September 8, 2002
By Alan W. Dowd
As Babylonia’s armies prepared to lay siege to Jerusalem, God gave His people a word of advice. “Stand at the crossroads and look,” he declared, pleading his case through the prophet Jeremiah. “Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it. Then you will find rest for your souls.” His words are just as relevant and powerful some 2600 years later, as we stand at yet another crossroads.
It has been a year since 19 terrorists laid siege to our cities. The war they unleashed now smolders in Afghanistan, Israel, the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia, with Iraq and other battles looming on the horizon like an approaching storm. Indeed, wars and rumors of war seem to blanket the earth.
In a sense, we Christians have stood at a crossroads since Jesus ascended into heaven, promising only that He would return but not telling us when. As Philip Yancey observes in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, “What the disciples experienced in small scale, we now live through on cosmic scale…we live out our days on Saturday, the in-between day with no name.” Like those first disciples, we can endure today because we know what our Lord did yesterday and we know He holds tomorrow. But that may not be true for our neighbors. For them, this is not a crossroads—it is a dead-end of darkness and despair.
Many of those who experienced September 11 live in a netherworld between life and death, where anxiety, melancholy and depression collide. Unlike the rest of us, who watched the death and destruction through the safe filter of television, these secondary victims of September 11 are haunted by constant reminders of that awful day—the undented pillow, the uncelebrated birthday, the final goodbye, the scarred corridors of the Pentagon, the gaping hole in the center of Manhattan.
Yet all of us, from the fireman in New York to the widow and her orphan in New Jersey to the burn victim in Virginia to the helpless onlookers half-a-continent away, were changed by September 11. To think otherwise is to live in a fantasy world. Some of the changes were good. Take, for example, the nearly spontaneous desire to turn back to God. For a moment, this country of countless creeds prayed with one voice and truly became “one nation under God.” And in that moment, there was peace and resolve and clarity.
Our Congress beseeched God for guidance and endurance. Presidents sounded like preachers, and preachers sounded like presidents: Indeed, it was the president who delivered a message of reassurance and peace. “This world He created is of moral design,” President Bush reminded us during the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. “Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.”
It was Rev. Billy Graham who steeled us for battle. “Today we say to those who masterminded this cruel plot, and to those who carried it out, that the spirit of this nation will not be defeated by their twisted and diabolical schemes,” he intoned. “Some day those responsible will be brought to justice.”
Still, some of the changes were anything but good. Our capital is an armed camp, our greatest city forever maimed. New York and Washington have taken their place alongside Sarajevo, London, Nanking, Stalingrad, Jerusalem and countless other cities scarred by wars of aggression. Our sons and daughters wage war in faraway lands, even as we grapple with the new reality that all of us stand on the frontlines, that oceans and armies cannot protect us from our new enemy.
Our initial eagerness to seek God, motivated as it was by crisis and despair, has waned. Today, only a third of Americans express confidence in organized religion. A year after the attacks, almost 40 percent of us concede that our sense of security is gone. Almost 50 percent of us fear that we will fall victim to terror. Seventy percent of us are afraid to fly. And 84 percent of us believe the terrorists will strike our homeland again.
Even so, perhaps the most impressive characteristic of the past year is what hasn’t changed in America. The United States remains a good and generous and fair nation. Even after the attacks, we did not lash out in blind fury. We did not turn against our Arab-American neighbors; we did not burn mosques or condemn an entire faith for the actions of a barbaric few; we did not level Afghanistan. Instead, we helped the friendless Afghani people; we fed and clothed them, as is our way in war. In 2002 alone, we will pour $300 million in humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, the very same country that spawned and sponsored al Queda.
We also helped each other, as is our custom at home. Untold millions of us donated blood, hoping against hope that somewhere in the rubble there might be a miracle. Countless Good Samaritans, their names and sacrifices known only to God, have stepped into the debris and despair that followed September 11. And we gave—and continue to give—billions to relieve the ongoing suffering in New York and Washington.
That’s the road we have limped along during the last 12 months. Ahead of us is the challenge of rebuilding our country and guiding our neighbors past the dead-end of despair. And that’s where Christians must take the lead.
Yancey calls Christians dual citizens. “We live in an external kingdom of family and cities and nationhood,” he observes, “while at the same time belonging to the kingdom of God.”
As a result of our dual citizenship, we are Christ’s ambassadors. As Paul reminds us, it’s as though Christ were making His appeal to an uncertain and weary world through us. Christ Himself was a dual citizen, arguably the first. And He shows us how to be ambassadors of heaven, how to transform and rebuild a weary world. It starts not in the halls of government, but in the hearts of individuals—indeed, in our hearts.
Before Jesus set about His task of giving hope to a hopeless world, He prayed. The Gospels remind us that Jesus retreated to a solitary place and prayed for weeks before He began His public ministry. Luke tells us that Jesus “spent the night praying to God” before He chose the twelve apostles. He prayed before feeding the 5,000. He prayed before preaching in unfamiliar villages. He prayed before, during and after His hour of death. He prayed for us, that we might all be one as we continue the work He began.
The early church followed His example. As Luke recounts in Acts, they “joined together constantly in prayer.”And before we carry His message of hope into a hopeless world, so should we.
After bracing Himself with prayer, Jesus did not make His case to the political rulers in Rome or the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Instead, He went directly to the needy, the hurting, the lost, the broken and the frightened. Like our countrymen, they knew death and despair and terror. Like our countrymen, they needed good news. Jesus delivered it—and we must do the same.
The good news is that they don’t have to worry about tomorrow, about 401(k) plans and the NASDAQ, about wars and rumors of wars, about anthrax-laced letters and smallpox-laden cropdusters, about the storms gathering all around us. September 11 taught us that no one can prevent the storms and no one can escape them. But Jesus taught us that those who anchor on the rock of His word rather than the sands of this world will not be lost. The Lord of life will preserve them.
As His ambassadors, we should neither wallow in yesterday nor fear tomorrow. Sadly, some of us have missed the mark in this regard. Rather than offering words of comfort and reassurance, some Christians have begun counting down to Armageddon. In so doing, they have supercharged our secular culture with unnecessary worry. As my dad said long before September 11, “The only thing we know about Jesus’ return is that it’s closer today than it was yesterday.” It may or may not be imminent. As Jesus explained, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Yet somehow the doomsayers among us can see and predict what even Jesus could not.
When Jesus tells us not be alarmed or afraid, we can trust Him—but only because we know Him. For those who do not yet know Jesus as savior, the chaotic story surrounding His return is both terrifying and inscrutable. Whether or not September 11 brought us closer to that event is really beside the point for them. They don’t need more anxiety. In fact, September 11 may have stolen what little assurance they had. What they need is hope and peace, and we need to bring these precious gifts to them.
Beyond the Crossroads
This task is made all the more difficult when self-styled Christian leaders say that America had this coming, that somehow God was punishing those 3,000 innocents—financiers and firemen, vendors and artists, Muslims and Jews, Christians and atheists—for the sins of a wayward people. In taking this path, some of our brothers and sisters are actually driving people away from Christ at a time when they need Him most.
But if we follow Christ’s example and meet our neighbors where they are, we can reveal His love. We can remind them with our words and deeds that we serve a God of love and mercy and second chances—the same God who promised Abraham He would spare Sodom for just ten righteous men, the God who returned to earth to rescue and reclaim a fallen creation, the God who welcomes back the sin-covered prodigal with dancing and feasting.
Prayerful preparation, merciful intervention and joyful anticipation. This is the ancient path, the timeless way to peace and rest. Like Jeremiah and Jesus, it is our duty as heaven’s ambassadors to guide our neighbors back onto the path—and beyond this crossroads.
Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p.275.
University of Michigan Institute for Social Research/Washington Post May 3, 2002.
Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p.248.
2 Corinthians 5:20.