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.

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.

Empowerment Hope Justice Uncategorized

Little House on the Pandemic

When I hear the word “pioneer,” I think of Rosa Parks, John Glenn, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Whether on the frontiers of racial justice, space, or the Midwestern plains, pioneers have always drawn our imagination and inspired our respect. It’s no wonder that Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie became a wildly popular television series during the 1970s and 80s. The New York Times even listed it as suggested comfort viewing during the pandemic.

And why not? The pioneers in Little House on the Prairie were brave people uprooted from their familiar lives and surrounded by a vast, unknown territory. And today, we find ourselves in the exact same position: uprooted from our familiar lives by a rampant virus and surrounded by a vast, unknown territory permanently transformed by COVID-19. In fact, many of us probably feel that we are living on the set of “Little House on the Pandemic.”

But COVID-19 is not our only new world. We are in the midst of a new world of racial reckoning. We are on the cusp of a new world of globalization, environmental deterioration, political altercations, and personal aggravation. Even the tax deadline has been changed!

We are the new pioneers. And we must find our way by embracing the ways of those pioneers who have gone before.

There’s an old saying that to discover new lands, you have to be willing to lose sight of the shore for a very long time. In short, finding a new path means giving up the old one. The early pioneers understood this. They founded this country through blood, sweat, and tears. They made colossal mistakes and monumental discoveries. They all gave up something dear—their homes, their families, their livelihoods, even their lives—for the dream of something better.

To move into our new world, we, too, must give up something dear. Living through COVID-19 is like being on a wagon train that just left the last outpost and is plodding through a territory that is vast, unknown, and dangerous. To survive—and hopefully thrive—we will have to release our attachments to “the way things were.” That is the horizon of which we must lose sight if we are to discover new lands. It’s a loss that must be mourned. But in letting go of the old, we can begin to believe in something new.

Like freedom.

In theory (emphasis on “theory”) that’s the idea upon which this country was based, as evidenced in the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

And yet, how far we’ve strayed. We aren’t welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses. We are walling them out. Or worse, bringing in those yearning to be free and indenturing them. That’s the reality now, and it has been for hundreds of years of our American history.

But the dream isn’t lost just because of our history and current reality. We, as the new pioneers, must hold on to the vision of something better: our belief in a disease-free, post-pandemic world, our faith in the possibility of a racially just world in which everyone breathes free.

That’s the dream that gleams on the horizon. But let’s be clear: Just because that dream beckons, that doesn’t mean we will get there. Between us and the promised land, there is some harsh territory that we must traverse. It will take blood, sweat, and tears. It will take colossal mistakes and monumental discoveries.

But we can do it.

We are strong, and we are brave.

So let us fortify our little house on the pandemic, and homestead in the wilderness of racial reckoning. Let us let go of the old and give birth to the new. Let us turn and head into the unknown together, so that eventually, we can create a better world on the other side.

Hope Justice Kindness

All You Need is Love, a Tiara, and a Cupcake

How do you hold on to hope in the midst of despair?

To answer that question, you can read the seven trillion self-help books on Amazon, or you can spend hours listening to YouTubes and Ted Talks.

My preference, however, is to go the simple route. All you need is love, a tiara, and a cupcake.

Let’s start with the cupcake. Who doesn’t love a cupcake? Maybe it reminds us of childhood. Maybe we just love sweets. Maybe it’s because it’s tiny. Whatever the reason, a cupcake just makes us smile.

We all have our own cupcake—that person, place, or thing that brings lightness and joy. What’s yours?

Of course, some of you may be thinking that given the state of the world, you just can’t smile. You don’t even remember what makes you smile. I get it. But when I need a way to remember my smile, I read Psalms 43:5: “O my soul, why be so gloomy and discouraged? Trust in God! I shall again praise him for his wondrous help; he will make me smile again, for he is my God!”

So, we start by remembering our cupcake, our inherent gift of joy. Then, we need a tiara. Everybody knows that you need a little swagger to wear a tiara. You need a little pride in yourself to wear a crown. These days, however, pride is hard won in the fight against the constant shame of the world.

People love to shame. But we also know, at least intellectually, that the need to shame comes from that person’s own shame. It comes out of their own fear, their own self-loathing, their resentment about what’s not right in their life.

Here’s the good news: we all have the power to refuse to be shamed. Again, hear the Psalmist, this time in Psalm 34:5: “Those who look to the Lord are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.”

Our pride comes from the knowledge that we are perfect and beloved children of God. In other words, when we were born, God crowned us with a radiant tiara—a holy stamp of approval, a sign of our belonging. And when we refuse to be shamed, that tiara shines like a beacon declaring our holy worth. Just as important, it reminds others that they, too, have the power to refuse to be shamed.

And so we find our cupcake, put on our holy tiara, and then march out into the midst of the world’s excruciating pain and begin to love.

Recently, I received an extraordinary email from a woman of color in my congregation. She said, “Right now is such a tumultuous time, but I have hope because among all this unrest, human compassion has never shined brighter.”In the crosshairs of racist violence, it was love that kept her hope alive.

Brothers and sisters, the power of human compassion—of love—is dazzling. It can build bridges, mediate anger, and comfort our fearful hearts. Never has the world needed it more.

The human heart is an amazing thing. Science has estimated that within an average human lifespan, it beats approximately 2 billion times.

Here’s my question: How do you want to spend them?

Do you want your heart burning through those beats in fear, stress, and anger?

Or do you want every one of those precious rhythms to be a beat of love, compassion, and kindness?

It’s a painful, aching time in this life. But even now, we can be brave and cling to hope. Out of the chaos of these times can come a better day. And it’s up to us—you and me—to usher that day in.

Find your joy, don your radiance, and open your arms in compassion. In the end, remember that it’s just three simple things can change the world: love, a tiara, and a cupcake.

 

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

 

Hope Kindness Laughter Self care

Put on Your Mask . . . and Smize!

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

 

Going to the grocery store these days makes me feel like I’m one of the astronaut characters in the movie The Martian. Just this morning, my husband and I made our once-every-two-weeks early morning trip to the Fairway Market on Second Avenue and 30thStreet in New York City. Donning masks and rubber gloves, we left our apartment with two backpacks, a rolling cart, and several container bags, just as if we were preparing for an interplanetary mission.

Of course, everyone else who was out and about on their own Mars mission was wearing a mask too, but this morning, we noticed something different. While most people kept a fairly flat facial expression behind their mask as they passed, one young woman looked up and smiled. Instinctively, both my husband and I smiled back at her.

How do I know she smiled? Because she smized.

For those of you who are not fans of the television show America’s Next Top Model, “smize” is slang for “smiling with your eyes.” First coined by the host of the show, supermodel Tyra Banks, “smize” combines the word smile with the sound of the word eyes. In these days of COVID-19 and the new era of masks, what could be more important than to smize?

Smiling (or smizing, these days) can transform our entire outlook. Psychologists and scientists as far back as Charles Darwin have argued that emotions can be regulated by behavior. We usually think the opposite—that we smile when we are feeling happy—but science has shown that we can create happiness by the act of forming a smile.

For example, scientists have discovered that when a person smiles, it triggers physiological changes in the brain that cool the blood, which in turn controls our mood, which causes a feeling of happiness. Translation: we can change our inward emotion by changing our outward expression.

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

I think of the famous lyrics by Louis Armstrong: “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” Armstrong was onto something, as neuroscience has shown that merely seeing a smile (or a frown) activates mirror neurons in the brain that mimic the emotion. Translation: When someone smiles at us, we smile back, and vice versa. And now, thanks to my empirical research on the way to the grocery store, we know that seeing a smile expressed through the eyes has the exact same effect.

This idea has caught on in a number of industries, including the hospitality business. For example, both Walt Disney World and the Ritz Carlton use what’s called the 10/5 Rule. When hotel employees are within ten feet of a guest, they must make eye contact and smile. When they get within five feet of the guest, they must say hello. The bottom line? Joy is contagious.

Here’s the moral of the story: Just because you are wearing a mask and feeling like you are on a Mars mission doesn’t mean you can’t feel and share joy. In fact, this is a time when we need joy more than ever!

Try it this week. Put on your mask and smize! As my dear friend Rabbi Bob Alper once said,“when we are called to our maker, we will each be held responsible for all the opportunities for joy that we ignored.”

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

 

Hope Justice

Be Like the Little Children

I was awakened this morning by the sound of helicopters overhead. Turning on the news, I heard that the Macy’s flagship store had been vandalized – just three blocks from us and Madison Avenue Baptist Church. An hour later, I went outside to find that a “666” had been spray-painted on the side of our apartment/hotel building and a local coffee shop next door to the church had been broken into. The windows of the building in which I live are being boarded-up by the owners for protection. And this morning we boarded up the outside stained-glass windows of the church as well.

As a white woman clergy watching these protests engulf our country, I am painfully aware of my lack of awareness for what my black and brown brothers and sisters are feeling in this moment, and have felt for generations under the anvil of racism. I am angry about the continuing injustice and violence toward people of color and the lack of concern that seems to ooze from our leaders.

I am also angry and disgusted at the destruction of the small businesses and legitimate family enterprises that are being looted and destroyed. While I realize that the damage is being perpetrated by a small minority, I still wonder — why would one tear down one’s own community in protest? Why harm your brothers and sisters? Then again, if you feel the system has failed you to the point that your people are being systematically slain . . . how could you not?

From the riots, to the police violence, to the ugly inflammatory language being publicly Tweeted about – brothers and sisters, we are better than this.

I can only ask that we raise prayers in support of our nation and each other. And I share this vignette to help us remember that there is hope . . . if only through the next generation.

Last year, I was in the Atlanta airport waiting on a flight and I noticed a Muslim woman of color in full burka with two boys and a girl between the ages of three and five. The kids, also in traditional clothing, were nestled on the floor watching a video. Across from them was a white woman with a little boy, also about five. She occasionally eyed the woman in the burka with what looked like suspicion.

After a few minutes, when his mother wasn’t watching, the little boy slowly sneaked over behind the Muslim kids and began watching their video. Something funny happened in the piece and he and the other kids started giggling. Without hesitation, he sat down, curled up beside the little girl and kept watching. Without even looking up, the little girl turned the iPhone a bit, so he could see it. The moms looked down, looked up at each other, then smiled and shrugged.

Those kids didn’t allow the differences — clothes, race, nationality, religion — to prevent them from finding common ground. And that, my friends, is what could happen in our world.

Could happen.

But we have to be the ones to make it happen. And it starts with us white people. It will take a calm faith and righteous fighting – of the racism in the world and in our own hearts – to win the day. But if we remember the children – the next generation for whom we are fighting . . .  justice can and will roll down.

“And Jesus said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'”   (Matthew 18:3).

Empowerment Gratitude Hope Kindness Self care

In the Shelter of Your Wings

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

During this COVID-19 crisis, I’m drawing inspiration from an unexpected source. It isn’t quiet meditation, connecting with loved ones via Zoom, or even large quantities of Lipton’s French onion soup dip with Ruffles (my go-to emotional balm).

Nope. My greatest sense of calm is found—every day—at Dollywood.

I’m not talking about the rollercoaster or waterpark. Unbeknownst to many, Dollywood has the largest exhibit of non-releasable bald eagles in the country. Better yet, in that sanctuary, tucked inside an eagle’s nest, is a live webcam. And every day while I work, I keep the webcam broadcast playing in the background.

As I write this column, I am watching the mother eagle (named Glenda by the sanctuary) use her wings to shelter a tiny, fuzzy, greyish fluffball that looks like an earmuff with claws. The fluffball (whom I have affectionately named Sam) has had his breakfast, pooped, and is taking a nap. Glenda is snuggling sleeping Sam and nibbling on some dirt.

My blood pressure is at an all-time low.

Apparently, I’m not alone. All across the country—and the world—people are tuning in not just to eagle web-cams, but to all types of live nature videos. There are puppy cams, kitten cams, and panda cams. There is a jellyfish cam at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There is even a live solar-powered safari cam posted next to a remote watering hole in Kenya.

Why wouldn’t we be drawn to such things? We are sheltered-in-place. We are craving nature, normalcy, routine, and comfort. And what better way to meet those needs than to watch the Earth continue to turn, the sun continue to rise, and creation continue to go about its business, oblivious to a global pandemic, undisturbed by a wildly fluctuating market, and utterly unmindful of what the future holds?

For me, this eagle webcam offers a powerful reminder of the importance of the basics. Glenda and Sam’s day is simple. Glenda’s duty is to keep Sam safe, warm and fed. Sam’s job is to eat, sleep, stay alive, and grow. Occasionally, the dad, Grant, shows up with food and takes a turn with Sam, but the routine is the same.

It’s too bad our priorities as human beings aren’t as focused. It’s easy to lose our way in the avalanche of alarms, noise, news, and demands of our current world order. But what really matters in the end is the same for us as it is for the eagles: caring for our loved ones, creating a safe, nurturing home, staying warm and fed, and ensuring that we eat, sleep, stay alive, and grow.

The rest is gravy.

I’m reminded of the many biblical images of eagles as guardians. “The lord shielded him and cared for him . . . like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young” (Deuteronomy 32:10-11). One of my favorite passages is from Psalm 57: “Have mercy on me, oh God, have mercy. For in you, my soul takes refuge. In the shadow of your wings I take refuge. Until the destroying storms pass by.”

Apropos at this moment, Sam is peeking out from under Glenda’s wing. All you can see is his head; the rest of his body is nestled under hers, taking refuge, toasty and protected. Truly, that tiny eaglet has what every human being yearns for, longs for, aches for: to be safely surrounded by love, life, and belonging.

When this pandemic is over, I hope to drive down to Tennessee to see Glenda, Grant, and even Sam if he’s still there. Or, perhaps, a new fluffball will be snuggled next to Glenda as the cycle of life continues. In the meantime, I’ll just continue to write while watching from afar . . . a mother eagle and her eaglet in the shelter of her wings.

— A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City and the author of three books, including her newest “Miracle on 31stStreet: Christmas Cheer Every Day of the Year – Grinch to Gratitude in 26 Days!” coming May 3, 2020. Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.

 

 

 

 

Empowerment Hope Kindness

God Is Not Sheltered-in-Place

This column was recently featured in The Christian Citizen

It’s official. ZooBorns win!

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

This week: baby otters from Australia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God—life—is not sheltered-in-place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To laugh.

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

Joy is springing forth.

Life is springing forth.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Empowerment Hope Kindness

THIS JUST OUT: Coronavirus and Kindness Are Both Contagious!

 

The Bible says to love your neighbor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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