Laughter – The Shiny Side Up – 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, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to two immunotherapy researchers for their work on unleashing the body’s immune system to attack cancer.

As a breast cancer survivor, I say “Amen!” Thanks to advances like this, including innovative treatments, and early detection, I am a twelve-year survivor.

Well . . . innovative treatments, early detection, and, of course, laughter.

Laughter?

Yes. As a comedian, minister and cancer survivor, I believe that laughter is one of the most powerful tools we have for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. And in this month of Breast Cancer Awareness, it is something we should celebrate.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of humor. For example, we know that the extra intake of air from laughing can lower our blood pressure, boost the immune system, enhance heart and lung function and increase endorphins. It can even bump up our calorie burn. In fact, laughing for fifteen minutes can burn 80 calories. That’s enough to justify a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup!

Humor is now being used in hospitals and treatment centers as a healing tool for cancer, Alzheimer’s, autism, and mental health issues. The Big Apple Clown Care Unit, for example, sponsors programs across the country in which clowns help children cope with the intimidating atmosphere of a hospital.

Another program, Standup for Mental Health, uses stand-up comedy training to reduce the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness. As its founder, David Granirer, explains, “The idea is that laughing at our setbacks raises us above them. It makes people go from despair to hope, and hope is crucial to anyone struggling with adversity.”

Humor and laughter can also bring psychological healing. During my cancer struggle, I realized I had three choices: be mad, be sad, or laugh. I soon learned that the most powerful approach was to laugh. One day, a new patient walked into the radiation center with a T-shirt that read: “Yes, they are fake; my old ones tried to kill me.” The entire waiting room burst out laughing, and that moment of laughter reminded us that cancer was not who we were; it was only something we were experiencing.

Laughter changes our perspective and invites us to see things in a fresh new way. The ability to step back and laugh at ourselves also reminds us that we are only human and that we should be more forgiving of ourselves.

It’s like the serenity prayer teaches: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Of course, I like the senility prayer better: “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.” Either way, laughter helps us see ourselves in a more forgiving light.

Spiritual healing may be where laughter is most powerful. As Proverbs teaches us, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones…”

The Hebrew word “ruach” means both “spirit” and “air.” Therefore, it can be said that when we laugh, we are inhaling and exhaling the spirit. Or, as author Anne Lamott describes it, “Laughter is carbonated holiness.”

And why not? God has a sense of humor. Consider 1 Samuel 5:9 where God strikes the entire male population of Philistines with hemorrhoids (harsh, but funny), or the fact that we are made in the image of the divine. Humans laugh and feel joy, so a part of the divine must also laugh.

The willingness to laugh with God also allows us to express anger with God. Sometimes we blame or get mad at God for what we are going through. But in order to work through that anger, we have to share it. In order to be healed, we must bring God all our pieces: anger, sadness, fear, and laughter. It’s all holy.

So, here’s to the immunotherapy researchers; to the doctors, nurses, and technicians and to everyone whose life is dedicated to caring for and healing us. God bless them. And most of all, God bless the gift of laughter—the one thing that may save us all.

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Toward Non-gender Language for God – Dr. Molly Marshall

September 24, 2018 – The Christian Citizen

Most of us have now made the shift toward inclusive language for humanity, and we are learning about how pronouns matter in personal identity. We have realized that exclusive language erases half of humanity. Using only man or mankind ignores the presence of women in biblical narratives—and in life. It makes men normative humanity and sustains androcentric privilege. Just when we think the linguistic work is done, I pick up another book (often a theological text) that addresses or describes only men.

We do violence to women or persons who are non-binary (or other sexual minorities) when we subsume them into the conventions of exclusive language. We know the power of naming, and Scripture reminds us of all the ways identity is carried in a name. It is remarkable that as many women are named as there are—yet there are so many more whose names we will never know.

The contexts in which Scripture was shaped—the Ancient Near Eastern world and the Greco-Roman world of the early centuries of the Common Era—were patriarchal to the core. The social structure was hierarchical, and men held most of the rights for inheritance, divorce and religious standing. The language of the Bible reflects this structure, and it is not surprising that masculine imagery predominates. Many persons today read these ancient texts as prescriptive for the roles of women and men today, and they construct a complementarian vision of male and female relationships—to the detriment of both.

What progress are we making in our language for God? Using inclusive language for God has powerful impact on how we view God, how we order human relations and how we perform our roles as disciples of Jesus. Many translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version, have moved the practice of inclusive language forward by including women and sisters in the texts but have left He as the primary pronoun for speaking of God. The challenge is that grammatical gender elides biological gender in the minds of many. Far too many believe that God is literally male and that “Father language” rightly denotes God as ultimate progenitor.

In addition, the language Jesus used for God is warrant for many to speak of God only as Father.  Jesus’ language is much more about filial intimacy than ascribing literal gender. It is easy to see the growth of a tradition from Mark to John. In Mark, Jesus names God Abba 11 times; by the time John is written, this naming for God occurs 120 times. In the midst of great strides to include women begun by Jesus, the writers and editors of the Gospels wanted to ensure that a masculine vision of God safeguarded men’s prerogative and that women would remain secondary. We can see this effect by comparing the treatment of Peter and Mary Magdalene. Recent scholarship suggests that there was a concerted effort to subordinate her leadership to her male counterpart.

 

Many have dismissed inclusive language as “politically correct.” However, it runs much deeper. It is an attempt to speak justly about humans, and it strives to offer a vision of God beyond gender.

Many have dismissed inclusive language as “politically correct.” However, it runs much deeper. It is an attempt to speak justly about humans, and it strives to offer a vision of God beyond gender. Of course, our language for God is always a human projection, and we live in a world where biological identity is a key marker. Scripture uses masculine and feminine metaphors for God, and this enriches our image of God. It does matter that we keep some personal language for God, and Scripture provides more pathways for this idea than we have pursued.

One of the reasons I have given attention to the Spirit of God in recent years is that it allows one to bypass gendered language for God. Scripture and tradition use feminine imagery for the Spirit, yet using that imagery exclusively opens the door to exclusive use of masculine language for the other persons of the trinity. Spirit language, however, allows us to imagine that God is beyond our anthropocentric projections, or ascribing human characteristics to God. If anything, God is supra-personal and grounds our understanding of what it means to be personal and communal. The God who dwells eternally in the richness of trinitarian community invites us to new ways of imagining God with us, moving us beyond our exclusively masculine vision.

Dr. Molly T. Marshall is president of Central Baptist Seminary, Shawnee, Kan.

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Welcoming People in from the Storm – Rev. Susan Sparks

This piece was recently featured by The Christian Citizen.

A few weeks ago, my husband Toby and I were sitting on the dock at our cabin in Northern Wisconsin. It was around 4:30PM, and we were doing what we usually do about that time: fishing, eating cheese curds, and sipping a festive beverage or two. In short—nothing.

As we sat doing nothing on that lazy Wisconsin afternoon, we heard a rumble of thunder in the distance. Within minutes, the sound grew closer and stronger. Then, almost out of nowhere, a ferocious storm blew in. As we scurried into the cabin, the winds began howling across the lake, and the storm sirens in town started to wail.

Huddled in our living room, we listened to the tempest outside. Then, shockingly, amidst the claps of thunder, we heard a knock on the door. We peered out and it was our next-door neighbor. Utterly drenched, he came in and told us that his 2000-pound pontoon boat had just been picked up in the storm and flipped upside down on the lake.

In the middle of telling his story, another knock is heard and there was our neighbor who lived across the lake. She was in the area when the storm hit and got stuck because all the streets were blocked with downed trees. We lite some candles, pulled out food and drink, and sat together in the shelter of the cabin as the storm raged on.

What else could we do but welcome them in from the storm? It’s too bad we don’t follow that ethic in our nation and our world.

Every day, our neighbors come to our house, at our door, to find shelter from the storm.

And everyone is fighting some type of storm. We may not see the tempests immediately. People love to pretend that everything is perfect and lovely—God forbid we show vulnerability or admit we need help. But notwithstanding the faces people show, everyone has their storm.

Some storms are personal, like the storm of a difficult relationship or a family issue. A personal storm could also be a physical one, such as chronic pain, or a financial storm.

It could also be part of a national or global storm, like the storm of hatred and judgment toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Or the storm of racism and bigotry towards our brothers and sisters of color. There is the storm of ignorance waged against our Muslim brothers and sisters. And then there is the immigration storm that is raging in our country.

Every day, people from all over the world come to our house, and stand at our door, asking for shelter from the storms of poverty, tyranny, oppression and religious persecution.

And what do we do when our global neighbors come to our door?

We slam it in their face. And if that’s not bad enough, we take their children. While there are no hard and fast numbers, the estimate is over 3000 children separated from their parents at the border.

I imagine God in heaven, watching all this going on, preparing to yell down to earth:

“People! Have you read my book? It’s pretty well known. I bet you’ve heard of it . . . It’s called the BIBLE! If you had read it, you would see that I ‘execute justice for the orphan and the widow, and love the strangers, providing them food and clothing’ (Deuteronomy 10:17).

You might also remember that I said, ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).

If you’ve read nothing else, surely you remember my son Jesus’ powerful words in Matthew 25:42-45: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in . . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

Something must change. And it can. Sharing hospitality and welcome is not that complicated. Just like on that stormy night in our cabin, it comes down to two basic things: food and shelter.

First, we must feed the people. Sure, that can mean literally offering food through a food bank, or soup kitchen, or cooking something to feed someone in need. But food can mean so much more. People are hungry in their hearts—hungry for affirmation/acceptance, hungry for respect and dignity, hungry for love. And we must be the ones to provide that food to all we meet, no matter storm brings them to our door.

We must also offer shelter. That can mean literally providing a place by supporting a homeless shelter or participating in the national sanctuary movement to help protect our immigrant brothers and sisters. It can also mean providing people with a spiritual or psychological safe space from the storm by welcoming them unconditionally and listening without judgment.

A few days after the storm on the lake, as I was flying back from Wisconsin to New York City, our plane banked right over the Statue of Liberty—the symbol of our nation—which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” How tragic that those beautiful words have been eclipsed by our nation’s hate, ignorance, and greed. But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.

As Rachel Held Evans writes in her new book, Inspired, “The story isn’t over. There are still prophets in our midst. There are still dragons and beasts. It might not look like it, but the resistance is winning. The light is breaking through.”
JUSTICE POSTED ON SEP 12, 2018 BY SUSAN SPARKS

Welcoming People in from the Storm

This piece was recently featured by The Christian Citizen.

A few weeks ago, my husband Toby and I were sitting on the dock at our cabin in Northern Wisconsin. It was around 4:30PM, and we were doing what we usually do about that time: fishing, eating cheese curds, and sipping a festive beverage or two. In short—nothing.

As we sat doing nothing on that lazy Wisconsin afternoon, we heard a rumble of thunder in the distance. Within minutes, the sound grew closer and stronger. Then, almost out of nowhere, a ferocious storm blew in. As we scurried into the cabin, the winds began howling across the lake, and the storm sirens in town started to wail.

Huddled in our living room, we listened to the tempest outside. Then, shockingly, amidst the claps of thunder, we heard a knock on the door. We peered out and it was our next-door neighbor. Utterly drenched, he came in and told us that his 2000-pound pontoon boat had just been picked up in the storm and flipped upside down on the lake.

In the middle of telling his story, another knock is heard and there was our neighbor who lived across the lake. She was in the area when the storm hit and got stuck because all the streets were blocked with downed trees. We lite some candles, pulled out food and drink, and sat together in the shelter of the cabin as the storm raged on.

What else could we do but welcome them in from the storm? It’s too bad we don’t follow that ethic in our nation and our world.

Every day, our neighbors come to our house, at our door, to find shelter from the storm.

And everyone is fighting some type of storm. We may not see the tempests immediately. People love to pretend that everything is perfect and lovely—God forbid we show vulnerability or admit we need help. But notwithstanding the faces people show, everyone has their storm.

Some storms are personal, like the storm of a difficult relationship or a family issue. A personal storm could also be a physical one, such as chronic pain, or a financial storm.

It could also be part of a national or global storm, like the storm of hatred and judgment toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Or the storm of racism and bigotry towards our brothers and sisters of color. There is the storm of ignorance waged against our Muslim brothers and sisters. And then there is the immigration storm that is raging in our country.

Every day, people from all over the world come to our house, and stand at our door, asking for shelter from the storms of poverty, tyranny, oppression and religious persecution.

And what do we do when our global neighbors come to our door?

We slam it in their face. And if that’s not bad enough, we take their children. While there are no hard and fast numbers, the estimate is over 3000 children separated from their parents at the border.

I imagine God in heaven, watching all this going on, preparing to yell down to earth:

“People! Have you read my book? It’s pretty well known. I bet you’ve heard of it . . . It’s called the BIBLE! If you had read it, you would see that I ‘execute justice for the orphan and the widow, and love the strangers, providing them food and clothing’ (Deuteronomy 10:17).

You might also remember that I said, ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).

If you’ve read nothing else, surely you remember my son Jesus’ powerful words in Matthew 25:42-45: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in . . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

Something must change. And it can. Sharing hospitality and welcome is not that complicated. Just like on that stormy night in our cabin, it comes down to two basic things: food and shelter.

First, we must feed the people. Sure, that can mean literally offering food through a food bank, or soup kitchen, or cooking something to feed someone in need. But food can mean so much more. People are hungry in their hearts—hungry for affirmation/acceptance, hungry for respect and dignity, hungry for love. And we must be the ones to provide that food to all we meet, no matter storm brings them to our door.

We must also offer shelter. That can mean literally providing a place by supporting a homeless shelter or participating in the national sanctuary movement to help protect our immigrant brothers and sisters. It can also mean providing people with a spiritual or psychological safe space from the storm by welcoming them unconditionally and listening without judgment.

A few days after the storm on the lake, as I was flying back from Wisconsin to New York City, our plane banked right over the Statue of Liberty—the symbol of our nation—which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” How tragic that those beautiful words have been eclipsed by our nation’s hate, ignorance, and greed. But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.

As Rachel Held Evans writes in her new book, Inspired, “The story isn’t over. There are still prophets in our midst. There are still dragons and beasts. It might not look like it, but the resistance is winning. The light is breaking through.”

Brothers and sisters, every single person we meet is going through some type of storm. And every day, people come to our house, to our door, looking for shelter.

Don’t shut them out.

Welcome them with hospitality. Offer them food and shelter. Let the light break through.

“For whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.”

This column was drawn from a sermon given at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC on June 24, 2018.hers and sisters, every single person we meet is going through some type of storm. And every day, people come to our house, to our door, looking for shelter.

Don’t shut them out.

Welcome them with hospitality. Offer them food and shelter. Let the light break through.

“For whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.”

This column was drawn from a sermon given at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC on June 24, 2018.

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Embracing curiosity: Asking good questions is a crucial index of faith

MOLLY T. MARSHALL  |  SEPTEMBER 18, 2018 BaptistNewsGlobal.com16041

Quite a bit of interest in curiosity suffuses business journals and higher education essays these days. The Harvard Business Review devoted a good chunk of its most recent issue to making the business case for curiosity, contending that it can improve a firm’s adaptability and performance. Key benefits are fewer decision-making errors, more innovation and positive changes, reduced group conflict, and more open communication and better team performance.

As a person who has a complex job leading a seminary, I am heartened to read: “When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively and have less defensive reactions to stress.” The longer we are in a particular role, the more we need to be vigilant about cultivating curiosity as it usually declines as we settle into predictable strategies. This is true for business people, faith leaders, and educators. Curiosity is not only the province of the scientist or researcher.

Over the past several years articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education have probed the question about the role of curiosity in academic success. Intellectual curiosity is a strong predictor of future academic performance. It is as important as conscientiousness and nearly as important as intelligence itself. A “hungry mind” is of great value, and professors need to find ways to construct learning opportunities that open the door to student discovery. Yet the very demands made by the college admissions process often requires only good grades and concrete service projects, not curious dabbling that might awaken one’s true interests.

Curiosity, it seems, has been an undervalued human attribute, too often squelched as troublesome. It is seen as costing time, at the expense of efficiency. Exploration is too open ended for controlling leaders, especially those who have not cultivated their own inquisitiveness over the years.

When asked about his near miraculous landing on the Hudson River, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger described his passion for continuous learning. In the 208 seconds between discovery of his airplane’s problem and bringing it safely down, he sorted through available options in his mind and decided to act bravely and creatively, as Francesca Gino, a Professor at Harvard Business School reflected (HBR, September-October, 2018, p. 55).

“Christianity may have done more than its share of tamping down the questions it was not sure how to answer.”

Christianity may have done more than its share of tamping down the questions it was not sure how to answer. Famously, when a student asked St. Augustine what God was doing before God created the heavens and the earth, he exasperatedly answered: “God was creating hell for people who asked such questions!”

Asking good questions is a crucial index of faith. When stumped, some teachers have attempted to shush the questioner thereby underscoring that faith is not to be interrogated, or they have offered simplistic answers as a cover for the mystery they could not comprehend. The very nature of faith, however, summons questions, as faith “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Early in Scripture our human forebears could have profited by asking more questions. When instructed not to eat from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” Adam asked nothing. What was in the mind of the Creator in issuing this prohibition? Do you suppose God had set up a teaching moment, waiting for the curious “why?” Obviously, Adam discussed this with Eve, for when the serpent showed up she was aware of the prohibition. The crafty serpent demonstrates a far more developed curiosity than the fledgling humans. (Irenaeus thought we really expected too much discernment from these recently created beings!)

Rabbinic writing often contrasts Noah with Abraham as each heard the news of impending doom, through a flood and through the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah was incurious and just tended to the exact measurements of the ark, his family, and the animal companions. Abraham, on the other hand, did not follow Noah’s lead in thinking he was the only righteous family remaining. Abraham asked God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Then he began to bargain with God about how to preserve as many as possible. His questioning of God’s justice, which God does not rebuke, is seen as a model of “contending with God” that other biblical figures will follow.

“The very nature of faith summons questions.”

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday recounts Jesus’ teaching about his upcoming betrayal, death, and resurrection. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32). Evidently, they had been arguing about who was the greatest, and they totally missed an opportunity to ask serious questions about how their Teacher was seeking to interpret the future outcome of his ministry.

Curiosity purportedly “killed the cat” — a tired and unlikely adage. Surely life is far more interesting and faithful if we explore how this world works and our spiritual place within it, especially the relationship between divine and human agency.

I think that would make God smile.

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