September 11, 2001 seared the American soul. Images once reserved for big-budget Hollywood epics leaped from disaster film fantasy into horrific reality before our eyes, as commercial jets were misemployed as missiles to smash into twin towers that represented the apex of American economic commerce and international cooperation. Fireballs melted steel and vaporized concrete, turning skyscrapers into piles of rubble, whose collapse claimed not only the lives of thousands of cubicled innocents, but hundreds of public servants who responded to their cries for help. Soon thereafter, a plane directed by hatred slammed into our Pentagon, the primary symbol of our country’s military power. And another plane, owing to the self-sacrificial courage of four men, crashed into a Pennsylvania cornfield. Besides the lives lost, our country lost something else that day. We lost our sense of invulnerability. We had assumed that the destructive forces that swirled around other places in the world could not reach us. That day we learned that we were wrong. That day shook the very foundations of our world.
I remember that in the wake of that dark day there were those who cried out, ‘Where is God?’ Surely, a merciful and loving God should have acted to thwart those missions of hatred. Surely a merciful and loving God should have been moved by the anguished prayers and whispered “I love yous,” spoken by people to those they cherished as they hurtled inexorably toward destruction – surely a merciful and loving God should have provided some miracle of deliverance. The fact that God did not deliver us from 9/11, said some, proves that either God is not real or God is too uncaring or disinterested to warrant our worship. The fact that God would allow for the very foundations of our society to be shaken on that day means that God cannot be called good. So went the argument.
But the Biblical prophet Isaiah anticipated and countered that argument centuries before. Isaiah long ago challenged people to have the maturity and intelligence to realize that God has brought into being a created realm that allows for the very foundations of the world to be shaken. Our God allows for a world where chaos can erupt into it. In fact, our God designed our powers of faith to take shape within the crucible of chaos. Indeed, it is within the crucible of chaos that our faith becomes a sustaining force in our lives in a way that is most powerful and most necessary. The ancient Hebrews knew that. When their world was utterly shattered, when their Jerusalem was destroyed and their temple reduced to rubble, and many of them were exiled to Babylon, in the crucible of that chaos their anguished holy men sat down and recorded their sacred faith traditions into print, so they could retain their sense of identity and destiny. Much of what we call the Old Testament came into being during that chaotic time of exile. And as they reflected upon the fact that everything they knew, everything they cherished, had been destroyed or taken away from them, and the foundations of their world had been shaken, one of their holy men penned these words of insight and comfort:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning, God! To an uprooted people, to a people who had completely lost their entire context of existence, this wise theologian assured them, God has established the foundations of this earth, and we can ultimately trust this God to deliver us. When Christ began his nascent movement that started to infiltrate the Roman Empire, and Jewish and Roman authorities conspired to squelch it, a brilliant believer penned this profound reminder: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and without this Word was not anything made that was made.” When Rome’s persecution of the early church became so oppressive that its very existence was threatened, a wise holy man voiced the assurance that our salvation has been secured in the mind of God by the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. So, too, as we reflect upon the chaos caused by 9/11, and as we reflect upon its reverberations even twenty years later, we do well to claim that mighty word of promise articulated so movingly by Paul: I am sure that not death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, not things present nor things to come, not height nor depth, nor any other creature can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord! In the midst of chaos, we are cast back upon the bedrock truths of our faith.
In our present age we find ourselves amidst another form of chaos, a pandemic that has killed far more people than 9/11. In some ways, the chaos imposed by this pandemic is even more insidious than that caused by 9/11, because it attacks one of the fundamental instincts basic to humanity, the primal instinct of human interaction. Whether the enterprise is business, athletics, education, entertainment, or worship, all of these actions highlight and depend upon answering the basic human instinct to gather together in societal communion. That basic instinct is exactly what this pandemic threatens. So we feel this fundamental tension between wanting to gather but also wanting to save ourselves and keep our loved ones safe. In its own way, the chaos unleashed by COVID-19 has shaken the foundations of our world, too – and continues to do so.
Yet, I remind you that the Bible has a word or two to say about chaos. Genesis reminds us that our God fashioned creation out of primeval chaos. Genesis conceives of creation as God pushing back the primeval waters so as to bring into being a structured world of beauty, structure, order and form. Genesis describes God as pushing back the forces of a formless void and fashioning a place where life could flourish, where the narrative of human history could develop, communication between creatures could occur, where love could be felt, where truth could be pursued, and the Eternal God adored. God wrought such a world as this out of chaos.
Moreover, the Biblical writers candidly admitted that God has allowed chaos a role in the created order. In fact, Genesis Two envisioned God as summoning the primal waters of chaos to assist in the formation of life, commanding the primal waters to swell up from underground springs to water the lifeless, desert earth. In addition, the Biblical writers saw God as allowing chaos to afflict our lives as a tool of divine judgment. The reality of chaos in creation undermines a false but almost universal human assumption, that our lives, our possessions, the structure of our existence, such blessings are fixed and immutable. No! No, everything changes. In an instant, what we think of as ours, what we think of as fixed and immutable, can be radically altered by chaos in a moment. The kingdoms, the earthly empires established by human hands that we regard as rooted and permanent, are, in fact, time-bound. They rise and fall. Societies crumble. Human governments fall to the ground like drunken men, never to rise again. The grass withers and flowers fade; only the Word of the Lord endures forever. Chaos reminds us that all we regard on earth as fixed and immutable is actually in a state of constant flux. Only God remains everlasting and steadfast.
Of course, as 9/11 also reminded us graphically, humanity also brings chaos into the world. God has allowed humanity the ability to think God’s thoughts after God. God has endowed humanity with the intelligence and curiosity to discover the keys that unlock the very powers of the universe. We have seen through the way that dedicated scientists have committed themselves to creating a vaccine that has saved millions of lives that humanity can indeed use its divine privilege of unlocking the keys of creation for the good. Yet we also know that God has also allowed us the freedom to discover those keys and use them for evil. When Robert Oppenheimer brought news of the nuclear bomb to President Harry Truman’s Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, the scientist wondered if this old man could grasp the enormity of this new military innovation. One glance at Stimson’s handwritten notes revealed that the old man understood exactly. He had jotted, “May destroy or perfect international civilization. May [be] a Frankenstein or a means for world peace.” May destroy or perfect! May promote or unravel! May cherish or doom! That’s the creaturely creativity with which we are endowed. We can bring goodness and light to our world or we can usher in darkness and evil. Genesis reminds us that God has made us stewards of this earth. Can we ponder what we have done to our world and say that we have been good stewards of that to which God has entrusted us? The people of hatred who crashed those planes into the twin towers, and the Pentagon, and that Pennsylvania cornfield were trying to exercise the power of darkness. But we are called to use our creaturely freedom to emit God’s eternal and positive Light.
Indeed, as people of faith, as ambassadors of Christ, we are not called to cynicism, not to despair, not to frustrated paralysis or rage. We are called instead to reorient our lives around the eternal verities of God. We are called to live lives of divine Light that call others to orient their lives around those eternal verities. The Psalmist of 102 admitted candidly, sure, the earth trembles at its very foundations. Sure, empires rise and fall. Sure, everything is in flux. But, says the Psalmist, Lord, it is You who have established the foundations of this earth. Your days are without end! Earthly kingdoms rise and fall like seasonal fashions, and you, O Lord, countenance this changing like witnessing someone’s change of clothes. But you, O Lord, your Kingdom is eternal. Your realm is the only reality that truly is. When the shaking of the foundations strikes fear into our hearts, when the present chaos threatens to quench our hope, we must have faith and courage enough to orient our vision anew around the One whose days are everlasting and of whose Kingdom there shall be no end.
I remember that in the days following 9/11 what came to my mind was a children’s fable told by C. S. Lewis about two children who find themselves in a strange, dead kingdom confronting a bell, a hammer and a tablet that reads, “Make your choice, adventurous stranger, strike the bell and bide the danger. Or wonder, ‘til it drives you mad, what would have happened if you had.” One of the children cannot help but strike the bell, and soon both children are confronted by a Queen, gigantic, beautiful, and strong, but also fierce and vicious. She explains that they are in a dead world because she has quenched all life there forever by speaking the Deplorable Word. This Deplorable Word, which had the power to destroy all life on their planet, was a Word that the wise in her country had known for generations but refused to employ. But when her reign was challenged, this Queen in her anger and insecurity spoke the Deplorable Word and brought everything to death, save herself. As I pondered the images of that vast smoking rubble in New York City and thought of the lives crushed under the stones and steel, I couldn’t help but think, there are indeed those in our world who are willing to speak the Deplorable Word.
But we as ambassadors for Christ are called to answer those who would speak the Deplorable Word by articulating in response the Good News of the Word made flesh. We are called to speak of the Word made flesh, whose Light is the Life of all humanity, and this Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot conquer it. Over against those who would speak the Deplorable Word of destruction, we are meant to articulate the Good News of the Word made flesh and are to proclaim the reality of a divine Kingdom of goodness, truth, peace, reconciliation, joy, faith and love. We are meant to live as warriors of the Light.
Indeed, if 9/11 impressed nothing upon us, its horrors should have communicated to us that we are meant to live with a “largeness” of faith. We serve a cosmic God, who has issued forth a cosmic Spirit that communicates a cosmic energy, not just able to address the personal burdens of our own lives but to transform the very world in which we live. We are meant to be representatives of God’s eternal Kingdom. That is our mission. And when our strength and confidence in this mission fails, then we are called anew by our God to turn our eyes back unto the eternal hills whence cometh our God’s fathomless strength.