Evil, Memory, & Sept 11, 20 Years Later

I was deeply engrossed in a chapter of Dante’s Inferno when the home phone rang. My grandmother who religiously watched the morning news shows was on the other end. She told my mom to turn on the T.V. She did. In the minutes that followed, we heard Katie Couric speculating about how a Cessna or another small plane could have struck the North Tower. Then in horror, a good portion of America and I watched another shadowy airliner slam into the South Tower. In that confusing moment, I understood that the United States was unquestionably under attack. Over the next few hours, the horrors continued to unfold. As images from flight 77’s crash into Pentagon, the collapsing of the South Tower, the collapsing of the North Tower, and the crater that was flight 93 filled our living room T.V. screen, I felt my stomach drop. The dark black smoke bellowing from the towers, the photos of men and women jumping to their death to escape the flames beneath them, and the images of terrified firefighters covered in the white soot of death reminded me and a whole generation of viewers that deep, abiding evil existed. It was not confined to the fanciful musing a of renaissance theologian who spoke of farting demons. It was brutally real. It was our reality.

Evil & Nostalgia

Over the last 20 years, nostalgia has begun to redefine our understanding of 9/11. As memory often does, it has started to smooth over the horrors of the day, focusing on the heroic actions of those who fought against the terrorist and risked all including their live to rush up staircases to reach the hurting. We have rightfully remembered and honored those like Todd Beamer who attempted to retake Flight 93 from the terrorists, but we have forgotten those who hijacked the planes. In some circles, the 19 hijackers appear primarily as the catalyst for the day’s heroism. The brutal evilness of that day has become less and less poignant.

I agree with those who think an over preoccupation with and glorification of evil proves unhealthy. At its worst, the practice can foster additional expressions of evil. There is a reason sports broadcasts never show streakers. I am thankful for their discretion.

But our increasing inability to remember the unfiltered evil of September 11 proves equally dangerous. While memories should fill our souls with warm fuzzies, they should also gift us wisdom for the future. Our society struggles to understand China’s genocide of the Uighur people and the Taliban’s abuse of women in part because we have forgotten the brutality of evil. A mere 20 years ago, 19 men happily turned 4 airliners full of innocent passengers into bombs that claimed the lives of more 3,000 fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. September 11 showed America that evil is not something found only in the imaginary world’s renaissance literature. It is something intrinsic within the human condition. Great heroes are needed because great evil exists.

The Jerry Falwell Controversy

Two days later while the dust still hovered over New York, Jerry Falwell shocked many Americans when he blamed, “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way” for the events of 9/11. In that moment (which he would later apologize for), he repackaged the well-worn theory that every evil deed has a direct earthly cause. He argued that America needed to reinstitute school prayer and other Christian values to avoid future attacks. Though transactional religion where we give God our tithe and he gives us health connects with many hearts, it is not the religion of Jesus.

The Sunday after 9/11, my pastor, Lance Quinn, took a different approach. He led the Bible Church of Little Rock to Luke 13:4-5 where Jesus discussed the collapse of another tower that had caused the Messiah’s listeners to wonder what evil deed had brought those ancient souls to the grave prematurely. The text reads as follows:

“Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Jesus’s point is two-fold and direct. Those who died in the towers and the planes did not die because their sins or the sins of their nation were greater than the sins of those still alive. Instead of lobbing stones at the victims, Jesus reminds his listeners that towers collapse because evil exists. It profoundly affects us all. Unless we repent, believe, and lay hold of Jesus’s offer of eternal life, we too will perish.

The Days After

In the days immediately following the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, churches swelled with people looking for answers to the problem of evil. Sadly, most never found them. They just chose to forget them. No more earth-shattering terrorists attacks occurred. The memorials went up. Those shocked by September 11 slowly drifted out of church and back into the hum of everyday life. They once again preferred to think of evil as being as real as the demons of Dante’s Inferno.

Despite the culture’s amnesia, the darkness that formed 9/11 continues to lurk within our hearts, corrupting minds and claiming lives. It has not disappeared and keeps reappearing all over the globe. Until Jesus comes back to establish his kingdom of peace, towers will continue to fall.

20 Years

As we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we should strive to make the most of the days that God has given us. We should remember and find inspiration from those who lived, died, and served valiantly on September 11, 2001. Then we should recall the evil that made the service of those heroes necessary and set out to discover the answer to those profound philosophical and religious questions that we have put off for the last 20 years.

May we learn the lessons of our past.

“But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Bedside Evangelism: Yes or No?

bedside-evangelismSharing the gospel with those about to wade through the river of death can seem daunting and at times inappropriate and unkind. The Clinical Pastoral Education movement ardently discourages ministers from discussing the cross, Jesus, and eternal life with those in the middle of a medical crisis. The group believes pastors should offer comfort through listening and through sharing encouraging thoughts that restate the patients’ beliefs, concerns, and desires.

While this pastoral trend towards therapeutic listening has a certain appeal because it keeps ministers from unnecessarily stepping on the toes of suffering and seems to picture God’s love, it actually hides the love of God from those who need it most.

Illnesses, car accidents, and natural disasters exist because of the fall. They are manifestations of evil. Christians should always seek to rescue, help, and comfort people who acutely feel the effects of the broken world. But sorrow and suffering are not random evils. They are often used by God to accomplish his divine will.

God afflicts the wicked with suffering because he desires their salvation. In 1 Samuel 5-6, the Philistines come to grips with this reality. They had defeated the Israelites and captured the Ark of the Lord. As the begin to celebrate this great victory, God pummels them with divine wrath. Their god, Dagon,  is smashed to pieces. Their people develop tumors and begin to drop like flies. Mice overrun their fields. Because of their great anguish the Philistines realize that the God of Israel is the most powerful God.

C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, wrote,

The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victims suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt

When life goes well, people are prone to ignore God. As Jeremiah 22:21 reminds us, “I spoke to you in your prosperity but you said, ‘I will not listen.” Pain gets the attention of the modern man and woman just as it got the attention of the ancient Philistines. But pain does not save. As Thomas Watson noted,

If pain and trouble were sufficient to repentance, then the dammed in hell should be most, for they are most in anguish.

Pain only knocks people off of their demigod thorns, revealing that someone else rules the universe. But pain does not fully reveal who that ruler is and how one can enjoy a peaceful relationship with God. The Philistines returned the Ark and escaped their pain. But they did not follow their cows into Israel and become followers of the one true God. The Philistines never found salvation.

Pastors have the amazing opportunity to supply the prophetic voice that the Philistines lacked. When a minister learns that a sinner is dying or hears that a less than faithful church member is approaching death, he should come to their bedside equipped with the gospel. The pastor should share the truth that Jesus has died to save sinners. As the Puritan Pastor Richard Baxter noted,

Even the stoutest of sinners will hear us on their death-bed, though they scorned us before.

The pastor should seize the bedside moment and share Christ with the dying, risking social scorn and a few bruised toes.

Is not the salvation of the wicked worth a little angst in the pastor’s souls? Did not Christ offer paradise to the thief on the cross? Can the faithful minister do any less?

Admittedly, pastors can abuse the suffering. The pastor can wrongfully offer salvation in exchange for physical blessing and peace. The sick and weak can be prone to do anything to get relief. The Philistines made golden tumors and mice. Pastors must offer Christ crucified and not some twisted gospel of self-interest where people come to God in order to get favors from him. God does not want to be treated as a genie bound to do the will of human flesh. God wants the sinner to repent and follow Him with his or her whole heart. Anything less is not real salvation and will not last. Watson rightfully notes,

A passionate resolution…raised in a storm will die in the calm.

Salvation ultimately has to be a work of God. And God often uses suffering to draw men and women to faith. Pastors should not hide the gospel when at the bedside of the dying. Rather as Baxter said, “it is time for us, while there is hope, to help him if we can.”

Pastor…Minister are you ready to help?

Should Our Crisis Become Our Reason For Living?

crisis-blog-2When we experience tragedy, we long to make sense of our hardship. We long to find a positive reason for why we lost our loved one, for why our friends betrayed us, and for why the very core of our being was rocked by evil. We want a reason.  Like Job, we want to know why God allowed our hearts to be broken.

Quite often as the pain of the storm begins to recede, we start throwing ourselves into causes. Those who lost babies begin looking for ways to start a grieving mother ministry. Those who were unjustly fired begin employee advocacy groups, and those who lost a loved one to drugs begin championing every drug rehab facility in town. Often we do these things because we want to ascribe a cause to our suffering. We want to be able to say, “I suffered X Y and Z so that A, B, and D would happen.”

And at one level it is good for us to draw upon our experiences to help others. Paul says that he suffered many things in part, “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 2:4).  Paul was almost killed for his faith so that he could care for others who are going through tragedy.

When we suffer and find comfort in Christ, we do have a powerful thing to share with others. Those who have lost babies have unique opportunities to care for others who have lost babies. Those who have had home destroyed by alcohol have an amazing platform from which to care for others who have been abused by a drunk husband. And those who have suffered through their wife’s infidelity can speak powerfully into the lives of other couples that have been rocked by sexual sin.

But notice what Paul says. He says that he suffered so that he could encourage others in ‘any affliction.’ Paul was implying that our dependence upon Christ through suffering is transferable to any and all suffering because the solution and the hope for all who suffer unbearable hardships is Jesus Christ.

Please do not miss this. The reason you suffer, the reason evil touches the very core of who we are is that God is calling us to himself. God is allowing evil into our lives so that we can draw closer and closer to him. This is the point of James 1, Romans 8, and the book of Job. As Kent Huges wrote,

The assurance that he can do all things and that no purpose of his can be thwarted is the comfort that I need in suffering and the encouragement I crave when terrified by evil.

The hope for those who suffer, the reason we get up in the morning, the ability to keep going after we have been touched by evil is this:

 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him

– Lamentations 3:22-24

God is our refuge, our reason for living, our meaning in the midst of despair. If we seek to finding meaning amidst our tragedy outside of Christ, we cheapen the very hope of the gospel.

 I know this first hand. There is no ministry, there is no success, and there is amount of recognition on this earth that makes the death of my first-born son worthwhile. I would happily sacrifice all of them and you to get him back.  I miss him dearly. But I have hope because I have God and because I know that God’s love for my son is even greater than mine because Christ died for him. The Lord is my portion, therefore I will hope in Him.

I hope and pray that you can say, “that the Lord is my portion.” Resist the temptation to make some part of you trial your portion. Resist the temptation to make sense out of your sorrow by your own actions. Trust the Lord.

Practically going forward, I encourage you to remember both your suffering and the fact that God is the solution to your suffering. And then, use the opportunities that God has given you to comfort others. If you are a NICU nurse who lost a baby, then by all means draw upon God’s faithfulness in your life to teach others how to care for grieving mothers and fathers. If you are a police officer who has seen God’s faithfulness on display through your son’s drug addiction, depend upon God’s faithfulness to shape your drug rehab program. But if you are cupcake store owner who just survived a patch of infidelity in your marriage do not give up your business to start a marriage counseling service. Minister to those whom God has put in your place. As Paul said, our suffering prepares us to help all others as they suffer hardships in a variety of complex ways.

God never intended for our crisis to become our passion. Christ is to be our passion. Is he yours?