Remembering 9/11

Twenty years ago, September 11, 2001, 3,229 people lost their lives to terrorism. Most of us remember exactly where we were we heard the news or tuned into the newscasts. It was a national tragedy like Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, the Challenger explosion, and other seismic events that have rocked our lives. At first it seemed like an awful accident that a plane had hit one tower of the World Trade Center. That notion quickly evaporated as another plane hit the remaining tower. Then there was news out of Washington that the Pentagon had been hit, and next was the word that Flight 93 had been hijacked, put on autopilot and was headed for D.C. Possible targets were the Capitol or White House.

We recall with poignant pride that Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer said, “Let’s roll!” He and the other passengers assaulted the terrorists holed up in the cockpit, and selflessly gave their lives in a Pennsylvania field just 20 minutes flying time away from Washington. Forty-four souls died on Flight 93. One hundred eighty-nine souls died at the Pentagon, and two thousand nine hundred and ninety-six died at the World Trade Center. Of those, three hundred forty-three were firefighters, twenty-three were NYPD, and thirty-seven more were police with the NY Port Authority.

Some of you, like me, have been to one or more of these historic sites. At Trinity Church, two short blocks away from where the twin towers once stood, I saw the photo-copied faces of the missing on the makeshift barriers as the nearby buildings were held together by wire, rebar, and blue tarp. This was just a few months after 9/11, and the graveyard at Trinity was still covered in the gray ash of the dead mixed with debris. None of us will forget the scenes: fire departments and police from all over the country doing their part to sift through the rubble; President Bush with bullhorn in hand at perhaps his finest hour standing on the twisted metal; enlistment lines at local military recruitment stations; churches that were full. We were one nation pulling together.

NFL star Pat Tillman turned down a multi-million-dollar contract to keep playing for the Arizona Cardinals so he could enlist. It was 8 months after 9/11. Pat Tillman became a US Army Ranger and served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He died in combat from “friendly fire” in the mountains of Afghanistan. He gave the supreme sacrifice like all those first-responders who ran toward the destruction, not from it. We can honor them by continuing to stand in the breach, and declare, “Not on my watch!” We will honor them by filling churches once again like the Sundays after 9/11. We can promise to stand tall and support civility and civilization. We will depend on our faith in our struggle against injustice, tyranny, and the destruction of morality.

Foreign adversaries laugh now at how our fissures have exposed our weaknesses. We have given them fodder for their attacks. We have become what Jesus and Lincoln both described as a “house divided against itself.” It is our turn to say, “Let’s roll!” We cannot let our freedoms divide us. Can we not do what was done in 2001? Can we not pull together and honor one another though we might disagree? Can’t we embrace the Golden Rule by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us?

Jesus came to foster freedom, but it was not a freedom from responsibility. It was a freedom to embrace responsibility: to love God and neighbor because we want to, not because some totalitarian government threatens us. We can all be American, and live and let live if there is a common cause worth the greater fight or larger battle. We can all do our part to save America from another 9/11. The fabric and soul of our country depends on more than the few and the brave. Each one of us has a part to play.  God bless every 9/11 family, and God bless America.

Lessons from Paris

Terrorism and the targeting of civilians is a horror, and every religion has been guilty of this unthinkable action. We must stop using faith as a weapon and overcome the love of power with the power of love. Cheap grace, however, is little solace to grieving families. There must be justice or God’s grace is diminished along with what we call civilization. How do we live in a world where tolerance is expected and repaid with bloodshed?

Rather than face our own atrocities and our own complicity in hurting others, we move along with a simple hope that it, whatever “it” is, doesn’t happen here. We become N.I.M.B.Y’s (Not In My Back Yard) and welcome isolation from those that are different from us. Out of fear we shun the sojourner and nomads among us. What part of John 3:16 is false? Either God did or didn’t love the world. I’m all for high standards towards others, but with ethics. The words of Micah the prophet echo today: “God has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

Acting justly requires repentance and justice for the offender and the victim. Loving mercy demands that the cycle of violence that seeks an eye for an eye be stopped. Walking humbly with God and with everyone else is a call to self-restraint. My natural tendency is to try to get along with everyone, but pray with one eye open because I’ve been burned by evil before. This, for me, is the crux of the problem in the aftermath of any senseless atrocity: In what ways do I act like Jesus the table-turner who uses a braided whip, or like Jesus who says “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Which way exhibits a more “radicalized” Christian? Is it more Christian to grab a gun and get revenge or to embrace and seek peace. I daresay that if the world thinks a radicalized Muslim is hell-bent on killing non-Muslims, then the world better think the opposite of us. We are heaven-bent on loving in the ways of Jesus who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).” I want to be a radicalized Christian.

I understand that there must be the rule of law and civilization, but personal retaliation is ruled out in the Christian ethic. Romans 12:17-21 and 13:1-2ff makes the difference clear between my personal position and the action of God-blessed governing authorities. The first passage says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This passage is about our personal response to evil and our attempt, “as far as it is possible,” to remain peaceful. The second passage, immediately following says: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” This passage, a few lines later, says about government: “For it is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword for nothing.”

So the twist for me as one who wholeheartedly thinks that radical Islamists need to be punished is to let the rule of law take its just course, and not harbor hatred in my heart that would incite personal revenge. Sooner or later there must be a lesson learned, but it won’t occur if those who uphold Jesus’ ethics stoop to a hateful retaliation. How do we hate the sin and not the sinner? It is so much easier said than done. We defeated fascist Germany and militaristic Japan and then we rebuilt enemies into friends. Perhaps a similar route in the face of Paris is a use of the power of love that disciplines an incorrigible child. To do less is to condone evil. To do more is to become evil.

French Flag


Norwegian Massacre’s Message

I have been shocked as I have caught up with the news after being gone for a week. The massacre in Norway was absolutely awful. I have just emailed my friend and fellow Connectional Table member, Oyvind Hellieson, my condolences.  He’s a District Superintendent in Norway. Now I am pondering the message from all of this especially after hearing that the perpetrator’s motives were founded on his disdain for free-thinking. He has been described as a “Right-wing Christian Fundamentalist.”

Fundamentalists come in all shapes and sizes and represent every persuasion of thinking. I have listened to liberal and literal fundamentalists that assume that they have the only corner on the truth. Some have described fundamentalists as “fun-dam-mentalists” because they damn fun and have very little mentality. So true in many ways. It’s scary when a person or group, whether they be progressives or traditionalists, declare they are the sole arbiters of right and wrong. That’s what puts guns and evil intentions in the hands of cultural vigilantes like this guy in Norway.

Hey, this isn’t too far from the deadlock in Washington over the possible budget default, or the NFL players’ union and the owners’ impasse. Polarizations often occur because people are pigeon-holed into an untenable situation with no room at all for compromise. One of the workshops I led this past week was on peacemaking. Some of you who know me are finding that notion pretty hilarious. Me doing a peacemaking workshop, yep!

I have my convictions, but I also hold onto Wesley’s admonition: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be liberty; in all things, charity.” We need to be very careful when we are deciding what is the truth as you or I know it. Jesus said that He was the truth and I ain’t Jesus and neither are you. We can search the Scriptures and hopefully discern WWJD, and we can pray to have the Mind of Christ; but we need to mostly say “Whoa!” when we’re about to rush to judgment.

Sure, I embrace orthodoxy more easily than I do a lifestyle or mentality that is too loosey-goosey, but I am not going to denigrate, castigate, or subjugate those who differ. I believe in a God whose imago dei we all share and a Jesus who died to redeem more than condemn. I can never assume that it’s my way or the highway though I would sometimes like to do that. Liberal fundamentalism is just as bad as literal fundamentalism. An “Us versus Them” mentality has no high moral high ground, no room for the Holy Spirit to convict because certainties have already been deeply embedded. This reminds me of the story of someone trying to explain the difference between capitalism and communism. Pardon the sexist language. The person doing the explaining said, “In capitalism man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.” Same difference, right? Someone is the exploiter and someone is exploited.

So Right-wingers and Left-wingers, NFL owners and NFL players, Democrats and Republicans, theological conservatives and liberals – everyone – beware fundamentalism. We are looking for the “We” more than “Us versus Them.” We seek the truth as we know it through holy conferencing, and finding Jesus in unlikely sources and obvious ones, too. This ain’t easy in a complex world. So let’s be careful not to pre-judge. The Jesus method is to pre-love. Sure, Jesus shines light on what’s wrong but He only does it so the wrong may be turned to right, so that sin can be conquered by redemption.