Reflections on God and 9/11

September 12, 2011

A week after that beautiful, crisp, blue, and terrible September Tuesday morning, I was finally back at home for a day of rest. For the previous seven days I had been running on pure adrenaline -- with half of my time spent at the Pentagon crash site where I listened to firemen, FBI agents, servicemen and women and many others as they told me about the horrors inside of the building, and the other half of my time spent at the Navy Yard and in the community making calls on the family members of those who were killed.

I had graduated from the Naval Chaplains School only a month before, and in my three months of basic training we never once talked about the possibility of an attack in our own backyard -- and, given that I was living only three miles away from the Pentagon, this felt like it was right in my own back yard. And yet, despite how completely and totally unprepared I was, it was almost without thought how quickly I put on my uniform and headed down to the Pentagon.

You could see the gaping hole from a mile away -- and as I passed through the security checkpoints, I could not help but to stare in awe. How many times had I driven by that very wall of the Pentagon? Dozens? Hundreds? I had even marveled at how close that wall was to the freeway -- an easy target, I thought -- and yet I never imagined that someone might actually do it. But there it was, the unthinkable had been done.

In my first hour at the crash site I joined with hundreds of others in securing the wounded, in between moments of standing there, looking into the hole where American Airlines Flight 77 had punched its way into offices, restrooms, and people's lives. We were dumbfounded and awestruck as we looked into the face of tragedy. But nobody stopped for long. There was work to do and we did it, quietly, quickly, and reverently.

When things began to become more organized, tents began to pop up -- some in the grass just a hundred yards or so from the impact point, some in the Pentagon parking lot. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Outback Steakhouse, massage therapists and others erected tents, and I began spending time in the CISM -- or Critical Incident Stress Management -- tent. CISM is a lot like group counseling, but immediate and focused on walking people through their personal memories and feelings of a particular event and then talking to them about what "normal" means. In the CISM tent I heard stories from the inside of the building that I will never forget -- stories that I can never share -- and I struggled, at only 25 years old, to explain what a "normal" stress response would be to such horrors. Instead, I found myself holding men twice my age as they wept like children.

Without a doubt it had been a long and difficult week, but I was glad to be back home for a shower and some sleep before heading out to start again that evening. As I closed the drapes and blocked out the sunlight, I was suddenly overcome. As I took a step toward my bed my knees gave way and I could not catch my breath. Suddenly, I was curled up in a fetal position on the floor, sobbing loudly, my face a mess of tears and pain.

As I lay there, my mind was awash with hundreds of images from that week, utter destruction in the building and on the faces of the living and the dead. I was alone for the first time since the attacks, and I was suddenly very afraid.

I had a hundred questions on my mind, but each of them began with, "WHY" and most of them ended with "GOD?!" And now, 10 years later, some of those questions return.

Two core beliefs have shaped my life and my vocation -- and even at 25 years old, struggling to give words to the suffering that I had seen and experienced, I knew that these two beliefs were true, and as I lay there on the floor, catching my breath, I began to repeat these two beliefs to myself: God is love, God is good.

God is love. God is good.

Firstly, when I say that God is love, I mean that God loves us -- and everything that God has ever done has been an act of love -- from creation to salvation, and everything in between, God's love motivates and orders the whole universe. But don't get me wrong -- when I speak of God as love, I do not imagine a God who is distant, sitting "high and lofty" on a throne somewhere issuing mandates and commandments, planning out our lives, executing a plan, or even giving purpose to my life. No. A loving God is more than that. A loving God knows me -- that's the only way God could love me.

A loving God is in relationship with his creation, and by definition, loving relationships are not distant or impersonal -- they are not controlling, demanding, or one-sided. In fact, St. Paul might have hit the nail on the head when he described love in his first letter to the Corinthians: "love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." Indeed, God is all of this and more. God is love, and because God is love, God allows us to make choices, knowing fully well that we might not choose him.

The power of choice -- also sometimes called "free will" -- is necessary if we are going to really truly love God. Yes, God is all-powerful. Yes, God could force us to love him. But, as a friend of mine once said, "God is a gentleman, he would never make you love him because that wouldn't really be love at all -- it would be coercion." And I agree. Free will, the power of choice, is what makes love real -- and, sadly, it is also what makes evil a reality.

And evil is a reality -- whether or not we believe in a personified evil force in the world, such as Satan or the Devil, or whether evil is merely a function of human beings choosing something or someone other than God, evil is real. And, because evil is real we must firmly determine, once and for all, God's role in evil: is God at fault? Does God allow evil? Do bad things happen because God lets them happen… or worse, because God sanctions them?

This is where my second core belief has helped me navigate these muddy waters: God is good.

Pure and simple, God is good.

I grew up believing that God is all-powerful, omnipotent -- and I still believe that this is true. God can do anything. But does he?

Over the last decade, Rick Warren's best-selling book, "The Purpose Driven Life," has influenced popular responses to this question more than any other -- and this book has been gifted to me more times than I could possibly have read it! People love this book, and I can understand why -- in a culture where affluence enables us to acquire everything except peace of mind, Rick Warren's theology promises that, in only 40 days, we can all achieve the peace of mind that comes from understanding God's purpose for our lives. It's a huge promise built on a theology that, in the light of our experience of 9/11 and subsequent tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and war hardly supports the existence of a good God.

That's a pretty big claim, I understand. But let me explain: in "The Purpose Driven Life," Warren claims -- and he is echoed by many household names such as Jerry Falwell, Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, T.D. Jakes, Max Lucado, Robert Schuller, and others -- that God has a plan for your life. In this theology, God knew about you and planned out your entire life long before you were born. God patterned your cells, chose your race, chose your parents, determined your natural talents, and even planned your inevitable hair loss. Everything about your life has been planned by God, and therefore, everything that happens in your life happens for a reason.

If this is true, then, since God has planned everything out, he is also complicit and responsible for not only all of the good things that happen in this world, but also a participant in a conspiracy of evil. If we believe that everything happens for a reason, and if we believe that the reason things happen is because God plans them, then, necessarily, we believe that God either enables evil, or that God himself does these evil things to us.

I just can't go there. God is good, and despite whatever evil I have experienced in this world -- even as I lay there on the floor crying, questioning, and cursing after having spent a week looking evil in the face -- I know and am surrounded by the goodness of God.

The problem is not that God is all-powerful. The problem is that we think that God must exercise that power in order to be God. And yet the love that we experience in God -- the love that allows us to choose in the first place -- is proof that sometimes, despite being the sovereign ruler of the universe, God chooses to withhold his power and allow suffering and evil. We affirm this truth every year on Palm Sunday: Jesus chooses to withhold his power -- power that presumably could have called down legions of angels who would fight on his behalf and save him from crucifixion. If ever there were a clearer example of God withholding his own power I do not know where that might be!

"But wait a minute," you might say. "If God could stop evil but chooses not to, doesn't that make him responsible?"

No. This is why God is good, because he never, ever violates the first rule: God is love. If God chose to stop evil, he would be violating our free will, and we would, then, be incapable of truly loving him. I think that we have to come to grips with the fact that the responsibility for evil lies with us -- but that doesn't mean that God is distant or dispassionate.

Rather than sitting at a great distance, watching us tear each other apart, God chooses something entirely radical and different. God chooses to suffer with us and for us.

Instead of stopping the suffering and pain, and instead of forcing us to love him, God chooses to become one of us. Instead of pulling our strings like marionettes, God decides to get messy and enter the utter chaos of our lives -- and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God promises that even in the darkest of hours -- even when our world is being turned upside down by terrorism and war, even when we are shaken to our very core and lying helpless on the floor -- He is with us.

And this makes all the difference.

God is with us. God was with us then, and God is with us now.

We are not alone, and our suffering -- however small or however great -- is not abandonment.

And this is why, when people ask me, "Where was God on 9/11?" I can't help but to see God sharing the suffering and the tears with us, whether we were hiding in closets, or curled up on the floor weeping, or watching our televisions, or carrying bodies out of the smoldering rubble of Ground Zero, or trying to reach a loved one from a plane about to crash, I believe that the answer was and is the same: "God is with you."

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