Blog: March 2020

Sunday, March 29

 

Building wooden boats at UrbanPromise involves a lot of sanding—wood, fiberglass and epoxy. For the kids, it’s their least favorite part of the build. Tedious, time consuming and dusty. Tiny, harmful irritating particles fill the air.

So every student in the shop must wear a high quality, industrial N95 face mask to protect their lungs—the same kind of masks needed by our front line healthcare workers dealing with the coronavirus.

“We had 160 brand new masks in our storage closest,” revealed Tommy Calisterio, our BoatWorks Director. “I contacted a friend at Cooper Hospital. They desperately needed masks for their front line workers.”

Wait a minute? A small, grassroots, community-based non-profit that has literally lived hand to mouth for 32 years—made a donation to a local hospital with hundreds of millions in assets?  Yes! Tuesday to be exact. Cases of brand new masks were delivered. They will save lives.

“What is in your hands?”  asks the Lord of Moses.

You remember Moses?  He was that reluctant leader in Exodus who never feels worthy of the challenge to which God has called him. A flawed man, full of self-doubt and excuses—gladly passing off responsibility to the next guy in line.

Moses looks down at his hands.  He sees nothing at first glance. Just some blistered fingers and calloused palms belonging to a fugitive shepherd. But he looks again.  An old worn stick?  That can’t be of any significance!

“Throw it on the ground,” says the Lord. A decision confronts Moses. Is he hallucinating? Does he respond? Walk away? Ignore? Laugh?

Moses obeys and throws it to the ground. To his utter surprise the stick becomes a snake.  And this stick—now in the hands of a man who opens his heart to the possibilities and direction of God—becomes an instrument used to liberate a burdened and oppressed people.

My fellow urban minister Bob Lupton writes:  “And so it has been down through history—God using the ordinary assets of ordinary men and women to accomplish divine purposes.” Bob is spot on. It’s the boy with the fish and the loaves. The widow with a few coins...

What is in your hands?  A stick?  An N95 mask? A skill you’ve forgotten about? A spiritual gift? A cell phone?

This past week I’ve challenged the UrbanPromise community to ask this very question. For many of us it’s been a week of re-inventing, re-tooling, re-purposing. Two weeks ago we had lots of assets in our hands—clearly defined job descriptions, physical classrooms, chemistry equipment, child care, transportation, sold out fundraising events. Many of these assets are now gone.

Should our team just pack it in?  Give up?  Lament about the good old days? I don’t believe so. It’s not God’s way. God is always about doing a new thing.

So our teachers and staff are discovering new assets in their hands—and are witnessing God using these overlooked, forgotten assets to feed our community, educate our children, and connect with our families in deeply purposeful ways. 

How about you?  What’s in your hand needing to be discovered and released for God’s purpose this week.....

Forward in hope—

Bruce Main
President

 

Friday, March 27

The Secret of Contentment

Author AJ Jacobs describes himself as “petty and annoyed”. He’s forgetful of the 300 things that go right everyday and focuses on the 3 things that go wrong. This self-avowed curmudgeon decided he wanted to become a better person—to learn to be more content and grateful. But how?  He decides to take a “gratitude journey.”

This gratitude journey began by thanking everyone involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. Everyone! You see, the act of noticing is the first act of gratitude.

So Jacobs intentionally thanks the barista who rings him up at his local shop, finds the guy who roasts the beans...and thanks him. He calls an artist in Seattle who designed the lid for his cup. Thank You! He tracks down truck drivers and the warehouse workers, the people who pick the beans in Columbia, and the customs workers who guard the borders. Thank You! 

Of course the workers are bewildered. They’ve never been thanked. Jacobs even drives out of New York City to the Catskill Mountains and thanks those who guard the watershed. 99.9 % of our coffee is water after all. Every Thank You on his journey turns into a story. New relationships are formed. A deeper appreciation is developed for each person’s role in his coffee supply chain.

By the time Jacob finishes his “gratitude tour”, 1000 people have been thanked. Crazy to consider: A thousand people involved in creating his morning cup of coffee! In retrospect he finds himself embarrassed for complaining about paying $2.57 a cup.

Years before AJ Jacobs ever thought about gratitude, the Apostle Paul was eloquently suggesting that he had discovered a “secret”—a secret possessing the power to transform a life. 

“I have learned the secret of being content in EVERY and ANY situation,” he wrote.

Some of us might have reacted defensively to Paul’s claim. “Wait a minute,” we refute. “Paul doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s an ivory tower theologian who is detached from reality.”

Not so. Paul writes these words from a Roman jail—a rather hideous place.  Literally holes in the ground where one’s family had to provide food to stay alive. 

So from this hellish place, Paul writes to ordinary, working class folk with no health care or 401ks.  He has learned an important secret: Contentment. An audacious claim isn’t it?

Paul challenges us to consider a truth: contentment is a state of being independent from our possessions and circumstances.

Deep down most of us know this to be true. We have met people living in bitter poverty...yet they are full of joy. We’ve known people who have suffered tremendously, yet still forgive and love. We know people who give the shirt off their back, because their needs are secondary to others. History is sprinkled with people who transcend their circumstances to discover the secret of contentment.

We don’t know the full economic implications of this pandemic yet, but many of us are already living with less—less food choices, less mobility, less accessibility to service, less savings, less toilet paper.....

As we move into this unknown territory of “less”, the question for each of us is—will we rise to the spiritual challenge Paul places before us?  Contentment is liberating. It’s a gift. It’s a secret worth discovering.

God's grace—

Bruce Main
President

reflection questions: living in hope

  • What lessons are you learning during this time of living with "less"?
  • What would contentment "look" like for you in this season?
Sunday, March 22

 

Above all else, protect your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
– Proverbs 4:23

I love to tell a story to our UrbanPromise kids about a young boy who was always getting into trouble. 

He couldn’t help himself. His desire to do the right thing was there, but when it came time to act—he’d always go the wrong way.

So his mother sent him to visit Grandpa. He was a pretty wise guy. He’d been around the block a few times and had made a few mistakes in his day.

“I’m just always getting in trouble, Grandpa,” lamented the young boy over a glass of ice tea. “I want to do what’s right, but I always get pulled in another direction. What should I do?”

So Grandpa paused, scratched his day old beard, and tenderly replied:

“Ya know son, in your heart there are two dogs. One is good. One is bad. And they are constantly fighting one another.”

His grandson nodded: the metaphor clicked. It was a perfect picture of his inner turmoil. Two dogs, constantly fighting one another, one good and one bad.

“Grandpa, I’m curious,” queried the boy with a sense of urgency, “which dog ends up winning?”  

Again, the old man paused, gazed into the eyes of his grandson:

“The dog who wins? It’s the dog you feed the most....you need to feed the good dog!”

This past week I’ve thought a lot about this little parable. It causes me to ask the question—which dog am I feeding?  You and I know there’s  a lot out there to fill our hearts—fear, anxiety, negativity, worst-case scenarios, panic....lot’s of unhealthy food.

And to a large degree, what ends up filling our hearts profoundly influences the way we lead and respond to this current crisis. What’s in our heart impacts the way we treat people, make decisions and think about the future. 

The writer of Proverbs speaks to me because he understood the intimate connection between our heart and our actions.  That’s why he penned these words centuries ago—words still relevant for this moment:

“Above all else, protect your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” 

Everything flows from the heart. Everything. We need to protect it.

So our challenge this week is not to simply play defense with our hearts. Our challenge is to proactively feed our hearts with good food—the healthy, non-toxic, spiritually enhanced, no preservatives kind of food.

For a helpful menu we need look no further than the Apostle Paul.....

"Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—dwell, meditate and focus on these things."

Practicing these truths will fill our hearts with the right kind of food.

None of us know what’s coming our way this week. We can’t control what’s happening. The one thing we can control is being selective about what enters our hearts. 

Feed the Good Dog—

Bruce Main
President
 

  • What does it look like in your life when you feed the "bad dog"? 
  • What does it look like in your life when you feed the "good dog"? 
  • Is there someone you can share your habits with who will hold you accountable to practicing habits that will feed your soul rather than your fears?

 

Friday, March 20

Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world. If your heart’s full of hope, you can be persistent when you can’t be optimistic. – William Sloan Coffin

Dear Friend—

I find myself in an interesting state of mind—I’m sure you do as well.

Our current reality is sobering. Nobody really knows the potential long term impact of this current crisis. We know it will get worse. We know people will suffer. We know that the worst of humanity will rear its ugly head. We know that the path forward is full of ambiguity and potential chaos. This is our reality.

One of the reasons I remain committed to my Christian faith is that Christianity is not afraid to stare reality in the face—with all its warts and uncertainty. Karl Marx got it wrong when he said “religion is the opiate of the people.”

Authentic biblical faith is no opiate. It’s no crutch. It’s not about denying the harsh realities of the human condition. It’s not about irrational scapegoating to avoid looking into our own hearts. It’s not about blaming and shaming.

Faith calls us to stare into the darkness, to hold our gaze on the unpleasant, to not be surprised at selfishness and human depravity. Little has changed since biblical writers reminded people that life is fragile, people are irrational, and life can take difficult unexpected turns.

But here’s the difference.

As Christians, we possess the hope to embrace the sobering reality of our circumstances. How? Because we believe, with a kind of stubborn tenacity, in God’s ability to transform the most despairing and difficult of circumstances. We are Easter people.

It's been my experience. My truth.

Thirty-plus years ago a community of Christians stared into the most dangerous, violent city in America. We didn’t run. We didn’t pretend there were no problems. We didn’t blame people for their circumstances. We refused to let fear guide our vision.

As a community of faith we acknowledged the brokenness we saw in our neighborhoods, we held the pain in our hearts and we called upon our faith to provide practical ways to change this despairing reality.

God showed up. There’s no other way to explain it. Again and again and again. People surrendered their lives to service. People sacrificially shared their resources. People joined hands across racial and political lines. Kids were loved. Miracles happened. Hope took root in one of society's forgotten gardens....and blossomed.

I believe this same God, who has faithfully provided and guided us for 33 years, continues to infuse each of us with wisdom, patience, love and hope.

We nervously step forward into the unknown—with a bar of soap in our hands, common sense in our pockets, grace in hearts, courage running through our spine...and the tenacious hope that God will show up repeatedly and unexpectedly.

That’s a promise I’m counting on...an urban promise.

Bruce Main
President

  • Reflect on a time in your life when fear was replaced with hope? What allowed for the shift?
  • What is an action you can take today to cultivate hope for yourself and/or a loved one?
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