Taken from a special edition of our internal staff report, Staff-Wise Stirrings, last year
It is September 12, 2001 and I wonder how long the shock of yesterday’s horrors will last. It probably won’t be long before newscasters and grief counselors begin using phrases like getting back to normal.” But what we’re dealing with right now is probably more normal than the sense of “security” to which we long to return.
We know that evil and suffering are real. Any sense of safety other than the surety of being in God’s hands is an illusion. We preach and teach this. But when a situation brings it right to our backyard, we are tested. Is this what we really believe? How do we bear this amount of suffering and loss?
It is obvious these terrorists intended to affect far more lives than they were able to destroy. They wanted to tear down icons, to dramatically change the American landscape. Over and over we’ve heard on the news that what used to be the two tallest towers in the world no longer exist. The predominant images on television were those showing the collapse of the two World Trade Center towers.
Many years ago in college I studied how certain American artists painted landscapes that represented cathedrals: tall trees with glorious shafts of light streaming through—these paintings conveyed a sense of worship inspired by the majesty of God’s creation. Later, paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge achieved the same cathedral-like effect. The history of American art shows how easy it is to view our own creations—symbols of our power and ingenuity—as icons and objects of worship.
I am not saying that the World Trade Center towers were idols that needed to be torn down! Simply that they were part of an outer landscape created by some people and destroyed by others. But we all have an inner landscape that determines how we react to changes in the outer one.
What thoughts and feelings, what hopes and dreams reach the highest heights of our inner being? What do we elevate in our minds and hearts and what do we find most impressive? As we answer these things in word and deed, we are tracing the skyline of our souls.
Terrorists want people to run scared, to be demoralized, to feel powerless. They cause suffering so that they can manipulate people whose primary concern is to be safe from suffering. But they cannot determine what our primary concern will be. It is normal to want to maximize our comfort and minimize our suffering and it is not wrong to feel that way. But as believers, embracing comfort and minimizing suffering is not our first concern. Is it?
What happened on September 11 is the logical combination of the terrorists’ assessment of our priorities along with a deadly dose of their self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is a sin which is necessary for terrorists but also endemic to the entire human race.
Self-righteousness builds a landscape of pride, prejudice and ultimately, some degree of hostility and perhaps violence. It causes people to demoralize, tear down and destroy one another—justifying ourselves all the while.
I think we are all capable of “tearing down” what we judge to be wrong, even in a brother or sister. I have seen people—yes, even Christians—hurl themselves at others, so intent on tearing down that they are heedless of the damage they are causing themselves in the process. Only when we see our own personal potential for evil can we take it to the Lord and let Him change our inner landscape.
Sometimes a thing as shocking as a change in our physical landscape can help us evaluate our own inner landscape, which ought always to be under construction. And though our inner edifices may seem impossible to alter, God is perfectly capable of tearing down and rebuilding.
Terrorists can destroy icons and symbols and they can destroy flesh and blood. They can destroy everything that is already passing away. But they cannot destroy what is eternal.
But meanwhile, how do we handle the tragedy of September 11? While we are horrified, while we need to mourn and offer comfort and hope to those who are suffering the most, we can do more. We can challenge ourselves to find whatever God might use for His redemptive purpose—some perspective, some truth, some positive action—something we can build from the rubble.
We need not be afraid or immobilized since we are neither helpless, nor defenseless. When we know we are weak, that is when we are strong. We can offer real hope in One so much greater than us to those who need it. We can also accept the challenge to examine our own inner landscape and see what changes God would make in us—not with terror, but by grace.