We’ve learned the wrong lesson from 9/11

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

So said George Santayana, a Spanish-born American author, in 1905.

Perhaps that’s why my wife and I, during a long weekend in New York for a wedding, took a train and subway ride into the Big Apple to see the 9/11 memorial.

As a friend told us, that’s something you do only once. It’s a sober reminder of what happened on one particular day 18 years ago.

Once is enough for a powerful reminder like that.

Cannot forget

If you were old enough to remember that day, those two airplanes crashing into the iconic World Trade Center towers provided memories you’ll never forget. I was a newspaper copy editor in Michigan at the time, watching the surreal events unfold on deadline.

newspapers 7

Our daily newspaper published several editions that day, because the news happened so fast. Our first edition didn’t even mention the attack. The last edition – literally a stop-the-presses moment – reported the panic and shock of a nation-defining tragedy.

Since that day, our society has changed permanently, and not necessarily for the better. We no longer trust each other, not in airports – security is tighter than it’s ever been – or even on the sidewalk, where we stare at our phones or listen to our music, oblivious to the world around us.

Burned-out fire trucks and ambulances. Twisted steel of the north and south towers. Charred pieces of the airplanes-turned-weapons. Snippets from the morning TV talk shows, interrupted by updates from Ground Zero. Smoke billowing in New York, at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania.

memorial 9

The memorial captures all of it. And much more.

As if we could ever forget.

Fear replaces trust

It struck me that people in other parts of the world face these fears every day. Imagine the Kurds in Syria right now. Will they be alive tomorrow?

We lived through that once.

Just once.

We have the capability to prevent such attacks, for the most part anyway, by stepping up security. Cameras watch us everywhere – not just at airports, but at businesses, street corners and even some private homes.

We don’t trust anyone anymore.

Why is there so much evil in the world today? Because that’s what we expect of each other.

We act out our fears.

If, instead, we would look for the good in the world, we’d see it. I discovered that as we raised our three sons. Give them a little age-appropriate responsibility, and they’ll step up. A little alone time because Mom and Dad both need to run a short errand. Then, our oldest driving to an out-of-town event with his best friend as a teenager. Eventually, all three of our sons went away to college.

We trusted them, because we’d prepared them. And they passed with flying colors.

Perhaps that works at home, but society no longer operates that way.

Unity, for a brief moment

If your skin color is different, if your nationality or religious beliefs are different, you are not to be trusted. That didn’t start on Sept. 11, 2001, of course, but it sure increased after that date.

Immediately after 9/11, this nation unified like I’d never seen it do before. That lasted about three weeks. Then people stopped going to church and praying for each other, seeking solace in the unity that comes from a shared experience.

memorial 8

In a sense, we’ve forgotten the past already. We’ve forgotten what unifies us.

We care only about what divides us. Our politics, our religion, our nationality, our social values, our language. We build walls, literal ones and figurative ones in our hearts.

Every one of us, including me, does this.

When our sons were learning to drive, I told them not to trust any other driver on the road. Act as if all of them are idiots, so that when another driver does something stupid, you won’t be surprised. And you’ll be ready to react.

That’s good advice on the road. Unfortunately, we live all of our lives that way, don’t we?

We prove ourselves untrustworthy. Every time I drive on a highway – every single time – I get passed by drivers going 15 mph or more over the speed limit. So do you, unless you’re the speeder. There aren’t enough police cars out there to prevent this.

Identity theft. Robo calls. Inferior products (we don’t build things the way we used to; I could write a column just about this). I’m renting a tux for an upcoming wedding; the company doesn’t want me to pick it up early, and they want it back on Sunday, the day after the wedding. They don’t trust me to keep it even one extra day, even though I’m paying more than $200 for the privilege of holding onto that tux for, like, four days. Not five.

The new normal

Why do we remember 9/11? Is it to point fingers at the bad guys?

Is that all we learned?

Have we forgotten what unifies us?

memorial 23

Every one of us is the bad guy, actually. Each of us, including you and me, is an enemy to someone. If you call yourself a Republican or a Democrat, you’re an enemy. If you’re white or black or Middle Eastern, you’re an enemy to someone. If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, you’re Satan personified to someone.

We have more in common than we think we do. 9/11 proved that, if only for three weeks.

The fallout proves how much we’ve forgotten.

Why visit the 9/11 memorial in New York?

How do we prevent such a tragedy from happening again? While we haven’t had an attack of that scale on our soil since, we have mass shootings all the time. Most of them are internal, not from outside terrorists.

memorial 27

We no longer trust each other. We put up walls and stockpile weapons to protect ourselves. The spiral deepens.

I went for a jog through the neighborhood shortly after we bought our house two years ago. I left the front door open, since I wasn’t planning to be gone long. My neighbor noticed and said I shouldn’t do that, because there’s teenagers around who will steal stuff.

Even in suburban America, this is the world we live in. We’re hardly safe even in our own homes.

The world has come to our front porch. We’ve slammed the door, and locked it out.

This is our 9/11 legacy. I’m afraid we’ve missed the lesson we needed to learn.

We cannot escape

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is so high that I cannot attain it.

 

Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

 

For it was you who formed my inward parts;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

baby-growing

Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

all the days that were formed for me,

when none of them as yet existed.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them – they are more than the sand;

I come to the end – I am still with you.

 

osr 4

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,

and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me –

those who speak of you maliciously,

and lift themselves up against you for evil!

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;

I count them my enemies.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

 

Psalm 139

For our own survival, we must re-learn history

“Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” The people of Nineveh believed God. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them.

Jonah 3:2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10

 

The people of Nineveh knew they were doing bad things. Their lives were evil and violent, in the words of their own king.

When a prophet of God called them out on it, they – including the king – repented immediately.

I wish such a scenario could be repeated today in the United States.

It won’t.

For starters, if a prophet of God were to proclaim such a message today, he (or she) would be either ridiculed or ignored. We’d find ways to dilute such a prophet’s message, or refute it, or pretend we didn’t hear it.

Flaunting our evil

The lines between good and evil are often blurred today.

Even when the lines are straight and we know right from wrong, we often flaunt our sins.

  • Just yesterday I saw the driver of a pickup truck on the highway weaving in and out of traffic, going 10 to 15 mph faster than everyone else was driving. He cared nothing for traffic laws on the books or the welfare of anyone around him, including me. This is nearly an everyday occurrence in my world.
  • When was the last time a popular movie or TV show celebrated marriage and the marriage bed?
  • Violence makes the news every day in this country. In Chicago, for example, 409 people have been killed so far this year. That is 126 fewer than 2017, according to the Chicago Tribune. I saw a blurb the other day that said Chicago went 22 hours without a single shooting being reported. That’s what we’ve become: almost a whole day with no shootings is a moral victory.
  • Police officers, teachers and parents do not have the respect that they should. Some of that is their own fault. Some of it is not.
  • Politicians can’t decide right from wrong in any situation these days. No matter how they rule in the Judge Brett Kavanaugh case regarding his U.S. Supreme Court nomination, many of us will get angry. People on both sides are convinced they have the moral high ground. Politicians can’t get it right because we the people won’t let them. Because we the people no longer know what the moral high ground is.
  • Addictions have become an epidemic: opioids, illegal drugs, alcohol, pornography, social media, our jobs … many things. Choice or disease? We’d rather debate that than actually solve any addiction problems.

Experience vs. reason

Was life simpler back in Old Testament times?

The people of Nineveh dealt with the same temptations and evil things that we do. We have far more technology, of course, so we can disseminate evil much faster and more efficiently.

The people of Nineveh didn’t always follow the king’s lead; they responded to Jonah’s message first, then reported it to the king. To the king’s credit, he was paying attention to the pulse of his city.

I wish we had the listening skills that the Ninevites – the people and the king – did, and even more, the discernment to determine good and evil, as they did.

Instead, we justify ourselves.

Experience comes before reason.

In a previous chapter of my life, I was deeply involved in the United Methodist Church. A basic tenet of that denomination is the Wesley Quadrilateral, named for the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. The quadrilateral is: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

In that order.

Except that some United Methodists prefer to flip the order, starting with experience, and using reason, tradition and Scripture to justify their experiences.

That debate now permeates our common culture.

If we can’t agree on the basic tenets of what our society should be, how can we possibly solve our moral dilemmas?

That’s what Nineveh had that we do not.

I did it my way

Unfortunately, there’s just enough truth in every modern viewpoint to muddy the waters. Women and immigrants are real people. Abortion is the death of a human being.

Laws should align with those tenets.

They frequently don’t.

Or if they do, we have to fight for them.

And because of our propensity to flaunt laws we don’t agree with, we are becoming an anarchy – refusing to accept authority. Rule by the individual. I have my rights and I’ll do what I want.

If it hurts you, I don’t care.

If I kill you on the road or abort my son or daughter, it doesn’t matter to me. If you don’t satisfy me as a lover, I’ll find one who does.

Never mind the collateral damage.

I did it my way, in the words popularized in 1969 – almost a half-century ago – by Frank Sinatra.

Many of us today have taken those lyrics to heart. We try to justify our actions. And we frequently get away with them.

Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me

Sackcloth and ashes. How archaic.

That attitude is too, isn’t it?

The people of Nineveh asked God to forgive them for their evil and violent ways. God listened, and forgave them.

As a secular – very secular – city.

Then, for a time at least, the people of Nineveh actually changed their ways. Until temptations lured them into evil and violence again.

Is this even possible in 2018 in our country?

It is possible, yes, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. That would require a willingness to admit that we are on the wrong track as a nation, as Nineveh did. We can’t point fingers at others and say, “You need to repent.”

No. The people of Nineveh got down on their own knees.

Justice for all, mercy for some

A few lessons I’ve learned or re-learned through a year-long study of Romans in the New Testament:

  • We discover order in nature, but we can’t learn about sin and salvation through nature.
  • Justified: Acquitted of all charges. That doesn’t mean we are innocent, just not guilty. There are no consequences for what we’ve done. This is grace – an act of God. We do not contribute to it.
  • Justification is a one-time act of God. Sanctification is the process of becoming like Jesus, which takes a lifetime.
  • Law reveals sin, but can’t cure it. A CAT scan may find a disease, but the CAT scan itself can’t cure it. Same principle. Jesus, not the law, is the medicine we need to have our sins forgiven.
  • The Old Testament laws weren’t written down until Moses wrote them – 430 years after Abraham lived. Sin still existed, even though no written laws did. See Adam and Eve.
  • God did all the work to offer us salvation from our sins. He initiated, taught, died and resurrected, all while we were sinners. We don’t have to get it right before God saves us. We accept God’s forgiveness; then sanctification starts.
  • Our trespasses can be counted. Grace is infinite.
  • We also died on the cross and were buried with Jesus, and were raised from the dead with Him (see Romans 6:1-4). Burial means death to sin is final.
  • No one is “free.” Everyone serves someone or something, whether we realize it or not.
  • While Jesus delivers us from the power of sin, it’s not a one-and-done thing. Recognizing this conflict proves that we are His.
  • Sin does not define us. The struggle with sin defines God’s forgiveness and love.
  • We have conflict, but not condemnation.
  • Suffering is temporary; glory is permanent (eventually).
  • Justice keeps us on Death Row. God chooses to give mercy to some people. This is not about us. It’s about Him. We have to trust God’s character, because there’s no way we can understand this.
  • God sent the apostle Paul to people (Gentiles) who weren’t even looking for Him. God operates that way frequently.
  • We are transformed by the renewal of our minds. So often we blame our bodies for sin, but it starts in our minds. Always.
  • All people are far more important than humanists imagine us to be. All people are far worse than humanists suppose.
  • Loving God and others is not behavior modification. It’s a heart issue.
  • Harmony and dissonance: Do my notes blend in with the melody? There are no lone-ranger Christians. My notes, played correctly alongside the in-tune notes of other Christians, will make beautiful music.
  • If we respond to evil with evil, then evil never ends.
  • If we respond to evil with love, we absorb the evil. This is not normal.
  • God is in control of all things. This is not difficult to understand, but it is difficult to accept.
  • Following God does not always mean that all goes well. See Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, or Daniel in the lion’s den. Sometimes God brings us through the fire. That often glorifies Him.
  • God establishes authority for our good. Anarchy brings chaos. Even poor leaders are better than no leadership at all.
  • Light shines brighter in darkness than it does in the daytime.
  • The purpose of the law is to help us live together well. We can do this only if we love each other. (The law no longer applies when we die, of course.)
  • Food and drink won’t matter in heaven. Righteousness, peace and joy will.
  • “Accept” means to welcome or receive, not simply to tolerate.
  • The gospel is simple, but it’s not simplistic. The plan of salvation has a few easy steps to follow, but living them out takes a lifetime of learning and doing.
  • Don’t study evil; we know it already. Study God’s word.
  • Avoid people who reject Christ. Don’t argue for the sake of arguing.
  • God has won the war. The battles of this life will end soon.

Saturday

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,

and you will not listen?

Or cry to you “Violence!”

and you will not save?

Why do you make me see wrongdoing

and look at trouble?

Destruction and violence are before me;

strife and contention arise.

So the law becomes slack,

and justice never prevails.

The wicked surround the righteous –

therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

  • Habakkuk 1:2-4

 

I ask this question of God all the time. Maybe not in those exact words, but the question remains.

When will good prevail?

I know it will eventually, but what about today?

We just celebrated the holiest week on the Christian calendar. Such wide-ranging events, such wild swings of emotion:

  • Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in a surprising act of servanthood. (Have you ever washed someone’s feet, or let someone wash your feet? It’s humbling, almost degrading.)
  • Jesus crying out in anguish to his father, asking for the unfolding scenario not to happen. “… yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39)
  • An unfair – and illegal – trial in the middle of the night. Jesus remained silent through most of it.
  • The horrible crucifixion on Friday.
  • Jesus’ life-altering resurrection on Sunday.

Wait a minute. There’s one day in that week where nothing seemingly happens. Only silence.

Saturday.

The day between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

Habakkuk wrote his essay about 600 years before Jesus lived, but he easily could have written it on that Saturday. Jesus promised that he would rise on the third day, but it hadn’t happened yet. There’s only the sorrow of death. Tomorrow hasn’t come yet. What about today? What do we do now?

In a very real sense, the year 2017 is taking place on Saturday. Yes, the resurrection has occurred, but the final victory hasn’t come yet. The Bible promises that it will. Eventually.

What do we do in the meantime?

In my personal journal, I concluded a Good Friday entry with this paragraph:

 

“It’s a nice day today, Father. I don’t feel it. Birds singing, flowers growing, window open, sun shining. A beautiful spring day. Where You die, and I sin. Sunday is coming. Eventually.”

 

When will good prevail? It already has, and still is. I often have a hard time seeing it, though.

It’s easy to focus on the negative, personally and globally, and live my life there. Sad. Frustrated. Disappointed. Angry, perhaps. Knowing that Sunday is coming, but not seeing it.

Our church gave us a Holy Week devotional that I found helpful. The Saturday entry includes this thought:

 

“The promise is clear: Jesus will rise. But the grief and pain are so overwhelming, nobody can hear the promise now. Nobody can remember the promise. Saturday is the day of such emotional pain, that it seems impossible to remember the promises of God. Isn’t it true that much of life is lived on “Saturday?” We’re so beleaguered by our circumstances that we forget what God has said … We doubt in the dark what God has said in the light … We cry out for help, but God does not listen.”

 

I get that. I put my head down when I’m jogging to watch for potholes and dog poop on the path, but I don’t see what’s ahead of me: a curve in the trail, deer in the woods, other walkers or joggers coming towards me. How far to the bridge over the river or to the overpass I’ll cross under? Am I paying attention?

My life expectancy and health give me another 30 or 40 years here on Earth. That’s a lot of Saturdays. Can I wait that long for Sunday?

The devotional continues this way:

 

Learning to live on Saturday is learning to exercise faith despite the pain, and clinging with all we’ve got to God and the promises he’s made. God will make good out of evil. God will bring joy out of mourning. God will bring light out of darkness. There will be a Sunday. Lord, I believe.

 

Habakkuk gets an answer from God to his plea:

 

“Look at the nations, and see!

Be astonished! Be astounded!

For a work is being done in your days

that you would not believe if you were told.”

  • Habakkuk 1:5

 

Wow. Is that message relevant in 2017? Why not?

Sunday is coming. Sooner or later.

That gives me hope. I don’t have to live with Saturday’s pain.

None of us do. Sunday is promised. The resurrection is proof, and Jesus’ second coming is undeniable. No one knows when that will happen.

Until then, it’s Saturday.

Good and evil co-exist. We need discernment to discover which is which. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it isn’t. Searching for good when evil often reigns is the definition of Saturday.

It can be done, but it’s hard.

I’m ready for Sunday.

I’ll conclude this essay with the final thought of the Bible:

 

“The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

  • Revelation 22:20

At Easter: Why Jesus?

Even if I could prove beyond doubt that Jesus Christ not only existed but was – and is – the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world, some of you, perhaps many of you, still would not accept that.

I heard a conference speaker say recently that the evils of smoking are well documented, but millions of people do it anyway – with the full knowledge that they are harming their bodies. Smokers have their reasons. I don’t judge them; it doesn’t bother me one way or another, as long as no one smokes in my car or house (where the effects will linger, proving that no one lives in a vacuum; every decision we make does affect others).

So, if proof isn’t enough, why follow Jesus?

Because it works.

Abundant life

Jesus wants the best for us.

“I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Why would we not want that?

Because having “abundant life” means giving up things that do not benefit us. We don’t like being told we can’t have something or can’t do something, even if it might hurt us.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14)

How antiquated is that in American society? And yet God put that in the Ten Commandments for a reason. Marriage is supposed to be the highest form of relationship, when done right, when the husband and wife want the best for each other.

Many of us have screwed that up, so we look for validation in other places. But we’ll never find a deeper relationship on Earth than we will in “holy matrimony.” There are plenty of effects of relationships gone sour when we don’t want the best for each other.

We are inherently selfish. I want the best for me, even if that hurts you. But if I hurt you, I won’t ever find the best for me, because I’ll feel sadness when you are hurt. We are inherently that way too.

The Ten Commandments are a list of dos and mostly don’ts that we are to follow. All of them are for our own benefit. Our common laws are based on them (do not steal; do not commit murder; do not bear false witness against your neighbor; you shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor).

Whether the Ten Commandments are posted on the Courthouse lawn or outside a school doesn’t matter to me. They’re just words on paper, or stone. When they are written on our hearts, then they mean something.

The ACLU has no jurisdiction over my heart.

Head and heart

My heart. That’s where “faith” meets “prove it.”

I had a lonely, insecure childhood. My family moved around some in my elementary and junior high years, including out of state a couple of times. Getting uprooted meant I never formed deep friendships. I’ve never been more afraid than the first day of ninth grade, in a new town in a different state where I didn’t know a soul, except my seventh-grade sister in another part of the building.

The following summer, we attended a church camp in western Pennsylvania, again someplace I’d never been before. I was accepted immediately. The counselors and even other campers noticed me – not because I did anything, but just because I was there.

They made it clear they did that because Jesus loves them as much as He loves me. We don’t have to earn His love; He gives it away freely.

This was new to me.

I wanted what they had.

I didn’t ask for a theological discussion. I didn’t know the history of the Bible then. I didn’t know what the Bible said about marriage, money, pain and suffering, or the End Times. I just knew that Jesus loves me, because I saw it and felt it in the people around me.

That was my starting point.

As I’ve studied the Bible since, on my own and in groups and with Sunday morning sermons, I’ve learned more about Jesus’ love for me, and how to live that way. Mind and heart. Jesus connects in both places.

Good and evil

Why do bad things happen to good people? That’s a big stumbling block for many. If God wants the best for us, why do we all suffer?

My wife and I just attended the funeral of her cousin. She died a week ago of a heart attack at age 56. Left four children and 15 grandchildren. No warning. Totally unexpected. Why?

I can’t answer that.

But none of us is exempt from that kind of story, are we? Who do I think I am that I am above pain?

If we lived life happily ever after on Earth, where would we find meaning? Seriously.

We find meaning in helping others. We fundraise to fight cancer or world hunger. We provide clothes and other necessities to victims of fires, earthquakes or floods. We mentor in schools. We raise awareness for autism or diabetes. We do a myriad of things to serve those less fortunate than us.

Why?

If life is only about making me happy, why should I care about you?

God put a deeper purpose in our hearts than the “pursuit of happiness.” There’s nothing wrong with being happy, of course, but how do we do that? Really?

God: yay or nay

Here’s the kicker, the real reason most people don’t follow Jesus: He demands a response from every one of us. “Faith is fine for you, but not for me,” you might say. Or, “What makes you so certain that your faith is the right one?”

Because Jesus is the only “god” who wants the best for us. No other god can offer salvation from anything. There’s no bigger picture.

Jesus is inclusive and exclusive at the same time.

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

The invitation is open to every person, but not everyone will accept the invite. There are rewards and consequences either way. No exceptions.

Good Friday is the most horrific story ever told. What makes it so compelling is that Jesus died on that cross willingly, because He wants the best for us: relationship with His Father.

Jesus overcame even death on Easter.

We do not want the best for our own lives. I say and do things I know I shouldn’t, but I do them anyway.

I ask forgiveness, and Jesus forgives. Every time. He knows the human heart. He created it. I reach out to Him again. He smiles. I walk away, then return to Him. He smiles again.

This is relationship. This is the way life is meant to be.

It’s the way we should treat each other as well.

Think how much nicer America would be if we did.

If we let the God who wants the best for us lead us.

Take a deep breath. Could it happen?

Theoretically, yes. In practice, no.

Because we cannot know good without evil.

So, we live with both.

Which side will you choose?