There are certain moments that happen in life which are so significant you always seem to remember where you were when they took place…
Back in the September 2001, I was finishing up a summer job working in a café down in West Wales.
I remember being in the small kitchen and hearing these horrified gasps from the café. One by one everyone was beginning to hear about the airplanes that had been hijacked by terrorists, and flown into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The footage from that day has been played and viewed and analyzed many times, but back then it was just unthinkable that America would be under attack in such a way.
You didn’t have to be from USA to be disturbed by it – the scenes of crowds celebrating out in the streets all over the Middle East, and the sight of American flags being burnt and trampled on brought into sharp focus the anger and bitterness against “the West”. A few years earlier I had been on a school trip to New York and taken photos from the top of the World Trade Centre… Even today, the sight of the the twin towers on the New York Skyline is a strange reminder of that day. Sometimes fear seems to flood the atmosphere, and gain ground once held by peace.
A friend of mine from college was on a ministry student exchange in America. When he got back he described the day, about two weeks later, that he was attending a baseball game. At one point a plane flew over the massive stadium, and he said that the tens of thousands of fans all fell eerily silent and just watched until the plane was out of view.
Sometimes fear seems to flood the atmosphere, and gain ground once held by peace.
But fear not the only thing capable of changing the atmosphere… nor is it the strongest…
One of the passengers onboard United Airlines Flight 175 was a former US Navy Pilot Brian Sweeney. Brian had served as an instructor for the now famous TOPGUN training program. He had been partially paralyzed whilst serving in the Navy and was medically discharged.
He realized that the plane had been hijacked, and that he was trapped in the air with the terrorists, and he was powerless to stop it.
None of us really know what we would have done in that situation, or can begin to imagine the fear – and yet it was with complete calmness that he picked up his phone and left a message on his wife, Jules’, voicemail telling her:
“Jules, this is Brian. Listen, I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked.
If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you, I want you to do good, go have good times, same to my parents and everybody, and I just totally love you, and I’ll see you when you get there.”
BRIAN SWEENEY I PASSENGER ON UNITED AIRLINES FLIGHT 175
Despite being a centre of one of the most famous acts of terror-ism in the twenty first century, his mind was not filled with terror – but with thoughts of his wife, his family and the hope of heaven. He didn’t leave a message of anger, hate or revenge – but a last memory of love.
Not fear – but faith.
Not hate – but love.
Not despair – but hope…
Half a world away, back in that little café on the road from Haverfordwest to Fishguard, people very quickly finished whatever they were eating and drinking, and rushed home. We shut the café early because no-one who was stopping for coffee that day. I don’t think it was fear that drove them home though, I just think that they instinctively wanted to be with the people they loved. To hold their partners and their children and their parents tight and to be held by them.
To experience the healing power that flows from one human being to another when we embrace each other.
This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.
1 JOHN 4.17-18
Where fear steals from us, love can not just restore what was stolen but leaves us with more than we had before.
Where fear threatens our security, love fortifies with more re-enforcements than ever before.
Where fear destroys, love builds back stronger.
When I’m stained with guilt and sin,
He is there to lift me,
Heal me and forgive me;
Gives me strength to stand again,
Stronger than I was before.
SALVATION’S SONG I STUART TOWNSEND
As Jesus died on the cross, He left this world not with words of anger, hate or revenge but with words of love, words of grace, words of forgiveness – and it is in that love, that forgiveness, that we find the strength to stand again.
And so, twenty years on, September 11th, 2021 – the world remembers…
In 2021 it is not the US’ War on Terror that fills our headlines, but a battle of a very different kind. COVID-19 is another date based phrase destined to be remembered in twenty years time. But nevertheless, sometimes fear can flood the atmosphere and claim ground once long-held by peace.
The fight has been costly. For some there are many battle scars, and the wounds are still very raw and real; anxiety, depression, the loss of loved ones, the loss of contact, the loss of work, the loss of income, the loss of confidence…
And in a million different ways we face the same choice that Brian Sweeney faced: fear or faith, hate or love, despair or hope.
Maybe the battle has left us so weary that we don’t feel we have the strength to make the choice – maybe we feel like life has chosen for us… but as Victor Frankl, himself a Holocausts survivor once wrote about his time enslaved in a Nazi death camp:
The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make.
VICTOR FRANKL I MAN’S ULTIMATE SEARCH FOR MEANING
When the prodigal chose the return home, he feared being rejected as a son – but found healing in the loving embrace of His Father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
And we are promised the same experience:
The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.
Let’s not allow fear to flood the atmosphere of our hearts and lives. Not when there is Eternal Love waiting to embrace us, willing to hold us, wanting to heal us…
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