Where were you on September 11, 2001 when you heard the news?
I was driving south on Main Street in McAllen, Texas, toward my church office with a mug of hot tea in my hand listening to the radio. Just after 8 o’clock (Central Time), they reported that a small plane had crashed into a building in New York. Several minutes later I made out that it was the World Trade Center they were talking about. When I walked into the church office, the secretary told me that a second plane had hit the Twin Towers. This changed the whole perception of the experience. Our District Superintendent had scheduled a day-long pastors meeting about thirty miles away, and I called to urge him to cancel the meeting and send the pastors to their churches. News came to us in bits and pieces—the Pentagon, Pennsylvania, planes grounded everywhere. I gathered the staff to pray and to begin to shape our response. We opened the sanctuary for prayer and offered a prayer service late in the evening. We worked on how to get word out to our members and to the community through email, radio, and television.
I didn’t see the video clips of the buildings collapsing until sometime in the afternoon, the searing images of violence, destruction, and death. The emotions at the evening prayer service ran deep, of shock and fear and anger and grief. I remember being deeply moved by the number of direct connections people had to the events. People spoke of sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and friends in New York, at the Pentagon, serving in the military and in the Secret Service, working for the airlines. The events were not far away, but close, intimate, and personal.
Images emerged of hope, courage, and heroism, of ordinary unknown people who sacrificed everything to save lives, of the hundreds of fire fighters and police officers and rescue workers who climbed stairs against their own instincts of fear to help strangers. The wounds of the day ran deep, and the ripples and consequences continue to current times. It was a day none of us who were old enough to see it will ever forget. Where were you on September 11, 2001?
Perhaps the more important question is, “Where are you now because of 9/11?” Are you a different person at a different place in your perspective about the world than before that date? If so, how are you different? What have we learned? How have we grown? How have we let 9/11 shape us? For better, or for worse?
The meaning of an event is determined by what follows from it. For instance, a friend’s unexpected death may mark the point in our lives when we give up on God, discard the notion that life has any meaning, give in to despair, and decide that forming close friendships is not worth the risk. In this case, the friend’s death takes us to a new place, a place of hopelessness, brokenness, and aloneness. Or a friend’s unexpected death may stimulate us to draw closer to God, to explore for the first time the depth of life’s meaning, to become more acutely aware of the enduring quality of love and the importance of friendship. Our response either makes our friend’s death a witness to emptiness and despair or a witness to hope and resurrection.
Where have the events of 9/11 taken us in the ten years since that day? Have we arrived at a place where we live more fearful lives, dominated by greater suspicion and isolation from people who are different from us? Has it made us more hateful, less tolerant, more inclined to violence, less inclined to distinguish between just and unjust causes? Has it taken away a sense of hopefulness about the future or robbed us of the sense of God’s persistent love? If this is the case, then September 11 has been a victory for despair, emptiness, and death. The terrorists have achieved their purpose in us.
On the other hand, perhaps September 11 has caused us to delve more deeply into the meaning of living in a global community and to look more carefully at the core values we seek to fulfill as a people—freedom, equality, justice, responsibility, serving, sacrifice. Perhaps the tragedy has caused us to rethink how we connect to our families, our communities, and even to strangers. Whom are we willing to help, and at what cost? How does our embracing the love of Christ as a way of life shape our sense of connection, responsibility, and serving in a hurting world? Perhaps 9/11 has become a sign of the resilience of community, a testament to the truth that while the thread of life is fragile, the fabric of life is eternal. Perhaps 9/11 has caused us to explore more deeply the depth of human brokenness and the profound vision and call of God’s reign nevertheless. Perhaps it has redoubled our longing for peace and our passion for reconciliation.
Following Jesus’ horrible death on the cross, his followers walked through a period of anguish trying to understand what happened. Then they began to discern that this experience was not evidence of the victory of death, despair, and violence; rather, in this experience a new opportunity was opened in their relationship with God. They began to see that hope is more pervasive than despair, that love is more powerful than hate, that life is victorious over death. They experienced the absolute and unchanging hope that is at the core of life: that life is worth living, even when there are times of extraordinary loss; that people are worth loving, even when they can be taken from us so unexpectedly; and that God is worth trusting, even when the meaning of events seem beyond our comprehension.
In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul writes, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Where were you on September 11? Where are you now? Where are you in relationship to your family, your community, your world? Are you closer to where you need to be, or further away? Where are you in your regard to your calling from Christ to love and serve neighbor and stranger? Where are you in your relationship to God and to your own highest and best self as a follower of Christ? Have we allowed the events of the last ten years to move us backward or forward? Upward, or downward? Inward, or toward the love of God in Christ?
Yours in Christ,