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The Suburbanite
  • Spiritual lessons: After the storm

  • Are there spiritual lessons to be gleaned from a natural disaster?

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  • One of the most iconic images from Hurricane Sandy has been a singed but-otherwise-undamaged statue of the Virgin Mary, against a background of charred remains where 100 homes once stood in the close-knit Breezy Point neighborhood of New York City.
    The “superstorm” killed more than 100 people in the U.S. and the Caribbean last month, and caused billions in damages.
    Are there spiritual lessons to be gleaned from a natural disaster?
    The idea that God uses natural catastrophes to administer justice or divine judgment is as old as religion. Last year, news of a Maya “Doomsday Prophecy” designating Dec. 21, 2012, as the date for the earth’s destruction sent some people into a tizzy. In 2011, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, an evangelical Christian, was criticized after she characterized an earthquake and a hurricane as God sending a message about government overspending. Bachmann later insisted that she was joking.  
    The Rev. Pat Robertson was widely rebuked for declaring that Haiti’s deadly earthquake in 2010 was a result of God’s judgment.
    Does God have control over such events, and if so, what should faith leaders be telling those affected?
     “I do believe God is in control, but I believe that humankind has altered things and sometimes nature takes its own course,” said the Rev. Nancy Conley, pastor of Peace United Methodist Church in Louisville. “I do not believe God causes bad things, but I do believe that God can use those things for good if we will allow him to. While God does not cause bad things, he allows these things and they may be part of the testing that we endure.
    ALL-POWERFUL?
     “I also believe that sometimes in our suffering our vision gets clouded about where God is, and I would tell my parishioners that God has not left them. He has promised to never leave them, nor forsake them. Through the tough times, many blessings will come, but during those tough times, it is almost impossible to see ahead to when the blessings will come and how they will come.”
    Rabbi Jon Adland of Temple Israel in Canton said he subscribes to the theory of “limited theism.”
     “I do not believe in an omnipotent God,” Adland said. “That may sound like heresy coming from a member of the clergy, but an omnipotent God leaves me with too many questions that come out of the events of the Holocaust and the murdering of members of my family.  
    “If God is all-powerful, why didn’t he stop the Holocaust and the murdering of 1.5 million children? Why would God cause a tsunami in Indonesia that killed 250,000 or the earthquake in Japan, or Katrina or Sandy, or other mass murders by despots?”
    “Don’t tell me that God picks and chooses who is going to die by a natural disaster or be killed by a mass murderer.  I believe that God has power, but that power is limited. It is theology called ‘limited theism’ and this works for me and puts the onus of mass murderers in the category of free will that God granted and the natural disasters as just part of the way this world works.
    Page 2 of 2 - “What I would be telling my congregants is that God is there to give you strength and comfort and resilience and fortitude to get you through day by day.”
    BAD THINGS
    “I would be telling my parishioners that God is with us in our distress, crying with us, comforting us, and giving us courage and strength for the road ahead,” said the Rev. Barbara Bond, rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Canton. “Bad things happen to good people, to bad people, and to everyone in between  — and bad things are not inflicted on anyone by God.”
    Bond recalls the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Alicia when she lived in Houston, Texas.
    “I lived through a hurricane myself back in 1982 that came in the blistering heat of August, and I well remember living two weeks without water and electricity,” she said. “For New York and New Jersey, with the cold settling in, it must be awful. I pray for them daily.”
    Episcopal Relief and Development, an arm of the Episcopal Church, USA, and Bishop of Ohio Mark Hollingsworth have urged parishes to designate their loose plate offerings for Sandy relief.
     Conley said disasters are the time to “draw closer to God and be assured by his promises.”
    “And none of that is easy, but it’s where our faith is strengthened through the fire of adversity,” she said.
    • 56 percent of Americans believe God is in control of everything that happens in the world.
    • 38 percent believe that natural disasters are a sign from God.
    • 44 percent believe the current spate of natural disasters are a sign of the “end times”
    • 58 percent believe natural disasters are linked to climate change.
    Source: Public Religion Research Institute