I woke up late that morning, just a couple weeks into my college experience. As usual, I logged onto my computer. I typed “hello” to a high school friend on instant messenger. ”Have you seen what happened?” she wrote back. She wouldn’t even give me a hint of what she meant. ”You need to find a tv.” That meant I had to go to the lounge of the dorm next door. As I set eyes on the 50-some-inch tv, I watched an airplane fly into an already-smoking World Trade Center. It was probably about the 65th replay of that second collision. And then I watched the towers fall, along with about 20 other speechless students.
Other than a university-wide convocation to pray, grieve, and process what was happening, classes were cancelled that day. Baseball practice was not. Of all the planes that flew over our baseball field on a daily basis, that day it was the single plane that flew over that caught our attention. Knowing that pretty much all flights were cancelled that day, we speculated whether it was Air Force One (or a decoy?) seeking safety at Wright-Patt Air Force Base just a few miles down the road. It was an odd day–almost too unexpected to be sad yet. At least, that’s how I remember it.
I remember listening to President Bush’s speech to the nation that night and the signs of resolve and unity among many of our leaders. I remember one of my professors the next morning holding up a newspaper page with a picture of people jumping out of the doomed building and trying to help us work through what had just happened. I remember sitting in that same dorm lounge that Sunday, watching as NFL football players sprinted out of their tunnels waving American flags and tearfully bellowed out the Star-Spangled Banner. I have to say, I was choked up as I am even now (surprisingly) as I type these words. I remember joining my fellow students at a candlelight vigil the following year in Wittenberg’s “Hollow.” I could remember the feelings of the previous year, but this time had more appreciation for how meaningful that day was.
Much could be said on the 10th anniversary of these attacks. We could speak of the uncashed “promissory note” of trans-partisanship and unity we were (too hastily?) offered by politicians; or the ways 9/11 became a litmus test for patriotism, a political power-play, and a rallying cry for unfettered nationalism; or how we could have heated debates about our rights to “homeland security” without mention of the needs of people around the world who wake up in war zones every day. These are conversations that we need to have because 9/11 and the ensuing ten years have shed lots of light on what goes on in the political, cultural, and personal fabric of the United States of America.
But today I want to simply focus on a window that opened up–just for a moment–on 9/11/01 to give us a glimpse of the Gospel. What I think we glimpsed as President Bush spoke, as football players sang, and as rescue workers risked their lives… was hope. Now, sometimes we use the word “hope” as nothing more than a wish. ”I hope I win the lottery someday.” But biblical hope, Gospel hope, and the glimpse of hope we saw on 9/11 was a conviction, a transformative belief, an inspiration, and a source of strength. Jurgen Moltmann, a Christian scholar who has a whole book called Theology of Hope, writes, “From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity…is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.” In the case of 9/11, the hope we saw was the conviction or premonition that not only would we get through this, but that we might even be better for it.
Deep, Gospel-like hope is experienced and bred in the most hopeless of moments. As Paul writes, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all.” Real hope happens in the moments that appear on the outside to be most hopeless. It is easy to put our hope in shallow things: money, acceptance, living in a “nice neighborhood” or the U.S.A., our own abilities. It is in the moments when all of our external reasons for security and success are taken away that we are drawn into a deeper, beyond-ourselves-and-our-things reason for hope. I believe that for a moment on 9/11 and the following days, we were drawn out of the self-reliant, individualistic way of life that Americans are known for, into a disorientation and grief and fear that required us to search for something deeper and more secure to hold onto. What many found on this search was a hope in one another and in an American vision that were stronger than self-hope. And it cannot and should not be minimized that 9/11 drove many Americans into a God-hope.
The events of 9/11/01 gave Americans a glimpse into a kind of hope that isn’t relegated to the future, but that reaches back into the present to transform, renew, and strengthen. Such is Gospel-hope. Contrary to popular belief, parts of the Bible that offer us a vision for the future (think Revelation) are not just spiritual candy for the bye-and-bye. They are the main course for followers of Jesus. We see a God who can renew, restore, and redeem, a God who promises that one day all will be made right. And as God speaks those words to our hearts through his Spirit, that hope reaches back into our lives, captivates our imaginations, and emboldens us to participate in renewal, restoration, and redemption now.
Of course, 9/11/01 was only a glimpse. So much of the promise of that week and hope faded back into the norm of political fighting, self-reliant individualism, and fear. A hope in each other and in our country may be stronger than hope in ourselves, but it is not Gospel-hope in its fullness. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul gushes about his own joy, and urges his brothers and sisters in Christ to “Rejoice!” He writes this letter from prison. In writing about Paul’s letter, Karl Barth calls this command to rejoice even amidst trials a “defiant ‘Nevertheless!’”
A defiant “Nevertheless!” I think that describes the response we saw on 9/11/01. And I believe this is the hope the Gospel offers to Jesus’ followers always. Evil and sin wreak havoc on this world, on people we love, and even on our own lives. Suffering and death move us to grief, lament, and confusion. But then we see Jesus, our Hope. We listen to the Story of our sins being nailed to the cross and removed from us as far as the east is from the west. We listen to the Story of Resurrection: the defeat of death, suffering, and evil. We shout a defiant, “Nevertheless!” And we walk forward into the world, fueled by hope that will never disappoint, to tell the Story of God’s unfailing love.
PS. Those who sacrificed themselves to ground United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania were mistakenly omitted from this post, but are one of 9/11/01′s most profound examples of the hope I am trying to describe.
http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/expect-calamity-believe-in-hope/ (coincidentally, in almost the exact life moment that I was as a college freshman)
http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/09/09/praying-on-911/ (I used most of this litany during our 9/11/11 worship service)