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Through those connections that unite us as families and friends and acquaintances across this country, everyone of us has been affected. As Martin Luther King once said so well, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." And so we mourn...we mourn the fatalities and the casualties, as well as our own loss of innocence. We have been attacked, and will never feel completely safe again. How ironic that Tuesday's date was 9-1-1.
As many of you know, my wife was scheduled to return to this country on Tuesday morning at the conclusion of a trip to Venezuela on behalf of our Presbytery. Her plane was on the runway preparing to take off when word came to return to the gate. She has been safe and well during this extended stay in Caracas, and she has been able to maintain contact with us by phone and e-mail. The other day she wrote, "Two of the bags that we brought with us (our watchwords for the trip) were PATIENCE and FLEXIBILITY. We've packed and unpacked those bags many times since we've been here." By the grace of God, she is in the air on her return flight at this very minute, but, as Brian Ripley, one of her Presbytery traveling companions who returned last Monday, wrote her, "You will be coming back to a different U.S. than the one you left."
Things ARE different now. According to a Gallup Poll taken this week, Americans are much more worried today about becoming a victim of terrorism than they were after the Oklahoma City bombing six years ago. The current poll shows 60% of Americans saying they are either "very" or "somewhat" worried that they or someone in their family will become a victim, compared with 42% who expressed that view in April 1995, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing. Last year, at the fifth anniversary of that bombing, only 24% said they were worried.
One reason for the increased worry may be that a majority of Americans, 55%, see Tuesday's attacks as the beginning of a sustained terrorist campaign "that will continue for several weeks." This worry apparently influences how Americans might behave in the future. Half of the public (49%) predicts that, as a consequence of the terrorist attacks, Americans will permanently change the way they live, and 36% of us admit that they will change some aspect of their personal lives or activities to avoid being a victim of terrorism. When asked about their fear of flying, 48% of America admitted that the terrorist attacks make them less willing to fly on airplanes. A different world.
Why do such awful things happen? As Billy Graham said Friday at the service in the National Cathedral, "I have been asked hundreds of times in my life why God allows tragedy and suffering. I have to confess that I really do not know the answer totally, even to my own satisfaction. I have to accept, by faith, that God is sovereign, and [that God] is a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering."
Twenty years ago a book was published with the intriguing title, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.(2) You may have it in your home. It became an instant best seller, because everyone knows bad things DO happen to good people, ALL THE TIME, and we would like some answers as to WHY. To be honest, the book did not have any satisfying answer either, nor do I. Theologically, I guess I ought to be able to just get beyond the tragedies of last Tuesday, remind myself of the eternal truth of the Gospel, that life does not end with death, and look forward to the day foreseen by Isaiah, a day when "the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard...no more,"(3) or the writer of Revelation, a day when "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
My son David called home from college the other night. He wanted to know the latest on his mom. We talked for a while about the events of the week. I asked where he would be going to worship this morning. He mentioned a Presbyterian church near the campus. He added, "...then I'll probably come home and listen to you on the Internet." Well, David, the story I am about to tell is one with which you are familiar.
A couple of years ago a young family in the small town where we lived died in the crash of their single-engine plane - a father, mother and twelve-year-old daughter who was one of David's classmates in Middle School and who had performed with my daughter Erin in a Little Theatre group and had become her good friend. Beth was a gorgeous and vivacious child, one of those who would, as the years progressed, be certain to make many a young man's heart to flutter (a process which, I am told, had already begun).
Erin was particularly devastated by the news. She sobbed and sobbed as the terrible truth sank in. It made no sense to her that something like this could occur. In the middle of her pain, she began to feel angry. Sunday School theology had taught her that God rules this world, which meant that God controls all that happens - even plane crashes. As she sat on my lap, she lashed out through her tears in a way that only an eight-year-old can: "God is not very POLITE!"
Later that night, as she lay in her bed and talked with me before saying her prayers, the weeping began again. I tried to explain that even though Beth was no longer here, she was with Jesus - no crying, no pain, a wonderful place. She responded, "God may be happy now, but I'M NOT!"
"No," I replied, "God is not happy. God did not make the plane crash. God does not do things like that. It was a terrible accident, but now God has picked up the pieces and brought Beth and her mommy and daddy home to heaven."
Erin was not mollified - good theology, but cold comfort. Erin missed her friend.
A little boy in Sunday School prayed fervently, "Dear God, please bless everybody but my brother Tommy." The teacher replied that God did indeed understand that little brothers are sometimes hard to live with, but that God LOVED Tommy. "Then He's a mighty funny kind of a God," the little boy said. In our own way and for our own reasons, we tend to agree. As Erin expressed it, God is not very POLITE!
David told me at the time that one of the class assignments he and Beth had for English was to keep a journal, and one of the reflections was to deal with those things of which they were afraid. Beth had written that she was afraid of dying young. How ironic!
There are too many ironies in this world for my taste. Bad things happen to good people, and I do not like it. What are we to make of all this...of terrorists, tragedies, and traumas that we read of everyday? In our Westminster Confession of Faith we affirm, "God...alone [is the] fountain of all being, OF whom, THROUGH whom, and TO whom, are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do BY them, FOR them, or UPON them, whatsoever himself pleases."(4) God is in charge...of EVERYTHING! The sovereignty of God has always been the bedrock of Reformed theology.
At a White House breakfast for religious leaders several years ago, President Bush (the elder) told the story of a little boy who offered up this simple prayer: "God bless mother and daddy, my brother and sister; and God, do take care of yourself, because if anything happens to YOU, we're all sunk."(5) A child's way of acknowledging the sovereignty of God. So what is going on?
In a way, it may seem like whistling through the graveyard to continue with that affirmation. Awful things constantly happen: Osama Bin Laden's Kamikaze's, millions starve in Africa, little children killed by drunk drivers, and so on and so on and so on. Then how can we continue to preach and teach the sovereignty of God...a loving God is in control...with any intellectual or philosophical or even theological integrity?
I like the way Dr. Albert Winn, pastor, professor, and former President of Louisville Seminary, answers that question.(6) He notes that at the heart of biblical faith we do not find air-tight arguments sealed with a "therefore" - all is right with the world, therefore, let us have faith; therefore, let us praise God. Rather at the heart of biblical faith we find things that do not logically follow at all, sealed with a "nevertheless." Much is wrong with the world, the mystery of evil is great, NEVERTHELESS let us have faith, NEVERTHELESS let us praise God. Perhaps we can better understand the miseries of life if we remember NEVERTHELESS.
God is sovereign. God is in control. We continue to preach it and teach it. But the question remains: Are we just whistling through the graveyard? Are we like little children, trying to affirm what we know is not true by tightly closing our eyes and trying to make our dream real by endlessly repeating our hope? Is this a great collective self-deception? Not at all.
When I need a reminder (which we all surely did in hearing the news all this week), I look at the calendar. I see the first day of the week and I remember what happened one Sunday so many years ago...that first Easter, the day of resurrection. It was that day that guaranteed for time and all eternity that "the wrong shall fail, the right prevail."
As I have told you before, one of my favorite books is called, It's Friday, but Sunday's Comin'.(7) It is a series of essays by Dr. Anthony Campolo, and the title work tells of a Good Friday service in which the author participated - it is a line from a sermon preached by one of the other speakers that day, a wise old black man. Remember this? Dr. Campolo writes:
For an hour and a half he preached one line over and over again..."It's Friday, but Sunday's comin'!" He started his sermon real softly by saying, "It was Friday; it was Friday and my Jesus was dead on the tree. But that was Friday, and Sunday's comin'!" One of the Deacons yelled, "Preach, brother, Preach!" It was all the encouragement he needed.Campolo continues, "He kept on working that one phrase for a half hour, then an hour, then an hour and a quarter, then an hour and a half. Over and over he came at us, "It's Friday, but Sunday's comin!" By the time he had come to the end of the message...He had me and everybody else so worked up that I don't think any of us could have stood it much longer. At the end of his message he just yelled at the top of his lungs, `It's FRIDAY!' and all 500 of us in that church yelled back with one accord, `SUNDAY'S COMIN'!"(8)
That is the good news, the Gospel, the word the world is waiting to hear. That is the NEVERTHELESS message of the church. When life begins to get you down, our word is SUNDAY'S COMIN'. When the love you had counted on is gone and you feel that you may never know love again, remember that SUNDAY'S COMIN'. When you have lost your belief in the miraculous and no longer expect great things from God, look at the calendar and note that SUNDAY'S COMIN'. When you see what is happening in the air over New York and Washington and are angry and afraid, we are here to tell you that SUNDAY'S COMIN'.
Yes, there is lots wrong with this world. There are terrorists, tragedies, and traumas everyday. Things are not what they ought to be, and I do not like it. NEVERTHELESS, I have confidence and I have hope. I remember a special day long, long ago, and with heart and soul and every fibre of my being I can shout, IT'S FRIDAY, BUT, PRAISE GOD, SUNDAY'S COMIN'!
1. Rick Hampson, USA TODAY; "Minute by minute, fear envelops the country"
2. Avon Books, New York, 1981
3. Isaiah 65:19b
4. "Westminster Confession of Faith," The Book of Confessions, (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church, USA), 6.012
5. From the ABA Banker's Weekly quoted by the Joyful Noiseletter
6. Albert Curry Winn, A Christian Primer, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 79-80
7. Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1985
8. ibid., pp. 124-126