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, 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