The Lookout, December 2001
The Plain Truth, January 2002
Light & Life, January/February 2002
By Alan W. Dowd
Within two hours of the attacks on New York and Washington, the World Trade Towers fell from the Manhattan skyline, erasing not only some 3000 lives but perhaps the most visible trappings of wealth and worldly power on the globe. The Pentagon smoldered for three days, the gash in its side a fiery metaphor for the physical and psychological wounds inflicted upon America and the Civilized World. And Air Force One, that silver symbol of might and independence and freedom and modernity, was reduced to hopscotching across a dazed country--its zig-zagging flight back home a reminder that everything had changed on September 11, 2001.
Grasping for comfort, for an anchor to hold on to, some turned to history. They compared the attack to Pearl Harbor, to Oklahoma City, to the Titanic, to Antietam. But the comparisons proved woefully inadequate. As the gravity and enormity of the assaults began to sink in, an awful reality curdled up--September 11 was one of those moments in history without precedent, without parallel, without equal. And as such, history could offer little solace, only silence.
But when history is mute, when human words fail us, scripture whispers with the voice of God.
I work for the United States government. And as the jetliners turned into missiles and slammed into our world that awful Tuesday morning, friends and co-workers scrambled away from offices on Capitol Hill. We were on the phone with them as the buildings were emptied. "I've got to go," one of them shouted. "I've got to go now."
Across Independence Avenue, another friend of mine was covering a hearing in the Capitol as the Pentagon buckled and burned. "They ordered us to get out, and we headed to the street," he recalled after a terrifying 72-hour stay in DC. "I was sure the Capitol Dome itself was next."
Blocks away, friends of my wife were ordered to evacuate the White House and other executive-branch buildings. As an unknown number of guided missiles sliced through the skies of New York and Virginia and Pennsylvania, their orderly evacuation turned into a haphazard, chaotic dash away from what was once safest address on earth.
Watching the slow-motion moments of siege--even from half-a-continent away--was terrifying. Like anyone who witnessed the attacks, I was saddened and frightened. But something changed inside me--and inside many others, I suspect--when the Trade Towers finally succumbed to the weight and flame. What was terrifying and unthinkable had become debilitating and crippling. A kind of breathless despair fell upon me, like the layers of ash that covered Manhattan’s ground zero.
This was not supposed to happen, not here. The feeling of security and safety that I had known my entire life was gone. Perhaps it was nothing more than an illusion of safety we had enjoyed; whatever it was, it was shattered. When those twin spires turned to rubble and jagged mountains of steel, the sadness and shock turned to sickness--a deep and gnawing sickness that all people of goodwill now suffer with.
As the days passed, it grew. I couldn't eat or weep or sleep. Everything seemed a shadow of its former self. Hugs weren't as warm. Laughs weren't as full. Life was not the same. I felt guilty when I smiled, when my thoughts turned to diversions and amusements that filled my life before September 11--football games and bike rides, shopping trips and TV shows. As I told my wife, it felt as if there was no joy left, no song in my heart.
But in that dark hour, I stumbled toward two shafts of light--one gave me hope for tomorrow, the other offered comfort for today.
It was Psalm 77 that provided the comfort.
Like me, like us, the Psalmist "was in distress" when he penned his prayer. His spirit grows faint, even as he tries to smile. In his numbness and grief, his mind races back to "the former days, the years of long ago." When he looks upon the bleakness of his world, he is left only with questions, grim and desperate questions about an absentee God. "Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?" The questions pour out like tears.
Yet his soul cannot be comforted until he turns to God, until he deals with God, until he recalls all the miracles and mighty works and promises of the Lord. "I will remember your miracles of long ago," the Psalmist declares. "I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds." To defy the heartsickness and hopelessness of the present, he looks into the past. And so should we.
"You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples," he exclaims, as if to convince himself of what he once knew. It is God who orders the rain and lightning; it is God who redeems; it is God who shepherds a wandering flock. And it is God who will carry him--and us-- through the pain of today, not around it.
As today gives way to tomorrow, the Lord offers refuge and assurance in Psalm 11. "When the foundations are being destroyed," David cries, "what can the righteous do?" When the wicked take aim at the innocent with arrows and hate, when the shadows grow long, where should we turn?
David knows the answer before he finishes the question: We turn to the Lord, and we trust Him to lead us, to vanquish evil, to chase away the shadows--and to expose those who lurk there. "The Lord is on his heavenly throne," David cheers. "He observes the sons of men; his eyes examine them." He knows our hearts. And for those hearts poisoned with wickedness, there will be no shelter. "He will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot. For the Lord is righteous--he loves justice."
We are not the first generation to look skyward and ask why. We are not the only people to wonder how God can allow such evil to be visited upon the innocent. We are not alone in a thirst for peace and justice and comfort. There are shafts of light piercing this darkness, and one day the light will flood the darkness.
Terrorism is only the latest manifestation of the eternal struggle between light and dark. The masterminds of modern terrorism may seem beyond the reach of justice–beyond the light–but the Psalms say otherwise. Only when we look upon this moment with the eyes and heart of the Psalmist can we see that no one is beyond the reach of justice. And no one--no nation, no moment in history, no victim, no widow, no orphan--is beyond the reach of God's comforting arms.
This piece was republished by Plain Truth Ministries in The Psalms of September: A Collection, which is a collection of Dowd's essays on matters of faith.