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.

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!

 

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 Justice

The Power of a Pinwheel

I was in the parking lot of the Walgreens recently and heard squeals of laughter coming from a Kia Soul nearby. Not knowing a drug store to be a place of great guffaws, I walked around to find the source. Leaning out the window of the small SUV was a little girl no more than five years old holding a pinwheel that was spinning furiously in the wind.

There’s something so magical about a pinwheel. Show a kid one of those brightly colored toys whirling in the breeze, and they’re hooked. In this age of robots and video games, that makes absolutely no sense. Who knows? Maybe the attraction is the colors, or maybe it’s the fun of making the sails spin around.

Personally, I think it’s a deeper draw to the power of the wind. A pinwheel was created to capture and manifest that power, and when it does, amazing things happen.

From a theological standpoint, it’s not hard to see the parallel. We were created to channel the power of God. Unfortunately, like a pinwheel without wind, we tend to block that holy power with things like fear, doubt, and judgment. It’s when we free ourselves from those human failings and allow the spirit to work that magic can happen. My friend Dr. Michael B. Brown once offered a prayer that says it best: “Lord, speak through me, and don’t let me get in the way.”

What would life look like—what would the world be like—if we freely channeled God’s power for this higher purpose?

I think it would be like the great wind farms you see in the western United States, where hundreds of giant pinwheels—wind turbines—stand side by side as far as the eye can see, channeling the power of the wind to irrigate crops, grind grain, and generate electricity. Those turbines stand in solidarity to change the world.

Think of the things we could accomplish if we stand side-by-side in solidarity as far as the eye can see and channel the ultimate source of renewable energy, the power of God?

Friends, the world needs bold leaders and courageous givers. It needs you. This week, think about how you might raise your sails, lean into the wind, and let God speak. Together, like those great wind turbines, we can truly change the world.

joy Laughter Religion and Spirituality

Preaching Punchlines

Please enjoy a recent interview I did with my publisher Smyth & Helwys on my book Preaching Punchlines. 

 

As a trial lawyer turned standup comedian and Baptist minister, Susan Sparks is America’s only female comedian with a pulpit.  A North Carolina native, Susan received her B.A. at the University of North Carolina and a law degree from Wake Forest University.

After ten years as a lawyer moonlighting as a standup, she left her practice and spent two years on a solo trip around the world, including working with Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and driving her Jeep Wrangler solo from NYC to Alaska. Upon returning home, she entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she earned a Master of Divinity and wrote an honors thesis on humor and religion. In May 2007 Susan was installed as the 15th Senior Minister of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. She was the first woman pastor in its 170-year history and she remains there to this day.

What was your hope with writing Preaching Punchlines: The Ten Commandments of Comedy?

I believe that smart, focused, joyful communication is a matter of life and death—especially in preaching. Who could forget in the book of Acts when Eutychus fell to his death from window because he was lulled to sleep by the Apostle Paul’s long and boring preaching.

Words can slay people’s spirit, eradicate their joy, gut their passion. Words can alienate, divide, shame, and destroy community. They can corrode budding spiritual seekers through boredom, irrelevance or confusion. Now more than ever, we need to harness the power of joyful words to heal our broken world. Preaching Punchlines was my humble attempt to do exactly that.

 

Why did you decide to break down your book’s structure through “The Ten Commandments of Comedy”? How did you decide each commandment?

Laughter happens when two unexpected ideas clash together. That is why I put comedy and the Ten Commandments juxtaposition. The lessons demonstrate how tools from my twenty years plus as a professional standup comedian and ordained preacher can transform our preaching and help us better honor this message of “good news.” Lessons include getting to the point (editing); framing messages that people will listen to, remember and share; finding your creative voice; authenticity in the pulpit; forming instant trust and rapport with your congregation or audience; and building bridges and defusing conflict. There are also QR codes throughout the book that link to videos or additional resources.

In your book, you share about using humor in sermons to better relate and connect with your audience. Why you think humor does this?

I believe that ministers and standup comedians have the same job. We both are called to stand in solidarity with people during the crazy, annoying times of life and the times of tragedies. When done right, both ministers and comedians make people feel a little less alone. That’s because when you laugh with someone, whether it’s a friend, stranger, or enemy, your worlds overlap for a split second, and you share something in common.

Preaching with humor also helps present important ethical and spiritual teachings in a fresh way that people will hear, remember, and share. One example is an Easter sermon I preached called “The King Lives.” However, it was not the standard expected Easter message. The sermon was based on a trip I took to Graceland and presented what Christians had to learn from Elvis fans; namely, Elvis fans believe that the King stills lives.

What can humor teach us about our faith?

Allowing humor and joy into our spiritual lives invites a more wholistic approach to faith. We can’t be whole if we don’t give God all the pieces – and that includes the tears, the anger, the fear, and the laughter. It’s all holy.

Ecclesiastes says that there is a time to weep, and a time laugh.  Unfortunately, we’ve allowed the balance to get thrown off.  The church is more about judgment and shame than joy and hope. Which is crazy since the word “gospel” translates to “good news.” Our places of worship have gotten too caught up in self-importance and solemnity; the idea that we must be serious in church to be serious about church. We must remember that we are children of a God with a sense of joy and humor. We are made in the image of the divine, and we laugh, therefore a part of the divine must also encompass joy and laughter.

In the end, the gift of laughter offers us two powerful tools to live our faith more deeply and authentically. The first is hope. As a cancer survivor I know first-hand that if you can stand in the face of crisis and find a way to smile or laugh, that is the moment you take life back and reclaim your power. Laughter also brings us empathy and forgiveness. Here is my entire philosophy in a nutshell: If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And, if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others. With the tools of hope and forgiveness (as generated through the gift of laughter), we can face anything life throws at us.

To me, it seemed that one of your important points wasn’t that church sermons and Christianity can’t mix with comedy, but rather that Christianity has developed into bonding comedy with danger. Why is Christianity afraid of laughter? How can this be transformed?

The philosopher Voltaire wrote, “God is a comedian playing to an audience who is afraid to laugh.”  Historically, Christianity and the church has tended to label humor and laughter as evil – a sign of the fall. But as the theologian Conrad Hyers pointed out, it’s the absence of humor that is the problem, for that absence signifies the pride that caused the fall. Bottom line, humor threatens power. If we laugh in holy realms, God forbid that might mean there is some wiggle room in the dogma. Yes, humor can be dangerous . . . but so can sanctity.

How can we, as a people of faith, believe that our own heart is worthy to receive joy, as you mention in the early pages of Preaching Punchlines?

To paraphrase Erma Bombeck, think of all the women on the Titanic, who, on that fateful night, said no to dessert.

Okay, so we may not be on the Titanic. But sometimes life can make us feel like we are sinking, whether it’s under the weight of stress, work demands, family issues, medical problems or difficult people. Sadly, thanks to low self-esteem or high self-doubt, some of us don’t believe we deserve to be happy.

Many of us are walking this earth physically alive but dead of spirit, operating at the level of our social security number—existing, rather than living. But time is ticking . . .   As the words from the Jewish Talmud warn, “when we are called to our maker, we will each be held responsible for all the opportunities for joy that we ignored.”

One of the best ways to remember our blessings is to start our day with a prayer of gratitude. The actor Denzel Washington once suggested a great way to ensure that prayer happens. He explained that you should put your shoes way under the bed at night because then, you’ve got to get down on your knees each morning to find them.

As Jesus taught, “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (John 15:11).

To flip the perspective a little, how has being a Christian effected your experience as a stand-up comedian?

I’d like to tweak the question and answer it from a more general perspective: How can religion elevate comedy to its highest and best use? I have been privileged to be part of a twenty-year comedy tour called “Laugh in Peace”staring, me, a standup Rabbi, and a Muslim comic. Appearing everywhere from The World Bank Headquarters in Washington, DC to the Palestinian Fest in Houston, Texas the goal of the tour (which started right after 9/11) is to build bridges and reconcile differences through humor.

In the show, Rabbi Alper explains about the differences in language and culture: “After three years at seminary I took a year off, to study in Israel. I had some Biblical Hebrew under my belt, but it was difficult during the first weeks. For example, I can still see the look on the cab driver’s face when we pulled into our neighborhood and I said to him, in my Hebrew, ‘BEHOLD! Here I descend.’”

I talk about the sometimes-limited worldview of Christians — especially Baptists: “One nice thing you can say about the Southern Baptists is that their theology is always short and sweet. Like their idea of heaven: ‘You ain’t Southern Baptist? You ain’t coming.’ That’s like 6.5 billion people not coming. If you look at a world map, that’s every landmass on the face of the globe … except Texas and Alabama.”

Alternatively, Azhar Usman rifts on what it’s like being Muslim in America: “It’s nice to be back home in America, where I get dirty looks for being a Muslim. I was just overseas, and it felt totally different: people hating me just for being an American. I felt so patriotic.”

Our audiences span every imaginable face: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists. And for two short hours, the differences are forgotten, and we all laugh together. Given the current headlines, it’s hard to imagine a message the world needs more.

As you were published prior to the pandemic, how do you think your approach to Preaching Punchlines would have changed if you wrote it now?

Not at all. In fact, I created a free YouTube course called “Preaching in a Pandemic.” It takes the same lessons from the book and applies them to virtual preaching.

Finally, do you have any suggestions on how we can stop burying our own punchlines?

Of all the times we need to share our punchlines – to share joy – it’s now. For sharing joy can literally change the world.

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. Translated: we can change our inward emotion by changing our outward expression.

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. The Benedictine Nun Joan Chittister once said that we have to the potential to be the human beat of the heart of God. Being conduits for God’s joy is the way to bring that heart to life.

 

 

 

Laughter

Soap Angels from Heaven

This blog was originally published in 2016 and featured in Psychology Today   . It was republished this week by the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. 

 

Last Wednesday, I woke up in a surly mood. You know the kind—when you open your eyes and just think *%&(@%! for no apparent reason. My whole day was looking to be doomed with this black cloud of surliness … until I walked out of the front door of my New York City apartment.

As I emerged from the entrance, I was accosted by a ginormous cloud of soap bubbles. Swatting through the blizzard, I looked up the street and saw a woman walking away pushing a stroller. Sticking out of the buggy was a tiny arm holding a battery-powered bubble machine that was exploding shiny spheres all over the mob of similarly surly morning commuters. Squeals of laughter echoed from the stroller.

I watched as people stopped, looked up from their intense sidewalk stare, and began to smile. One man broke out laughing when he realized bubbles were stuck to his briefcase. A woman in a power suit was trying to catch them in her hand. A tiny dog was leaping and chasing them. And an old man with a walker just stood by watching the bubbles like they were angels come to earth.

Amazing what water and soap can do to transform the human spirit! But then again, maybe it’s not just the soap and water, but our capacity for hope and joy that we have managed to forget, yet somehow is reflected in those bubbles. The world can tend to beat that child-like wonder out of us. Then, all of a sudden we wake up surly, mad at the world or perhaps ourselves, for no reason.

Our joy is still there. Our smile is still there. It’s just that it’s buried under years of pain, doubt and fear. The good news is that it doesn’t take that much to remember: a smile, a kind gesture, a little child with a bubble machine. And in a split second, our joy emerges like the morning sun over the horizon.

As I turned to walk to work, I decided to take a quick detour to the nearest drugstore and buy a bottle of bubbles, those soap angels from heaven. I had to; I knew it. It was a modest investment that would bring about a marvelous change.

Empowerment Hope joy Self care

Not Today, Satan!

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column

with the USA Today Network. 

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

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

Sounds familiar.

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

Check. I know one or two of those myself.

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

That’s why from the beginning of my ministry, I’ve had a sign on my desk that says, “Not Today, Satan!” In fact, to fight what I call Satan and his sneaky, corrosive messages, I have devised a sure-fire three-point plan. It’s quick, easy, and simple to remember because the first letters of each step spell P-O-W.

Step #1: P – PIVOT – Pivot out of his line of fire 

It’s a simple concept. In life, if you see that you’re about to get hit, you duck. It’s the same with negative voices. We know our weak spots, the things that drive us crazy and wear us down. When we see them coming, we should just pivot!

If it’s a person, then pivot and walk away.

If it’s the daily headlines, then pivot and take a news break.

If it’s the crazy people on Facebook . . . then pivot and get offline!

STEP #2: O – Occupy the light

We get so caught up in the dark shadow of negative messages that sometimes we forget what it feels like to walk in the light. Once we pivot out of that shadow, we need to restore ourselves with positive healing. We must occupy the light. It’s like the book of Philippians teaches: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

When we pivot out of the line of fire, and then occupy the light, the devil has no chance. And that’s where step three come in.

Step #3: W – Whack the devil upside the head

I am reminded of two things here. First, Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew: “Get behind me, Satan!” And second, a quote I recently saw on Pinterest: “The devil whispered in my ear, you’re not strong enough to withstand the storm. Today, I whispered in the devil’s ear, I am the storm.”

POW!

We can’t afford to let our weak spots weaken us. We can’t afford to burn energy on infighting and corrosive behavior. There is work to be done. There is life to be lived. So, when the shadows come and the negative voices start to shout (and they will), just pivot, stand in the light, and loudly proclaim, “Not today, Satan!”

Environment Justice

POOPING IN THE BIRD FEEDER: An Earth Day Message

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

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

Or did.

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

Pooped in the bird feeder.

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

A blue jay. And, ummmmm, us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empowerment Gratitude Hope joy Second Chances Self care

Eat, Pray, Love . . . at Home

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

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

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

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

Eat

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

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

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

Pray

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

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

Love

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

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

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

Empowerment Hope Self care

Just Keep Swinging

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What demons are you staring down?

What weaknesses are they attacking?

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

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

Empowerment Justice

Preach Like a Girl

This piece was also featured by The Christian Citizen

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

You are not alone. 

 

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

The animals seemed to love it.

My Southern Baptist Church home, however, did not.

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

Because I’m a woman.

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

But a woman preacher—in a pulpit?

No. Way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can no longer afford this unjust denial of vocation.

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

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