Saturday, June 21, 2008


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.