“Some of my best sermons come from riding on my motorcycle, like ‘Hells Angels We Have Heard On High,’ ” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “The Tisdale Triangle,” and the theme was fear. The Scripture reading was Psalm 46.
“What better way to talk about fear than with a motorcycle theme,” she said.
She told a story about a motorcycle trip that she and her husband took a few years ago. They stopped in a little town in Montana with two motels. She went into the first motel, where there were no cars in the parking lot, and the woman at the desk said, “We’re full.”
Sparks told her they only needed one room.
“We don’t rent to your type,” the clerk said.
“What type is that?” Sparks asked. She was dressed in her biker leathers and fake tattoos, “as Baptist minister biker chicks do on vacation.”
“Hells Angels biker people,” the clerk said.
Sparks told the clerk she was a Baptist minister on vacation and her husband was a retired federal prosecutor.
“The Bible says it is wrong to tell a lie,” the clerk replied.
The other motel, called the Sea and Sand — in the middle of Montana — was biker-friendly. Sparks got a shower and changed into her best Harley T-shirt and went back to the first motel with her business card from Madison Avenue Baptist Church. She put it on the counter and said to the clerk, “The Bible also says judge not lest you be judged.”
Sparks admitted it might not have been Christian, but it sure was fun. That was the first sermon for the morning and the congregation said “Amen” as she began the second sermon, also about a motorcycle trip.
Another time, Sparks and her husband were on a road trip in South Dakota. They were riding a Harley Road King that weighed about 900 pounds, not including themselves and their gear. They ran into a storm with wind strong enough to push the bike into the other lane of traffic. They started to hydroplane and had to slow down because they had no traction.
“A miracle occurred: We found an overpass where we were dry and safe. We were joined by other bikers and we had to decide what to do,” Sparks said. “The only way was to turn into the storm.”
They moved from underpass to underpass until the storm cleared near Rapid City.
Sparks went into a store and bought chili cheese Fritos to celebrate. The clerk, seeing she was so wet, said: “You must have come through the Tisdale Triangle. It is like the Bermuda Triangle. Near the butte, the land funnels the wind in from the north and they get some of the worst storms near that little town.”
As they continued their journey, Sparks sat on the back of the motorcycle and thought that what they had experienced was a good lesson for life.
“We have all been blindsided by unseen forces, whether from illness, divorce, an election, or stormy words from someone we love,” she said. “When we are faced with these circumstances, there are three steps we need to take.”
The first step is to stop, just stop, because “you are off-balance and you can’t see straight or keep upright,” she said. People make bad decisions when they are off-balance, and it is better to count to 10 before responding — or take a few days to think or put off a decision for six months — than to react immediately.
As an example, she shared a story from an NBC report from Duluth, Minnesota, in 2006. A man was convicted of drunk driving while operating his motorized La-Z-Boy recliner. He had outfitted the chair with a stereo, cup holders and a lawn mower motor. After drinking nine beers at a local bar, he drove out and crashed into a parked car. He was jailed for 120 days and got two years probation, and the chair was auctioned off on eBay.
“The Psalmist is familiar with the need to stop. ‘Be still and know that I am God!’ ” Sparks said. “This is not an act of quitting; it is an act of power. We need to pause, regroup and remember from whence we came.”
The second step is to find shelter. Sparks noted that the oldest woman in the world, who was 117 when she died, said her secret to long life was eating three raw eggs a day and staying single.
“Psalm 46 tells us that our true refuge and strength is God,” she said. “But it could be anything — a kind word that brings a smile or for me, humor and Scripture.”
Sparks was working with the Red Cross in the days after 9/11, taking search and rescue calls from families looking for missing loved ones. A woman called in looking for her husband and started to laugh.
“He left the house with the worst tie,” the woman said. “It had little pigs and palm trees on it and it did not go with his suit.”
There was a long pause as Sparks tried to take in what the woman had said. The caller came back on the phone and said, “I am sorry if humor seems inappropriate, but it is all our family has left.”
“Sometimes humor can take the weight off for just a second,” Sparks said. “I am a breast cancer survivor and I did not know where to park my fear.”
She found solace in Psalm 57.
“ ‘Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in your shadow my soul takes refuge, until the destroying storms pass by,’ ” Sparks quoted. “You gotta stop, you gotta find shelter.”
The third step is to eventually turn back into the storm. She said it was hard to control life, to deal with trouble in convenient times and places.
“I put everything on a to-do list — wake up, breathe, get breakfast,” she said. “But it is hard to schedule ‘feel pain’ at 2 p.m. or ‘remember to grieve’ at 7 p.m.”
You will never outrun the problems, so you have to turn back into the storm. Sparks noted that satirical publication The Onion had published a “study” that said the act of getting out of bed increased the risk of things becoming worse.
But storms can also be life-giving. Ernest Hemingway said in A Farewell to Arms that the “world breaks everyone but afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
“These scars can bring insight and wisdom,” Sparks said. “The Talmud says that there are two parts to the eye — light and dark — but we get sight from the dark part; only from the dark do we get vision.”
As Sparks and her husband continued their trip through South Dakota, they were riding directly into the sunset.
“You can’t chase the light,” she said. “To find the light you have to turn into the darkness because that is where the sun will rise first.”
In the midst of the worst of times, we still have the sacred gift of life.
“There are three things to do and you need to do them as many times as you need to until the storm clears,” Sparks said. “We need to simply remember that ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear … God is in the midst of the city’ and we shall not be moved.”
The Rev. Virginia Carr presided. Maggie Brockman from Boca Raton, Florida, read the Scripture. She first came to Chautauqua Institution as a college student to study voice. She and her husband, the Rev. William G. Brockman, have served the Department of Religion as hosts of the Hall of Missions for the past 15 years. She is on the board of the United Church of Christ Society and both she and her husband have been active at the Ecumenical Community of Chautauqua. The Motet Choir sang “I Come With Joy” by Kenneth Dake under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music. The Jane Robb Shaw Hirsh Endowment and the Edmond E. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Fund provide support for this week’s services.