Posts Tagged Sparks

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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Take No Bitterness into the New Year

Many people regard New Year’s Resolutions with the same disdain they attribute to the much-maligned fruitcake. I am a proponent of both. For several years now I have made the same New Year’s resolution and I do my best to keep it. I will take no bitterness into the New Year. Whatever has happened during the past twelve months that tends to sour my disposition, cause me pain and create separation, I resolve to let go. Whatever offenses I have suffered will not be dragged into the New Year. As the years pile up, keeping my resolution doesn’t get any easier.

Forgiveness is not as easy as it might sound. Partly it requires developing a thicker skin and realizing that I take far too many things personally. I need to lighten up. This is one of the concepts my friend, Dr. Monty Knight, discusses in his book, Balanced Living; Don’t Let Your Strengths Become Your Weaknesses. Continuing with Monty’s philosophy, I don’t have to go to every fight to which I am invited. That is a major concept. Let it go. Tom Newboult, a minister of religious education, once told me that sin is giving more importance to the moment than it is worth. In other words, don’t dwell in the negative. I think Tom hit the nail on the head. What a great concept!

Turning a negative into a positive is another methodology for dealing with difficult situations. Since I administered a not-for-profit agency for most of my career, I am often attacked with, “Well, Mitch, you are just an idealist.” My reply is, “Thank you. I hope so.” The main thing about forgiveness for those of us who are Christian to remember is that we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven.

Susan Sparks in her book, Laugh Your Way to Grace, suggests that we rediscover the power of humor. She maintains that we take ourselves far too seriously. We need to repackage some of the comments that cause us pain.

Bitterness is a terrible task master. It will ruin your life and suck all the goodness you receive into a dark hole. I recommend a proactive approach. Go on an active campaign to make those around you glad that you are there. Build them up by helping them feel good about themselves. Say something nice. Compliment her or him in a real genuine way. Call the person by name. Offer a specific compliment about a real accomplishment. On the other hand, when you receive a compliment acknowledge it graciously with a simple “thank you.” In my book, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, I discuss the power of words, but I am by no means the first to come to that conclusion. The psalmist said, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto thee, oh God, my strength and my redeemer.”

Dr. Arthur Caliandro gets right to the heart of the matter with a three-word solution. “Life is now.” That statement is stunning in its simplicity. Live in the present. Don’t drag past hurts into today. I was part of a vivid demonstration of this principle. We were planning one of the annual John Hamrick Lectures while Dr. John was still living. A potential speaker was being considered. I called the speaker to extend an invitation. He told me that because he and Dr. Hamrick had been involved on opposite sides of a controversy, he would only come if Dr. Hamrick approved. When I told Dr. Hamrick of my conversation he didn’t hesitate. “That was then. This is now.” Wow!

I make no claim that getting rid of bitterness is an easy task. You and I have experienced great hurts. Unfortunately, we have also inflicted great hurts. I know that I am in the process of becoming and that God is not finished with me. Practicing my resolution of taking no bitterness into the New Year has helped me live a more productive, less stressful life. I believe you will experience the same happy results if you give it a try.

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Take No Bitterness Into the New Year

Many people regard New Year’s Resolutions with the same disdain they attribute to the much maligned fruitcake. I am a proponent of both. For several years now I have made the same New Year’s resolution and I ask God to help me to keep it.  I will take no bitterness into the New Year. Whatever has happened during the past twelve months that tends to sour my disposition, cause me pain and create separation, I resolve to let go. Whatever offenses I have suffered will not be dragged into the New Year.

Forgiveness is not as easy as it might sound. Partly it requires developing a thicker skin and realizing that I take far too many things personally. I need to lighten up. This is one of the concepts my friend, Dr. Monty Knight, discusses in his book, Balanced Living; Don’t Let Your Strengths Become Your Weakness. Continuing with Monty’s philosophy, I don’t have to go to every fight to which I am invited. That is a major concept. Let it go. Tom Newboult, a minister of religious education, once told me that sin is giving more importance to the moment than it is worth. In other words, don’t dwell in the negative. I think Tom hit the nail on the head. What a great concept!

Turning a negative into a positive is another methodology for dealing with difficult situations. Since I administered a not-for-profit agency for most of my career, I would often be attacked with, “Well, Mitch, you are just an idealist.” My reply became, “Thank you. I hope so.” The main thing about forgiveness for those of us who are Christian to remember is that we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven.

Susan Sparks in her book, Laugh Your Way to Grace, suggests that we rediscover the power of humor. She maintains that we take ourselves far too seriously. We need to repackage some of the comments that cause us pain.

Bitterness is a terrible task master. It will ruin your life and suck all the goodness you receive into a dark hole. I recommend a proactive approach. Go on an active campaign to make those around you glad that you are there. Build them up by helping them feel good about themselves. Say something nice. Compliment him or her in a real genuine way. Call the person by name. Offer a specific compliment about a real accomplishment. On the other hand when you receive a compliment acknowledge it graciously with a simple “thank you.” In my book, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, I discuss the power of words, but I am by no means the first to come to that conclusion. The psalmist said, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto thee, oh God, my strength and my redeemer.”

Dr. Arthur Caliandro gets right to the heart of the matter with a three word solution. “Life is now.” That statement is stunning in its simplicity. Live in the present. Don’t drag past hurts into today. I was part of a vivid demonstration of this principle. We were planning one of the annual John Hamrick Lectures while Dr. John was still living. A potential speaker was being considered. I called the speaker to extend an invitation. He told me that because he and Dr. Hamrick had been involved on opposite sides of a controversy, he would only come if Dr. Hamrick approved. When I told Dr. Hamrick of my conversation he didn’t hesitate. “That was then. This is now.” Wow!

I make no claim that getting rid of bitterness is an easy task. You and I have experienced great hurts. Unfortunately we have also inflicted great hurts. I know that I am in the process of becoming and that God is not finished with me. Practicing my resolution of taking no bitterness into the New Year has helped me live a more productive, less stressful life. I believe you will experience the same happy results if you give it a try.

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