September 11: Looking Back, Living Forward

One World Trade Ctr

Yesterday, as Amanda and I visited Ground Zero, my mind returned to where I was 16 years ago.

On September 11, 2001 I was sitting in the home of one of our members meeting with a widow to plan a memorial service for her husband who had passed away the previous evening. As we were finalizing the date and time for the service, a family member interrupted us and asked me to step into the kitchen. There she pointed to the television and began to cry as she said, “I thought you needed to know what is happening in New York.”

My heart sank as I watched the replay of the first plane crashing into the tower one. I returned to the living room, led the family in prayer, and prayed for our nation, not knowing that more attacks were looming.

I quickly made my way back to our church campus, which was only a couple of blocks away. I found our entire staff gathered around the tv in my study, and the second tower was hit just as I entered. After a few moments of shock and tears, our team kicked into ministry mode, shared an emotional time of prayer, and began strategizing about ways we could minister to our church and community in light of these events.

Like every community around the country, members of our congregation had family members and friends who lived in New York or Washington, or who were traveling in that area, or who were serving in the armed forces who would eventually be responding to these horrid acts of terror. Eventually, it seemed that everyone was connected by friendship or kinship to someone directly affected by the attacks of that fateful day.

Although those events occurred fifteen years ago today, our individual and collective memories are still vivid and painful. We remember where we were when we heard the news. We remember bystanders fleeing from the scene and first responders rushing toward the scene. We remember gathering in churches, chapels, temples, and synagogues to pray.

What have we learned about ourselves and our world since 9/11? In particular, as followers of Jesus, what are the proactive steps we can take to be “salt” and “light” in a post 9/11 world?

Our greatest security is grounded in our faith in God. Psalm 46:1 teaches us that, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in our time of trouble.” Our faith doesn’t exempt us from tragedy, disaster, or even acts of terrorism. But our faith does serve as a compass to help us navigate the most difficult and challenging circumstances of life.

Refuse to live in fear. We cannot allow fear to dissuade us from fulfilling our mission. One of the goals of terrorism is to invoke a life-disrupting fear. II Timothy 1:7 reminds us that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Obviously we need to be wise, savvy, and circumspect at home and abroad. However, we cannot let the fear of the unknown keep us from going where we are called to go and doing what we are called to do.

Avoid responding to terrorism with terrorism. We cannot allow terrorists to provoke us into behaving like terrorists. In other words, you cannot defeat terrorism by conducting acts of terrorism. Followers of Jesus are called to respond to adversaries with the spirit of Jesus.

Express gratitude to first responders. The events of 9-11 gave to many of us a deeper appreciation for the valiant service of firemen, police officers, paramedics, and other first responders. As a pastor and community leader, I want to affirm those who serve as first responders and to encourage others to consider these vocational tracks as honorable career opportunities.

Learn the basic tenets of other faiths like Islam. A huge challenge for those unfamiliar with the religions of the world is learning to distinguish between radical Islamic groups, Jihadists for example, and mainstream Muslims who not only reject methods of terrorism, but who also must contend with it. Just like radical “Christian” groups such as the Branch Davidians and the Peoples Temple do not represent the majority of Christians, members of Al Queda, ISIS, and Boka Haram do not represent the vast majority of the Islamic world.

Be careful not to become xenophobic. Xenophobia is the fear of people from different countries, cultures, or ethnicities. Just because most of the terrorists of 9/11 were from the Middle East does not mean that everyone who wears the common wardrobe of a Middle Easterner, such as a burka or a turban, is to be suspected of terrorism.
Pray for our president and national leaders. The task of making decisions during turbulent times is stressful and tedious. No military or political leader in history has faced the type or magnitude of threat posed by terrorist groups. No matter your preferred political party, it is imperative that people of faith pray for those who lead our nation to exercise wisdom and discernment.

One year following the 9/11 attacks, I was asked by a local newspaper reporter, “How has the world changed since September 11, 2001?” The response I gave in 2002 is still relevant in 2017:
I believe the world has changed in so many ways that the majority of those changes are still being realized and processed.   From my perspective, it seems that our nation is going through the various stages of grief (shock, denial, depression, panic, guilt, resentment, and hope), and like any normal family system, not everyone is in the same stage.   Because the assault on 9/11 was a multi-dimensional attack on the spiritual, social, psychological, and economic fabric of our country, our sense of loss is more complex. Not only were thousands of lives lost, but so were many of our presuppositions, especially those regarding personal safety, economic security, and religious superiority. I hope and pray that we will emerge as individuals who are more circumspect, more patient, less acquisitive, and more spiritually grounded than we have previously demonstrated.

(Barry Howard is a retired pastor who lives in Pensacola, Florida.)