I will never forget September 11, 2001. I had just begun a new life and a new ministry at my church in Landisville, Pennsylvania. Just two days before had been my first official Sunday as its pastor and my days were fresh with the excitement of new beginnings and comfortable September days. I was living in the home of my council president, Dr Jerry Albright and his wife Val, and had walked early that morning the two blocks to the church. Just a few minutes after my arrival at the office, a new friend Doug Sutton called and invited me to experience a Lancaster County treat, the Tuesday market at Roots. Thinking it was too early in the job to blow off a morning to do some sight-seeing, I declined.
Within a few minutes the phone began to ring. Patty Baker, my Administrative Assistant, was speaking to her husband. Something terrible was going on in Manhattan. “A plane has just hit the World Trade Center!” she announced, noting that rumors were already spreading. I quickly returned to the house, turning on the television just in time to see the second plane slam into the WTC. It was horrifying, surreal – like watching a science fiction movie – and yet it was not fiction. Then came the word that Islamic terrorists had hijacked planes in Boston and elsewhere and were carrying on suicide attacks in New York and Washington. The Pentagon was hit! A plane had crashed in western Pennsylvania when the passengers battled the terrorists for control of the aircraft–another plane destined for the nation’s capital.
Returning to the office, I found my phone ringing as shocked and frightened parishioners began to call seeking to find comfort or some sense in the senseless. We were glued to our sets, drawn by the unimagined horror of it all, watching ugly clouds of smoke billowing across the Manhattan skyline and then seeing desperate people leap from buildings. One mother, homeschooling her children, called. “What do I do? My children are seeing these horrible things on tv. They are frightened and confused.” “Turn off the set,” I said. Later that day I would meet more than 75 of my people (many for the first time) in the sanctuary of the church as we gathered for prayer.
September 11, 2001 was the day America lost its innocence. The War on Terror had arrived on our shores in an undeniable and life-altering way. No longer were we the happy, carefree citizens consuming, crowding the malls, playing, working, studying, raising families, rooting for our favorite teams, traveling wherever we desired when we desired. Places of public gathering took on the stench of death. Air travel became a dangerous risk. Strangers became enemies, especially if they were of Middle Eastern descent. The bombings and everyday fears that defined life in so many other places in the world became a real possibility for people on this side of the Atlantic.
Stories of incredible sacrifice and heroism began to fill our front pages and nightly news reports. Having experienced a brutal sneak attack by persons bent on destroying our way of life, we saw the finest of spirits arise in everyday people. The decent side of our common humanity asserted itself and we pulled together working, praying, and caring. Determination to meet this challenge and visit justice upon the evil doers united Americans of many walks of life and political persuasions. The simple faith of our newly elected President, George W. Bush, was seen as a sign of hope.
For a time there was a reawakening of the spiritual hunger of our nation. As is often the case in times of great crisis, Americans drew close to God and filled its houses of worship. People seem unashamed to call upon
the Almighty for solace and for strength. But as many a pastor
can tell you, that was only for a season. Soon we were looking again to human strength and human solutions, at best seeking God’s blessings on the plans we had made and intended to follow. Persons went about their daily business as if they didn’t need God. The crisis was over. He was on the shelf until the next crisis that seemed beyond our control. A nation at war seemed to push God once again out of sight and out of mind – except those persons in harm’s way in places like Iraq and Afghanistan who continued to seek God’s protection and strength. They knew daily as they walked through the valley of the shadow of death how fragile their lives were and how dependent those lives were upon God’s providence.
Now, nine years later, I wonder what lessons we have learned as Americans. I wonder how much our plans and pretensions have accomplished. In particular I honor those men and women of the armed forces who have had their lives unalterably changed by going into battle to protect the freedom we so cherish and to push back against those who threaten us. But I wonder, as we use our freedom in America in ways so unchastened by events like September 11th, if those men and women are laboring in vain. The threats within from the shallow self-serving and narcissistic culture we persist in perpetuating may not threaten us with same violence as Al Quaida or the Taliban, but can as surely destroy a healthy, wholesome, God-honoring way of life as those enemies from without.
“Do not use your freedom for license,” the apostle Paul declared in a time long before America’s founding. Will we ever learn that lesson?