There are times when God, in His providence, allows people to see in full view events that will constitute an indelible watermark in human history. Patriots assembling in Philadelphia experienced it on July 4, 1776. Navy sailors looking to the westward skies saw it on Dec. 7, 1941. Families listening to their radios heard it on Nov. 22, 1963.
In an instant — the signing of a document, the dropping of a bomb, or the firing of a gun — the world suddenly and irreversibly changes. Yet no event in American history quite compares to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Buildings scraping the floors of heaven crumbled. Planes carrying businessmen, grandmothers and children plummeted. For thousands, life and all its promises and possibilities ended — some in an instant, others while saving strangers, running up stairs or storming cockpits.
At the end of that fateful day, the sun set on a different skyline, leaving smoldering ruins and a gripping fear in its wake. When darkness fell, we were shaken. And when the smoke and dust from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the grassy fields of Pennsylvania lifted, the flag of our fathers streamed over a different nation.
Along with the crumbling of two national symbols of economic prosperity and one icon of military power unmatched in world history went our assumptions and assurances of what was and is and is to come. The watermark laid down that day remains imprinted on the hearts of all who lived through it.
In the aftermath of the worst attack on U.S. soil, the nation grappled with two new realities. In some manner, we still wrestle with them today. First, with the shattered visage of an “invincible America.” Second, with trying to make sense of the tragedy and wrestling with newfound fears lingering like the smoke rising from ground zero.
Both realities gave birth, for a time, to new sentiments of national faith, virtue, and community — something encouraging for us as Christians. But without true Christianity — repentance, personal faith, and commitment to truth — the pendulum eventually swung back, leaving people a bit more moral, a bit more churched, but without the enduring change coming from a heart and mind transformed by the Gospel.
In the decade leading up to 9/11, America knew unprecedented ease. Peace and prosperity seemed the nation’s new manifest destiny. The 100-hour Gulf War proved American dominance in the world. High-tech college dropouts, armed with laptops and good ideas, stood ready to revolutionize the world’s economies.
On Wall Street, brokers cheered the advancing stock market, and on Capitol Hill, lawmakers set the stage for the first budget surpluses in generations. “Help Wanted” signs hung on Main Street stores and Fortune 500 companies offered signing bonuses to college seniors.
While revolutions and civil wars ravaged other nations, America seemed invulnerable — too strong, too moderate, too feared to concern ourselves with skirmishes over land and religion. From all accounts, the kinder, gentler America had finally arrived.
Yet, amid calm seas and fair winds, America was all sail and no anchor.
While social indicators — from teenage pregnancy to poverty rates — dropped steadily, a troubling cultural malady festered. It surfaced in much-publicized stories: a football great charged with murdering his wife, a South Carolina mother drowned her two boys, students opened fire at high schools, the president committed perjury, a euthanasia proponent personally ended the lives of 130 patients, etc.
Many sensed an America on a moral joy ride, playing fast and loose with the affluence and comfort blanketing the nation. While many people sensed a problem — polling data revealed “moral decline” as America’s biggest concern — many ignored it like an annoying car alarm in a parking lot.
As theologian Francis Schaeffer predicted two decades earlier, personal peace and prosperity became the national pastime.
A few days before Sept. 11, a troubled young woman perched on the railing of a 160-foot-high bridge spanning a Seattle waterway. She peered uneasily at the water below and at the line of cars backed up on the freeway for miles in each direction. Police officers attempted to reason with her as morning commuters waited impatiently. Three hours later, the kettle began to boil. With life waiting — jobs to get to, deliveries to make, classes to attend, and meetings to lead — the collective frustration finally gave way.
Beginning with a few voices, it grew louder. In their frustrated desire to get on with their lives, the drivers yelled at the woman to jump and end hers. And so, she let go.
Ordinary Tuesday morning
A few days later, on an ordinary Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., members of Congress and staff arrived for breakfast meetings, commuting on the busy roads inside the Capital Beltway. Congress prepared for a session of one-minute speeches and debate on a handful of bills. Committees labored over the details of the president’s education bill, and The Washington Post ran an editorial on alleviating the plight of poorer nations.
In New York City, the sounds of the morning rush spread a soothing hum over lower Manhattan. The tailored suits and dresses holding The Wall Street Journal and their morning infusion of Starbucks made their way to work. Taxis and pedestrians crowded the streets.
Then, in the midst of all the sounds — of cars, of construction sites, of street entertainers — people looked up, hearing the familiar roar of a jet airliner — one decidedly unfamiliar in these parts.
Suddenly came an explosion, a shower of glass, and screams of terror. And in that moment, although we wouldn’t know it until another jet struck the second tower, America was under attack.
Minutes later, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, a low-flying jet dipped a wing, clipped a taxicab and a streetlight, and barreled into the Pentagon. The rising turn of the freeway gave thousands stuck in traffic a full view of the explosion. Some turned away. Others got out of their cars and just stared.
On Capitol Hill, police sprinted across the Capitol grounds, with helicopters evacuating members of Congress. Across the city people ran from federal buildings — anything symbolic of power, anything representing America. Secret Service agents ordered White House staff to drop everything and run. Replacing the calming rumble of passenger jets turning toward Reagan National Airport, F-15 fighter jets sharply cut the morning sky.
On the other side of the country, Americans awakened to a world far different than the one they knew the night before. In a collective pause of life, the nation stopped. “The most eerie part of it all was the silence,” said a woman in Los Angeles.
Months earlier, some described America as more divided than any time since the Civil War. And now the veil had torn. We wondered what might come next and when it might be. In the first of many restless nights, we asked the darkness whether our highest hopes and lifelong dreams, our steady relationships, and planned-out futures had the strength to weather the days and weeks and months to come.
Yet incredibly, a strength of spirit and extraordinary unity emerged. Some found strength in stories of courage and compassion. The stories of firefighters running instinctively toward falling buildings; office mates carrying the injured down 60 flights of stairs; passengers giving the battle cry, “Let’s roll,” and taking down a plane headed toward another target; a citizenry stirred to give from their hearts and from their wallets.
Some took solace in the gritty resolve and unity of America’s leaders. “We are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom,” President Bush said. “Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
Members of Congress came together to sing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. Others found comfort in the embrace of a loved one, the assembly of mourners at candlelight vigils, or the appreciation of life’s simple gifts. Parents tucked their children into bed. People reunited with old friends and reconciled with old enemies. Couples got engaged and others started planning a family. In Houston, 400 couples who had filed divorce papers decided to give their marriage another shot. Neighbors helped neighbors, with strangers more friendly and veterans more appreciated.
Back to 'first things'
A return to life’s “first things” seemed to sweep the nation. In New York City, the Norman Rockwell exhibit — once scorned by the art elite — couldn’t contain the lines of visitors. In Pittsburgh, an exhibition professional hockey game ended after two periods because fans and players wanted to watch the presidential address on overhead screens.
In Hollywood, an influential producer predicted a break in violent movies for well into the future. Steven Tyler, lead singer of the rock band Aerosmith, said in an interview, “We need to go back to the way it was 30 years ago, when everybody had grandma and grandpa, and we were willing to pass moral judgments about right and wrong.”
On Sundays, America’s places of worship welled with the devout faithful and those looking for answers and hope. For weeks, ballparks, recreation centers, and town squares became ground zero for religious expression and testimonies of faith. Upon the walls of separation hung homemade banners like “Pray for the USA” and elementary school marquees read, “God Bless America.”
In Nashville, a country-western song raced up the charts carrying a simple chorus: “I know Jesus and I talk to God, and I remember this from when I was young. Faith, hope, and love are some good things He gave us, and the greatest is love.”
A revealing admission accompanied all these public expressions of faith: the world with all its answers wasn’t enough. The years of peace and prosperity couldn’t comfort the heartache or calm the fear or even answer the ageless question: why?
AWashington Posteditorial said it best: “These unspeakable crimes have taken thousands of innocent lives, devastated countless families, and made us feel a new and terrible kind of vulnerability. ... Throughout the country, people are having the same conversations: How could this happen?”
In a brief moment on a September morning, all the assumptions about safety and security abruptly ended. So, people searched, escaped, stayed home, and clung to whatever could shelter them from the whirlwind of terror afflicting their ordered lives. Those who experienced it remember the absence of even a whisper of reassurance saying, “It will be all right.”
9/11 shadow lingers
Now two decades later, Sept. 11 remains with us like a shadow, darkening the mind with restless memories and reminding us the murderous voices behind these unspeakably evil attacks do not sleep — even today.
And of the national unity emerging in the wake of Sept. 11, what can we say? Assuredly it evaporated like the dew before the rising sun, with national divisions deeper now than those many years ago. And we acknowledge many of our enemies today come from within — those who seek the destruction of America, hoping a Marxist utopia can rise from the ashes of her falling.
As people of faith, we should ponder Francis Schaeffer’s profound question posed generations ago: “How should we then live?” During the Civil War, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson answered this very question when asked how he could be so courageous in battle. He said, “My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to always be ready, no matter when it overtake me.”
So should it be for us.
For the Christian, the unfolding story of this world has no surprise ending. Christ on the Cross proclaimed, “It is finished.” Death — the king of terror — is overcome. We, therefore, can live boldly in the marketplaces, churches, halls of government, and frontlines of life without fear of uncertainty only a heartbeat away. This confidence is what led heroic believers throughout time — from Paul of Tarsus to Todd Beamer of Flight 93 — to stare down death and do the impossible.
In the storms of life and in our cries for help, Christ calms the raging sea and asks, “Where is your faith?” So, we humbly follow knowing God calls us in our weakness to be obedient — not necessarily to be comfortable or prosperous. Like the declaration of Christian missionary C.T. Studd, on his way to India: “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of Hell.”
Life is short — reach the world for Christ
Whether ministering within a yard of Hell — or within the boundaries of churches, marketplaces, schools and communities — life on this side of Sept. 11 presents unprecedented opportunities and fearful realities.
That dreadful day taught us the brevity and fragility of life, and that in this tenuous world, the powerful can become powerless, the regal reduced to rubbish, and the heavenly rendered hellish. And it can happen without warning and without regard to title or status or political party.
In these years since the Twin Towers came down, America has changed,but the Gospel remains the same, and so does our high and holy calling to preach the Gospel to every creature, to make disciples of all nations, to be witnesses for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As His followers, we have been entrusted with the very Words of Life. Now more than ever we must extend ourselves to the utmost so millions will hear, believe and follow Jesus.
In times of peace or terror, prosperity or poverty, God calls us to fix our eyes on the unchanging hope of the Cross, traveling like a journeyman, with steady and hopeful steps. And we can do this with full faith and joy, knowing Christ went before us and will prepare us for the challenges we face. As He taught us, the uncertainty of tomorrow does not dissuade us from living out our faith today.
During the darkest hours of World War II, British author and theologian C.S. Lewis reminded us of our simple duties as believers in the midst of trouble:
The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.
God, in His sovereign grace, appointed each of us for this moment in history. May we not shrink from the times, but go within a yard of Hell to reach the world for Christ.
Frank Wright, Ph.D., is President and CEO of Dr. James Kennedy Ministries (DJKM.org). Erik Lokkesmoe is an entertainment and marketing executive and former Capitol Hill Press Secretary.