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9/11 Joy and Pain

September 11, 2009

9/11 is a day of mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, it is a day of celebration—my birthday—but on the other hand, a day of mourning, the anniversary of a national tragedy. This morning my family prayed for all the surviving families who grieve today. May you find comfort, peace, and purpose in your loss and tragedy.

9/11 Questions

We are still searching for peace and purpose in the wake of 9/11. I believe this is a healthy sign. There are too many pieces that cursorily mention 9/11 as a chronological and cultural benchmark without seriously engaging the deep personal, social and theological issues surrounding our national tragedy. Serious searching for answers persists.

Ironically, questions can be just as helpful as answers when looking for purpose in suffering. Don DeLillo offers those questions in his fictional account of 9/11 called Falling Man. The anniversary of 9/11 is a good time to pick up this book and reflect on the personal and cultural impact of Twin Tower shrapnel. Falling Man helps us ask better questions by offering its reader an experience of 9/11. By affording us an opportunity to feel, in limited measure, the pain and confusion of this tragedy, DeLillo puts the reader in touch with the inner struggles of a 9/11 survivor and his attempt to make sense of his outer world. DeLillo writes:

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.

Things inside were distant and still, where he was supposed to be. It happened everywhere around him, a car half buried in debris, windows smashed and noises coming out, radio voices scratching at the wreckage. He saw people shedding water as they ran, clothes and bodies drenched from sprinkler systems. There were shoes discarded in the street, handbags and laptops, a man seated on the sidewalk coughing up blood. Paper cups went bouncing oddly by.

The world was this as well, figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air. The noise lay everywhere they ran, stratified sound collecting around them, and he walked away from it and into it at the same time.

This narrative helps us empathize with the confusion and weightlessness of a 9/11 survivor, and perhaps identify an echo of the meaninglessness that we have all suppressed in our own souls. Life crumbles around us as we long for purpose. In the “ash and night” of suffering we long for peace and light.

A Deeper Source

Interestinlgy, Kevin Neudeckor walks out of “fallen ash and near night” and into this thought: “Human existence had to have a deeper source than our own dank fluids. Dank or rank. There had to be a force behind it, a principal being who was and is and ever shall be.” Another Falling Man character comments, “God used to be an urban Jew. He’s back in the desert now.”

The search for purpose in suffering and a God who can explain the meaning of life are natural outcomes of tragedy. Tragedy has a way of arresting our conscience and calling us to account for what we do and why we are doing it. The question raised here is an important one–-has God left the city to roam the desert? Or is he present in our sufferings, speaking through them in order to gain our attention?

To get at the answer, is it a force or a Person that forms that deeper source? What can bring comfort, joy, and purpose? Last time I checked, the force of gravity hasn’t been much of a friend. If it is a Person, what is he saying through our suffering. In Christ, he is an urban Jew, taking on our flesh, our suffering, our circumstances and experiencing incalculable pain. But he tells us that he did it “for the joy set before him.” What joy? The joy of redemption, of rescuing us from our pain and proclivity to inflict pain on others. Christ is not in the desert; He is near, calling out to us, inviting us into the joy of redemption. Will we continue to walk the night or receive the light of his love, the depth of his joy, the strength of his redemption?

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