Repost: Ten Years Ago Today

… I got up, ate breakfast with Angi, watched her take the kids on to school, sat down in front of the television and turned it on.

I didn’t usually do that, because I was still working as the Web Content Manager for the site of the Abilene Reporter-News though we had moved to Little Rock just three months before, and I had worked until about 1:30 a.m. putting the news from that day’s edition on the site from my home office. (I usually went back to bed.)

I turned the TV on just in time to see Katie Couric get an odd look on her face and say something to the effect that there was a report of a jetliner crashing into a building in New York. Within a few seconds, there was a camera shot of smoke pouring from the side of one of the World Trade Center building.

After shaking the sleepy, shocked stupor from my head, I went to my computer and started setting up a special news page that would refresh every few minutes with the latest information, and started typing it in and uploading it as quickly as I heard it from the television in the other room.

It was behind me, and turned so that I couldn’t see it. So I was spared seeing much of what America saw happening live.

After a little while, I went back to the living room and plugged in a six-hour videotape to record the disaster.

I still haven’t been able to watch it.

September 11, 2001 has left an indelible scar on everyone in the civilized world who has heard or seen what happened and is old enough to understand.

For those who lost dear ones that day, or have lost loved ones in the conflicts since then, the scar is much deeper.

The date 9-11 has become an emergency call to all of us to wake up to the danger of listening and unquestioningly obeying men who claim to speak for God, but speak words of hatred and urge actions of destruction.

The site of the WTC stands as an empty symbol of something which should be there, but is no more; an anti-landmark in tribute to the futility of prejudice against other faiths – or lack of faiths – and to the outpouring of common love and courage in the aftermath that speaks well of the human heart which remains unmoved by such prejudice.

A crater in Pennsylvania gives testimony to the power of ordinary people who would not surrender to evil, even at peril to their own lives.

And a rebuilt, identical section of obliterated Pentagon silently declares that life must go on and threats must be countered and freedom to choose wisely must always be defended.

Ten years ago today, by late afternoon, I finished posting the horrific news and – emotionally spent; physically exhausted – let the next shift in Abilene take over.

My day closed with a hastily-assembled prayer meeting with my church family.

We prayed for the victims. We prayed for the missing. We prayed for their families. We prayed for the rescuers. We prayed for the nation.

And in one particularly difficult and memorable prayer, we prayed for our enemies.

Then I went home, put my kids to bed and finally wept the tears I had no time for that day.

What Has Shaken My Faith Since 9/11/2001

I watched a Frontline documentary last night titled “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” It chronicled the spiritual journeys of many people of many different types of faith, virtually all of whom experienced a fundamental shaking of their faith in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Let me tell you what I saw.

I saw hideously, horrendously evil events lead to destruction and death and devastation.

Then I saw ordinary people become heroes in helping each other, whether offering physical assistance going up the stairs or assisting others down or protecting their nation’s Capitol by storming a cockpit or cleaning up the smoking debris in the search for remains and artifacts that might bring others peace.

I saw people like you and I become towers of refuge for others through prayer and donations and prayer and comfort and prayer and resolve.

And in the months and years that followed, we all forgot what we wanted to forget but also who we could be for each other and the glory of God.

Let me tell you what I see now.

I see a nation that has squandered its abundance and splintered over political ideology, as if the nation’s salvation had something to do with the distribution of wealth and economic opportunity … as if 535 people in a domed building or a single sitting President could somehow determine it.

I see the wealthy become more wealthy while the poor become more poor and more numerous in this supposedly Christian nation.

I see hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods and fires that God has allowed to be sent our way — just as He allowed the planes to fly into buildings and into the ground on 9/11 — each instance an opportunity to care and give and glorify His name through our love.

And I see us largely turning a deaf ear and a blind eye and a fist clenched around our money and our compassion and ourselves … turning away.

Oh, we’ve made our token charitable donations. Including some to creepy televangelists with multi-million dollar residences and jet airplanes of their own.

Don’t get me wrong. There have been others — Shane Claiborne comes to mind — who never asked a dime and who continue to preach and live a gospel of love and generosity and penitence from greed. But we pretty much treat them like shelf curiosities. Modern-day John-the-Baptists.

We might be willing to go out to the living room TV and see them in the deserts of the Sudan or the dumps of Honduras. Maybe even donate a few bucks.

But if we ever believed what Jesus of Nazareth said in His uniquely human-and-divine way, we don’t show it:

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” ~ Luke 6:38

Maybe because we never understood what He said in the first place; because we thought He was just talking about money, and that was all: give money and you’ll get money back. Yeah, that’s the so-called “gospel” that the creepy televangelists preach, and look what it got them.

Spiritually destitute.

Because the wealth is in the giving; the blessing is in the loving; the growing is in the denying self and taking up our crosses and following Him.

I’m talking about me, here. I see what’s in the mirror, too, and I don’t like it any better than what I see through the window or the TV or the computer monitor.

What has shaken my faith since 9/11/2001 is the question: “How could God entrust something so precious as the blood of His Son, the gospel of His grace, the generosity of His salvation … to such a worm as I?”

Oh, sorry, if that offends some of you language purists and self-esteem fanatics and political correctness junkies: “… to such a one as I?” That’s what I meant to say.

How could He believe in us?

Dolphins could do better with the gospel. Pets do.

But I look back to 9/11 and I still see who we were … who we could be again, and more.

And I’m grateful He still fills us jars of clay with His precious Holy Spirit, the power of His Word, the promise of His providence, the potential of His love.

And against most but not all hope, I still believe that we … that I … can do better.

Just like He does.

9/11: ‘Nor Did It Enter My Mind’

We look back on the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 and we still want someone to have to pay for them — and I believe that reflects a sense of God’s just nature in our own — but there is no one around to blame. The direct perpetrators at that time had themselves perished in the flames, and the cowards who instigated their treachery seemed to have taken their cues at stealth from termites or cockroaches. Too often, in the ten-year aftermath, we have turned on those we felt should have prevented or protected our nation from these attacks, and have savaged them with our frustrated fury.

Yes, to some degree, there were people whose jobs were to anticipate evil and take steps to prevent and protect.

At the same time, there are acts so heinous, so … may I use the word unthinkable? … that I am not sure we can hold those people responsible for not considering them a serious risk.

After all, there were acts so heinous in the history of Israel that God said regarding them, “something I did not command them, nor did it enter my mind.” Three times He repeats the phrase in Jeremiah:

They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.

~ Jeremiah 7:31

They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.

~ Jeremiah 19:5

They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.

~ Jeremiah 32:35

Does that mean it never occurred to God that Israel could do such a thing? Obviously not, since He (again) three times specifically forbade it in Leviticus:

“‘Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.

~Leviticus 18:21

If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death,

~ Leviticus 20:4

“Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him.

~ Leviticus 20:2

So did God contradict Himself? No; and I think there are two possibilities that explain it:

  1. The phrase “nor did it enter My mind” could refer specifically to the act of commanding it; it would never have entered HIS mind to command such a thing (the incident with Isaac notwithstanding; there’s no evidence He ever intended for Abraham to follow through — see the phrasing of “tested” in Hebrews 11:17).
  2. He perceived the possibility that Israel could sink this low … He just couldn’t imagine that they would do so, after instilling them not only with instinct of parental love but also after giving them a direct and specific command not to do such a reprehensible thing, especially in the name of faith and religion.

Either way, it was never God’s will for His children to put their own children to death in the same way that the surrounding peoples did in their worship of idol gods. In fact, preventing this kind of abomination seems to be the specific reason why God commanded the obliteration of those peoples as the Israelites moved into the land promised to them (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). It is possible that nothing else would have also obliterated those practices from the land.

The crimes against humanity that took place on 9/11/2001 are of this detestable nature: people willingly — perhaps eagerly — sacrificing their own lives in order to commit mass murder of thousands, including children, as an act of piety because some shaman in their religious structure instructed them to do so. There were Muslims who died in those attacks. There were children who died in those attacks. None of that served as a deterrent to the warped motivations of the warped individuals who masterminded and conducted the attacks.

Ten years later, we still have difficulty dealing with the reality of it.

Let’s not blame the good people we put in charge of our protection for being no more willing to believe in the likelihood of that kind of inhumanity on that kind of scale than the Lord Himself was.

Seven Years

Tomorrow will be seven years.

So much has been said and written, painted and filmed, discussed and rehashed about the horrific events of that day, I have no hope that I can add sense to the senselessness, add poetry to the grace shown by so many, add honor and dignity to the lives lost and the lives given to save others.

But I will dispassionately sound a note for justice.

I will not scream. I will not weep. I will not shout. I will not demand.

I will continue to insist on justice.

I will continue to require my government – whatever agency, party, department, wing, functionary, official, commander or civil servant can serve – I will continue to require my government to ferret out the mastermind of the attacks of 9/11 and all of his minions, and bring them to justice before a court that is equally dispassionate and equally insistent that right should be done.

Not vengeance, which is the Lord’s.

Not overreaction, which is inexcusable.

Not freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness beyond the reach of law and decency.

Not forgiveness, which is not the property of such a court to give.

Justice.

Pure and simple.

And now.

Seven years is unacceptable.

Fathers and Sons and Wars and Rumors of Wars

I just read Patrick Mead’s recent post Another Tent Peg Pops Loose, and his fatherly angst brought to mind some that I felt a little over four years ago, and wrote about in my weekly column in the Abilene Reporter-News. I wrote it in the late autumn of 2002, when Matthew was about to turn ten years old, and pretty much everyone in the Western world believed that Iraq was brimming with weapons of mass destruction. I don’t write political commentary in this blog very often, but I do now strongly believe that the administration at that time pulled a stunt like the mythical Governor sang about in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in his showstopper, “Dance a Little Sidestep.” I believe that some sleight-of-hand about this so-called WMD “intelligence” and Iraqi government sponsorship of Al-Quaeda was presented to distract Americans’ from the unsuccessful attempt to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden, the self-admitted mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Yet it is undeniable that Saddam Hussein practiced genocide within his own country and attempted to annex another. And while I rue my own credulity, and detest the catastrophe that has befallen Iraq and all armed forces there engaged in trying to establish peace, I can have nothing but the deepest admiration for the young people who are willing to serve at the President’s whim and protect their nation to the price of their own lives – even if he may be wrong about where or how that must be done – and admiration for the parents, spouses, children and friends who send them off with their ongoing prayers. If my son chooses to serve, I will not be able to be more proud of him. If he chooses to protest and oppose the war, I will not be able to be more proud of him. He will do it with all his heart, whatever he chooses. But if he chooses to remain silent and do nothing, I will be no more proud of him than I am of myself for having said nothing and done nothing all this time. So here is what I wrote then, and what I felt then, and what I mostly still feel ….

“What war now?” my son asked, appearing at the entrance to our den in his pajamas.

I fumbled for the remote and quickly shut off CNN.

“C’mon,” I redirected him, heading for the kitchen. “Let’s get water for you and your sister. It’s bedtime.”

“What war now?” he persisted.

Matthew’s question came some time back, when sabres were first being rattled in the direction of Iraq and CNN was already discussing strategy. He was already aware of the “conflict” in Afghanistan, which eventually was called “war.”

“It’s possible,” I said hesitantly, “that we will go to war with a country called Iraq, and soon.”

“Why?”

Why do countries ever go to war? I wanted to say, but it was a question beyond adult reason and certainly not an answer to an honest child. I filled two kid cups with ice and water.

“Their leader may have helped the people who destroyed those two buildings in New York and damaged the one in Washington.”

“And crashed that plane?”

“Yes, and crashed that plane.” I gave him his cup and we started upstairs. “He also tried to take a country next to his several years ago and said it was his. When we stopped his army, they set fire to everything they could so no one could have it.”

Matthew thought about it. “So we didn’t really stop him.”

I shook my head. “No, I guess we didn’t.” We were in his room now, and I picked up his globe to point out Iraq. “But if a war does happen, it will happen way over here, on the other side of the world. Nowhere close to us; we’re here. Their missiles can’t go that far.”

Yet, I thought. Yet.

“So we have to go to war to stop him?”

I hedged. “It will cost a lot of money. And a lot of young soldiers may die or be hurt really badly.” For one heart-stopping moment, I saw my little blond, blue-eyed boy very differently: all grown up, and yet just a teenager … wearing desert fatigues and carrying a gun. “But, yes, our president thinks it’s the only thing that will stop him.

“And the sad thing is, he may be right.”

“More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars. Yes, an end to this brutal, inhuman and thoroughly impractical method of settling the differences between Governments. The once powerful malignant Nazi state is crumbling; the Japanese warlords are receiving in their homelands the retribution for which they asked when they attacked Pearl Harbor. But the mere conquest of our enemies is not enough; we must go on to do all in our power to conquer the doubts and the fears, the ignorance and the greed, which made this horror possible.” – What would have been President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s next speech, had not a stroke taken his life the day before he was to deliver it. His son read the message April 13, 1945.

What Are You Building, Son?

That’s what my dad would ask little Keith, age single-digits, when he came upon me with my cardboard can of TinkerToys or Lincoln Logs or American Bricks emptied on the floor. Later, in the early double-digit years, he’d ask when I was assembling a grey-and-blue plastic Design-A-Jet or fitting the stud-wall sections inside Design-A-Home or snapping the red cross-braces on Build-A-Bridge. And in the teen years, when I was assembling model railroad buildings or chemical-engine rockets. (Are you surprised that my dad was an engineer?)

“What are you building, son?”

I have those moments with my Matthew. I used to ask him when he played with his Duplo’s and Lego’s. Now I come up behind him when he’s putting together a custom hot rod with his Monster Garage computer game, or a subway with Transit Tycoon, or a railroad with Microsoft Train Simulator.

And I relive those wonderful memories of excitedly telling my dad what I had created when my son Matt tells me all about the bright designs he’s treasured up.

You knew I had to be going somewhere spiritual with this, didn’t you?

Of course. It brings to mind the pictures and video we’ve all seen of the destruction in the Gulf Coast areas, and back beyond that, to the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami and the terrorist acts of 9/11. All those designs, treasured up by hundreds and thousands of minds over years and decades and even centuries … wiped out. Gone. Obliterated in a moment. No more than a memory – like all my plastic bricks and tree-hung rockets.

And it brings to mind the scenes of people building in the aftermath. No, not huge skyscrapers or luxury oceanside resorts or architectural fantasies. I’m thinking of those who rebuild lives. The ones who sacrifice time, money and muscle to help and provide and host and heal.

Those who rescue. Those who save.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple. – I Corinthians 3:10-17

I have nothing against great buildings, great architecture, even great churches or cathedrals. I have no qualms with living in comfort and having nice toys – whether plastic bricks or computer pixels. They have a use and fulfill a human need. I just need – we all just need – to remember that they’re only temporary.

They may outlast us, but they can’t outlive us.

If my late dad could ask me now, I’d want to answer excitedly: “I’m building a family to carry on your name! I’m building a relationship with God and His Son and His family! I’m trying to build a legacy on a foundation that others can build on! I’m trying to find a way to help – myself; my kids; my church family – build our lives up smart and strong and spiritual and sweet … just the way Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man!”

I need to remember it all the time, when I’m absorbed in playing with the provisional; when I’m flying after the fleeting; when I’m transfixed by the transitory. I need to remember my heavenly Father is asking me:

“What are you building, son?”