That Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was making some tea when a friend called and asked, "What is going on in this world?"
I said, "I don't know, man -- what's up?"
He was distressed that I had not heard. "We're under attack," he said, "Turn on the TV. Two planes have been flown into the Sears Tower -- no wait, the World Trade Center -- and it looks like we're at war." My hands were shaking as I put away the tea and found the remote. The news was replaying all the events from the preceding hours: the first plane, the second, then the first tower falling and the second, all shown in rapid succession. It was horrifying.
Over the next few days we all tried to figure out where we were as a country. And I had a Friday that has stayed with me. It made Sundays tough. One Sunday, a woman in church said to me with great glee. "It's God's job to judge Osama bin Laden. It's ours to set up the appointment"! That's a great war-time American sentiment, but something about where I heard it was disturbing. God had allowed that awful day to happen for some reason -- what was He saying to us? Could we even stop to ask the question?
Miles away in New York City, my future pastor was overlooking the still-smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. I didn't go to his church yet but he was already articulating my own 9/11 crossroads -- would my response be whatever the government does, or would I watch what God could do? Overlooking Ground Zero, Buddy put it this way, "We have to decide right now: are Muslims the enemy, or are they the prize?" It was a dangerous time to ask such things! I barely mentioned my hopes for the world at large to an adult Sunday School class back then, and I thought they were going to hang me. Seriously.
Buddy was different. When Buddy was a kid, he would hear his mom praying with other women for the end of communism. "That'll NEVER happen!" he thought. And then he grew up to see the Berlin wall destroyed. And Russia opened. He saw the power of prayer as something tangible, earth-shaking.
In the years right before 9/11, I'd gotten to be in a prayer group like that, praying for those who were persecuting Christians overseas. It's unnerving to pray that way. It's not natural. We weren't praying against them, but praying for the terrorist, that their hearts would change, that their circumstances would change, and that they would no longer pursue the destruction of others. Paul in the Bible had changed that way. It was possible these terrorists could, too.
These days I'm not sure we believe that. It seems that at the same 9/11 crossroads, most American Christians chose "strength". The kind of strength that can say "America first!" The strength that can write off entire people groups as "The Enemy". The kind of strength that looks more like fear. We still fear another 9/11 and are doing all we can to stop it.
Or are we? Are we praying for terrorists, though they might kill us? Are we open to receiving people exiled by terrorists from other lands? Do we know how to love and bless our enemies like the Bible says? Can we lift up the oppressed, even when it looks dangerous to do so? Or are we more like what Ezekiel says of Sodom:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. -- Ezekiel 16:49
Who gives us the answer to what is going on in this world? Is it God or our political parties?
On another Sunday, more recently, I went to my mom's church and the pastor threw out a question, "In one word, describe the 2016 election". The answers came back:
Mess. Nasty. Embarrassing. Cruel. Sad.
But one of the first answers was a guy near us who yelled, "EXCITING!"
Okay, it's kind of funny because it so clearly gives away who he's voting for. I guess it IS enthralling to watch two criminals thug it out for a year. But I'm tired.
For me, this election is more than the last 12 months. We've been leading to this for 15 years. We decided in 2001 who we would be today, and how we would treat the rest of this small, connected marble of a world. We did not choose wisely, particularly as a church, and we are paying for that.
But we can change. We can ask better questions, have a broader view. We can honestly look at ourselves in the mirror the world is holding up to us and decide: are we their lord? Or their neighbor?
Are they the enemy? Or the prize?