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Streets are flooded under the Manhattan Bridge in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews (The Telegraph, October 30, 2012)

“Come on,” tweeted one of my Twitter friends on the day that Hurricane Sandy began to pummel the U.S. East Coast. “I’m still waiting for a televangelist to tell me who is under God’s judgment. We have a right to know!”

Almost serendipitously (maybe?), right on cue, Twitter notifies me that there are new Tweets waiting. Voila! My friend’s answer appeared. Drum roll please…

Chaplain John McTernan joined the unoriginal foray of Christian preachers and evangelists who proclaim (often at the worst possible times) that God is “systematically destroying America right before our eyes” because of “the gays” and the Obama Administration’s “gay agenda”. He wrote this on his blog on October 29. That post has since been removed, and followed up on October 30 with a lengthy post that clarifies his position.

Really?? God sent Hurricane Sandy??

Please stay with me now…I’m not going to go off on a tangent about Mr. McTernan, his theology, or even President Obama’s positions and actions that relate to homosexual Americans. These are topics for other posts.

I posted on Tuesday about suffering, and whether it is necessary for spiritual growth. Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr suggests that it is. Based on my own experience, I agree with Fr. Rohr.

Writing this got me to thinking about suffering itself.

What do I mean by suffering? Do I believe that God causes suffering?

Here are some thoughts that I wrote in one (of the many) draft(s) of my memoir-in-progress…

The suffering that I’m talking about is a particular type necessarily related to spiritual growth.  It is by nature difficult to define specifically, as it is unique to each person.  Not only is the suffering different from person to person, it occurs at varying times in life. It may include any combination of physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual pain. Moreover, it is not always immediately or even quickly obvious (like it happened to be for me) that God is at somehow at work, and using the agony for the purpose of getting us in motion towards greater holiness.

Note how I say God uses the agony, and not that God causes it.  As a Reformed Christian I confess to the providence of God, but I do not subscribe to the belief that God brings about calamity. I will say that God is in control, but I will not say that God uses such awful events like natural disasters, war, and disease outbreak to punish or even send a message to humanity. The farthest I’ll go with that line of thought is to say that God allows such things.  Even then, I hold steadfastly that God does this to bring us back, closer and/or to a new level of wholeness in Christ.

I certainly do not profess to understand, or even like this. I am confused and bothered by the presence of suffering in this world that God Almighty created and reigns over. I question and cry out to God as much as everyone else. Why, God? and What are you doing?!?! fall from my lips in prayers of lament quite often.

“Darkness and Light” on John’s Consciousness blog, May 6, 2012

I think it’s important to specify that I’m not talking about the chronic suffering of peoples worldwide due to cultural, societal and environmental injustice, poverty and illness.  No, affliction at this scale and continuance simultaneously boggles my mind and breaks my heart.  I strongly believe that such anguish is not the work of God.  Rather, God shows up in the midst of it all, bringing bright glimpses of light, grace, and the liberation and jubilee that will accompany the final consummation of God’s work.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

I don’t have all the answers, or really any for that matter. Quite frankly, neither does anyone else. No one, absolutely no human being, is able to grasp the mind and purpose of God . To claim otherwise is naïve and idolatrous.

As much as it might stink, the most faithful answer to the question about the problem of suffering and the righteousness of God (known in theological circles as theodicy) is I don’t know. (Even Job, who probably comes the closest to being entitled to seeking an explanation from God about all of the bad things that befell  him, never gets a direct answer.)

Following that, the most faithful responses are cries and prayers of lament (there are some doozies in the Psalms), trusting God who sees what we cannot (see Isaiah 55: 8-9), and offering the ministry of presence to one another in the midst and aftermath of destruction.

Back to Mr. McTernan…a pastor friend of mine gently challenged me when I posted about his October 29 statement and reacted viscerally. I am grateful for my friend, and that he engaged me with love. My language was no more helpful than Mr. McTernan’s

In devastating times (be they on a global scale or a personal level), the last thing we need is hell, fire, and brimstone, name calling, and ultimately uninformed proclamations.

What we do need when suffering is upon is what is already happening on the ground level throughout the East Coast: compassionate and empathetic pastoral care, people coming together and volunteering in a myriad of ways to comfort and rebuild, monetary and material donations pouring in to support the many who have lost much (if not everything), and lots and lots of prayer. These actions are the Lord’s doing; and they are marvelous in our eyes (Psalm 118:23).

What say you?