Monday, March 21, 2011

Reflections on God and Suffering from Cathy Benson...a woman who has seen both.

Today's post is from another voice gathered around the Firelight, guest contributor, Cathy Benson. Cathy is a writer for the Botetourt View in Daleville, Virginia, a United Methodist Youth Director at Fincastle UMC and my dear friend. Knowing a little bit about Cathy's story, I asked her to respond to the following question:

“If we believe we worship the One who can calm a storm with a word (Matthew 8:23-27), then how are we to respond when it seems He allows the storm to rage?”

I pray you will be blessed by her courage and the journey she shares with us today. Thank you, my friend.

* * *

I became a widow at 33. Bobby drove out of my life on a January Tuesday morning at 8:15 a.m. He was killed in a car crash at 1:20 p.m. I never saw him again. My boss was a preacher’s wife named Betty and her husband Gene went to the hospital to identify the remains. What a tough job a pastor can have on oh so many levels.

Gene came back to my living room and cried. We had a closed casket as I could not bear to remember Bobby as anything but how he was vibrantly alive. Gene helped with the funeral service as did our pastor Arthur and my father’s pastor Ron. All three knew Bobby well.

I told my three- year- old daughter Brittany that her Daddy had died and we wouldn’t see him anymore and I assured her that Jesus would fix him in heaven. She said “Why can’t Jesus just send us a new Daddy?” My son Brian was only 15 months old. Six months after Bobby died Brian asked me, “Who is that man in the picture?” What a travesty the bad times in life are for a child.

Faith got me through. I have been A Christian since I w as 14—40 years this summer! Life goes on. I remarried. I had two more kids and my husband George was a good father and step father as the four have grown up. I have every faith that Jesus did heal Bobby in heaven.

Yet we have to be careful as Christians. Bobby had been mistreated by church members when he was a child – his mother was not married to his father and he had a dark birth mark on his leg. The church ladies treated him as a dirty little boy during a bible school week at a country church. He didn’t believe in God for years after that. I think all of us should examine our “holier than though ways” whether that is dealing with the gay issue, the racial issue or other denominations within our own Christian religion. Too many people are spinning the hate of God rather than the love of God and it can have long term unintended results.

Bobby was baptized in the United Methodist Church two years before he died on a confession of faith. We were married for 11 years. We dated for 4 years prior, before I ever got Bobby inside a church and that was for our wedding. Thankfully, the Lord surrounded him with Christian friends in Texas and Virginia and our bout with infertility took me back to church with him kicking and screaming in tow. But the Lord had a plan for him and it was for him to be saved and a member of the Kingdom of God.

I will always be sad about his death and I will miss him until the day I die. I will always praise God for saving him. After Bobby’s death, I tried my best to fill in, as did George. It was not until this Christmas that my older two children, Bobby’s daughter and son said how rough it was not to have your own father. That George was good, but like Splenda—sweet-- but you can’t replace the taste of real sugar. I was sad, very sad but over the past couple of months have pondered a response.

Jesus said life would be hard. He never promised that following him would be easy—look what happened to the disciples, but his Word carried on. It has for over 2,000 years carried by many who suffered, but all who have His love. Jesus is the single most important character in religion or history. He was the love of God on Earth sacrificed for our sins. Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

I argue that the love of God will get us through anything and pray one day they will see that HE loves them unconditionally. He has always been there to love them for their missing earthly father and has guided them through a step father. No, they didn’t get the best start, but many have it far worse and in the end, if you believe that Jesus Christ offered Himself for all of us that no matter the disease, car crash or just old age, you too will be healed in the Kingdom of God. That is what the love of God does for us. It offers each of us a place in eternity with those we love who have gone on before and to wait for those we left behind. It offers each of us on earth a refuge from the bad days, a leg up on the worst day because of the promise of tomorrow—sheltered in love. Most importantly, one day I will join Bobby and all of my kin in heaven-- singing and praising the Holy name of God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit. Eternity with God is the place to be and I have my eye on the prize! Amen

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thoughts on God and Suffering from Banda, Aceh Indonesia

Speaking with us 'round the Firelight today is Megan King. Megan, 35, is the Head of Mission for Caritas in Banda Aceh. Aceh is a region on the north tip of the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Banda was the epicenter for the South Asian earthquake of 2004. The tsunami, which followed the earthquake, killed 200,000 people and destroyed the entire west coast.

The main focus of Megan’s role with Caritas is to work with NGOs that support democratic transformation by trade. In briefly describing Banda, post tsunami, Megan says this: “The city was entirely rebuilt. Everyone in Banda Aceh lost part of his or her family. Many lost almost everyone.”

Megan describes herself as more of a philosophical Christian than a religious one. She’s a fan of Jesus, though. When she examines ancient cultures who seem to embrace the idea of a wrathful God, Megan says, “suddenly, smack dab in the middle is some hippie in the desert telling everyone to stop worrying about life, relax and be good to one another. Maniac. Somewhere in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is the passage about the sparrow [Matt.6:25-34]. Jesus, in a shocking precursor to Bobby McFarren, gives us ‘don’t worry, be happy’. If God has designed a system so perfect that it provides for the simplest creatures, ie the birds, then of course he is going to provide for something much more complex like humans. Of course the Bible passage does not talk about simple or complex life forms, it talks about the love that God has for man.”

Katie: How do you respond to the following question: “If we believe we worship the One who can calm a storm with a word (Matthew 8:23-27), then how are we to respond when it seems He allows the storm to rage?”

Megan: The earthquake in Japan, and before in Aceh, was not the act of a vengeful God. Many in Aceh thought that was the case. They thought that the Aceheneese had moved too far from Islam, causing God to destroy the coast and kill hundreds of thousands of people.

God, in my humble opinion, did not destroy the coast of Aceh because teenagers were going on dates or every once in a while someone was getting drunk or having an affair. God caused the earthquake in Aceh because the pacific tectonic plate had built up too much pressure that had to be released. God was following through on his perfect design of this planet of ours that requires such releases of tension from time to time. The core of our planet is heated and alive, and so are we as a result.

The down side of that is that from time to time, earthquakes will happen and natural disasters will be a dramatic and horrible reality to people in certain areas. It is the consequence of life and the constant renewal of the planet. If we hold tight to our ego and believe that God only cares for humans, or cares the most for humans, it becomes a horrible act of punishment. If we let go of the ego and realize that disasters like the quake in Japan are the consequence for so much beauty on this wonderful planet called earth it makes it easier to understand and to relate to. Earthquakes suck. Tsunamis suck. A cold lifeless Earth sucks more.

Knowing that disasters are part of life, I believe that someone who works to live his or her life according to the teaching found in the new Testament prepares for them if he/ she lives in a disaster zone, and reacts to aid victims when disasters happen. A Christian in a disaster tries to stay calm and not let fear overwhelm the desire to be compassionate. A Christian works hard to hold on to empathy in disasters. A Christian acts out of love not out of terror. A Christian knows that he/ she can live in the Kingdom of Heaven at the same moment that others are living in hell.

The empathy and compassion that Jesus teaches also applies to people on the other side of the planet. If you want to live according to the teachings, you cannot turn off the TV because you have seen too much and want to think about something else. Someone trying to “do what Jesus would do” puts themselves in that position and asks “what would I want someone on the other side of the planet to do.” The answer might be as simple as just keep the victims in mind and don’t forget them. Pray for them, in other words. Or maybe, keep the victims in mind and act with more love on the other side of the world. Be better to friends and family. Stand up for someone in need. Go out on a limb to help someone. Send love into the universe by living more fully in the Kingdom no matter where you are.

Katie: What words of hope do you have for the people of Japan?

Megan: I don’t think words help. They'll see hope or they won't. Some people don't come back from that kind of trauma; the vast majority does. It happens as they start to rebuild. The thing that we, who are not in the area, can do is impact how we respond. What we do and think. This is the best advice on giving that you could find: It is an article by Annie Lowery from Slate Magazine, “Japanese Tsunami: If you donate money to help the recovery, let the aid groups decide how to spend it.” I think it is spot on.

* * *

I would agree, Megan. Giving indiscriminately so that others can move forward into a new life…that sounds just like something that little hippie in the desert would say.

Thanks old friend, for sharing with all of us around the firelight.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
-Psalm 42:9-11

When I began this blog, I cast a
vision that was two-fold. Part of that vision was about the power and the strength of God. The other part was about the vital nature of community. God’s tribe is gathered around the warmth of His fire. And as most of us have experienced, when you’ve been sitting around a firelight long enough, people begin to tell their stories. There is blessing in this, because when we hear from other believers, our view and understanding of God is enhanced and our heritage as His people is enriched. Storytelling is a part of us.

And so it is that this week we will hear from several voices gathered around the firelight. A shocked world has watched the events unfold in Japan over the last few days. Pain of this magnitude is heartbreaking and begs the question: “If we believe we worship the One who can calm a storm with a word (Matthew 8:23-27), then how are we to respond when it seems He allows the storm to rage?”

The voices you will hear from this week have seen some storms. They have survived with their faith intact. It is my prayer that you will find your faith enriched as you discover how and why.

Please come, sit by the firelight and listen. Let us learn together.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Key to the City

And lo, as I walk through the pearly gates, I can see clearly a great street, lined with free Blue Collar Joe’s doughnuts. There is a whole booth for each of my favorites…the Botetourt Bog, the Blueberry Pancake Breakfast (with smoke bacon dust), the OBX with all its yummy sugary sprinkles. I inherently know, somehow, that I may eat as many as I want, feel renewed and light, and will never see the evidence of them on my hips. It’s heavenly! And it oughta be considering the locale…

There’s some confessional honesty for you! There is a part of me that, when I dream of heaven, dreams of an image like this. There are a couple of reasons for my imagined “Rue de Doughnuts”. One, my husband and I just left the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia and relocated to Houston, Texas. Blue Collar Joe’s doesn’t have a Texas branch (yet). I don’t know when I’ll have another Blueberry Pancake Breakfast all packed into yummy doughnut goodness. And two, a heaven full of mouth-watering food sounds downright dreamy to someone who loves food like I do.

I’ve been dwelling a great deal on that lately – my love of food. See, my relationship with all things tasty has unfortunately had an ill effect on my health. After years of investing too heartily in a relationship with food, I am now considered obese and at risk for any number of health issues. Fortunately, I have made great strides in the exercise department, making that a daily routine. The nutrition department is, however, another story. I struggle. A lot. But I struggle less so ever since I have had an interesting revelation. Wondering what my beef is (no pun intended) with food, I asked myself the hard question: Why IS it that I eat more than I should, or eat what I shouldn’t…especially when I am educated enough to know the consequences of such actions?

I knew what the answer couldn’t be. It couldn’t be as simple as “because it tastes good.” I have held on to a weight problem for too many years for that to be the defining problem. Nothing tastes that good. My recent introspection revealed as much, showing me a problem much deeper, and with many implications: Fear.

I harbor a fear that I won’t be comforted.

Perhaps a lot of us do.

I think many of us allow our desire for comfort to blanket the consequences of our choices; especially when we long for relief from life's challenges. But choices motivated by fear are not choices befitting one who has been set free. (Romans 8:21)

It’s a good thing, then, that I was recently reminded, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) As I have been writing for weeks, God is coming to all of our senses, calling us to belong to Him. There is freedom in belonging. This week, God is appealing to my taste buds. I have uncovered the truth which fear plays in my culinary decisions. Digging further still, my excavation reminds me that at the deepest core of my being, there lives an appetite for that which has nothing to do with raw calories. The truth is, if am to be comforted, I need to spend more of my energy heartily investing in a relationship with a different kind of food: Bread...the kind that nourishes not the body, but the heart.

“I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

Perhaps then, as my relationship deepens, I’ll begin to envision walking through the pearly gates into a city in which the aroma of freshly baked "bread” awakens and delights the appetite of my soul. I will find that the key to the City, then, has nothing to do with dark chocolate. It has everything to do with a taste of the Divine.

The best part? The comfort of heaven doesn’t have to wait until we walk through the pearly gates. The Kingdom begins now. Go ahead, take a bite. I know you’re hungry.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Love That Lingers

“I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes.” That’s Harry discovering, after twelve years of friendship, the fragrance of something more powerful than perfume lingers with him when he spends time with Sally. Classic movie.

When we are exposed to love, evidence of it lingers in our lives like an aroma. Its fragrance is so powerful, it permeates everything in and around us. Like a scent, it cannot be avoided and its presence is undeniable. The more powerful the love, the more powerfully it lingers with us.

I think that’s where God’s lessons were headed when he began instructing Moses on how to build His tabernacle. In the desert, God was beginning an education that endures today – that we are his people and He is our God. God would dwell with his tribe in His Tabernacle. And in the building of that holy place of God’s presence, there was a lesson in every direction, every design and every detail. In Exodus 30, God instructs Moses to build an altar of incense. It was to be placed just before THE curtain that enclosed the Ark of the Covenant. It was here that God would meet with Moses. The incense, God said, must burn continually before the Lord for generations to come.

So what’s the unwritten implication here? If one stands immediately before the Lord, the aroma of incense will be on, in and around them. And with the aroma of incense lingering with them, everyone who encounters that person will know that they have been before the presence of the Lord. They will know because the aroma of incense cannot be avoided, and its distinct scent is undeniable. Thus the assurance of the presence of the Lord is carried to all people.

The cool thing is, that the incense, the aroma of the love of God, does burn continually before the Lord for generations. It burns even for those of us who never followed the Tabernacle in the desert.

Fast-forward a few generations to a few unfortunate Hebrews living in exile, for example. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were ordered to be thrown into a blazing furnace for the offense of refusing to bow to a false god. They were indeed thrown in, but they believed that God would save them from the flames. And when these guys walked out, unscathed, from this impossible situation, they did so apparently with “no smell of fire on them” (Daniel 3:27). They didn’t carry the aroma of death. They were in the presence of life. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walked out with the aroma of life - the assurance of the presence of the Lord – lingering with them.

Fast-forward a few generations more when God sends us His Son. The sovereignty of this Son cannot be missed when incense is delivered to his presence as a child, poured over his feet as a man, and brought to his tomb when he was thought defeated by death. But Jesus defeated death. And by the power of His love on the cross, he established a new Tabernacle. Remember, the more powerful the love, the more powerfully it lingers with us.

We are the new Tabernacle. The presence of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, now lives within the hearts of those who believe. Our faith is the incense before the presence of the Lord burning continually for the benefit of generations to come. And as we embrace our place in the tribe, giving sovereignty to the Lord over our hearts, we will carry with us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22). The aroma of God will be lingering on us, continually reminding us, and all those we encounter, of the assurance of His Love now and forevermore.

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.”
2 Corinthians 2:14

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

S'mores from the Firelight: God, You Smell!

Crunchy on the outside, yummy on the inside. That’s one of the first things that comes to mind when I see this picture. Seeing a photo of toasted marshmallows can evoke any number of mental images for me. But, smelling the aroma of freshly toasted marshmallows…that evokes endless emotional images for me. In that case, the smell and sound of the fire come to mind too, and I begin to see the faces and hear the voices of my old youth group – the last crowd who joined me around a fire with s’mores. Great memories of worship and shenanigans flood my mind.

Interesting isn’t it? How much more powerful a scent can be than a sight? There is a reason for that. Here is your science lesson for the day: the region of your brain which allows you to perceive a smell is located in the same region which allows you to perceive emotions. Emotional memories are tucked away right there with your personal index of smells.

That’s why when I detect the aroma of Ralph Lauren’s Romance perfume; I am transported back to my first date with my husband. The whole emotion of that evening comes to me so vividly, my heart picks up its pace and I remember what it was like to fall in love.

When I detect the aroma of pine in the fresh air, I am transported to Durango, Colorado and countless hiking adventures in the San Juan Mountains with my family. My heart is at peace as I remember the grandeur of God’s creation and the comfort of my childhood “home”.

When I detect the aroma of mothballs, I am at my grandma’s side. (Funny, but true!) It matters not that this grandmother has been gone from my life for over a decade. She is inspiring me with her knowledge of Shakespeare. We are talking about theatre and costuming, her two passions. Yes, all that from mothballs!

So when I read in the Psalms that my prayers to God rise up to Him like incense (Psalms 141:2), I indulge my imagination as I wonder:

How does God’s heart respond when His throne room is filled with the aroma of my prayers?