For anyone older than perhaps age 30, 15 years ago is a day and time we will never forget. I began the day on a retreat with other United Methodist clergy, glad to be in the beautiful NC mountains and focus on God. So many of us worked far too many hours, with far too many demands, and taking those couple days was necessary for our personal, vocational, and spiritual health. But soon after breakfast, our Bishop called us together. She shared with us the events – as best anyone knew at that early time of the day – and then said she had decided to cancel the retreat so that we could come home and minister to our communities.
I arrived home a little while later, spent some time with my 7 year old son to explain what we knew, and to reassure him that we were safe, and then headed directly to campus. Other campus ministers were there, and we worked all day and through the evening with all the campus staff – listening to the fears and pain of the students, and trying to help those who had not heard from parents or loved ones who had been at the Twin Towers or the Pentagon. I knew I could do much more than listen. I began to contact a variety of faith leaders in the area, especially non-Christian ones. With the assistance of the administration, we had an Interfaith service planned in less than 24 hours. Almost 1000 people gathered in the largest space on the campus of 3000, being comforted by leaders of the major world’s religions. That was the first day I participated in a guided meditation from a Buddhist monk. (And it would not be the last.) Everything about the service was helpful that day, but the meditation put my heart at rest as other things could not.
In the coming weeks, I had hopes that good could come from this terrible tragedy. The Bible states that good can come out whatever happens to us, and I had always believed that. I also knew it wasn’t always easy to find the good, or it might take many years for that wisdom to arrive. Yet, in those weeks, I had hopes that our society would pull together as one in a way we had not done before. As we dealt with the national grief, pain, and anger, I prayed that we could do that as a community – that we could celebrate the differences while being bonded by our similarities. I was part of a team which planned a city-wide Interfaith Service in downtown Asheville in the subsequent weeks, certainly one of the most memorable worship events of my career.
Yet, not all who live with the bad can find the good. Sometimes the bad just turns to hate, anger, and violence. Reports of Islamaphobia, and violent words or actions against Muslims, in our country are higher in the past year than they were after 9/11. 15 years later, and I wonder how we have regressed. How could white supremacy be mainstreamed, and a strain of Christianity preach such hate and division?
It happens when people focus on what separates us, instead of what unites us. It happens when people act based upon fear, instead of hope. It happens when people look for a scapegoat for what is wrong in their own lives. It happens when words of violence are allowed to come more easily, instead of words of compassion.
I truly thought our society would be a kinder, more inclusive, more hopeful place now than it was 15 years ago. If we don’t try to understand what it means to live with the bad, to be thoughtful about those greatly difficult times in life, and to be fully aware of our own motivations and feelings – then the bad consumes us.
I pray this consummation of our society will be transformed. We shouldn’t fight fire with fire – we shouldn’t reject the bad with the bad. We instead offer compassion, kindness, understanding, and love. That’s how we find the good in the midst of the bad.