The Next Disaster

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken September 8, 2002

On Wednesday it will be September 11, the first anniversary of the tragic events that have cast a long, dark shadow over our nation for the past twelve months. It will be a time to remember. We will remember those who were lost, and those who lost them. We will remember the towers, the airplanes, the smoke, the bodies, and the collapse. We will remember the valiant heroes that perished trying to save those who were about to die. We will remember the aftermath, when the hope of rescue became the reality of recovery.

We will also remember this: that somewhere in the world there is an enemy who is desperate to do us harm. In retrospect, it is painfully obvious that al-Qaeda has been waging war on the United State of America for years. Mr. Bin Laden and his associates tried to destroy the World Trade Center. They bombed U. S. embassies. They attacked American ships. So even if we were amazed by the audacity of what happened last September, we should not have been surprised by its evil intent.

Six years ago this month I did a Window on the World called “The New Terrorism,” by which I meant “terrorism that strikes close to where we live.” What is terrifying about the New Terrorism, I said then, is that it “involves mail we might open, tall buildings we might enter, daycare centers we might frequent, sporting events we might attend, and airlines we might travel.” Like many others, I believed then that terrorism would soon strike and strike again on American shores.

I believe the same thing now. To me it seems inevitable that for the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to be a major target for terrorist activity, and that there will be nothing anyone can do to stop it. Some of our enemies have been killed. Others are still incarcerated. But the spectacular success of last year's attack only whetted their appetite for destruction. And the more success we have in stopping terrorism, the more determined our enemies will be to make it work.

When will we face the next disaster? Where will it strike, and how? Will it be worse than 9/11? Of course it is impossible to know for certain. This is how terrorism works. We try to anticipate what our enemies will do next, but they try to stay one step ahead, attempting crimes so horrific that they go beyond our imagination. Perhaps terrorists will poison our water supply, contaminate our food, knock out our power grids, or infect us with some deadly disease. Or maybe they will detonate a “dirty bomb”—a conventional weapon packed with radioactive material.

Suppose I am right. Suppose that we are waiting for the next disaster. What difference should that make for the way we live? To begin with, we should be ready to help. One of the encouraging things about 9/11 was the way ordinary citizens helped one another in extraordinary ways. For Christians there were unique opportunities to share the love of Christ. What if there was a disaster right here in Philadelphia? Would we be physically, emotionally, and spiritually prepared to help? We need to be ready to serve in any time of special need, and to that end our pastoral staff has begun to discuss the development of a disaster plan for Tenth Church.

Other than that, we are still called to serve the Lord the way we always have. In the weeks and months following 9/11 it became customary to hear people talk about how much the world had changed. Americans were adjusting to what the pundits called “a new normal.” But as Christians we ought to be more impressed by the things that haven't changed. We still live in a world of spectacular beauty with people who have the amazing potential to be like God. We still live in a world oppressed by the wickedness of our own depravity, where people do despicable things to one another. We still live in a world that is destined one day to be destroyed. And God is still on his throne. In ways that go far beyond our comprehension, he is working out his purpose in a way that ultimately brings him the glory. So what has changed? Things are different, in some ways, but fundamentally nothing has changed.

This implies that our responsibilities have not changed either. We are still called to care for those who suffer. We are still called to do everything in our power to save people spending eternity separated from Christ. We are still called to pray and work for the triumph of the gospel over the darkness of Islam. And we are still called to trust God for the future, including the next disaster.

C. S. Lewis once considered what Christians should do when there is a real chance that their lives will come to a sudden and catastrophic end. He was writing about the atomic bomb, but the answer he gave applies equally well to terrorism, or to any other disaster. Lewis wrote:

If we are all going to be destroyed… , let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts-not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies but they need not dominate our minds [C. S. Lewis, "On Living in an Atomic Age," in Present Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis, ed. by Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), pp. 73-74].

On Wednesday most of us will take some time to remember and to pray. Our loss was great—so great that most of us have yet to lament it as deeply as we should. But Wednesday will also be a day for going to work, getting ready for school, washing the dishes, bathing the children, and doing all the other ordinary things we are called to do as well as we can—no matter what happens—until Jesus comes to take us home.

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