Clergy Corner: Why does God allow disasters to happen?

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Ken Leydens, First Presbyterian Church.

■ By Ken Leydens / Contributed

Terrorism, violence, wars, epidemics, storms, earthquakes and tsunamis. To these facts of the world we live in, invariably, comes the question, “Why does God allow these things to happen?”
We think God to be unlimited power. So, when there is destruction and death, God just doesn’t seem to measure up to our expectations for how God ought to act. Anguish and suffering violate our definition of God. Too rarely does God “rend the heavens and come down” as Isaiah pleads (64:1); at least not in ways and timing that we readily recognize. And so, again and again, I hear people saying that God just won’t act like God for us.
Or so we think.
Early on, the Church came to hear Isaiah 42:1-4 as an accurate description of Jesus:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” Isaiah 42:1-4
Isaiah says God will send a servant who will have God’s Spirit, and will come bringing God’s justice to all the nations. This servant will be God’s decisive intervention into the world. And how will this servant work?
The servant will work in a way that is so delicate, quiet, nonviolent, and lowly that he will not extinguish a flickering candle flame or damage a thin blade of grass.
Now, what does that tell us about God? About the way God works? About our response to God?
All four gospels depict his baptism by John in the muddy Jordan River as Jesus’ great day of Incarnation. From there he launches his saving mission to the world. By our standards, it isn’t much of an inauguration day for the new Jesus administration. It is so very modest.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.”
Isaiah 42:1

But what if God is not someone like the president, only millions of times more powerful? What if our definitions of God, based as they are upon our definitions of power, are flawed? What if God’s way is like Jesus?
One hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks overthrew the repressive government of the Tsars to establish a new socialist society. The Russian Orthodox Church fell from power along with Emperor Nicholas II and his royal family. Karl Marx had written for the 20th century, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
But the socialists did not destroy all the church buildings and imprison all the priests; the institution of the Church was treated as an ineffective relic. It was, after all, just a few priests and some older women, who’re called babushkas, the word for the headscarves, which they wore.
Religion was not important. The focus was on forming the new nation and conquering the world for the Soviet ideal. In the zeal of the new politics, mothers and fathers marched off to factories, offices, fields and armed forces. They left their children home with their babushkas, who lovingly told stories and sang lullabies.
Fast-forward to the late 1980s; the government called out its military against its own people again, as in 1917, to suppress dissent. In those tense days, we saw babushkas joining those marching in the streets, meeting the soldiers with flowers, and whispering into the openings of the tanks, “Remember what your grandmother said to you: ‘Thou shall not kill.’ And, ‘the Kingdom of God is coming.’”
And a vast empire crumbled beneath their assault.
Perhaps the world, as created by God, is not a place where the fittest survive, and whoever manages enough raw power ultimately wins. Perhaps the world, as created by God, is the product of someone who looks and acts like Jesus.
Christians believe that when we look at Jesus Christ, he is what God is really like, rather than how we define (or wish) God to be. We see in Jesus as much of God as we ever hope to see; as much of God as we ever need to see.
And what do we see? We see the one who wins his victory through suffering. The one who blesses and prays for those who persecute him. We see the one Isaiah describes – the servant with power, but not as we normally define power. We see one whose power is so gentle that it will not quench a dimly burning wick or break a bruised reed swaying in the breeze.
So, let’s not falter or be discouraged in this world; but, let’s be prepared for how we will be asked to respond courageously to the servant’s Good News.

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