Being God’s rod and staff - Lord Wallace reflects on 9/11

Lord Wallace, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
Lord Wallace, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Lord Wallace, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, reflects on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and considers the place of God in tragedy. This piece was originally published in Life and Work.

For anyone over the age of 25, September 11 2001 - 9/11 - is etched in our memory.

It should not require a special anniversary to recall the horror and tragedy of that day, but inevitably the 20th anniversary will be an occasion for focus and reflection.

Most of us can remember where we were and what we were doing when we learned of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre and later the Pentagon, and of the plane forced down by passengers in Pennsylvania.

I was in my office in St Andrew's House, Edinburgh preparing to go to a meeting of the Scottish Cabinet when I was told of the first plane flying into one of the towers.

It was all terribly unclear as to whether it was a ghastly accident or a deliberate act. By the time I reached the First Minister's residence at Bute House, there was news and TV footage of the second plane. It was clear that this was a wicked terrorist act.

The following hours were chilling and anxious, as we repeatedly watched news reports and saw the towers collapsing, But over time, stories of carnage and death were augmented by reports of heroism, including acts of sacrifice, by individuals, fire-fighters, and other emergency workers.

Some weeks later I was sent a collection of poems by pupils at Williamwood High School in East Renfrewshire. Recently, when clearing out papers, I found them (I kept them) and re-read them. They reflect the awfulness of what had happened as well as the bravery of many. But I also noted that a number asked the question:

"Where was God?"

I am sure that these young people were not the only ones asking that question.

And many will have asked it in more recent times as the coronavirus death tolls mounted.

But neither is it a new question. The psalmist cries: "My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?" - words which are echoed as Jesus suffers on the Cross.

I recently came across a quote by the US Presbyterian minister and theologian, Robert McAfee Brown:

"Whatever the status of evil in the world, I know that the only God in whom I can believe will be a God found in the midst of evil rather than at a safe distance from it; suffering the evil rather than inflicting it."

Whilst we may not quite use that formulation, two points nevertheless struck me in reading that.

Firstly, God is not a perpetrator of evil. Many people will have had the experience of insurance companies conveniently claiming an "Act of God" rather than pay out -a handy 'get-out clause', but a grotesque misrepresentation. And there are still some voices who would claim that those who are victims of natural disasters, or suffer from illnesses such as AIDS, are targets of some kind of divine retribution.

Surely such a view is utterly inconsistent with belief in a God who is Love.

Secondly, even in the darkest moments, God is with us and with those who suffer.

"Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff - they comfort me."

There may be times when such assurance seems far away but even at Ground Zero on 9/11 the world witnessed countless acts of selfless love.

Whatever the status of evil in the world, I know that the only God in whom I can believe will be a God found in the midst of evil rather than at a safe distance from it; suffering the evil rather than inflicting it.

And we must always be open to the possibility of any one of us at any time being God's 'rod or staff', bringing comfort as well as spiritual or practical support to those who are suffering. It could be through challenging injustice or by an act of simple kindness.

Remember, Paul reassures us that, "in everything, as we know, the Spirit co-operates for good with those who love God."

Lord Wallace will preach at a special service at St Giles' attended by the US Consulate on Sunday beginning at 11am.

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