Category Archives: Terrorism
In the book of 2 Kings 23:10 we read of a defiled valley in Jerusalem where child sacrifice had been practiced through burning. King Josiah, in his reforms, declared it a defiled place. According to 2 Chronicles. 28:1-3, King Ahaz had offered incense there and offered his sons as a sacrifice. It was considered accursed, a desecrated place. So, too, King Manasseh, the wicked King who turned his back on the faith by permitting the horrific practices of other religions (although leading the nation to a prosperous economy) to be allowed, including child sacrifice. occultism, witchcraft and sorcery, channeling and wizardry. This included burning his sons as a sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom (2 Chronicles 33:6).
The prophet Jeremiah thoroughly condemned this practice in Jeremiah 7:31-32 as godless and unholy. In his prophecy at the Potsherd Gate at the edge of this same Valley, Jeremiah stood and prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, declaring that God would bring such evil upon them that whoever heard of it, his ears would tingle, and he linked it in part to sacrifice of innocent blood. It would become a desecrated place where only those with no burial place, like criminals and outcasts, would have their bodies placed. An unholy and terrifying place.
By Jesus’ day, the valley of Hinnom was still considered a cursed spot. So when Jesus described hell as a terrifying place, an “unquenchable fire,” (Mk. 9:43), the term for hell is Gehenna, which seems to link etymologically with “hinnom.” Some scholars have said that this refers to the desecrated valley, which became a trash dump in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.
It would have been a vivid metaphor in his hearer’s minds. Like most dumps, it smoldered continuously and was full of maggots (Mk. 9:48-“where the worm never dies and fire unquenched”). It was an unholy and evil place where only the most abandoned and forlorn souls ended their lives, bodies tossed shamefully onto the refuse of the city and decaying openly.
It is interesting enough that this was the image employed for the word “hell.” It is more intriguing to consider its beginnings as an accursed location. If you take a tour in Israel today, guides will tell this story and point out where it is thought to be.
That hell began with the sacrifice of a nation’s innocents, its children, while the powers that were sat by and tolerated it is astounding. It is horrifying to think of burning children on an altar. But then, I ponder—how do I live amid so much prosperity and yet so indifferent to the value of life—unborn, born, poor, neglected and otherwise?
How have we come to a place in which yet another school shooting numbs us? The same vapid paralysis will follow—the need for gun control and why it won’t matter, and ultimately, back to the same immobilized status quo. As my school teacher daughter sighed to me, “Dad, if we wouldn’t do a thing after a classroom of preschoolers were slaughtered in Newtown, we won’t do anything about this one either.”
And so we shrug, again. A disturbed 19 year old bought an assault rifle and did what it is designed to do—kill by the masses. And nothing will change. And some day, tour groups may stop, and the guide point to the map and say of us,
This is the valley from which the name Gehenna comes, and it first became accursed because of its association with child sacrifice. They helplessly allowed their children to be sacrificed and to live in fear of dying in their streets and at school. The economy was strong, but still, they were cursed for allowing their young to be consumed without lifting a finger. They were conquered and destroyed, but long before, they rotted from within. And nothing good ever grew there and no one would live there ever again.
There is still a glimmer of hope. The prophets warned Israel to repent and turn, while there was yet time. This is still a democracy, not a monarchy. There is still time. There is still a nation of citizens, a constitution, waiting for the will and united resolve to galvanize us to seek our better common life and the well-being of our young. We are not yet past the point of no return. But it is getting late.
[Five years ago, I published this piece. It remains, by far, the most read piece I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word, they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and consider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today]
So what are you readers doing to remember 9-11? A few weeks ago our church lead in a community wide presentation on a Sunday evening with joint choirs and full orchestra as a remembrance of 9-11. It was inspiring, somber, reflective and hopeful. I expect that this year will be an especially somber time for our nation as we mark a decade since that terrible day. It has been one of the most challenging decades of our nation’s history.
One of the most intriguing books I have read in recent years is Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. It really is not, mostly, a book about Johnny Cash. It is about the religious, cultural and political ambiguities of the American psyche that were embodied in the life of Johnny Cash. One of the points he made was that whereas the center of community life in New England was the public square, as expressed in the parade, in the South, the center of life became the church, and the great public event was the revival.
The result of this caused the church to bear all the weight of life, public and private. It was the center of its members’ lives in a way that did not play out the same in the Northeast. Therefore, patriotism also had to find its way into the church and live there. I have thought about this a great deal since reading it, wondering if we do not suffer greatly from the diminishment of shared public life so well-chronicled in recent years. More and more, we live disconnected from our fellow citizens, isolated into interest groups, religious ghettos and our homes with their entertainment centers. It’s hard to get us all together. Even churches need to get out in God’s wider world sometimes…
In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life (I know, how DID it take so long!). I was truly inspired by the experience. In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, but looking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot where Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart. I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and Read the rest of this entry
NRS Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
How much forgiveness is enough? It’s relevant at the moment, since one Presidential candidate says he has never asked anyone for forgiveness and the other one seems to be unable to get any from the public because of past sins. What does forgiveness mean?
Jesus said, “Seven times seventy is enough.” Peter is seeking Jesus’ approval. He has heard Jesus talk about forgiveness. I’m sure the question must have occurred, “How long do I have to do this?” He thought it might be virtuous to forgive seven times, the number of perfection in the Jewish faith. If some one does the same thing to you seven times in a row and you forgive them, you’re a pretty good person. I’ve always thought, “On number eight, could I slap the daylights out of them?” I’ve had my troubles with anger. I’m a man. Read the rest of this entry
We pray today for these victims and their families— not gay or straight, black or white, Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew or Muslim or none of the above, but as You see them–beloved sons, daughters, friends, sisters, brothers, neighbors, and most of all, fellow Americans.
As a minister, writer, and songwriter, I am always vexed when events of great magnitude happen. What words are adequate for such a moment? The shootings in Orlando, done by a single darkened soul under the sound and fury of evil ideology left us once again speechless. Except, everywhere, we started talking, typing, blaming, searching for answers. Many offered easy ones, mostly the same ones, and few people seem to change their minds. “If only everyone would….”
But the children, sisters, brothers and friends are still dead. I have searched my own soul, and pondered, “What more can I do?” There have been, according to a report I heard 133 mass shootings in the US (four or more murdered) in this year. Terror, violence, hatred, fear, loathing of people we don’t know or understand.
Religion is in the news every day, and sometimes the way politicians and news reporters talk about it
shows an enormous ignorance. Religious faith as the media and politicians talk about it sometimes bears little resemblance to the daily lives of billions of faithful people across the world. We live not only next to Muslims, but Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and many others. Sometimes this diversity is seen as a threat. But how do we respond?
Most Christians are not hateful or uncaring to their neighbors. But in these fear-driven times, some truth is a welcome friend. In this study, we will learn a little more about two “neighbors” with whom we share similar ancestry through Abraham—Islam and Judaism—and how Baptists can draw from their heritage to find a way to a more thoughtful and faithful interaction with others.
First, we are affected powerfully by what I have come to call “un-socializing media.” The web has made powerful and wonderful goods to be available to the planet. Unfortunately, it also provides terrible temptations and problems. I’m not simply talking about terrorists and pornographers being able to spread their poison, though that is bad enough. But the damage of half-truths, uncritical forwarding and the anonymity of the internet enables people to “express” things better left to the Read the rest of this entry
I woke up to the bad news from Brussels, Belgium today. We are so numbed to the violence on our globe, we have to wonder about the ambivalent gift of “information.” There is no time to digest, reflect, pray, consider. We are, instead, an endless echo of bad news cycles, compounded by the “unsocial media” that encourages the worst among us to speak loudly even if it is unworthy to hear. Here is the reflection I sent to my congregation today:
The recurring horror of terrorism is found in the terrorists themselves. They are, finally, demented haters of life, of humanity, of our collective existence—that is the essence of terrorists’ acts. There is nothing in them but absolute despair of hope, and the desire to destroy it in all others for the sake of fantastic delusions of forcing the hand of the universe to bend to their will. There is nothing at the end of
their action except death and blood.
They are not new. Throughout all of history, they have killed, as governments and society seek to kill them in response. On and on the fatal disaster continues, hopelessly. It is into Holy Week that the latest delusion happens. In Brussels the fanatics strike civilization once more, convinced that they will prevail, and destined absolutely to fail.
Of all weeks, this one should comfort those who believe in Christ Jesus. Of all people, we began in a story of unjust death, amid terrorists who led people into the desert (Acts 21:38) and to the top of Masada only to die for nothing and their hopes dashed. Those who waved the palms would flee for their lives—and for what? The emptiness of a lost cause. Read the rest of this entry
So now here it comes again. For many, a very painful day, still and always. For all of us who were old enough to witness it live, a memory permanently engraved, an ugly tattoo over scar tissue. Yet with time, inevitably, the intensity is not the same. This is an odd week for those of us in Birmingham. Sunday, we will have a painful memory remembered from fifty years ago. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed just before services began. Barnett Wright has written a wonderful remembrance in words and pictures of that fateful year, 1963, that changed America forever, and Birmingham with it. Those painful memories still rankle or stir devotion and sadness, depending on the person you talk to about it. Read the rest of this entry
Sometimes hope only bubbles up in the small delicate places
that are almost unnoticed among the debris of history
What do 9-11, a pregnant woman, an orphan immigrant from Burkina-Faso, and a store specializing in Afro-pop music have in common? And on a day of such sadness, are there flickers of hope to fasten to?
Sometimes hope only bubbles up in the small delicate places that are almost unnoticed among the debris of history and humanity’s terrible bent to self-destruction. If we cannot always fathom the great purposes of God in the
rumblings of nations and enemies, we can listen to stories. My daughter Katie is a member of Metro Baptist Church in Midtown Manhattan, a thriving small congregation with dynamic social ministries and a loving fellowship. Last year, one of their members, Ken Braun, shared his story of that day. It was about his friend and colleague, Alberto Barbosa. “Berto,” as Ken calls him, was born in a poor village in west Africa. Orphaned, he made his way as a teenager, first to Portugal and then to New York.
Ken met Berto when he first came to New York and when Braun started a company dedicated to African music, Berto was his first employee. The business was located just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Eventually, they both moved their families to New Jersey and would meet in Newark and commute on the Path train every morning to the World Trade Center terminal and walk to work from there.
On September 11, Braun says he had some errands to do, so he didn’t take the Path train, instead taking the bus to the Port Authority. He never made it to work, and we know why. Braun said, “The bus route takes an elevated highway over the Meadowlands, and from there you can see almost all of Manhattan, especially when the sky is a lucid blue like it was that day. I saw the flames and smoke from the North Tower. I had no idea what was going on.”
Traffic ground to a halt above the Lincoln tunnel and as they stared out the windows, they had a panorama seat to see the South Tower impaled by the second plane. They could get no closer, and chaos ensued. It took a long time for Ken to make his way home and he spent the rest of that day calling friends, leaving a message at the school for his children, and following the unspeakable horror. He was particularly eager to contact colleagues because they all would have been going to that part of the city that morning.
He heard from everyone but Berto was the last. He was anxious, worried about him taking the train right into the station under the buildings. Finally, Berto called, and Braun anxiously sputtered, “Where the hell have you been? And he said, “Well…hell.’ I’ll let Braun himself tell the rest.
He had been on the last train to come into the World Trade Center, and when he exited into the underground terminal, people were shouting and running in all directions, so he thought, “I better get out of this and get to work.” So he went up to the ground level and exited the building and walked into pandemonium. Debris was falling and fireballs were falling, and he said, “Some I the things I saw, I didn’t want to look at them, I don’t want to know what they were. I just wanted to get out of there.”
So he kept walking toward the office, but he didn’t get far, because he came upon a woman, a very pregnant woman, sprawled out on the sidewalk, and he knelt down beside her. She was gasping for breath. He thought she was having her baby. He tried to motion for a policeman or a medic, and there were many, but they were all rushing toward the fire, and no one noticed him or the pregnant woman on the ground.
So he picked her up in his arms and he carried her as far as he could and then he set her down in the shelter of a doorway, and took out a bottle of water and gave it to her. And when she could finally catch her breath, she said, “I’m not in labor, I’m just terrified.” And he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get through this together.”
And when she had enough strength, he helped her to her feet, and he put his arm behind her waist, and they walked. They walked north, and whenever she needed to rest, which was frequently, they would stop and then keep going.
It took them seven hours to walk seven miles. She lived in New Jersey, so they went to the Hudson River Ferry crossing on West 33rd Street, and there were masses of people there because that was the only way to leave Manhattan.
Berto found a bench for her to sit on, so he went to find a person of authority to help her get on this ferry ahead of all the people who got there first, so eventually he found somebody and they escorted her up the ferry. She said, “I will not go without this man,” so they brought him and he went with her.
When they got to Hoboken, there were masses of people there, too, but had no place to go because the buses and taxis were full. But someone with a car saw how pregnant she was and said, “I’ll take you wherever you have to go.” But there wasn’t room for Berto, so he said, “You’ll be okay now. Good night.” Then he made his own way home, which took another two hours. He got home at 9:00 that night.
In 2009, Berto was shopping and a woman bumped into him and said, “Alberto!” he recognized her and said, “I know you. Where have we met?” And she identified herself as the pregnant woman and told him he had saved her life. Berto said, “Ah! I didn’t save your life! You were strong. We helped each other.”
She said, “Alberto, when death surrounded me, I prayed to God that He would spare my baby, and when I opened my eyes, there you were. And you lifted me up and carried me away from danger. You saved me and my baby.”
What moment that had to be! He asked how the child was and she said, excitedly, “Wait here.” She ran off into the store and returned with a smiling man and young boy in tow. The husband threw his arms around him and a party broke out.
The woman said, “Every night I thank God for you and pray that we will meet. I want you to meet our son. Alberto, this is our son. His name is Alberto.”
Berto, still uncomprehending, said, “Oh! Is that a name in your family?”
And the father said, “It is now.”
Listen to Ken Braun tell the story on the Metro Baptist Church website.
A New York Times piece about Ken Braun’s love of African music.
I wondered about the things I said on the Sunday morning after 9-11. So I retrieved my sermon from that day, September 16, 2001 at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. I am still in the place where I was on that day, still trying to preach sermons to my people. So, I wondered, what do I remember about what I said and felt and thought. Turns out I had a record. Some of these thoughts still help me. Some cause me questions about where we have come since then. You decide.
NRS Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; 3 in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4 when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5 when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6 before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.
This text from the Old Testament is perplexing. Amid this very poetic description of the decline of life, there is a reference to the almond tree blossoming. How can hope blossom among such unpromising circumstances? Indeed, that would be an excellent question for us today after the terrorist attack on our nation this week. At least part of the answer is found in the first verse, when we are told to “remember.”
We all have a story that we will tell of this week for the rest of our lives. It is about where we were when we heard about it, or what we did in response. Most of us will tell of sitting, glued to the television, hour after hour, as the entire country shut down, first in shock, then realization and horror, and then in brokenness and grief, and finally in “cold rage,” as it was described.
You children have heard your parents and grandparents tell these stories before and they sounded dusty and old. We tell you where we were when President Kennedy was killed, or where we were when the Challenger blew up in the sky and detonated our illusion of endless technological progress. Some can remember when President Reagan was shot and almost died.
You may even have grandparents or great grandparents who can tell you about sitting around a radio on December 7, 1941 and hearing President Roosevelt announce the unthinkable—that the United States had been attacked and the war that seemed so far away had now come into our homes and our country and our families. Then came stories of young men who went away and many who never came home again.
The point of those stories was this: life will never be the same again. This is one of those kinds of weeks. It is a defining memory for our whole country. Each of us have corporately grieved for people we never knew existed on Monday. We have watched, transfixed, as the story gradually unfolded. Some of us rushed out to do something—give blood or wave flags or pray, something
There will come a day for justice, and a day of retribution, but it is not today. Today is the day of remembering. But remember what? We will remember the attack, always. Those images, captured on video, gruesome and yet hypnotic in their horror, again and again, of one plane, then the other, penetrating a building filled with people from all over the world, like an intruder breaking into a house at night while we slept in innocence.
They were people like us, going to work, whether that work was to prepare lunch for visitors in the restaurant or insure the flow of economic possibility for the world, people who kissed their children goodbye and people who came in early to beat the traffic. There were people with a meeting before they left town on a trip and thousands of little stories, now fused and melted into a single tragic tale of gigantic proportions.
The planes invaded the thin, trusting skin of those buildings, buildings where millions of us had gone on our trip to New York and stood on top of the world and looked down to see forever. Ripped into them, uninvited, unexpected, commandeered by demented agents of hate and evil will. They came will precise calculation to commit the largest mass-murder in American history. But they did more than kill innocent human beings. They murdered our security, our sense of safety and peace and of the troubles of the world being far away.
We will remember the extraordinary rescue effort and the thousands of heroic deeds of ordinary people who put themselves out and sometimes in harm’s way because it was the right thing to do. People who came from everywhere. People who died trying—police and firemen and women, even a chaplain who perished as he ministered in the name of Christ.
We will remember the grief and the loss, too large for even 80 channels of cable to document. It spilled out of New York and touched every corner of our country. Again and again we heard of last goodbyes, some matter of fact, not realizing that when they blandly kissed goodbye or left a note or said, “See you tonight. Be sure and stop by the store on the way home” that it was the end. We listened to a CEO, his life broken with grief over his own employees. We saw the poor restaurant workers from Windows On the World, wandering the streets with pictures of their fellow workers, mostly immigrants from everywhere, decent, working people, Christians, Muslims, Jews, rich, poor, executives and clerks, custodians and captains of industry. We heard of cell phone goodbyes from the doomed airliners. Fathers and mothers, realizing that they would not get out, calling to leave a goodbye on the answering machine. We shall never forget those goodbyes. And the unforgettable agony of those thousands and thousands of people who must wait and wait and wait to learn the likelihood that they already dread to be true but cannot begin to embrace until their broken body is found—their father, their mother, their sister, their son, their friend.
We will remember the extraordinary sympathy of the entire world. Today, indeed, John Donne’s oft and over-quoted line, “Ask not for whom the belle tolls, it tolls for thee,” has been a reality. Weeping across the world. As it was rightly said, in a global economy, this was an attack on the entire notion of society in the name of an anarchist band who would renounce it to return to a medieval sectarian version of it. The world shuddered in absolute revulsion.
This sympathy was spoken in prayer vigils, public declarations, at Friday sermons in mosques across the Middle East, in public declarations, in notes, in every imaginable way. The world does not know much about America, but it does know about New York and Washington, and if they have been anywhere, they have probably been to New York City. We will remember the palace band in London playing the Star Spangled Banner and flowers and cards piling up.
We will remember the surge of community and patriotism that was fired into passionate pride—we are one nation after all. And for all those jokes about New Yorkers and the bureaucrats in D.C., when trouble comes we are one people, no matter where we came from, how rancorous our debates, how different our views, we are one in our love for this place and its heritage and its ideals. Criticize them all you like. We may even join in now and then, because that’s what freedom means. But kill our countrymen and we rise up, together, to mourn and bury the dead, to clean up the mess, roll up our sleeves, and stand together. You cannot divide us this way. We are one nation.
And there were some sad and forgettable things, too. People lashing out, shooting windows out of mosques, threatening strangers without bothering to know them. If you have Arab-American neighbors and friends, this is the week to call them and reach out. Hate is not the majority response. I do not blame Arab Americans or Islam, any more than I want people in the world to think Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson represent all Christians, or that the Klan or militias, because they claim to be Christian, are representative of us. But we will remember what people said and did.
The danger is not that we will ever forget this week but that it will so obsess us and fixate us in our anger or pain that we cannot see how to go forward. Our President and leadership have had the awful task of helping us, coming together, coordinating, scrambling. Their weight has been terrible. This week it is not the President who feels my pain—I have felt his and prayed for him, again and again. And they have promised us that we will again be secure, we will recover, we will survive, and that they will turn our entire focus on attacking terrorism in the world and bring the guilty to justice.
I have only told you what you have already seen and experienced. I have added nothing new to it. You were there. These are your memories, too is your memory, too. I do not need to say, “Remember.” You will. Always. And you will tell your children and grandchildren and nephews and nieces and students and friends about it. For the rest of your life. You will remember.
I come today not to add to the memories but to focus them. Ecclesiastes 12 is a “summing up.” It is told from the vantage point of old age, a man who has lived life fully and now faces the grave. He is considering all the foolish things of life, things he himself has done and once thought to be the point of it all—eating and drinking, buying and selling, celebration and rejoicing, working and playing. Things he once did like you and I do—with all our heart and all our soul and with all our might.
We invest ourselves in career and family, leisure and hobbies, interests and passions. As Americans we tend to always do it with all that we are—“we’re number one!” Life goes along, sometimes so quickly, as we find ourselves moving on a path that partly we picked and partly picked us by our abilities and gifts and talents. We move and walk and then run, giving ourselves to them.
Because we live in a land of freedom, we can pursue those inclinations as far as our energies, opportunities and abilities will let us go. It brings great rewards and often prosperity to us to do so. They have created a culture of prosperity and security unprecedented in human history. They have led us forward to developments that have made life better throughout the world by our technology and medical advances. They have enabled us to create a society that draws people from around to world to come here. Work, achievement, education and opportunity are the cornerstones of our way of life.
Yet they are not who we are and they are not what gives us life and hope. There is something deeper that sustains us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
On Tuesday morning, those planes slammed into the two great symbols of our national power—our economy and our military might. It was a blow not only on a human level, but an intended damnation of our entire way of life. “Take away their economy and their might, and there is nothing there.” That is the belief of our enemies. And sometimes we seem to prove them right by our moral and material excesses.
But they were wrong. What happened after the shock wore off was that we turned to what was always deepest and near at hand. We have prayed—on television and radio, in churches and special services. We have turned back to God. We have turned to one another.
Funny that we would put it that way—“turned back.” As though we could get away from God or leave God. But there is great truth here, truth that we should not miss, for it is the most important truth. Life is not about what we have or who has it. We knew it all along, but it has come forth this week and we know it to be true. It is about the recognition that we are all God’s creation, made in the image of God. That life is precious and fleeting. That we are neighbors, and that we belong to one another, and that we ought to care about each other.
Has it just been me, or are people speaking to each other more respectfully and tenderly to one another this week? I know it may wear off soon, when there is some routine again, but let’s bask in it while we can. We are seeing the depths in one another in this crisis, and it says, “We are not an economic system. We are a community of brothers and sisters who care about each other.”
Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 is a description of old age—the loss of strength, vitality and energy. His point is this—better to remember it when you are young, and then when you are old it will be there for you. Life is not about how much you have or who you are. Life is not about admiration or wealth. It’s about God and the people in your life. It’s about being an honorable person who knows the truth—God is God, and we are not. It’s about realizing that life can come to a halt, any time. Better live every day in that awareness.
Remember. You are not the creator. But you have choices. You are free. As Jacques Ellul reminds us, free does not mean independent—that we do not need anyone else. Free does not mean “autonomous,” that we can do as we please without regard to God or others. Free means we have choices and that God allows us to have them. We can build buildings or destroy them. We can love one another or kill each other. Which depends on our choices and our remembering who is who.
Strange that we would have to remember God. The creation is all around. But as Ellul also reminds us
…God does not impose himself on us. He does not crush our humanity with his revelation. He is utterly discrete: ‘remember.’ You can forget him, cast him aside, fail to concern yourself with him. He will not come to you, enraged and threatening, making you take him into account or bend your knees, filling your view or obliging you to obey him. No, he remains hidden and patient.
God does not force our obedience. He asks for it. He permits us the high privilege of freedom and responsibility. We can forget and destroy ourselves and each other. Or we can remember. We don’t have to do it as weirdly as John Donne did, sleeping in a coffin to remind himself that he would die. But we live better in this awareness of mortality. A woman in my last church once commented to me at the graveside of her aunt, “It’s funny, but I don’t often feel like life is real. I go through the motions. Standing here, today, I feel a sense of reality.”
I think I know what she meant. It felt “alive.” To have things in right order, to remember the Creator and that we are only creatures who will one day die, is to be alive. In the sadness of sorrow we often redirect our lives.
That’s why, in spite of the sorrow and pain and tears, in spite of the fear and the insecurity, in spite of the anger and frustration, I feel very alive today. In spite of the death and tragedy, I feel very alive. I have stopped thinking about a lot of things that seemed to matter but don’t. I have thought over and over about what does matter.
I have called on God. Not for myself but for others. Over and over. I have been alive as I thought about others and cared about them. As I have been able to forget myself and pray. God did not cause this but God remains, waiting, for all of us to remember that we are not God, that we will die, and therefore that we should live as tender stewards of this life and of the people around us who are created in God’s image. Through our own folly and sin, God is helping us to remember that life is precious, life is God’s, life is a gift.
In this terrible vulnerability, we have seen some things. Terrible truths, but also wondrous opportunities. That is the story of the cross—it declares that life begins not where we think it should, with us who are alive, but in the depths of grief and loss and darkness and despair. Jesus died on the cross, victim of every horrible and terrible motive and perversion that we have seen in the face of evil this week. He died at the hand of those who thought, finally, that might and power and fear and intimidation and violence were finally the answer to every problem. And they were wrong.
The greatest words in human history are “and on the third day.” On that day, when Christ arose, we not only found a clue to hope in the afterlife, we discovered a profound spiritual reality. It is not in strength, either of economy or might, that we find out what matters most in life. It is in the vulnerability of love and the indestructibility of hope. Those words, “on the third day” vindicated the cross, God’s way.
America’s tears, America’s wound, America’s concern for each other have opened a door of possibility for us this week. It is there that we remember—there is a Creator and we, the children of that God, must remember him when we are strong if we are to understand where to turn when we are broken.
We will never forget this week—not the horror, not the sadness, not any of it. I hope that we will remember forever. And most of all to remember that as an entire world we have seen the futility of human will and power this week. There is no immunity from suffering and evil. It visits itself on us all eventually. A malevolent evil can always have its day.
But it is not the last word. The last word is God. The last word is eternal love. Force and hatred and wickedness plays itself out and causes its wounds, but it is destined for the pit of hell. Love will swallow it whole and it shall be no more. Remember the love of this week. Remember the vulnerable tears we have shared. Remember neighbor love. Remember the tolling bell. Remember the Creator and that we are creatures. If we do, there is hope.
Ellul, Jacques. Reason for Being: A Meditation On Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1990.
The anniversary of 9/11 is not only a marker of a terrible historical moment, it is a reminder that we have lived an entire decade in the collective shadows of fear and diminished hopes. Our children graduating now have spent their childhoods absorbing tsunamis, wars, terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes and economic catastrophe. They enter a job market that will test their ability to hope. It may be a great moment not only to remember 9/11 but also to remember how to hope.
Howard Thurman once wrote that “as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.” (Meditations of the Heart, 36-37). He went on to say that realism, daily facts, are unavoidable, but without that ineffable presence of something bigger inside us, life turns into “a swamp, a dreary, dead place and, deep within, a man’s heart begins to rot.” This dream does not have to be some world-shaking vision of dramatic change, although moments of history sometimes require these. Instead, “the dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables [us] to ride out the storms of [our] churning experiences.”
Thurman grew up in Daytona Beach during segregation, but rose to national prominence as a preacher, writer, pastor and academician. He traveled widely and participated in many Christian missions and among his travels, spent time with Gandhi. He was a college classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr., and was the Dean of the Chapel when King’s son, Martin, came there for study.
Thurman took the young man under wing and mentored him. He was, in many regards, King’s spiritual director through his short life. His book, Jesus and the Disinherited, written in 1949, profoundly influenced King. In 1953 Life magazine) rated Thurman among the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States, but time has moved on and, outside the African American churches and historians and theologians, Thurman is not well-known.
When we think of all of these echoes of Thurman in the life of a young preacher from Atlanta, and how Thurman’s thoughts lived out through King’s life, it underlines the importance of his words about dreaming. Our dreams do not have to be cosmic or political and yet they can roll out to change the world. The Apostle Paul had a dream one night of a Macedonian man who said, “Come over here and help us,” and the gospel came to that place. Peter had a vision that opened the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10. Dreaming is powerful.
These dreams do not have to be world-sized. They can be quite simple—dreaming of a better life for your children, to help a friend whose life is crushed, or as simple as “I want to be a better person than I have been up until now.” It can be a dream to rebuild out of financial ruin or when your circumstances have taken a devastating turn. We can dream of helping the next generation do more than we ever imagined and so give ourselves to a career of teaching and guiding.
There is something very determined about dreaming. While “dreamy” often describes escape, inward dreams are just the opposite—they occupy our hearts and minds and drive us toward something that is ultimately better. We imagine a future worth attaining.
Don’t underestimate the dream. It is quite powerful. It raised the ancient Jewish patriarch Joseph out of prison and into the Pharaoh’s court, and ultimately Israel into existence. Thurman’s dreams lived into a young man who was part of calling America to its best self.
In these times of rebuilding, re-imagining and renewal, biblical people ought to dream. Who knows what might come of it? Just when life is at its worst is when dreams matter most.