Disclaimer: Please do not get the idea that I think this is the most significant lesson of 9-11 for me or anyone else. I can only post this because some time has past since 2001. There are a great deal more significant reflections about 9-11 I have had and many others have written. I only share this somewhat personal (and therefore self-centered) one because it occurred to me today. Read with grace.
I remember September 11th very well. It was Tuesday morning as I was driving to work where I served as an associate pastor at a rural church outside of St. Louis. I hopped in the car and turned on the radio to hear my usually comedic disc jockey take a more somber tone. At that moment, no one was quite sure why the plane had crashed into the tower. I naively assumed it must have been a terrible pilot mistake. Then the second plane came crashing into the twin tower. It was then that everyone knew this was no accident. Suddenly a deep fear set into the hearts of every American.
I had very personal reasons for my fear. Angie, my sister, was living in downtown New York during that time. I was frightened because I had no idea where she was and phone lines were jammed with people all over the country calling their loved ones. I didn’t know if she was dead, injured, or safe. Beyond my fear for my sister, people in every major city in America feared that they were the next target. We as a country realized that we are not in control. Suddenly, the reality that life is unexpected punched us right in the gut.
As I arrived at church that morning, the small staff gathered around a television watching the news unfold. As the initial shock passed, we began to think about how we were going to minister to our people. There were only two pastors on staff: the head pastor and me. Our head pastor was out of town in Oklahoma visiting family and, over the next several hours we would come to learn that he would not make it back in time to lead the congregation’s regularly scheduled Bible study and prayer on Wednesday night. Flights were grounded and he had no vehicle to make the trip. That left this 21 year old pastor to spiritually lead this little congregation during the most significant national tragedy of my lifetime.
I wasn’t ready for this. I was too immature. I did not have enough life experience. Many in the congregation lived through Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and countless significant historical moments. Others lived through the civil rights movement, Viet Nam and the Cold War. Some of these folks were war veterans. Others had children older than me in the military. All were now deeply and personally impacted. And, there I was, just a kid who had only lived through Y2K. Despite my immaturity, it was now my job to open the Bible and try to provide something from God’s Word and put voice to unuttered prayers.
I don’t remember much of what I said at that Wednesday night meeting. I doubt anyone else does either. But, we gathered together and placed our hope in God. In a small, forgotten place we encouraged one another and looked to Him in the midst of profound grief. Together we embodied 2 Chronicles 7:14-15: “If my people, who are called by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.”
To this day that Wednesday night serves as one of the most significant moments in my pastoral experience. I was challenged to enter into tragedy and lead others (including myself) into faith in Christ. I did it, but only by God’s grace and the help of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the most significant lesson I learned was that my maturity, my ability, and my experiences are not that important. Those are helpful tools that would serve me well if I had them. But, God would use me despite them. Ministry is not about people trusting in me. It is about leading people into trust in Christ. And, it was my very lack of maturity, ability and experience that allowed me to do just that.
Today I have the same challenge before me. The lesson I learned that day is perhaps harder for me to live because now I have a little maturity, ability and experience under my belt. Yet, despite that, anything I do in ministry must always be done by God’s grace and the help of the Holy Spirit. So, today I remember.