When the sky turns September blue and the muggy blanket of early morning heat slips into a sliver of chill, I remember that year of change. It stays with me, what has been, and I am sure that it stays with you. In the remembering, we learn. In the remembering, we honor. In the remembering, we understand what has been lost and what, for some, may be found.
Those days were full of testing my own two feet, trying to stay steady away from home for the first time in my life. Barely eighteen years old and living in a lovely old residence hall at UNC-Chapel Hill, a dorm full of girls with dreams that we watered with knowledge by day and worried over by night. I’d met a boy that summer, right before time to move into my new life. I’m going to marry him, I’d told my mother, and I missed him in a way I’d never known it was possible to miss another person. I’d joined an on-campus choir, felt a thrill every time I thought of my creative writing class, and tried to forget that everyone back home knew my name. I was a stranger, but God had led me to this place and the future was a tied up, prettily packaged gift just waiting for me to pull the ribbons loose so I could discover what it held. So it was with hope that I left my dorm room every morning, watching my step on the uneven cobble-stone walkways, stopping for coffee. Hope for who I was becoming and hope that whoever that was, she’d have something good to offer to the world.
It was a morning just like that, my head filled with wondering about that boy and getting to class on time (without getting lost) and thankful prayers on a bench near a bed of flowers. Psychology at 8 am and an empty room when I returned, a moment to lie down on the purple comforter to rest. It was then that the boy called and I pulled myself out of a foggy sleepiness to hear the word ‘terrorist’, a word that was meant only for movie theaters and so he was joking, right? I couldn’t figure out what he meant with this story of planes and New York City, the city of publishers and Frank Sinatra and Regis Philbin and You’ve Got Mail…
The phone gripped tightly to my ear, I walked the three flights downstairs to an empty common room and turned on the tv. Smoke billowed black and angry over New York City. Newscasters sounded uncertain and I could hear a tone I’d never heard before from the mouths of Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson: fear.
My stomach churned and a girl I didn’t know walked into the room and we stood, together, and watched. It wasn’t long before the walls crumbled and, on that morning of a cool walk to class and nothing to worry about but a night in the stuffy laundry basement and a paper to write, the twin towers fell.
Then there was the Pentagon and classes canceled, flights going nowhere and the girl across the hall crying hysterically while she tried to reach her father, who worked in one of those towers. There was the feeling that none of this was really happening, panic in the unknown — what will happen next? — phone calls to everyone I loved, and a forever change in the way I looked at our world.
Because what we saw on that clear morning was evil in action, hatred so strong that it disregarded human life and made a spectacle of murder. I knew about evil, yes, but I’d only seen its subtle tentacles in my own life. Just as dangerous, maybe because it threatens a heart without much of a warning alarm, but this blatant attack was the kind of thing in history books. In the face of Adolf Hitler. In the streets of the Middle East. In Africa, kids training in the life of destruction and automatic rifles.
Not here. Not in America. Not a road-trip away.
After a day of eery quiet on campus, the student body of UNC gathered by candle-light to remember those who’d been lost. Sure and swift, the question came. Now what?
Now that we know we are not invincible… now that we’ve seen with our own eyes the power of evil… now that we understand that bad things will happen –to us!– what will we do?
It was a question that I didn’t have an answer to, not then. I spoke the words — we have to trust God– but my prayers felt like a guitar without strings, mute. I was afraid. I knew my life had been outrageously blessed so far — sure, there’d been moving and new towns and high school heart-ache–but nothing that intruded into my safe world. It had been an unspoken fear, wondering if a day would come and bring real pain with it. I’d secretly hoped that, just maybe, my life was an exception to true suffering.
But if men could walk the streets, chat with their neighbors, and go smiling into work while they harbored hate in their hearts — who could be trusted? If death could arrive on a Tuesday morning, from the September blue sky that I loved, then it could show up anytime, any place. It could happen to someone I loved. It could happen to me and suddenly I was scared to open that pretty package of tomorrow. There was just no way to know what was hiding there. And though I, a preacher’s kid who’d always been taught that God was our source of strength, was ashamed to admit my doubt and pushed it way down deep — I wasn’t sure I’d find His presence sufficient in the darkness.
As it does, life came with or without my consent and I carried doubt with me into my marriage, into motherhood, into my adult life. Without realizing it, I began to make decisions out of that fear. In the ten years since the day that ripped open a new chapter of our history, I’ve had false starts, stagnant seasons, and real progress in my relationship with God, only to end up sobbing in the dark on my bathroom floor… and it all came down to one thing. Even though I tried to deny it, I did not fully trust that God was my purpose or that if I lost everything, I’d find what I needed in Him. So I was scared to lose anything called mine.
I was afraid of who I was, that I would never accomplish those things I was sure would give me meaning. I was afraid of my children’s futures. I was afraid I would wreck my children’s futures. I was afraid my husband didn’t really love me. I was afraid I’d wake up to tanks rolling down the street and guns pointed at our house. I was afraid of tornadoes. I was afraid that the future would only bring more sorrow and I was already tied up in enough anxious knots, clinging to what I had and waiting for it to bring me peace. Most of all, I was afraid to fully trust God for fear that everything I’d always believed about Him would turn out to be wrong.
Then God, in His sweet grace, put me in the path of a message. A message from the book of Isaiah that spoke of a long-ago king and his enemy… King Hezekiah of Judah and Sennacherib, king of Assyria, who was marching in to take over Jersualem. Sennacherib’s commander said this to the Israelites: “Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord when he says, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us…” and to Hezekiah himself, Sennacherib sent a letter listing his many victories of destruction and to say, “Do not let the God you depend on deceive you when he says, Jerusalem will not be handed over…”
This is where I was. Standing in my life with a message from my enemy, listening and listening to a voice that said – don’t trust what He says! Look at all that I have destroyed! Do you think He’ll really take care of you?
But, unlike me, Hezekiah did not hide out in his bathroom. He took that message and went to the temple of the Lord. He spread it out and he said, “O Lord Almighty, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth… It is true that the Assyrian kings have laid waste all these peoples and their lands… but now, O Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O Lord, are God.”
What step had I missed? What gave Hezekiah the courage to lean on God when everything was falling apart? What was his answer to ‘now what?
How can we walk fearlessly forward into the future with the knowledge that it’s possible for pain to bust down the door to our lives at any moment? And when it does — when family members make terrible mistakes, when a diagnosis is the one no one wants to hear, when there are earthquakes and tsunamis, when we face death, when children suffer, when betrayal breaks hearts, when economies collapse — when the towers fall, in whatever form they take in our lives, what is the answer to the ‘now what?’
Hezekiah knew his God. He knew that God was the true King, mighty in power and glory. And he knew the word the Lord had promised– “Do not be afraid of what you have heard!” God had promised victory and Hezekiah acted on His word. For Hezekiah, knowledge of God (not just about Him) brought trust.
I laid down my Sunday-School-facts-pride and began to began to conciously pursue God, asking Him for heart-knowledge to go along with all that head-knowledge. I needed to experience His character for myself. So I picked up His Word and put down everything else I’d been using to feed my emptiness. Chapter by chapter, I read this revelation of His character… I saw it unfolding, this plan of love and redemption. I contemplated the testimonies that came again and again — the men and women of old with their life-plans in pieces at their feet, but their hearts whole and even joyful.
I remembered Job’s entire world turned upside down and his declaration in the middle of the tumbling — “I know my Redeemer lives and I shall see Him with my own eyes.” I read Paul’s sure proclamations–in everything, content. In all oppression and opposition, in all danger and turmoil — never separated from the love of God and so never left wanting. Over and over again, there was His power, His majesty, His faithfulness sustaining His people. There was compassion, mercy, and love from Genesis to Revelation.
I began to see the beauty of our God in a way I’d never known it before… I knew Him better and so I could recognize the visible and invisible work of His hands in my own life — grace-incidents that could reflect only Him. I learned, firsthand, how He wants us to know Him. He wants a relationship with us and so when we draw near to God, He will come near to us. When we seek Him with sincere hearts, we will find Him. When we knock, that door into His presence will be opened.
Hezekiah didn’t deny that there was a problem for Judah. He knew his nation was shaking in fear, listening to the enemy… and even though Sennacherib was trying to convince him that there was no point in depending on God, Hezekiah still chose to surrender the situation to Him. That was the last thing Sennacherib (or our present enemy) wanted. Knowing Him, maybe that’s one thing — believing in who He is to the point of giving Him the control of our problems and lives, that’s another. Because when we step out on faith to submit the threats from the enemy into His hands, we are putting our trust in the God of all power and might.
When we admit our fears and doubts, when we see the trouble and still praise Him for who we have seen Him to be — that, friends, is the moment things begin to forever change and our enemies lose their power over us. That is when the chains break. That’s when the prison cell doors swing open. That’s when we begin to live with abundant life — because in the darkness, when we call out His name, we discover for ourselves that He is there. He is true. And He is all we need.
I wish I could show you the change inside of my heart when this became real to me.
My sleepless nights, they ended. No longer did I find my value in another person, feeling crushed and hopeless when he failed to fill the void in my heart. I stopped panicking over the passing years and the undone plans. There was peace instead of heart-aching worry when I looked at my children… Finally, finally, I was free. I gave Him my life, totally, and in that most beautiful of mysteries — it was only then that I found it. When I gave up the things I’d been so stubbornly afraid to lose, I didn’t feel empty. I felt full. I felt purpose. He loved me because of who He is and because He’d created me… and walking with Him, no matter what else was happening in this life, fulfilled me.
And the promises of joy and unexplainable peace I’d read about? At last in my own life, they were all true. All true. Not only true, but unchanging! His blessings do not change with our circumstances! His character does not alter when the pain comes in —no, He remains a sure and steady foundation for our souls. His love is our comfort, His goodness our hope. Our hearts may break, but still He holds us —and with everything within me, I hope that you will seek Him and know this for yourself — He is more than enough in the darkness.
“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and not cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength.” ~ Hab. 3:17-19.
Some days will bring struggle, but I know that He is with me. I know that He is enough. And I am not afraid anymore. When bad times come along… when the ‘now what’ sounds — I lay the threats of this world before the Lord, just as Hezekiah did, and I say, just as Hezekiah’s greatest ancestor did — “Preserve me, O God, for in Thee I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘Thou art my Lord, I have no good apart from Thee.’… The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; Thou holdest my lot… I bless the Lord who gives me counsel… I keep the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad… Thou dost show me the path of life; in Thy presence there is fullness of joy, in Thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.” -(from Psalm 16)
Wait on the Lord.
Hezekiah trusted his cause to the Lord and the victory came by the hand of His angel. The battle wasn’t Judah’s to win. It was the Almighty God’s — by Him and for His glory. This battle we’re in, it isn’t on our time-line and we don’t wage war against flesh and blood. We can’t see tomorrow or next week and we definitely don’t know how eternity unfolds… which means that we won’t always have an explanation to the tragic hours of our lives.
Will we ever know why days like 9-11 are allowed? Probably not. But our God is sovereign. He does know the why and the how and the end results… and He is love… so we can be confident that He can take something intended for evil and turn it into good. It may be on the other side of this life that we see it, but we will see that everything has worked according to His purpose, for the good of those that love Him.
Satan and the Sennacheribs of this world will tell us that we cannot trust God to deliver us — they will point to the angry smoke billowing and claim their victory. But remember! Jesus Christ gave His life so that the power of sin would be no more — and we can say, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?… Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”
Look ahead to our future and know that our Lord, the author and finisher of our faith, will bring us to that place where ‘the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations… no longer will there be any curse… There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light (Rev.22:2-5)… Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:3-5)
So now, as September blue skies are again above me, I step into my day with hope restored. Hope in who He is and the perfect love He has offered to this world. If the day brings good or if the day brings sorrow, I am confident of this, because I sought the Lord, and He answered me; He delivered me from all my fears (Psalm 34:4)…”You hold me by your right hand, You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:23-26)