Let’s step back and gain a little perspective. Imagine standing at the base of Mt. Sinai and launching a drone. Okay, so they didn’t have drones in the 13th century B.C., but I said imagine.

As the drone rises up, we see that around the base of the mountain, folks are acting out. There is drinking, music, carousing, and infighting, but it’s what feels good in that moment, and the people have chosen, in their stress, to act out.

But raise the altitude on the drone a bit more, over the top of Mt. Sinai. Amid the chaos, smoke, and fire, the voice of God rings out. And on top of that mountain stands Moses with a tablet—the Ten Commandments—the blueprint for their long-term survival.

That drone visual represents the choice that we the people of this nation have right now:

To continue to worship at the altar of what feels good in the moment, to sling blame and anger, to wallow in resentment and name-calling, and to shame those who are different.

Or to climb the mountain, meet God in the fire, follow the commandments, and do what we know to be right. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the latter is our only way out.

Ironically, those commandments are one of the few remaining things that we as a nation have in common. I usually try and keep church and state separate, but religion may be the only thread holding us together.

Notwithstanding what state you live in, what political party you belong to, what race, what sexuality, or what age you are, 65% of this country’s citizens claim the title of Christian. And while we Christians come from all along the political spectrum, we still share the gospels, Jesus, and the Golden Rule: love the Lord thy God and your neighbor as yourself. That’s common ground.

Just think what we could do if we came together like in the words of the old hymn “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.”

We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we’ll guard each person’s dignity and save each person’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

There is common ground to be found.

And we can take that common ground further. 70% of people in our country claim the title of Christian, Muslim or Jewish, the three Abrahamic religions that honor the Ten Commandments as holy word—again, teachings that boil down to honoring God and your neighbor. Even among the other 30%, people who practice other religions or claim no religious affiliation, most hold to an ethic of caring for one’s neighbor.

The bottom line is that we as a nation have common ground, and it’s to be found in our long-held ethics of how we treat each other.

In “Election Day,” the poet John Roedel writes:

your entire life

has been an election

everybody you

encounter is

a polling station

you are casting

your vote with

every single breath

you take

every day is

election day

there are no political parties

there are only

endless opportunities

to turn our lives

into a roaring fountain of

compassion

 

Look, I’m not a Pollyanna. I know we’re not ready to reach across the political aisle and hug each other, even with masks on. That’s not what I’m suggesting.

What we need is something like an ice axe to arrest our slide down the slippery slope of an icy mountain, because we are on a slippery slope and are headed straight down if we don’t stop acting out.

For the longest time, we’ve been led to believe that the American dream is a zero-sum game, that if one group succeeds, another is somehow diminished. In fact, it’s the opposite. We’ll all in this together. As Dr. King said, “We may have all come on different boats, but we’re in the same boat now.”

That boat, my friends, is called America.

Is the American democratic experience over? I don’t know; at least we have Kanye and the Kardashians to bring us hope.

What I do know is that the answer is not to be found in Washington, D.C. The answer is not to be found in the halls of Congress or on the steps of the Supreme Court. No, the answer is to be found in the hands of every citizen of this country.

It’s to be found in the rough and worn hands of the farmers, the grain elevator operators, and the cross-country truckers who bring our food.

It’s to be found in the blackened hands of the firefighters in the forests of California and Oregon.

It’s to be found in the busy hands of our students, our Walmart greeters, and our construction workers.

It’s to be found in the hands of those who mourn, like the families of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

It’s to be found in the hands of those who rejoice, like Sarah McBride, our nation’s first trans state senator.

It’s to be found in the industrious hands of our small business owners, our Uber drivers, and our Metro transit workers.

It’s to be found in the exhausted hands of our essential frontline workers who are trying to keep us safe and alive in this pandemic.

It’s to be found in the gnarled hands of our old ones and the tiny pink hands of our newest citizens.

The answer is to be found in our hands.

Brothers and sisters, every day of our lives is election day. Everybody you encounter is a polling station. You are casting your vote with every single breath you take.

The future of this nation, the future of us as a human race, is to be found in the hands of we the people.

So, let us climb the mountain. Let us face the fire and carry forth God’s commandments.

Let us work to redeem our own individual souls, for in doing so, we may well redeem the soul of America.

 

 

Empowerment Hope Kindness

The Time is Ripe for Miracles

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

I’m afraid that miracles have gotten a bad name. Part of the problem is a regrettable subset of my clergy profession known as TV evangelists. You know the kind . . . folks with large, white, blow-dried hair who holler, “Just touch the television screen, and shout ‘Thank You, Jesus!’ Then mail a check for $49.95, and your psoriasis will be healed!”

The trashy rags you see in the grocery store check-out line also cast shade on the idea of miracles. The last one I saw featured the headline: “Cactus in Arizona Grows in Exact Shape of Gathering at Last Supper!”

Then, there’s the worst culprit of all: our own doubt. Nurtured by years of disappointments, we begin to believe that miracles aren’t possible—or at least not for us.

How tragic. Deeply embedded under our unhealed psoriasis, unrealized communion cactus, and unhinged confidence, I believe that there lies a tiny ember of hope that maybe, just maybe, miracles may still be possible. In fact, times like these—times of upheaval and difficulty—are ripe for miracles.

The Celts called tumultuous times of change “thin places.” Others, such as Franciscan father and author Richard Rohr, call them liminal spaces, those places “betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown” where fresh new growth can emerge. Rohr explains the significance of such places as “the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. . . . The threshold is God’s waiting room . . . an appointment with the divine Doctor.”

If our country has ever been in a liminal space, it’s now. If we as a people have ever been in a liminal space, it’s now. Truly, it is a time ripe for miracles.

Unfortunately, this is the point at which things usually break down. We read words like this, get our hopes up—again—and then sit back and wait for a miracle to happen. The operative word being “wait.” What we fail to realize is that we have agency in those miracles.

Think about all the miracles written about in the Bible. God created the miracle of manna, but the Israelites had to go out and gather it each day. At the wedding in Cana, Jesus commanded the stewards to fill up the stone jars with water. As they poured, the water turned into wine. Heaven provided the miracle; humans provided the means of delivery.

Recently, I read a story about Ashley Richer, a photographer who donates Disney-themed photo shoots to children with cancer. Ashley lost a young family friend to cancer. Rather than “wait” for future miracles to happen, she decided to use her God-given gifts, her miracles, to make dreams come true.

One such dream happened for five-year-old Arianna Taft. While Arianna was fighting a rare form of kidney cancer, Ashley invited her to do a photo shoot, complete with costumes, special effects, and backgrounds. Soon Arianna was transformed into Elsa from Frozen, Snow White, and Merida from Brave. A heavenly miracle of joy and hope was brought to fruition through humble human hands.

There are miracles all around us waiting to happen—waiting for us to make them happen. And Lord knows, we could sure use some.

Who in your life needs a miracle?

What in your community, your nation, or your world needs a miracle?

What abilities and gifts do you have that can usher in those miracles?

The moment to make them happen is now. Like little Arianna, we do not know what tomorrow will bring, but we do know who holds tomorrow. And that’s all that truly matters. For in that liminal place of turbulence and transition, all things, including miracles, are possible.

 

— A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian, and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. A nationally known speaker and preacher, she is the author of three books, including her newest, “Miracle on 31st  Street: Christmas Cheer Every Day of the Year – Grinch to Gratitude in 26 Days!” Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

Empowerment Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness Self care

Smoking in the Shower

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

 

I love smoking in the shower.

Not literally, or at least not in the way you might be thinking. I love “smoking in the shower,” which is the name my favorite diner gives to smoked salmon on a bagel. I don’t eat it often—only as a treat, and usually while alone in my apartment so I don’t have to share. Basically, the same way one would sneak a cigarette while hiding in the bathroom.

We all have our “smoking in the shower” moments: the things we do when no one is looking; the things that may feel good at the time but in the long run don’t make us stronger.

Like chowing down on a giant container of Ben and Jerry’s in secret.

Or binge-watching angry talk shows into the wee hours of the morning.

Or managing up at work. We all know people who are super-attentive and polite to their bosses but difficult and disrespectful to their subordinates when the higher-ups aren’t looking.

How about posting vicious social media posts and hiding behind anonymity?

Or saying judgmental, ugly, or racist things when no one else of that color, ethnicity, or religion is around?

“Smoking in the shower” moments happens in all aspects of life. But here’s the thing we have to remember: Over time, what we do in private drives who we are in public.

It could be as basic as what we eat or drink in private. Ten years ago, I did a cross-country drive from New York to Alaska. Trying to do it on the cheap, I ate a lot of McDonald’s and bought low-quality gas. It caught up with me somewhere in the Yukon when my Jeep could barely climb a hill, and I couldn’t fit in my overalls. If we abuse our bodies in private, we’re eventually going to give out in public.

It could also be what we feed our minds. If we spend our time in private filling our minds with negative, destructive things, then in public, we are going to speak and act on those harmful forces. In short, what goes in comes out. Not unlike garlic. If you eat it for dinner, you will share it with everyone you encounter.

In the end, what we do in private forms our foundation. It drives how we think, what we think about, and how we engage others. If our foundation is strong, our words, our work, and our purpose are grounded in value and significance. If, however, we draw on those negative forces, like road salt on a car frame, our foundation will corrode.

Here’s the good news: No matter what choices we have made in the past, no matter how many times we have found ourselves smoking in the shower, we can change. And here’s the double good news: We don’t have to do it alone. There’s a little something called prayer that can clean our deepest corrosion. As Mother Teresa said, “prayer changes us, and we change things.”

Prayer is actually the opposite of smoking in the shower. It is something we can do when no one is looking that makes us feel good AND makes us stronger. (It also has fewer calories than a bagel slathered with cream cheese and smoked salmon.)

Don’t let your choices in private corrode who you are in public.

Dig your foundations deep. Build your life on worthy, noble virtues. Make your stand on the rock of prayer. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you’ve built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That’s where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”

 

“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us, and we change things.”

 —Mother Teresa

 

Empowerment Hope

Grace Bats Last

This piece was also featured as one of my award-winning nationally syndicated columns for Gannett Media. 

I believe in the church of baseball.

Okay, yeah, I’ve written two baseball-themed columns back to back. And yeah, I stole that opening line from the movie Bull Durham. However, I’m not the only one who has said it or believes it. The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald called baseball “the faith of fifty million people.”

The idea is not that far off. If we look closely, there are helpful parallels between the sport of baseball and the spiritual path. Given the nature of our times, I’d say we could use help anywhere we can find it.

For example, in baseball and in life, there will always be a jeering crowd—people who love to scream judgment and ridicule, people who would rather destroy than delight in something great. I’m reminded of this old saying: “Beware of the masses, for sometimes the ‘m’ falls off.”

Babe Ruth experienced that when he stepped up to the plate in game three of the 1932 World Series. The Chicago crowd went crazy, yelling insults and even throwing lemons onto the field. Standing in the batter’s box and taking the full force of the insults, Babe suddenly called for a timeout. He stepped out of the box and pointed his bat toward center field, as if he were calling his shot—as if he were saying to everyone there, “Nothing you can do can touch me.”

After a moment, he stepped back in the box, and the pitcher, Charles Root, wound up and flung his best curveball at him. Babe connected with an earthquake-like crack, and the ball soared deep into center field, just where he had predicted. It was the longest home run in Wrigley Field history.

The lesson? Never let the crowd bully you into believing you are less than you are. As Isaiah 43:1 reminds us, “I have called you by your name; You are Mine.”

Another spiritual lesson from baseball is that we do not play alone. We always have a team surrounding us, even though sometimes we don’t see them.

It’s like the story about Yankees’ broadcaster Phil Rizzuto. One day, his colleague looked at Phil’s scorecard in the booth and saw “WW”—a notation he didn’t recognize. He asked Phil, “What is this?” And Phil replied, “Oh, wasn’t watching.”

When you aren’t watching, it can feel like you are all alone at the plate. However, if you step back and look at the whole field, you will see the team surrounding you. As Psalm 91:11 says, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”

The author Anne Lamott inspires a third spiritual lesson from baseball with her words, “Grace bats last.” In baseball lingo, people would say, “Grace bats cleanup.” The cleanup batter is always the fourth one in the lineup. The aim is to get the first three batters on base; then, with the bases loaded, the strongest hitter steps up.

We all know that feeling of working and sweating but ultimately reaching the point at which we can do no more. The crowd is jeering. We feel alone. We are being pitched nothing but curve balls and sliders. Nothing short of a miracle will do. In that moment, we must have faith that the strongest hitter—grace—will step in and bring us safely home. As Matthew 19:26 tells us, “With God all things are possible.”

Where do you hear the jeering crowds?

When do you feel most alone?

What miracle do you await?

Yes, I believe in the church of baseball, and all of God’s houses—sports, spiritual, or otherwise. They all offer us lessons that can help us through. So, when you’re surrounded by doubters and the bases are loaded, remember that the jeering crowd can’t touch you.

You are part of a team for which grace bats last.

Empowerment Hope

If You Build It, They Will Come

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

 

There are two ways to see life during times of trouble: pain or possibility. Don’t believe me? Then, believe Jesus and Kevin Costner.

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells the story of a landowner who entrusts his three servants with talents (currency) while he is away. He gives five talents to the first servant, who invests it and returns ten talents. Two talents are given to the second servant, who also invests and doubles his money. But the third servant, who receives one talent, is afraid, and he buries the money and returns only what he was given. The landowner shames him for not investing his gift.

Jesus’ lesson from this parable (among many) is that you must share, not bury, your God-given gifts. But there’s another important aspect of this story: There are NO exceptions. As with the third servant who buries his talent, fear is not an excuse. We might be unemployed, mourning the loss of a loved one, sitting in a chemo chair, or facing the prospect of a long, hard winter living through a global pandemic, but we still have the duty of making something of the gifts we’ve been given.

This brings us to our second piece of evidence: Kevin Costner who plays Ray Kinsella in the movie Field of Dreams. Kinsella’s Iowa farm is in crisis, and in that place of fear, he has two choices (similar to what we see in the parable): sell the farm back to the bank as is or take what his family has and build it into something more—a baseball diamond in their cornfield, a field of dreams.

Ray chooses the latter—taking what they have and building it into something more—thanks to three lessons whispered to him by a mysterious voice coming out of the cornfield.

The first thing the voice says is “ease his pain,” which for Ray means looking past his own fear to ease the pain of his late father. This lesson sounds counterintuitive, as it’s easy to think that when we are in pain, we should hunker down and focus on our own misery. However, the best way to ease our own pain is take our eyes off ourselves, and use our gifts to ease the pain of others.

A second lesson offered by the voice is “go the distance.” Like Ray and his farm, we, too, are in crisis—our lives turned upside down by COVID-19, our schools and children struggling, wildfires running rampant, and racial tensions at record highs. But even in the worst of circumstances, we must go the distance to live our gifts fully. As Hebrews 12:1 tells us, “We must run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

The third and final lesson is a phrase familiar to us all: “If you build it, he will come.” In the movie, that means building a baseball diamond in a cornfield where players of past eras would return, including his father. But what does it mean for us?

Here’s what it meant for a dear friend of mine. Pastor Ned Lenhart is the father of a beautiful, talented teen-aged daughter who also happens to have Down syndrome. When she auditioned for her high school choir, she was told that there was no place for her. Ned and his wife Jill then took that pain and made it into their own field of dreams by forming Hearts in Harmony, an adaptive show choir for special needs kids throughout their Wisconsin community.

-What pain are you in right now?

-Who else is suffering like you?

-How can you use your gifts and talents to ease their pain and build something great?

Whatever you are facing right now, know that there is a way to turn your pain into possibility. Go the distance. Ease someone’s pain. Share your talents no matter what the circumstances. Truly, if you build it, they will come.

 

 

Empowerment Kindness Self care

Love Your Neighbor . . . Unless Your Neighbor is a Squirrel

This was also featured as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City

as well as a nationally syndicated column with Gannett. 

I am an ordained minister who is expected to teach people to “Love your neighbor.”

And I do.

But recently, I found an exception to that rule. Love your neighbor . . . unless your neighbor is a squirrel.

My discovery happened several weeks ago, when my husband, Toby, placed a fresh loaf of sourdough bread on our kitchen counter to cool. We left to run errands, only to return to find a giant hole gnawed through the kitchen screen and my enemy, the squirrel, sitting on the counter. While his eyes conveyed a “who me?” look, his bread-stuffed cheeks told the full story. Furious, we chased him around the house until Toby caught him in a fishing net and tossed his furry behind out of our home.

We repaired the screen, but several days later, the same thing happened again. A week later, we installed “chew proof” screen, and that afternoon, we discovered my now ARCH-enemy, the squirrel, with his head buried in a casserole of mac and cheese cooling on the counter.

Mac and cheese, people.

The book of Revelations 6:8 talks about such things: “And I looked, and behold a pale squirrel . . . and hell followed with him.”

Or was it a horse?

Either way. While you may not have a furry creature breaking into your home and eating your mac and cheese and sourdough bread, but we all have our squirrels—the things that wiggle their way into our psyche and eat at the good things in our life, the things that devour our sense of happiness and wellbeing before we even have time to taste them.

Maybe it’s the squirrel that sits on your shoulder and chatters that you don’t have enough money saved, that you might lose your job, or that you might not be able to pay your rent.

Maybe it’s the squirrel that burrows its way into every waking moment with worries that the tickle in the back of your throat is an early COVID-19 symptom.

Or maybe it’s the worry that your child, or you as a teacher, may have to return to the petri dish of a classroom this fall.

Whatever your squirrels, you must find a way to keep them at bay before they devour everything good and sustaining around you.

My suggestion? Follow our blueprint.

First, do what you can to screen out your squirrels. That may mean turning off the news every once in a while so you can avoid the headlines blaring at you 24/7. It could mean stopping the constant scrolling through social media posts. And it definitely means screening out the negative, judgmental people in our lives. (Can I have an amen?)

It’s amazing what a strong screen can do to hold at bay the things that gnaw away at our happiness.

But as Toby and I found out, squirrels can still get through even the strongest screens. That’s when you need a strong hand to toss them out of your house.

One such hand is a strong sense of self. Loving your neighbor doesn’t mean loving someone or something to the point of your own destruction. It doesn’t mean leaving your windows open so that the world can come in and eat away at your happiness. Remember, the commandment “Love your neighbor” came with a crucial counterbalance: Love your neighbor . . . as yourself.

While personal boundaries are important, Psalm 34:4 shares the most powerful hand we can find: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” God is the only one who knows all the nooks and crannies where those pesky squirrels can hide. All we have to do is acknowledge our fear and ask for help. Then God will usher out the most troublesome invaders.

The moral of the story? Protect the good things in your life. Screen out your squirrels. And when the screen can’t hold, find a strong hand to toss them out. You are worthy of joy, and as a child of God, you have the right to all the mac and cheese life has to offer.