Thursday, September 11, 2008

God is with us

Today, I've heard a lot of stories about where we were 7 years ago.

Seven years ago, I was in Atlanta, which was unusual because Matt and I were still living in Princeton. We just happened to be in town for a wedding, and were hanging around for a few days afterward before making the long trek back north before school started.

Seven years ago, I wasn't married - or engaged - yet. I wasn't a mother. I wasn't a minister. I was a seminary student who had finished one year in a strange land, and was holding my breath as time unfolded. We had just finished Hebrew, and on Sept. 10 we were on the campus of Columbia Theological Seminary for the first time, visiting a friend of mine.

Today, seven years later, we actually live in Atlanta. Matt actually works at Columbia Theological Seminary. I am actually ministering and mothering and back in a place that feels a like home should, and I've forgotten almost every last bit of Hebrew.

But it still feels just as fresh as it did 7 years ago, doesn't it?

You remember where you were, don't you? Almost like it was yesterday...

At this point, I could tell you the detailed version of my story, and where I was and how I found out, but that's inconsequential. My story will be like yours at some points - the day-long viewing of CNN, the gasps of disbelief and feeling of vulnerability and world-shifting, desperate phone calls to family and friends, regardless of how close they were in proximity to the attacks. My story will differ, as well - I was at the home of a friend, and my day ended with a short walk from 7th Street in Midtown to Piedmont Park where we tried to pretend that the day was normal, and that playing frisbee with your dog was exactly what we should be doing. We invited everyone we could think of over for dinner, and we gathered in quiet and still fellowship while we broke bread and recounted stories from our day. Where we were... how we found out...

When we returned to Princeton, via Washington D.C. and past the Pentagon, which was still in flames, the world had not quite returned to any sort of balance. The bridges and tunnels to the city were still mostly closed. New Jersey - America's largest parking lot - was filled with cars and cranky drivers. It was also home to many of the residents who had perished. For what seemed like weeks, we saw funerals and processions and crying spouses in black, with clergy arms wrapped around their hunched shoulders.

As classes began, our theology professor opened his lecture by saying, "I don't know what to make of this and what this says about God in our world. I am sure that God was not there when the towers fell." He, like many of us, had been totally rocked by the events that transpired. And here we were, second year seminarians, many of us pitched into churches as interns for the year, and we were supposed to have some answers.

But nothing came easily. "God was there" seemed easiest. I had to believe that God was there, not watching, but present in the miraculous stories of firemen and businesswomen who ran up a thousand stairs to rescue coworkers, even as the towers were falling and the Pentagon was blazing. I had to believe that God was there with the woman who was home sick and the son whose wife had just had a baby, so he was at home, changing a newborn's diaper. I had to believe that God was present in the phone calls that were desperately made to spouses and partners at the last few moments before time ran out.

But with the overwhelming sadness, the displaced and broken families, the children who lost not one, but two parents, the economic crisis and the chaos that followed, it was hard to claim any sort of Godly presence for longer than a fleeting moment. I was shaken, not only by the event itself, but by the overwhelming and ridiculous reactions out of fear. I remember being afraid the first time I saw an airplane after the airports were re-opened. It looked like a predator, a shark... I don't know. It looked terrifying. Something so innocuous (on the ground, anyway) suddenly made me think that it might take a hard left at any time and point itself directly at a high-density area.

We started talking about the post-9/11 world in which we were living. The Holocaust had defined the early 20th century, and the 21st now had its response. Theologians and seminarians and pastors and people struggled to answer the abiding question: What does all of this tell us about God? Where, O where, is God in all of this mess?

This is where the doctrine of incarnation steps in to save the day. "Easy! We believe that The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. So, there you go... God was with us - in the towers, in the fire engines, on the streets, in the planes... God was and is with us."

Easy, right?

But this takes a lot of faith to mire through the muck of what floats to the surface so quickly: homeless and parentless babies, shattered dreams and skeletal buildings, lingering emotional and physical traumas, unexpected deaths and the assuredness of evil's most certain presence in the world that sits back and waits for Life's response. And all we can say is: "God is with us."

Maybe you're like me - when something happens, big or small, it is the snide remark or negative comment that takes the stage, no matter how much good is said or positively reinforced. No, the darkness always finds a way to cast a shadow on the light, so that even the brightest good stands in the shade of another's perspective.

So, on this day, seven years ago, the darkness put on a show. It wasn't subtle or covert. This was pomp and circumstance and a celebratory reminder of evil's power in this world and how easy it would be for the dark to overcome the light.

But, we believe that the light has come into the world and the darkness did not overcome it. A great pastor and preacher, Scott Black Johnston, once wrote about these words from the prologue to the Gospel of John: "The light came into the world, and the darkness did not overcome it." He writes:

I struggle with these words because they do not say what I want them to say. I want them to declare that when the light comes into the world it obliterates the darkness. It takes the bleak mid-winter with every sadness, every despair, every raw deal, every horrendous tragedy, every evil plan, every god-awful, life-sucking disease, and tosses the whole mess into the cosmic trash bin. I want the light to arrive and to win, and I want it to win big. I mean I want the light to deal with the darkness in a way that is so overwhelming, so completely devastating, that I can switch channels at half-time because there is no way, no possible way, that the darkness is even going to come out of the locker room to play the third quarter.
I get that - I want the light to come in, not like it's shining through a crack under the door, but like someone turned on an overhead light while you were still sleeping. You know, like ... the sun.

But sometimes the darkness gets to be all bold and dramatic, and our light persists as it peers in through keyholes. But the light is persistent, isn't it? The light does not give up - even as airplanes were crashing into towers and fortresses and fields, the light kept redirecting the darkness by empowering passengers to fight and opening the eyes of people to see, so that they noticed patterns and kept more damage from happening, and the thousands of other "I could have been there... it could have been me..." stories that we still hear.

The world changed on that day, seven years ago. The darkness came into the world with drama and power and frightful passion that sought to destroy and disconsole.

But the light has come into the world, in the power and abiding presence of God in Christ. That light faced the deepest darkness, and it was not overcome. That gives me hope of the dark nights that we've yet to face, and the promise of God's insistence that we know that now, always, and forever...

God is with us.

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