I remember where I was when I first heard the news in 2001. I was in college at the time and got up for my eight o’clock class without having read the news or anything like that. It was Ministry Leadership Development with Professor Tom Wilks. I was told we were “doing something different” by another student and meeting in Stubblefield Chapel at Oklahoma Baptist University. It was then we were informed that a plane had struck one of the twin towers. Unbeknown to us, at the time we were being told this another plane was striking the other tower. I sat in disbelief. We were given our own time to process and pray as we needed.
Stubblefield Chapel is an old building. It was the building in which the Baptist Convention of Oklahoma was formed, having been moved to the campus of OBU later. It was small with worn wooden floors and old wooden pews, the latter of which where painted with a white trim. It had an old out of tune piano and a small pipe organ. The windows were beautiful, but simple. Every shifting of bodies and entrance and exit caused the creak of wood against wood. Yet despite what might have been a noisy building, it drowned out the sound of the campus outside.
I sat astounded, praying to God that it was somehow not that serious, or some sort of sick prank. It was, of course, all too real. When faced with something like this, it makes the problem of profound evil in the world that much more troubling. Although it is true that there are more catastrophic things in the world compound the problem, the fact that it happened on US soil “brought it home” in a sense. It was no longer an abstract concept, but something that I was made to genuinely struggle with as a freshman in college. I would, over the next decade, see evidence of other such difficulties, but this was the first and it was domestic.
As I thought about the events of that day, and wondered how a good God could allow not just this, but similar things to happen, I
kept coming back to the cross, formed from the rubble that has taken on a hugely symbolic role in the of the attacks. It had become a symbol of hope, one that people latched onto. Why had this particular thing taken on such a significance? Was it that this was a miraculous event in and of itself? Well, that’s possible, but I believe it was something else. Something Deeper. Was it that we needed to know and be reminded that God was with us? Certainly that is at work, but is that all of it? Is there something different going on here? In particular, why is it that Christians have latched on to the symbol of the cross, the thing that signifies the horrendous suffering and death of Christ?
The technical term for giving an account of how there can be a good God, particularly in the face of suffering, is called a theodicy. Typically such accounts speak of how there is some greater good accomplished either directly by causing the action or, more frequently, indirectly by allowing the action to take place. Usually this greater good is taken to be free will. Human freedom is so great that God will not override it. While that may be an intellectually satisfying response, and one that certainly appeals to our reason, it is not one that helps us fully when we are confronted with the all too often personal nature of horrific violence. It may help our minds, and allow us to hold to our beliefs when confronted with opposition, but it fails to remove the sting, or the emotional pain, or the wounds to our soul that such evils produce. Not only this, but if we are honest, the more we connect with other people the more we begin to realize that a sin against one of us, is a sin against all of us, because we are all made in the image of God; and by that fact alone God is grieved, and those closest to God similarly grieved, by wicked actions. It is at this point that I am genuinely struck by the wonderful horror that is the cross of Christ, which has been symbolized in various ways, and to which many, though admittedly not all, of the surviving victims of the attack on the World Trade Center cling.
I can’t remember where I first heard this particular theodicy, but it certainly seems to ring true. When confronted with horrendous evil, although we might be able to offer a rational argument for its existence while still holding to a good God, such arguments are not always the best course of action. Instead, we often do better to remember that the concept of horrific and profound human suffering is not something on the periphery of the Christian faith to be entirely explained away. Instead it is at the center and heart of our faith. It is the suffering of Christ on the cross that makes the Resurrection and our salvation possible. At its heart, suffering and tragedy is not something alien to God, but something at the core of God’s being.
One of the central arguments in the book of Hebrews, is that in Christ, God has identified with us at the very lowest point. He has experienced every temptation, was subject to every failing, and thus truly knows what it means to be human, having died the most painful and humiliating death the world has ever known. Even if it is the case that the recognition of a cross from the rubble of the twin towers was not a miraculous event, but something that we should almost expect to be found, this does not diminish the impact of it. The point of focus is upon the historical act of the crucifixion of God. Because of the profound nature of that action, those who have come close to God via Christ have clung to the symbol of the cross because it is the recognition that God has been where we are, and worse. We are not alone in our suffering, because God is with us. We have a great high priest who can sympathize with our suffering because he was there, he suffered.
In the Hebrew bible, the name for God given in Exodus is related etymologically to the Hebrew word for being. So when Moses receives the name, God is saying “I am that I am.” However, in this instance our English bibles seem unable to communicate something (without giving a lengthy commentary). Moses, when expressing his fears and apprehensions about the road ahead, is asking for some sign that will give him confidence to move forward. If you look at the other verbs, and how they are translated, you can notice that the other times the Hebrew word appears in that context it is translated “I will (or I will be).” This is, in part, because Hebrew tenses don’t work the same way that English tenses do. This is also why many bibles include a footnote with the alternate translation “I will be that I will be.” In the context of Moses’ fear, when he is wondering, “When I stand before Pharaoh” how will I be able to do it, God responds that at that time Moses will not be alone. Instead, God will be with him. God’s response to suffering, one of the greatest problems of the world, is not that we are left alone, but it is instead that God is with us. “I am that I am” that I am with you, God seems to be saying. So central is this that, in the midst of a siege against Jerusalem, God’s promise of comfort is “Emmanuel” God is with us. And when we needed Him most, God’s ultimate response was, and remains to this day, that God remains Emmanuel, and was fully present with Jesus. Through the crucifixion and everything else he knows our struggles. And through the resurrection and ascension God has sent the presence of the Holy Spirit, giving the one who accepts it the full presence of God in the midst of, and counter to, the suffering of this world. On this day as we remember the suffering of many, remember that we are not alone in our struggle, but (as the name Israel implies) God struggles with us, helping us, and ultimately giving us the fullness of the LORD’s presence.
Question: Where were you when you heard the news? Has it continued to impact you? What does it mean to you to know that God is with us, especially in our darkest moments?