On this day twenty years ago, the church I pastored in Dallas held a community service in response to the 9/11 attacks. We invited ministers from across the denominational spectrum to lead in prayer, worship, and proclamation. Our sanctuary, which seats 2,200 people, was filled to overflowing.
There was something in us that knew we needed each other.
Many of the retrospectives I saw on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 made the same point. One person wrote: “I miss 9/12. I would never want another 9/11, but I miss the America of 9/12. Stores ran out of flags to sell because they were being flown everywhere. People were Americans before they were upper/lower class, Jewish/Christian, Republican/Democrat. . . . On 9/12, what mattered more to us was what united us, not divided us.”
In times of crisis, we discover that we cannot do life on our own. We were made for community. A coal taken out of the fire goes out.
What was true twenty years ago is just as true today.
“A gnawing sense of being unfulfilled”
We find unity when we admit that we are facing challenges greater than our individual capacities and respond by turning to a transforming power we trust and serve together.
Are we facing challenges greater than our capacities today?
People in New York City exposed to toxic pollutants from 9/11 are still getting sick. More than 111,000 people are enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program, which gives free medical care to people whose health problems are potentially linked to the dust from the attacks.
More people will die of COVID-19 in the next two days than died on 9/11. Officials in India are racing to contain an outbreak of Nipah virus that is deadlier than COVID-19.
President Biden’s plan requiring vaccinations for up to one hundred million Americans is being embraced by many and opposed by many. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said recently that al-Qaeda may seek a comeback from within Afghanistan.
Some experts are predicting that the next major international terrorist assault on the US is likely to take the form of a cyberattack. New research warns that a solar storm could cause an “Internet apocalypse” that would keep much of society offline for weeks or months at a time.
Unsurprisingly, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting forty million adults in our country. In Making All Things New, Henri Nouwen spoke for many of us:
“Beneath our worrying lives . . . something else is going on. While our minds and hearts are filled with many things, we wonder how we can live up to the expectations imposed upon us by ourselves and others. We have a deep sense of unfulfillment. While busy with and worried about many things, we seldom feel truly satisfied, at peace, or at home. A gnawing sense of being unfulfilled underlies our filled lives.”
A chair in the center of the room
Does a transforming power exist we can trust and serve together?
The first-century Roman world was as divided and divisive as our culture is today. Relational walls between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, and slaves and masters dominated their society (cf. Galatians 3:28). The only source of true unity for early Christians was found in their shared commitment to Christ.
This is why we find Paul urging his fellow believers in Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). He made the same appeal in Philippi: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2).
And in Colossae: “Put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). And in Ephesus: “Maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). And in Rome: “Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16).
Peter made a similar appeal: “All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
We find unity when we admit we cannot do life on our own and we turn to the Author of life together. Put a chair in the center of the room and its inhabitants along the walls. The closer they come to the chair, the closer they come to each other.
“Seeing the face of God”
I wish this 9/13 were more like the 9/13 I experienced twenty years ago. But wishing isn’t enough. We must admit that we are not sufficient to meet the challenges we face and seek the help of our Father and our faith family. When we do, we will be catalysts for the spiritual renewal our culture needs so desperately.
Twenty years ago, Jim Jenkins was a Navy chaplain serving with the Coast Guard as part of the Chaplains’ Emergency Response Team. He traveled to Ground Zero days after 9/11. Over the next two weeks, he ministered to rescue and recovery workers as they searched for bodies, comforted those at a makeshift morgue, and accompanied families as they watched remains of loved ones removed from the rubble.
Jenkins learned that he needed help beyond himself. As a result of the two weeks he spent at Ground Zero, he developed a precancerous condition in his sinuses and esophagus due to breathing in toxic chemicals. He was diagnosed with PTSD and has recurring nightmares to this day.
But he has also learned that the One he serves is sufficient for us all. Even in his darkest moments, he feels God’s hand comforting him: “Something happens when you pray, when you cry out to God with groanings too deep for words. Wherever we are, the Lord will meet us right in the midst of our brokenness.”
And Jenkins learned that when we share our hope with others, God uses us to draw them to himself. “I talked a lot about the promises of God and of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter,” he reflected. “I really felt that, when I was ministering to people, they weren’t seeing my face. I believe they were seeing the face of God and experiencing his favor.”
Will you ask God to meet you in the midst of your brokenness?
With whom will you share his favor?