Through grief and beyond

Will the pain ever go away? For weeks now, our television screens have been rewinding and replaying all the numbing shock, wrenching emotion, and suffering pain of September 11’s terror in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, and its aftermath in the United States, Afghanistan, and the world. We have blended our tears with those who have unashamedly and sometimes uncontrollably wept before the cameras over their heartbreaking loss.

On the Thursday night after that Tuesday of terror, I was visiting my son Kirk in his apartment. And there on the television we saw them lining up, clutching photographs of their loved ones who were inside the ill-fated World Trade Center when the towers were struck and then collapsed—men and women, young and old, who sobbed into the camera for any information regarding the whereabouts of missing spouses and fiances, brothers and sisters, and parents and children. I don’t know how the reporter could stand there so calmly and hold the microphone to those weeping faces. Even the U.S. President on camera choked up with emotion over the immensity of such an horrific tragedy.

Will the pain ever go away?

Months later we have learned—have we not?—that within a matter of seconds—diabolically coordinated simultaneous split seconds—life as we know it on this planet can be irrevocably changed and permanently altered. Events and conditions we once thought impossible—or at best, implausible and improbable—we now know can be set upon an irreversible course. And nothing and no one can stop them. In this journey through national grief and beyond how immense the loss and how bitter the lessons!

For the Christian survivor, a long and silent gaze into the dramatic September 11 photograph of that orange ball of exploding jet fuel and office glass out the backside of the second twin tower raises 10 compelling issues of: (1) divine love; (2) human hate; (3) the character of God; (4) the salvation of the world; (5) the state of the church; (6) vengeance and retribution; (7) forgiveness and pardon; (8) the end of the world; (9) the second coming of Christ; and, (10) the human inability to solve our deepest and most vexing problems. Ten compelling issues that after all these days are still perplexities for even the Christian inquirer.

Where was God?

Perhaps the most pressing question of all remains, Where was God on September 11?

In seeking an answer, consider the words of an ancient prophet, here prefaced with an incident from old China. Long ago, a group of poor Chinese settlers came upon a sprawling valley floor, strategically lying between the rocky slopes of a nearby mountain and the salty shores of the China Sea—a flatland of earth that seemed perfectly suitable for the planting and farming of rice. And so it was decided that the settlers would build their village high up on a flat rocky promontory from whence they could gaze down upon that new farmland in the valley and beyond it to the azure waters of the sea.

The village was built above, and the rice was planted below. And at long last, life was harvesting for them new promise and hope.

One late summer afternoon when most of the village had trekked down the slope to the fields below, one of the women who remained in the village happened to glance up from her work and squint toward the sea. Her eyes meandered out farther and farther to the distant sea horizon, when with a start of fear she recognized the ominous surge of the sea—what their Japanese neighbors called a tsunami—a tidal wave. A faraway seismic tectonic shift in the ocean bed had created this gathering massive wall of water that appeared to be silently thundering toward their shoreline.

For a moment she froze, realizing that nearly the entire village was obliviously harvesting their grain along the shoreline—unaware that their world and their lives were facing impending disaster and imminent death. The incoming tsunami would obliterate all who were toiling in the farmland beneath the afternoon sun—unless she could warn them.

She cried out to the few villagers who had remained up the mountain with her. In panic they began to yell and wave and scream to their family and children and friends below. But it was wasted effort—they were too far away. With the racing tsunami, there was no time for them to stumble down the rocky slopes to the valley below. They must get their attention instantly—or all below would be lost!

It quickly became apparent that they needed something catastrophic to arouse their endangered families below. The woman and her companions knew what they must do. It would be a terrible price to pay. But if the doomed villagers were to be saved, the price must be paid.

And so quickly, seizing firebrands from their cooking fires, the remaining mountainside villagers with the woman torched their own thatch-roofed homes. One by one the houses of the mountainside village erupted in orange flames and billowing black smoke. And one by one the bent-over heads of the villagers below jerked upward. Seeing the pluming smoke of their burning village, the entire valley floor of villagers raced back up the mountain to save their burning homes.

When in panting fatigue they arrived above, they were met by the woman and her neighbors, who solemnly pointed back out to sea. The villagers turned in shock to watch the roaring wall of water obliterate the farmland they had minutes before been harvesting.

It took something catastrophic to warn of an even greater destruction impending.

Now consider the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah: “In the path of your judgments, O Lord, we wait for you; your name and your renown are the soul’s desire. My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Isaiah 26: 8, 9, NRSV). “When your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.” Which being interpreted means—when Your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world are pointed to safety and salvation. Because there are desperate times when it takes something catastrophic to warn of an even greater destruction impending.

A warning

What are you suggesting? you ask. Do you really believe that those hijackers were on some sort of divine mission—that Almighty God sent them as a judgment against the United States? Not at all!

Only twisted thinking would seek to attribute the cause of this crisis to the loving God and Father of humankind. Jesus was absolutely right when He intoned, “An enemy hath done this” (Matthew 13:28, KJV). Not an enemy from across the seas, but a dark and evil enemy from across the chasms of time. A fallen archangel—known by the ap-pellations of Lucifer and Satan and the old serpent called the devil. These weeks later let us give credit to where credit is due. In the words of the mighty Apocalypse: “‘Woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!’” (Revelation 12:12, NRSV).

From the very beginning, the devil has known that his time is short—a brief span of insanity upon the radar screen of eternity. And from the very beginning in the untouched and unmolested Garden of Eden, this dark and fallen archangel has hurled his war not only against heaven but also against Earth. And you and I and New York City and Washington, D.C., and the whole world are his victims! That much the politicians and media commentators have right: We are in a war!

A cosmic war

But for the Christian let it be clear that it is not a war against Arabs or Islam or Afghanistan or foreigners or even terrorists. We Earth inhabitants are caught in the bloody crosshairs and crossfire of a cosmic war whose terrible dimensions are truly universal: “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Revelation 12:7-9).

And on September 11, 2001, the devil and his angels declared war—as it were—against all of us all over again! We are in a war—a cosmic war for the allegiance and loyalty of all of earth’s inhabitants.

Then where was God when we needed Him on September 11? The same place He was on that fateful Friday—mantled in the darkness of Calvary, standing beside His Son as He died feeling all alone. He was wrapped in choking darkness, as were the thousands who perished on September 11. Only, they did not die alone. For beside them the same brokenhearted Father of Calvary stood in the mantled dust and exploding fire of September 11’s diabolical attacks. Calvary tells us that God ever stands beside the victim.

But so committed is God to our human freedom of choice that He allows our choices—in this case, the free choices of a small band of evil men—to be carried out, sometimes (as it was this time) to their destructive and tragic ends. Of course God could make every human a robot that could only obey His orders. But automatons cannot love Him back. And the heart of infinite love thirsts for love in return.

And so He must grant us not only the right to say Yes to Him, but also the right to say No.

And as a consequence on September 11 a band of men said No to Him. And months later America still suffers and still mourns. Just as God the Father mourned beside the cross of His dying Son, who Himself perished to secure the right for every human heart to say Yes to the Saviour and No to the diabolical terrorist Lucifer.

Let us not lay the charges for that awful Tuesday in September at the feet of the God of Good Friday. For those feet today are still nail-scarred—the very nail-scarred feet that came striding out of the tomb on Sunday, thus forever granting God the right to have the last word. And He will! For Earth’s suffering inhabitants, God will yet have the last word. Sooner perhaps than we ever thought before September 11. The return of Calvary’s victor—the second coming of Jesus Christ—may be sooner now than we ever realized before!

But let us return for one more moment to Isaiah’s words. The New Living Translation ends Isaiah 26:9 in this way: For only when Your judgments are in the earth “will people turn from wickedness and do what is right.” Because there come desperate times when it takes something catastrophic to get our attention and warn of an even greater destruction impending. Even as it was for the Chinese villagers in the valley below.

Could it be that we, too—and I’m not thinking about America right now, rather I wonder about you and me—could it be that we, too, play and study and labor utterly oblivious to the impending disaster that is about to come upon this Earth? Could it be that on the distant horizon there is an approaching and potentially imminent cataclysm that will destroy all the Earth—an impending catastrophe that today can only be seen by the One who from His divine heights knows and sees all? Could it be then what we hear—I think of you and me now—above the din and noise of this terrible calamity is the crying, pleading voice of One who desperately seeks to get our attention, to awaken us from our oblivious stupor, to warn us of an impending end? One who essentially has had to set His own house on fire in order to get our attention?

But could it be that the God who is not willing that any should perish (see 2 Peter 3:9) is also not willing to let this insanity go on until all have perished? Could it be that houses that burn on the side of the global mountain are but a desperate cry from One who is passionately warning us to flee the approaching destruction?

God’s call

God’s calling us. All this time, the operative metaphor has been that we call Him in desperation. But could it be this time He is in desperation calling to us? Because maybe—could it be?—the towering wall of roaring oblivion is much closer than we ever thought before! “My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Isaiah 26:9).

It is no wonder God cries out the words He does just pages later in Isaiah: “‘Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other’” (Isaiah 45:22, NRSV). Above the cacophony of your frenetic life and academic pursuits, do you, too, hear the cry of God to you? “Turn to me and be saved!” Will you?

One of our students at Andrews University where I pastor is taking a year of studies at a university in Jerusalem. The day after the September 11 tragedies, he emailed his parents back at home in my parish a letter they shared with me. In his email Isaac Oliver described the somber mood in Jerusalem: “Today in class we sang ‘May peace come upon us.’ The teacher said that when problems like this happen here, they say ‘May Messiah come’—because when He comes there will be peace.” The teacher is right. But Isaac ends his email with the recollection of a tour he and his mother and some friends took this last summer at the Pentagon before the September 11 attack. He recalled how his mother had been worried about her safety in that sprawling military complex, even though it was the Pentagon. When she asked their guide how safe the Pentagon really was, the officer swung around and with smile pronounced: “Ma’am, you are in the safest place in the world!” But then, who could have known back then?

September 11’s gaping hole in the crippled side of the Pentagon is a somber reminder that, in fact, the safest place in the world is not a place at all. It is a Person. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” The One who spoke those words is coming soon. Which means, if ever there were a right time to turn to Him…or return to Him…it surely would have to be right now. Wouldn’t you agree?

So will you?

Dwight K. Nelson (D.Min., Andrews University) is the senior pastor of Pioneer Memorial Church on the campus of Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.