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.

Law and freedom: Can we have both?

I roll through stop signs if there’s no traffic.

I fudged deadlines all the time as a copy editor to get the latest news in the paper.

I jog in the rain, or in snow with 15-degree temperatures (not this year yet, though).

And yet:

I get at least eight hours of sleep every night.

I’ve never received a speeding ticket.

When I’m scheduled to be somewhere, I always show up early.

So, who am I?

I’m a rule-breaker. But I learn the rules first, so I know which ones I can break. And when.

Two plus two equals …

I came down with pneumonia as a college student, so I don’t have the stamina that most of you do. If I don’t get enough sleep, I get sick.

If I break rules, there are consequences. That’s one consequence I don’t want. So I go to bed early every night.

I drive with common sense. I’ve written blogs on this before. Safety is paramount; I drive the speed limit or slightly above, weather conditions permitting. I fudge the law only when it’s safe, and my eyes are wide open. (But I’ll stop at a red light, even if there is no other traffic in sight.)

I married a math expert. Two plus two is always four to her. I’m a journalist at heart. Two plus two could have multiple meanings. Two apples plus two oranges equals four pieces of fruit, but you still have only two apples.

Are you counting fruit, or apples?

… safety …

This is the source of today’s political divide. We don’t know what we’re counting.

One side is all about laws.

The other side is all about humanity.

What happens when law and humanity clash?

We get a government shutdown.

Laws serve a crucial purpose. They give us structure and order. The trash truck comes every Friday. Our City Council signs a contract with the trash hauler to do that. My tax dollars pay for it. That’s the way government works.

Here’s a better example, actually. My tax dollars also help pay for the local police department. Its primary job is to keep the residents of our city, including me, safe. The City Council, the county, the state and the federal governments all pass laws intended to keep us safe. Opioids and illegal drugs hurt people. Thieves and robbers hurt people. Drivers who weave in and out of traffic and/or run red lights risk causing a collision and hurting people.

Laws protect us, and police and the court system defend the right to live without fear for our lives. That’s the goal, anyway.

… or freedom …

But are laws themselves ever oppressive?

Once upon a time, women were not legally allowed to vote. Other laws enforced slavery. It took time, far too much time, before those injustices were legally corrected.

Today’s hottest debate is over illegal immigrants trying to enter this country through Mexico. Immigrants have been doing this for decades, and I’ve read that in recent years the immigration rate has actually declined.

But we now have a president who wants to cut off the illegal immigrants’ entry into this country completely. Illegal, by definition, means they are breaking a law.

But are the immigration laws of this country fair? And are illegal immigrants as evil as Republicans make them out to be?

The answer to the first question must be decided by Congress and the president. The second question? A resounding, “no.”

… or both?

Illegal immigrants are not an organized band of terrorists seeking to destroy American life, as Al-Qaeda was on Sept. 11, 2001. They are mostly women and children fleeing their native countries because their lives are in jeopardy there. Gang wars and violence have destroyed the culture of Honduras and other Central American societies. These women and children have seen relatives and friends die, and face death and/or poverty themselves.

Americans cannot comprehend this. No one in my community is seeking my life.

Why is it so wrong for such people to seek a place to live where they don’t have to fear death every day?

If crime and terrorism are the reasons why, well, those issues are already here. News flash. Illegal immigrants aren’t going to change society much at all.

My wife and I met a 77-year-old woman on Christmas Day while delivering meals to several families in town. She has custody of her two teenage great-grandchildren, because no one else in her family wants them. The teens’ mother is a drug addict and can’t be around her children. The 16-year-old girl has anger issues and screams at the top of her lungs, forcing neighbors to call the police sometimes. The great-grandmother does what she can to keep her fragile family together. They rent a one-bedroom house – which isn’t legal since the teens are a boy and girl. So the boy gets the bedroom and the girl and great-grandma sleep on mattresses in the living room.

They’ve been in this house only a short time, and likely won’t stay long if they can find a place with more bedrooms.

When children move that often, it’s not surprising that they have trouble keeping up in school.

Building a border wall won’t help this family.

We need laws, certainly. We need security, of course. The wall might appease some politicians, but it won’t do much – if anything – to improve security in this country.

Can we pass laws to improve security that actually work? Do our immigration laws assist apples and oranges together, or are we defending the apples and trying to remove the oranges?

What is the fruit of our labor?

Do two and two always equal four, or is there another possible answer?

Our country is full of oranges as well as apples.

Can we enjoy the flavors that both bring to this country?

Is there a way to get creative and keep the law at the same time?

A litmus test for evangelicals that shouldn’t be

Honduran migrants cross the U.S. border wall to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 16, 2018, before turning themselves in to U.S. border patrol agents, standing at the top. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

President Trump, along with Republican and Democratic U.S. representatives, have forgotten that immigrants, legal and especially illegal, are human beings. They have turned the immigration issue into a political football.

They threaten a partial U.S. shutdown later this week over whether to pay for Trump’s border wall with Mexico (which, by the way, during his presidential campaign Trump promised that Mexico would pay for). Trump wants $5 billion for it. Democrats are offering $1.6 billion for border security.

Those numbers are peanuts compared with the trillion-plus-dollar budget that Congress oversees.

The stalemate has nothing to do with dollars and budgets.

It’s all about the politics.

Worse, for many Americans, it’s become a litmus test of evangelical Christianity. Many outspoken proponents of the border wall are evangelicals who support Trump’s for-the-most-part conservative social agenda.

https://www.vox.com/2018/10/26/17989084/christopher-maloney-in-god-we-trump-evangelicals-trump

Many staunch opponents are “social justice” Democrats who see the immigrants’ “caravan” in Mexico, heading for the U.S. border, as displaced Latin Americans fleeing poverty and, especially, violence in their home countries.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fleeing-poverty-and-violence-central-american-women-explain-why-they-join-caravans-1543947664

I am an evangelical Christian who supports the Democrats on this issue.

Why?

Because Jesus would.

The kingdom of God has feet

Jesus’ primary mission on Earth was to introduce us to the “kingdom of God.” He offered us a personal, one-on-one relationship with his Father. In the Old Testament, God came and went, offering support to specific individuals for specific events or short periods of time. In the Gospels, Jesus said God would come and remain with us at all times, not come and go as he did previously.

To do that, Jesus did not require us to get our act together spiritually or socially before we could let God into our hearts full-time. No. God met – and still meets – us right where we are.

In other words, Jesus Christ was – and still is – the “social justice” God as well as the “evangelical” God.

Very few Christians understand this, even though the message is obvious throughout the New Testament.

Jesus called several fishermen as his first disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). Not exactly upperclassmen. He also hand-picked a hated tax collector (Luke 5:27-28), who left a lucrative job to follow a charismatic leader and his band of nomads. His other disciples were not exactly household names or community leaders when Jesus called them (Mark 3:13-19).

Jesus the social activist

Once he had his chosen twelve, Jesus did some surprising things. He visited Samaria, which no self-respecting Jew would have done, and talked with a woman who had been married five times (John 4:1-42). He acknowledged her past but didn’t condemn her for it.

Same with a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). And a mentally disturbed caveman (Mark 5:1-20). And an inquisitive political leader who met him at night because he didn’t want to be noticed (John 3:1-21).

He healed numerous disabled people, including several who were blind and others who had physical deformities (read the gospel of Luke, for example).

All of these folks were outcasts. Yet Jesus met them right where they were, healing them and encouraging them to “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

Jesus the leader

Jesus also interacted with the religious and political leaders of his day, who were the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees (Mark 12:13-40). Those religious leaders also were the local political leaders, serving the oppressive Roman government in return for keeping the peace in their communities.

They tweaked Jewish laws and customs to keep themselves in Rome’s good graces, picking and choosing Scriptures to fit their agendas.

To put it mildly, Jesus didn’t like that. He called them blind guides and hypocrites (Matthew 23:13-36).

Jesus didn’t attack the Pharisees and Sadducees on a political level, but on a spiritual level. On politics, he said: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

On Palm Sunday, the crowd thought they were hailing a political king who was entering Jerusalem to overthrow the hated Roman government (Matthew 21:8-11). When Jesus didn’t do that, they deserted him – and crucified Him.

What does all this have to do with immigration?

Jesus the servant

For people outside the church, Jesus was compassionate and gave them the benefit of the doubt every time. For people inside the church, Jesus spoke harshly for their judgment and hard-hearted attitudes, because they knew the Scriptures and should have known better how to treat people (including Jesus Christ himself).

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he would give us the same message. We still haven’t learned it.

Immigrants need us. They are fleeing for their lives, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

In contrast, many Americans are richer than we think we are. Globally, if your wealth (assets minus debts) is in the $100,000 to $1 million range, you are among the 7.3 percent of the world’s population that has about 40 percent of the world’s wealth. If your wealth equals only $3,210, you are wealthier than half of the people across this planet.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-richest-people-in-the-world-20160121-story.html

Our response

What are we afraid of? That we might lose political influence?

Blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups already are gaining influence in this country. So are women. Are we truly worried about immigrants who have nothing materially, but who just might have the gifts, talents and work ethic we need to make this country run?

Is there not room for all?

I recently attended a conference in Chicago on urban ministry. One speaker pointed out that white Americans will not get involved in any project or event unless they lead it. That means whites will not allow any minority individuals to lead whatever they are involved in.

Whoa. That’s an eye-opener.

Are we afraid that a minority person might actually have leadership skills? As white people, are we not willing to submit ourselves to a black, Latino and/or female supervisor or other type of leader?

In the words of a decades-old slogan, what would Jesus do?

Jesus’ response

Jesus hand-picked a group of outcasts and under-the-radar people to train as the leaders of his future church. (If you read the book of Acts, there are women and couples who are leaders in the early church, as well as the more well-known Paul, Peter and James.)

No one is an outcast in Jesus’ eyes. Not disabled people. Not mentally disturbed people. Certainly not immigrants.

In a dispute between outcasts and church leaders, Jesus sided with the outcasts every time.

The “unchurched” often understood Jesus better than the church folks did. They certainly connected with him in a more real way.

We forget this at our own peril.

Finding passion in the midst of constant change

Nothing lasts on Earth. Nothing at all.

Is that a good thing?

Depends on your outlook.

If you are adventurous, you like doing new things all the time. You create change. Things that last probably bore you.

If you prefer security, commitment and long-term involvement, then change gets in the way. You might even fear it.

What if change comes, and you wish it wouldn’t?

I’m finding it hard to remain committed to much of anything these days. Maybe I have some secret anger, a restlessness, an insecurity, an impatience with something that keeps me from things that last.

Perhaps it’s none of those things. Perhaps this is just the way life is.

Short-term volunteering

For example, I enjoy mentoring elementary-age students through local schools. Many children these days need a good male role model. If I can help, I enjoy doing that.

Our church in Saginaw, Mich., partnered with the elementary school across the street, and that’s where I first got involved. I showed up at lunchtime and played games with the student, ate lunch with him, and gave him encouragement. Sometimes I helped him with homework that he didn’t finish in the morning.

That lasted a couple of years, until we moved to Rockford, Ill. A month or two after we moved there, I found a reading program through Rockford Public Schools. That winter/spring and the following fall, I spent an hour in a classroom, reading with four students whom the teacher sent to me in 15-minute segments. I assisted them with words they had trouble pronouncing, and I helped with their comprehension – do you understand what you are reading?

We moved away after a year to Elyria, Ohio. I found a lunchtime mentoring program at Midview Schools in nearby Grafton. After a year, that program disappeared and I never heard from the school district again.

So I connected with Greater Cleveland Volunteers, which introduced me to My Mentor My Friend, a lunchtime mentoring program at four elementaries in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.  I picked the school on the west side of Cleveland (the other three schools all were on the east side), and mentored three students there in a little more than a year.

Trying to make a difference

My first student there moved away in the summer. My second student, probably a loner like me, seemed uncomfortable with the one-on-one attention and dropped out of the program. My third student also moved away this summer.

That’s the lifestyle of the typical low-income inner-city student. Many live with one parent, or in the case of one of my students, with Grandpa. The parent often rents and moves across town frequently. My last student told me his dad got a job in Arizona, and he was planning to move out there to be with him. Dad said Cleveland was too violent. The student had anger management issues and it wasn’t unusual for him to be on suspension when I showed up to mentor.

Did I make a difference? Only God knows. I will never see the long-term results of any student I have mentored thus far, in any district in any state.

That’s just the way it is.

And now, My Mentor My Friend lost its United Way funding and has ended.

The Cleveland school district might keep the mentoring program going on its own. We’ll see. I’m also looking into another mentoring program in Lorain, which is nearer to my home. Either way, it’s another new start.

Elyria City Schools doesn’t have a mentoring program, a teacher there told me recently, because of the work involved to set up and administer such a program. I get that. When a man wants to work with children, red flags go up, don’t they?

At each school district, I had to pass a background check. In Cleveland, I also faced two interviews, fingerprinting and had to provide references – as intensive as any job interview I’ve had.

A year and a half later, is it all for naught?

Where’s the passion?

I’ve had trouble keeping jobs long-term as well. I had one job that lasted eight weeks. The job in Rockford lasted 14 months. My first job here in Elyria lasted 13 months. My next job lasted 2.5 years, but I got burned out. Without going into details, that job is over too.

I enjoy volunteering in the community. Mentoring, yes, but doing other things as well.

It’s me and God now. I no longer answer to a supervisor.

Will I find work again? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Financially, we are doing well.

And, as I said, I’m burned out. Impatient. Perhaps angry.

I have no home on Earth. I’ve felt that way for a long time.

The Rev. Doug Mater, who is the current pastor of a former church where we worshipped and served, wrote the following in a church newsletter earlier this year:

 

How often do we let our God-given strengths go to waste? We spend so much time trying to overcome our limitations by doing things we are not equipped to do. On the contrary, we should consider our special talents for ministry and focus on doing these things better, asking ourselves if we are trying to do something that we are not equipped to do, just for the sake of thinking I need to be different. …

We must continue to be the best we can at these talents so that others will see us as Christians who care about others and want them to share in the joy that we have in Jesus Christ. So, I ask you to look at your talents and keep practicing them. … Let us excel for God with the talents He has given us for his glory.

 

That’s a great message. Often we focus on our weaknesses and try to get better. Or take a job, any job, just to meet the budget.

Instead, we should emphasize our strengths and do them with passion.

What am I “equipped to do?” Do I have any “special talents?” How can I “excel for God?”

As I face yet another transition in my life, this is a good time to ponder such questions.

The journey continues.

The reason to live

President Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un recently traded barbs about who had the largest “nuclear button.”

Soon after, an emergency missile alert accidentally went out to everyone in Hawaii, sparking panic as thousands of people, assuming they had only minutes to live, scrambled to seek shelter and say their final goodbyes to loved ones.

Mudslides in southern California killed at least 20 people.

And there was a fatal school shooting in Kentucky.

Lots of fear. Life at times flashes before us, unexpectedly.

Which leads me to this question: Are we ready to die?

What if one such emergency visited your neighborhood?

No guarantees …

We aren’t guaranteed tomorrow. None of us is.

We know this.

We eat nutritious foods, exercise and live a healthy lifestyle to try to prolong a happy, healthy time on Earth. Often it works.

I’ve been blessed with a healthy body, which I don’t take for granted. I enjoy ice cream or a chocolate chip cookie as much as anyone, but I don’t overindulge in them. I try to get some exercise once or twice a week.

All things in moderation.

It’s worth the effort. I rarely call in sick to work. I don’t sit on the sidelines because my body won’t let me do what I enjoy doing. I know many of you can’t say this. Each of us does our best with what we’ve been given.

… except death

But even in the best of situations, it won’t last forever. Our bodies eventually will wear out. It’s inevitable.

I am ready to die today. I’m not hoping to die or expecting to die; I’m not fatalistic about it.

But I’m ready.

It might not happen for another 40 years. That’s great, too. I’ll serve God on this Earth for as long as I’m here.

We all think about what might happen in the next life. We’re wired that way. We know we’re mortal. Some of us try to suppress those thoughts, but we all have them.

Especially as death nears, so I’ve heard.

Preparing for forever

Why wait until then to address the issue? There are things we can do now to prepare for forever.

I will be with Jesus Christ in heaven when I die. This I know. Whether it’s today or 40 years from now, it will happen.

The God of the Bible is not the same as the gods of any other religion or belief system. We do not have our own truth. Sorry, Oprah. There’s a bigger picture here, one that men and women must adhere to. (Men who abuse women will not be excused in the next life, that is certain. Even if justice isn’t served on Earth, it will be in heaven.)

The God of the Bible is the only god who cares about our welfare – on Earth as well as in the next life. That’s why we should look at this issue now, before we reach our deathbed.

 

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

 

We don’t have to follow a list of rules before God will accept us. He takes us just as we are. Christians aren’t perfect people – far from it. We don’t have our act together, necessarily.

What makes us different?

We are forgiven. That’s all.

 

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9

 

That’s it. There’s no magic formula or ritual that must be followed.

Living forever

Of course, living that out isn’t easy. That’s why we attend church every week, and why we should participate in Sunday school or a small group for support and encouragement. It’s why we should read the Bible often – every day, if possible – to learn what’s in there.

Even Bible scholars, which I am not, have plenty of things to learn about God.

Does that turn you off?

It should excite you.

God is bigger than we can possibly imagine. At the same time, He is smaller than the tiniest detail of our lives.

He cares. To the point of death. His death. Our deaths.

His life. And our lives.

Am I weak or ignorant if I say that there are things I know about God, but there’s plenty I don’t know?

“Salvation” is knowable. That’s one thing we can be certain about.

Why does God save some and not others? That we will never know on this Earth.

All of us are sinners. No one deserves “salvation.” No one earns it.

Why God saves some, why He shows mercy, proves that He loves us and wants the best for us.

Including you.

Instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, we should ask:

Why do good things happen to bad people?

All of us, every single one of us, is “bad.” You can find fault with me rather easily, and a few of you do. I could find fault with you as well if I wanted to look at you that way.

How do we break that cycle?

Only by following God’s example.

He sees the good in each of us, and wants to draw that out. He offers “salvation” as a gift.

But it’s not a gift until we accept it.

I can offer you a Christmas present, but if you return it to the store, you’ve rejected it. So, it’s not a gift.

God doesn’t do that. He offers us “salvation” even though we don’t deserve it.

Then, we spend the rest of our lives getting to know Him better.

It’s worth the effort.