I Love Smoking in the Shower – Rev. Susan Sparks – Madison Ave. Baptist Church

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

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Wisdom seeks a third way – Rev. Dr. Rhonda Abbott Blevins*

Wisdom seeks a third way: The congregational dimension of Christian citizenship

Rev. Dr. Rhonda Abbott Blevins

October 5, 2020 – The Christian Citizen

Visit a Christian church in the United States today, and you might spot two flags on the chancel: an American flag and a Christian flag. Nothing could better symbolize the reality that as Christians and Americans, we are citizens of two realms.

What does this mean for the faithful women and men who comprise America’s churches?

There is an inherent tension with this dual citizenship. Much of the time, we do not think about it. But when the values of our faith contradict the laws or practices of our government, what then?

It might prove helpful to remember how Jesus navigated his dual citizenship as both an adherent of the Jewish faith and a subject of the Roman government. In the synoptic gospels, we read about the Pharisees (Jewish leaders) and the Herodians (Roman loyalists) joining forces to trick Jesus, asking him if a good Jew should pay taxes to Caesar. If Jesus says, “No,” he will be at odds with the Roman law. If he says, “Yes,” he upsets his Jewish followers. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus replies to the chagrin of his Jewish companions. It appears that Jesus has aligned with the Herodians. But then he continues, “and to God what is God’s.”[i] The tricksters offer Jesus a binary problem; Jesus responds with a non-binary solution. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ challengers are amazed by his answer; their false dichotomy exposed in the light of his wisdom.

Wisdom seeks a third way.

Whether the rub as Christian citizens is between church and state or between Republican and Democrat, or something else entirely, wise followers of what the earliest believers called “The Way” must continually seek a third way: a higher way that exposes the fallacies of either/or thinking. Trinitarian expressions of faith were born for this.

The United States has a two-party system with either/or thinking built into its DNA. Citizens are pushed, pulled, dragged and cajoled into ascribing loyalty to one party or the other. Party identity often becomes a primary way we see ourselves and one another. When we begin to think of ourselves as “Democrat” or “Republican,” we can be confident that we have fallen prey to either/or thinking.

What does third-way wisdom look like in a congregational setting, especially in 2020 when a global pandemic rages and racial tensions flare in the midst of an election year? What can church leaders do to lift disparate people above the cacophony of partisan dog whistles and political posturing?

Wisdom seeks a third way.

What does third-way wisdom look like in a congregational setting, especially in 2020 when a global pandemic rages and racial tensions flare in the midst of an election year? What can church leaders do to lift disparate people above the cacophony of partisan dog whistles and political posturing?

Name it. For starters, church leaders can name the tension. The election will be on the minds of worshippers in 2020. If church leaders ignore the election, or if we dance too delicately around the discord, we become irrelevant. Our message becomes anemic, sterile, impotent. Jesus was not afraid to name Caesar and God in the same lesson. We must not be afraid to name current reality. Church leaders, as responsible citizens, will ultimately cast votes borne out of a two-party system, but until and beyond that day, leaders must lift, prompt, urge and beckon believers up above the partisan fray. Wisdom seeks a third way.

Reframe it. Keeping the great commandment to love God and neighbor ever central, the job of the church is to constantly point people to a higher way. This calling is especially prescient during these polarizing days. “The left says this, the right says that, how might we look at this through the lens of faith?” As we explore that question together as church communities, we will be on the path to discovering a third way together. Wisdom seeks a third way.

Seeking a higher way, a third way, will be challenging. It will require a willingness of church members and leaders to sit with the tension on the way to third-way wisdom. It will summon us to seek to understand, holding loosely our need to be understood. It will necessitate deep listening; we must be prepared to be transformed by the conversation.

These are precarious days for leaders of “purple churches” (churches comprised of people who identify as both Democrat and Republican). Those who preach must “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”[ii] A good rule of thumb for this kind of preaching: pastoral always, prophetic sometimes, partisan never. But preaching can be more than meeting people in the middle. Relevant preaching aims to be not apolitical, but transpolitical—aspiring to lift the collective vision higher, above zero-sum politics. Wisdom seeks a third way.

At our best, our nation and our faith share a common third-way vision: that the United States would be a land of “liberty and justice for all.”[iii] The church gains relevance as it points its communities to this ideal. This is no time for the church to be silent while partisan voices jockey for attention. Now is the time for the church to rise above the binary bickering, showing the world that wisdom seeks a third way.

*Rev. Dr. Rhonda Abbott Blevins is the senior pastor of Chapel by the Sea in Clearwater Beach, Florida and an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates. Blevins holds a Doctor of Ministry from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology and previously served as the coordinator of CBF Kentucky. She and her husband, Terry, live with their two sons in Palm Harbor, Florida.

 

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My Friend, Joyce Harris Murray

“I give thanks for every remembrance of you.”

Joyce graced my life for more than 60 years. We were classmates at Furman University. We did not run in the same circles. Joyce was a beauty queen and I was not.

When I arrived in Charleston and First Baptist Church, Joyce and Bennett were already here. The four of us Bennett, Joyce, Liz and I became friends. Joyce and Liz shared the same birthday.

Joyce was a beautiful person inside and outside. Her hair was her crown and glory. She had the same beauty shop appointment for more than 50 years.

On my birthday after Bennett died I received a crazy birthday card from Bennett. The return address was Bennett Murray, Heaven. Joyce said she found it in Bennett’s things and knew it was meant for me.

My most cherished memories of Joyce are as Carol’s condition became worse, I started attending choir practice with Joyce, Gene Plyler, and Carol. We would go to Chick-fil-a afterwards for dinner. Joyce and Carol got the children’s meal which contained a small toy. The two women traded their toys for an ice cream cone. Something neither of them should have.

Joyce loved sausage biscuits and would stop at Hardee’s on the way to church to get one. One day when looking for something in that huge purse she had, there was a sausage biscuit hard as a rock. After my Aunt Alice, Joyce made the best ambrosia.

Other than her family, Joyce had three loves: First Baptist Church, the Furman singers and flowers. Joyce never had to tell anyone that she was a Christian. It oozed out of every pore.

Joyce and I differed on many topics and she never failed to chastise me. When I was writing a column for the Post and Courier, Joyce was an avid reader and an avid  critic.  but Joyce was the first to tell me that my efforts at Say Something Nice was my mission.

How do you say goodbye to an old and dear friend? You don’t.

Joyce Murray will be in my memory forever until I see her again. What a day of rejoicing that will be!

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Field of Dreams – Rev. Susan Sparks – Madison Avenue Baptist Church NYC

Here 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.

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