It’s 4:30 AM and JFK International Airport is moving at a slow-crawl type of pace. People are deplaning their red-eye flights wondering what time zone they are in, and others are thinking that the first flight of the day option of the ticket they purchased two months ago would have been a much wiser choice. For myself, I am returning from a land that seems to have stood still for 2000 plus years, while simultaneously is a powder-keg that could go off and change the whole world at any moment. There is something very stable, and yet very fragile about the Holy Land. Even this week while I was in Israel, a terror attack took place killing 4 in Tel Aviv, causing my wife back home to fill a couple of nights with prayer and pacing…
So here I sit, with the sun rising over the New York skyline. But this is not my city, for mine is one more bird away. And I somehow know in the deeper recesses of my mind and soul that I am not returning to the same city I left. Somewhere in the late night hours between Saturday and Sunday morning, about the time the bartender is yelling out, “last call”, the largest terror attack since 9/11 took place in my home city. With more and more information being released the numbers are, well, numbing. In the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, and as the ashes of this tragedy begin to settle, we now know of at least 50 deaths and 53 more injured.
How does one process this?!? Murder is so barbaric, but murdering in the name of God?!? I have no category. I have no descriptions; and the typical ones like ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamic extremism’ seem far too ordinary when the carnage is less than 20 minutes from your doorstep. Evil seems to be at war with the human race with an insatiable appetite for blood and destruction. A cloud of darkness and despair seems to be settling in and this latest tragedy is further evidence that the storm is not weakening. Darkness is all around. What are we to think? What are we to do? I offer some thoughts that, like Jerusalem, seem simultaneously stable and fragile. Deep breath, here we go…
The sun will still rise over the city of Orlando. As I have observed the sunrise over the New York skyline it is a sacred reminder that no matter how dark the night may be, God still punches holes in the darkness. The sun still comes up reminding all that the mercies of God are new today, no matter how destructive evil was in the night. When tears could fill swimming pools, I find solidarity with the words of the Jeremiah in Lamentations:
“’My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord’. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in Him.’”
This is not how the story ends. There was once a time about which we can only theorize, imagine, and even dream about. It didn’t last long before the beautiful desires of God on display seemed to unravel like someone pulling on a loose string in a sweater. In creation, God made a masterpiece, the type of art that could take one’s breath away and be inviting all at the same time. Like an artist proud of his work, He admired it from a distance, but also visited it in a more intimate, face-to-face setting. In this work of art, He wanted his voice to be heard among the crown of His accomplishment. And at first we listened, and enjoyed our conversational intimacy with the Grand Artist. But it wasn’t long before we began to listen to a different voice. And that’s when the harmony of creation began to unravel.
Fear was now a human emotion that seemed to move into the house next door. Even though dirt had been smeared on the Mona Lisa, no doubt breaking God’s heart in the process, the compassionate Father to His creation still promised hope for the mess we all created. He had made a plan for such an occasion before the foundation of the world, to find a way to hear His voice again. Before we had wronged God, God had righted the situation with Jesus. So no matter how unbelievably horrific this moment may be, it is always a great reminder that God is the one in charge of the story, and this is not how it ends! Which is why I find comfort in the words of John who was given a vision of another world and another time. A time that has not yet arrived, but is as sure to take place as yesterday:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also He said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
What?!? Did I read that correctly? God will be with us and dwell among us again. This tragedy is not the end of the story. In fact, the end will look a lot like the beginning. Creation will be new and rich with harmony. No more tears! No more death! No more mourning! No more pain! In the end, the residue of our rebellion will no longer stick to creation like the dry stickiness in a parched mouth. Because on that day, to the thirsty, God will give a spring of water. This is not how the story ends.
God’s greatest provision for our lives…is His enduring presence. At this point in my little quiet section of the JFK airport, it is getting a bit more crowded. People are walking faster and planes are beginning to fill and refill and depart. Thousands of people are going in a thousand different directions. The senseless and indefensible tragedy now gives New York and Orlando something in common that they never wanted to share. And as I have observed the morning edition of newspapers being displayed in the store close to where I am writing this, the tone begins to be shifting. Unlike JFK at 4:30 in the morning, there is a busied blame-filled, political posturing, legislative littering vibe to the headlines. But, unfortunately, this is to be expected in a 24-hour news cycle society. The time of mourning seems to be accelerated so that we can get to the part of the narrative where we take matters into our own hands. But we need to mourn because we need to experience the God who comforts, who knows our tears and what they mean. In our mourning God whispers through the pain, “I am here, and I’m not going anywhere…cry and I will wipe your tears.” Like King David, we need to be able to experience God on some of the darkest days and say,
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
Death was arrested and Jesus holds my freedom in his hands. I’ve been listening to a great little Jesus song titled, ‘Death Was Arrested’ by North Point Community Church. The whole thing is worth a download and a few hundred listens. Verse four and the bridge of the song reads:
Our Savior displayed on a criminal's cross
Darkness rejoiced, as though heaven had lost
But then Jesus arose, with our freedom in hand
That's when death was arrested, and my life began
That's when death was arrested, and my life began
Oh, we free, free, forever we're free
Come join the song of all the redeemed
Yes, we're free, free, forever amen
When death was arrested and my life began
Darkness and fear many times seems like Goliath standing in the amphitheater of our lives mocking any belief or faith we may possess. After all, Goliath was this massive, terrifying, and a stone-blooded killer. He had all the weapons one could need or want in addition to his perfect solider physique. On top of that, he had an entire army standing behind him cheering his name. Furthermore, the army he opposed kept a cowardly distance for fear of this enemy. Each day that he stood out on the Valley of Elah, his legend grew and the storm of darkness and fear further covered the earth. Many probably thought this is how the story ends and the sun will never rise again. But somewhere in the midst of this, a young shepherd chose not to fear but rather face the giant.
Ladies and gentlemen, you are going to have to forgive me. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep and one too many red-eyes; maybe it’s the emotional fatigue; maybe it’s just one too many airports and terrifying headlines. Who knows, but here it goes: you don’t have a reason to fear even when the rest of the world cowers at a safe distance. You see - there was another battle - one fought between good and evil, God and the devil. I’ll be honest, at times it looked like darkness could win out; there had been tears and tragedy. And in the midst of it all, the Great Shepherd took the field of battle armed with the authority and mission of God. And when the dust settled, the giant was lying dead on the ground and the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was revealed to be a temporary holding place. Death was arrested, my life began, Jesus arose, and I am free. Free from fear, free to worship because God is faithful, free to love, and free to show others how God defeats the darkness.
Well, my flight is boarding and I hope this handful of thoughts from a member of the human race trying to pilgrim towards the Celestial City is helpful. Goodbye New York, see you soon Orlando.