When Your World Falls Apart
- 2003 1 Feb
But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you - 1 Peter 5:10
The air was filled with the noxious smell of death. It was near midnight, and the New York streets that once glowed with streetlights and light from adjacent office buildings were canyons of darkness with no street lamps and office building windows black and vacant. Once inside the barricades and past the security checkpoints, even first-time visitors know they are about to encounter something monstrously unpleasant.
It was only a few days after two planes tore into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Several blocks from Ground Zero, we could see the sun-brilliant lights of the emergency systems. They lit an area of devastation that, these many months later, I'm still not fully able to comprehend. I am not sure the human mind was ever designed to absorb, to totally grasp, destruction like this.
Mounds of twisted, angry rubble, acres of it, burning and hissing at so many levels, with fire hoses hammering it with rivers of water trying to cool the steel girders and debris, while hundreds of Fire Department New York (FDNY) personnel climbed over the pile in a desperate search for survivors.
When Walls Fall Down
It was still called a rescue effort. In a matter of days it would reluctantly turn to recovery, but for now, they still hoped to find people alive somewhere in the rubble. But regardless of what they called it, every second that ticked by, the men and women who responded to this disaster would have their lives changed forever.
The fire and water produced a mix of steam and smoke that clouded the New York air for miles around, and with those brilliant lights shining through it, it brought to those canyons of darkness a sense of eeriness, a haunting surrealism. NYPD detective Carlos Aviles and I were walking down one of those canyons and were still a couple blocks from the scene when we saw two firemen coming towards us. With that ghostly light still behind them, they were only dark silhouettes, but even so, we could see that they walked with deliberate, plodding steps - as if in shock, as if they were soldiers emerging from a war zone.
As we drew closer, we saw that their stern, stoic faces were streaked gray with dirt and sweat. We heard their deep coughs as they hacked and spit the hours of dust and death from their lungs. Their heavy jackets were thrown over their shoulders and their protective helmets, looking like nothing on earth could dislodge them, covered their heads displaying FDNY, their battered but proud badge of honor. They would stop now and again and press the respirator air mask to their faces and breathe deeply, seeking any relief they could find. To me, at least, it looked like no two men on this earth deserved rest more.
Yet none of this scene was new. I'd seen it so many times before.
However, our brief conversation with them was something new and unusual.
We walked up to them and I said, as I had to so many others, "Just want to let you know how much we appreciate what you're doing. How are you guys holding up?"
And for the next few minutes we shuffled the usual stack of words and phrases back and forth, men trying to remain men in the face of the overwhelming. But then, one of them, the bigger of the two, maybe six-one, 230 pounds, stopped, his face lost what little edge it had been able to maintain, and he said, "You know, I was molested as a boy. And I've been an alcoholic most of my life. I've been off the booze now for about fourteen months."
A little taken aback by the confession, I managed, "I'm pleased to hear that part of it."
His partner, seeing the conversation beginning to go where he didn't want it to go, said, "Well, I got problems too, but I'll talk about 'em later," and he turned, and I saw his eyes fill with tears. At that moment his cell phone rang and he took the opportunity to bury his pain in that call.
The first firefighter went on, "My life's a real mess. I gotta talk."
And so we did.
Your Ground Zero
I've been in the ministry thirty-two years and have done a lot of counseling. It generally takes some time for someone to trust a counselor enough to reveal something that personal, that devastating about their past, yet this man opened up to us within less than ten minutes.
For that firefighter (and probably for thousands, maybe even millions of others) the tortured chaos of Ground Zero and the way it occurred - quickly, stealthily, taking the everyday and making it a sinister weapon against us- touched and exposed a "Ground Zero" in his own life. That time when his foundations were shaken, when the world around him crumbled, when those elements of his life he held dear and saw as his protection from evil turned against him and became the very thing they were to protect him from. God was at work within that dear man. How He worked remains between the two of them, but that He worked affirmed a great hope within me.
All of us experience Ground Zeros in our lives, great losses that shake our foundations, our lives, our faith - loss of career, loved ones, marriages, children, grandchildren - times in our lives when we are overwhelmed by tragedy or just the sheer magnitude of events, when we feel helpless and it seems that the great towers of our lives are about to crumble into a heap of ruin, crushing us beneath them.
While at Ground Zero I saw countless people dealing with all elements of that horrific attack just as, in my pastoral ministry, I've seen so many dear people deal with the Ground Zeros they've encountered. And I've come to know that just as 9/11/01 was a watershed moment for our country, other Ground Zero events are watersheds in the lives of God's people. They can either make or break a life.
I don't mean to be trite at this moment. My point is serious. Remember the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty"? Sure you do. We've all learned it from diaper days.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men,
Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.
What is this poem really saying? No matter how cheerfully we say it, no matter how much fun we're having, it's telling us that when we fall, when we hit Ground Zero (just as good ol' Humpty did), our fate is to just lie there in pieces. Nobody - not the king, not anyone - can help. The remainder of our lives will remain broken, disjointed - and hope is gone.
I want to lovingly assure you that hope is possible. And my purpose in writing this book is to tell you, show you, and help you experience why. I want to proclaim to you that the pieces can be put back together again, and often in such a way as to build a life that's stronger, more meaningful, more exciting and abundant than the one you knew before.
As the pages turn, I hope to relate what I saw and experienced at Ground Zero and apply those insights to your personal journey of reconstruction and renewal. In the next chapter we'll take a look at the site of the rubble from the twin towers, and relate it to how your own Ground Zero might look.
Bend or Break?
My pastor, Chuck Smith, has many words of wisdom that fit everyday living. One of the sayings of his is appropriate for this situation: "Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken."
You see, Ground Zero is either going to make or break that FDNY fireman. When situations become overwhelming to us it is very natural to try to hide the pain. We want to escape the reality of the situation. This is where alcohol and drug abuse come into play. We have found in recent years there is a new opiate for the masses. It is more insidious than previous self-destructive addictions. It is called pornography. We've discovered that people with this addiction are often harder to cure than people with a heroin problem.
Yes, it is true. You can face the situation at hand or you can run from it.
Though it is painful to truthfully accept the facts and deal with the trauma, this situation can make you into a stronger person. This situation can make you become a more understanding, loving, and compassionate person. Or you can take the shortcuts to cover up your pain and discomfort and the situation will ultimately break you. If you deny the reality of your Ground Zero, the years of pain and suffering will break your spirit in the long run. No matter what you use to cover up your hurt, the situation will still be there in the morning when you wake up.
The Bible says, "God is love." And since He is a God of love, He wants you to live a fruitful, abundant life. He can reach into your heart and help you with the healing you need. Peter was an interested character. He made so many mistakes in his earlier years while following Jesus. One time he reproved Jesus for saying that He would go to Jerusalem and suffer. Another time he said: "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth...this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times" (Matt. 26:33-34). Sure enough, Peter was confronted three times by people at the judgment of Jesus, and he denied that he knew Him or that he was one of His disciples. And on the third denial the rooster crowed announcing a brand new day. Jesus just turned and looked at Peter. Needless to say, Peter was very distraught.
If that were the end of the story we would have no hope today. When Jesus was resurrected from the tomb He met Mary Magdalene in the garden. And he gave her a message: to go and tell the disciples and Peter that He had risen from the dead and that He would meet them in Galilee. Thank God He said "and Peter"! You see, He did not want the disciples to mistrust Peter or put him out of their company. He loved Peter, just as He loves you. And He knew that Peter was hurting and to become mature in his painful situation.
As you read Peter's writings you quickly realize that God's love healed him of his impetuous manner and of his own self-reliance. You can see by his own words that God's grace brought him healing and comfort.
But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. (1 Peter 5:10)
Peter's experience made him an authority on suffering. He was arrested for preaching the resurrection message, and he was crucified on a cross. He did not feel worthy to be executed in the same manner as his Lord, so he asked to be hung upside down. Yes, Peter knew pain and suffering, and his words can bring hope and comfort to you today. Note that he said, "after you have suffered a little while." It may be hard to believe, but your Ground Zero is for "a little while." But it will pass. When it has passed, will it make you or break you? You get to choose. It is your life and your decision. Peter decided to let his Ground Zeros make him a better man.
You can see it in his own words. God will "restore you can make you strong firm and steadfast." You must be patient with yourself during these ties. And hold on to God' promise.