Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11 and Biblical Prophecy

Fifteen years ago today I woke up in Aurora, Oregon to the phone ringing. Oma was down for a brief visit on her way to California. Eliana was less than 6 months old.

It was Dad. "Turn on the TV," he said. "A plane just hit a building."

I was puzzled. Planes crash several times a year, but this was the first time Dad had called us to turn on the news. I was thinking, "That's sad, but is it sad enough to wake me up early?"

Then, gathered around the TV, we saw that it wasn't just any building. To see the New York skyline like that, with billows of smoke pouring out, we began to wonder. "Could this have been an accident?" It seemed that to hit the World Trade Center one would have to be . . . trying. We shuddered at the thought.

The minutes ticked by and we watched live footage of the panic, as everyone but first responders raced away from the scene.

Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175, which departed from Boston en route for Los Angeles, is shown in a flight path for the South Tower of the World Trade Towers Sept, 11, 2001. The North Tower burns after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the tower at 8:45 a.m. (AP Photo/Aurora, Robert Clark)...A...NEW YORK...NY...USA
9/11 Photo (Source:
Then, the unthinkable. We watched on live television as the second plane hit the second tower. We gasped. A sickening feeling gripped us. Horror hung in the air like the smoke now billowing from both towers. It was obvious now:

This was deliberate.
This was coordinated.
Whoever it was was attacking America.
Where would they strike next?

The answer came as the morning unfolded. Long minutes stretched by as we sat, our eyes glued to the screen.

Within 30 minutes, a plane crashes into the side of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Danny's mom is there in D.C. for work. We call her. She's close enough to see the smoke from her hotel window.

Another 20 minutes pass. Suddenly, the already unthinkable tragedy grows sickeningly worse: the South Tower of the World Trade Center is swallowed up by the ground before our very eyes. We watch live as it simply vanishes, leaving great billows of grey smoke.

Less than 10 minutes later Flight 93 crashes into a Pennsylvania field, killing everyone on board. While the story takes time to decipher, it is clear that this plane was headed to the White House.

Twenty minutes later the North Tower collapses into itself, leaving an aching emptiness in the New York skyline and in the hearts of every American.

"The worst day" was a barrage on our senses. It stretched credulity. We were living an apocalyptic nightmare. Oma was supposed to leave that morning to drive herself to southern California. I remember our fear -- where will they strike next? We urged her to stay another day, to wait things out and see whether it was safe. She opted to go. At 81, she had lived through WW2 and felt it was no good to sit around, anxiously waiting. She had a life to live. And so she went.

9/11 shaped us as a nation. Far from defeat, we rallied as a country and experienced unity and a singleness of purpose like never before in my lifetime. Prayer services were packed. All of us cried out to God with our grief, our questions, our hopes. Our national resolve was strong to prevent future terror attacks and eliminate their sources.

This reminds me of the Old Testament prophets.

Many people find it hard to connect with the biblical prophets because of the great gaps that separate us -- geographically, chronologically, and culturally. We're a long way from ancient Israel and Judah. We understand little about the historical and political challenges they faced. Our respective cultures are vastly different.

However, we have something in common that can help us bridge that gap. We have 9/11.

The Old Testament prophets were God's spokesmen to their own generation. They pointed out the failure of the covenant people of Israel and Judah to walk faithfully with their God, Yahweh. They announced the judgement that God had planned. And they spoke of the restoration, God's vision for a future in which divine blessings would again flow through the land.

How does this relate to 9/11? The devastation felt by the people of the northern kingdom of Israel in the exile of 722 BC and the southern kingdom of Judah in the exile of 586 BC mirrors the devastation of Ground Zero, only worse. For the people of Israel and Judah, Palestine was not only home, but it was the only home possible. God had promised it to them. It was the physical proof of their covenant relationship. When the Assyrians bore down on the Northern Kingdom and dragged the Israelites into exile, those ten tribes dissolved into the sands of history. Like the South Tower, at least 500 years of national history was swallowed alive. When the Babylonians gained the upper hand and attacked Judah in 586 BC, they decimated the temple in which God had promised to be present and the city in which God had appointed David and his descendants to rule. Exile brought an abrupt end to proper worship, legitimate kingship, and to the nationhood of God's people.

Where was God anyway? 
How could God have allowed these things to happen to his own people?
Have God's promises been annihilated? 
Has the covenant come to an end? 
What does it look like to be God's faithful followers when everything we know has changed?
How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land? (Ps 137)

If we can remember how we felt on 9/11, how we were shaken as a nation and how we grieved and feared and raged and sat stunned, then we're in a position to identify with the ancient people of Israel and Judah. The prophets addressed them shortly before, during, and after the exile, when they were wrestling deeply with the meaning of the events that played out around them.

God's word to them continues to speak powerfully today — to any of us who identify ourselves as disciples of Jesus, and who are therefore members of the (re)new(ed) covenant. The prophets reveal to us the devastating consequences of unfaithfulness and God's glorious vision for restoration.

My children do not remember 9/11. Our oldest was just a baby, and the others were just a gleam in my eye. This morning we watched a video together so that they could see what I saw on that fateful morning, and so that we could wrestle together with the way it shaped our nation. My children may not have experienced 9/11, but they cannot afford to ignore it. It's part of who we are.

The same is true with all of us who claim allegiance to Jesus. We can't afford to neglect the message of the prophets, because they address the people of God at one of the most devastating and pivotal times in our history. Their story is our story. We must listen and learn.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

a college student's back-to-school prayer

Thank you, Lord,
for a new semester.

Thank you for providing the means for me to study
in a community of fellow learners.

Sharpen my mind,
so that I can learn to think clearly and critically.

Melt my resistance
to new ideas that are good and right and true.

Calm my anxiety,
as I face an overwhelming list of assignments to complete.

Banish fear
so that I can embrace the task of learning with joy.

Help me to take one day at a time.

Open my heart
to those around me,
so that I can form deeper friendships.

Make me a blessing
to my fellow students
and to the faculty and staff who serve us.

Create here a community
in which transformation can take place

Equip us
to carry out the work you have planned
for us to do.

Above all, may we glorify you
through all we say and do this semester.

For the honor of your name,

Sunday, September 4, 2016

encountering the light of Christ

When you enter the doors of a new church, anything could happen. Churches with dwindling numbers are often surprised to see a new face, as the greeters were this morning to see me. But their warmth made me feel right at home.

A single ring of chairs stood empty around the center microphone on the circular platform, expectant. A Steinway occupied the far end of the circle, its melodies soaring to fill the sanctuary and encircling all of us.

Pews faced the middle. I sat in the second row, waiting, observing. I was early. In time, others came and found seats in the first few rows. I knew no one. I had been invited by the son-in-law of a member to speak during the Sunday school hour. That was my only earthly connection.

A pamphlet in the pew back explained how a Quaker-style service works. Quakers embrace silence as they embrace each other, welcoming the opportunity to listen and learn from the spirit of Christ in their midst. The unprogrammed quiet is a soothing balm in a hurried life.

A man rolled in on a motorized wheelchair, making his way to the front to greet another worshipper, and then me. Jerry refused to let his disability cripple his contribution to the warmth of the community. (I learned later that he was relatively new himself, and that the man he greeted was there for only the second time. Signs of life.)

As the service unfolded, I gathered that this was a grieving community, searching for direction, wondering how to respond faithfully to a series of events that left most of their pews empty. I wondered, then, if I should scrap my seminar on 'Understanding Biblical Prophecy' and speak instead about lament, or about how to be rooted in the face of life's storms (Psalm 1–2). How does one walk into a community and speak without first listening long? first loving and hearing?

In those quiet moments, I asked the Lord to guide me. By the time I reached the classroom after the service, I knew I should stick with my original topic and trust that God had guided my preparation. I suspected (rightly, I'm told) that Quakers typically camp out in the Gospels. That was my bridge to the prophets. How can one possibly understand the richness of the Gospels without an understanding of the Old Testament prophets? Spontaneously, I began in John 9, linking Jesus' miracle to Isaiah's commission in chapter 6. Then we moved into Isaiah 7 to examine verse 14, always a Christmas favorite. Both passages illustrate the value of reading the text closely for its historical, literary, and theological dimensions. They also illustrate the inherent dangers when we don't.

The hour flew by, followed by several follow-up conversations and a long lunch. I returned home with a full heart, grateful for the privilege of fellowship with other Christ-followers and grateful that I have the most wonderful subject matter in the world to teach -- God's Word -- which truly does not return void.

Encounters like this one are not accidental. God uses each personal connection in some way as we spur one another on to love and good deeds. A Quaker might say that the light of Christ within each of us illuminates the community as we gather. I'd say that pretty well sums up what happened today!