Blog: August 2020
I never liked the game “Chutes and Ladders” as a kid. Do you remember playing?
You roll the dice, you advance six spaces. You’re three spaces from winning the game, feeling good about beating your older siblings. You roll a two, land on the chute and slide back to the bottom of the board. Ugh! Your siblings snicker. You’re demoralized.
This game came to mind recently while planning to open our schools this fall. The plan we
developed two weeks ago is now irrelevant...but don’t throw it away....we might need it next month.
Six steps forward, 10 steps backwards. Seven forward. It’s pretty crazy.
Come September, will education be in person, virtual or a hybrid combination? Can we put 10 children on a school bus, 24, or 55? If we put plexiglass dividers between the desks, can we increase the numbers in the classroom?
The CDC says one thing. The governor another. The school district another.
Regardless of contradictory messages and ever-shifting landscape, one thing is certain....our kids need QUALITY education this fall.
We can’t mess this up!
“The COVID-19 pandemic will take existing academic achievement differences between middle-class and low-income students and explode them,” writes educational theorist Richard Rothstein. The Brookings Institution comments, “...the loss of learning during the extraordinary systemic crisis of World War II still had a negative impact on former students’ lives some 40 years later.” I believe the coming academic year will define the lives of our children.
This is serious business.
Here’s the good news: our size, our values, our teachers, our Christian faith, our commitment to experiential learning and our integrated approach to wellness all position UrbanPromise to provide the kind of exceptional education needed during this national crisis. We’ve got a world class team who are “here to stay” and ready to teach.
But I need your help preparing for this unique opening. There’s lots of preparation.
Attached is a list of some of the items our team needs to accomplish over the next few weeks—and the cost associated with each item. I’ve put it in a game form—like Chutes and Ladders.
I hope you’ll commit to at least one item—maybe two. Your support will help us open strong.
In advance, thanks for rallying around our children. You’re an amazing gift to our city.
President & Founder
Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were midlife, baby boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses. There were seminars called, “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell” and “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Acorns.” There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.
One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped ‘out of the blue’ by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the tree, he said, “We.....are....that!”
“Delusional,” laughed one acorn. Another mockingly queried, “So tell us, how would we become that tree?”
“Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground....and cracking open the shell.”
“That’s insane,” chorused the group in full throttled unison. “Totally morbid!” “If we did that,” scoffed another, “We wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”*
The acorn story isn’t original. Like many preachers, I’m a scavenger...always looking for a good story, a powerful metaphor or an example that leads to a deeper truth. So I took a few liberties and modified this old parable—and I think it’s a jewel. Like any good parable it lands a different meaning on each of us. You’ve probably made your determination. Here’s mine:
I’ve always believed that authentic faith should lead people to become better and more complete versions of themselves. Each of us is a unique masterpiece, made in the image of God. For numerous reasons this image gets lost and fades. God’s great promise and gift is our restoration—bringing vibrancy, radiance and aliveness to our divine imprint. An early church father, Irenaeus of Lyon, captured it beautifully: “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” Our “fully” aliveness as human beings can be metaphorically imagined in the process of an acorn becoming an oak tree. Acorns are wonderful—but God’s vision for our lives is so much fuller.
Yet there’s a problem. This journey to fullness can’t be purchased like a seven-day, all-expense Disney cruise. And sadly we can’t just read our way to this place, retreat our way to this place, pray our way to this place, or even church our way to this place. As the chipped and broken acorn audaciously suggests, “It has something to do with going into the ground.” And that idea is a little morbid—especially in a culture that increasingly builds its identity, vision and values around the promotion of self.
But for those who desire to begin this journey of transformation, the word often used is ...surrender. Surrender begins by letting go of our little selves: those primal needs to control, to win, and to dominate. Surrender means letting go of our norms and our preferences and even beliefs that limit transformation. Surrender means releasing those thoughts and ideas that bind us as acorns for a lifetime.
Jesus said it this way.: “Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whoever shall lose his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24) It’s a little counter, isn’t it? Or how about this zinger: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it shall yield a rich harvest.” (John 12:24). Jesus modeled and taught surrender. Even the apostle Paul noticed that Jesus “emptied himself and took on the form of a servant.” Self-emptying births a fuller life. Less of me means more of God.
So I might argue that this current historical moment offers a unique gift. Our lives are currently being disrupted, disturbed and disoriented. Old ways of thinking are being challenged. Routines broken. Assumptions dismantled. But here’s the truth: there’s an opportunity to let go of some old baggage and be filled with something new. Yes, the path can be uncomfortable. Deep change has a cost.
Theologian Cynthia Bourgeault says it this way: “...in any situation in life, confronted by an outer threat or opportunity, you can notice yourself responding inwardly in one or two ways. Either you will brace, harden, and resist, or you will soften, open, and yield.”
She continues by saying, “If you go with your former gesture, you will be catapulted immediately into your smaller self, with its animal instincts and survival responses. If you stay with the latter regardless of the outer conditions, you will remain in alignment with your innermost being, and through it...” God can reach you.
“Soften, open and yield,” are the words challenging me today. If I find myself bracing, hardening and resisting....I need to ask why? I need to take inventory. I need to reflect and go deeper. And hopefully I’ll find myself praying: “Dear Lord, help me surrender and trust your mysterious work which always wants to reorder my life in ways I can’t begin to imagine.”
I’ve met an Oak or two in my day. Special people for sure—humble, graceful, compassionate, wise, generous, joyful, kind and....fully alive. They’ve all taken the journey—a journey marked with surrender, a journey that “cracked the shell”, took them “into the ground” and brought them back to us as a magnificent examples of what it means to be fully human. As beautiful Oaks in our midst, they continually remind us: “we...are...that.”
President & Founder
*The Acorn Parable was originally created by Maurice Nicoll in the 1950s.
The automatic glass doors of the convalescent home flew open. A delightful blast of cool air—which those who reside in the northeast during August fully appreciate—sent a welcome shiver through my body. Hands moist with perspiration, I feebly gripped the slippery pen and signed my name at the front desk.
Down the hallway in room 106 I would find my 93-year-old friend Mable Smith. For those of you wondering how I visited a rehabilitation center during COVID, please take comfort that my visit happened 7 years ago.... remember those days when we were allowed to visit our loved ones needing medical care?
Three weeks prior Mable suffered a mild stroke on her way to church. Now recovering, she would be sent home soon when her sense of balance was regained and her vitals stable.
I peeked into the room. The bed empty. I thought the worst.
“She’s in the dining hall,” called the orderly across the hallway, with military-like authority. “Keep walking until the end, make a left and you’ll see the entrance.”
Now Mable was a true character. Feisty. Opinionated. Life-long Presbyterian. A little eccentric. She spent her career as a Navy secretary and shared with me, on an earlier visit, her harrowing firsthand account of being in Pearl Harbor during the bombing. “Lucky to be alive,” she quipped, describing the pandemonium of that 1941 Sunday morning.
“Hi Mable,” I gushed, entering the room and giving her a hug as lowered myself into an empty chair next to her. “Who’s your friend?”
Across the table sat an aged woman, slowly spooning tapioca pudding into her mouth with a high level of intentionality. She hardly noticed my entrance.
“This is Chi..yo..ko,” mouthed Mable slowly and phonetically, making sure I understood. “She was born in Japan. Survived the bombing of Nagasaki.”
I stretched my hand across the table. The woman abruptly and respectfully stopped her methodical motion, placed her spoon on the tray, clutched my fingers and smiled. “Chiyoko,” she muttered softly. “Hello.”
“We figured we wouldn’t be friends if we met in 1942,” quipped Mable. “We were supposed to hate each other back then. Look at us now!”
For the next few minutes I listened to the story. Somehow Chiyoko survived the blast as a teenager, navigated the horrific aftermath and scraped together a few piecemeal jobs to put food in her stomach. Eventually she met a US serviceman stationed at a base in Japan, learned English, married him and moved to the United States. A widow for over a decade, no children and outliving her friends, she was essentially alone in the world—except for her new friend Mable.
For whatever reason, I’ve never forgotten that meal (certainly not the food). Perhaps this week, after reading articles recalling the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it triggered my memory. So without wading into the history and politics as to why those bombs were dropped, I think there’s a lesson to learn from a couple of elderly widows who survived a very dark period of our world’s history.
Maybe the lesson is how the prevailing forces of our historical moment seek to define us as people: influencing our relationships, shaping our values, dictating our behaviors. Perspectives and attitudes toward people—people we don’t even personally know—are consciously and unconsciously shaped by those with loudest and most convincing voices. As social animals, we even mimic the behavior of others in our quest for identity and belonging.
Then 75 years pass..... The cultural, social and geo-political winds change. New enemies are found and created. New wars need to be fought. New people groups need to be feared. But in the end, the lie of our suspicion and fear is exposed by the serendipitous encounter of two convalescing women eating puréed spinach and Gorton’s fish sticks together—in (of all places) Cinnaminson, New Jersey. The futility of hate is unveiled by life’s brevity and our deepest needs for intimacy.
These things we know to be true: Our loved ones will pass on, our workplace colleagues disperse, our children will go their different ways and our political parties will be voted in and out of office. And, if we are the last one standing, we’ll desire only a few elemental things: companionship and love. Ironically—as in the lives of Mable and Chiyoko—both may appear in the form of those we were once told to hate and fear.
James Baldwin wrote, “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated.”
Jesus put it another way: Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. Why? I always believed Jesus made these outrageous commands because it might lead to more peace, fewer wars and better relations with my neighbor who lets his dog do his business on my lawn. And that can certainly be true.
Now I’m thinking Jesus was a few steps ahead of what Baldwin and others would later learn from their firsthand experience of witnessing the corrosive effects of hate—not only on its recipients but on its givers as well. Perhaps Jesus’s commands are really a love letter to you and me from someone who wants to see us flourish and live into the fullness of what we were created to be. The commands are not simply given to win over our enemies...they’re actually for our benefit, regardless of the outcome. Creating identities around hate and suspicion produces little people. And Jesus is always about bigger people. Bigger hearts, bigger lives, bigger visions.
So why wait until the day we’re eating tapioca pudding and fish sticks to expand the companions around our dinner table? Let’s rise above the noise of today and tune into the frequency of God’s heart. Life’s really too short to waste time.
President & Founder
“....I am also pretty sure that the words social justice are not in the Bible,” revealed the email. “And therefore it’s not biblical.”
When I read my friend's words this past week, it reminded me of a story I heard years ago by an urban ministry pioneer named Ray Bakke. Ray was speaking at a suburban church outside of Chicago, sharing about his work with inner-city youth—job training, tutoring, athletic programs. After he spoke, a gentleman approached him: “Rev Bakke, it sounds like you’re committed to promoting a social gospel,” he questioned with a slight tone of judgment. “How does the true Gospel fit into your mission?”
Pastor Bakke paused for a minute. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” replied the man.
“I’m curious, where do you and your family live?”
The gentleman named an affluent, tree-lined street in a suburban town outside Chicago.
“Why do you live there?” continued Bakke.
“Great schools,” volunteered the man. “I travel a lot for work, so I feel my wife and children are safe. A terrific public library. The parks are beautiful as well.”
“I find it fascinating,” replied Bakke. “And I’m not judging you for selecting your neighborhood. But the reasons you’ve cited for living in your community are all social—education, safety, public services. You spend the bulk of your resources and life energy maintaining these social supports. At the risk of being blunt, I really think you’re the one committed to a social gospel."
I forget how the story ends. The two men may have continued to argue into the wee hours of the morning. Or maybe the gentleman became a regular donor to Bakke’s ministry. To me, the conversation reveals the stark differences between ministry in more affluent communities andministry in under-resourced communities. In affluent settings many of the social needs of people—good schools, sports leagues, community safety, jobs, nice parks—are provided, which allow churches to focus exclusively on “spiritual issues.” In under-resourced communities, these social supports simply don’t exist. Since humans are not one-dimensional spiritual beings, social issues must be considered if ministry is to be transformative.
My friend who questioned whether the term social justice is biblical, was ultimately concerned that UrbanPromise is teaching a “social justice” class to our teens this summer. I’m glad he raised the question. I’m also glad he didn’t walk away from our ministry. A conversation was requested. I complied. We had a lively and informative exchange.
In my experience we Christians tend to gravitate towards different “camps”—like-minded groups of people whose theology and politics align with others who hold similar beliefs. One camp of Christians may feel their primary job is to get people saved so they can enjoy eternal life with God in heaven. “Jesus is the only thing that matters,” I hear frequently—implying that the social conditions in which people live are of secondary concern to the eternal glory awaiting beyond the grave. Harsh realities of daily life are to be endured because we’re “just passing through”. Jesus is Savior only—not a man who lived, taught, spoke truth to power and cared for the physical lives of real people. This group might argue that it’s important to be charitable, but challenging systems that create adverse conditions is not in the Jesus play book.
Another “camp” of Christians feel that the social conditions in which humans live their lives, and the systems that create them—poverty, violence, racism, systemic injustices—need to be challenged and made more just. After all, Christians are agents of God’s Kingdom and need to play an active role in advancing this realm of peace and justice on earth “as it is in heaven.” Humans are made in the imagio dei—the image of God. Anything that damages or hurts this “image” needs to be confronted and changed. Life on earth matters. God wants human beings to flourish now—body, mind....and spirit.
So where does that leave us? Should we be teaching our kids about social justice, or should a Christian ministry be focusing simply on the spiritual dimensions of life?
I find myself returning to the Bible during these conversations, fully acknowledging that my interpretation of scripture is biased and influenced by my history, education and the context in which I read it. But even with my biases it’s hard to overlook the two thousand references to justice and poverty in the Bible. Digging deeper into these verses reveals a startling truth: many verses pertain to the “social” conditions of human beings. The book of Leviticus is all about the law—right and fair living between people. Scripture speaks out against “corrupt scales” in the market place (commerce), exploiting the poor by charging exorbitant interest rates (usury), acquiring multiple properties at the expense of the poor (unjust housing), exploiting widows and orphans (misuse of power), welcoming aliens and treating them well (immigration) paying day laborers fairly and quickly (good management) ...It’s there! God seems to care about the nitty-gritty details of human life. So if the Bible is true, social realities are a concern to God.
And what about Jesus? Was he concerned only with the spiritual dimensions of people’s life or was he concerned about the social and physical dimensions as well? Jesus healed people (health), he fed people (physical well being), he embraced the outcast and crossed racial/ethnic barriers (advocacy) and he defended women and children in a culture where it was not popular. Jesus also spoke harshly against those who hid behind their religious practices while they “...neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith.” It appears that Jesus practiced the social dimensions of justice.
So why have the words “social justice” become so politicized and divisive for Christians? A memorable quote by Archbishop Dom Helder Camara highlights our divergent perspectives:
“When I feed the poor, they call me a Saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry they call me a communist.”
As Christians, we tend to be much more comfortable with the concept of charity than justice, probably because our solutions of fixing injustice look so different for each of us. Research does reveal that Christians are some of most generous people—hands down. But discussing injustice can make us uncomfortable—perhaps because addressing root causes can demand more than writing a check and, at times, reveal our own complicity in an injustice...calling us to do some soul searching.
I’ve always seen UrbanPromise as an organization that doesn’t avoid root causes that keep youth and families in cycles of perpetual poverty. I believe we need to be equipping young people to live the “abundant” lives that Jesus promised. Charity has its place, just as an emergency room is critical at a hospital. But long term health calls us to look at factors making unhealthy people. To get to this place, Christians must move beyond political and doctrinal differences and stay focus on what really matters—preparing the whole child to live into the fullness of who God created them to be.
So my friend is actually correct. He wins the argument. The literal words “social justice” do not appear in the Bible (at least I can’t find them). But the biblical commands to be “doers of justice” and “minister justice to the poor and needy” certainly compels me to understanding, confronting and acting out their social implications. In some circles our different perspectives might signal the end of our relationship. United as brothers in Christ, I’m hoping the journey of creating a better world is just beginning.
Founder & President