The following is a short talk I gave for some residents of a sheltered housing complex last Sunday. Since I gave this talk, I found the following fascinating, and extremely moving, article about church growth in New York after 9/11. This article then took me to an address that Tim Keller, leader of the Redeemer Church in New York, gave at the White House in 2006 which is such a powerful articulation of the Christian hope. Clearly it is not easy to answer the question, “Where was God when the Twin Towers struck?” but it does seem that not even the most terrible and most terrifying evil can frustrate the purposes of God. That, after all, is what we so often so blithely state when talking about the cross and the empty tomb. But it is the witness of those who have found faith in the aftermath that is the most powerful evidence of the triumph of Christ, and it is indeed humbling to read their story.
Anyway, here for what it’s worth, is my own brief reflection on the event.
Every generation has its defining date, one of those occasions when everyone can tell you where they were and what they were doing when some world-changing event of world history happened. I am sure some of you can remember the day peace was declared in Europe, or when the news came in of JFK’s assassination. I am too young for either of those events of course, but I can still tell you where I was when I saw the pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down, and when Princess Diana died.
And of course there’s September 11th 2001. I was in a school playground in Essex at the time. One of the parents came along, a little bit late, with some news of a plane hitting a skyscraper in New York. If I’m honest, I didn’t really believe her – at least, not until I came home and saw the pictures for myself. So hard to explain to children of 6 and 5 what was going on – there are some things it is better for them not to know at that age.
At first the casualty figures were thought to number seven or eight thousand, but the total was revised downwards until a little under three thousand. However before this was confirmed, I had to write an article in the parish magazine for the coming month, and I found myself turning to an obscure and little-known passage in the book of Revelation where John has a vision of prophets being slain, and the beasts rising from the deep, and loud voices from heaven. You’ll be relieved to know I’m not going to read it now, but as I wondered what on earth I could write that would be relevant, I found myself drawn to the end of the chapter, where John says:
At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. (Rev 11:13)
Now I’m not one of those folk who believe the book of Revelation can accurately predict what’s going to be on the news this evening. People make fortunes claiming there is this or that prediction hidden in the Bible, and make all kinds of excuses when their forecasts go wrong. The Bible isn’t a kind of chocolate box where you can take a lucky dip and find a verse that suits you.
But we shouldn’t be surprised that if sometimes there are distant echoes in the Bible of events that happen today. Human nature, after all, remains unchanged, no matter how we think we’re progressing, and God Himself doesn’t change. So, as I struggled to think what to write in that magazine, those images of buildings collapsing, and seven thousand people being killed, and terrified survivors, seemed to resonate with the events of the time.
Like so many other of those dates I listed, September 11th served to remind us of the sheer fragility of human life. We can build vast cities, and generate huge amounts of wealth, and think we are invincible. But it just takes a few mad men, fuelled by hatred and false religion, to remind us of the fact we are still frail, that our life is but a fleeting gift given by the God of heaven, that none of us know how or when our end will come.
It is, I think, significant that the President has ordered September 9th to 11th 2011 to be days of prayer and remembrance. But the question is, what we do with our memories? We can either use them to demonise those who apparently share the same religion as those perpetrators of 9/11 – or we can ourselves come humbly before our Creator God, seeking to follow His way of justice, truth and peace, for however long He grants us to live here on earth.
That’s why I’d like to read some words from the apostle Paul, which seem particularly relevant on this day:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:17-21)
Words, I believe, which we all need to take to heart, not just on an anniversary such as this, or in relation to the epoch-making dates of history, but day by day, in our own lives, as we seek to give glory to God.