The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, August 20, 1995                TAG: 9508200087
SECTION: FRONT                    PAGE: A1   EDITION: FINAL 
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  202 lines


While thousands boarded up windows and stocked up on canned goods this week in preparation for the wrath of Hurricane Felix, many took a few minutes - or even longer - for a leap from matter-of-fact survivalism.

They prayed, alone or in groups. The words came in infinite variety, shouted, whispered, even sung, but most revolved around a single message: Lord, protect us.

From the television studio of the Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, Pat Robertson on Wednesday called upon viewers to join him in prayer against Hurricane Felix: ``that the Lord will send it somewhere other than here. . . out into the ocean, perhaps.''

Then Robertson's guest on ``The 700 Club,'' evangelist Reinhard Bonnke beseeched, ``Lord, I pray that . . . you may take the sting out of this Hurricane Felix!'' met by Robertson's fervent, ``Yes! Lord!''

On Thursday's show, Robertson told viewers that those network prayers got the Lord's attention.

``We will show you how Hurricane Felix stalled offshore and weakened shortly after the prayer was offered on this program,'' he said. ``. . . So stay tuned. You'll see it on tape.''

He said hurricanes hadn't hit the Hampton Roads region - which he told viewers is known as ``Hurricane Alley'' - since he began broadcasting in 1961. ``Before we went on the air, like in 1960, 1961, there was a hurricane,'' he said. ``We haven't had one since.''

Robertson's message is clear: Christians join in prayer through his network, and hurricanes miraculously are averted.

Among those of many faiths who believe in divine intervention, Robertson's bold statements raise larger questions about praying for God's assistance. What is it appropriate to ask for? How can you know whether a prayer has prompted God to intervene?

The Bible offers abundant guidance about asking God's help. Old Testament patriarchs, most notably Moses, begged, bartered and sometimes almost demanded God's aid in escaping enemy forces. God responded in ways filled with mystery, parting the Red Sea, and raining bread from the sky to feed the Israelites.

That spirit of supplication continues in the New Testament. The Lord's Prayer starts by honoring God's power and follows with a simple request: ``Give us each day our daily bread.'' One of the most well-known verses in all the Bible is Matthew, quoting Jesus: ``Ask and it will be given you.''

``Anything is appropriate and proper in the context of prayer,'' said the Rev. William J. Dale of St. Pius X in Norfolk. ``You can ask for anything, with the proviso that there is acceptance of God's will.''

Asking God to destroy a hurricane amounts to a request for a modern-day miracle. For many Jews, a prayer requesting that kind of supernatural event is an unworthy prayer.

``Jews say we believe in miracles, but we don't rely on them,'' said Rabbi Michael Panitz, of Temple Israel in Norfolk. ``To pray for a hurricane to go away begins to cross the line from believing to relying on it.''

That understanding comes from the Talmud, the written books of Jewish law and commentary, Panitz said. The Talmud's example stipulates that once God has made a decision, such as the gender of a child in a mother's womb, it is a violation of the third commandment - which forbids speaking the Lord's name in vain - to ask God to undo his decision.

Modern events also have shaped a distinctly Jewish avoidance of praying for the miraculous sweep of God's hand, Panitz said. ``The Holocaust is a very long shadow across the field of Jewish theology. If God intervenes in history, why didn't he intervene then?''

When a deadly hurricane bears down, it's tempting to ask God to go on a specific errand, said the Rev. John Ashby, at First Baptist Church of West Munden, in Chesapeake. But the temptation should be resisted.

``If you say, `Bypass us and go somewhere else,' that's not a Christian prayer. No one prays that tragedy hits other people,'' Ashby said. ``If you pray that God's will be done, I don't see a need to say anything else.''

Prayer for divine intervention must always be done in the context of submission to God's will and authority, he said.

The Rev. Frederick Guy, at Messiah Lutheran Church in Virginia Beach, agreed that the emphasis must be on trusting God, rather than on the storm itself.

``I won't stand up and say, `God, push this hurricane away from us,' '' he said. ``Everything is in God's hands. . . . My emphasis is, whether it strikes or not, I am God's.''

But for many Christians, prayers include requests for God to get involved in their very specific life problems, from getting well to getting a job.

That also can be true for Muslims, whose tradition calls them to pray five times a day, said Syed Ismail, president of the Muslim Community of Tidewater.

``The understanding in the Islamic faith is that you can call upon God for any need that you have,'' he said. ``God is nearer to you than the main arteries in your body. He listens.''

Hurricanes can prompt some creativity in a prayerful message, Ismail said, laughing. His 14-year-old daughter used masking tape to write ``Allah' - the Muslim word for God - on the window of their home in Poquoson. While doing it, she recited a special prayer for the safety of the house.

Praying to God about storms doesn't mean refusing to accept scientific explanations, religious leaders emphasized. Science, they said, is the language for understanding the infinite complexity of God's creation.

Ismail, who is also a senior researcher at NASA, puts it this way: Scientific knowledge is always moving forward, but always unfinished; the knowledge of the Almighty is complete. ``From the scientific point of view, you have only factual information - this pressure system, that pressure system,'' he said. ``But we do believe that everything we see is in the mind and control of God.''

As Hurricane Felix started to swing east and away from the coast, many folks vented their relief from days of pressure with a two-word sigh: ``Thank God.''

Robertson said more. He told viewers of ``The 700 Club'' around the world that the network's prayers had gotten results, and gave them a shot of his co-host, Ben Kinchlow, standing in the sunshine on the roof of the studio to prove it.

After a news report on the hurricane's path, Robertson exclaimed, ``Ladies and gentlemen, I want to say emphatically, it's an answer to prayer.''

Robertson's statements espouse a cause-effect relationship between prayers and the hurricane's movement. For some religious leaders, Robertson's assurance - on a show which depends upon a constant stream of donor contributions - comes uncomfortably close to self-advertisement.

The Rev. Guy, at Messiah Lutheran, criticizes attempts to make a ``public spectacle'' of prayer. ``When Pat Robertson speaks about praying the hurricane away, how does he know he prayed it away?'' he said. ``I support him praying, but I am not going to take credit for praying something away.''

For many in the evangelical Christian community, there is a belief that certain people have a particular gift at getting God to listen and take action, said Gary Greig, a professor at Regent University in Virginia Beach, where Robertson is chancellor.

Such people, with an enormous appetite for prayer and a seeming ability at prophetic insight, are anointed by God as ``intercessors,'' a term explained by theologian Walter Wink, whose books are widely read in evangelical circles. To Greig, and many of Robertson's flock, Robertson fills that role.

``Wink's statement is, `History belongs to the intercessors,' '' Greig said. ``The sense there is that God of the Bible has left a certain amount of free play in the world, so that if we fail to pray for God's blessing for our community, God will be precluded from doing all He plans to do.''

The notion implies a prayer hierarchy, with intercessors at the top, but it doesn't mean they can do their work alone, Greig said. ``If Pat Robertson by himself were praying that the hurricane would turn back, most of us feel not much would happen. We feel that there is power in the numbers.''

Terry Lindvall, Regent's president, said that while Robertson's comments seemed to focus on prayers led through his network, he ``would be broad enough to say that there were many other prayers that were part of the process.'' Robertson has in the past declined to speak to the newspaper.

But among those who prayed about Hurricane Felix, many would stop short at claiming to be the cause of God's action. The beauty of faith, said some religious leaders, lies in recognizing that God moves for reasons beyond man's understanding. In fact, God can sometimes seem bewildering.

``If the storm had come barreling straight for Virginia Beach and the eye of the hurricane hit CBN, I would not suspect that people there would say that prayer is not efficacious,'' said Dale, at St. Pius X.

Many stress that the spiritual uplift from prayer should come from having a conversation with God, not from seeking after concrete results. What happens after prayer is part of the mystery.

``God is omnipotent,'' said Ashby of Chesapeake's First Baptist. ``Who can say what prayer God answers?'' ILLUSTRATION: Color photos


Rev. William J. Dales of St. Pius X, Norfolk

Syed Ismail, president of the Muslim Community of Tidewater

Rabbi Michael Panitz of Temple Israel, Norfolk


Pat Robertson: A history with hurricanes

Hurricane Felix, 1995

German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke, leading a prayer with

Robertson on Wednesday's broadcast of the ``The 700 Club'':

``Lord. . . take the sting out of this Hurricane Felix. Take the

sting out of it! And I ask you that it will peter out and that

people will not come to grief, in the name of Jesus.''

Pat Robertson on Thursday's edition of ``The 700 Club.'':

``We will show you how Hurricane Felix stalled offshore and

weakened shortly after the prayer was offered on this program. You

heard Reinhard Bonnke. So stay tuned. You'll see it on tape.''

``Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to say emphatically it's an answer

to prayer. It's more than an answer to prayer. We haven't had a

hurricane in here since about 1960. . . We prayed. Shortly

thereafter, there was a killer storm coming in and the Lord averted

it dramatically and ever since there has not been one hurricane in

this area which is known as Hurricane Alley. Felix is no


(Robertson began the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1961.

Hurricane Donna hit Hampton Roads on Sept. 12, 1960.)

Hurricane Gloria, 1985.

In an interview conducted by a reporter at the Christian

Broadcasting Network, Robertson said that he prayed that Hurricane

Gloria would not hit this region. That hurricane veered north and

hit Long Island.

Robertson said that he felt that the Lord had answered his

prayer, and said he interpreted his success as a favorable

indication about whether to run for the presidency:

``I felt, interestingly enough, that if I couldn't move a

hurricane, I could hardly move a nation,'' he said.