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Joining With God to Build Community

May 08, 1999|Rev. EDWARD C. MARTIN | The Rev. Edward C. Martin is pastor of Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist Church in Mission Viejo

There are no more difficult questions for religious people than the questions asked in the face of tragedy. When someone dies too young, when a good person suffers, when we have senseless acts of violence such as Kosovo or Littleton, we ask: Why?

When we pray diligently for someone to live and they die anyway, the often unspoken question lingers in the air: "Why bother with religion? Why bother with God?"

Religion serves many purposes that are not particularly spiritual. The word "religion" derives from the Latin word "religare," which means "to bind strongly." It has the same root that gives us the word "ligament." Religion binds us to a particular belief and binds us to one another.

Certainly the binding of people to any belief system that teaches honesty, nonviolence and wholesome behavior, particularly among the young, has some value. But many clubs, which have little or no religious component, teach honesty, nonviolence and espouse wholesome behavior. One does not need God in order to teach ethics. The binding of persons in a group can, likewise, be very valuable for society but again, a conscious relationship with God does not have to be part of the equation.

Ultimately, religion must rest on a spiritual connectedness with the divine or it cannot make claim on ultimate value. If religions do not serve to connect us with God, then they have no more ultimate value than secular organizations. What makes religion different is its claim on the divine. The question then arises, "What spiritual answers are there to Kosovo? What spiritual answers are there to Columbine High School? Of what value is God in times of personal crisis unless God will intervene on our behalf?

Because some prayers seem to be answered and others are not, we are sometimes left with the uncomfortable notion of a capricious God, a God who sometimes decides to help us and other times decides to let us suffer.

Assuming we believe God is consistent and not cruel, we are ultimately led to embrace the concept that in granting free will, God also has relinquished the power to dictate events. We cannot simultaneously maintain that humanity has true free will and that God dictates events. God is in spiritual partnership with us, to woo, to lure creation toward goodness and health and wholeness--but God cannot, or will not, unilaterally force events to occur or not occur.

Our prayers do have power, but prayer cannot coerce. Prayer provides spiritual power to those in need, but prayer cannot compel reality in any particular direction, no matter how worthy the cause for which we pray. The prayers we have prayed for Kosovo and the heart-rending prayers of parents in Littleton have all been woven into the fabric of God's reality and empower spiritual health, although they cannot force reality to change.

The children at Columbine High School who prayed for protection but were still wounded or killed were heard by God just as deeply as those who prayed and walked away unscathed. The girl at Columbine who was asked by the gunmen if she believed in God and was shot when she answered in the affirmative was beloved of God. God did not abandon her. God could not stop the gunman from shooting her, for the gunmen also had free will, but God could love her through it all and into the eternity of God's love. God was there with her then and she is with God now.

Although God allows us free will, God does work within us and with us to weave whatever good can come from tragedy even though God cannot change what we willfully do.

The value of religion lies not in simply gathering together to reinforce a particular set of beliefs but in the willing cooperation of individuals to be in relationship with God for the good of all creation. In times of crisis our attitude is not one of beggars pleading with God to intercede to save us from accident, disease or our own folly, but rather our attitude is one of spiritual beings working in harmony with God to produce the best possible results from every situation.

God will not stop us from committing sins. God cannot stop us from slaughtering one another, but God will work within our souls to lure us toward spiritual, mental, physical and moral health.

The ultimate value of religion lies not in our ability to manipulate God to perform miracles for us, but rather in our freely chosen cooperation with God in creating a community that becomes more and more a reflection of God's loving desire for us all.

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Jack Robinson.

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