The date September 11, 2001, is forever etched in the national memory of the United States. That morning stands as the never-to-be-forgotten morning when time stood still. Wherever we were, we stared in horror and confusion. With calculated and unconscionable malice, beastly terrorists stabbed our nation repeatedly in the heart—at the World Trade Center in New York, at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and along a quiet countryside in southwest Pennsylvania.
We remember and honor the almost three thousand dead—American citizens and foreign visitors. The anniversary of September 11 may be one we’d like to forget . . . but we won’t, because we can’t.
We dare not forget.
A Chronicle of Chaos
You only have to read a brief log of events to remember what transpired that frightening morning. The times I refer to are based on central standard time.
- At 6:58 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 left Boston bound for Los Angeles with fifty-six passengers, two pilots, and seven flight attendants.
- One minute later, at 6:59 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 departed Boston en route to Los Angeles with eighty-one passengers, two pilots, and nine flight attendants.
- Two minutes later, at 7:01 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93 left Newark, New Jersey, headed to San Francisco with thirty-eight passengers, two pilots, and five flight attendants.
- Nine minutes later, at 7:10 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 took off from Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. bound for Los Angeles with fifty-eight passengers, two pilots, and four flight attendants.
- Thirty-five minutes later, at 7:45 a.m., American Flight 11 plunged into the north tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan—a direct hit.
- Eighteen minutes after the north tower was hit, at 8:03 a.m., United Flight 175 crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.
- Forty minutes after the south tower was hit, at 8:43 a.m., American Flight 77 crashed full throttle into the Pentagon, ripping open a hole at least two hundred feet wide on the west side. Flames exploded from the nerve center of our nation’s major military facility.
- Seven minutes after the Pentagon was hit, at 8:50 a.m., the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
- Eight minutes later, at 8:58 a.m., an emergency dispatcher in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, received a cell phone call from a man who said he was a passenger locked in the bathroom of United Flight 93. The dispatcher quoted the man as saying, “We are being hijacked! We are being hijacked!” The man then said the plane was going down and reported some sort of explosion and white smoke coming from the plane. At that moment, the dispatcher lost contact.
- Twelve minutes after that cell phone call, at 9:10 a.m., United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco crashed near Somerset, Pennsylvania, eighty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Representative James Moran of Virginia, after a Marine Corps briefing, said that hijackers evidently planned to crash the plane into the presidential retreat at Camp David or the United States Capitol building.
- At the same moment, 9:10 a.m., a portion of the Pentagon collapsed.
- Only nineteen minutes after the Pentagon’s west side collapsed, at 9:29 a.m., the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
The whirlwind of repeated tragedies left us stunned, reeling in disbelief. I thought I had already lived through America’s worst disasters. How wrong I was.
Right on schedule, the horrible events, planned to the point of precision, ran their course. Thousands of unsuspecting civilians were brutally murdered. Our fellow Americans bled and died—some immediately, many slowly and painfully, all unexpectedly. Others bravely escaped with their lives bruised, broken, and burned. Whether whispered, shouted, or pondered in silence, the question most people were asking was: “Why, God?”
I Don’t Know Why, But I Do Know Who
In my many years on this earth, I thought I had seen it all . . . until September 11, 2001. On that day, I got a new understanding of the total depravity of humanity. And as a byproduct, I have a new appreciation for the gifts of liberty and life itself—for the love of my wife, my family, and my friends—and for the power of the human spirit to press on and to recover from tragedy, no matter the sacrifice or cost.
Today, the men and women who made it through the hellish anguish of September 11—who were in the towers and the Pentagon or who lost loved ones on the planes and in the buildings and in that Pennsylvania field—live with deep physical, emotional, and spiritual scars. Each anniversary, no doubt, reopens those scars and causes many to question anew, “Why, God?” And if we’re honest, as we contemplate recent world events, some of us wonder the same thing.
I don’t know the answer. But I do know this: our God is still sovereign; He is still in control. He is our refuge; He is our solid foundation. We can hold on to that truth. We must hold on to that truth! How can we be so sure? Read on.
How Firm a Foundation
At 7:30 p.m. on September 11, 2001, as millions of Americans met in places of worship to pray, the president addressed the nation in a speech we all watched and recorded for later viewing. One statement he made stood out in my mind and still lingers today: “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.”[ref]George W. Bush, “Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation,” White House, Washington, D.C., September 11, 2001, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911-16.html (accessed July 18, 2011).[/ref]
As I listened to President George W. Bush that somber night, I remembered a psalm I had studied years ago. David wrote Psalm 11 probably while being hunted by King Saul. With borderline insane paranoia, Saul had begun seeking David’s life, believing the young man was out to get him and take his position as king. David was on the run. As he wrote in the first part of this psalm, he had fled as a bird to the mountain. And in that hiding place, momentarily removed from danger, he asked this question:
“If the foundations are destroyed, What can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3)
Great question! Webster tells us a foundation is the “basis . . . upon which something stands or is supported.”[ref]Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2008), “foundation.”[/ref] Every house, every significant structure, every building has a foundation. The taller the building, the deeper and more important the foundation. Destroy the building’s foundation, and you topple the building.
This was precisely David’s point. He wasn’t referring to structures. No house or building was in his mind, and there’s no reference to such in this psalm. Instead, this psalm is about life. David was saying that if the foundation of a life is destroyed, that life crumbles. But if the foundation remains secure, no amount of stress—in David’s case, no attack by Saul—can cause a life to fracture or crumble. Psalm 11 reveals that David could feel this truth being put to the test.
You see, one of the most effective weapons in those days was a sharp, slender arrow slipped from the bow and guided to the target by a marksman’s eye. David viewed the treacherous, threatening words of Saul as arrows coming from a warrior. Look at his vivid word picture:
Behold, the wicked bend the bow, They make ready their arrow upon the string. (11:2)
David’s point was that the wicked bend their bows; they make ready deadly arrows on the string. I don’t think he had literal bows and arrows in mind. Rather, he was thinking of words shot at him and statements made against him, as part of the plot to bring him down. But he wasn’t brought down . . . because the foundations of his life were strong.
If those foundations hadn’t been secure, his life would’ve collapsed, dropped like a sack of salt. How do I know his foundations were secure? Look again at the first verse. Occasionally in the psalms, the gist of the whole message is in the first sentence, and everything that follows is an amplification. This psalm is like that:
In the Lord I take refuge; How can you say to my soul, “Flee as a bird to your mountain”? (11:1)
David essentially said, “My soul is not on the run. My spirit has not capsized, because in the Lord I take refuge.” A refuge is a place of hiding, a place of protection. The ancient Hebrew term—chasah—means a protective place that provides safety from that which would hit and hurt. It’s a protective shield from danger and distress. David made it clear that Yahweh was his chasah. Because that was true, David could know, and we can know, his foundations were sure.
An old country preacher once said, “I may tremble on the rock, but the Rock don’t tremble under me.” He was right. The Rock is our solid foundation. It stands firm no matter what. It is our place of refuge.
God Is Our Refuge
That word refuge reminds me of another psalm—the forty-sixth. Who wouldn’t find comfort in the hope of this ancient promise? This is the very psalm in which Martin Luther found refuge more than five hundred years ago. Hiding in its truths he found strength. Psalm 46 gave him fresh courage to press on, even though he was misunderstood, maligned, and mistreated. How comforting to him were those words, “God is our refuge” (chasah, same word).
God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. (46:1)
The opening lines of this forty-sixth psalm later inspired Luther to write, “Ein’ Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott”—“A high tower is the Lord our God.” We sing those words today:
A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing.[ref]Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (Waco, Tex.: Word Music, 1986), 26.[/ref]
Why is such a foundation sure? Because it is God Himself! Our foundation is the God of creation. The God who made us is the God who shelters us.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. [El Shaddai] I will say to the Lord, “My refuge [my chasah] and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!” (Psalm 91:1–2)
No matter how insecure and chaotic our times may be! No matter if terrorists topple our buildings or kill our fellow citizens! No matter if God doesn’t fully answer our question, Why? On that solid foundation of our Sovereign God—and only there—we are secure.
A Prayer of Remembrance
Lord, we bow before our great God, who offers His peace when so many panic. You are our refuge, our one and only chasah. Rivet that into our minds. Prompt us to pause, and let that sink in. Remind us of Your power and presence when evening song changes into the fearful tears of the night. Remind us of that when the shrill ring of the phone awakens us. Remind us of that when we sit down and read the morning headlines. Remind us of that on this day of remembrance—this eleventh anniversary of that infamous day, September 11, 2001. Remind us, even when we don’t understand the why of what’s happening, that we have no reason to fear, that we need not be moved, and that our future is never uncertain with You.
In the strong name of Christ, our Shield, our Refuge, our almighty Lord, Amen.