"So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering." (Romans 12:1, MSG)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Word of Prayer: Remembering 9/11

"You who prayed from the cross for your Father to forgive those who were killing you, grant us the courage to forgive those who harm us in our families, in our communities, and in our world. Help us recognize our own need to seek the forgiveness of others. Amen." Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove & Enuma Okoro. “Common Prayer.” Zondervan, 2010.

Photo © Tim Drivas, Lower Manhattan at night from Jersey City on June 26, 2013.

Everyone remembers where they were on September 11, 2001.

I was sitting at my desk in my financial services office in Jacksonville, FL, when my roommate called and asked if I was watching a television. I wasn't, but asked him why he wanted to know. 

He told me a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center and then immediately shouted an expletive as he witnessed on live television a second plane crashing into the other tower. Minutes later, everyone in my office was crowded around a television in our training room, watching the events unfold. 

The plane crash into the Pentagon.

The plane crash in Pennsylvania. 

The bodies falling from the towers. 

The towers collapsing to the ground. 

Fear and chaos in the streets.

Wild speculation over the death toll.

It wasn't long before I reached the limit of what I could take and left the office to go home. 

I sat alone in my living room and watched the endless news coverage through tear-filled eyes - not tears of sadness, mind you, but tears of rage and anger. I felt a wide-range of emotions that day, we all did, but I think what I felt above all else was regret. 

I deeply regretted having left Naval service two years earlier with dreams of wealth and a successful career in financial services. No, that September afternoon I wished more than anything to still be wearing a military uniform and to be a part of our nation's response to the heinous crimes of terror committed against us. I wanted to help avenge the loss of every innocent life, even at the expense of my own.

As I remember that day now, I find myself wondering how I would react if something similar happened today. To be sure, I'm not the man I was twelve years ago. I'm no longer single, but married with three young children. I'm also not the successful financial advisor I set out to be. By God's grace, I am instead a pastor. As such, I can promise you this - the "2001 me" would never have been able to imagine who I am today. 

The "2001 me" also would not have cared in the least about Mahatma Ghandi's famous words, "An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind." That being said,  however, the "2013 me" emphatically agrees with Ghandi's wisdom. 

Still, when I see news stories about thousands of men, women, and children dying from vicious attacks with deadly chemical weapons, I think, "Lord, have mercy! Something must be done about that!" My understanding of the "something that must be done," however, doesn't include a desire to still be wearing a military uniform and to be a participant in military action. 

Instead, I find my thoughts turning to Jesus and the early apostles. 

I find my thoughts turning to prayer. 

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

These prayers leave me believing there must be alternatives to answering violence with violence.  This is because I have no imagination for God's Kingdom and God's will including such things as air strikes which threaten innocent Syrians.

I'm an associate pastor in Gainesville, FL, and this issue in Syria took on a deeper and different meaning for me this past Sunday night. You see, Trinity United Methodist Church, where I serve, is down the street from the former location of a church where three years ago, He Who Shall Remain Nameless threatened to burn the Qur'an on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. On the Sunday before September 11, 2010, the faith communities of Gainesville - Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, and more - responded to this threat by gathering at our church for a night of Peace, Understanding, and Hope. This Gathering, by hundreds of people who likely would not have been together for any other reason, showed the world that even though we are different culturally and religiously, we can love and respect one another and find uncommon unity when we set our hearts on it.

Ever since, The Gathering for Peace, Understanding, and Hope has been an annual event on the Sunday evening before 9/11. It's a good thing, too, because He Who Shall Remain Nameless continues to threaten to burn the Qur'an. Thankfully, there are infinitely better reasons for The Gathering to continue than to prove to the world that He Who Shall Remain Nameless does not speak for all of us. 

I digress.

Having only been at Trinity since July, this Sunday's Gathering was my first. And I could not be more grateful for the experience thanks to a Muslim internal medicine doctor from Syria named Hassan.

Hassan shared with those of us gathered about the turmoil in his country and his fear for his family, with whom he has not spoken in nearly two weeks because of the unrest in his hometown. Hassan's emotions were raw and uncensored as he pleaded for no more war and expressed his hope that our country would not attack Syria because of the consequences that such an attack would have on the innocent in the country he loves. 

Speaking with Hassan at the end of the evening, I thanked him for sharing with us and told him how grateful I am to have a face to put with this issue that has burdened my heart and that I will be praying for him, his family, and his homeland. He, in turn, thanked our church for hosting The Gathering (his first, too) and said he wished we held one every Sunday because he would certainly come. We talked for a while longer and then he told me something surprising.

Before he left Syria three years ago, he and his Muslim friends had become friends with a group of Christians and they used to gather and pray. Together. They taught their Christian friends the manner in which Muslims pray and the Christians, in turn, taught them how we pray. Can you imagine? When Hassan shared this with me, I felt hope and remembered John Wesley's sermon Catholic Spirit. I told Hassan this and shared with him these words from Wesley:

"If thine heart is right with mine heart, then give me thine hand."
Now, I know this is far out of the context of what Wesley intended for these words but in that exchange with Hassan it is what I felt. I felt love for this man I had only just met and I felt love for his family and his people. 

In that moment, I experienced what I think my senior pastor, Dr. Dan Johnson, meant when he preached earlier that morning: We must be passionately Christian, but compassionately interfaith. I also experienced what it means to go beyond tolerance (merely loving someone because the Bible tells me I must) toward identification (loving someone because I've seen them as God sees them and I've felt what it is like to stand in their shoes).

I prayed for Hassan today and texted to tell him so. I also told him I am hopeful that we may yet find a diplomatic resolution and avoid more bloodshed in his country. He replied with gratitude and prayed God's blessing for me, my family, and our country. Our text exchange warmed my heart and called to mind these words, spoken by Jesus during his Sermon on the Mount:
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:8)
As I said before, I know there are many who will disagree with much of what I have written here. I know some believe that a military response is our best solution. I know some believe that something isn't quite right about my time with Hassan, that we should not coexist in such a way, and that my sole objective should have been his conversion. I acknowledge and accept those differences and will dare to quote Wesley out of context once more:
"Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may."
Here is something else I know. Pope Francis called the world to prayer and fasting on Saturday for peace in Syria and millions responded. Hundreds of people, from several faith traditions, gathered together in a church in Gainesville on Sunday night to pray and share fellowship in the spirit of peace, understanding, and hope. And  then, by no coincidence at all in my opinion, the week began with a glimmer of hope for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution. This brings to mind the words by Walter Brueggemann on which I reflected last year for the anniversary of 9/11.
“Where the cry is not voiced, heaven is not moved and history not initiated. And then the end is hopelessness. Where the cry is seriously voiced, heaven may answer and earth may have a new chance.”
May we all be peacemakers. May God's Kingdom come and God's will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Glory to God. Amen.

1 comment: