Facing our Dragons

Facing our Dragons
Written Spring of 2008

I recently took on a long term substitute teaching position after not teaching for four years. Although I have a Master’s of Education degree, it’s been a struggle of facing my fears.   At times it feels like I’m slaying dragons within myself.  The first dragon I had to face was simply the courage to get up in front of a group of high school students each day and lead a class for 40 minutes, 5 times a day.  It took at least 3 weeks of over-adrenalized nerves till the practice became tolerable. Unfortunately, my health didn’t like the sleepless nights and I had to struggle additionally with a fever and bronchial cough.  The next dragon was the patience to teach kids that didn’t necessarily want to learn.  Patience is key in teaching and at times I have no extra levels to draw from.  Patience when you don’t feel able to concentrate on what you want to say because the classroom is too busy with noise.  Patience when you are spoken to in a degrading way. Patience when students seem to find it difficult to keep their eyes on their own test paper.  Patience when you really don’t want to see another teenager again…

But recently I found the verses in John 21: 18-19: Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. Follow me!” 

I can attest to the fact that God is still in the business of leading us where we don’t want to go and stretching us in new ways that we don’t want to experience.  I only pray that in this stretching process I can truly grow in the ways of God and not resist his leading and teaching. How is God stretching you today?

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Godly Imagination

Godly Imagination
Written Fall of 2007

My son, Patrick, recently left for college, but before he did, he wrote a long-winded justification for reading the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.  He states, “the book series not only stirs the imagination, but instills the concept that people cannot be judged so easily and put into boxes to fit our needs. “

You see, I am probably to blame for his praise of the imagination since I’ve always tried to encourage that in my children.  I encouraged them to read and draw and act in order to experience real and fictional people and places.  But recently I came across a book titled, The Praying Life by Deborah Douglas that even encourages imagination as we seek God. “In the church….a preference for ‘right thinking’ can starve our minds and hearts of much of the richness of Scripture, poetry, and our own experience. We can refuse to believe that God can speak to us through our imaginations,” states Douglas. In this way we limit the “messages of God” because they don’t conform to what we see as plausible or rational.

“Fortunately,” she adds, “God is wonderfully inventive and patient with us, finding all sorts of creative ways to ‘steal past the watchful dragons’ that jealously guard our minds. Memories, dreams, intuition, prayer ‘too deep for words’—these gifts from God operate within us at a level far beyond conscious control or intellectual understanding.”

And thank God.  In recent months, I’ve found that prayer and listening for God’s voice has transformed my spiritual life.  We become immune to the work of angels all around us.  As Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”  Listen for God today because I’m sure he wants to speak to you!  –BBM

Finding Healing and Hope

Finding Healing and Hope in the West
Written Fall of 2008

Whenever I talked about our upcoming vacation (July 25-Aug 6, 2008), I usually said, “I hope we can stand driving together for that long. Hopefully we won’t have too many arguments.” But traveling by van from Pennsylvania to Custer, South Dakota and on to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons ended up being one of the best family vacations ever.

It had been a rough few months before we left, so we as a family were in need of a time of solace.  And we threw ourselves into it full force.  We rode horses in the Black Hills National Forest and rafted the whitewater rapids of the Yellowstone River as if there were no tomorrow.  We ate a chuck wagon supper and listened to blue grass music into the night. We all knew we didn’t want to go home to the issues and troubles of the last few months; we wanted a complete vacation from stress, a time to escape the cares that seemed to haunt us before.  And we found in each other the perfect comfort.  Laughter and the thrill of excitement were like nectar to our weary spirits. We amazed ourselves that we could all get along so well.  Sure, the kids often retreated to a Game Boy world of Pokemon while Ken and I navigated the highways, but it may have been a necessity when driving over 10 hours together each day in a van.

And did I say that we hiked? Maybe it was because the kids were so glad to finally be released from the depths of the Toyota Sienna, but they jumped at every opportunity to hike, all in one accord, and even got mad at us when we didn’t have an afternoon of hiking in Custer State Park. We hiked and hiked and hiked —in the Badlands of South Dakota, around Devil’s Tower of eastern Wyoming and among the clear, transparent lakes of the Grand Tetons.  Ken and I were usually far behind our three kids, while they would run ahead as if there were a reward at the finish line.

So, I guess the family road trip is not dead, despite the high cost of fuel.  It was the saving grace of our summer and the memories of that time out West continue to bless us. -BBM

Surviving in Tough Economic Times

Surviving in Tough Economic Times
Written Winter of 2009

Today’s newspapers speak doom and gloom about the future of our US economy and many of us are facing difficult economic issues.  We wonder if we may lose our jobs or possibly our homes and fear for the future. If my dad (Merrill Benner) were still alive, he would tell me about the Great Depression and how this is nothing compared to what he had experienced.  In fact, recently I came across a glimpse into that time period from a story my dad had written in a grandparent’s memory book for my oldest son, Patrick.  My dad wanted his descendants to know what life was like during the Depression and how sometimes surviving included an abundance of ingenuity and thriftiness.

It was a cold, snowy Saturday morning during the Depression of the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, when the family of Charles and Leanna Benner, which consisted of Pop, Mom, Paul, Edwin, Marvin, Merrill, Irene, and Edna (later, Dorothy and Willard as well) experienced a rather unusual  occurrence.  We lived at 240 Chestnut Street and at the time, there was a two story barn near the family home.  We also owned the lot directly behind our property which was vacant and had on it a large pear tree.

During these Depression days, meat was a scarce item.  We ate lots of bean, potato, clam, and tomato soups. Many big families subsisted mainly on mush and milk, so we felt fortunate to have soup.  We sometimes raised leghorn hens, not for meat but to sell for much needed cash.  Pop and Mom felt the chickens were too expensive for us to eat, so during this time period we sold a flock of 35-50 hens for $1.oo each. 

On this particular day, hunting season was over (which was how we often supplemented our meager depression fare with rabbits, pheasants, and squirrels) and Pop decided to meet our need for good, fresh meat.  There was snow on the ground and the starlings were hungry and plentiful as they took a break on the pear tree in our back lot.  So Pop got his double-barreled shotgun and took careful aim from the upstairs barn window,  firing at least once into this flock of starlings perched on the big pear tree.  After the shot, Marvin, Paul and I helped gather the dead and wounded starlings.  We finished off the birds, which I remember tried to run away, but we caught them and filled up a peach basket full of starlings. Then we took them into the house, scalded them in a large tub, and picked the feathers off. They had nice meaty breasts and we each had one or more starlings for supper that evening. I think Mom cooked rice to eat with our birds, but more importantly, we were glad to have survived another cold wintry night and that our mom and pop and Father in heaven had supplied our needs. —BBM

Sunday Mornings as a Young Girl

Sunday Mornings as a Young Girl
Written Winter of 2011

I remember Sunday mornings as a child.  My dad was usually the time manager and tried desperately to get us all out in the car at “half-past” eight for a 9 o’clock service.  It started early in the morning by waking us up to the Mennonite Hour quartet blasted from our living room stereo. We often just grabbed an apple for breakfast and it sometimes seemed like a mad rush for all of us to get in the car, which would have included my older brother, Steve, and my sister, Linda.  But soon we were riding contentedly to church with many of us still munching on an apple.

My dad’s main goal in arriving early to church seemed to be to get a window seat on the left side of the sanctuary.  When we were successful, Daddy promptly put his Bible on the window sill and seemed to draw some unknown pleasure from this act.  Perhaps his father had done the same thing before him.  My dad used to say, “I held Beverly in church till I couldn’t see over her head.”  I guess I didn’t have any younger siblings to usurp my place on Daddy’s lap, so I continued till I was close to 13.  After all the lifesavers were used up (Mom didn’t let us chew gum in church because she said we “looked like cows chewing our cud”) and I still became “rutchy,” my dad would sometimes draw me a picture.  I’d like to say this picture was different each time he drew it, but actually it was the same picture with just moderate changes. He drew a tree stump in detail with wide roots and tree rings on the top.  He drew the surrounding area with distant trees and grass. I think I often added flowers to the scene.  But always in the center of the tree trunk was an ax and then the finishing touches were always the words, “Well done!”  At the time, I just enjoyed seeing a picture and thought my dad was an excellent artist, but I often was a bit perplexed as to the picture’s significance.  Why was the job well done and why the picture of a tree stump with an ax in it?  I think I asked him once and he replied with a smile and a nondescript answer “Well, it’s a job well done!” 

Looking back on it, I think it had something to do with looking towards heaven and a hope on my dad’s part that God would consider his work well done.  He loved being out in nature and it was something easy to draw that perhaps he had used in his chalk drawings that he had done in the 1950’s and 60’s.  It certainly was a picture that always rose to the surface when he sensed my boredom in church.  I don’t remember listening to the sermons in church because at that time I think the sermons felt way over my head.  But I suppose I did receive a message…. work hard and God will reward you.  I do hope my dad found the reward he strove for in heaven. -BBM

Daddy’s Grandfather Clock

Keeping Time
Written Winter 2008

One of my dad’s favorite songs to sing in the last years of his life was “Grandfather’s Clock” by Henry Work.  His signal to sing began with a beckoning to his grandchild to get the “yellow song book” from the piano bench. Then he took the child on his knee and with an earnest bass voice sang all 4 verses of the synchronous yet somewhat morbid ballad. Each grandchild especially loved the chorus:

But it stopped, short, never to go again, when the old man died.

Ninety years without slumbering, tick, tock, tick, tock,

His life seconds numbering, tick, tock, tick, tock,

It stopped, short, never to go again, when the old man died.

I never could figure out why he seemed so fascinated with this song since he had never sung it when I was growing up. Was it that the children loved the “tick, tock” or was it that one of his favorite earthly possessions was his grandfather’s clock that he built himself? It might have been both because between hearing Grandpop’s deep bass voice and hearing the clock chime just a few feet away, his grandchildren were usually spellbound.

When I was in high school Daddy built a grandfather’s clock from an Emperor Clock kit and he was never the same. He was proud of his accomplishment but there was something more, like he had a relationship with his clock. If the clock were losing time, Daddy could not rest until he resolved the problem. It was only in his later years that anyone besides Daddy fixed the clock. So, perhaps this song hit a familiar chord with Daddy and his clock. 

Now his grandfather’s clock chimes in our home, and Daddy would be pleased to know that it runs perfectly. It doesn’t seem to have the same omnipotent presence that it once had while residing at Halteman Road with my parents, but it always reminds me of my father. Sometimes I even apologize to Daddy when I’ve forgotten to wind it. Daddy had an intricate relationship with this clock, one that I can’t relate to, yet I always find the clock’s presence comforting and faithful. We all know “our hour of departure” will come, but as for now, let’s enjoy the precious moments God has given us. Happy New Year!  -BBM

For my uncle Paul

Paul Benner as deacon

Discovering my Uncle Paul and His Calling
Written Summer of 2011

When I attended my cousin Stanley Benner’s funeral this past March in Kitchener, Ontario, I wondered why I never thought about it before that I had Canadian Benner relatives.  His death was a tragic reminder of all that I did not know.

Apparently, my dad’s brother, Paul, grew up in the Charles and Leanna Benner family, married Margaret Longacre from Vincent Mennonite Church and attended Souderton Mennonite Church after they were married in 1932. But Paul seemed to feel the call to missions at a young age and they soon joined the mission church at Finland. He had caught the fervor of the young men called to minister to the people along “the Ridge.” In 1948, Paul, Margaret and the family of 7 moved to Spring City and began attending Pottstown mission church.  This was the same year that their oldest son Ernest died of leukemia. Despite this tragic blow to their family unit, Paul and Margaret stayed focused on the church and their outreach in Pottstown.  Paul’s dedicated leadership was appreciated because two years after they began attending at Pottstown Mennonite, he was ordained as deacon of the church by Bishop Amos Kolb and Paul Lederach.  He was the only one receiving votes for nomination.  In 1951, he also was elected as trustee for the Sprogel Burying Ground which would eventually be the site of the new church building. So it came as quite a surprise to Elmer Kolb and leaders of the congregation when in May 1967, Paul announced that they would be moving to British Columbia.  In the Pottstown church records, a month later, it states that Paul Benner “did not feel bad about the congregation but things in the conference.”  The record also states a belief among church leaders that “materialism [was] killing our fervor.”

Once settled in Topley Landing, BC, Paul and Margaret, along with their youngest daughter, Louise, began attending Decker Lake Mennonite Church, a congregation affiliated with the conservative conference, later known as the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church.  Global Mennonite Encyclopedia Online states that the “Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church was formed in 1968 when a group of bishops, ministers, and deacons were granted a release from the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Their purpose was to develop a church program that would help preserve biblical practice and the historic Mennonite values. The Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church does not accept divorce and remarriage. Women wear head coverings and have uncut hair. Men, as a rule, do not enter the professions. They wear plain clothing (dress), and their life is built around the church, schools, and religious activities. They do not engage in worldly amusements, nor do they follow organized sports. The use of radio and television is not allowed.”

So, Uncle Paul and Aunt Margaret wanted to preserve some of the conservative values that they felt were disappearing in the Franconia Conference.  At the time, I was only 6 years old and totally oblivious that the Mennonite Church was changing or even that my uncle and aunt were moving to Canada.  I realized at some point that my uncle usually wore a plain suit and that my aunt wore a cape dress, but this was not that uncommon in those days.  As I got older, I knew that I should not be found in shorts or short skirts when “Paul’s” came to visit, but still did not realize the implications of all of this.  I remember my uncle Paul as a somewhat stern but gentle and patient man.  His quiet, unassuming voice was a stark contrast to my dad’s booming voice. But more importantly, my uncle was a devout Christian who chose to follow the path he felt God leading him and was a widely respected man of God.  That’s an amazing legacy to leave all of us in his family.  He didn’t hesitate to leave his siblings, parents and a more comfortable existence for the rugged life of the Northern Frontier to minister to a nearby Indian reservation. 

His life lives on in his children who primarily live and work in Canada.  Thus, I have Canadian Benner cousins that share the same smile, the same sense of humor and some of the same interests, but I am only now getting to know them.