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Trying to Read God's Mind

Some who survive disasters credit divine intervention, but some theologians are wary


Powerful testimonies have emerged in recent weeks from people who called on God while standing in the shadow of death.

In La Plata, Md., a father huddled his family on the floor and recited the Lord's Prayer as a deadly tornado passed their living room window and destroyed other buildings on the block.

In Kensington, Md., an Amtrak conductor dropped to his knees and prayed seconds after the Capitol Limited derailed and cars tumbled into a ravine, injuring the conductor and more than 100 other people. No one died.

In Somerset, Pa., ministers led families and rescue workers in prayer for three days until nine coal miners trapped beneath the earth were saved by efforts some called miraculous.

But what do these testimonies mean? In a crisis situation, do the chances of survival increase if you ask God to save you? Should pastors preach or teach that the use of what some call "flare prayers" is the way to cope with disaster?

Survivors of the Maryland and Pennsylvania incidents believe that God interceded on their behalf. But some ministers and scholars disagree, saying it is impossible to know--or manipulate--divine will and that it's irresponsible for survivors or clergy to promote the use of flare prayers.

"Church leaders who teach this are setting up false expectations," said David Spradlin, an elder of the University Park Church of Christ in Hyattsville, Md. "What about the [more than 2,800] people who died in the World Trade Center? Were not some of those people praying?"

The Rev. Edward Voorhaar, whose church's youth group probably survived April's tornado because it had canceled its Sunday night meeting, called crisis praying a "complicated theological issue."

The twister crushed La Plata United Methodist's empty education wing, harming no one, but killed a man across the street. Four other people died that night, and Voorhaar has no doubt every one of them was praying, "Lord, save me."

"It is impossible to know the will of God," Voorhaar said. "I am just grateful that more people in this community were not killed or injured."

The Rev. Jack Marcom, a retired Army chaplain and pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Va., isn't against flare prayers if they are offered by people who believe in God and don't try to dictate the outcome.

"Anybody who turns to God in times of crisis must have some type of spiritual roots already," Marcom said. As a military and law enforcement chaplain, Marcom said, he has offered many prayers. However, "I always asked God to be present with my soldiers in the foxhole, not to win the battle," he said.

Richard Yates, a professor at the Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, Md., said ministers shouldn't preach that God saves individuals simply because they ask him to spare their lives. It gives false hope and tells people what they want to hear, he said.

"People are basically materialistic and want God to make them happy," Yates said. "We can't think that God is a puppet. When we go through pain, maybe he wants us to repent and get right with him."

Yates advises people in crisis to pray that God have mercy on them and that God's will be done, good or bad. Yates said he learned this lesson in 1990 when his son died after an automobile accident in Washington state caused by a drunk driver.

"I wondered why God didn't answer the prayers for my son," he said. "But then I reflected on Romans 8:28: 'And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.' "

Flare prayer proponents also can be found in the Pennsylvania mining town that was the scene of this summer's near-tragedy. The Rev. Charles Olson, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Somerset, said he's sure that God spared the life of church member Mark Popernack, the last miner hoisted out in the early hours of July 28.

Olson prayed with Sandy Popernack, the miner's wife, throughout the 77-hour ordeal while Mark Popernack was praying from Black Wolf mine 240 feet below the surface.

"We offered a lot of prayers down there," Popernack said, adding that the episode strengthened his faith and religious commitment. "I was going to church, but now I plan to go more often."

The third calamity, the July 29 derailment of an Amtrak train in Kensington, produced other believers.

Amtrak officials have prohibited employees from talking about the accident while it's under investigation. But a few hours after a heat-buckled track created what could have been a disaster, assistant conductor Stephen Smart spoke about how prayer saved his life.

"Prayer works," Smart said as he walked out of the emergency room of Holy Cross Hospital with a broken elbow. "I knew [the derailment] was serious. As soon as it happened, I got down on my knees and said, 'Oh, God, not today!' "

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