“My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this, than to lay
down their life for their friends.”
– Jesus, John 15:12-13
March 31, 2020
Greetings! Thank you for your encouraging responses to support us by giving and volunteering – they continue to come in and we are grateful. I’m a couple days behind because of the rush of events, including supporting staff and intensely examining the implications of the CARE legislation. Also, our Cyber After School Programs began this week. (Congratulations James and his team! More on this next letter.) If you’ve found any hope or encouragement in our UPdates, I encourage you to read this whole letter. I want us to share the same vision, and I think that will help us as the days get darker. (Besides, the best parts are towards the end under “Story”:)
Sunday, Day 14, I spent the whole day with my wife and two daughters which means I stole some time from you. We had an unforgettable day I will always cherish. So simple – a long walk through a woods where no one ever goes, exploring the grounds of an old abandoned mansion, and collecting firewood. I’ve had walks like this many times in my life for which I am grateful. But something was different this time – more urgent, more important, more full of life. This vibrancy, a heightened sense of life’s beauty and grace, is a blessing born of the COVID-19 Pandemic – life out of death.
It’s likely that the health consequences of COVID-19 will be painful and severe for many weeks, and a lingering threat for many months. It’s at least equally likely that the consequent global and local economic disruption will be severe and impact us for years. And unfortunately, it’s likely that all of us will experience grief for someone we care about and challenges reestablishing ‘Normal’ in the post Pandemic world. I don’t say this to cause fear but to challenge the horizon of our vision – as individuals, families, leaders, and communities.
First, if our vision is too short sighted we will lack stamina and become discouraged and ineffective prematurely. We must have the courage and strength together to face a prolonged period of suffering. Call it what you will, but I’ll bet almost all of you are feeling stir crazy, you are less patient with one another, temporary situations no longer seem tolerable, half measures do not satisfy our longing for the comfort of normal, anxiety is higher, uncertainty is growing, financial pressures are rising, fatigue is setting in, working from home with our children present is exasperating – pick your hue of the stress you are feeling, but the collective portrait is suffering. And it’s been two weeks? Imagine two months, two quarters? And then there is COVID-19 itself, its mortal threat. Only for one or two percent, but who? Even if not you or I, nearly all of us have someone we love who is at risk, and we wonder…
That is a fairly dismal picture, but I don’t think it’s unfair or inaccurate. Is it just too much, should we just despair and endure, and hope when it passes we’ve survived? No. The second reason to look to the horizon is resurrection. We, none of us, are victims. For two weeks I have shared what UrbanPromise staff and youth have done with your support to push into the descending crisis. Even as it worsens and the intermediate future darkens and staff grow weary, I’ve never seen so much life. In our weakness something better is being born. We will not go through the fire unscathed, but if we choose life out of death, what lies beyond the horizon can be better than what we lived before the Pandemic. A great opportunity lies before us. Let’s choose life.
A Story of Resurrection
Probably 15 years ago I sat on the banks of the Brandywine River in Wilmington with a young man. It was hot and humid, dog days of August. In the shade, perched on a boulder, I felt the cool mist coming off the Waterworks dam. It was a public park but the water over the dam drowned out all other sounds but our voices.
I’d known Justin since the first day of summer camp in 1998. His grandmother was an important role model in my life. Justin was always exceptional – smart, athletic, charismatic, and one of the most gifted natural leaders I ever met. At the end of that first summer his older brother was murdered. I remember going to the funeral, encountering him alone at the entrance, and trying to know what to say to comfort him. I learned so much from walking along side Justin.
Eight years had transpired. At 16 he was still that gifted young man, but life was closing in on his future. He decided to join family he had in the South to get a change of scenery and a fresh start. I felt like I might not see him again. I still had high hopes, but the odds didn’t seem good. I felt like this might be the last chance I’d have to hear what he was thinking, and try to pass on some kind of worthwhile advice.
He was angry and hurting about unfair things in his life. Justin was always perceptive. He knew what was real. What poured out was raw, painful truth full of despair. I mostly listened, occasionally asking a question to understand better. After a while, his fierceness started to ebb, his shoulders hunched more, and then he became quiet. We just stared at the river implacably passing before us, our silence washed over by the din of the dam.
It seemed like Justin always got me to a place where I didn’t know what to say. I love the Bible and I trust it, so I turned to it. I felt inadequate, and I was. But God has grace and truth.
“Justin, I don’t know if this will mean anything at all, I really don’t know what to say. But I do know God’s word is trustworthy, and I just read something this morning that feels worth sharing. There’s this guy Moses…” I reviewed a bit who Moses was, and how he got to Deuteronomy 30, addressing the people of Israel, just before he dies and they enter the Promised Land. I remember feeling weak, wondering what he was thinking. He just gazed at the current. Words felt weak. Wasn’t there something better I could do?
“Justin, Moses gives them a piece of advice to guide them. It’s his last chance to love them.” I pulled out my little pocket Bible, and read these verses from Deuteronomy:
“This day I call Heaven and Earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God.” I asked him if it made sense. He continued to gaze intently at the river as though answers lurked beneath its surface. Then, very slowly and very slightly, he nodded his head. We got up and returned in silence.
A few years later, we learned he’d been stabbed in the heart by an acquaintance and was clinging to life. After a long vigil, he slowly turned the corner and recovered. Maybe two weeks later he called me. His voice was so weak he was hard to hear, but he has a distinctive timbre, and I knew it was him. My heart leapt.
“Mr. Rob, it’s Justin. I remember what you told me.” It’d been quite a while, a lot more water had gone over that dam, and in that moment I did not remember what I’d told him.
“You said, ‘Choose life’. I’ve been given a second chance, I should have died, God’s given me a second chance, and I want to choose life.”
Resurrection. Life out of death. A second chance. That is our Horizon beyond COVID.
I have always held my wife’s hand. Wherever we go, whatever the occasion, I love to hold her hand. Towards the end of our Sunday walk, so like many, many others over the 40 preceding years, we were walking behind the girls and I was thinking, ‘Who will be in the two percent who die?’ I felt her hand. I felt her fingers, and her grip and the cadence of our strides, and I cherished her love and all its joy. I felt the cool air and her warm hand and I thought, “Remember.”
Whatever is broken in this world, the COVID crisis is a second chance. Whatever is broken in our lives, the COVID crisis is a second chance. Whatever is broken in our Vision, individually and collectively, the COVID crisis is a second chance. The crisis challenges our assumptions and invites us to see truth. We have a generational opportunity to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Remember what it true, remember what you value, remember who you love and why and how. I’m not being optimistic, I just see a new Horizon. Jesus is the author of resurrection out of death. The love that flows through and powers UrbanPromise is the love of Jesus. At UrbanPromise we will love our way through this crisis to a better Horizon together. It’s a long way off, but today’s hope with you is enough to get us there.
Epilogue: Justin chose life. I was sitting at a coffee shop with James last summer and he walked up with his son. Oh, it was good to see him and hear how well he was doing. “My son’s an honor roll student!” he said so proudly. They were on their way to sign up for Upward Bound. I remembered: Now choose life, so that you and your children may live. We’re being given a second chance, let’s choose life.