Recently, I was reflecting on where I was and what I was doing when I learned of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City. For whatever reason, I added 9 and 11 in my head. I had never thought to total those two familiar numbers before. But this year, the sum total is most appropriate.
Unbelievably, it’s already the 20th anniversary of that tragic Tuesday we simply refer to as 9/11. On that unforgettable day, those three familiar digits became more than numbers you call in case of an emergency. Those three numbers will forever signify an emergency that called into action all the paramedics and first responders our nation’s largest city could provide.
Looking back, 9/11 was a dress rehearsal for dealing with a national crisis. We learned how to pull together when blindsided by an unforeseen invasion. We discovered how to set aside our own desires to serve the needs of those around us. Although we were not concerned with social distancing at that time, we found ways to creatively “shelter in place” as we called out to our Higher Power. Twenty years ago, we were reminded rather dramatically that we are still “one nation under God.”
I was also reminded how unanticipated heartache is only a heartbeat away — how a dream summer can quickly turn into a season of sorrow. It was 20 years ago I experienced St. Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 10:12 in a deeply personal way: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” That verse came to life through an unexpected death.
The summer of 2001 had been a series of celebrations for our family. My oldest daughter Kristin graduated from high school. Then we commemorated my parents’ 50th anniversary as they renewed their vows. A couple of weeks later, my brother and I accompanied Mom and Dad to Norway to trace ancestral roots as countless cousins feted our folks as American royalty.
That same summer, we celebrated my in-laws’ 50th anniversary in a resort town on the Oregon Coast where they had honeymooned. They had not returned to Seaside since 1951. Because my father-in-law is a lover of C.S. Lewis, he asked us to read “The Last Battle” (one of the Chronicles of Narnia) prior to our gathering. Our weeklong family reunion ended with a discussion of Lewis’ views on death. Our verbalized hopes were grounded in our Christian faith.
As we packed up and left for our various homes in Illinois, Virginia, Florida and California, we had no idea how timely our book discussion had been. On Aug. 13, our extended family was rocked with news that my sister-in-law’s mother had been killed in a car accident while driving to a meeting at church. Jinx was a beautiful 70-year-old woman with movie star looks and creative abilities to envy. We were stunned, but our recent interaction about death had focused our faith and proceeded to guide our grief.
Less than a month later, four planes became flying missiles. Ground Zero found us embracing the “Ground of All Being.” Our family (along with every family) recognized our sense of helplessness. We looked to God and we looked to each other. Our common belief and our common plight drew us close as Americans and strengthened our resolve to hope.
When I think of the days immediately following 9/11, I will never forget seeing members of Congress gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building singing “God Bless America” in unison (in harmony). That harmonious image is a screensaver on the monitor of my mind. Against the backdrop of recent rancor and political polarization, the singing Congressmen and Congresswomen give me cause to pause and pray.
And what is my prayer? My prayer is that what unified us as a nation 20 years ago, in the aftermath of inexplicable sorrow, will bind us together in the midst of intolerable division. That what we hold in common will not be toppled by issues on which we don’t agree. God, bless America once again!
Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.