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We understand that. I wonder if, in any American home this Wednesday, anyone will ask, "What makes this day different from all other days?" Who knows? But we know why someone might be tempted. September 11th was a horrible day. Most of us can recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard. I was in my office in the manse preparing for our regular Tuesday staff meeting. CNBC was on in the background to chronicle the continuing decline and fall of my life savings when suddenly the announcement came about the World Trade Center. All anyone thought was what an atrocious accident, and what a nightmare it was going to be to get firefighting equipment up there. Our staff meeting commenced at 9:00 so we did not hear of the second plane until someone called us to ask if we knew. Needless to say, the plans for the day were scrapped. My wife was supposed to be on a plane back from Caracas at that hour and, according to the Delta website, she was now in the air, having taken off just moments after the second attack. Many of you knew of those plans and called to find out about her. We knew nothing other than the fact that international planes were being diverted and would not be permitted to land in the US. Over and over you said to me, "Don't worry, she's fine." Over and over, I was grateful for your encouraging words.
The day dragged on. We were glued to whatever TV sets were handy. I have no idea how many times we saw the second plane fly into the south tower, or how many times we saw them collapse. Gracious plenty. Too many for lots of folks. As we approach the tragic anniversary, a Gallup poll this week says that 54% of those surveyed say the TV networks should show the footage of the collapses again, but 43% say please, no - enough is enough.(1)
Remembering 9/11. Our national response was, for the most part, wonderful. We saw true heroism in the work of New York's police and firefighters. I doubt that any of us not directly related had given much thought to the life-threatening danger these public servants lived with day in and day out until that day. On September 11th we saw their courage and dedication, and it was a marvel to behold.
As the perpetrators were identified, we quickly put things into perspective. Yes, there were a few isolated incidents of hate crimes committed against folks who appeared to be from the Middle East, but, for the most part, people understood that these horrific acts had been the work of a fanatical fringe - to tar all of Islam with the brush of Al-Quaida would be the same as tarring all Christianity with the brush of the Ku Klux Klan. We reacted better than that, and I am glad.
There was a wonderful outpouring of support for the victims and their families. Remember the long lines at the blood banks? The billions of dollars ungrudgingly given to charities who would provide assistance, in some cases more money than they knew what to do with? Americans are a generous people. We already knew that. And not only generous to our own; we are generous with the whole world. That is why the questions came later that day: "Why would they do such a thing? Why do they hate us so?"
One of the pleasant surprises of 9/11 was the flood of sympathy from around the world. Remember? Even nations we would normally not think of as friends stood in solidarity with us and condemned the attacks. Cuba? Yes, even Cuba. The footage shown on TV of some young Palestinians celebrating the news was played over and over again, and as it was, we began to notice that folks in the background were not celebrating at all. It turned out that there was far more footage of people around the globe reacting with shock and horror strained through tears.
As the day wore on, the numbness we had felt at the first word of the attacks began to wear off. The tragedy was touching us at the very depths of our being. We heard the reports of phone conversations from the upper floors of the Trade Center towers, or the cell phone calls from United flight 93, not to express fear or anger, but simply to say, "I'm stuck up here; I don't think I'm gonna make it...I love you...Take care of the children." We wanted to talk with our own family. We appreciated in a new way how fragile life really is.
No doubt that is why church attendance took such a jump in the days following the tragedy. Even folks who, for every other day of their lives were blissfully irreligious suddenly found themselves in church...prayer services that night, memorial services on the Friday following, Sunday worship.
September 11th. Remember saying that everything was now changed, everything is different now? I said it. But I am not sure I believe it anymore. True, some things have changed. Tighter security at airports - I read yesterday that the folks at Los Angeles International Airport confiscated a GI Joe doll because it had a two-inch plastic rifle. A spokesman for LAX said, "We have instructions to confiscate anything that looks like a weapon or a replica. If GI Joe was carrying a replica then it had to be taken from him."(2) A two-inch piece of plastic. Well, I don't know about you but I sure feel safer now. Duh.
As many of you know, I serve on the Board of your Economic Opportunity Council and for several days this week I had to be in New York City for the annual meeting of the national Community Action Partnership. This was my first trip to New York since the attacks. As we drove to Manhattan from New Jersey, I looked at the approaching skyline - different from my many previous visits. I am old enough to remember the days before the twin towers were erected, when the tallest structure in the New York sky was the Empire State Building. Years ago I remember thinking it was a bit unfair to build these giant towers to dwarf the former champion. Now they were gone. The skyline was empty where they had been. The Empire State Building is number one again. NOW we can talk about unfair.
The hotel was near Times Square so I decided after Thursday's meetings to walk over to that huge outdoor free concert they were promoting to kick off the new season for the National Football League. You may have heard about it. It was being called the world's largest tailgate party, but it wasn't - no cars; traffic was prohibited for 20 blocks coming and going and there were 5700 police and a zillion metal barricades to make sure nothing got through. All handbags and backpacks were being inspected. Security writ LARGE! I did not stay very long - it was LOUD. But I guess we were safe.
We are more openly patriotic now, probably more than any time since the end of World War II. Not only "The Star Spangled Banner," but "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America." And how many times have we heard Lee Greenwood or a Lee Greenwood wannabe sing,
where at least I know I'm free.
And I won't forget the men who died,
who gave that right to me.
And I'd gladly stand up next to you
and defend her still today.
Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land;
God bless the USA.(3)
Yes, we live in a wonderful country. Patriotism is a good thing...within limits. After all, we remember Samuel Johnson's wisdom that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." We need to be careful.
Yes, after September 11th we said everything was changed. But then we were quick to add that we wanted to get back to normal - "if we don't, the terrorists will have won." Remember? The president said that the attackers wanted to bring our economy down, so the suggestion was made that we all go out and spend money. My daughter said a hearty AMEN!
We DID get back to normal. Good. And bad. A few weeks after the attacks, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote for The Christian Century:
On September 11, thousands of Americans died violent deaths, while millions of others were scared to death. In the weeks since then, we have seen some awful things. We have also seen some remarkable ones--true heroes at Ground Zero, interfaith alliances across the land, lawyers' associations declining lawsuits, Hollywood producers yanking blockbuster films--in short, an entire country engaged in a revolution of values.She has something there, doesn't she? There are things about us that needed to be changed. Many still do.
This weekend President Bush has written about the tragedy and the impending anniversary. Perhaps you saw it in yesterday's paper:
Countless people around the country have asked me, "What can I do to help in the war on terror?" The answer: overcome evil with acts of goodness. Love a neighbor. Reach out to somebody in need. Feed someone who is hungry. Teach a child to read, or join in community efforts to prepare for emergencies by helping local firefighters or police.(5)Well, preach, brother, preach! That would be a wonderful way to remember September 11th. It would be a wonderful focus for national policy as well.
Suddenly we hear again the words of our lesson. God's instruction to Israel about another important day: "This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD--a lasting ordinance." Why? To insure that the nation remembers who it is and WHOSE it is.
Remembering 9/11 can help us do the same. We remember we are Americans, but we also remember we are Christians, and that says something about how respond to attacks:
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.
1. USA TODAY, 9/6/02, p. 2A
3. Words and Music by Lee Greenwood © Copyright 1984 by MUSIC CORPORATION OF AMERICA, INC. & SONGS OF POLYGRAM INTERNATIONAL, INC.
4. Barbara Brown Taylor, "Back to Normal?" The Christian Century, 11/7/01, p. 26
5. George W. Bush, "Where We Stand," USA WEEKEND, Sept. 6-8, 2002, p. 7
6. Romans 12:19
7. Romans 12:20
8. Romans 12:21
9. Matthew 5:44