“I think we need to do a parade for our students,” suggested Siomara Wedderburn, the Director of our Wellness program. “We want our graduates to know they are loved and appreciated.”
On one level it seemed like an odd request, coming at the end of a very difficult week for our nation, our city, our youth and our staff. Collectively we had witnessed police brutality, peaceful demonstrations, rioting, calls for justice and reform. Collectively we had waited for verdicts, reactions from political and civic leaders and the memorial service of George Floyd. There was a heaviness of heart. Was this really a time for a parade?
“I’ll be honest,” confided Ms. Ford, our 6th grade teacher. “I didn’t want to do the parade. But within 5 minutes I had a change of heart. There’s something wonderful about putting aside my feelings and just loving kids.”
Despite the collective mood of the moment, our team decided it was critical not to forget the accomplishments of our students. Despite the unprecedented challenges of teaching remotely, our teachers rose to the occasion. Every 8th grader passed. Every 12th grader has completed high school. Time to celebrate.
Friday morning a convoy of 20 decorated vehicles left the parking lot of UrbanPromise, and began a three hour pilgrimage through the streets of Camden—honking horns, passing out goodie bags and making a big deal of our students. The parade stopped in front of every 8th and 12th grade student’s home. We created traffic jams and we vigorously honked our horns. To our surprise, city residents came out of their houses to applaud and take pictures. Momentum grew with each turn—a beautiful and memorable moment for our students and our city was created.
“I was surprised how big the parade was,” gushed Angel, a 12th grader on his way to culinary school in the fall. Angel and his family eagerly stood on their front steps in East Camden and watched the procession. “It made me feel pretty important.”
Two months ago I appealed to you for financial help in an emergency situation—help we needed to keep our teachers employed and our staff engaged during a time of decreasing revenue and uncertainty.
You responded with amazing generosity. Without your help our teachers would not have continued teaching, and our students would not have graduated. Simply put: You saved the academic year! I’m grateful, as are our parents, teachers and students. You allowed the UrbanPromise team to get our students across the finish line.
But UrbanPromise needed to cross another finish line as well—we need to raise $582,000 to close our June 30th, 2020 fiscal year.
The great news is an unprecedented $522,747 has been generated since April.
Only $59,253 is needed in the next two weeks to reach our GOAL. The finish line is in sight. I know we can do it!
Our teachers did what needed to be done for our students. Now I’m asking you to ensure we cross the financial finish line as well.
I’m confident you will help.
PS. Please watch this parade video. It’ll lift your spirits and remind you why you give to UrbanPromise.
Sixty years ago, on April 5th, 1959, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, at the age of 30, delivered a sermon called Shattered Dreams to his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. I still marvel at its depth and enduring significance.
That particular Sunday morning King preached from an obscure verse of scripture in the book of Romans: “When I take my journey into Spain, I will come unto you.” (15:14). I love when preachers thoughtfully amplify scripture and make application to their current realities.
King reminded his congregation that the Apostle Paul dreamed of traveling to Spain to share the Gospel. As he would make that long arduous trip from the Middle East across the Mediterranean, Paul promised to stop in Rome to visit a small and vital community of Christian believers—a community of people he deeply loved. This was Paul’s dream—his destiny. Yet the dream is never fulfilled. Paul never made it to Spain and only arrived in Rome as a fugitive to be confined to a small jail cell.
“Very few, if any, of us are able to see all our hopes fulfilled,” emphasized the young preacher. “Paul’s life was the tragic story of a shattered dream and blasted hope.”
At this point in the sermon King brilliantly pivots and asks his congregation the million dollar question: “What does one do under such circumstances?” Or to put it more directly: how do we deal with our shattered dreams?
According to King, people tend to deal with disappointment, shattered dreams and unfulfilled hopes in three ways. The first is bitterness and resentment. It’s a “coldness of heart” and the development of “hatred for life itself.” King adds that we take our anger and bitterness out on those closest to us—children, spouses and our neighbor. These kinds of people “love nobody and they demand no love.”
The second way people deal with their shattered dreams is withdrawal. They detach themselves from what is going on around them. At the cost of self-induced psychological and physiological damage caused by repression, reminded King, “they attempt to escape the disappointments of life by lifting their minds to the transcendent realm of cold indifference.”
The third way is fatalism. King believed this was particularly dangerous for religious folk. People resolve that everything is foreordained and inescapable. They believe that people have no freedom. “Everything is God’s will, however evil it happens to be.” King admits that in order to preserve human freedom, God does permit evil. But there is a difference between permitting something and ordaining something. It’s a dangerous mindset, according to King, to just throw up one’s hands and surrender one’s disappointments and call it “the will of God.”
So what then is the answer?
Honestly confront your shattered dreams and believe that almost anything that happens to us can be woven into the bigger purposes of God. “On the one hand we must accept the finite disappointment,” King concludes. “But in spite of this we must maintain the infinite hope. This is the only way that we will be able to live without the fatigue of bitterness and the drain of resentment.”
That “infinite hope”—in the face of very real disappointments—led this pastor (without a national stage at the time) to act on a local level by organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott in a church basement, an event that propelled the civil rights movement forward. King did not resolve to bitterness, neither did he ignore the injustices in his city, nor did he resolve that segregation was simply God’s will. For months on end a handful of his congregants met, prayed, hoped and planned how best to act as God’s people...in that moment.
For many, the events of the last few weeks and months may represent a shattered dream of sorts. Your hope has been “blasted”. For some of us who grew up in the 1960’s, we hoped for a world where people would not be judged by the “the color of their skin, but the content of their character”*—that dream has been shattered. For many who witnessed the protests and riots in the early 1990’s around the Rodney King beating, we believed that comprehensive police reform would take root and make our communities safer for all people—that dream has been shattered. And for our young people today, who imagine a world of equality, decency and respect for human life for their friends and brothers and sisters of color—their dreams have been shattered these past weeks.
On another level, some of you may be dealing with other kinds of shattered dreams as well—the loss of a career due to the coronavirus, a closing of a business you spent years building, a dissolved marriage, a wayward child, a scandal in your church....all real disappointments. All asking for a response.
So we have a choice. Bitterness and resentment. Indifference. Fatalism. Or infinite hope in the face of disappointment—a hope that forces us to engage our disappointment and propels us to act in ways that reflect the heart of God.
Fortunately we have examples of those who went before us. St Paul and Dr. King Jr. neither resolved to bitterness, to cold indifference or to a toxic fatalism. They faced their disappointments, dug deeper into their faith, looked for God’s deeper purpose and continued to act as followers of Jesus. We must do likewise.
PS. My summary does not do Dr. King’s sermon justice. You can read in its entirety here and be challenged and encouraged by its fullness: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/draft-chapter-x...
*Quote from MLKing Jr, “I have a Dream” Speech, August 28, 1963
Twice a month the UrbanPromise staff gather (by Zoom recently) to share, laugh, pray, celebrate accomplishments and encourage one another. We see ourselves as a community—more than a program, more than a service provider, and more than an educational institution. The vibrancy of our programs flow from our unity as a community.
Our community is rooted in what Christians call the body of Christ. And I believe, by extension, you who read these words—donors, volunteers, alumni, parents, board members, interns —are part of this mystical body as well. I know your connection to our ministry is deeper than simply sending a check, playing in a golf outing or attending a banquet. Even if some don’t ascribe our belief system, you keep supporting us and volunteer because there is something unique and authentic about this place—you sense a powerful bond between our team and our youth. You witness lives transformed.
So I think the words of the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth are particularly relevant to all of us connected to the UrbanPromise community...especially this week in light of our country’s tragic events:
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
Paul eloquently casts a vision of the burden and joy of being part of this sacred community that transcends race, geography, time, economics and ethnicity. Paul is not describing a country club membership, a college fraternity or a monolithic group of people connected for reasons of self-interest. St. Paul is describing a different kind community—a group of people connected to one another by faith and love in Christ. This is the commitment we make. We voluntarily move into the lives and worlds of those we may not know, or with whom we have very few things in common, or even disagree and share radically different histories. Our capacity to suffer expands because of our union....as does our capacity for joy.
That’s why I need to invite you into our staff meeting of this past Friday afternoon. I want you to hear the voices of our community as they process the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
“I was watching an innocent children’s program on Channel 3 with my 8 year old son,” shared one of my female colleagues, voice heavy with emotion. “Part way through the program it switched to a “Breaking News Update” and there was George Floyd with an officer’s knee on his neck in my living room. My son was visibly shaken. At that moment I knew I had to have 'The Talk'.”
Some in our group needed to be schooled on what “The Talk” means. So we listened intently as our colleague described what it’s like to be an African American mother, having to discuss the realities of race in America with a curious and rambunctious boy. “It’s not a conversation I want to have,” she lamented. “I see stuff like this and I’m terrified for my child.” We listened and tried to honor her fear and pain.
“As a white male,” shared another colleague, “the only talk I’ll have with my kids is a conversation about safe sex. I’ll be candid, I never really think about the safety of my kids walking through our neighborhood. I’m sorry you have to have these conversations.”
“You know,” added another, his face buried deep in his hands. “I was a student at UCLA during the Watts riots...I just can’t believe we are still dealing with these forms of racism 30 years later. It’s like we’re moving backwards.”
One of the more senior women in the group jumped into the conversation. “You know my father was chased 3 times by the KKK,” she recounted from her days growing up in the South. “I’ve raised 3 sons. I know what it’s like to worry.”
“The saddest part of having our schools closed,” concluded another, “is we can’t have these kinds of discussions to help our students process this moment and strategize solutions.” As a group we continued to listen, trying our best to honor the varied experiences of our group.
Over the past three decades UrbanPromise has tried to build an intentionally diverse community. We’ve tried to build something reflecting and celebrating the breadth and width of God’s human creation. It has not always been easy, and often feels quite fragile. But I believe diverse communities create opportunities for us to grow bigger as people—our lives expand because we welcome the experiences and perspectives of others. And in this moment, when parts of our community hurt, we have all been given the privilege of “...bearing one another’s burdens” and so fulfilling “the law of Christ.” It’s critical we stay together and don’t fragment.
As a Christian leader, the husband of 32 years of an African American woman, and the father of three adult children trying to make sense of their racial identity in our world, I keep returning to Jesus as my source of hope and inspiration during this difficult time. As this man—fully human—suffers a painful, inhumane and unjust death on a cross, he continues to extend forgiveness to those who suffer beside him. Even in his pain Jesus blesses others. And even until his last breath, Jesus extends an invitation to become part of a realm called the kingdom of God—a place of justice, a place of peace, a place of love and a place of forgiveness. We must do likewise.
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” prays our Lord. In the words of theologian Nicholas Waltersdorf, God’s people are “aching visionaries.” We long for God’s Kingdom on earth and our hearts ache when we experience situations, events and systems that contradict this vision. Racism, violence and poverty are not part of God’s vision. They have no place and must be resisted on all levels.
My prayer is that each of us will continue to “ache” for the things that break the heart of God—and that our aching will lead to sustained, enduring action. My prayer is that we will not grow weary of doing the hard, tedious, intentional and courageous work of making our neighborhoods more just, more safe and more hospitable to all her people.
Even though you don’t attend our weekly meetings, I am grateful you are part of our community and willing to journey with our team through this difficult time—sharing both our pain and joys. We need you now more than ever.
This past Sunday the pastor introduced his sermon by asking the congregation if they remembered a date when they had a significant spiritual experience. It got me thinking.
Friday, April 3rd, 2020 popped into my mind.
It’s a day I’ll not forget—perhaps my most significant spiritual moment of this pandemic.
At 1pm that day I had the privilege of telling the UrbanPromise staff during a Zoom meeting that we would not lay off anyone, we would continue to show up for our children and we would plan and prepare for a post-coronavirus Camden. In short—I told the team we were staying together and staying the course. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous leading up to the moment. Once I shared those words, I knew there was no turning back. Verbally making a promise to support the livelihood of 60+ staff and their families was daunting. Yet once the words were uttered there was also a sense of liberation. Commitments works that way. This commitment would define the future of UrbanPromise.
Making this promise may not seem like a big deal to you, but let me share some context. Our accountant closed March with a 50% shortfall in revenue, we had 3 weeks of cash in the bank, the stock market was in a free fall and our three fourth quarter fundraisers needed to be cancelled—events that typically generate a significant percentage of our annual budget. Economically vulnerable would accurately describe our organizational situation.
Some might argue it was irresponsible to make this kind of announcement to our staff. And looking through a certain lens you’re absolutely correct. If we based our decision on cash flow projections, the stock market, unemployment numbers and an uncertain economic forecast you would win the argument. Hands down.
UrbanPromise calls itself a “faith-based” organization. I often remind our team that “faith-based” has less to do with our doctrine and more to do with how we act as God’s people.
Actions speak louder than words—so what does it mean to act in faith in those moments when common sense and a shaky economic forecast suggest a more conservative path forward? At this particular moment being “faith-based” meant taking the proverbial leap of faith. Or as the late theologian William Sloan Coffin used to quip: “Jump first, then grow wings.”
I’ve come to believe that taking a leap of faith is often a critical first step in creating conditions for the miraculous to happen. It’s hard to put into words. But faith is more than an intellectual ascent to a set of propositional truths. Faith is action. Faith is committing beyond our human capabilities and placing ourselves in a vulnerable space....and hoping that God shows up.
Speaking of God and faith, I have a favorite quote I’ve returned to over the years—somewhat reluctantly at times, I’ll admit. The source slips my mind, but the words I’ve not forgotten: “Faith is putting ourselves in situations where, if God doesn’t show up, we’re in trouble.”
For those familiar with the scriptures, you’ll probably agree that this quote is rooted in an observable and repeated pattern. Page after page the Bible records stories about ordinary people who put themselves in situations where....if God doesn’t show up....they’re in trouble.
There’s Moses. Waist deep in the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army closing in.....God needs to show up. There’s this young boy David up against a rather large giant named Goliath....God needs to show up. There’s Gideon. Joseph in the Egyptian jail. The young men who take a stand against an egotistical king name Nebuchadnezzar and find themselves in a fiery furnace. The widow who gives all her resources. The disciples who respond to the simple words, “Follow me.” An active faith places these characters in situations where God needs to show up...or they are in trouble.
Seven weeks have passed since I first made the announcement to the staff. As a community we have truly experienced the miraculous. God has shown up. We’ve made payroll every week. Our donors and partners have responded with humbling generosity and sacrifice. For the first time in 32 years our organization received assistance through a federal government program called the CARES Act.
Programs have continued—although taking new forms. Most importantly the faith of our people has been deepened as we’ve supported, encouraged and ministered to one another, our youth and our families. Something powerful is happening.
When the dust settles from this pandemic, my hope is that we can all point to a defining moment—a memorable moment when we experienced the miraculous because we took a leap of faith. Einstein put it best: “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” I’m choosing the latter.
I’ve been to lots of birthday parties over the years—very few match the one I attended recently. First, it was held in this fancy space called “Zoom”, with people attending from all across the country. Second, the “birthday boy” turned 100 years old. After perfunctory introductions and the celebratory This is Your Life online slide show, the man of the hour was given the microphone.
“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done,” reverberated the baritone voice through cyberspace. “On earth as it is in heaven.” The long-retired pastor paused, caught his breath, and then delivered a 3-minute homily that would rival any preacher in their prime. “We need to be about the business of building God’s kingdom of justice, peace and compassion on this earth,” he crescendoed. “That’s our mission. Our purpose.”
One hundred years old.....and he still possesses the passion, vision and hope to make the world a better place. I find it remarkable.
I first met Dr. Charles Sayre 30-plus years ago when I arrived in Camden. I was a young whippersnapper learning the ropes of urban ministry, trying to figure out which way was up. I had heard about this legendary pastor at Haddonfield United Methodist Church who believed the division between suburban and urban communities was not God’s plan, and that the great commandment was to love our neighbors—and not just the one on the other side of our manicured hedge. He walked the walk...literally to Camden.
Over the decades, Dr. Sayre helped birth dynamic and impactful Camden-based non-profits. Respond Inc. was one—impacting the city through job creation and affordable housing. For years he chaired the Fellowship House in South Camden, a youth ministry organization (which was recently donated to UrbanPromise to continue its legacy) that served our city for 50 years. Despite his credentials and academic pedigree, he always served with humility. A unifier of people, always kind, he believed UrbanPromise was the best thing since sliced bread and he was always generous with his praise. You can understand why I like him.
This week I asked Dr. Sayre the secret to his longevity. With his quick and disarming sense of humor he quipped, “Lack of stress,” and chuckled. Naturally averse to the spotlight, he’s always deflected attention from himself. I conclude that his vitality is deeply connected to a faith that drives his unwavering sense of moral purpose. Whatever age, whatever stage of his career, this man always uses his influence and power to move people of different backgrounds towards building a world that mirrors God’s heart.
The two most important days of your life: the day you were born and the day you discovered why. –Mark Twain
Finding the “why” for our lives is critical. And trust me....clergy alone don’t have the corner on the purpose market. Every week I meet people discovering the “why” for their existence: business owners leveraging their influence for the greater good, retirees re-purposing their talents to build stronger non-profits, doctors and dentists volunteering their weekends and vacations to help heal our under-resourced communities....the list goes on. Show me a person who has discovered the why of their existence and I’ll show you someone with purpose, passion and joy.
Jesus preached that humans need more than just “bread” and clothing to have full and robust lives. Yes, food is important—and clothes are essential—but each of us needs a larger life vision to feed the deeper hunger of our soul. “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” encourages Jesus. “And all these things will be added unto you.” If our priorities are ordered correctly, the rest will fall into place. It’s worked for Dr. Sayre.
Not all of us will live to celebrate our hundredth birthday, but I guarantee a life with deep purpose will take us on a journey we’ll never regret.
“I just remember being scooped onto a white bus, warm pancakes and love,” posted the young woman on FaceBook, “I have no doubt we stressed you guys out. Personally, I appreciated all the effort.”
Twenty five years have passed since this seven year old girl first walked through the doors of an UrbanPromise program in Camden, and what does she remember? An old white bus...warm pancakes...and...Love. Pretty simple. Isn’t it fascinating what kids remember—a poignant reminder of what really matters.
Four days ago a former UrbanPromise intern formed a Facebook group called, ”Old Promises” for “old” UP missionaries and students. A few photographs were initially posted between the four alumni. As of this morning, close to 300 people are posting and commenting—it’s growing daily. Former UrbanPromise kids and interns are sharing favorite memories, favorite camp songs, current occupations, stories of faith and...reconnecting. During this season of social distancing and uncertainty, there seems to be a growing hunger to connect...especially to those with whom we’ve shared experiences and history. As I read the comments being posted, I was amazed at the important role this ministry has played in the development of so many lives.
I personally remember the first time that little wisp of a girl was “scooped” onto our old white school bus. It was Sunday morning. She was picked up with her older sister Yolanda for Sunday school at Rosedale Baptist Church on 27th and Westfield Ave. Her name was Summer Tatum.
Sunday mornings alway began with a pancake breakfast for kids like Summer. Volunteers griddled up plates of hot cakes. If it was a good week for donations, a little bacon might end up on a plate—sausages if we hit the lottery. A glass of powdered Tang was always available to wash the syrup down. The quality of the food was certainly questionable, but the weekly ritual of eating a warm meal was never forgotten.
“I’m now serving in the US Army, stationed in Washington, DC,” continued Summer on her Facebook post. “I’m a CBRNE soldier, so I ensure soldiers are trained and prepared for any type of chemical, biological or nuclear attack.”
What? That little girl, who liked to gobble up pancakes, is now protecting our country against chemical, biological and nuclear attacks—how does that happen? I believe it happens when caring adults do the hard work of faithfully showing up and generously planting seeds of love, attention, and faith into the hearts and minds of hurting kids.
“UrbanPromise definitely provided a safe, loving space where I was introduced to Christ,” she concluded. “That foundation is something that I personally feel most children miss out on today.”
When I think of the trajectory of Summer’s life, and who she has become, I’m reminded of a very simple truth shared to the church of Corinth by the Apostle Paul. St. Paul reminds ordinary people that we can choose to live our lives in a variety of ways. There’s no judgment in the verse—just simple logic and a promise. Paul is offering an opportunity for a bigger, richer, more blessed life.
“Sow sparingly, and you’ll reap sparingly,” he wisely offers. “Sow generously and you’ll reap generously.”
This past week I experienced the truth of Paul’s teaching in a very real way. It’s hard to explain in words, but let me try. For the past three decades a community of God’s people—staff, volunteers, donors, churches, board members, StreetLeaders—have sown generously into the lives of Camden’s children through UrbanPromise. Summer’s story is an example of generous sowing.
Despite all the hardship and despair in our world, these past few days i witnessed an unusual bounty of transformational stories, donations, and words of affirmation. I truly experienced the gift of faithful people who sow generously. It’s a gift our world needs right now. Circumstances might beckon us to retreat and play defense. Let’s resist and continue to sow generously.
"Wake Up." –Matthew 26:46
A good friend of mine is having trouble sleeping. In the middle of the night he wakes up thinking about the potential implications of the pandemic. Even in the best of circumstances he’s hardwired to worry—something which makes him brilliant in his line of work. But being alone in his active brain, in the middle of the night, produces abnormal levels of anxiety.
“Instead of worrying,” he shared with me this Sunday morning. “I decided to use the time to write a letter to my children.”
“I know I’m sounding a little morbid,” he confessed. “I don’t think I’ll die from the coronavirus, but I decided to write down everything I’ve wanted to share with them. You can’t necessarily predict the circumstances around your death.”
And so he wrote a beautiful, thoughtful, father-endearing two page email to his four adult children. He encouraged them, confessed some of his failures as a father, shared his favorite memory with each child growing up, expressed his reason for believing in God and gave them some fatherly advice about living in a post-coronavirus world. At 3am, he pressed the send button.
“You need to do it,” he challenged me. “I was surprised by the responses of my kids—and their spouses. It’s been really encouraging and enlightening.”
My friend got me thinking about the importance of last words...and how I can better use this unusual moment to share what I’ve never had time to share.
Years ago I heard a memorable interview on NPR with an aging Holocaust survivor. I forget many details, but my memory has never released her main point. As a preteen girl, she recalled being herded onto a train with other Jewish children. “I was with my younger brother,” she remembered. “He lost one of his shoes in the scuffle. I scolded him.”
A few minutes later brother and sister were separated and sent to different concentration camps, never seeing one another again. “It’s the biggest regret of my life. My last words to my little brother....I reprimanded him over something as inconsequential as a lost shoe.” She concluded, “I’ve tried to live the remainder of my life carefully choosing the words I speak to people—just in case they are my last.” That’s a life lesson.
Do you remember the last words Jesus shared with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Wake Up.” He repeated them twice because his disciples slept through the moment. I’ll concede it was a difficult and confusing moment. I would have done the same. But they missed what was happening. In the words of Jean-Pierre de Caussade, they failed to appreciate “...the sacrament of the moment.” Blaise Pascal echoes those sentiments when he called the disciples' performance the “Gethsemane Sleep”.
I’ve got some homework to do this week. I need to stay awake to the moment, reflect thoughtfully on words I need to share and write a few letters. When completed, I hope to have the courage to press...SEND.
Let us consider how to spur one another on towards acts of love and good deeds.
- Hebrews 10:24
There’s one moment in my life that may remotely compare to the feelings many people are currently experiencing. It was a moment when time seemed to stand still—my future completely beyond my control. My problem could not be fixed, solved or reorganized. Exhausted from sleepless nights, my capacity to focus on anything was futile. Prayer....impossible. I only wanted to be transported out of the current mess and placed in the future. But that’s not how life works. We have to live through these moments.
Unexpectedly, my wife’s water broke 23 weeks into the pregnancy of our second child. Four days later our little girl was born at 1 lb 2 ounces, with severely under-developed lungs and a damaged brain. Neonatologists predicted a 10 percent survival rate. Forecasts got worse with each harrowing day on life support. Even if she survived the critical first week, she’d be blind with severe cognitive damage...she would not walk...play...learn...
So what does a person do when their faith waivers, their life equilibrium is disrupted and the capacity to care for oneself spiritually and emotionally is depleted? It does happen. No shame in feeling this way. That’s where I found myself. I didn’t know how dig my way out.
There’s a deeply profound verse in the epistle to the Hebrews. It’s been my truth. Scholars tell us that this ancient community of believers were persecuted, tired, weary and ready to throw in the towel.
It’s pretty clear. Our spiritual vitality and healing is connected to others speaking into our lives. Our faith might be personal—it’s not private. We need people who “consider” us and “spur” us beyond our stagnation and despair.
This virus is real and deadly. But it is also a metaphor for another truth—the intimate connectedness of all humans and the potential we possess to impact one another in positive ways. Social scientists call this phenomenon "emotional contagion." Our words, actions and attitudes actually infect the people with whom we contact. Studies reveal that receiving a simple smile or positive greeting increases our happiness by 15 percent. The next person we encounter—their happiness increases by 10 percent....and so on.
Our levels of courage, compassion, love and generosity infect others as well. This is how we can spur.
Emotional contagion has a dark side as well. “Like secondhand smoke,” says Daniel Goleman, “the leakage of emotions can make a bystander an innocent casualty of someone else’s toxic state.” Negativity, hate and scapegoating is also infectious—it doesn’t spur us towards anything good. I call these folk burrs.
Twenty seven years ago, when my life took a dramatic and abrupt turn for the worse, some amazing people “spurred” me and our family on with love, encouragement, prayer and generosity. I’m forever grateful.
My challenge this week is to be intentional about considering others and spurring those around me towards love and good deeds. I hope you’ll do likewise.
PS. And that little premature, 1 pound wonder of a daughter named Erin—she just finished her first year of graduate school. That’s a story for another day.
...we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert to whatever God will do next...
- Romans 5:3, The Message
A daughter of a colleague works at a local restaurant in a suburban town outside of Camden, NJ. Some restaurants have closed since the outbreak of the coronavirus, others have pivoted to Delivery or Take-Out Only options. The past three weeks have been brutally slow.
Last Friday night, for whatever reason, business picked up. The combination of a beautiful spring evening with a local population tired of cooking, led to a boom in orders. Skeleton staffs of hourly workers were overwhelmed—delivery requests to local homes were delayed.
“My daughter arrived home exhausted,” shared my friend. “But she was also distraught by the behavior of some customers. People berated the workers for their slow delivery.”
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, somewhat shocked, “People were rude to the workers?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Waiting 2 hours for their sushi, instead of 30 minutes, was too much of an inconvenience.”
Berating restaurant workers—who must continue working despite potential health dangers—preparing California rolls and sashimi for people inconvenienced by three weeks of cooking at home....we need to pause for a minute.
An old friend sent me a quote last week: “Crisis doesn’t create character; crisis reveals character.” I don’t agree entirely, but the point is obvious. Warren Buffet puts it another way: “You don’t know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.” The tide is going out, my friends. Stress and trouble reveal character—or lack thereof. This might be an opportunity to open our eyes and see what kind of swimwear we’ve got on.
In addition to my work in Camden this past week, I’m constantly communicating with our affiliate leaders in multiple African countries. Trust me, they’re not worrying about delayed sashimi orders. They’re worrying about no government stimulus packages, no unemployment, potential anarchy, no ventilators, no refrigeration, and no ability to stockpile food so they can social distance. If the virus hits big, it’ll be apocalyptic. Suffering unimaginable. I find this perspective sobering.
My concern for those of us living in the United States is that many will miss this teachable moment. For many, it’s the first time in our lives that we’ve been majorly inconvenienced—an occurrence happening in developing countries and under-resourced American urban communities daily. Our privilege has been interrupted. How will we respond? Will we use this moment to identify with the sufferings of others, develop greater depths of empathy and learn true patience?
What I love about the Bible is it’s always challenging the reader to go deeper, to look inward, to find purpose in the moment and to do some “soul work.” It’s the Bible where we bump into characters like the apostle Paul who say audacious things like “....troubles can develop passionate patience.” Really?
Yes it can.
Troubles can teach us patience—but only if we’re courageous enough to stop blaming others, hold the mirror to our lives and do some internal work.
Confronting our selfishness and privilege takes courage. Transferring our fear and anxiety onto the teenager who forgets to place a straw in our take-out bag with our chocolate milkshake is a cheap and easy substitute for what we’re called to do in moments like these.
Love is patient, says Paul famously to the church of Corinth. Let’s pray that our current adversity is transformed into a gift—a gift that “....forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.”
So the women hurried away from the tomb…afraid yet filled with joy. – Matthew 28:8
“I now realize that God writes a better story than I do,” confessed James to the group.
Sitting in the room were some of the most remarkable people I know—founders and directors of our UrbanPromise programs from across the globe. Remarkable because they have forfeited personal gain to serve some of the poorest and most challenging communities in the world—Camden, Trenton, Wilmington, North Little Rock, Little Havana, slums in Uganda and rural communities in Malawi.
“James,” I questioned. “What do you mean that God writes a better story?”
“Here’s the story I want to write for the kids I work with in my city,” James disclosed with a chuckle. “I want my students to graduate from high school, go to college, get a good job, get married, have a few kids and then donate to UrbanPromise. That’s the story I hope to write.”
“What’s the matter with that story?” I silently mumbled to myself. Considering the odds stacked against kids growing up in our communities, I thought his hopeful vision was a pretty amazing story.
“But, there was this kid,” continued James. “I’d invested a lot of time. Mentoring. Tutoring. Going to the movies. Ice cream!”
Then along came the local drug dealer. The quick money was too enticing. The temptation to get rich was overpowering. Jevonny bit the apple, was picked up in a city-wide drug sweep and given a six-year sentence. “It broke my heart,” lamented James. “Six years in prison!” The best James could do was send letters and make the occasional visit.
“I was one of the first people Jevonny called when he got out,” continued James. “He shared a moment in prison that changed his life.”
One particular night Jevonny was restless and couldn’t sleep. Lying on his bunk, looking up at the ceiling, he asked himself where he had experienced the most love in his life. Hands down it was at UrbanPromise. Then he asked himself what James and his team had in common? It was simple: they were Christians and serious about living out their faith. “So I became a Christian in prison and started attending a Bible study,” confided Jevonny to James. “I also learned to cut hair. I went to barber school.”
“That story made my day,” boasted James. “I was overjoyed.” But the story got better.
“Since you still live in my old neighborhood,” continued Jevonny. “I’m wondering if I can set up a barber shop in your living room on Friday nights. I’d like to start cutting hair for the drug dealers in the community--especially their children.”
At that point James looked at our group of leaders sitting on the edge of their chairs. “So guess what?” chuckled James, “Every Friday night Jevonny is cutting hair in my living room, sharing God’s love and grace with the guys with whom he used to sell drugs.”
“Now that’s a story I never could have written,” gushed James. “I’ve come to the conclusion that God writes better stories. Better stories than I can imagine.”
Over last 30 days a very difficult story is being written across our country and around the globe. Over 50 percent of our country claim the pandemic is negatively impacting their mental health, unemployment continues to soar and most of us personally know someone suffering or even dying from COVID-19. It’s a horrible story. For many, a better story is unimaginable.
For those of us living within the Christian tradition, the Bible reminds us—page after page—that God takes dismal and hopeless situations and writes stories that a human mind cannot imagine. Easter is a good place to start.
A story beginning with betrayal, violence, suffering, abandonment, and despair. A story ending with a mind-altering miracle, exuberant hope and the formation of a community of believers who keep showing up generation after generation to live in the hope and power of the Easter miracle. It’s a better story….remarkable, actually.
As long as we’re breathing, as long as our hearts are pumping, we’re writing some kind of story with our lives. Things happen beyond our control, yet we always have the freedom to choose how we respond. It’s seldom easy. But it’s our response—infused with the presence and help of God—that can take a horrible story…and make it better. Not perfect. Not easy. Not without suffering and pain. Just better.