Blog: April 2020
"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.
URGENT MESSAGE FROM BRUCE MAIN
In 32 years of leading UrbanPromise I have never experienced anything like the past 21 days.
Our people have worked around the clock adapting to the new normal—helping teens and children grieve the loss of a daily routine, calming fears, innovating new approaches to teaching and reaching out to our families and children daily. Counseling services and access to emergency food is being provided. We have adapted quickly to our changing landscape.
As of today, not one of our workers has been laid off. While our nation’s unemployment numbers skyrocket, our board and leadership have decided that UrbanPromise needs to press forward, stand in the gap, and come out stronger when this crisis passes.
I’m convinced that double-digit unemployment and social dislocation will devastate a community like Camden. Non-profits will vanish, local businesses will shutter, parents will lose jobs and essential services will be overtaxed.
At its core, UrbanPromise is people. It’s not buildings. Not great technology. Not even cool and unique programs. UrbanPromise is a community of Christians who daily exercise their faith through sacrificially loving and caring for people of Camden in Jesus’ name.
This kind of commitment and community cannot be purchased; I can’t hire these kinds of dedicated people off Craigslist or CareerBuilder. This kind of community takes years to develop and cultivate.
That’s why I am asking you to make sure UrbanPromise survives and thrives during this current crisis.
As we enter the last quarter of our fiscal year (April 1 - June 30, 2020) our financial picture has changed dramatically:
1. Our biggest fundraising events—Taste of Promise, Pedal for Promise, and our Golf Tournament—typically generate $425,000. They have all been cancelled or postponed. Regular giving has been radically impacted by the distraction of the virus and the flagging economy.
2. Prior to this crisis, UrbanPromise was in a strong financial position and plans were being laid to create a fiscal safety net to carry us securely into the future. The pandemic has not only halted that campaign but has put our current staff and programs in jeopardy.
3. We were recently approved for a loan as part of the CARES Act passed by Congress to aid organizations impacted by COVID-19. We are praising God for this quick approval and the expectation of much needed funds to offset some of our expenses.
You’ve walked with us through the good times and the challenging times and I know I can count on you. A gift of any size will help.
God’s courage and peace—
P.S. If you would like to call me to discuss a large gift, I’d love to speak with you and share more details about what we are facing. You can reach me at (856) 313-4106 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Why this waste?” – Matthew 26:9
The reporter held the microphone close to the retiring bishop’s mouth.
“If you were to boil it down to a few words,” he curiously inquired, “what should define Christian behavior?”
The aged cleric stroked his scrappy beard. After decades of ecclesiastical service—baptisms, funerals, communions, weddings—he was in no rush to answer the impatient young journalist. Silence lingered for a few painful seconds.
“Christians,” he finally replied, “Christians....are people who love with waste. We are called to be wasteful lovers.”
These words created some dissonance for me as a young seminarian, having never put love and waste in the same sentence. Growing up in a household that frowned on throwing anything away, I developed an early aversion to waste. My lunch bag was a recycled Oreo bag—with an old mayonnaise jar doubling as a thermos for my powdered milk. I was even expected to bring them home every day from school...so they could be used again and again! “Waste not, want not”: a mantra seared into my consciousness. I still have problems throwing away a Starbucks cup.
But here was a retiring man of the cloth saying the essence of Christian behavior is to love wastefully? Shouldn’t love be invested like a good mutual fund? You know, sprinkle it around, minimizing risk, making sure we get the best return on our investment? And what about stewardship? Why would a clergy propose to “waste” anything—especially love?
The Easter story is really a story about wasteful love. It begins with an unknown woman sharing her most valued possession and ends with a man laying down his life for others. Scholars actually suggest that the first authentic Christian in scripture is the anonymous woman in Matthew’s gospel account called The Anointing at Bethany. She’s the only one who understands what’s really going on, generously surrendering her expensive perfume and preparing Jesus for what’s coming next: his death and burial.
“Why this waste?” protest the disciples with righteous indignation as she anoints Jesus. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
To everyone’s surprise, Jesus doesn’t agree with his buddies. He doesn’t throw the woman under the proverbial bus or dismiss her gesture as foolish sentimentality. Jesus actually elevates her action, offering a less than subtle rebuke: “She has done a beautiful thing for me...and her story will be told forever.”
Once again the disciples miss the point. They fail to see the heart behind the act. It’s easy to do. As the leader of a non-profit, who spends much of his life asking for donations, I can identify with the disciples. Sell the perfume on eBay. Get the cash. Make a significant donation to your local food bank. That’s practical. But I miss the point. I miss the heart.
I meet a lot of amazing Christians in my travels. In general we do a pretty good job of loving. But often our love is a practical, appropriate, boundary-abiding, a get-something-in-return kind of love. It’s love, but often safe and calculated.
Jesus is different. He’s a threat to those in power. Why? I argue that he can’t follow the rules of those who determined who should and shouldn’t be loved. His heart was too big. His love knew no boundaries. His love could not be contained by religious, social, ethnic and geographical barriers of his day. So he made enemies. It cost him his life.
And this is part of Easter’s life-giving message of Hope. We invite this resurrection power to enter our sometimes small, crusty, fear-filled, boundary-abiding hearts and liberate us to love—wastefully.
....the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’ – Matthew 21:10
One of the most dramatic and overlooked aspects of the Easter story is the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Jesus enters the city from the east. Scholars tell us of another procession coming from the west: the port city of Caesarea.
During Passover the city of Jerusalem swelled from 40,000 to 200,000. For an insecure, Rome-appointed political leader—whose charge was to keep his Jewish subjects "in check"—Pontius Pilate sent a Roman garrison of soldiers to fortify the troops permanently stationed in the holy city. Civil unrest would jeopardize Pilate’s appointment.
This parade from the west was visibly stunning: pageantry, swords, spears, shiny helmets, protruding chests, emotionless faces. Pilate, sitting proudly on his battle-trained stallion.
The parade from the east was markedly different. Instead of spears...palm leaves. Instead of well-groomed soldiers...poorly dressed peasants. Instead of order and precision...chaos. Instead of military cadence...shouts of Hosanna in the Highest. And Jesus, the man leading the procession, rides a humble donkey.
The vivid contrast between the two parades was more than simple pageantry. It was also a contrast of world views, of vision, of mission.
The parade from the west was guided by imperial power and theology. Rome was more than just a city--it was a belief system. Its message was simple: Might makes right! The first shall be first! Intimidate! Consolidate power. Use the poor to your advantage. To the onlooker, Rome seemed invincible. Secure.
In stark contrast, the Jesus parade was guided by a vision laid out in his earlier teachings: greatness is found in humility, true life is found in surrender, love your neighbor, care for the poor, share, be agents of healing, peace and grace....
It's no accident that these two parades arrive at the city at the same time. Nothing is accidental with Jesus. Jesus wants you and me to make a choice between two conflicting parades. And following the Jesus parade takes faith—especially in times of fear and uncertainty.
This is an extraordinary moment in our history. We enter Holy Week with our world literally turned upside down, our heads spinning in disbelief and our feet looking for a stable place to stand. I’m sure the disciples had similar feelings as they followed their donkey-riding leader to the cross.
The Good News of Palm Sunday is we know our parade is the real deal—it’s the parade that endures and lives generationally in those who follow Jesus. Yes, it gets darker before it gets better, there is pain, betrayal, and moments when the light seems to disappear. Hang on. Keep walking. Keep living the vision. We know how our parade ends. It’s the parade that continues to change lives and change our world.
God’s courage and peace as you journey this week.
One of the great philosophical minds of the 19th century, Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard, writes a poignant meditation on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. You know the story well.
One day three men walked down an ordinary, dusty, Middle Eastern dirt road. All were on the same road. Presumably the same day. Nothing special about the road. Yet one man stops and responds in a way that displays the heart of God. That’s the man Jesus elevates and calls our attention towards.
“It’s not the road you travel,” insightfully captures Kierkegaard, “It’s how you travel the road.”
His point is direct and clear. The actual road is NOT of critical concern. It’s actually inconsequential. What’s consequential is how the road is traveled. Three men. Same road. Two men are inattentive and blind to the moment. One man travels with an open heart, turning an ordinary walk into an opportunity to reflect the love and compassion of God. It’s not the road.
I find Christians often getting caught up in what I call “the other road syndrome”— always looking for another, better, easier, grass-is-greener kind of road. It’s our nature. “One day,” we lament, “when I get on the right road, the better road, the more secure road....then I’ll begin traveling with the attentiveness and goodness of the Samaritan.” It’s not the road.
Currently, most of us are on a road we would never choose to travel—it’s a road unimaginable two weeks ago. Given the choice, we’d exit this current road and take the nearest off-ramp. We’re separated from our kids, worried about our parents in their retirement homes, watching our 401ks plummet, wondering if we’ll have a job next month, cautious about doorknobs...... Who would choose this road? It’s a difficult road we’re on. I do not want to make light of our current reality.
But this is our road...for the moment. So let’s engage like the Samaritan. Let’s travel differently.
The apostle Paul reminds us that the reason Christians travel differently is because of our unique wardrobe. We have been given a different set of clothes. Our travel bags possess a special set of garments.
“As God’s chosen people...clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." Colossians 3:12
This is our clothing: God’s grace and courage, as you transform your difficult road this week into a display of God’s transformative power.
- Have you decided to accept this road you are on, or are you still focused on the “other” road?
- What would it look like in your life to be the Good Samaritan during this time?
- If you’d like, share a story with us about how you or someone else is walking this road with compassion, kindness and patience. We would love to hear about it! Email Bruce your story »