I was broadcasting live on the radio on the morning of September 11, 2001. We knew about the two planes which had been rammed into the Twin Towers and the one which had been used as a missile against the Pentagon. There had been reports that there was one more plane not accounted for. Not long after that, reports started to come in from our listeners that smoke could be seen coming from Somerset County, which was in our broadcast area. Then came official news that Flight 93 had crashed in Shanksville.
Anyone with access to national media was given all of that information almost immediately. But there's a part of the story which national media did not report.
A few weeks after the massacres of 9/11, a listener faxed a copy of a story from The Tribune-Democrat, a local paper which serves that community. It was written by Tom Lavis and it tells the story of what the first responders saw upon their arrival at the crash site.
They were shocked to find an unburnt Bible among the smoldering and disintegrated wreckage.
For 15 years I have carried the burden of knowing this story. I hesitated to share the story. It seemed like one of those miracle stories which so often turn out not to be true, and I was kind of cynical about the multiplication of miracle claims among my fellow Christians. But over the years I've found multiple, credible confirmations.
This happened. The first responders indeed did find, unscathed among the smoldering wreckage, an open Bible.
Lavis quotes Terry Shaffer, who was at the time the fire chief of the Shanksville fire department. "The fumes of jet fuel burned my nostrils ... There were only two recognizable things on the ground — a burning tire from the landing gear and the Bible laying open on the ground with its pages as white as snow."
The Bible was about 15 yards away from the impact crater.
"It was on the southern end of the crater or where the tail section should have been," Shaffer said. "The leather cover on the Bible was singed, but none of the pages was burned. It was an older Bible that you could tell was used a lot."
You can read Lavis' complete account here.
The story has been confirmed repeatedly. I myself called the reporter and one of the witnesses. In addition, the story was confirmed by Firehouse, a magazine for firefighters, and by the American Legion Magazine in an interview with a separate witness, a veteran who was also at the time a firefighter and first responder.
When I was originally told that a Bible was found at the site, I had three questions: One, is this story true? Two, would I sound like a nut if I shared this with the world? Three, what passage was the Bible open too?
Actually that third question was more specific. I had an expectation about what the Bible was open to. You see, I had by then developed a certain conviction about the nature of our current era.
As a talk show host, I had a front row seat to the national battle over a series of controversies: The Clinton Scandals, Elian Gonzales affair, and the recount crisis of 2000. What I saw was a nation much like that described in the book of Kings. The nation was divided, and could not decide whether to worship Yahweh or Baal. It was split along northern (largely apostate) regimes and southern (faithful but flawed) regimes. The nation alternated between good kings and bad kings, but with each reign the bad kings got a little more evil and the good kings got a little less good.
America, too, seemed to be vacillating between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on the one hand and the god of nature worship, statism and infanticide on the other.
I wanted not just to know what the Bible was open to; I wanted to know if it was opened to the Book of Kings.
It turned out that Lavis was of help there, too. He learned from the hospital chaplain, Rev. Joe Maurizio, a Roman Catholic priest, what passage the Bible was open to. "It was open to the First Book of Kings, Chapters 13 through 15 ..."
Chapter 13 is the first chapter after the national split. Chapter 14 is the fascinating account of a "man of God" called to prophesy against the apostate king of Israel, but who did not obey God and instead accepted food from the apostate kingdom. This story sets the stage for everything which comes after, an unfaithful witness which fails to prevent the long arc of national decline which begins in chapter 15.
Here's what I think: This is real. But it's not just a "miracle," which is to say a wonder from God meant to inspire us by telling us that He was there that day. It is what the New Testament called a sémeion, a sign, which is to say a message to His people. I believe it is a message about what kind of age we are in, why we are in that kind of age, and what will happen to our nation if we (like the "man of God" in chapter 14) are unfaithful to our calling.