Wednesday September, 11 is known as Patriot Day, in commemoration of the 2001 terrorist attacks which took place on September 11. For this generation, September 11 will likely occupy a place in people’s minds similar to Pearl Harbor two generations ago and the assassination of John F. Kennedy a generation ago. Everyone who remembers the terrorist attacks will likely always remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news.
Jackson Presbyterian Examiner would like to take a moment to remember Billy Graham’s memorable speech delivered the week of the tragedy at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. Graham, 82 at the time, spoke with the wisdom of years, having lived through numerous national crises before, knowing what it’s like to have to trust God during the midst of such turmoil. Graham’s words were poignant, but not trite, Christ-centered, but not condescending towards those outside the faith. In short, Graham’s speech was an excellent example of how a Christian can speak comfort in times of national sorrow in a way that is winsome and wise.
“We come together today to affirm our conviction that God cares for us, whatever our ethnic, religious or political background may be… No matter how hard we try, words simply cannot express the horror, the shock and the revulsion we all feel over what took place in this nation on Tuesday morning,” Graham said. Graham didn’t try to trivialize the tragedy or make it out to be any less worse than it was.
“Today we say to those who masterminded this cruel plot, and to those who carried it out, that the spirit of this nation will not be defeated by their twisted and diabolical schemes. Some day those responsible will be brought to justice,” he said. Here Graham called evil evil, but didn’t do so in a way as to stir up hatred towards the perpetrators. As a Christian, it’s legitimate to pray for justice to be served, but as Graham knows very well, it’s not okay to let bitterness take root and cause malice and hatred, even towards enemies.
Graham quoted, Psalm 46: "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea." Next, he explored the question that was nagging so many people the week of September 11, 2001—how could God let this happen?
“You may even be angry at God," he said. "I want to assure you that God understands these feelings that you may have. We've seen so much that brings tears to our eyes and makes us all feel a sense of anger. But God can be trusted, even when life seems at its darkest.”
Graham doesn’t moralize against those who feel angry. Remember, it was Job, in his anger about what he perceived as injustice, who was commended by God, while his friends, intent to condemn Job for expressing such anger, were rebuked by God. This teaches us that God would rather us be honest with him about our emotions than pretend that we feel fine when in reality we don’t.
2. Lessons Graham drew from the tragedy of September 11, 2001
Graham proceeded to outline three important lessons he believed Americans could learn from the September 11 attack.
“First, we are reminded of the mystery and reality of evil. I have been asked hundreds of times why God allows tragedy and suffering. I have to confess that I do not know the answer. I have to accept, by faith, that God is sovereign and that He is a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering.”
Thankfully, Graham doesn’t get sidetracked into a philosophical discussion about the problem of evil. As necessary as those apologetics discussions are, times of national tragedy are not the time for them, and Graham knew so. He reaffirmed God being in control of the situation, but did so gently, bearing with those who weren’t ready to affirm that truth with him.
“Second, [this event] is a lesson about our need for each other… A tragedy like this could have torn our country apart, but instead it has united us… We are more united than ever before.”
As an example of the unparalleled national unity that arose in the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks, Graham pointed out how, earlier that day, members of Congress had stood “shoulder to shoulder” singing “God Bless America”. For a moment, members of the government were willing to look past their political differences with each other and acknowledge each other as fellow Americans, fellow human beings.
“Finally, difficult as it may be for us to see right now, this event can give a message of hope—hope for the present and hope for the future… We desperately need a spiritual renewal in this country, and God has told us in His Word time after time that we need to repent of our sins and return to Him, and He will bless us in a new way.”
Graham took the opportunity to urge people to seek God. Though we need God all of the time, tragic circumstances often bring that need front and center in our consciousness. Graham urged Americans to repent of sin and seek God, promising that God blesses those who sincerely turn from sin and seek after him.
3. How Graham’s speech still ministers to us today
Graham’s words, spoken 12 years ago this week, are just as relevant today as they were in the Fall of 2001. Arguably, the most moving part of Graham’s speech was the conclusion, wherein he mused about the shortness of our life here on earth:
“This event reminds us of the brevity and the uncertainty of life. We never know when we too will be called into eternity. I doubt if those people who got on those planes or who walked into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon on Tuesday thought that it would be the last day of their lives. And that's why we each must face our own spiritual need and commit ourselves to God and His will.”
One is reminded of James the apostle who, in his epistle says, "Life is but a vapor, here today and gone tomorrow." Tomorrow is not a given.
Graham went on to say, “Here in this majestic National Cathedral we see all around us the symbol of the cross. For the Christian, the cross tells us that God understands our sin and our suffering, for He took them upon Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ. From the cross God declares, ‘I love you. I know the heartaches and the sorrows and the pain that you feel. But I love you.’ The story does not end with the cross, for Easter points us beyond the tragedy of the cross to the empty tomb. It tells us that there is hope for eternal life, for Christ has conquered evil and death and hell. Yes, there is hope.”
While not minimizing the loss of human life, Graham reminded listeners that many of those who perished in the terrorist attack were presently, through Christ, enjoying the bliss of heaven. He said that, given the choice, those individuals would never want to come back to this earth, as they were enjoying the presence of God. Through Christ’s cross, his paying for our sins, the presence of God, a relationship with God, is available to all who trust Christ.
In closing, Graham said, “I've become an old man now, and I've preached all over the world. And the older I get, the more I cling to that hope that I started with many years ago. Yes, our nation has been attacked, buildings destroyed, lives lost. But now we have a choice: whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation; or to choose to become stronger through all of this struggle, to rebuild on a solid foundation… That foundation is our trust in God. And in that faith, we have the strength to endure something as difficult and as horrendous as what we have experienced this week.”
One of the results of a tragedy is an overarching sense of helplessness. Graham wisely put the focus, not on the past, which is unchangeable, but on the future. We can’t undo the horror of September 11, but we can, here and now, choose how it will effect us from here on out. We can, as he said, “disintegrate” or “become stronger”.
Graham concluded with the lyrics of a classic hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”, written by John Rippon in 1787:
“Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed,/For I am thy God, and will give thee aid;/I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,/Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand."