Posts Tagged Sparks

Love Your Neighbor Unless Your Neighbor Is A Squirrel *- Rev. Susan Sparks

Wednesday September 02, 2020 The Rev. Susan Sparks

Susan Sparks and Squirrel

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.

……

*Reposted from Susan’s newsletter, Shiny Side Up

Tags: , , ,

A Visit to Madison Avenue Baptist Church with Rev. Susan Sparks

Sunday January 12, my daughter, Suzanne, and I were fortunate to worship at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. My friend, Susan Sparks is the senior minister. We were greeted warmly by the greeter outside the door on the street. The church is located within the Roger Hotel, but with a separate entrance. Rev. Sparks came through the congregation greeting and welcoming visitors. The sanctuary is beautiful. Susan says that she and the congregation will join in the celebration of Say Something Nice Sunday on June 7.

We also met a group of women ministers from Ontario, Canada. They also committed to joining in the celebration of Say Something Nice Sunday.

The service was wonderful. The choir and the soloist were outstanding. The call to worship was, “Surly the Lord Is in This Place.” The sermon by Susan was not what I expected to hear, but was exactly what I needed to hear. Her sermon was based on passages from the Book of   Ecclesiastes. Her sermon in a nutshell, “Life is tough. Get over it and serve God anyway. What other choice do we have other than to go it alone?” Of course Susan had some great stories to bring her point home which she did in a very few minutes. She has the ability to make her point without chasing rabbits. According to the book’s writer, “There is nothing new under the sun. The sun comes up and the sun goes down.” I have had a hard time dealing with my wife, Carol’s, death. Her sermon helped put things in perspective. The closing hymn was one of my favorites, “We Shall Overcome.’

The congregation is up to its ears in social justice ministries, a coat drive currently. Susan writes a weekly excellent blog, “Shiny Side Up.” It was good to have been there. If you are in New York City on a Sunday go there. You are welcome no matter what your tradition or circumstances. Susan is the author of two books: Laugh Your Way to Grace and Preaching Punchlines. She is originally from North Carolina.

Tags: , , ,

Cultivate Kindness and Humility to Honor Jesus, Rev. Susan Sparks Says

by MARY LEE TALBOT on   – The Chautauqua Daily

With all of the people on our holiday gift list, there is one person missing,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday Ecumenical Service. “That name is the first six letters of Christmas — Christ.”

Sparks’ sermon title was “What Are You Going to Get the Baby Jesus for Christmas?” and her Scripture text was Micah 6:6-8. The Advent theme was love.

There was an 80-year-old woman in Sparks’ congregation who came to her with a terrible sin. The woman told Sparks she had been using “LOL” in cards, thinking it meant “lots of love.” She had just found it meant “laughing out loud.”

“I did not see what the problem was,” Sparks said. “Then she told me she had been putting it on condolence cards.”

This was the third sermon in her Advent series, representing the third Sunday in Advent.

“This is close to Christmas, and we begin to think about things like, ‘Are the cards out?’ ‘Is the tree up?’ ‘Have I bought all the gifts?’ ” Sparks said. 

She continued, “In a comedy club, the acts are scheduled tightly together so at the end of 9 minutes and 30 seconds, a red light goes on in the back of the club. It starts flashing at 9 minutes and 45 seconds, and they pull you off the stage at 10 minutes precisely. The third Sunday of Advent is like that — that light is flashing.”

She called it a time of intense consumerism and commercialism.

“It is ironic that the baby Jesus gets ignored on our holiday list because it is a celebration of his birth,” Sparks said. “What are we going to give? I noticed in the Bible, he got frankincense and myrrh, and I went online and found a lotion at Walgreens with frankincense and myrrh in it. I think we can do better for the baby Jesus than a lotion. He wants us to act from our hearts, to give of what we have at the moment.”

Sparks recalled preaching at a convention at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

“Think of it, Baptists in Vegas,” she said. “When the offering came forward, there were poker chips in the plate.”

The best gift guide for baby Jesus is found in Micah 6:6-8.

“‘What should I give?’ the prophet asked; the answer came back pure and clear and simple,” Sparks said. “Say it with me — do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. These are the things Jesus loves more than lotion.”

Kindness is harder to act on than we think, she told the congregation.

“A consumer survey said that one of the top 10 stresses of the holiday season is ‘having to be nice,’ ” she said. “What would kindness look like? Like Diana Ross said, ‘Reach out and touch someone.’ ”

A Santa in a store learned sign language to be able to communicate with children from a school for the deaf. Speak to people, Sparks said, “like bus drivers, store clerks, waiters and waitresses and wait for an answer.”

Reach out to the lonely, drop by a senior care center and just visit someone for half an hour. Some people are even donating Alexas to nursing home residents.

“You can drop a card to someone who is lonely,” Sparks said. “It is a gift that could change someone’s life. It doesn’t take a lot to do kindness.”

Humility, she told the congregation, “is not thinking poorly of ourselves, but empowering ourselves for service.”

“Lao Tzu said that true power comes from lowering ourselves in service,” Sparks said. “He said that rivers and seas lead 100 streams because they are skillful at staying low. They lie in low land so the water willingly flows to them.”

Leaders and people in general, Sparks said, need to be more like a conductor who listens to everyone. John C. Maxwell in Leadershift: The 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace, wrote that most leaders are stuck in the soloist mode, where everyone serves them.

Sparks recalled that Pat Summitt, the former head coach of the Lady Volunteers basketball team at the University of Tennessee, did not go into the locker room at half time and talk at her team. The team would get out a white board and talk about what went right, what went wrong and what needed to change.

“Once the team had talked it out, then Summitt would speak,” Sparks said.

Sparks and her husband, Toby, took a bucket trip on Thanksgiving — a train from Chicago to Los Angeles.

“It was as romantic and adventurous and fun as we thought it would be — on the first day,” she said. “By the third day, it was getting cramped.”

While her husband went out for coffee, she decided to fix her hair and put on some makeup.

He returned to their roomette, looked at her and said, “Why are you so angry?” Sparks looked in the mirror and saw what she had done.

“Never draw your eyebrows on a moving train,” she said.

She continued, “God forbid we should show vulnerability. People’s faces tell us a lot, and we need to listen.”

The third present for baby Jesus is to do justice, not just imagine justice, like a John Lennon song.

“Don’t sing about justice, don’t think about justice — do it now,” Sparks said. “The world is in pain, broken and burning. I think about the children and brothers of color taken by gun violence, the way people look at our Muslim brothers and sisters with suspicion, the hunger, poverty and homelessness all around us.”

One step taken by one person can move everything toward change. Rosa Parks said she was just trying to get home from work when she stayed in her bus seat.

Sparks said one Sunday, her deacon board gave everyone in the congregation a $5 bill.

“They could not use it on brunch, or go to a movie or buy a Powerball ticket,” she said. “They were to pay it forward, use it to lift someone up.”

One person bought wings for a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk with a sign that said, “I’m hungry.” Another bought mittens for a family that was struggling. Another gave money to a street vendor who suffered a loss when fruit was stolen from his cart. An artist in a train station, a homeless man who needed an umbrella, a woman in Afghanistan who needed a micro loan to learn tailoring, all benefited from these gifts.

“It’s like blowing dandelion seeds into the wind,” Sparks said. “This is the power of kindness, humility and justice to change the world. It is the truth. As Margaret Mead said, ‘a few caring people can change the world.’ ”

Sparks closed her sermon by telling congregants to “reach within yourself.”

“Find what you have to give, cultivate kindness, humility and justice and put the baby Jesus first on your list,” she said. “As the Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet said, ‘I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.’ And the people of God said, Amen.”

Tags: , ,

Too Loud? Too Bad! – Shiny Side Up – Susan Sparks

The Shiny Side Up from Rev. Susan Sparks

Hi y’all, welcome to the Shiny Side Up! A journal of infectious inspiration that will lift you up, make you smile and leave you stronger.

Before I start, I want to offer an apology to all Honda motorcycle riders who may be offended by this message. God loves you. And I try.
Many years ago, before I bought my first bike, my husband Toby took me to a biker rally in Connecticut (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Like most rallies, the bikes were parked in rows with admirers walking up and down, comparing motorcycles and sharing stories.

Of all the gathered horsepower, for me, one bike stood out. It was hard to miss: red flames on a jet-black gas tank, fringed ape-hanger handlebars that you had to reach high above your head to hold, pipes that looked like two huge corn silos laid sideways, and a sticker on the back bumper that read: “Vietnam: We were winning when I left.”

Standing by the bike was the owner (again, who was hard to miss). Straight out of Road Warrior, he donned dirt encrusted black leather chaps, a leather vest (worn shirtless – and shouldn’t have been), and a giant tattoo on his left arm that was something akin to the naked woman silhouette on a tractor-trailer mud flap.

As we watched, he took the last inhale off his cigarette, ground it under his harness boot and swung his leg over the bike preparing to crank up and leave.

“This should be good,” I said to Toby, pointing at the pipes.

“Don’t count on it,” he replied, rolling his eyes.

The road warrior pulled the bike up off the kickstand, straightened the front wheel, pushed the kill switch to run, then turned to the gathered crowd with a Jacki Nicholson type grin, and pressed the start button.

The sound that came out made me gasp. It was like a grasshopper in puberty – breathy, high pitched, even a bit annoying.

“What is that?” I exclaimed. “How could something that big and bad sound so wimpy?”

Toby laughed. “It’s a Honda. That’s how they sound.”

“But what about all the badass leather stuff?”

“Hype,” he said, shaking his head.

I stood there in shock for a few more moments until another sound exploded out over the grasshopper noise. It was a sound that combined the threatening rumble of an approaching thunderstorm with the subtle “potato-potato-potato” rhythm chugged out by the exhaust stacks of my Uncle’s 1960 John Deere. I turned, and there behind us, gleaming in the sun, was a giant Harley Davidson.

“Oh, I love that sound!” I blurted out.

“Yup, I figured you would,” Toby nodded. Then he added the words that have stuck with me until this day: “Hey if it don’t roar, what’s the point?”  (I’ve been a Harley rider ever since.)

If it don’t roar, what’s the point?

Amen to that. It’s true for motorcycles and it’s true for us. We can live life with a whimper or we can live it with a roar. We’re going to be riding down life’s road either way. Why choose anything but living life loud and proud.

This is especially good advice now given our headlines. So many people are offering a voice that sounds more like a grasshopper, than a roar — veiled concerns, passive good wishes, the ubiquitous “thoughts and prayers.” But if you don’t back these passive words up with action – with a roar – it’s only hype.

And a roar is exactly what it’s going to take. We are facing gun violence, racism, mass murders, sexual attacks, natural disasters, and rampant terrorism. We have to dosomething. As the book of James says, “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14).

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the power of prayer. But prayer alone is not enough. As God told the Apostle Paul, “Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Maybe this means calling your government officials, or speaking out against gun violence, or offering a kind word to guests at a food bank or manning the phones at a battered women’s shelter.

Whatever it is, we must take a stand. We must speak out. We must not live our lives with a whimper. Because in the end, if we don’t roar, what’s the point?

If you want more, tune into my sermon HERE this Sunday at 11 am EST entitled “If It Don’t Roar, What’s the Point?”

Below you will find more inspiration via photos, articles, and sermons. Until next time, keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down!   –Susan

Tags: , , ,