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Is God in the Hurricane? – Br. David Vryhof

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Recently I was reminded of the story of John Newton, the 18th century London-born seaman who authored the extremely-popular Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton was captain of a ship that plied in the slave trade, but in 1748 he underwent a dramatic conversion. His conversion took place at sea, in the midst of a raging storm, when he cried to the Lord for mercy and the ship was delivered. As he reflected on what had happened, Newton began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had been at work in him. Not long after, he penned the words to the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace,” in which he acknowledged that God’s grace had rescued him when he was lost, and given him sight when he was blind. Following his conversion, Newton left the slave trade, became an Anglican minister, and advocated for the abolition of slavery.

I was thinking of Newton’s conversion yesterday as news that another storm that arose at sea had turned its fury on the eastern coast of our country, affecting the lives of millions of Americans. I began to wonder what God’s connection to this storm might be. If Newton believed that God had addressed him through a storm and used it as a means of grace in his life, I wondered if this storm might serve such a purpose in the lives of some and, if so, did that mean that God had designed this storm and sent it with such a purpose in mind? These types of questions lead to larger questions, such as “Does God allow suffering, and even, in some circumstances, intend to bring suffering on us?” “Is suffering ever ‘God’s will’ for us?” “Are we meant to find God in circumstances like the one we are facing right now in Hurricane Sandy?”

For some, the answer is a clear and resounding ‘yes.’ The now infamous Westboro Baptist Church, broadly known for their extreme hatred of homosexuality, is publicly “giving thanks” for Hurricane Sandy, which they see as clear evidence of God’s wrath and punishment on a wayward nation. In recent years, televangelists like Pat Robertson have claimed that natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake were initiated by God as punishment for the moral or religious failings of the people who reside in New Orleans and in Haiti. No doubt others will come forward in the next few days to insist that Hurricane Sandy is somehow related to the re-election of President Obama or the increasing acceptance in our culture of same-sex marriage.

Most of us will strongly object to such attributions. Jesus himself refused to see human suffering as evidence of God’s punishment and warned his disciples against doing so (e.g. Jn 9:1-3). Although we recognize that sinful words and actions may well have direct negative consequences, we no longer see natural disasters as clear evidence that God is punishing errant behavior. Unlike ancient peoples, we tend to look for scientific explanations for why these things happen rather than religious ones. As Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero wrote yesterday, when it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, we are more likely to turn to the Weather Channel for an explanation than to the Christian Broadcasting Network. “For me,” writes Prothero, “any God worth worshipping isn’t going to be so predictable, or so capricious.”

If we choose not to align ourselves with Westboro Baptist Church or with Pat Robertson and others who claim to know the mind of God in these things, where does that leave us? How will we answer the question, “Where is God in relationship to natural disasters and the suffering they bring upon innocent victims?”

First, I think, we have to acknowledge that no one can give a completely satisfactory answer to this question. This is the classical problem of “theodicy” with which all Christians, Jews and Muslims have to wrestle: If we put our trust in a personal God, we have to face the question, “In a world in which God is all powerful and all good, why do bad things happen to good people?” No one has yet been able to give a satisfactory answer to that question, though every generation has tried.

In the end, we can only say that we believe in a God whose ways remain mysterious to us. We recognize that we will never fully grasp the mind of God or understand God’s ways. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8,9).

In an article in America magazine, Rabbi Daniel Polish, author of Talking About God, put it this way: “I do not believe in a God whose will or motives are crystal clear to me. And as a person of faith, I find myself deeply suspicious of those who claim such insight.” Polish goes on to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “To the pious man knowledge of God is not a thought within his grasp.” This is the greatest challenge of faith, says Polish, “to live with a God we cannot fully understand, whose actions we explain at our own peril.”

What, then, can we say? Jesuit priest and author James Martin writes, “While there are no definitive answers to the question of suffering, and while we may never fully understand it, there are some time-honored perspectives offered by the Jewish and Christian traditions, which have helped believers as they move through periods of suffering and pain.”

Some of these perspectives Martin finds “at best, wanting; at worst, unhelpful.” “For example,” he says, “the notion that suffering is a punishment from God makes no sense in the face of innocent suffering, especially when it comes to a terrible illness or a natural disaster.” “Does anyone believe,” he asks, “that a small child with cancer is being punished for his or her “sins”? It is a monstrous image of a vengeful and cruel God.”

But there are other perspectives found in the tradition that can be of real help to us in times of suffering. Many of us, like John Newton, have found God in our suffering. Though we would never wish to return to that place of sickness or trouble, we have found that passing through it deepened our faith in God or changed our outlook on life in significant ways. We are different people, better people, because of what we endured. We have been able to look back on these periods with increased insight into ourselves, greater understanding of the mystery of human life, and a deeper bond with God. Some of us may even be able to express gratitude for those times and recognize that gifts of grace were given us by God in and through them.

It is often in our vulnerability, our poverty, our brokenness, that we find God in new ways or relearn our need to rely on God in all things.

Does that mean that God “sent” those trials to us with this purpose in mind? We cannot know for sure. Some, like Joseph in the Old Testament or St Paul in the New Testament, have seen God’s hand in their sufferings. Joseph looks back on years of trials and difficulties and says to the brothers who betrayed him, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”(Gen 50:20). And Paul, who endured many sufferings for the sake of the Gospel, concludes that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28).

We dare not speak with certainty about God’s intentions or motives in any circumstance – to do so is presumptuous and beyond our ability to know – but we can testify that, at times, God is able to use times of suffering and trial to instruct us and to deepen our faith. Saints in every age have known that to be true.

What they have also known is that God has been present with them in suffering. God does not stand outside our pain but within it, as a Companion, holding us in his arms and sharing in our grief and loss. Indeed, God has shared our suffering and knows our grief. We are not alone. Even after countless sufferings, which included shipwreck, persecutions and imprisonment, Paul was able to write with faith and hope of God’s love and faithfulness: “For I am convinced,” he says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

Where is God in Hurricane Sandy? We will never know for certain, but this we say in faith and in hope: God is with us. Always.

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16 Comments

  1. Karen A Hartsell on November 9, 2017 at 22:18

    In the fifties Alcoholism was considered a weakness not a disease. My mother became a serious Alcoholic when I turned six. I suffered both physical abuse and neglect. My parents divorced when I was ten and my father had her declared to be Unfit legally and took us away from her. While the worst part was going on, God was always with me. Two people on earth saved me from bad mental health and severe introversion. My father’s mother Granaline tried to keep me away from my mother when she came home hiding the bottle behind her back, and Granaline and Daddy Neal kept in their locked bedroom watching Paladine and other old shows until it was safe for me to go to bed. Later when I met my Husband John, his love and adventurous spirit took me out of my introverted personality. My faith remains strong and I thank God and his Son Jesus for all our blessings!

  2. Rhode on November 9, 2017 at 10:12

    I, too, believe that there is a ‘Prince of this world’ who seeks to thwart in as many ways as possible the realization that God is a God of love who seeks to love us totally and thoroughly. That said, I also believe most of what we suffer has been brought on by ourselves including climate problems. We are our own enemies and sabatoge almost willingly what God has given to us for our benefit. Our earthly bodies are a playground for disease and bacteria …much having come from unhealthy conditions like poverty, poor diets and abuse. We don’t need to point our fingers at God or the devil as we cause so much bad to happen to each other. Thank God for Christ’s example of obedience through suffering and the promise of resurrection and hope. God is watching everyone of all faiths. He does not throw lightning bolts at non-white, non christian, non rich. We do that. We can be quite cruel. We have oceans with storms and tides affected by pollution. We live on a a planet shaped by storms and earthquakes.. they happen. What we do for people affected by them are opportunities for us to manifest grace and charity. He does promise to shepherd us as we walk through our valleys of death and calls us to walk paths of righteousness for the sake of his good name and rest in green pastures… it is totally our fault that we punish and kill each other, pollute those pastures and cause other people not to have access and then thwart their paths to righteousness and love. God does not need to punish us we do enough of that to ourselves. What God tries to show us through the prophets and gospels are examples of how He continually offers love, strength, healing, growth, wisdom and peace. Some of which might not be realized in this world. The Goodness and promises of God are eternal. We are eternal. Thank you for this message and the opportunity to express my heart.

  3. gwedhen nicholas on June 20, 2016 at 14:44

    I think that God allows Satan to cause suffering.God uses him, and allows him to do certain things, but with parameters. The evil one is under Gods’ will, or control as much as anyone. God always comes out on top. Gods’ is the victory in all things through Christ. The victory has already been won. Satan is left fuming because God turns the evil ones bid for sufferings for Gods’ will and purpose for good. There is no such thing as free will, even for Satan. I don’t believe though that God punishes us through Satan. I think He teaches and instructs us. For example, God allowed the evil one to put a thorn in the side of Paul to keep him humble. When the disciples were in the boat during a storm, surely brought on by Satan, Jesus had complete control over it and commanded the storm to be still. I don’t know why God allowed hurricane Sandy, but I do agree that it wasn’t a punishment. It did have it’s purpose though, and God was in control of the one who sent it.

  4. Barbara Frazer Lowe on June 20, 2016 at 14:09

    William = Thankyou for your brilliant suggest: Google, for Hymn, King of Creation: – etc. am still listening to it , and sequels, ‘singing, standing, swaying, thrilled. Thank you , thankyhou – glorious treat. Barbara Frazer Lowe = Wish I had pals here who can truly sing.

  5. Fred Adams on November 10, 2015 at 12:05

    Br David, Your messages always seem to explain the questions that I wrestle with. This one is no exception. Thanks so much for your insight. (Hope to meet you in January when I’ll be nearby.)

  6. Christopher Engle Barnhart on November 4, 2015 at 13:44

    “For I am convinced, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
    This passage from Romans 8:38-39 is one of my favorites passages from the New Testament for it gives me hope that God is always with me in my times of need.

  7. Pam on November 4, 2015 at 10:40

    Your sermon brings to mind I Cor. 1:23: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” The idea that we have a loving God who allows suffering (the cross) seemingly without discrimination (experienced by the good, the bad, the innocent), is surely a stumbling block. Romans 8 is the only thing that we can cling to when we experience the crucible of suffering of whatever kind. And with faith, somehow it works.

  8. Michael on November 4, 2015 at 07:59

    Living with mystery is not easy just necessary

  9. William on July 18, 2015 at 08:58

    Thank you Brother David for this assuring meditation.
    My favorite hymn in The Hymnal 1982, the tune was arranged in 1665, is “Praise to The Lord, the Almighty, The King of Creation!” GOOGLE the title, and listen to the choir of gentlemen and boys with the congregation singing with gusto. Marvelous lyrics, especially in the second verse,…’sheltering you under His wings, and so gently sustaining…’ Amen.

  10. Pam on July 17, 2015 at 21:31

    A friend was getting rid of some his books because he and his wife were moving, and I was invited to take whichever ones I wanted. I am currently reading one of them, Philip Yancey’s Where Is God When It Hurts? It is a very helpful book, and his conclusions are very much in line with your sermon.

  11. David Cranmer on July 16, 2015 at 21:44

    I really appreciate the collection of thoughts in this homily. I am reminded of something that I recently heard Steve Brown say about a retreat at the Community of Jesus in Orleans MA. There he was told that the pillows that are set on the bed of each participant are prayed over by the members of the Community. The pillow that was his said, “I do not understand Thee, but I trust Thee.” This has been helpful to me. And I see this same thought in what Br Vryhof has written.

  12. Marta e. on July 16, 2015 at 06:55

    I liked the final conclusion that we simply cannot “know” God, . . . . and that the earth is also a creature of God. All we can do Is seek, and search, and listen. Do I I remember accurately, ” My truth is not your truth.”?

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  14. Polly Chatfield on October 21, 2014 at 09:05

    I would add to Leslie’s words that the crisis of our time is more than fear of the Ebola virus. it is a general air of fear and distrust. Loving and believing in God does not mean that we trust God will keep the virus – or anything we fear – from us, but that God will always be with us no matter what.

    • Ruth West on October 21, 2014 at 10:20

      Amen, Polly. He gives us grace and strength to cope.

  15. Leslie on October 21, 2014 at 08:10

    The crisis of this time is Ebola virus. Concerning calamities which inflict suffering upon innocents, Anglican priest John Polkinghorn comments that the earth is a creature, and it, too, has free will.

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