It was a late night in August 1998 that I always think back on whenever the infamous events of Sept. 11 come to mind. My grandfather was in the hospital dying, and as our family was preparing to say goodbye, in the background the TV was on the news.
My grandfather loved history, law and geo-politics, which I believe he successfully passed onto me, and I vaguely remember watching an interview being shown of a man I had never heard of named Osama bin Laden. He was in a cave being interviewed by a Western journalist raving against America, and he said his terrorist organization had declared war on America and that he was going to attack the United States. I remember thinking to myself, ‘How is this guy in a cave going to attack the most powerful country on Earth?’ Years later, on that Tuesday morning, I remember being stunned as I heard that man’s name on the TV again, with the realization that he had fulfilled his threat. Our world was suddenly and dramatically changed by the images that I will never forget, that played over and over again of those planes hitting the twin towers in New York. Surely this was a movie, we kept thinking, but no, this was no movie. Our country had been attacked for the first time since Pearl Harbor, and our world and all the exciting expectations that came with ushering in a new century and millennium were dashed.
In the immediate days that came after 9/11, like everyone around me, I experienced fear. Fear that this was going to be the start of an onslaught of terrorist attacks on our homeland, because 9/11 shattered the illusion that America’s strength and the oceans that separated us somehow meant we were invulnerable. Yet, even as scary as those days were, there were things I remember from the weeks following that horrible day that I have often thought back to, especially recently. I remember President Bush quoting Psalm 23 that night from the Oval Office, reminding us that in the valley of the shadow of death, we can overcome fear knowing a power greater than ourselves was with us. I remember seeing Republicans and Democrats on the steps of Capitol Hill joining hands singing “God Bless America.” I remember seeing American flags plastered anywhere and everywhere, and churches packed. I remember seeing real unity in our country, real love for our neighbor, patriotism, and a spiritual realization that our country had been shaken at its core and for a brief moment, we individually and collectively looked heavenward for help to face this new threat. But, sadly, as with just about everything in the age we live in, our attention span is short, our memory fades and we forgot the lessons 9/11 taught us.
Today, as we get ready to mark the 19th anniversary of that day, our country is facing an ongoing pandemic, economic hardships, mental and emotional free fall, racial reckoning, riots in our streets, and an upcoming polarizing presidential election. Yet, this time around, as our nation is engulfed in the most severe crisis I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, we are not responding to this moment as we did almost 20 years ago. Instead of uniting, we are more divided than ever before. Instead of loving our neighbor, we spar with them on social media. Instead of listening, we’ve become accustomed to shouting. Whereas when we faced 9/11 we understood what had happened, in today’s polarizing media landscape it’s as if our reality is on different planets for understanding what is happening before us. Our national institutions are in danger of implosion. For the first time in my life, I am actually deeply concerned for what future awaits my children growing up in this country.
Yet, all is not lost, and it’s not too late. We have been here before. The details are different to be sure, but our families, churches, leaders and nation have risen to the occasion in our past when we faced tyranny, civil war, depression, wars, political turmoil, and social unrest. And while there are many factors for how America has weathered these challenges, there is one consistent theme embedded in our story, and that is our turning to God in times of crisis. The question facing us today is, will we recognize our need for Him in our hearts, our lives, and our society or will we continue on the course we have been on, heralding our own self destruction? As Francis Chan said, “The irony is that while God doesn’t need us but still wants us, we desperately need God but don’t really want Him most of the time.” We need hope for the future, we need love to triumph over hatred, faith to overcome fear, brokenness to be made whole and confidence to face uncertainty. We need racial reconciliation, we need healing, and we need to value what matters most. We need Jesus. We need a relationship with Him over religiosity. We need a move of God in our hearts, our homes, and our land. And believe it or not, how you and I respond to this moment, ultimately determines if it’s too late for our country or not.
If we humble ourselves, realizing we can’t fix our problems purely through political or societal means, if we look up, and call on the Ancient of Days, if we resolve to search and seek to know Him, if we are willing to stop doing the same things over and over again expecting a different result engaging in true insanity and change from our futile ways of thinking and living; then we will be heard, forgiven, healed and revived, in our lives and in the life of our nation. Almost 20 years ago, I vividly remember as a high schooler, watching us take a step in that direction, but we ended up forgetting the wake-up call, that for a brief moment, got our attention to what matters most as Americans and as human beings. If we don’t wake up to the spiritual urgency of the hour in which we find ourselves, we may not get another opportunity.
Pastor Stephen Mitchell is the Senior Pastor at Trinity Bible Church in Severna Park, Maryland. He is also the author of Taking A Stand In Our Dying Land and has spoken in various churches and retreats. He is a native of Frederick.