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Archive for June, 2013

Watching the news of the Oklahoma tornados in May, where numerous people including children were killed, made me recall the following thoughts written after the March 2011 Japan tsunami. During that first week following that tragedy, I noticed a friend’s Facebook status update. I think he borrowed it from somewhere else, so I don’t know the author, but the quote urged us to stop calling disasters “acts of God,” but rather “acts of nature.” The quotation went on to call acts of compassion “acts of God” because God does not send disasters. Instead, God sends us out to care for and help other people, to pull together, and to bring good things out of tragedy. I liked the quotation so I borrowed it, with credit to my friend, for my own update. I’ve been noticing similar posts in the aftermath of the new tragedy.

The quotation led to an interesting exchange of ideas among some of my other Facebook friends, centering around the nature of God’s presence amid disasters and tragedies. One friend introduced several scriptures that do affirm God’s control over natural processes.

Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s (Ex. 9:29).

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen (Ps. 77:16-19)

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray towards this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain on your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35-36).

The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. (Nahum 1:5-6)

Our Facebook discussion continued for several more comments. Some of our group argued that God allows disaster to happen, whether by giving Satan a short leach, by setting up creation to function in a certain way, or by exercising at least some control over the circumstances. Even allowing for poetic imagery in the above scriptures, the biblical witness is such that God’s authority over Creation is difficult to deny; the Bible’s God is not the “lesser god” of Tennyson’s poem, who creates but lacks force to shape creation properly. Nevertheless, we don’t understand God’s ways or why God does allow (or guide) certain events. But we can affirm that God does work for good (Romans 8:28), expresses compassionate help to the suffering, and moves us to love and serve people who are suffering.

As it happened, I was at that time doing research for a church curriculum lessons, which used the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. I kicked myself for not thinking of that passage during our Facebook discussion; it would’ve added some spice! The passage famously indicates that God was not in the wind, fire, and earthquake, but rather in the gentle silence afterward. God clearly was present in some way during Elijah’s crisis but God was not “in” the destructive natural occurrences. So…. where was God in the “natural disaster” of 1 Kings 19? Any natural disaster? Isn’t it inappropriate to affirm God’s sovereignty when innocent people are suffering or have been killed?

One other source for my freelance research was John Wesley’s sermon “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-129-the-cause-and-cure-of-earthquakes/ To the other scriptures discussed so far, Wesley adds Psalm 104:32 and Ps. 97:5, as well as Ps. 18:7, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 13, Isa. 24:1, 18-20, Isa 29:6. Clearly the Bible is rich in praises for God’s supreme divine power, somehow present within natural circumstances.

But Wesley’s sermon raises even more urgently the question of God and natural disasters—where is God when they occur, and why does God allow them to occur? Wesley stresses that God uses earthquakes to punish sin and to awaken people to repentance. Wesley gives examples to show how good and bad people alike suffer and are killed in disasters like earthquakes, which is all the more reason to repent and strengthen our relationship with God.

Although Wesley reasons from Scripture, the awakening of repentance is a too human-centered and simplistic way to interpret the providence of God within these natural occurrences (although one wouldn’t rule out circumstances in which the Spirit did indeed awaken in someone a new relationship with God due to crisis). You’d never tell a farmer, discouraged about crops amid a too-wet summer, that God had arranged rain storms in order to awaken the farmer and surrounding community to repentance for some sin. You’d never tell someone in Moore, OK that God used the tornado to remind us to be godly.

Writing from a Reform Jewish perspective, W. Gunther Plaut notes that the doctrine of “chastisements of love” (yisurin shel ahavah) is found not only in Deuteronomy 8:2-3 but also Psalm 94:12-13 and 119:71. He notes that, for Jews, this belief that God sends hardships in order to guide the people was upheld in Judaism until Maimonides, who argued instead that we suffer because of natural occurrences, social occurrences, and our own imperfection. While the biblical passages interpret the divine-human interaction in those situations, Plaut argues that the doctrine no longer has application in Judaism following the Holocaust, far too horrible an experience to attribute to a loving God (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, 1390-1391).

This is such a difficult philosophical, theological, and pastoral issue. I don’t want to take a deistic, “watchmaker God” kind of interpretation: that is, God simply created and wound-up the universe to function on its own, and then withdrew for the most part. The tragedy of physical life is that, short of the final redemption, suffering and death happens to everyone, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. It’s human to wonder where God is amid tragedy, though all of us are mortal and live among many, many potential dangers, just in the course of living. For whatever reason, God intervenes in many situations, but we do not see a divine role or perceive a divine purpose in many other circumstances.

But I do come back to Matthew 25:31-46, which does answer the question of “Where is God?” God (in his passage, Christ) is with the suffering, and therefore that’s where we need to be, too.

(After I posted this, I noticed this article with a similar theme: Evangelical author John Piper had tweeted verses from Job concerning the death of Job’s children in a wind storm. He was subsequently criticized for thereby implying that the Oklahoma tornado had something to do with God’s judgment. As one person quoted in the article stated, “Piper was highlighting God’s sovereignty and that he is still worthy of worship in the midst of suffering and tragedy,” but one writer’s response, with which I agree, is that “Christians have to stop the idea of responding to tragedy by suggesting God is inflicting his judgment.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/john-pipers-tornado-tweets-stir-up-a-theological-debate_n_3328857.html?1369350389&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009 The article also points out a real dilemma in times of tragedy: what gives one person theological comfort may be distressing to someone else. )

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The theme of “keeping life in balance” is of interest to me. Finding a good balance in my life is essential on practical basis. I’ve a tendency toward mild depression, but I feel better when I maintain a right proportion of work, family, exercise, diet, and recreation. Balancing life’s aspects can be challenging for all of us, especially those times when we must focus more attention on family issues or work or whatever.

A good book that I purchased a few years ago is Ronald Rolheister’s The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999). Rolheister, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, notes that the quantity of spirituality-related books available, with different approaches and themes, is staggering (pp. 51-52). But given this abundance, he asks: what are the essentials of a Christian spirituality? Interpreting the example and teachings of Jesus, he gives four “nonnegotiable pillars of the spiritual life”: “a) Private prayer and private morality; b) social justice; c) mellowness of heart and spirit; and d) community as a constitutive element of true worship” (p. 53).

Rolheister goes on to discuss characteristics of each, especially what happens when a person deemphasizes one or more (pp. 54-69). Thinking along with him, I speculated that many of us are pretty faithful on A and D but tend to neglect B and C. That is, we go to church, participate in its life; we pray, and we follow a moral code in our lives.

What about B, social justice? This can be tricky. I read somewhere about a lady who, whenever her church study group or her pastor began to discuss social issues, responded, “What does this have to do with John 3:16?” For her, personal belief in Christ that gains one the gift of eternal life, as expressed in this verse, was the most important thing. After all, that is a precious message of the Gospel!

But there are many social teachings in the Bible: justice for the poor, feeding the hungry, supporting the imprisoned, taking the side of the disadvantaged, gaining justice and advocating for groups of people who are marginalized. Even if we worry about the church becoming involved in “politics,” we know that the church is called to minister to the world in Christ’s name as the Spirit gives guidance. So if we are faithful about A and D, we can prayerfully seek ways to support the church’s work in bringing healing and justice to the world.

Some of us have a different challenge: we’re so passionate about certain social issues, we emphasize “B” and neglect other aspects of spirituality. Why should God care about one’s personal prayer life or everyday behavior as long as one is feeding the hungry, etc.? But this is a temptation to have an imbalanced spirituality.

Another side to that: Sometimes I hear people complain that the church is too fixated on buildings, building projects, and facility upkeep; therefore, the argument goes, we should be using that money on the poor. This, too, is a way that social justice issues neglect other aspects of spirituality: in this case, the nurturing of people’s prayers and lives (A) and the cruciality of community and worship (D). I serve on our church’s board of trustees and can see first hand the many needs and costs in maintaining a building for the congregation—-but this is the way things are supposed to be! After all, your home, which protects and nurtures you and your family, require regular maintenance, and so does a church home that protects and nurtures a worshiping body.

On to “C,” mellowness of heart and spirit. This area interests me a lot because I’m a terrible worrier, and I feel that my anxieties betray an immature faith—or at least a faith where I’m calm in my “head faith” but emotionally fussy. Also, I’m inspired by Buddhist teachings that explicitly aim at serenity of heart, kindness, mental discipline that aims at inner peace, and so on.

These teachings are not at all different from Christian teachings, but some of us fall short on them. The other three aspects of spirituality can certainly help nurture inner tranquility and gratitude.

Interestingly, an overemphasis on both A (private prayer and personal morality) and B (social justice) can lead to a lack of inner peacefulness. On one hand, a person is so focused on the personal quality of faith and life, that pride has slipped in to his/her spirituality. (Alternately, a person has so emphasized the personal salvation of John 3:16 that she never quite pursues a transformed life.) On the other hand, a person who is very focused on some justice issue can become angry and strident—accusing people of inadequate faith if they disagree on that issue—rather than mellow, loving, and peaceful.

(Our very partisan politics enters into this, too. We become angry in our political views, we become frustrated with friends who disagree with us, and soon, instead of a honest and friendly exchange of opinions, a spirit of division has been created.)

And finally D, community and true worship. Many people are personally devout and moral, concerned about social issues, and peaceful of heart—-but they don’t go to church. Perhaps they’ve been hurt by a congregation, or they’re annoyed when the bureaucratic and otherwise “human” qualities of churches seem to get in the way of the true message. Perhaps they simply prefer solitary time, such as walking in nature and listening inwardly for God’s guidance. The individualism of our contemporary society—-this is what works for me, and you can find what works for you—can make us neglect the benefits of belonging to a religious community, and thus part of a religious heritage.

Most of us do indeed know what we need spiritually, and churches do indeed fail and disillusion people. My advice is always to keep looking for and praying for a community, and to keep a healthy perspective about the humanity of churches. There are bad people in churches, people who let you down, people who don’t get things right, but also people who are struggling like you and me and are humble in their struggles. They’re people who can be friends and cohorts in the spiritual journey. Not only that, but God works powerfully in the midst of congregations, and discovering God’s presence in a congregation is a vital part of the spiritual life.

Another side to D: some pastors love to see “worker bees” around the church, volunteers who are constantly doing things. Volunteer church ministries can consume one’s time, getting people’s lives out of balance, if the pastor is not sensitive to the needs of people to use their time sensibly. It’s important that a pastor with high expectations of service teaches people the importance of the other three aspects of spirituality.

Rolheiser rightly points out that “balance is not the ultimate goal of spirituality” (p. 69), but rather, our spirituality is an aspect of fulfilling our vocation as members of the body of Christ in the world, to help bring God’s redemption to the world (which includes the planet) (pp. 69-70). Thinking and praying about our spirituality, though, helps us draw closer to God and become clearer about the ways God calls us to live and serve.

 

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