Twenty years

Nine-eleven. Or, in numerical terms: 9/11. Twenty years ago today, many woke up thinking “another day.” We had jobs to get to. Kids to drop off at school. Renee and I worked for the same company at that time, and this was a day we would need to take separate cars. She got on the road at just after 8:30 to make the 17 mile drive through downtown Charlotte to the office. I would be 20 minutes behind her as I had a meeting that night and would not be home until late.

Time for a quick breakfast. I flipped off the television and picked up the Charlotte Observer to scan the headlines. All of a sudden, Renee called me from I-77 telling me to turn on the TV because a plane had run into a building at the World Trade Center. I ran to the set and the first image was fire coming out of the north tower. Whatever hit it seemed to be big, and the anchors were speculating about what had happened. The early speculation was a plane had gone off course and accidentally hit the tower.

Then I saw it live. A passenger jet aiming for the second tower, and “Bam!” Fireballs explode. Siding shatters. Black smoke now pouring out of both towers. This was no accident. Something awful was happening. And we knew that the world had changed in front of our very eyes. I called my mother in New Mexico and told her to turn on the television immediately. Then I realized that I had to get to work because our agenda for the office dramatically changed.

Driving south on I-77, I hear the news flashes. Then Pentagon has been hit. The FAA has grounded all aircraft. I look up and there are rows of planes trying to land at Charlotte-Douglas airport. Southbound traffic went crazy as folks realized that this was no longer a normal day.

I get to work where I had a research appointment with a military chaplain to help him with his dissertation research. We crowded into my little office with a black and white TV tuned to the one network station I could get. We watched the chaos, and then saw the towers come down–first the south tower, then the north tower. Then we saw the Pentagon. Finally, we saw Shanksville, PA where one of the hijacked jets had come down in a cornfield outside of town.

The chaplain got a call from his base commander instructing him to return to base ASAP as the military had issued general orders for all soldiers on leave to report immediately. After he left, those in the office sat stunned as we watched the news reports. We cancelled classes that evening and then closed for the rest of the day. That evening Renee and I would join Christians at our church both to process and pray. The grief of the coming days would be intense for all of us amidst all the uncertainty. My mom remembered Pearl Harbor and said that the day felt much like that day decades ago. We’re we once again at war? Was this the beginning of more attacks inside the United States? What seemed like just another day now brought new and unanswerable questions.

What change that day brought to our lives. Thousands of our young men and women gave their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq in hope that future 9/11-type attacks could be stopped. The kindness and unity we saw in America in that day’s aftermath are gone, replaced by deep suspicion, mistrust, and division that permeates American life, even in our churches. Twenty years ago today, the Internet seemed to hold enormous potential for political freedom, economic opportunity, and even spiritual renewal. Now, our technologies threaten to enslave us with a brave new world marked by authoritarianism, economic division, and decadence. Pay homage to the leader and party on.

Conspiracy theories once confined to the margins of society now animate millions. It started with the bogus claims that 9/11 was an “inside job,” a plot hatched by the government against its citizens. Now we contend with those who tell us that Covid-19 vaccines have nanobots that the government will use to track us. Craziness has become mainstream. We battle a pandemic that continues to kill far more people than 9/11, and the Afghan and Iraqi wars combined. Despite the death of so many loved ones, friends, and colleagues from Covid-19, we turn public-health measures into weapons for political combat.

It’s a picture that can easily lead to despair on this 20th anniversary. However, as a Christian I should not be surprised. Because when I read the Old and New Testament narratives, I’m confronted with the reality that human depravity is embedded in our personal lives, in our interpersonal relationships, in the very institutions of our society (both public and private), even in the very created order itself. Yet Jesus tells us in Mark’s gospel that the Kingdom of God is at hand in the very person of Jesus Christ.

For me, that provokes two responses. First, no matter what happens I’m a citizen of something far bigger than any temporal place. I’m a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and a time will come come when God will triumph and I will live with him eternally with all of his people.

Then, in terms of this world in which we live, our work as Christians is twofold, in light of the Jesus teaching about the essence of the Christian life. We desire that people learn to love God through Jesus Christ and live in ways that contribute to the flourishing of every human being created in his image. That is still true now. Like our Lord and Savior we never give up–we continue to tell people of the gospel freedom that God offers in Jesus Christ. And, we work to create places where human beings can flourish.

Sometimes I wonder why God has placed me here in this time and place, in a society that seems to be crumbling all around me. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo wondered the same thing. He lived in a world of great evil, much like the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s in which the author, J.R.R. Tolkein lived. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”