If you are old enough to remember that terrible day, you remember where you were on September 11, 2001 when two hijacked airliners crashed into our nation’s largest man-made structures. I still remember it like it was yesterday. And today, as I think back, I am reminded not only of the memories I take, but also the things I’ve learned about God, our country, and humanity.
There is never a good time for a national disaster, but I remember that morning thinking the timing could not have been worse. I had spent the night in Bedford, TX at my friend Greg’s apartment. My wife of nearly three years had moved out eleven days earlier, and I had been in Ft. Worth, TX the day before for seminary classes. I had an appointment in Dallas with a counselor who helped people in ministry deal with personal matters such as mine. So, I talked to Greg and he offered me a couch that night so I wouldn’t have to make the two and a half hour drive back home. As we were getting ready for the day, we were watching Good Morning America. In the middle of the broadcast, the cameras flipped to a “LIVE” feed from a camera in New York City that showed the World Trade Center with smoke billowing out of it.
From the camera angle, one could not see the jet airline fuselage protruding from the building. For all the anchors or any of the rest of us knew, it was just a fire in the building. Well, I don’t need to tell you that moments later, the tower fell. I went to my car and turned on the radio and followed the events as I made the half hour drive from Bedford to Dallas. It was during this time that the second plane hit and subsequently the second tower fell. I got to my appointment and visited with a counselor about my little family situation and remember thinking that hundreds of people had just lost their lives and I was whining about a broken relationship. Everything sort of paled in comparison and all of a sudden my dilemma seemed pretty insignificant. It wasn’t until I got home that evening around 5:00 that I was able to see more footage of all that happened.
So what did I take from that experience? For one thing, seeing humanity at its worst, gave opportunity for us to see humanity at its best. We saw the heroics of firefighters, police, EMTs, and other public servants as they gave their lives for others-even strangers. We saw Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, put down their pointing fingers for a little while and embrace this great land in which we live. We saw thousands of volunteers flood Manhattan to help with the clean-up and recovery efforts. We saw artists, musicians, poets, songwriters, and other creative people share their talents with others. Some were messages of comfort. Others sent messages of anger and retaliation, calling people to feel a certain way about the events. But at the end of all of it, God was at work in the 9-11 aftermath, and he worked through his people.
I also learned that war is a necessary part of life on this planet. I cannot tell you how shallow I feel for quoting a movie line here, but I’m going to do it. In the movie First Knight, King Arthur (Sean Connery) says, “There is a peace that can only be found on the other side of war.” I remember growing up as a child and hearing first-hand stories about Vietnam, and sitting on the floor at my grandfather’s feet listening to tales of the South Pacific and his time in Okinawa. As many young boys are, I was fascinated with weapons of warfare. I enjoyed reading about tanks and fighter planes; how strong they were made, how fast they went, and how destructive they could be. I also remember the Cold War and the nuclear stand off with the USSR, and movies like Red Dawn. Somewhere along the way, I let myself believe that since the USA is the world’s greatest military super-power, nobody would be dumb enough to start a war with us, especially by attacking us on our own soil. And was I ever wrong?
Another thing I learned is how fragile life is. Not a single person who went to Ground Zero that morning had any idea that would be such a tragic day. None of us are promised tomorrow and we must be careful not to take each day we have for granted. Each day we have on this earth is a gift from God, and we should make the most of them.
Finally, I learned how quickly a country can get complacent. The most patriotic I’ve ever seen our country was in the twelve months following the attacks. People with diametrically opposed views about what our country should look like, stood side-by-side singing the praises of our country. On September 12, 2011, there were no Republicans or Democrats. No Baptists or Methodists. No liberals or conservatives. No blacks or whites. No rich or poor. There were only Americans. Here we sit, eleven years later, and the lines that divide us could not be more defined. Our country’s political climate is more polarized than ever. ”Liberal” and “conservative” are not just political terms, but they are labels that define people and their entire approach to life. And these two groups, in politics and in the church, have dug their heels in and decided that dying on their respective hills is a noble cause. The darkest day in America’s history is now being used as a fulcrum for pushing agendas. The left blames the right and the right blames the left, and the memories of the thousands of lives lost that day are being exploited for political gain.
So what can we take from all this?
Hindsight is 20/20, and many people regret the decision made by our government to go to Afghanistan, and later Iraq to attempt to eliminate the dictators who had the potential to cause such great harm a second time. But many people feel like this was the best course of action for our country and that to ensure the safety of all of us, it was necessary to be proactive. I don’t have a problem with either of these views. I can honestly see how people could adamantly support or oppose the decision to spend billions of dollars for this purpose. What I do oppose, is how many of us spiritualized the war. We made parallels between the Old Testament stories of the Israelites and their wars with the native people of Canaan. The war became “us vs. them”; it was “Christians vs. Muslims”. And many of us took up a spiritual mentality that somehow the US Government was God’s enforcer of lethal justice. When the news finally came through that Osama bin Laden was dead, stadiums full of sports fans erupted in shouts of joy. Isn’t there something a little creepy about cheering someone’s death? I’m not sure that’s the reaction God desired from us. Opponents of the war spiritualized their agenda as well. Opposing the government and the military was a spiritual discipline for them. While men and women were thousands of miles away, putting themselves in harm’s way, these followers of Christ were bashing the very brave persons who were attempting to protect them. And we did it all in the name of Jesus.
I think it’s important to remember that the nation of Israel in the Bible was, and still is God’s chosen people. As followers of Christ, we have been grafted into the covenant that God made with Abraham. Followers of Christ are heirs with Christ. America, as great as she is, is not the nation of Israel. The land “from the lakes of Minnesota, to the hills of Tennessee, across the plains of Texas, from sea to shining sea” is a great land, and has been blessed by God. But it is not the land of Israel. The “nation” of God are the followers of God through Jesus Christ. Psalm 33 puts it like this:
12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,(AA)
the people he chose(AB) for his inheritance.(AC)
13 From heaven the Lord looks down(AD)
and sees all mankind;(AE)
14 from his dwelling place(AF) he watches
all who live on earth—
15 he who forms(AG) the hearts of all,
who considers everything they do.(AH)
16 No king is saved by the size of his army;(AI)
no warrior escapes by his great strength.
17 A horse(AJ) is a vain hope for deliverance;
despite all its great strength it cannot save.
18 But the eyes(AK) of the Lord are on those who fear him,
on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,(AL)
19 to deliver them from death(AM)
and keep them alive in famine.(AN)
The nation whose God is the Lord is the people who have entered into covenant with him. Does the United States need to turn back to God? Absolutely. But does our religious freedom over the last 200 years make us some sort of modern equivalent of Israel who is supposed to take hold of the “Promised Land” and run out all the Canaanites? I think we have to be careful making those types of judgments. But mostly, I sit in thankful awe. I’m thankful for the people who have signed up to be our defenders and protectors. I’m thankful for the policemen, the firefighters, the EMT’s and medical professionals, the soldiers, and anyone else who puts on a uniform with the understood reality that wearing this uniform for its intended purpose could get me killed. If you opposed the war, you can still support our soldiers and other civil servants. Say a prayer for these men and women. Thank God that you live in the greatest place on earth (or if you don’t believe that, thank him that you live in a place that’s pretty darn good).
“Where were you when the world stopped turning, that September day?”