"When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers -- so many caring people in this world." (Fred Rogers)
It was early on a Tuesday morning in Denver, Colorado, and I was sitting in Dr. Dennis Petrillo's Advanced Hermeneutics (hermeneutics is the science of interpretation, especially of the Bible) class with John Dobbs and a few other folks.
I was doing my best to remain civil during a discussion of the tired, old tripartite formula (Command, Example, Necessary Inference), which is neither advanced, nor biblical, nor even really a hermeneutic. Needless to say, I wasn't doing a very good job of keeping my opinion to myself. I nearly pulled a muscle rolling my eyes.
Our conversation, growing more heated by the word, was interrupted by someone knocking on the door. Something about a plane crash...in New York. It sounded pretty bad.
Sometimes God wants you to snatch someone from out of a fire, from a burning building, from a collapsing tower. You cannot do that and remain at a safe distance. You must be willing to enter the North Tower and climb its stairs.
We took a break. We found a TV somewhere and watched in horror as the second plane crashed into the south tower at the World Trade Center. Just a few minutes before we'd been laughing and gritting our teeth and thinking through really complicated issues. And now we were sitting watching as people leapt from burning buildings, panic in the streets, thousands of lives lost.
I was scheduled to speak in chapel the next day. What in the world was I supposed to say?
Last week I got to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. It is, in a word, respectful. It is quiet. It is dignified. If you get the chance to go, please do. Our tour guide told us the story of Captain Patrick J. Brown of the New York Fire Department, Ladder 3.
Captain Brown, known to his friends as "Paddy" and 11 men from Ladder 3 were among the first responders on the scene. These brave men managed to help more than 25,000 people evacuate from the building that day.
At some point in time, Paddy found a working telephone and used it to give updates from inside the North Tower. He knew there was a fire burning up above him, and he knew that people were trapped and in danger. His last message to the FDNY Dispatcher was, "This is three truck, and we are still headed up." It is believed he and his men were on the 40th floor of the North Tower when it fell.
Captain Brown did not believe he was doing anything particularly heroic. He was doing his job. He was there to save lives, and sometimes that means walking towards the mess.
I stood the following morning to address my classmates, their wives, faculty, administrators, and anyone else who happened to be there. I still wasn't quite sure what I was going to say. I began with a sentence from the Book of Jude. He writes, "Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire."
I acknowledged my own doubts in that moment. How could a loving and all-powerful God allow such a tragic event to take place? Could God have stopped it? If so, why didn't he? If not, what kind of God are we serving? Was he powerless? Was he bound and gagged? Or had he been the true mastermind behind this? Was he to blame? Was he the cause?
In times of great tragedy, it's easy to begin questioning God. It's normal. It's natural. And doubts will creep in. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. There is no such thing as doubt-free certainty. Everyone doubts from time to time. This is perhaps why Jude wants us to be merciful to those who doubt. It won't be long before it's you with the doubts, and you'll want someone to be merciful to you when the time comes.
But this second phrase -- the bit about snatching some from the fire. That's the image that really strikes me. Because it's really hard to snatch someone from a fire at a distance. You can doubt from a distance. And you can be merciful from a distance. But sometimes God wants you to snatch someone from out of a fire, from a burning building, from a collapsing tower.
You cannot do that and remain at a safe distance. You must be willing to enter the North Tower and climb its stairs.
The 9/11 Museum is filled with stories of horror but also stories of hope. Survivors tell of running for their lives only to see others running the opposite way. They were running away while others were running in. They were trying to save themselves while others were trying to rescue the fallen.
I looked my colleagues in the eye and said, "We've been too distant for too long, too interested in our own safety, too obsessed with maintaining a proper sense of decorum. If Jesus is who he claims to be, if God is who we say he is, if salvation is for everyone, then it's time for us to walk towards the mess now."
Too many of us hear that our neighbors are in trouble. Maybe it's their marriage. Or one of their kids. Or a lost job. We may share it in a gossip session at the bus stop or at our kids' soccer practice. Maybe we'll say a prayer for them. Probably we'll just talk about it and be glad it's them and not us.
It's time for us to walk towards the mess.
Someone near you is in trouble. You know about it. You could probably do something about it. But that might be complicated and messy. It might cost you something. It's easier to sigh and say, "What're you gonna do?" and turn on the TV. I hear the NFL's about to kickoff. Maybe you could drown out the cries of 11 million Syrian refugees with the laugh track of a network sitcom.
It's time for us to walk towards the mess.
We dishonor the memory of the brave men and women who gave their lives helping others 14 years ago if we sit at a distance now while tragic events unfold in our neighborhoods, our communities, our streets, our world. For God's sake, get off the couch and do something. Volunteer somewhere. Give someone shelter or clothing or food. Feed the hungry. Visit the sick. Send a note. Lend a hand.
Because Jesus is who he claimed to be, because God is who we say he is, because salvation is for everyone, it's time for us to walk towards the mess now.