Posts Tagged Sparks

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.”

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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

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Personalizing Suffering – Paul Lambert

I want to share a powerful essay from my dear friend Paul Lambert, Co-Producer of The First Wives Club The Musical. It is entitled, “Personalizing ‘Suffering.” Susan Sparks

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The events in Puerto Rico exhibit suffering and misfortune in a way that impacts us all.

Suffering, whether personal or seen from afar, has consequences — it causes us to pause, to lose our edge, and impairs our confidence and momentum. Because of these consequences suffering can make us feel literally stuck and paralyzed until things get better.

“When suffering knocks at your door and you say there’s no seat for you, it tells you not to worry because it’s brought its own stool.” 

People in Puerto Rico have our attention right now, but without a doubt, someone near you is probably suffering, too.

It may be a family member, a relative, a good friend or a co-worker. It may be that they are feeling unconnected or unheard, experiencing an emptiness inside, suffering extreme financial pressure, or suffering from a physical condition they aren’t openly sharing.

Many Americans have been marginalized while they suffer. Let’s start our week this week by committing to being more aware of those suffering (especially those we know). Let’s be more active in comforting them, befriending them, and doing our part in addressing the source of their suffering.

I believe “suffering” is at the center of today’s political friction and discord, because at the heart of the American “value system” is caring for those less fortunate or shamed by unintended circumstances. There is a raging fight between the villains and victims in our society, today. Both political parties have decided it’s time to apply a wrecking ball to what’s going on.

You may be suffering — yourself — today, too. Right where you are. Right now.

The Psalmist has said “My soul is filled with troubles … I am like a warrior without strength … I feel caged in, I cannot escape“ (Psalm 88).

Take a moment and examine your situation. Have you ever thought there may be an upside to suffering? I believe there is.  Discovering things thru suffering may be an important part of preparing for what’s next in your life. While suffering we are open to discoveries that otherwise we wouldn’t be, discoveries that may have a direct effect on our future.

Two great verses for us to keep in mind at times like these are: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11)  and, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6).

Suffering comes wrapped in many different packages — but in the midst of struggling, feeling defeated, or dealing with unbearable stress and pain — remember God is working.
Corrie ten Boom has some wonderful thoughts on these subjects:

“Don’t bother to give God instructions, just report for duty”
“Make sure that prayer is your steering wheel, not your spare tire
Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

I hope you will reread this blog often to strengthen your faith and be reminded that God is present and at work during your times of suffering. Always remember you are not alone, you are loved and forgiven, and you are meant to move on and get beyond situations that seem intolerable.

Wishing you a courageous week. Your friend, Paul

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The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like Good Fried Chicken: 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.

Recently in Atlanta, Georgia, I discovered that the Kingdom of Heaven is like great fried chicken. This realization came after a dinner with my roommate from college.

Atlanta, if you don’t know, is a foodie heaven. Every major chef — every James Beard award winner is down there. So I was excited about what new edgy restaurant we might explore!

My friend picks me up from my hotel and after a bit of a drive, we turn into the parking lot of a sketchy motel with a neon flashing sign across the street advertising “The Onxy Strip Club.”  Nestled in the middle of all this glory was the Colonnade Restaurant, circa 1927.

I wanted to turn to my friend and say “you have GOT to be kidding me.” But like the good southerner I said, “well how lovely” (still thinking you have GOT to be kidding).

Here’s where the lesson shows up. About a half an hour later, the waitress arrives with our food. Brothers and sisters I kid you not – the heavens opened up, and a flock of angels came down with the keys to the kingdom because there in front of me was a big ole plate of fried chicken that was so good it’d make your tongue jump out and lick the eyebrows off your head.

That evening I learned that the Kingdom of Heaven is like good fried chicken because often times we find it in places we might not otherwise choose to go.

Appearances are fooling – whether it’s a building, or a neighborhood, or a nation or a person, you can never judge based on how something or someone looks. The book of John 7:24 says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

Besides the fact that judging is wrong, it’s also dumb. We miss the best things in life by focusing only on what’s shiny and beautiful, popular and hip. Had we gotten scared off by the sketchy motel and the Onyx Strip Club, we would have missed experiencing the Kingdom through that fried chicken. And the same is true for all of us.

Right now, today, something or someone around you is offering YOU a beautiful gift. The question is: will you judge the appearance of the giver or will you accept and enjoy the gift?

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

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