A Prayer Answered, With Sackcloth and Ashes
Several years ago, I lifted up a prayer to God, pleading for his intervention in my life. I wept then as I sat in a booth at the old Farmer’s Kitchen in Frankfort, Kentucky. I collected my thoughts and my prayer in my journal that night. Those thoughts, that prayer, these words have intermittently haunted me over the time since then, as day has led on to day. I did not know if God would ever lead me back to them.
Never before in my life have I so clearly recognized the answering of prayer as I have today. I cannot help but rejoice with the children of God over his goodness and wisdom, but I cannot pretend that the truth of the answer does not grieve me, and drive me like Job to repent and be silent. The following is my journal entry from several years ago. Afterward, I will share God’s answer.
September 11, 2001
I think I have cried all the tears I can shed today. I do not believe my life, as a Christian, as an American, as a civilized human being, will ever be the same. I do not know yet, but I believe the most atrocious, unspeakable, inhuman single act, or chain of events, in American history occurred today in New York City and Washington, D.C.
At least four teams of knife-wielding suicide terrorists infiltrated the American airways. Four airliners, loaded with fuel for cross-country flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco, were hijacked by these teams. These people most likely slaughtered the flight crews, took over the cockpits, and crashed three of the airliners into, respectively, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the United States military headquarters building, the Pentagon. Both towers collapsed within hours of the attacks, burying perhaps thousands of office workers and definitely hundreds of firemen, policemen, and other relief workers into a small mountain of rubble. Less than 24 hours later, the toll on human life remains incalculable at present.
The film images of the destruction cannot be fully conveyed with words. Three or four particular images stand out. The camera centers on the gaping hole in the first building when United Airlines Flight 175 enters from the right side of the picture and disappears behind the Towers. A fireball erupts from the building. Another camera at street level examines the wreckage when the same plane appears for a split second in real time. In slow motion, the plane disappears into the side of the building, looking as if nothing more than a strange shadow has fallen across the side of the building. The levels hit immediately erupt in smoke and flame. Later, thirty minutes apart, each mortally wounded skyscraper crumbles straight down, looking like a leisurely invisible hand crushing an aluminum can filled with smoke. A gaping, smoldering hole completely penetrating a 200-foot portion of the Pentagon, symbolically the strongest building on Earth pierced through the heart.
Only God knows the stories of heroism and evil enacted on these planes. Perhaps in the near future, flight recorders will be recovered to confirm my fervent prayer and belief that no American pilot could be coerced to cooperate in such incomprehensible madness and cruelty. I pray for the souls of those flight crews. I pray for the souls of the passengers. I pray for the lives and souls of the occupants of the buildings. I pray for the lives and souls of the rescue workers lost in action. Dear God save me, but I cannot yet summon the faith, the strength, the belief in the mercy of grace, to pray for the souls of the murderous terrorists. I want to pray for them, but my heart hardens, my stomach twists, bile rises in my throat and tears in my eyes. Dishonest prayer is worthless and sinful. I pray thanksgiving for God’s rich blessings, for had my life not changed, I might have been in the Pentagon today. I pray for those left behind, that they might receive solace now, and be reunited with their loved ones, either soon in the flesh, or for eternity in heaven. I pray for myself, asking God to soften my heart that I might forgive those people for stealing my naiveté, my innocent belief that America was too strong a country, too noble an idea to be sullied by this infathomable evil. Inchoate grief overflows my heart, and I have no more words to express it. I’m sorry, Father. Please forgive us all. Amen.
Those were my words, my thoughts, my prayers on the night after the attacks. I have learned so much since then, but nothing simpler than these words from Luke’s pen (NKJV).
“Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down for heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?’
“But He turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.’” (9:51-56)
“And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they do.’” (23:33-34)
I grieve over the answer to my prayer, because it should have been so clear and simple all along. I have called myself a Christian since February of 1994, and yet I have failed to grasp the simplest and clearest opportunity to apply the example and instruction of my Lord. This should have been my response that night. This should have been the response of our president, who also claims the Lordship of Christ over his life as I have.
Instead, I have harbored rage and vengeance in my heart. I have done in my heart what our president has done on the world stage: divided the world into US –the good guys—and THEM – the Axis of Evil. Why did we not recognize that this was EXACTLY what the Muslim extremists had already done? Why did we, who claim to follow a crucified Lord, not immediately recognize that “the call of the gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love”? (Wright, N.T. Evil and the Justice of God, pg. 98)
The Pharisees saw the world as US (faithful children of Abraham) and THEM (unholy pagans and unfaithful Jews). The disciples before Resurrection and Pentecost saw the kingdom of God as political readjustment of world power.
Messiah Jesus, on the cross, calls us to forgive. Messiah Jesus calls us to lay down our lives as we participate in the inbreaking of His kingdom on earth. Using the powers of the world against the powers of the world will never produce victory over evil, but only victory FOR evil.
Father, teach us how to lay down our lives for the growth of your rule over evil. You have shown us the way. “When the true God [came] back to deal with evil, he [looked] like a young Jewish prophet journeying to Jerusalem at Passover time, celebrating the kingdom, confronting the corrupt authorities, feasting with his friends, succumbing in prayer and agony to a cruel and unjust fate, taking upon himself the weight of Israel’s sin, the world’s sin: Evil with a capital E.” (Wright, 99)
Father, please shape us your children into little images of our Savior, here where and when we live, so that more and more people, more and more of your Creation, can celebrate and dwell in the fulfillment of your eternal promises. I have
no answers, Lord. You are Creator, Father, and King. That is enough.
In HIS love,