When Chaos Comes

July 17, 2002

First Baptist Church of Amarillo, Texas

The world we once knew -- Technicolor hues, rainbow bright -- has changed. Our world is now gray, ashen. The color collapsed with the Twin Towers, and now our world is robbed of its innocence.
Picture a fireman, weary and tired, shuffling along in a sea of gray ash and debris. The picture, I supposed, was black and white until I am startled by the bright yellow stripes that cross his coat -- the only touch of the rainbow left. A surreal scene, looking like a touched-up photo, splashed with limited and isolated hues of color, just to provoke. A bad dream, a horrid nightmare, from which none of us is able to awaken. There is an eerie quiet in a city that should be abuzz.
Disbelief, anger, hate, revenge, horror, hope, shock, fear, pity, helplessness, vulnerability, a need to be with family -- all feelings rushing through our minds and hearts as we witnessed the height of hatred.
The scene was played out like a second-rate special effects clip in a thriller movie. This time, however, it was not a Hollywood blockbuster, and it isn't the plot development from a Tom Clancy novel. 
"Both in terms of the awful scope of its ambition and at the probable final deaths toll, (the) attacks are likely to go down as the worst acts of terrorism in the history of the United States, and indeed, the history of the world. Hatred has bloodied us as we have never been bloodied before," writes Leonard Pitts Jr.

Chaos comes
(Psalm 46:1-3) 
The psalmist in these first three verses describes our world as slipping away. The earth cannot be our fixed position. The psalmist is describing a time when chaos, when evil, seeks to reassert its primacy over both the natural world and in the world of human affairs. This is a noisy, hectic, chaotic, disastrous scene. The earth is quaking. The mountains are slipping into the sea. The sea, so often in ancient text, represents the watery chaos. Tidal waves roar and foam. It is the language of the Hebrew prophets. 
Chaos in nature and in human affairs -- not yet fully subdued -- still trying to reassert itself. 
We speak naively of terra firma; it isn't. Geologists have discovered that the continents are actually afloat, continuing to be built and changed by moving plates. Volcanoes are the earth's heat vents lying near the plate perimeters, which also are earthquake prone. What we have, then, is a dynamic, living, changing planet set in an exploding, expanding universe. We live in a world of chaos itself. We hate the feeling, the vulnerability that chaos brings.
Naively, we thought our mountains, our monuments would stand forever. We are not used to our mountains slipping into the heart of the sea or our Twin Towers tumbling, whichever might be the case. They were not supposed to fail -- ever. Tourists at the World Trade Center are told, "The Twin Towers are designed to withstand the crash of a 747." They represented the apex of structural engineering. In fact, the Web site of The National Council of Structural Engineers features two sketches of the World Trade Center Towers on the home page. Minora Yamasaki, the designer of the 110-story towers, saw the buildings as an idealistic symbol of humankind's greatest hopes.
The North and South Towers were 1,368 feet and 1,362 feet, respectively, with 35,000 steel columns in each building -- a total of 250,000 tons of steel -- steel trucked in over a four-year time period. Angus Kress Gillespie in his book, Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center, praises the designer of the narrow windows for affording "a feeling of complete security." They are a vertical city of steel housing 40,000 to 50,000 employees, and holding sometimes as many as 200,000 in the buildings when you add the visitors and tourists that visit on certain occasions; the population of our entire city-plus. 
And yet these monstrous monuments of mankind came tumbling down in just a matter of minutes, like a house of cards built by a child.

We must trust God
When chaos comes, we must trust God; not mankind's monuments. The psalmist describes a situation in which everything is being destroyed, even the mountains themselves are moving. In fact, in the 102nd Psalm, the psalmist of old declares, "Thou didst found the earth, and the heavens are the work of thy hands. Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure. And all of them will wear out like a garment; like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed. But Thou art the same, and Thy years will not come to an end. The children of Thy servants will continue, and their descendants will be established before Thee."
Towers come and go. Nations rise and fall.
Look at verse 6 of this Psalm: "The nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered; He raised His voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our stronghold."
Look at verse 1: "God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth should change."
Because God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, we won't fear, even though chaos should seek to reassert itself in our lives. God has been in the business from the beginning. His first creation: making sense and order out of the watery chaos so we don't have to be fearful. 
In days like these, you might hear someone say, "I'll never believe in God again. How could He allow such horrific things to happen to so many innocent people?" I understand the sentiment, and it's an easy one to hold, but it is that very belief in the first place that has wrought the tragedy -- the belief that life is Godless and that unrestrained evil should conquer the day. 
In times like these, if we reject God, we are in a way rejecting the only power, the only one that can bring us relief and comfort. And in some ironical way, we are siding with the same barren view of life that is so foundational to the attackers, to the evil murderers. For they do not know or acknowledge the existence of Yahweh, the God of Scriptures, the God of creation, the God of redemption, the God of salvation. To reject God now is to accept the horrific philosophy that brings us to the tragedy in the first place.
Leonard Pitts Jr. continues in his column this week by asking the terrorists, "What lesson did you hope to teach us by your coward's attack on our World Trade Center, our Pentagon, us? What was it you hoped we would learn? Whatever it was, please know that you failed. Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause. Did you want to make us fear? You just steeled our resolve. Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together. Maybe you just wanted to let us know the depth of your hatred. If that's the case, consider the message received."
What kind of god must one be worshiping if one's god rewards those who slaughter the lives of innocent civilians, making them into co-opted kamikaze pilots against their own brothers and sisters? What kind of religion and what kind of god cowardly attacks and then retreats, not seeking to avoid the innocent but rather seeking to strike them unaware?
Yet, my friend, it is, indeed, a twisted understanding of God. In fact it is not understanding the God of Scripture at all. The God, who incarnate teaches us to love our neighbor as ourself and to respect life, not deal out death. Yes, the psalmist says we can't trust the mountains, we can't trust the monuments. We can't trust the Twin Towers. We can't trust the best of humanity. We must trust in God, for He alone stands forever.

Innocent do suffer
How is it that good people suffer and bad people thrive? How is it that we can't make any sense of the suffering around us? I know what you want. You want the same thing I do. You want to live in a world that has a hard and fast moral equation. You want the evil to suffer. You want those who are good, those who are God's, to prosper. We want sickness and death and pain and suffering to go visit the wicked. We want happiness, joy, peace in life to visit those who are living by God's moral standards. That is the equation we want. But it's not the equation we get. 
We come to a much more broken, distorted, confused equation. Let's face it: Good people do suffer, and evil people do prosper. No one can deny that after this week. In Psalm 73, the psalmist said he doesn't understand because he sees the prosperity of the wicked. There are no pains in their death. Their body is fat. They don't have the trouble that other men have. They are not plagued like the rest of mankind. They have pride even worn as a necklace. They have a garment of violence that covers them. Their eye bulges from fatness. They have the idea of riots running in their heart. They mock us and the people declare, "It is in vain that we have kept our hearts pure because we are stricken all day long."
I want to say that we must look beyond this world to an eternal perspective. The moral equation is broken on this side but on the side of eternity, it is hard and fast. In fact, this very collection of songs begins in Psalm 1 with the assertion, "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers but his delight is in the law of the Lord."
"The wicked," he says in Psalm 1, "are like chaff. The wind will blow them away. They will not stand when judgment comes, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish."
Don't lose heart. Don't grow faint. God measures all deeds, and the wicked will not win. They will perish. The equation is hard and steadfast. Every evil deed is accrued to their account and will be paid for, and their wickedness will tumble more quickly than the towers themselves.

We must forgive
There is a wrestling in each of our hearts to forgive. At this point, I think we respond in two different ways. They are not contradictory but yet, we must struggle to make sense of them both. There are some Christian ethicists who are calling for a pacifist response, or that is, no response at all. That we, as a nation, fulfill the words of Jesus in turning the other cheek and showing that, indeed, as a country in which Christianity prevails as the dominant religion, this is our chance to be light unto the world, to respond differently than those who worship gods that call for terrorism. Remember, as a Baptist, one of your greatest privileges is to disagree with your pastor. Some of you will need to invoke that privilege in your own heart and mind at this time.
Our response as American citizens surely must be one of seeking justice against those who perpetrated so heinous a crime. Now, while we realize that no amount of vengeance will bring our thousands of dead back to life, a dose of retribution will prevent the deaths of thousands more. We've obviously done too little, too late already in letting characters of chaos rule in terms of their terror. A civilized society must not accept this as "business as usual."
I will trust the American response to the President, the Congress and their advisers. It is a Christian response that seems more important for the people of God. We must make a distinction between a response of righteousness and of revenge. Sometimes the actions may be similar but their purposes are always distinct. I will not allow the evil men who initiated this insanity to blacken my heart with hate and revenge. When we respond militarily, and respond we must, I'll not rejoice at a single death. I'll not cheer in the streets as they did, handing out candy to the children and chanting, "Allah is great." 
For me to take joy in any death, as natural as that seems to emerge within us all, is to make ourselves as they are.
Meredith McDaniel, a 5-year-old in our congregation, was in the car with her mother, Crissy, the day of the disaster. Out of the blue, Meredith, the preschooler, asked, "Did the bad man in the plane die, too?"
"Yes, he did die," replied her mom.
There was some silence, which is usually accompanied with Meredith's meandering mind. Finally, she replied, "I feel sorry for him."
"Why?" Crissy responded, almost in a scolding tone, "Why would you feel sorry for the bad man?"
"Because he died, and he didn't know Jesus," the 5-year-old replied. "That's really sad."
That is sad. So as we cry to our leaders for the lives of our tormentors, let us try to spare a moment to cry to our Redeemer for their souls, which is, indeed, more important.
Don't allow anyone to blacken your heart with hatred, to allow revenge to rule your mind. We need a just and appropriate response to ensure safety and a free civilization, to insure that democracy has a continued chance on our planet. But this cannot teach us to hate. This cannot teach our children to despise. It should drive us with a missionary zeal as never before so the whole world can know a God who is described as love.
Oh, Jesus, you ask of us a hard thing when you declare that your people will love their enemies. And you know when we don't, we allow ourselves to be eaten from within by our own hatred.
Let's close by reading verses 8-11 again: "Come, behold the works of the Lord, Who has wrought desolations in the earth. He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariots with fire. Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."
Long ago, there was another dark moment in the history of the United States. President Lincoln had been assassinated and word of the tragedy had reached New York City. The people were enraged and violence seemed inevitable. Suddenly, a man holding a small American flag appeared on the balcony of one of the newspaper offices. His clear voice rang out through the air, capturing the attention of the crowd below.
"Fellow Christians!" he shouted. Then he began to paraphrase parts of Psalm 18 saying, "Clouds and darkness are all around about God. His pavilion is dark waters, and thick clouds of the skies. Justice and judgment are the habitation of His throne. Fellow citizens, God reigns!"
It was the voice of Gen. James Garfield reminding the crowd that even though the heavens seemed black with impending destruction, divine sovereignty would prevail. Lincoln was dead, but God was alive. Human confusion never shakes the eternal throne of the universe.
We will not fear. The Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.