Jim Cymbala
God's Grace From Ground Zero

 

For forty years, Jim Cymbala has pastored The Brooklyn Tabernacle of New York City located just 3.7 miles from “ground zero.” More than 10,000 now attend weekly services there. On September 11, 2001, four of his congregation were lost and countless others impacted by the attacks on the World Trade Center. The author of numerous books including Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, Jim talked with us from his home, describing the circumstances that led to the writing of his book God’s Grace From Ground Zero.

 

Tell us about September 10, the night before the attack.

My wife and I retired Monday night at about 11:45. Usually I’m able to sleep through most anything but that night I lay awake. About 2:30 I went into my study to read my Bible and pray. An odd verse kept running through my mind. It was Proverbs 10:5, “He who gathers crops in the summer is a wise son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.” I began thinking about the meaning of harvest. Even though the sun shines and the rains come, if you don’t work during harvest time, you lose everything. Even the blessing of God can be wasted. In our church in downtown Brooklyn we reach about 12,000 people in three services and opportunities to touch the people of New York with the gospel are endless. “God,” I prayed, “I don’t want to be asleep during harvest. Give me faith and help me to give myself to this ministry like never before.” After only a few hours of sleep I awoke to an urgent phone call and was soon watching as the horrific events of September 11 unfolded.

 

How have these events changed the people there?

I’m born and raised a New Yorker and there’s never been a period of time like this in the history of this city, where you can talk about spiritual things, about God, about prayer. Even hard, cynical people realize you can be having a bagel and a cup of coffee in your office one morning and only have seconds to live. Life is like a vapor and you don’t get to take a thing with you. God has used this situation to bring front and center all the things that are on the back burner of people’s minds that they hardly ever thought about.

 

How about your church?

The next Sunday our services were jam-packed with people overflowing to other rooms and watching on screens. There were lines down the block with those who couldn’t get in. More than 600 people committed their lives to Christ that day. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that harvest time would come this way.

 

In the wake of 911 the American Atheists were extremely disappointed at how Americans turned to God rather than trusting in the human spirit and our own ability to overcome obstacles. Why do so many turn to God in dark times?

David wrote, “In the day of trouble I called upon the Lord.” Even though he was a man after God’s own heart, before the day of trouble came, he wasn’t calling on God that much. That’s true of us. Trouble is one of God’s servants to get people to think about things beyond the normal course of life and our daily routines. You know the old saying, There are no atheists in a foxhole. Well, between the anthrax scare and buildings and airplanes coming down and terrorist threats, the whole country has been turned into a foxhole. Everyone is unsure about things they’ve always counted on. The Bible tells us not to boast about tomorrow because we don’t know what a day will bring. Well, who thinks like that? Not even most Christians! Now we’re having to admit the existence of evil, and if there’s evil then there must be good. Questions rise to the surface in times of stress, and I think there’s a spiritual instinct that makes us look up and say, “Oh, God, if You’re there, I’m not sure who You are, but help me.”

Some rather prominent evangelicals called this God’s judgment on a depraved nation. Would you agree?

Not at all. I would agree that America is depraved, but so are most other countries and I think we have our theology wrong. In the Old Testament God spoke to Israel, His chosen people. In the New Testament God’s holy nation and chosen people are the Church, not England or America. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find Peter or Paul saying, “You know, these earthquakes and all that’s going on are God’s judgment on the Roman Empire.” They don’t even complain about who’s sitting on the throne. God’s people were simply exhorted to carry out the calling of the Church, which was to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. Their job was not to judge sinners for doing what comes naturally. If any corrective words need to be said, they are the ones Jesus gave to the churches in Revelation where He rebuked them for their lukewarmness. 

 

How should Christians respond to fear?

In our congregation we’ve had to deal with some who were there when the towers came down. We’ve been praying with them that God won’t let them walk around paranoid. One who experienced tremendous victory in the days after the attacks is not doing as well now. But this is not a time for condemnation and blame. It is a time for compassion and fresh, bold witnessing for Jesus Christ. It is not the season for fear or flight to some remote hiding place. Rather, it is the season to stand strong and declare our faith in Almighty God. Psalm 56:3 says, “When I am afraid I will put my trust in [God]…I shall not be afraid, what can mere man do to me?” Christians face the temptation to be afraid, but that’s the time God wants to bring us to a new level of faith, where we’ll trust Him, pray more, spend more time in His Word to build up our faith and overcome fear. Faith is the antithesis of fear. We need to get back to basics, to set our minds on God and focus on things that are eternal. Paul certainly didn’t face every day agitated that he might die. In fact he said, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” I think God is offering an opportunity for Christians and churches to get back to a gospel that is less sophisticated and closer to the truth.

Is there a story you think of when you think of this tragedy?

Dawn Robinson is a member of our church. She reported for work early that morning on the sixty-first floor of the South Tower. About an hour later she saw a huge, dark object flash by her window and felt a tremor. Rubble began falling from the North Tower and when two huge fireballs shot past the window, everyone ran for the elevators to the forty-fourth floor. Oddly, Dawn found everyone there laughing and talking as if nothing had happened. Fire drills were a regular occurrence since the ’93 bombing of the Trade Center and this was nothing new. An announcement over the loudspeaker informed them that everything was under control and everyone should return to work or take a coffee break. Dawn headed for the elevators to go back for her wallet and keys when she suddenly felt an urgent sense of alarm. Something told her to leave the building immediately so she turned and started down the stairwell with a few co-workers. Suddenly the building shook violently—United Airlines Flight 175 had crashed into the South Tower. People began flooding into the stairwell in terror and when they finally reached the main concourse everything was total pandemonium with all avenues of escape blocked. Struggling up a down escalator to another level, Dawn made her way outside and began to run for her life. Within minutes the South Tower collapsed and she was gasping for breath in a suffocating giant white cloud. She and a friend jumped on to an abandoned city bus and waited in terror as the cloud passed by. Dawn eventually found her way to the church, covered with dust and and shaking so badly she could hardly stand. But she was alive.

 

The title of your book is God’s Grace From Ground Zero. How can God’s grace possibly figure into something like this?

I see His grace in all the people who escaped that inferno, miraculously or otherwise. I could tell you the grace He’s showing now to the widows who have to go on without their husbands and who are going to comfort other people with the comfort that God has given them. I see it in the church pulling together to help those in need and in the six hundred people who found Christ as a direct result. In the bigger eternal picture how long we live is not a huge thing up in heaven. They’re not up there rooting for us to make 80 or 90; it’s the quality of our lives that matters. I see God’s grace in Christians who are being stirred up to do something more than sit around discussing secondary matters, content with user-friendly churches where people go for entertainment and don’t even hear the gospel. The vibrancy of the New Testament church has been getting lost and God is using events to shake things up among His people. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and we can’t change yesterday. We’ve got to live out today fully.

 

When you’re gone, how do you hope to be remembered?

I don’t. There was an old saying among the holiness camps of the 1800s and early 1900s when people were seeking a deeper walk with the Lord, that you knew it had been a good meeting when people went home and didn’t talk about who preached. In other words, if they talked about how clever the preacher was or what an orator, you knew the meeting wasn’t very good. But when people went home saying, “Isn’t Jesus wonderful?” then you knew the speaker had allowed God to take center stage. You can’t be clever and have Jesus wonderful at the same time. I’d be happy not to be remembered at all if I knew I had influenced someone to serve the Lord.

 

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