9/11 and Now

It was a sun-bathed gorgeous Tuesday morning. I was in my study reading when colleague and friend Skip MacCarty called. “Turn on your TV!” “Why?” “Just turn on your TV” was all he would say. So I switched on a black and white 12-inch television (anybody remember those?) in the family room. NBC. As the small screen popped on, there was Tom Brokaw instructing, “Let’s reroll that video clip of the plane again.” I thought he might be referring to a small Cessna. In disbelief, I watched as a jetliner slammed into the side of the World Trade Center. An orange ball of flame. And the rest is history.

For all of us living outside New York City and Washington, D.C. and later Shanksville, Pennsylvania—the day was a nonstop vicarious blur of suffering. Here in our little village, televisions on and off campus were running continuous loops of video clips, as somber-faced newscasters intoned a stream of new updates for what became a trifecta of unfathomable news. And sometime during that broken morning came the nation’s realization somebody somewhere had perpetrated it all.

September 11, 2001.

A few hours later, Tuesday noon, the phone rang in our Pioneer church office, a call from Danny Shelton, executive director of 3 Angels Broadcasting network. “We’d like to bring our satellite truck up there to Andrews University—would you help us host a live national prayer hour from Pioneer?” Of course. How do you put a program together in the face of such a national tragedy, the toll of the dead and missing climbing toward 3000 in what would become “the deadliest terrorist act in world history” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_September_11_attacks)?

September 11, 2001.

A few days ago PBS television ran a new documentary, “Generation 9/11.” It consists of a string of on-camera interviews with children who were conceived before but born after September 11, 2001—children whose fathers perished in the mayhem of that single morning—parents they never knew but only heard about when they became old enough to understand. PBS’s own promo explains: “‘Generation 9/11' is an intimate film driven by the stories and personalities of its protagonists, who were born in the wake of a global tragedy which, for them, was also deeply personal. But it is also the story an entire generation that has been shaped by the attacks and their aftermath” (www.pbs.org/video/generation-911-9pozv4/).

September 11, 2021. 

Truth is, most of the university and high school students in our parish today have no recollection of that fateful day two decades ago. September 11, 2001, for GenZers, is what December 7, 1941, is for Baby Boomers—a “day of infamy” to be sure, but a day we know very little about, except for our high school history classes.

So how should we live—all of us—irrespective of when we were born? The same Jesus who warned of smug complacency—“Those who died when the tower fell on them, do you think they were more guilty than all the others living? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (see Luke 13:4-5)—this same Jesus went on to tell a parable only Luke records. About a vineyard owner who had a fig tree that “refused” to bloom three years in a row. Totally frustrated, the owner commanded the vineyard keeper to cut the fruitless tree down. But the servant urged the owner to give him one more year with super-duper fertilizer. “‘If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down’” (Luke 13:9). The End.

Jesus’ point? Anniversaries of tragedies only remind us we live on a planet running out of time. One of these days “the big one” will strike, and then it’s curtains for everyone. “So repent!” is Jesus’ clear appeal. What shall we repent of? That which separates us from God, “the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1). Why? Because divine compassion, though more than long-suffering, is not interminable. Nor is the life we have been given. Anniversaries of such sudden, unexpected tragedies are somber divine calls: “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). 

Because the truth is, now is the best time any of us has left with Jesus. And Jesus is the best news any of us needs right now.