The 9/11 Twin Tower bombings in New York will be forever ingrained in our memories. The world watched aghast as the horror unfolded and was replayed, hour after hour, on our television screens. The planes that had crashed into the imploding buildings caused the deaths and maiming of thousands of innocent people, while the smoke and the dust from the towers coated the city in a thick, dense, eerie, grey mist.
We watched in disbelief as one by one, people launched themselves from the windows of the towers. Tiny figures set against the giant buildings like free-falling debris, decided to take their chances – preferring to swap the acrid smoke and flames that engulfed the building, for an equally inevitable demise on whatever surface greeted their landing.
Minutes before the disaster, the people on the streets below the Twin Towers had been going about their business, blissfully ignorant of what was about to come. As they fled the scene in their droves, others – the fire and emergency services – sped towards the chaos, devastation and tragedy, determined to rescue whoever they could. As we know, many lost their own lives in the process.
In the years that have followed, many disasters – both natural and man-made – have shaken humanity. The consequences of war, famine, drought and flooding have left a global and indelible imprint on the hearts and minds of their victims and on those who tried to help them.
Suffering touches most of us at some time or other, and it is no respecter of status or wealth. Knowing that other people are suffering does not change the pain and difficulties in our own lives. Nor does it make coping any easier. In fact, we can even feel guilty in complaining about our hardships, believing others are experiencing far worse. Some appear to be assailed, relentlessly, by one serious problem after another with very little breathing space in between.
There are easy, stock comments that we can make when we are trying to ease the burden of another's pain. In some circumstances, though, a silent presence and solidarity can be more powerful and honest than glib platitudes, however well-meant. In the words of the popular country love song: "You say it best, when you say nothing at all."
There is a common belief that God allows us to suffer because He is testing us and the strength of our faith. He isn't. God knows already our strength and handling capacity – He has no need to test us. We, however, don't always know how strong we are, or how strong our faith is, especially during the good times when everything is going well. So when horrible things do happen – either man-made or otherwise – God is in there with us if we are open-eyed and open-hearted. He often uses situations to bring us closer to him. Difficult times can show us our weaknesses and our utter need for Him in ways that perhaps we might not have learned without those bumps on our road.
God is the loving father who waits with open arms to welcome back the contrite Prodigal Son. God, like the rescue services of 9/11, comes to meet us in our darkest hours – to be with us, to console us, and to strengthen us.