Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What’s under my tree

This morning I spent time with an old friend, who reminded me of all that I am receiving this Christmas. It's a little embarrassing, really, to actually put it all into print, because it seems like so much for just one person. But I thought that blogging about it might help me to come to terms with all that's waiting on me, so, without further ado, here's what I'm going to be unwrapping on Christmas morning (I hate to brag, but I just have to share): Grace. Mercy. Kindness from God. Sonship. An inheritance that never spoils. A glimpse into the heart of God's will and purpose. Every spiritual blessing. Hope. The opportunity to bring glory to God simply by believing in Him. Significance. The knowledge that I was created exactly as I should be. Freedom. Intimacy with God. Holiness. Blamelessness. Purpose. Life.

I almost feel like I need to go and do something to actually deserve all these things, but my friend reminded me that my best response right now is to simply receive and let the blessing settle into my soul. That's the way of this grace I have received after all, that there is nothing I can do except to receive it. Grace and mercy, freely given, are not earned or paid back. To move too quickly into action, for me, is to give in to my discomfort at receiving so much. There is a time and place to give away what we have received, but I think that if I give it too quickly, I will not be giving the gifts I have received but rather my best impersonation of those gifts. There is a time to be like Mary and to simply ponder and treasure these things in my heart, and offer to God the times and places that these gifts are extended to others, saying, "May it be done in and through me as you have said." When that is my posture, these gifts are renewed to overflowing.

Christ has come, born to die, the gift that truly keeps on giving. My old friend Ephesians 1:3-14 calls me to remember. The work that God requires is to believe in the one that He has sent (John 6:29), remembering all I have been given, unable to earn single thing from His hand. Oh that I would take time to unwrap these gifts each day.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Does the Grinch live on Silver Avenue?

Warning parents: if your six-year-old reads this blog, please have them skip this entry because we will be discussing the "S" word here (Santa).

"So, do you all have Sanata at your house?" This has been the million dollar question of late, due to the season. And despite a nagging feeling that I am depriving my kids of a rite of childhood, Diane and I have chosen to tell our children that Santa Claus (as perpetuated by the media and culture) is not real, that he will not be coming down our non-existent chimney, and that he will not be bringing them toys this Christmas (we don't talk about it quite that bluntly). We do tell them about Saint Nicholas and the things he did for the poor because of his love for Jesus.

The reason for our choice is that we are really trying to be intentional about making Christ the focus of our Christmas preparation and celebration, and Santa sort of gums up the works because he becomes the star of the show on Christmas morning. It's hard enough to stem the cultural tide of consuming and making Christmas so dependent upon presents; adding an expectation that even more gifts will be coming from Santa just seems counterproductive.

And yet I can't help but feel like the Grinch when I tell friends that, no, we don't have gifts from Santa for our kids. It's not that I catch any overt grief, but all of my reasons sound so self-righteous, especially when I say them to fellow Christians. "We really want to be intentional about Christ being the focus of Christmas." (Oh, so my Christian friends who do the whole Santa thing aren't focused on Jesus at Christmas?) "We really want to fight against consumerism." (Oh, so my Christian friends who do the whole Santa thing are just wasteful spendthrifts?) And the subtle implication of our Western culture is that if you don't get your kids amazing gifts, you might not love them as much as other parents love their kids.

Yes, there is something beautiful about childlike faith, about cookies and milk being left for Santa to nibble. There is something very sweet about the openness to wonder and miracles that goes right along with the Santa idea. But I want my children's faith to focus on the wonder of Emmanuel, God with us. On the miracle that the Lord loves them so much that He would come near, as a baby, a child just like them, in order that they might know God in the deepest parts of their heart and soul. I know that there is only so deep that this faith and understanding can go at a young age (heck, at any age). But what better time of year, a time of lights and giving and joy, to sow seeds of faith in Christ and to really embrace the adage that Jesus is the reason for the season. Perhaps there is a convincing argument that Santa doesn't hinder that at all, and that he even enhances it by opening our hearts to simple faith. I can hear that, but I can't get past the thought that faith in something that isn't true is perhaps faith that is misplaced. Growing comfortable in our decision make take some time.

I think the secret is safe with our kids – I told the girls that some of their friends will still believe in Santa and that they should not tell them otherwise, and Psalter with all seriousness said, "I will never, ever tell them."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Permission to Transition

In January it will be one year since I left full-time staff with InterVarsity and moved to ¾ time with my church. I think I am still realizing how hard it has been for me to live with one foot in each world, transitioning from the parachurch to the Church, and that realization has been hard, yet refreshing. I thought the transition would be seamless. I had already served as an elder at Grace for over a year, my IV office was upstairs at Grace, and I was friends with most of the church staff people that I would be working with. I had been at Grace for 10 years as a member, and I had led many outreaches and worked closely with ministry leaders at the church. In my mind, I was merely changing addresses, leaving the Youth Offices for the administrative offices on the first floor – I even had the same commute from 3 blocks away. But in reality, I was changing so many things.

For fifteen years (counting my undergraduate days), I have been on a college schedule, which has nice ebbs and flows and ready-made breaks every 4-5 months. I was used to the rhythm of having seasons of very busy times and seasons of a more relaxed pace. But in the church it feels like every day is pedal to the metal, something that I think is not unique to Grace and something that I would love to see change. In church, Sunday comes every week whether you are tired or not, and those that you serve don't go home for Christmas break or graduate after 4 or 5 years. In church, finding time to meet leaders and invest in them requires schedule juggling and is mostly limited to the hours of 7:00 am – 8:30 am and 11:45 am – 1:00 pm, unless you want to add a dreaded night meeting s. In IV, I had so much freedom to change directions in ministry, to try new things with fewer consequences, whereas at church, every decision must go through several filters and affects hundreds of people, some of whom have very strong feelings about what you are doing. I was very good at what I did with IV – I knew how to develop student leaders (I don't know how to develop adult leaders yet); I knew how to connect with the hearts of students who were ready and available to learn and grow (it's hard to find time to connect with adults at church); I knew how to cast vision for ministry on a college campus and had folks who were eager and willing to risk and try new things; I knew how to love IV staff and equip them to love their students. I was on campus at UNCG the other week to meet with one of my after school tutors, and I had a wave of emotion come over me, remembering the hours and years I spent on campus there and how much I love working with students.

I didn't leave IV because I didn't like the work or because I thought that moving to church was the next rung in the vocational ministry ladder. In fact, I loved my job as Associate Area Director, and I was getting good at it. I left because I felt (and feel) called to Grace and the ministry God has for me and Diane there. But because the parting was from calling, not burnout, and because the transition has not been as sweet and smooth as I hoped, there is a real loss to leaving full-time IV staff. And while I left IV (except for part-time), I was not forced to grieve because I wasn't really going away.

So my soul has been heavy here at our IV Regional Staff Conference, because I am grieving and feeling a bit out of place amongst my peers. Not that they treat me any differently, but rather our worlds and what we primarily think about are so different that I just feel like an outsider during ministry strategy sessions.

As you can tell (if you are still reading), there is a significant transition that has occurred, though on the surface so much seems the same. Eleven months at a new job has not erased or replaced the fondness of eleven years at my other one. Eleven months at Grace and I still don't feel like I have much direction or vision for what it means to work at church (I probably have more than I give myself credit for – it just still feels a bit foreign). And I am not sure that either of my places of work really understand how I don't quite fit either place right now. Interestingly, I felt somewhat like this for a couple of years after moving into Glenwood, not comfortable in my poor neighborhood because I was the richest guy on the block, yet not comfortable amongst my peers because their life and neighborhood was so different from my reality. The good news is that tension has mostly gone away now; the hard news is that the transition took time.

I need to give myself permission to grieve, permission to transition, and to receive grace and patience as I learn. I don't have it all together, though I think people expect me to. Grace and peace. Grace and peace.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Blaze

Mother Teresa once said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." I feel like our church lived that out this past Saturday in Glenwood. A group of about 10 folks showed up for our GO and Know, which is an outreach to the community where we simply do acts of kindness and try to meet our neighbors. Some of those who showed up lived in Glenwood, some didn't, and they set out with invitations to our upcoming Christmas Banquet and boxes of Christmas lights. Not exactly Publishers Clearinghouse coming to the door when we knock, eh? We seemed so small, and the things we carried seemed so simple. Small things with great love.

My friends from Grace went out and met our neighbors (I was stuck at home with a backed up sewer line) and guess who God led them to? Ray and Denise had recently moved in on my street. They are raising 5 of their grandkids, and the day before we came, Denise prayed, "Lord, you know I don't have anything for these kids for Christmas, not even lights to put up." And here came the Brown family, lights in hand, a living answer to prayer. Around that same time, a man was calling Grace and asking if there were a family he could bless with some beds and with some toys for Christmas. Had he called on Friday, I would have sent him to another agency, but on Saturday, we met Ray and Denise, who needed both beds and toys.

Another woman had recently moved into a home her mother used to own, and the rood was in need of major repairs. Guess who God sent to her? A member of our church who works for a housing repair non-profit.

We talked with men who were homeless and to people who were addicted and struggling. And all were greeted with a smile, were invited to a free banquet next week, and were shown the great love of Jesus in small, ordinary ways.

In The Message, John 1:5 is translated, "The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness, and the darkness couldn't put it out." These days there is precious little good news, precious little light shining, and so when people do something kind, no matter how simple or ordinary, I believe that it blazes all the brighter. Ten people handing out lights and postcards were nothing great. But they did small things with great love. And the Life-Light blazed into the darkness.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Back to the Basics (the key is in the blog name)

Since August I have posted one time, only three times since June. The reason? I'm tired. Not physically, but spiritually and emotionally, I have been worn out. A year or so ago, I posted a series on margin, and recently, a friend showed me a quote from one of those posts. It said, "Simply giving Jesus what we have, recognizing and accepting the limitations, and trusting Him to make it 'enough' is the beginning to having space and rest in our lives."

How true, how true. But truth works best when it is applied, and over the past four months I've lived as though I had no limitations and that Jesus wasn't enough. Each week I get calls at church from men and women, moms and dads, who are facing eviction or their power being cut off or their gas being turned off. Most callers are desperate and the expectation is that the church has to help, and in my heart I began to believe that I had to help every time. When I couldn't or didn't, I felt like a failure, and it spurred me to do more, to try harder. With three children at home, there was little margin for rest or recuperation, and as I drove home to my wife and kids, I would pass people on the street who I knew needed help, and I added their needs to the weight on my shoulders. In addition it's been hard to find a rhythm working at a church when I've been used to a college schedule since 1993. And being out of rhythm for almost one year now has taken a toll.

And so most evenings, when the kids went to bed, I talked to Diane or watched TV (mostly the latter), paid bills or puttered around the house (I hesitate to say I fix anything; I leave the hard stuff to Diane) and went to bed. Blogging seemed like a chore, as did reading the hundreds of blog posts that had accumulated on my google reader. Some of my friends who blog took an official sabbatical at some point and kind of announced it on the blog or over email. I just stopped writing because I didn't have the heart to.

But I need to write and I want to write. I am a writer. I know that like any exercise, it will take some time and discipline to get back into shape. But putting truth on "paper" here helps me see more clearly, reminds me of the truth, and moves me to think more deeply about the things I see and experience.

So this is my first attempt to bang out a post, to get my creative wheels turning again. I'm also working with Diane to restore balance to our family, and trusting that God will also lead me to trust Him to make what I have 'enough.' It's good to be back.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Gift of Appendicitis

On Wednesday evening, Diane had her appendix taken out (the doctor said that while it had not ruptured, it was “gangrenous”, which made me think of Will Ferrell’s cameo on Austin Powers). Of course, this experience was not much fun for her, but as far as surgeries go, an appendectomy these days is pretty routine – it is done laparoscopically with three small incisions and she was home the next morning.

It seems that a lot of little things have been sort of piling up lately, from our fridge conking out to Jacob being sick for almost a week to a guy running off with $1200 of our money after we hired him to build a fence. But God has been showing me ways that this instance has been a gift (and I am sure that the hospital will also have a nice gift for us in a few weeks after Blue Cross does their part).

1) Rest for Diane – my amazing wife keeps up with our kids and me, runs a great household, and works part-time cleaning homes (including getting up at 5:30 am on Tuesdays to clean a barber shop). She is not one to rest, and she has been very tired the past two weeks (due to Jacob being ill and probably due to her gangrenous appendix). She would not have taken rest unless she had to, and this has forced her to rest, as well as given her “permission” to let me and others do things for her.

2) Empathy for Diane – on Thursday I got the chance to keep up with our kids all day, and it’s just not as easy as Diane makes it look. By the end of the evening, I was exhausted and ready to give them all away. It made me appreciate why Diane looks at me with relief when I come home each evening.

3) Time with my kids – at the same time, I had the gift of being with my children more than I might normally have. Thursdays are my day off, and while I do spend some time with the kids, I also do other things on those days. But Thursday, Friday, and Saturday I had lots of time with my children and I really enjoyed it (when not wanting to give them away).

4) Time with my dad – who came up on Friday evening to take me and the kids to Chic Fil-A and then stayed to play Disney Princess Memory with Eliza and Psalter. We don’t get to hang out with granddaddy enough!

5) Time with my in-laws – who came up late Friday night and have stayed all weekend (thanks, Suzanne, for letting them have you apartment!). The house has stayed clear of clutter as Grandma helps pick up after the kids, and Grandpa has helped me repair our leaky toilet and our storm door, things that were easy fixes but I did not have the confidence or time to tackle by myself.

6) A chance to serve my wife – Diane does so much for me, it was my pleasure to take care of her.

7) An outpouring of love – we received many calls, emails, and cards over the last few days, as well as had several meals prepared for us. I knew we had great friends who loved us, and this just reinforced that to us.

And so all in all, though I am sure Diane would rather have not been laid up for a few days, I can say that this has been a pretty sweet, non-stressful time. That is the grace of God in our spirits and the grace of God manifested in those who have cared for us.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Seven Things

Seven Things About Me:

1) I’ve always been wanted to be tagged in one of these things but never had been. I think that this ties into my wanting to be significant.

2) I really like ABBA and it was my idea for me and Diane to go see “Mamma Mia” this summer. I also like Stryper, Keith Green, and musicals.

3) I used to pretend to be the UNC Tar Heels playing against Duke and NC State in my driveway (back when it was still fun to play imaginary against State, since they were competitive then). I would run out from the garage as though I were running out of the tunnel at the Dean Dome, and the “radio commentator” in my head would tell how we were at the outdoor arena for the game. UNC would always win.

4) I used to pretend to be Dale Earnhardt while mowing the grass on the riding mower, and when I could put it into neutral and coast downhill, picking up speed, is when I would pass everyone for the win.

5) I like to collect music. Not in terms of “vintage stuff” but I just like to have lots of music and lots of different kinds. There are over 3900 songs on my iPod but I only listen to maybe a third of them with any regularity. The others I just like to know that I have them.

6) I am addicted to being liked. This is an addiction I am trying to break, and sometimes God gives me “detox” by letting me make decisions that make others angry. I really desire to be free from this addiction, because I want to be led by the Spirit, not by what a person thinks about me.

7) While I now shave my head because my hairline is going backwards, I originally did it because I just like having a shaved head. The first time I did it was in 1997, after Urban ‘96. I don’t know why I like it. It’s fun to cut all my hair off, and I just prefer it most of the time. This May at Rockbridge I tried to shave my head with a disposable Bic and I cut a half-inch gash in my head that was really deep. Blood was dripping down in the shower and I looked like a total dork (especially when I had to explain to people how I hurt my head). Always, ALWAYS use a Mach 3.

I am tagging:
Shawn Morrison , one of my best good friends, because he needs to get back to blogging.

Miles Travis because who knows what he will let us in on that we don’t already know, and because he’s about to be a daddy again.

Cory Cavin for the same reason as Miles (except for the daddy part)

Justin because he is way cooler than me (and he has to suffer through life as a State fan).

Meredith because her blog is the funniest one that I read (along with Cory’s), and because she probably will think that being tagged in something like this is lame.

Michele , because she is crazy.

And Chris because his blogs always are poignant and point me to grace.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Expecting to be Forgotten

A few weeks ago, a group of guys were hanging out in the parking lot of our church, and I had driven up to make sure that they would be moving along by nightfall. One of them needed a ride home, and so I said that I would be glad to help him, once I got my family home and got my kids to bed. When I came back a half hour later, he was gone, and his buddies said that he just thought I wasn’t going to come back. Around the same time, a man had approached me after church asking for money to buy food, and I told him that I’d be glad to drive home and get him some food and bring it back. Ten minutes later I was back, but he was gone. I bet he thought I wasn’t coming back.

I’m finding that this fear of being forgotten and let down is a pretty common theme with many that I work with. When we have an event for the neighborhood kids, they will call 5-10 times in the hour preceding it to make sure that they are being picked up, asking where their ride is, are we coming. Over and over and over. Many times if I make a promise to help someone financially through our church, they will call back multiple times to make sure that it is being taken care of.

We all have this desire to know that we matter, that we are important. And it makes me sad that there are many in this world who have it communicated to them over and over that they are not important, that they don’t matter, that they are an afterthought.

Last week at our Wednesday Community Fellowship, one of the guests who is homeless told me that there had been a newspaper article that day about a homeless man found dead in a building on High Point Road. He wondered if I would mention that to the group. And so I got up during our announcement time and just spoke about this death, a man that most of us did not know. As I spoke, the Lord reminded me that He said that God knows when even a sparrow falls to the ground, and that the very hairs on our head are numbered. Even when no one else knows, God knows. He reminded me to tell the group that He was with that man as he died, not abandoning him.

I have never been homeless, but if I were, long-term, I can imagine that one thing I might wonder is, “Would anyone notice if I wasn’t here?” Not in the sense of just giving up, but just wondering if I matter, if my life has purpose because many treat the homeless and the poor as a faceless nuisance.

But the more I am in relationship with folks who happen to not have as much as me, the more I know that they have stories and longings, and they want to know the same thing that I do – "Do I matter? Am I significant?" And God says to all of us, “Yes!” Those of us who know Jesus are to be the living embodiment of that “Yes,” that those who think they are forgotten might know that they are remembered by a God who loves them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Not Forgotten

Recently I was loading our car and a woman who works the streets walked past. I had seen her out for weeks now and had sometimes felt angry at her presence and other times burdened for her. A few weeks ago I had stopped to talk with her outside, and when I spoke to her, she looked at me with smile that could only be described as hungry. When I told her that my wife and I lived here and that we didn’t know if there was anything she needed, her smile faded from hungry to warm, and she said she was just trying to get some food, which we gave her. I learned her name that day, and then didn’t see her much again for a while.

So back to our recent meeting – when I saw her, I told her hello and used her name. She smiled, surprised, and said, “You remembered my name?” and walked on. As she left, I felt like the Lord had something more to say to her, and so, when she passed by again, I called her name and said, “You know that God knows your name, don’t you? He does. And He loves you.” She mumbled something and walked on.

As I drove off a few minutes later, I passed her again, and as I waved, I could see her wiping tears from her eyes. The Lord’s heart for her, simply being reminded that no matter what she was doing, God still knew her name, still loved her, had broken through.

On Monday of this week, I saw her again, walking the streets, and I tried to talk with her, to tell her that there was another way than the life she was living right now. But a wall was up. She wasn’t going to let the Lord touch her heart again, at least not right then. It’s dangerous on the streets to show weakness or need, to face the pain and darkness for what they are. But hopefully Diane and I are reminders to her that there is a God who remembers her name, who loves her, and who offers another way.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

WWJD?

Every question and fear and objection to working with the poor or homeless that I have heard at my church or from others over the years, every one of those resides in my heart. Last night a homeless couple came to the door. Diane and I had helped them last week, and they were still on the street. I sent them away with a blanket at 10:30, saying "I can't help you right now." But ultimately, I was choosing not to help them, because we had space in our house for them. I was afraid - what if they come back the next night and the next. What if this teaches them to not have boundaries? What are we supposed to do, help everyone who comes to the door? What if they eat our food and we have to buy more? And as I lay back down in bed, I recognized these questions. I have heard them before, and the feeling behind them were very real.

At the same time, I heard the words of Christ - I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was homeless and you did not shelter me. And the reality was, we did have a sofa bed in our living room not being used, and I could not bear the fact that I actually could help them. They had proven themselves trustworthy in the past, and the reality was it was going to cost us very little to give them some simple food and a simple bed. The reality is that every homeless person in Greensboro was not coming to our door - only this couple was. And so they stayed with us.

The reason I tell you this is not to toot my horn. The lack of love in my heart when they came to the door is enough to remind me I don't have much to brag about. Instead, it is to say I am acquainted with struggle and questions, and I can't fault anyone for having them. I wrestled last night. I was angry at being bothered when all I wanted to do was go to sleep.

But I also believe that last night was an opportunity for me and Diane to really live out what we say we believe about the Lord. That He is our provider, that He blesses us to bless others, and that we can take Him at His word. There are plenty of what-ifs that I still have, that will need to be answered tonight, possibly. But I also see that many of my what-ifs complicate the simplicity of the teachings of Christ. Sometimes I think that I make things more complicated because the pointed, clear truths of Jesus make me squirm.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

She loves the broken ones

Eliza’s favorite thing to do at the beach is to collect shells. I think that it’s the introvert in her, which loves to just be alone, wandering nearby the action, seeing what she can find. She brought home several freezer ziplocks, full of shells, most of which were not the typical “put on display” variety. Most of them were broken, missing huge chunks. Not the kind that I would pick up and keep; I like my shells to be well-shaped, un-mussed by the tide (kind of the way I like my life to work, too). When I asked Eliza why she liked to pick up broken shells, she really surprised me. She said, “I like them better because they have interesting shapes. They have all sorts of cool shapes and colors.”

The very thing that I thought made the shells unattractive is what draws Eliza to pick them up. In brokenness she sees beauty. What a contrast to how I usually view brokenness. Brokenness is something to be left “on the beach,” hidden from the critical eye of the world.

But my experience in life, thankfully, is that brokenness is what endears my friends to me and me to them. When I see the frailties of my own life, and when others allow me to see theirs, we become more real, not versions dressed up for display.

I hope that Eliza extends her love of brokenness from the shells on the beach to the people that she encounters in life, that she finds them interesting and beautiful not in spite of their brokenness but because of it.

I went on a walk today and collected some broken shells to show Eliza; I’m learning to see the beauty in them, too.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

El Guapo, El Glenwood

In previous post called "Sinking Sand", I addressed that all of us have fears that we need to push through for the Kingdom's sake. I was reminded of a great scene in The Three Amigos (to my younger readers out there, please rent this classic movie!), where one of the amigos is trying to fire up a small village to face the villain El Guapo. He says, "In a way, each of us has an El Guapo to face. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo. For us, El Guapo is a big, dangerous man who wants to kill us. But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people of Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo, who also happens to be *the actual* El Guapo! "

I rewrote that in the context of Glenwood. "In a way, each of us has our Glenwood that we are afraid to reach. For some, their parents who don't know Christ might be their Glenwood. For others, their neighbors who seem to have it all might be their Glenwood. For others, embracing the call to "go" overseas to serve might be their Glenwood. For us, Glenwood is a neighborhood that can be beautiful and peaceful on one block, and on another block you can buy crack and see lots of police cars. But as sure as my name is Marshall Benbow, the people of God in 27403 can transform their own personal Glenwood, which also happens to be the actual Glenwood."

Perhaps it's funny just to me. I dunno.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Spiritual formation for your mp3 player

My friend Cory recently put a blurb on his blog about the site Pray As You Go, put together by Jesuit Media Initiatives. I have been using it for a couple of weeks now on my iPod and I want to commend it to my readers. Each podcast lasts about 12 minutes and follows the same format. First is a song, usually by nuns or monks, and a time to reflect on what the song is saying. Then there is a Gospel reading (and the people who read and speak on each podcast are Irish, so their voices are very soothing, almost like listening to Desmond from "Lost"). After the reading, they offer questions for reflection on the passage, with space for you to think while peaceful music plays, and then they read the passage again, inviting you to listen for the words or phrases that stand out to you the most. Also on the site (not via podcast) is an mp3 for a "Review of the Day", which guides you in thinking through your day and where you saw God at work. I've found it very helpful and encouraging, and the podcast downloads 5 reflections for each week, M-F.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Worship, Surrender, Glory, and Abiding

I love it when God teaches me themes in Scripture and in life with Him that work together as one.

Some of you know that for years, John 15 has been one of those “anchor” passages for me in Scripture, a place where I return to time and again to remember that Jesus is my source of life.

In recent months, I have been re-reading a book called “How to Worship Jesus Christ”, which is less of a “how-to” and more of a “why-for” book. As I have tried to spend intentional time in worship, focusing on God and who He is rather than what He can do for me, I am realizing that tied in with worship is surrender. If God is God at all, and if I am worshipping Him, it means that my heart and my life must be more and more surrendered to Him. It means yielding control over areas of my heart and life that I have held onto.

Interestingly, this dovetails very nicely with abiding. Surrendering to God in every moment, submitting to His leadership, is only possible as I abide in Christ. And abiding is really a form of surrender, because in abiding I say that I cannot make life work on my own, but instead I depend on God in all things.

Lately in my Old Testament reading, I have been struck with God’s glory. One of
the passages that most stood out to me is in 1 Kings 8:10-11. Solomon has just brought
the ark of the covenant to the newly constructed temple, and the priests were set to go to
work. But “the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests were unable to
perform their service because of the cloud, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.

God’s glory was so great that it inhibited the priests, the “religious workers” from doing
their job. In the Bible, there is something about God’s glory that will stop a person in their tracks. Sometimes it brings joy, sometimes dread, sometimes fear and awe. But it is not something you pass by without noticing. When was the last time His glory arrested me?

God is very concerned with His glory, so much so that one of our main purposes, if not THE maing purpose, is to bring Him glory. Ephesians 1:11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

God is The Glorious One, which makes Him alone worthy of our worship. As we worship, we should move to a place of surrender, recognizing the supremacy of God in our lives. And that surrender takes us to the place of realizing that we need the life of Christ in us and through us at every moment of the day, abiding, that we might fulfill what we are created for, which is bringing glory to God.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I called my friend “B” on the way to the concert that night, and he continued to express his frustration with Grace and with Urban Ministry, blaming us in part for his problems. He said that many of our neighbors in Glenwood share that sentiment, though I have not heard it yet. And as I listened, I was not completely sure how to respond. There was no defensiveness welling up in me, thankfully, but as I listened, I realized that in some ways, my church and I were being called out.


We have been in Glenwood for years now, but I don’t think that we are making effective, systemic changes which are affecting our neighborhood. We do have ministries of mercy (emergency financial assistance, a weekly dinner for the poor and homeless, a tutoring program and dance program for kids), but thinking systemically with our dollars and our programs hasn’t happened. Again, this is not a rant, but rather an honest assessment. In Hebrew, the word for justice can also be translated mercy and healing and righteousness. All of those things are wrapped up together in one, and to do one without the other is incomplete. Yes, do merciful things, but don’t stop there – move to justice as well. In fact, I see secular organizations like The Hive making more of a dent in Glenwood than our church is, and in a relatively short time. At this time I am not sure how to move to a more holistic and systemic strategy for Glenwood. I have some thoughts – more on that later.

Sometimes I feel stuck in the middle in my position at church. There are some who believe that we are not doing enough for the poor, who critique some of the ways that we deal with the homeless who come to us for help. Then there are those who think we do too much and enable the poor to be vagrants. And in the middle, I just want to be liked, to be told that we are doing an OK job. I also want to reach people for Christ – I don’t want our ministry to the poor to be a hindrance for my friend B in knowing Jesus. I don’t want to hinder the poor who don’t know Christ because of something we don’t do for them.

In reality, my audience is no person, no critic. My audience is Christ, and I do sense that He is calling us (Grace Community Church) to step forward with boldness. I sense that the time for us to move with radical love and commitment was yesterday, yet how to lead people with grace and love is hard.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Fresh from the Garden

This is from my latest trip to our garden plot. To the left you have "pile 'o lettuce" (and I gave away a bag that big from the same trip, too). In the center you have carrots and 'taters. And to the right are the mutant carrots (closeups at the bottom). It's been a lot of fun to have a garden, and I am amazed at how much food can come out of a 4x20 space. We've been eating lettuce from it for almost two months (and giving away bags of it, too), and we've pulled a few carrots out before this, too. Squash, corn, watermelon, and cukes are on the way.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sinking Sand

One of the things that I am getting asked by people who know that we live near the shooting sight is whether or not it makes me afraid to live in Glenwood, and honestly, it doesn’t. I figure that the shooting was an isolated incident, targeted at a specific person, not a random act of violence (although reading the newspaper article does give me pause). In some ways it bothers me how little the incident shook me and makes me wonder if I am losing compassion. I mean, the incident would have shaken me if it had affected my family or someone I knew, but instead it was a stranger on the other side of the street. Am I calloused in my heart? In some ways, I feel the same about the incident with my friend “B” – I am sad for all that has happened to him, but the incident didn’t make me afraid. It was tied to someone breaking into one of his rental units that was not lived in. The mugging at the store didn’t bother me because I know not to go down there at 11:00 at night. But I don’t want to harden my heart to protect against fear (because fear can rule me) and miss having compassion on those who are being affected.

I am also asked if it makes my wife afraid to live in Glenwood, and from all that she has told me, it doesn’t. Sure, she had twinges of that when she thinks about the kids and wonders about things like stray bullets even if an incident does not directly involve us. But nowhere is completely safe. Not the suburbs. Not the school. Not the mall. Not a university campus. There is an illusion of safety, an illusion that we can protect ourselves 100% from harm and fear, but that’s a lie. God alone holds our lives in His hands and He alone numbers our days.

I know the power of fear. For the first year or two in Glenwood, it was all I could do to walk my dog or visit the local park. I still struggle with being a fearful person, when left to my own devices apart from Christ. But there is a love that is bigger than fear and a calling that is greater than self-protection or protecting our children from the world. If we as Christians really believe that Christ is THE way; that He alone is God; that people are lost without Him; that He truly loves each and every person; and that He truly loves us and will supply all that we need, then shouldn’t that move us through fear, past fear, into places where we are forced to trust Him.

I don’t necessarily believe that God is calling all Christians to live in a neighborhood like Glenwood. But I do believe that He is calling more than the few families that I know of living there. The time for Christians to take radical steps of faith, to live with eternity in mind, is now. It is not time to wait for “those people” who are called to “that ministry.” It is time to put aside fears, which are very real feelings, and embrace faith with courage and dependence. This can be ministering to the poor; it can be sharing your faith with a neighbor or co-worker; it can be taking a stand for Christ even if it costs you money or standing in business. Fear needs to take a backseat to faith.

Near the end of a movie called “The Second Chance”, an affluent white pastor who has relocated to a poor inner-city church is leading the hymn “On Chris the Solid Rock I Stand”, and he says, “I wanted to serve God as long as I could stay comfortable, stay where it was safe. But comfort is sinking sand. Safety is sinking sand.”

I am not sure how this reads to someone outside of Glenwood. Does it seem like an angry rant? Does it seem like I am bitter? My heart doesn’t feel any of those things as I write. I do feel a prophetic passion to see more people step out of the sinking sand of comfort, people like my friends the Browns, who left a large house way outside of town to move into Glenwood with their two children. Now they deal with homeless folks coming to the door needing money, with power tools being stolen from the shed, with being misunderstood by their friends, and with the joy of meeting Jesus in the midst of trusting Him. There is joy in the margins; I see it most every day. I apologize for my second really long post. Sometimes it just pours out of me.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Last Week on Silver Avenue....

(Actually, lately what happened last week has been atypical of Glenwood in recent months, but it goes to show you that it’s still not just any ol’ neighborhood.)

On Tuesday morning, the kids and I were driving back from getting groceries at Aldi and we saw at least six police cars parked on the street near our house, lights flashing. I wasn’t sure what was going on and I had milk and yogurt with me, so I just got the kids out, took them in, and proceeded to get the groceries into the house. On my last trip, one of my neighbors from across the street came and told me that someone had just been shot in one of the apartments in the house that he lived in. Soon there were eight police cars, over 20 officers, and even swat team members with semi-automatic rifles out on our street. (Note: It’s never fun to call your wife and say, “Honey, when you come home, our street may still be blocked off by police cars, but everything is fine with us. Someone just got shot, that’s all.") Honestly, it seemed like the police response was a little excessive, but it was what it was. The man who was shot was shot through the side and was actually out of the hospital and walking around later that afternoon. When I saw a report of the incident online later that morning, it turns out that the shooter was a local drug dealer who I had recently tried to speak to and learn his name while walking up from the park. He was caught the next day.

Later, I learned that the shooter was also a suspect in a mugging on Monday night at the convenience store near the park. Four men jumped one guy and took the money from his wallet at about 11:00 at night. Case in point as to why I don’t go in that store after dark.

Then, on Friday I was dog-sitting for some neighbors and taking their dog for a walk before Diane and I were to go to a concert. As I stepped into their yard I heard, “Help! Help me! Please, somebody help!” I recognized the voice, it was a landlord friend of mine, and I took off running towards him. When I got to where I could see him, he and another man was on the ground and it appeared as though my friend B were helping the other man, who maybe was having a heart attack (I also saw several cars drive right past the scene without stopping, although I think one did call the police). As I got closer, B was actually wrestling with the other man, trying to hold him down, and he urged me to call the cops. I knew the man he was wrestling with – he used to be around our church a good bit, and we had tried to help him with housing and recovery. I urged him to calm down, and was wondering how/if I should jump into the scuffle. I think my presence sort of stunned him and everything sort of calmed down. Just as I dialed 9-1-1, a squad car pulled up and separated the two men. Apparently B heard a noise in one of his properties and saw this man breaking in (this is at 5:30 pm). The man began to walk away, and B followed him at a distance, calling the police. Eventually the man got tired of being followed and pulled a hammer out of his bag and attacked B (this is B’s version of the story, to be fair), and B began to wrestle and hold him down. There was a hammer lying in the road, and the man did not dispute that he had attacked B (though he said B also attacked him).

As I sat by B, he began to rant that Greensboro Urban Ministries and my church, Grace Community, were to blame for incidents like this and for many of his properties being broken into. People were stealing the copper wiring and pipes from his houses, which costs thousands to replace and had almost sunk him financially. He said that GUM and Grace, by helping the poor and the homeless, were enabling them and ruining Glenwood.

After giving my information to the office in case they needed a statement from me, I went back to the car, where Diane was waiting, oblivious as to why I had been gone so long, and off we went to the concert. Before the concert I had another conversation with B, which I will talk about in another post, as this one is getting long.

After months of quiet on Silver and in Glenwood, that week was an aberration. Was it because it had turned hot the past couple of days? Was it a reflection of the increasing financial strain that is coming on all people, especially the poor? Was it just coincidence? In any case, it reminded met that there is still much to be done in Glenwood.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

This comment left on my post “Jesus Loves the Rich: Part 2” was so interesting and thoughtful that I thought it merited a post all its own (you'd need to read it right quick to catch the rest of this post).

First, I don’t think that 90% of the Gospels deal with Jesus’ ministry time with the elite, though they were around a lot. What I mean is that He didn’t target the elite with 90% of His time and message. They did seem to always be listening in, represented mostly by the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.

I like how Miles pointed out that Jesus didn’t necessarily go “under bridges” to pursue the poor. The poor came to Him, or people reached out to Him as He walked along , and He didn’t ignore them. Rich and poor alike came to Jesus, and He loved them all. I think that was more the point of my post – Jesus received all who came to Him and He loved them, no matter their class or status. When the woman with the issue of blood reached out to Jesus for healing, He stopped to restore her spiritually and socially, not just physically. When the blind man called out, “Son of David have mercy on me,” Jesus stopped and helped him to see. He pursued the tax collector (Zacheus), received the synagogue ruler (Jairus) and the centurion. He pursued the widow whose son had died, the demoniac in the tombs, and the woman at the well. He received Nicodemus, who came under cover of darkness. It is an interesting commentary on the Church today to consider whether people are drawn to Jesus, coming to Him as they see Him in His people, elite and poor alike, and whether people outside the Church feel pursued by Him as well.

Miles also seemed to be quietly commenting that Christians tend to compartmentalize ministry to the poor as being something we go and do at certain points, while with Jesus, it seemed to be part and parcel with His life. And perhaps one of the reasons that Christianity seems to model the “going under bridges” way of reaching the poor is that we aren’t comfortable with the “as you go/happenstance” ministry that God may provide. The ministry of interruption is not easy or convenient. That may be one of the reasons that he said he doesn't love the poor in the way that Jesus would want - we pass them by every day, not having time to stop (I do the very same thing).

It’s tempting for us to think that Jesus loved some people more than others, kind of remaking Him in the image of our choosing. If we are passionate about the poor, we think Jesus always hung out with the poor. If we are passionate for grace, we think He was always dissing the Pharisees. If we love justice, we emphasize the beatitudes in Luke. If we love spirituality, we emphasize the beatitudes in Matthew. But Christ loves every person, regardless of their race, class, social status. He loves them in the face of their sin and desires that every person come to know the life that He alone offers. Thanks to Miles for making me think more on this (and I imagine that he's not done yet).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Same Kind of Angry as Me

A few weeks ago, one of my tutoring kids informed me that she had not gone to school that morning because she had thrown up. We have a rule that kids who don’t go to school because they were sick cannot come to tutoring in the afternoon, even if they insist that they feel better. I pulled back to her house and had her go back in, at which point her parents and her sister began yelling out the door that she was all better and that she could go. Her dad came out to the van and he was clearly agitated, but he began to take it out on his son, who was in the van. He insisted that his son had come when he had been sick, and when his son protested, he yelled, “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” and sort of lunged at him. It was very startling and somewhat frightening for me, not to mention for his son. And I confess I drove off thinking, “Man, what is their deal? It’s a simple rule, trying to keep kids from making other kids sick. There’s no need to get that mad, and certainly no need to yell violently at your son.” And I thought about how much better I was than him.

Fast forward to today. Eliza had a fever last night, but this was her last week of pre-school, and today was a special day where they were going to play water games outside in their bathing suits. She has already been sad to leave her class at the end of the week, and so we didn’t want her to miss out. We gave her some Motrin and headed to school, but when I told her teacher that she’d had a fever last night, she told me that there was a policy where kids had to be 24-hours fever-free to come (and it killed her to tell me that, I could tell). And while I didn’t show it right then, I was angry. Very angry. Eliza was upset and crying, not understanding why she couldn’t stay, and I hurt for her. It seemed unfair, and I wanted to be able to make my own rules, to be the exception. I slammed the door of the van and drove off, seething in my heart.

And as I drove down the street, I remembered that day at tutoring, and I discovered the same anger in me that had been in that father. I discovered the same protectiveness of my kids, and the same desire to have the rules bent for me. And part of the difference between me and him is that I know how to not show my anger, to not take it out on my kids (at least when others are watching).

I hope that another part of the difference is that somewhere in the midst of my natural reaction is the Spirit of Jesus, bringing self-control to bear when all I want to be is angry. And I long for that dad to have Christ in his life, because I see that his anger can be quick, violent, and frightening, and I wish his children did not have to bear the brunt of that.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Struggling to Balance Grace and Truth

As my good friend Alex Kirk has said, I struggle to believe grace and live in the reality of the Father’s love – it just doesn’t come naturally to me. I know it theologically, but I don’t always feel it to be true. Rules and laws make much more sense to me, defined and orderly. Standards are comforting and measurable. Yet I also have known and experienced the freedom that only grace can give.

I think that standards are good. I think that there are right and wrong ways to live in this world. But lately I have struggled to give grace when others don’t match up with my expectations and ideals of what is right and wrong. I feel that the Law response is the first to my heart and lips, and I sense that there is a more gracious way to respond to the world. I have tasted the freedom of living in grace, and right now I’m tasting the bitterness of ungraciousness.

My step-mother told me recently, “You’ve really set the standard for [our family], Marshall.” She meant it as a compliment, an encouragement that I strive to live out the convictions of my soul. But the truth of it is, lately I feel more like a standard to be met than a conduit of life that leads to transformation.

I wrestle and wonder. There are things that are clear in Scripture, things that are right and wrong, and each day people that I know and love run afoul of those. And in many cases I struggle to extend grace, because there is a subtle thought in me that says, “If you extend grace, they will think it’s OK to do wrong.” I imagine that, in my heart of hearts, I apply that standard just as strenuously to my own failings.

This is so sad and frustrating for me, because I have come so far over the years in understanding how deeply I am loved by the Father, and the more deeply I know that in my own heart, the more I know it to be true of others. And as I look at others with transformed eyes, it woos their hearts to obedience, the kindness of the Lord leading to repentance. Lately I’ve been looking with ungracious eyes, splinters and logs.

I’m not saying that grace means we tell everyone that everything that they do is OK. I’m not saying that there is no place for truth. I’m just saying that I believe there is a gracious response of the Holy Spirit that speaks the truth in love. I believe that there is a state of heart that calls people on their sin from a position of love, and there is a state of heart that does it because it’s all about me. See, the problem with sin is not that it’s wrong. The problem with sin is that it is a cheap and destructive counterfeit to the love and life of God, and it breeds more destructiveness and alienation from God and from others. I believe that Jesus dealt with sin because He loved God and He loved people, not because He just wanted people to live the right way. There’s more to life than getting things right.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ministry to the Poor Can Be Messy

Ministry to the poor is messier than I expected, and because of that reality, I have spent some time in recent weeks really questioning whether I actually had a heart/love for the poor or not, especially the homeless and the addicted. They have felt like a burden to me at times, not a joy. They have felt like a “they” and not a people. Doing what’s right and best is confusing, more so now that I am in a position of authority at my church, having to make decisions on how to use money and resources which are limited when faced with seemingly endless and unlimited need.

How do you make the best decision when the way seems unclear? For example, there has been a group of homeless people sleeping on our church grounds for months and months, and the decision of what to do about this situation has been confusing. On the one hand, it is good that many see our church as a place where they can sleep safely, a place to call home. On the other hand, our church has many more things going on during the week than simply being a place where folks can sleep, and there is no way to monitor or know who is staying on our grounds, what their background is. As a church leader, I have a responsibility for the big picture of our church, but sometimes two halves of the picture don’t line up. On the one hand, wouldn’t Jesus let the homeless people stay on church property (or let them sleep inside the building for that matter)? On the other hand, a few bad apples have stolen some things, peed on the doors, left excrement on the sidewalk, which reflects poorly on the whole bunch. On the other hand, where else do you "do your business" when you are outside? Many who slept at our church would say that Grace is their church home, and when we put up No Trespassing signs, indicating that they are not welcome to stay there anymore, they felt as thought their church were turning on them.

That’s just one example. Then there is the example from this a couple of weeks ago when a person I was meeting with lied straight to my face about their living situation and their substance abuse issues. It’s hard to help someone that you don’t trust, and it’s hard to trust someone that you know is lying to you.

And so it becomes easy to be jaded, to lump every poor or homeless person into categories, or to withhold love because they have lied, but the love of Christ constrains us from doing so.

My desire for those we help is whole-life transformation. Their desire is, often times, survival. I don’t know what it is to have to simply survive. Many of them, I believe, don’t know what it is to be transformed from the inside-out. How to love someone, while not enabling them, while still helping them even when they don’t have it all figured out, while not being overly gullible and taken advantage of, while showing Christ’s love even when you say “no” is a very hard thing. It’s a Spirit thing. I am still learning how to listen.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Jesus loves the rich, too! Part 2

For those who are passionate about serving the poor, it can be easy to hate on the rich. By that I mean it can become easy to build a Christology and a theology that says if Jesus were here on earth today, He would be hanging out at Greensboro Urban Ministry, living under bridges, visiting people in jail, and that’s all He would be doing. You can hear this sentiment when people who are passionate about the poor explain their passion by saying things like, “I just think that if Jesus were here, He wouldn’t be in “X” wealthy neighborhood; He would be hanging out with the poor.”

Ben Folds, in an explanation of his song “Jesusland” says, “If Jesus were around now, He wouldn’t have much stuff and that’s a problem in today’s amusement park version of Jesusland. You can’t walk around with no stuff or you’re homeless. So He’d be walking around homeless or on the street with long hair, and I don’t think that the people who make lots of money off His name would do much to help Him.”

True, Folds is offering a bit of prophetic truth for the Church to pay attention to. But sentiments like these are not a Scripturally-accurate picture of the fullness of Christ’s heart, because Jesus loves all people, regardless of what they have or don’t have. Part of Christ’s appeal in the eyes of the poor is that even though they may be overlooked by many in society, Jesus accepts them just as they are. But the same acceptance is true of the rich, as Christ’s love is not withheld from anyone. His life, death, and resurrection were on behalf of the whole world.

Now, I strongly believe that most Christians in the West (myself included) have way too much stuff, are way to focused on money, and are even likely to read the Bible through a lens that shows the Lord as a God who wants them to be comfortable and prosperous. I believe that the Biblical standard of giving is not 10% but instead is generosity (which would most likely lead us to give more than 10%), and part of being conformed to Christ is learning to live more simply and more open-handedly with all that we have been given. As we understand more deeply who Christ is and what He has given us, our loving response is to surrender all to His hands, whether it’s money or time or relationships.

But shaming the rich into doing this by saying that Jesus would rather hang out with the poor than them is not the way to go. Yes, I believe that Jesus would be hanging with the poor under bridges and in the soup kitchen lines. But I also believe He would be on the golf course, in the country club, at the symphony, because He desires that none should perish but all come to repentance, and He knows that those of us who are rich have a very dangerous temptation to put our hope in money rather than in God (even if we disguise it with religious language), and He desires that we not only know Him but that we depend on Him as our life.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Jesus loves the rich, too! Part 1

When you read Luke’s gospel, you can see his (Luke’s) passion for the poor and for justice, and those are often the parts of Jesus’ life and ministry that he emphasizes. I love that about Luke, and I love being able to clearly see that the Lord God is clearly concerned with justice and mercy. At the same time, I am thankful that there are four gospels to give us a well-rounded view of Christ, as we will see in the story of the rich young ruler.

The story goes like this: a rich young guy came to Jesus and asked Him how to get eternal life, and when it becomes apparent that this man has kept most of the 10 Commandments, Jesus tells him that he lacks one thing – he must sell his possessions, give them to the poor, and then follow Him. Both Mark and Luke tell us that the man was very sad at this because he had great wealth (and loved it). The choice between God and money is a tough one for him.

But Mark adds one detail that reveals the heart of the Lord for all people. Mark 10:21 says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him,” and then Jesus proceeds to tell him to sell his possessions and give to the poor. Reading Luke, you could jump on the anti-rich-guy bandwagon and say, “Yeah, you get him Jesus!” This would mistake what Jesus’ point is in dealing with this area of the man’s life. The point was not to make the man feel bad for being rich or to free up money for the poor. Rather, Mark reveals that Jesus loves this man and desires him to be truly free.

If there are things in our heart that precede God, we are not truly free and do not truly know the fullness of joy in Christ’s heart, and Jesus knows all too well that our possessions are one of our greatest sources of comfort and life. That’s why He teaches on money more than almost any other topic in Scripture. Jesus desires that He alone be our life and hope, not our stuff, and so He looks on us with love and calls us to be generous, to live radically with what we have, that we might have true treasure. It’s not a shaming indictment but rather a loving offer to live out of Jesus and to know the joy of being used by Him to bring dignity and equality and justice to all.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Media Blog 3: In My Ears

Like most folks, I’ve been listening to a lot of different music lately, but the things that are getting a lot of play in my headphones are:

Two songs from REM’s newest CD, Accelerate. This CD seems like vintage REM, which I have really missed, so I bought a couple of the songs, Supernatural Superserious and Living Well is the Best Revenge. I also bought a couple of older REM songs that I have been enjoying, too, The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight and Losing My Religion..

After watching Once, I bought my favorite songs off of the soundtrack.

And I recently bought the album Punch by Chris Thile’s band, The Punch Brothers. Thile is the mandolin player for Nickel Creek and this CD is great “newgrass”.

I’ve also been enjoying the song from Nike’s new ad campaign (My better is better than your better) – it’s called List of Demands by Saul Williams, and when I heard it on the commercial, I thought is sounded amazing. But interestingly, the song is about reparations and is kind of an angry call for action. That’s hard to pick up on during the 30-second Nike ad.

Best free songs from iTunes (like I would pay .99 for them) in recent months:
Check Yes Juliet by We The Kings; Time on Your Side by Emily Jane White; Mercy by Duffy. (In case you didn’t know, every Tuesday you can get two free songs each week at the iTunes store, and usually a free video or two as well. They are pretty regularly putting Latin music for free as well. I really look forward to Tuesdays!)

The worship songs that I’ve been playing most are: We Love You Jesus and Psalm 118 by Shane and Shane; Everything by Tim Hughes; Hosanna and To Know Your Name by Hillsong; From the Inside Out; Bhajo Naam by Aradhna; and Because of Who You Are by Martha Minuzzi.

Lastly I have been listening to a teaching series on Abiding in Christ by a man named Graham Cooke. In my mind’s eye he looks like Desmond from Lost (he sounds like him), and his teaching on the love of God and the life of God in the Believer has been amazing.

Also, if you have not had the chance to go on Pandora.com, please check it out - any kind of music available streaming over the internet. I love the Nickel Creek station.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A call to generosity

Gas prices are high - I know.
Food costs are through the roof - I know (our monthly food budget is close to gone and we just started May).
Times are tight and uncertain - I know.
But I am writing to urge us to be generous, especially my readers who are Christians. This is a time where we can play it safe, get conservative, cut back on giving to maintain our standard of living. Or we can be generous, give freely, and reveal the love of Christ in our giving.

100,000 people are estimated dead from the cyclone in Burma, with much of the country flooded. You can give right now through World Vision to provide relief.
People in your town and mine are experiencing the same price increases without the resources or cushion that many of us have.
Men and women are still hearing the call to the mission field, serving all over the world to make Christ known in many unique ways.

It's during times of trial, struggle, that we have an opportunity to declare that God is our provider and our source of life, not our job and not our stuff. I pray that at this time, the Church would be known as a place where people are generous with all that they have, reflecting the Macedonian church written about in 2 Corinthians 8:

2 Corinthians 8:2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5 And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will. 6 So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But just as you excel in everything--in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us--see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

2CO 8:8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thank you, Lord, for our tutors

Dear Tutors,

I am not sure that I can put into words the thankfulness that I feel when I think of you and all that you have given this year to the children in our program. My heart is full when I think of your time week after week, your patience, your love for these children. I watch the kids when their tutor shows up, when their tutor remembers to come back every week. They are reminded that they are special, that someone thinks of them, that they are not lost in the shuffle of life. I see the kids take delight in playing with you, in hugging you, and being praised by you for a job well done. I see the delight you take in them.

Is thank you enough to say? Without you, we could not have this program. You are the heart behind our academics and our discipline. You are the reason the children come week after week to do homework. You bring the kids. You take them home. Some of you have visited them at school or taken them out for a special meal or ice cream. Your presence here is gold, and a living example of love.

So from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Please know that your time each week was a valuable and precious investment. The Lord looks on our Mondays and Tuesdays and smiles, and we are trusting Him to multiply that investment in the hearts and lives of each child who comes. Look back on this year and know that God has used you to help shape a life. I really believe that. It’s not often that you can say a life is different because you gave an hour and a half of your time, but you can say that with this program. Thank you for giving.

I will close with some words from the Bible, which best capture my heart today.

PHILLIPIANS 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

Much love and thankfulness,

Marshall Benbow

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Media Post 2

Movies

Into the Wild – this movie is worth watching for the soundtrack and scenery alone, but the story is awesome to. It’s the story of Christopher McCandless, a college graduate who decides to leave his life of privilege and move to Alaska to live off the land. This movie has strong themes of identity and community and forgiveness. Emile Hirsch (who plays Speed Racer this summer) does an excellent acting job, portraying Christopher as a gentle and earnest young man trying to find his way.

Once – driven by the soundtrack, Once is a simple story of a street musician in Ireland and his rediscovery of his musical passion and focus. The music in this is amazing, and the storyline is very good, sweet, and has a bittersweet ending. One of our favorites.

Beyond the Gates – I think that this is a more powerful account of the Rwandan genocide than Hotel Rwanda. Set at a Catholic school right as the coup happens, this movie is sad, chilling, and makes you say again, “What in the world was I doing while all of this was going down?” Well acted, it is a powerful retelling of a true story.

The Tuskegee Airmen – the story of America’s first black military airmen, World War II fighter pilots from Tuskegee airforce base. It had an all-star cast (Lawrence Fishburn, Cuba Gooding Junior, Malcolm Jamaal Warner, John Lithgow), but I would say that the writing could have been better. The story is really hard to watch at points, but inspiring by the end.

Enchanted – OK, so enough with all the heavy stuff. As parents of two princesses in training, Diane and I really enjoyed Disney’s ability to laugh some at their own cottage industry of animated princesses. In this, an animated princess is banished to Manhattan by her evil stepmother, and the result is a very funny movie, thought it is too scary for Eliza to see yet.

Dan in Real Life – I still can’t get used to seeing Steve Carrell as anyone other than Michael Scott (unless it’s as Brick in Anchorman), but in this movie he does a pretty good job of seeming like an every day dad. The movie was funny, the plot certainly had some twists, and I thought that Dane Cook did a super acting job. I’m glad I saw it, but I probably wouldn’t care to own it.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Media update for those who might need some inspiration

Thought I might make a few posts about what I've been reading, watching, and listening to in case some of you are bored with your life in those categories (and taking the off chance that you might be impressed with me for something that I have read, because, really isn't that why we read anyway?), or in case you want to share with me things you've been enjoying. Before that, as a P.S. I wanted to say that Eliza ended up getting into the Spanish Immersion program at Jones School after all. We're very excited

Books
The Dirty Beggar Inside My Head, The Fingerless Lady Inside My Head, The Old Man Inside My Head -
this is part of the Thoughts in My Head series by Don Everts (IV Press). Each book is very short (60 pages or so), and it’s an interesting way to do apologetics. Don writes about his ideas as though they were characters having a dialogue, and so when he writes about The Old Man, it is representative of the idea that Scripture is true, good, and worthy to be listened to in our lives. The Old Man gets mocked by ideas like Youthful Cynicism, and dialogues for the veracity of Scripture. These books are easy to read and appear to be a thoughtful way to engage a story-geared generation of students.

Christ the Lord: Out of Egyptformer horror write Anne Rice (Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat) has returned to the Church with a renewed faith in Jesus Christ, and she has begun writing a series of books written from the first-person of Jesus. This book begins with His family leaving Egypt and returning to Nazareth when Jesus was about 10 years old. A very engaging and easy read, this book does an excellent job of setting the political and religious turmoil that existed in a Roman-occupied and controlled Israel. It also helps you remember that Jesus was a Jew, practicing the Law and sacrifices commanded by God. Seeing those practices in a new light brings more appreciation for the Old Testament and her take on Jesus learning and understanding who He was is very interesting. She writes from the perspective that He didn’t understand from the start that He was God’s son, that He struggled to piece that truth together, and in time, His parents revealed all the things about His conception and birth. This book also really gives an idea of the kind of man and father that Joseph might have been, though Scripture is largely silent on his life. An excellent read, and her story of her return to faith and the historicity of Christianity at the end is worth picking the book up.

How to Worship Jesus Christ – Joseph S Carroll has a passion to see Christians return to that which is essential in relationship with Jesus, which is worshipping God for who He is and not for what He does for us. This small book is a powerful and practical call to do just that. “How to” is not entirely accurate, because this is more a motivational book than instructional. This book really encouraged me to spend regular (almost daily) time simply worshipping God for who He is, worshipping and praising Him, and it has been really interesting to see the correlation between worship and dependence – to worship God is to be submitted to Him and His control, which requires dependence and abiding, things I have been learning about for some time now.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire – What if the Wicked Witch of the West wasn’t so bad after all, a political revolutionary? What if her desire for Dorothy’s ruby slippers was that she might keep the shoes from the Wizard, who was trying to rule Oz with an iron fist? What if she merely had the misfortune of being born green, yet managed to have friend and even room with Glinda the good witch at boarding school? What if all she wanted was forgiveness? Gregory Maguire’s very interesting take on the land of Oz makes for a fun read with some interesting commentary on politics, religion, and not judging books by their cover. A really good read.

Currently reading: Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life by Adrian House

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What's your name?

In my talk at Virginia Tech, I told students that just as God renamed Jacob, from Grabber (his name means "he grabs the heel") to God-Grabber ("he who wrestles with God"), He also wants to rename us. God gives us general names that are true for all Christians (Accepted, Beloved, Free, Son) and also, I believe, a specific name just for us. My name is Chosen (changed from Shame), and Diane has been given the name Fearless. Another friend of mine has been given the name Peace in place of the name Unwanted. So I wondered if any of you faithful readers might want to share if God has given you a new name as a reminder of His work in your life?

Monday, April 21, 2008

A holy moment

There are times with the Lord that I wish I could just bottle, times where heaven seemed at my fingertips. Last Friday at Virginia Tech was one of those times. I had the chance to speak at a join meeting between their IV chapter and a Korean Christian Fellowship, and also speaking was a YWAM missionary stationed in South Africa named Rich Hodges. I'd been asked to speak on identity in Christ, and the Lord laid on my heart to share Jacob's story from Genesis and talk about how God wanted to rename each one of us, setting us free from old names that we had embraced. Our identity is found in Christ alone, and He is renaming us as His new creations, replacing words like Shame, Liar, and Lustful with Holy, Accepted, and Truthful.

The Lord led Rich to scrap his original message and continue on the theme of identity, urging students to embrace their identity in Jesus as priests of God.
1 Peter 2:9-10 (The Message) -
But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God's instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.

And I believe that this word on identity was just what those students (and I) needed, because what followed was a time of worship unlike any other I have been a part of. Not because it was loud or crazy, but because there was a freedom and a love for Christ in the room that was unreal. I marveled at God's goodness to me in the gospel, and also how He could put a 32-year-old guy from Greensboro and a 51-year-old guy from South Africa, who had never met before, and put our messages together cohesively to exhort and encourage college students in Virginia. I had an amazing time pouring out my heart to the Lord, and it was a small taste of heaven. I can understand how David could say, "Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere." That's just how good the Lord God is.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Hi, my name is Marshall, and I am a recovering Israelite

I've been reading through the Old Testament (am in Deuteronomy right now) and have really enjoyed watching God work to call and save the Israelites as His people, preparing the way for the nations to know Him. But, like most people who read the Israelites' story, I get a bit frustrated with them when they go off course. God makes some unbelievable promises to them, (things like they will always have abundance, they will always be healthy, their children will be healthy and happy, they won't have to fear any other nation), and their only job is to listen to His words and obey His laws. And really, as I have read the laws thus far, they don't seem that complicated to me. Sure, there are some sacrifices and feasts that can be sort of tricky, but the priests were there to help you navigate them. Jesus summed up all of the laws as love God and love your neighbor. And the Lord tells them that He loves them, that the laws are for their good, and that they are His treasured possession. Their response? Worship and thanks for a short period of time, and then, inevitably, they begin to do things their way. God's way isn't fast enough or good enough or certain enough, so they rely on their own intuition and logic and generally make a big mess of things.

Well, it's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and pick apart the Israelites, but when it all comes down to it, my heart is not far from theirs at times. Take my whining yesterday about the whole magnet school thing. Because I did not get what I wanted when I wanted it, I immediately thought that God was a) against me b) didn't like me c) wasn't taking good care of me and my family d) insert favorite lie here. And so I decided to be angry.

But the Lord has given me every good thing in Christ. I have provision upon provision, from spiritual provision in Christ (His very life and adoption to Sonship) to provision of wonderful family and friends. My family and I have all that we need and most of what we want materially (not sure that having so many wants is a good thing, but that's for another post), and my children are happy, healthy, and loving kids. I get to go to work every day with people that I love at a job that I enjoy, and I come home to a loving wife and a wonderful house. Surely my God has been good to me in all things, yet like the Israelites, I want my own way.

The way out of this? It's to remember. Remember who I am in Christ. Remember who God is and what He says to me about His love. Remember that in all things God is working to reveal Christ in me and to show others His love. Remember that God is God, and I am not. Time again in the Old Testament, God calls His people to remember, and when they do, they have a right response of worship and obedience. That is what I want, day by day.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Dealing with disappointment

Today we found out that Eliza did not get into the Spanish immersion magnet school that we had applied for, while her best friend did get in. In the grand scheme of life, this is not a big deal, but to us it had become very important and something we really desired.

I know that we are not promised that life would ever be fair, but this has been a really frustrating thing for me today. I think that in my heart I believe that God "owes" us this (and other things, probably) because of what we do for Him. I make mental lists of the things that we do for the Lord, the ways that Diane and I serve Him and sacrifice to make Him known, and I guess that deep down there are places in my heart that feel like the least He could do for us is (insert thing you want here).

I want to be justified in my anger, to say, "It's not fair. Can't we just catch a break here? We don't ask for much. Why does Eliza's friend get in and we don't?" The lie comes, "Does God like that other family better?" I wonder if God is just trying to teach us the lesson that our obedience doesn't guarantee blessing, correcting us for subtly getting off track?

I wasn't convinced that I wanted Eliza to go to this school when the process began, thinking that she should go to the school that we are districted for, since those are the families we moved here to reach out to, and I gave a very spiritual answer when asked about it. "We'll just apply for it and if she gets it, then that is good and if she doesn't, we trust that the Lord wants her to go to Peck." But that was before I really wanted her to get in and learn Spanish. It's one thing to sound spiritual when your heart isn't in it. It's another when He doesn't give you something that you want.

And so I know that in this moment I feel whiny and jealous, definitely not a faithful or Spirit-led response. But I also know that the Lord is patient with me, and that He gives me some time to be disappointed, and also gently calls me by His Spirit to remember what is true, to trust Him with my children, and to believe that He really does love me and my family as much as anyone else.

And this news, while disappointing, is a part of that love for us. We trust God, that His heart towards us is good and loving and that His plans for our family far surpass and exceed those that we could ever dream. And yes, I think that He is using this small thing to remind me and my family of a bigger picture, and to remind us that our obedience does not come so that He gives us something, but rather because He has given us everything already in Christ. No matter how I feel, that is the truth.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Dang

Well, this season has ended just like most basketball seasons do, with my team not cutting down the nets at the end. For the first time in 24 years, I will not be able to have my end-of-season ritual of shooting baskets in the dark, as Diane is out of town on a women's retreat with our church. I really wish that I could get some of this taste out of my mouth by shooting ball in the rain, but maybe I will commandeer Jacob's nerf hoop before bed.

Watching the Heels be down by 28 points was like watching a team I have never seen. Watching them come back to within 4 points was amazing. And I honestly believe we were about an inch from winning the game, as Danny Green's 3-pointer went in and out with the Heels down 58-53. If that goes, it's a two-point game and I think Kansas folds. They showed a replay, and Roy Williams says, "If that three goes, it would have been a lot of fun." It didn't go, and the Heels momentum and legs gave out. While I am glad to not have been embarrassed as badly as it looked like it was going to be, losing still puts me in a funk. So, let's remember that a 36-3 season is nowhere close to failure, and along the way we saw:
Tyler Hansbrough win virtually every National Player of the Year Award.
A 16-point comeback against Clemson at home.
An amazing buzzer-beater at Clemson.
Beating Dook for the third straight year in Cameron.
Winning the ACC regular season and tournament titles.
Tying UCLA for a record 17 Final Four appearances.
36 wins.
This has been the year that my kids got into the Heels, and games became events around the house, with Psalter and Eliza sitting beside me on the couch yelling, "De-fense! De-fense!" and "Tar!" "Heels!" "Tar!" "Heels!" And Jacob saying "Dot-heels."

And now it's 8 long months until we get to do it again. I hate the wait until October. My one comfort right now is that maybe Tyler will not want to leave Caroline with this terrible taste in his mouth.

And I now officially hate Final Fours in San Antonio (see UNC, 1998)