Posts Tagged Sparks

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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Give your tongue a rest and listen with your heart, Sparks says

“Is there anywhere in the Bible that shows Jesus laughing?” asked the Rev. Susan Sparks at the beginning of the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Chautauquan Susan Hughes had stopped Sparks after her presentation at the Interfaith Lecture Tuesday and asked the question.

“The short answer is no, not in the Gospels; there is nothing about joy,” Sparks said. “But in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, there is a phrase used several times, ‘and the Savior laughed.’ ”

Sparks took a short diversion from her sermon topic, “Check Your Weapons at the Door.” The theme was angry words and the Scripture readings were James 3:3-5, Proverbs 18:21 and Psalm 141:3.

Sparks and her husband were on a motorcycle trip near Yellowstone. She was wearing an open face helmet and momentarily took off her glasses, and a bug hit her in the eye. It hit her eyelid, but “it felt like a meteor coming at me. I was not pleased and I am sure the bug was not happy either,” she said.

They stopped at a Cody, Wyoming, hospital to get her eye looked at and she noticed a large sign at the front door: “Check Your Weapons at the Door.”

“Is that sign for real?” she asked the nurse looking after her,

“Honey, this is Wyoming,” the nurse said. “You have no idea what people come in packing.”

The sign was important to keep people safe in the hospital, Sparks said.

“There is a lot of talk about weapons today — nukes, drones, WMDs, AK-47s — that we need to seriously consider checking at the door,” she said. “But there is a more dangerous and equally scary one that each of us has. We are all packing heat with our personal WMD — the human tongue.”

In Proverbs 12:18 it says “rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” We are all familiar with the damaging power of words, Sparks said, that can sting like bugs at 70 mph. They tear apart families, cause jealousy and anger, and lead to prejudice and racial slurs.

“Fifty-two percent of young people have been bullied online,” she said. “These words are spoken and written because the fingers are the extension of the mouth. Hurt-filled words that are spoken, written, texted or tweeted are part of an arms race that must stop.”

In the letter of James, he tells his readers that a bridle in the mouth of a horse can control it, and that a great ship is guided by a small rudder.

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits,” Sparks added. “There has to be a way to bridle the tongue, to check our weapon at the door along with other, dangerous, human-made weapons.”

The first way she suggested to check the weapons is to take responsibility for what you say or write.

“I know that pasta is done when I throw it against the wall and it sticks,” she said. “When we treat words like that, they always stick. I wish we had autocorrect for the tongue.”

One day Sparks was texting a parishioner and thought she had sent: “Our prayers are with you. You have family in NYC.” When she checked the message, it read, “Our prayers are with me, you have family here not.”

The parishioner had a sense of humor and wrote back, “I pray my pastor will master autocorrect.”

There is no autocorrect in life; we can’t take things back and we will be held accountable, Sparks said. As baseball player Willie Davis said, if you step on people in this life, you are likely to come back as a cockroach.

The second way to check our tongues, Sparks said, is realizing there is power in shutting up.

“We need to take a Shabbat, a rest, for our mouths and listen,” she said. “We think by the inch, talk by the yard and show people the door by the foot.”

Author Stephen Covey said that we don’t listen to understand, we listen to reply.

“I know that from my training as a trial lawyer, I was always looking for something to say that was sparkly, intelligent or would win the argument,” Sparks said. “But we do this naturally in our own lives.”

If we only listen to reply, we are only listening with our mouth, she said. If we listen to learn, we are listening from the heart.

“Let’s give our mouths a Shabbat,” she said.

The third suggestion was that words can change the world for better or worse. As an example, Sparks told a story of being in a pre-operating room with her husband, who was awaiting back surgery. A doctor entered the cubicle of the patient next door who was waiting for surgery and said: “You are going to hate me after this operation. This is the most painful surgery I do.”

In contrast, her husband’s surgeon came in and said: “Let’s do this. You will be taller and stronger because of me.”

She also shared the story of a father playing catch with his son in a local park. The small son had a glove about the size of his head. The dad would throw the ball and it would drop to the ground. The father kept moving closer and throwing the ball, and it kept dropping to the ground. Finally, he walked up and put the ball in the glove.

“That was great, good for you,” he said to his son.

“What an indelible footprint that dad made on the flexible psyche of his son,” Sparks said.

People are hungry for love and affirmation and every word has an impact on them. We can change them and the entire world with our words, she said.

“Do your words lift up and leave people better than you found them or are they WMDs?” Sparks asked. “We can get all worked up packing heat, making the tongue a destructive weapon, or we can make it a tool for healing and change the world for the better. Check your weapons at the door.”

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Morning Worship: Put trash in mulch pile and let new, beautiful things grow

by MARY LEE TALBOT on 

“Humor and laughter are the most powerful gifts in life,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “The congregation this morning is a visual reaffirmation of faith in the church, in that the numbers here this morning rival the numbers at a screening of ‘Harry Potter.’ ”

Senior Pastor Susan Sparks Delivers Her SermonDuring The Sunday Morning Worship Service . PAULA OSPINA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Her sermon title was “The Mulch Pile,” and the theme was letting go. The Scripture reading was Colossians 3:1-2, 8-14.

Sparks said she and her husband were traveling across the country, and to the west of Minneapolis they saw a billboard that had a picture of a casket “Minnesota Cremation Society — Think Outside the Box,” it read.

“That is what humor does — helps you think outside the box, see in fresh ways, and it builds community and bridges,” Sparks said.

Sparks quoted theologian Karl Barth, saying that humor is the closest thing we have to God’s grace.

“We can feel hope in our hearts,” she said, “because humor is there even if the world tries to beat it out.”

Sparks recently ended a three-month sabbatical. For the first month, she and her husband rode their Harleys around the country.

“That’s right, you have a biker chick and a comedian for a chaplain this week,” she said.

The second two months they spent in their cabin in Wisconsin — a place they visit regularly. It is near a town much like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon: 2,000 people and 17 Lutheran churches.

They have a ritual for their first morning — first, making “really bad coffee,” and then fishing for bluegills and other small fish and then cooking breakfast. During one visit, they threw the fish guts and egg shells into the trash after breakfast and went out to run errands. They had no air conditioning and the day was 93 degrees — “you can see where this is going,” Sparks said. When they got home, they were hit with the smell.

“I made a small gas mask out of wet paper towels and went in and got the trash and ran it out to the mulch pile,” Sparks said. “As you gardeners know, the trash turns into rich, dark soil that grows daylilies or tomatoes.”

In the Scripture reading, Paul tells the Colossians to get rid of their anger and malice and clothe themselves in a new self.

“Paul was writing in 60 A.D. and the danger he was writing about was gnosticism,” Sparks said. “He urged the Colossians to clothe themselves in the teaching of Christ. Paul is reaching out to us in the same way today and asking two questions — What trash are you carrying that needs to be put in the mulch? And what beautiful new thing can grow in its place?”

This is the arc for the week in her sermons: to look at what the trash is that needs to be put out on the mulch pile and, on Friday, to sum up what beautiful new thing might grow in its place.

“What trash are you carrying?” she asked. “Do you even know? Are you carrying anger, resentment, fear or self-doubt? Are you carrying racism, homophobia or other hatreds?”

Sparks said that sometimes when we are in denial, we don’t know that we are carrying trash or we have lived with generations of disregard for the problems. As an example, she said she threw her back out once and had to lie on the floor for almost a week. On the fourth day, after having read every newspaper and magazine in the house and binge-watched reruns of “Dr. Phil,” she was bored and her only view was under the furniture.

“I saw dust balls the size of ferrets, some leaky pens and paper and a strange orange square thing. It turned out to be a cheese appetizer from a cocktail party two years before,” she said. “I would not have known it was there unless I had been forced to look. You can’t take out the trash if you don’t know it is there.”

The second action in taking out the trash is letting go, and that is easier said than done. There are many things that we are used to but are useless to us.

“My father had a big old Buick boat of a car and he kept two spare tires, food, water, blankets and a foil space blanket in his trunk — in case there was a blizzard — to drive the 0.1 mile to from our house to his office in Charlotte, North Carolina,” she said.

We, she told the congregation, need to let go of privilege, apathy and ego as much as a foil blanket. She told the story of a man who fell off a cliff and was dangling from a tree, calling for help. A voice came from the heavens, saying, “Let go, my son, I have you.” The man thought for a moment and said, “Who else is up there?”

It can be hard to let go, but if we carry this trash too long it begins to define us. Ralph Waldo Emerson said what we worship, we become.

“I have a friend who calls it the 3Bs — believe, behave, become,” Sparks said. “What we believe drives our behavior and what we believe drives who we become.”

Sparks cited the first part of the Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, which reads: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

She prefers the Senility Prayer: “God, Grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones that I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.”

“We have got to let go and throw things onto the mulch pile and in that moment, greater forces will take over,” Sparks said. “When we hand things over to a greater power, to Jesus Christ, it fades and changes into something beautiful and new.”

For instance, she said, we have to throw out our judgmentalism of others in order for mercy, empathy and forgiveness to grow.

“We judge people by the craziest things, like color, language or religion that have nothing to do with their being a child of God and our brother and sister,” she said.

She told a story from Jack Kornfield about two prisoners of war. The first one asked the second if he had forgiven their captors. The second one said no. “Then they still have you in prison,” the first one replied.

“We have more in common than we think and we have to start living like it,” Sparks said. “We have to begin with ourselves and forgive ourselves so we can forgive others. We have excuses for why we can’t do that, but if we have any lesson for today, it is that this body is our house, this heart is our house, this country is our house, this world is our house and it is our responsibility to take out the trash even if someone else brought it in.”

Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“If you care about this gift, don’t waste it on what weighs you down,” Sparks said. “Fling it on the mulch pile and clothe yourself in something beautiful and new.”

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The Right Time and Place

One of the surprises that came with writing my book, Our Father: Discovering Family,* was getting to revisit at least in memory with some of the saints that inhabit my world. Some of them I wrote about others are still unsung. Most of these remembrances brought a smile to my face and a deep sense of joy and gratitude.

I also realize that my small home town of Woodruff, South Carolina was the ideal place to encounter people whose values would guide my life. Yes, it was the segregated South and yes these people were prisoners of their place and time. Never-the-less, I did not see or experience the meanness that is so evident today. I did not hear the harsh rhetoric toward public officials that is so pervasive today.

I got a head start on race relations. While we lived in the Abney Mill Village and in a company house. The company sent crews to do regular maintenance. One day the two person crew at our house consisted of two Black men. They were repairing a bedroom window and I was watching them from the inside. I had not yet learned how to tell time. When one of them asked me the time, I simply threw the alarm clock out the window to him. They loved it. From then on when we met on the street they greeted me loudly and recited the story to their companions. This incident set the tone for my life. Everyone enjoys a good laugh. Laughter is a healing force.

Pink Robinson was the custodian at Woodruff High School. He had a laugh that was unmistakable. And contagious. When the windows were open, you could hear his laughter as he returned from an errand on Main Street roughly two blocks away. Smiles spread across the classroom no matter which class you were in when his laughter rang out. It is not a stretch to say that everyone loved Pink.

Rev. Susan Sparks, a Baptist pastor in New York City, a lawyer and a standup comedian, has written a wonderful book, Laugh Your Way to Grace. She contends that Christians have forgotten how to laugh in church. She maintains that laughter is a gift that needs to be nourished. She’s right. Some of my best memories are of Northside Baptist Church and the saints and sinners that I met there.

*Our Father: Discovering Family. Wipf and Stock. 2016.

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