April 16th 2020
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.