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What do you do when the world falls apart?

When the planes struck, I was in my office overlooking Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, eight miles north of Ground Zero. I listened helplessly to news reports and to the sound of sirens as rescue workers raced beneath my window on the way to the scene. It wasn’t long before a deadly odor began to fill the air.

Over the next thirty-six hours, New York felt increasingly like a city under siege. Transportation shut down (I had to walk across Manhattan that evening to see a friend dying of cancer in a hospital on the East Side), and there were no bagels to be found the following morning (about as strange a thing as finding no crepes in Paris). The City That Never Sleeps had simply stopped functioning.

What was I to do? Should I rush down to Ground Zero? If so, why? Should I use my network to recruit volunteers? If so, for what? The reports were confusing, the needs unclear, and the devastation beyond my ability to remedy.

As I prayed, it came to me that rather than frantically trying to do something heroic, I should simply do what I was equipped to do — gather my people and teach them — and see where it took me. So I sent out a notice to meet that evening on the steps of Low Memorial Library at the center of the Columbia campus. At the appointed time, 150 of us assembled to pray, to sing, and to inform one another of ways we could help our fellow New Yorkers. Many faces in that crowd I recognized, but many I did not, as people, troubled and shocked, were drawn toward the presence of Christ. From my vantage point at the base of the steps, I could see the façade of the magnificent domed library where are etched these words: “For the Public Good and to the Glory of Almighty God.” And here we were, doing what was obviously obedient and within our reach — pleading with God for the public good.

The next morning, I did the other obvious thing: I taught. I sent a note to my church family, a portion of which follows:

I want to say something about trust and hate. First, think about trust. Psalm 46 reads, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea. … Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. … Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations …”

God does not change, and He is good. The greatest testimony to this is not what we tend to look to — the stability or ease of our present circumstances. It is rather the promise He kept at the cross to rescue us from sin and death. Some of our number are still unaccounted for. We have the hope with respect to them that not even the worst-case scenario is a match for God’s provision in Christ. We know that in the end God will wipe every tear from our eyes and make all things new. We know that our God will, in the end, bring every secret to light and right every wrong. Remember and preach these things to yourself. Take time to be still and know that He is God.

Now think about hate. Psalm 97:10 reads, “Let those who love the Lord hate evil.” We err if we think that to trust God is to be passive in the face of what has happened. Not only may we hate it, we must. The question, of course, is how. We must resist the terrorist tendency of our own hearts — the desire for quick and indiscriminate retaliation. God alone has the right to judge, for He alone is righteous and He alone sees all. So what, positively, do we do? We channel our deep hatred into deep works of love, understanding that the weapons we wield are spiritual and have great power.

Life is full of 9/11s — events that are too big for us: a child dies; you lose your job; the bank forecloses on your house; you lose your savings; the person you intend to marry breaks the engagement. The way forward in such times is not to collapse in a heap. It is to do whatever the obedient thing is within your reach, however small. I gathered and taught my little church. Over the next year, we gave away $20,000 to people in our neighborhood whose livelihoods had suffered because of the attacks — a tiny contribution to the city’s healing but still something. For you, it might be to speak kindly to those who seek to comfort you when you are in deep grief. Or it might be to share out of your diminished resources with someone who has even less. Such choices may not seem to amount to much, but they are weighty with significance. They are the way, in the midst of crisis, that we tell ourselves and others that God does not change and that He loves us.

Ten Years Later

What If or If God?

Keep Reading 9/11 Ten Years Later

From the September 2011 Issue
Sep 2011 Issue