Where Is God When It Hurts Jun 25, 2006 23:59:55 GMT -5
Post by Blu on Jun 25, 2006 23:59:55 GMT -5
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Christianity Today, Week of October 22
Where Was God on 9/11?
Reflections from Ground Zero and beyond.
By Philip Yancey | posted 10/23/01
I am writing this on a long night flight to Sydney, Australia. American planes dropped the first bombs on Afghanistan this morning, and I won't know until I land how widely this war has spread. I'm not quite sure what day it is (we lose one in the air), and jet lag is probably not a state conducive to writing. Yet I've had an extraordinary few weeks—haven't we all?—and feel a need to sort it through, which by profession and by inclination I do through writing.
I learned of the terrorist attacks when my brother called me on the morning of an ordinary workday. Like almost everyone, when I heard about the attacks I stopped what I was doing and sat glued to the television as the surreal events unfolded. All the commentators' speculation ended when the second plane hit and it became clear this disaster was intentional, not an accident. Three planes were missing, no four—no, maybe six. And then something no one could imagine took place live on network television. Two of the mightiest man-made monuments in the world simply vanished in a cloud of darkness before our eyes.
I have never been especially patriotic. I've traveled too much overseas, I guess, and have seen from afar the arrogance and insensitivity of the U.S. Sometimes I envy my friends who travel with a Canadian, rather than American, passport. Our military, our Olympic athletes, even our tourists walk with a swagger. I remember being in the Philippines around the time of the Sydney Olympics and asking my host if his country had ever won a medal. He hung his head, "We almost did once. And we have a chance for a bronze in boxing at this one." A nation of 90 million people had never won a gold medal. Meanwhile, the Americans were furious if they didn't take home at least half the golds in swimming and track-and-field, and our winners strutted irreverently on the platform as an Australian band played our national anthem.
September 11 changed my attitude. I choked up when the Congress sang "God Bless America," and when the Buckingham Palace guard played the "Star-Spangled Banner," and when firemen told corny stories about their fallen comrades, and when a solitary bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" in Union Square, and when hundreds of New Yorkers walked around dazed with photos of their missing loved ones, sheltering candle flames in their cupped hands, and when Dan Rather had to be comforted by David Letterman of all people. I felt a sudden surge of loyalty and unity with my country that was new to me. Scott Simon put words to it in a National Public Radio editorial after the WTC attacks. Patriotism is not based on a blind belief that the United States has no need to change, he said. God knows we need to change in many ways. Our love for America rests on the belief that the changes needed are more likely to occur here than anywhere else in the world.
I think of my own life. I grew up in a cloistered, fundamentalist environment in a segregated South. Now I live 2,000 miles away, in a place of exquisite beauty, with the ability to make a living reflecting in words on what matters most to me, rewarded and not punished for honesty and growth. Few countries in the world would allow for that kind of progression and mobility. The United States remains the land of promise and potential.
Responding to Terror
The phones started ringing at our house on the day of the attack. I got calls from England, Holland, and Australia, as well as the U.S. media. "You've written about the problem of pain. What do you have to say about the tragedy?" In truth, I had nothing to say. The facts were so overpowering, so incomprehensible, that I was stunned into silence. Anything I could think of saying—"Horrible. Don't blame God. The face of evil."—sounded like a cliché. In every case, I declined to respond. Like most Americans, I felt unbearably helpless, and wounded, and deeply sad.
Wednesday, the day after the attacks, it dawned on me that I had already written much of what I believe about the problem of pain. I wrote Where Is God When It Hurts? in 1977, as a 28-year-old who had no right to tackle questions of theodicy—and also no ability to resist, for there is no more urgent question facing those of us who identify ourselves as Christian. In 1990 I revised the book, adding about 100 pages and the perspective of middle age.
That night I e-mailed a proposal to my publisher, Zondervan, suggesting that we find a way to get that book out as cheaply as possible to as many people as possible. I could forego all royalties, and they could forego all profit as our contribution to a grieving nation. They jumped on the idea with amazing speed. Already they had been discussing "instant books" and other publishing responses. Instead, they decided to put their full resources into getting Where Is God into as many hands as possible. They called the next morning (Thursday, two days after the tragedy) saying they were mobilizing for a special edition.
By the end of that day Zondervan had sold 300,000 copies of a one-time-only edition with all proceeds directed to the American Red Cross. Retailers had to order at least 20 copies, and the package included a poster explaining the special edition to consumers. By the end of the next day, Friday, they had sold 750,000 copies. In short, they sold more copies in 24 hours than they had sold in 24 years. Wal-Mart ordered 125,000; airport bookstores ordered scores of thousands. It seems that retailers, too, felt helpless and grasped at a chance to offer a book that might give perspective on questions their customers were consumed with.
The folks at Zondervan told me how remarkable it was that such a project happened. Against all odds, they found available printing press time, and paper, and by Saturday, four days after the bombings, copies were being printed. They just barely got permission to use the Red Cross logo on the cover; by the time news reached the New York lawyers, who blanched at seeming to sanction a Christian book, the books were already printed. Wal-Mart sent their trucks directly to the printers, rather than go through a distributor. Some retailers volunteered to donate all their proceeds to the victims' fund as well.
The flurry of activity, occurring at such speed with almost instantaneous results, made me feel considerably less helpless. Within two weeks I had received my first response from a reader of the special edition. Her choir director had driven from Florida to North Carolina to be by the side of a family member undergoing surgery. He had planned to fly, but airplane cancellations forced him to drive. He never made it; an auto accident killed him. Standing in a bookstore, weeping, this woman had noticed my book on pain and bought it—one of many who suffered "collateral damage" from the terrorist acts.
My wife Janet and I had originally planned to spend the week of September 17 on vacation, on a houseboat on Lake Powell, Arizona, with three couples from Illinois. When their flights got canceled, those plans changed. Instead, we took a three-day trip to Telluride, Colorado. We've climbed seven "14ers" this summer (14,000-foot mountains) and we attempted an eighth the week after the terrorist attacks. Wilson Peak is rated most difficult, and in the end we had to turn back because of a September snowstorm. Yet the interlude pulled us away from nonstop television and gave an important reminder of the goodness and grace that exists in this world alongside the ugliness and evil.
I returned home to find an extraordinary journal e-mailed from Gordon MacDonald, a pastor and author who is also a friend. Gordon, who had once pastored a church in Manhattan, cleared his schedule when he first heard about the bombings and volunteered as a chaplain with the Salvation Army. Each night, after a grueling day near Ground Zero, he recorded the sights and sounds and, yes, the smells, he and his wife Gail had encountered that day. (CT will be publishing excerpts from his journal.)
I called Gordon to tell him how deeply his journal had affected me, and when he learned I would soon spend a day in New York City, he insisted that I visit Ground Zero for myself. Five minutes later he called back to say he had made the arrangements with top officials at the Salvation Army.
I was traveling to Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago under the sponsorship of Doubleday, who had just released my new book Soul Survivor. Doubleday had worked very hard to set up a media tour, only to find the publicity and travel worlds in complete chaos in the wake of the terrorism. The person in charge of publicity for my books had lost her best childhood friend, and former roommate, in the buildings. For a week she and her friend's fiancé, walked around with pictures of the missing young woman until finally they realized all hope was lost. The fiancé had watched out a window as the plane hit, and then the building containing his future wife collapsed.
Not until the day before I left did we have any assurance that the media appointments would happen at all. Some did, some didn't. As it turned out, the special edition of Where Is God gave immediate entree for the interviewers, who found it difficult to talk about anything other than the bombings. Although I had only one appointment in New York, an interview with Gustav Niebuhr of The Times, the publisher felt a stop there would be worthwhile.
'I'll Never Be the Same, Mr. Yancey'
I showed up at airports at least two hours in advance, as requested, and in virtually every case got through security in time to hop on an earlier flight. A driver named Eddie met me at LaGuardia in New York. Mayor Giuliani had ordered checkpoints at every tunnel, and vehicle searches were causing huge traffic backups, he told me. Eddie knew a back route through Queens and drove us through neighborhoods unaccustomed to limousines driving by. I told him my destination, the Salvation Army center near Ground Zero, and he said he knew it well. Eddie, a young Puerto Rican with a clean-shaved head, was impeccably dressed in a starched white shirt and tie, wearing gold bracelets and a diamond-studded ring. He had a perfect Brooklyn accent.
"Where were you on September 11?" I asked Eddie, making conversation. "Were you working?" He paused at least ten seconds before answering, no doubt weighing whether he wanted to tell the story again, to a stranger.
"Actually, Mr. Yancey, I was parked just across from the World Trade Center."
"No! Tell me about it."
"I had picked up a ride at the airport, Mr. Firestone, and dropped him at the Millennium Hotel. I remember his name because I asked him if he owned the tire company, but he laughed and said no. He had a meeting scheduled at the WTC, and I planned to stay with the car and wait for him. I was sitting in this car, reading the paper, when I heard a roar like the sound jet engines make when the planes warm up. I live near LaGuardia, so I hear that roar every morning. Then the ground shook, the car shook, and I heard the explosion. I jumped outside of the car and saw people running everywhere.
"I was standing by my car when the second plane hit a few minutes later. My God, I've never seen a fireball like that. I knew I should get in the car and leave, but something glued me there. It's like when you see an accident, and you know you should drive past without looking, but you can't.
"You wouldn't believe the noise. Car horns were going off all over the place. Police, ambulance, and fire truck sirens were coming closer. I quickly called my wife in Brooklyn and told her, 'Honey, something big has happened down here. Turn on the news. I'm right in front of the twin towers, but I'm OK.'
"And then the people started streaming out. Thousands of people. Some screaming, some holding handkerchiefs over their faces, some covered with blood. I stood by the car as they ran past. I looked in the air and, oh my God, I saw little specks—people jumping. A man in a white shirt. A woman with her skirt flying up. A couple holding hands. A man trying to use his sports coat as a parachute. People would look up, try to figure where they'd land, and dodge the bodies as they hit the sidewalk. I'll never forget that sight as long as I live.
"There was paper and debris and stuff flying everywhere, like a blizzard. I saw a boy, maybe 14, on the sidewalk doubled up, coughing, and when I went over to him he pointed to his pocket. He couldn't speak. I reached in and pulled out an asthma pump, and he sprayed it and got his breath back.
"I was there 45 minutes, I guess—I couldn't tell how long, but that's what they say now, when the first tower collapsed. A woman had fallen down on the sidewalk, an elderly woman. Everybody was running past her, not stepping on her or anything, but running right past her. I waited for a break in the people and went to her. 'Are you all right, ma'am?' I asked. 'I have some water in my car. Can I get you some?' She said she'd made it down something like 58 floors, and I told her she was safe now.
"I could tell she was upset, so I asked if I could say a prayer for her. I'm Catholic, you know. It just seemed the thing to do. She looked relieved, and while I was kneeling there on the sidewalk holding her hand, I heard a noise louder than I thought possible. The entire giant building just collapsed, all 110 stories. And I swear to God, Mr. Yancey, while I'm kneeling there holding that woman's hand, something falls from the sky—a piece of a computer or something—and hits that woman and she slumps over dead. Imagine—escaping from 58 stories and then getting killed like that.
"I look behind me and see a cloud dark as night rushing right towards me. I let go her hand and take off running. It's like a cops-and-robbers cartoon. The faster I run, the closer the cloud gets. I realize I got no chance. I duck into a little space between two buildings to wait it out. When the cloud hits, it's darker than I knew dark could be. At night, even a cloudy night, at least you got space around you, air to breathe. This cloud was, like, solid. You couldn't see anything. You couldn't breathe. You were surrounded by dark you could feel."
Eventually, Eddie told me, he found his way back to his car. Police had already sealed off the area, but he wanted to get his limo out. It was covered with dust like volcanic ash, and he took off his white shirt and wiped the windshield until he could see out. He opened the doors and yelled, "Anybody want a ride outta here?" Eight people, strangers, piled in. He headed for the nearest bridge off Manhattan, crossing over just before the mayor ordered all bridges and tunnels closed.
When he finally got home, four hours after the attack, he found his wife hysterical, his two children huddled in a corner watching Mommy sob. After his phone call, she had stood at her window in Brooklyn and watched the World Trade Center disintegrate, certain that her husband had been killed in the explosion and fire. Phone service was down, and she had not heard from him in four hours.
Eddie was so shaken that the next day he accepted a job to drive someone to Detroit. Airplanes were grounded, people were desperate to get home, and he wanted to get as far away from New York as he could. He drove straight through, took a two-hour nap in the car, and drove 14 hours back to Brooklyn.
"Everything's different now, Mr. Yancey," Eddie said. "I go to my brother's house every night. We sit around, watch TV, play with the kids, play games. Stuff I never used to do. Family stuff. And I haven't missed Mass yet. I'll never be the same."