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When good things happen to good people

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

I always wonder something when actors or athletes who are accepting an award give thanks to God for making it possible.

What do they mean by that? Are they implying that God liked them better than the competition? Heard their prayers but ignored everyone else's? Actually cares who wins the Oscar or breaks the home run record?

Or are they saying that faith in God helped them persevere and succeed because they never felt alone?

However intended, the phrase is used often in times of triumph and jubilation. It doesn't usually come so easily in defeat.

What prompts this musing is, of course, the Miracle in the Mine.

Nine coal miners trapped 240 feet underground with 7 million tons of water flooding the chamber become the focus of a desperate rescue operation. Three days later, each and every one is brought out alive thanks to a stunning combination of brains, brawn, determination, skill, equipment, luck -- and, yes, faith.

It was a great story, made even greater by its contrast to the last huge news event in Somerset County, the crash of United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, killing all 40 people on board.

That incident was an inspiration in its own way, with the passengers forcing the plane down in an open field to divert it from its target in Washington, D.C.

But this time, everyone came out alive. Considering the broken drill bit, the rising water and the race against the clock, the ending was an odds-beater for sure.

Or, as it was quickly proclaimed, a miracle.

The rescuers and the rescued, the families and the townspeople, the anchors and reporters, even the McDonald's sign, all seized on the word.

Everywhere you looked, people were thanking God for the operation's success. And anyone who stayed up half the night to watch that yellow capsule deliver each miner in turn from the bowels of the Earth could understand why.

And yet, the whole concept of divine intervention is a tough one, because it also raises the possibility of its opposite -- divine indifference.

If the Almighty really deigns to become involved this way in our lives, then why so selectively? If God can rescue nine men in a Pennsylvania mine, why not 9,000 babies starving in Africa? Why let 6 million die in the Holocaust and then save three astronauts on Apollo 13?

If credit is due when the outcome is good, is blame also due when it is not?

Some may consider the question itself blasphemous, but religious leaders and theologians address it all the time in an effort to explain the unexplainable.

One of the most well-known is Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his 1982 book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People."

Kushner has explained that he knew he would write the book after learning that his 3-year-old son, Aaron, would die in his early teens of a rare disease called progeria, or premature aging.

And in it, he tries to assure people that God neither preordains nor averts tragedy, but that in its wake, faith in God offers a way for the living to heal.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin also wrote about this in his eulogy for his son, Alex, who was killed in a car accident at age 24.

"God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels," Coffin said. But when tragedy strikes, he adds, God's presence is there to help the suffering through.

Which brings us back to the Quecreek Mine, where tragedy was chased away by whatever powers one cares to invoke -- fate, faith, chance or divine intervention.

The survival of those men will be the stuff of legend for many years to come. Somerset will celebrate it with joy and thanks, and the players will get their 15 minutes of fame many times over.

The rescue will be the subject of books and movies, rescue manuals, maybe even an episode of "Touched by an Angel," with Della Reese reminding the men about the corned beef sandwich in the lunch box.

And if the miners wind up on stage during the Academy Awards with Oscars in their hands and say they want to thank God for making it all happen, at least the audience will know exactly what they mean.

Sally Kalson's e-mail is:skalson@post-gazette.com

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