September 11, 2001 was an unforgettable, gut-wrenching, world changing day. It was a day on par with Pearl Harbor and the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. Our televised news casts have burned into our brains a series of heart-breaking images that will stay with us forever: The Twin Towers falling, the pentagon exploding, Flight 93 crashing into the ground, a firefighter carrying away a flag-draped victim, the twisted rubble of Ground Zero. We've seen the evil that people can do, and we've seen the spirit of sacrifice and service in firefighters, police officers and ordinary citizens.
9/11 is very difficult for our nation, but 9/11 is even more difficult for Christians. Peter asked Jesus: "How often should I forgive, as many as seven times?" And Jesus replied: "70 times 7 times." (Matt. 18:21). However, when it comes to 9/11, forgiveness is the last thing many Americans want to do. Many would prefer to profile every Muslim as a terrorist and have Koran burning parties. The preferred question for many is not "how often should I forgive," but "Lord, if someone causes destruction and death to my loved ones, my fellow citizens, in my backyard, why should I forgive even once?"
The day after the 9/11 attacks I saw a couple being interviewed on the news. They were standing before the wreckage of Ground Zero, obviously in great grief over the death of their daughter. The reporter said: "Well, I know that you will be able to go to your place of worship this weekend and there maybe you'll find some consolation in your faith."
The grieving mother replied: "No, we won't be going to church this weekend, because as Christians, we know what Jesus commands about forgiveness, and frankly, we're just not ready for that. It will be some time before we'll want to be with Jesus."
What a powerful story, and how we can sympathize with those parents. In saying they would not be in worship because they knew that Jesus would be requiring forgiveness, the couple also made a very honest profession of faith: "Forgiveness is hard."
A husband asks his wife: "When we argue, or when I act like a jerk how come you never get mad, yell or fight back? How do you manage to keep your anger under control?" The wife replies: "My anger dissipates when I clean the toilets." "I don't understand how that helps?" And, his wife sweetly replied: "I use your toothbrush!"
Forgiveness is not a natural human quality, is it? In our justice-oriented world we are more influenced by feelings of vengeance, retribution and violence we are by Jesus. However, Jesus turns our system upside down by saying: "Just forgive!" Notice that Jesus doesn't even expect the sinner to repent or make amends. Forgive them, orders Jesus, "not seven times, but seventy times seven times" (Matt. 18:22). Well, that stinks, doesn't it? Enduring hundreds of hurts and then offering hundreds of expressions of forgiveness, sounds about as pleasant as being lowered in to clean a septic tank!
There is only one way to get through the horror of an event like 9/11: day by day. "Twelve Step" recovery programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous, all emphasize that recovery is a day-by-day, sometimes even an hour-by-hour journey. Every day is a day where weakness or despair might lead to a slip up, a stumble, a bad choice. Since 9/11 we all have been on a "day-by-day" journey of recovery. Recovery from horror. Recovery from hatred. Recovery from the realization that the world does not love us. Recovery from feelings of vengeance, fear, grief and despair.
Do you remember the 1971 hit song from Godspell? The words are: "Oh dear Lord, three things I pray: To see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly." And then comes the song's title: "Day By Day." Recovery comes when we apply these "day by day" remedies to every rejection, every hurt and horror the world may send our way.
Every day - day by day - there is no greater gift that we can offer to the world, to our neighbors or to our families, than a forgiving spirit that will forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven times" (Matt. 18:22).