Tragedy is no respecter of persons.
On the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, the date September 11, 2001 appeared in every major media outlet imaginable. Analysis of the event itself, re-plays of the devastating video footage, articles and featured documentaries exploring the impact on the culture in the years since–everywhere you turned yesterday, there was yet another reminder of the trauma of that tragic day one decade ago.
As the nation united in prayer and cried out to God for understanding, protection, comfort and the like, churches were filled with desperate people trying to make sense of the raw evil behind such callous disregard for human life as that demonstrated by the terrorists. But as the crisis grew more distant with each passing day, so did the sense of need to call on the Lord. Churches that were packed the week of the attacks, soon settled back into their routines. People who dashed to places of prayer for the first couple of days returned to their prayerlessness within weeks.
Clearly there were many lessons to be learned by the followers of Christ during and after 9/11…the fickle nature of the human heart (that we already knew but saw it revealed so definitively as people crowded then abandoned churches quicker than the tide comes in and goes out!)…the devastating reality of evil in action…the vulnerability of a nation once perceived to be beyond the reach of global enemies…in fact, many sobering lessons were either learned and re-learned.
Yet there were some positives to be found as well…in the face of life-threatening circumstances, family and loved ones became more of a priority…awareness of our mortality led to expressions of love becoming more intentional and taking spiritual matters more seriously…public servants among firefighters, police and emergency workers gained new respect and appreciation that their sacrifices have long deserved…and again other valuable life-lessons moved us in the right direction.
But one lesson I have never forgotten did not occur to me until some days after the attack. At the end of a pastors and Christian leaders conference in Ooty, India, I was in my hotel room packing to start the long journey home when the phone rang informing me of what was happening at home. So my first impressions of the impact of the tragedy came from CNN in a hotel room on the other side of the world!
We determined that we would go ahead and begin our journey home and go as far as we could–knowing that US airports might not open again for an indeterminate period of time. So the next morning, we made the trip to the airport knowing that we might not get very far!
The surprising lesson began as soon as we pulled up at the departure side of the terminal. There was the usual array of porters, security officers, military personnel, customs officials and airport staff present when we arrived. I found myself already bracing for the brusk, almost rude treatment I normally experience as a US citizen traveling in many international contexts. But something was very different!
The first porter who came up to help with the bags was polite and almost apologetic. He then voiced the words that I heard from one person after another all through the airport–“I am so sorry for your loss–this is a sad day for your country.” Over and over again, those who would seldom have given me the time of day were outwardly expressive of their condolences and their shared sense of grief for the tragic and senseless taking of so many lives by the terrorists. I was moved by their concern and surprised that they would express it so freely.
When I had been home for a little while, it finally occurred to me that the lesson to be learned was a simple but profound one. The normal treatment I had received as the “ugly American” traveler in so many international circles was born out of the impression that we always have things our way in the US…that we are so demanding and selfish in their land only exaggerates their disdain for the arrogance they perceive to be present in all they meet from our land. But that day, it was different.
As a nation facing crisis, we had been given full membership in the global community of the broken-hearted and as we sank to our knees, the fact that we had fallen off the pedestal put us on equal footing with the rest of the world. Don’t get me wrong! We have always been on equal footing as failing, flawed human beings, but sometimes the perception was quite different. On that day of national grief and desperation, the poorest porter at the airport as well as the highest official in the customs office saw me and my fellow US citizens as equals in suffering and therefore they could treat us as peers in the pains of life in a broken world.
The lesson was powerful for me! What a privilege to be viewed as we really are–people who are desperately lost and broken and in need of a way to find hope. As followers of Christ, we are exhorted never to think more highly of ourselves than we ought but to think so as to have an accurate assessment, a sane estimation, of who we really are–people from every nation who need the hope that only Jesus Christ can give. Therefore, the lesson is to always take the low place…to see the great value of humility and servanthood in all our interactions, at home or abroad…to be honest about our struggles so that there is no false impression given that we have it all together.
Great lessons to be learned in the deep waters and storms! Hope yesterday gave you time to reflect on what the Lord wants to teach you through all of this. My “take away” from 9/11 is to value the level ground at the foot of the cross and see tragedy as the great equalizer that shows how much all of us need Jesus!