“Where were you on 9/11?” has become one of the defining questions for today’s generation, much like older Americans were audited on how they heard about Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, the Challenger disaster or the start of the Gulf War.
On that fateful day, I was traveling in the Middle East with my 13-year-old son, leading a group of journalists and pastors on a tour of biblical sites in Jordan. I was notified that planes had been flown on a suicide mission into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon through a phone call from a network reporter seeking a perspective comment from a client. At that moment I was standing in the ancient ruins of the Decapolis city of Jerash where Jesus once preached.
On the hotel television that evening I witnessed the shocking damage to the two quintessential symbols of America’s military power and financial strength. By that time they were reduced to rubble, like the 2,000-year-old ruins of an earlier all-powerful civilization I had been trampling on that day.
Because the Kingdom of Jordan is known as a land of peace, my traveling companions and I were eminently safe; in fact, the local people couldn’t have been more hospitable. But how surreal, from a region of the world identified with tension and violence, to watch the horror unfolding on our own shores. And we most certainly felt far away from home.
The next Sunday, a concerned minister friend, Bishop T. D. Jakes, encouraged his congregation to pray for our group in Jordan, commenting that when disaster strikes, and war is about to break out, it is a bad time to be far from home. But Bishop Jakes wasn’t just talking geographically or relationally; he spoke from a spiritual perspective – about our nation and its people – urging everyone to return home, back to God.
And he was right. Considering all we were going through as a society during those dark days, the last place any of us wanted or needed to be was away from home. The free world was under attack: physically, through an unimaginable but intentional act of terrorist aggression; but also spiritually, targeting our nation at its very soul. It became an occasion for us as Americans to take personal inventory of our lives and our priorities.
We returned to the U.S. on the first flight from the Middle East and entered a country I had never before known. American flags were flown everywhere and ubiquitous car ribbons reminded us to never forget. All of our disputes and differences melted away as we stood together in our defense and healing.
In the Old Testament passage of II Chronicles 20, Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, found himself facing formidable armies in the greatest external threat of his reign. Against incredible odds, the King admitted his inadequacy and God’s sufficiency, saying, “We have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; neither do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.”
That was the place where many of us found ourselves 10 years ago following the unprecedented attacks, “Neither do we know what to do…” But many put their focus back on God, with renewed fervor to determine the purpose and meaning of life.
Conan O’Brien, talk show host and high priest of the Zeitgeist, transparently described his response when he returned to the air several nights after the tragedy. Admitting he had never felt more unsure or at a loss, he said the right thing to do was to try to move forward and make sense of our lives when absolutely nothing made sense.
Conan shared how he needed somebody, something to help him, so he went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to clear his head, which enabled him to gain perspective. Then he looked into the camera and challenged his viewers, “I don’t care what faith you are, I don’t care what your belief…we still have so much, and we just have to thank God (whatever that means to you) for what we still have and what we still can do.”
As a result of our communal lifeboat, cultural mindset shifted during the following days and weeks from “me” to “we;” civility returned as a societal virtue; church attendance soared; and prohibitions against prayer were temporarily lifted. During the most vulnerable time in our history, we were reminded – collectively and individually – that every day is a gift.
The attacks brought unity; God was at the center of our thoughts, needs and existence. Adversity and tragedy made us one people for a season. But as the months passed, that unity faded and slowly people returned to their corners and soapboxes once again.
What about you? Whatever happened to the decisions you made about yourself as a result of 9/11? What ongoing impact did that tragic day have on your understanding of, or relationship to, God? Have you been able to maintain the same priorities as in the days after the attack? Are they temporal, or things that will never change?
At the National Prayer breakfast several years ago, Chuck Colson opined that Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s comment upon leaving prison was the most profound sermon of the 20th Century. “Bless you, prison,” he said. “Bless you for being in my life. For there, lying on that rolling prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity, as we are made to believe, but the making of the soul.”
Michael Hyatt observed on his Intentional Leadership blog that, though we can’t control accidents and tragedies that happen in life, we can manage how we respond to negative situations by asking ourselves the right question, “What does this experience make possible?”
Perhaps the national crisis of 9/11 was part of the remaking of the American soul, individually and collectively. Now a decade hence, it is my prayer that ground zero will become a symbol of America’s true strength and power – not financial, but spiritual – and the epicenter of a revitalization and renewal that will shake the world.
May it continue at this milestone memorial 10th Anniversary, with each of us choosing to come home in his or her heart; back to God in gratitude for what we still have and what we can do, and back to His purpose and will for our lives.
Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a full-service public relations agency that provides cross-over media liaison emanating from or targeted to the Christian market. With more than 35 years’ experience influencing public opinion, Mr. Ross’ mission is to “restore faith in media,” by providing Christian messages relevance and meaning in mainstream media.