We had a memorial service tonight for September 11th at Burke United Methodist Church. It was perhaps the most meaningful event I’ve ever attended that had something to do with 9/11. It wasn’t grandiose or fancy in any way. Maybe 30-40 people attended. About a dozen different people shared testimony and each of them had something completely different to say.
One woman shared that she was pregnant ten years ago with her daughter who happened to be an acolyte in our service tonight. A woman who was working for the Navy shared about the colleagues she had lost at the Pentagon. A man who works in intelligence shared about the agony he and others in the intelligence community have carried with them over the attacks. Another man said that he would always remember the example of the passengers of flight 93 who refused to let evil triumph without a fight. Another man talked about the way that no evil can snuff out the grace of small acts of kindness.
Then a woman stood up who’s one of my favorite people because she holds nothing back whenever we share testimony in church. She had plugged in the phrase “god of hope” on biblegateway.com and the verse that popped up was Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” As the conclusion of our service, we had people come forward so that my senior pastor and I could anoint them with oil. As I rubbed the oil on their foreheads, I told each of them, “God has given you a spirit of hope and not of fear.” After this, I prayed that God would use the hope that He has instilled in us to transform the reality of the world around us.
If we’re people of hope, how should we talk about something like 9/11? There’s a dissonance between the “facts” of our world and the kingdom of hope that we believe in. Hope is an act of rebellion against the “facts” which seem to proclaim hopelessness. Hope refuses to be snuffed out by the poisonous partisanship that sucks almost every American into its ideological polarization, the perpetually shrinking job pool in our economy, the irresolvable national debt, the impossible intransigence of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, the fact that our country can’t fit all the poor people from around the world who want to move here and don’t deserve to live in poverty any more than we do.
I don’t feel like our theology needs to “resolve” this dissonance between the kingdom we hope for and the fallen world we inhabit. Some people seem to think that unless we affirm that God had a purpose for allowing September 11th to happen, then we’re saying God’s not really in charge of the universe. That’s what frustrates me about Trevin Wax’s argument that 9/11 is an affirmation of the theology of predestination (besides the fact that he’s scoring ideological points off of an event that hurt people I care about). Why not simply say that bad things happen, but I will hope in God? That’s the Biblical model given to us by the psalmists for speaking hope in the face of evil.
It seems more honest to understand our faith in the God of a broken universe as a rebellion against logic rather than to invent terminology like God’s permissive and perfect will to explain how God’s will controls everything including evil, which is not so much a gesture to God’s sovereignty as it is an attempt to put God in a box of human logic. If I need to explain how bad things that happen serve God’s purpose, isn’t that a refusal to accept the scandal of faith which is the “assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1)? Hope does not need to launder the evil it confronts into a deeper expression of God’s goodness; it simply refuses to allow the evil to have the last word by rebelling against it.
We do not hope because we’ve systematically explained away all the apparent signs of hopelessness in the world; that would be too reasonable to be called hope. We hope simply because we must. I preached a sermon on Holy Saturday this year about the way that our lives are spent in between the cross of Good Friday and the resurrection of Easter. We live in a Holy Saturday world that has not yet become what it is destined to become in Jesus Christ. All the brokenness of our world does not give me any logical reason to say that God is going to win, but I have every reason to hope that He will, and in the confidence of that hope, I can say that I know He will.