Where were you when?

Americans have certain dates emblazoned on our collective memory. Dates when life as we knew it suddenly took a hard turn into the unknown.

For our grandparents it was Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941, when Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on our military in Hawaii. The shock of war waged on American soil propelled thousands of young men and women into military service and patriotic efforts on the home front.

For our parents, it was the day President Kennedy was shot – November 22, 1963. The horror of watching our young, vibrant president gunned down on live television marked that day indelibly in the minds of that generation.

For Millennials, it was September 11, 2001 as the crumbling of the World Trade Center at the heart of New York City forced us to confront a new fear – that terrorism was no longer something that happened to other people in faraway places, but to ordinary citizens going to work on an ordinary day in America.

These are the moments that stop time; a memory seared into our brain that becomes a shared reference point for an entire country: where we’re you when Japan attacked us? When the president was shot? When the hijackers hit the World Trade Center? The year the pandemic hit?

Each of these iconic moments called out both the best and the worst in us. Pearl Harbor Day brought our country together in determination and great sacrifice to rescue the world from the terrors of fascism; but it also led to us sending our own citizens to internment camps.

Kennedy’s assassination inspired a generation to acts of service around the globe, but it also was the precursor to a series of assassinations and social unrest that scorned the patriotic fervor of the prior generation.

September 11, 2001 was no exception. While we saw people fill churches and a united Congress singing, “God Bless America” on the steps of our Capitol, a hatred toward Muslims arose, dark and ugly.

For this current generation, although we can’t point to a specific date, our defining tragedy has been Covid-19. Like our other national tragedies, some are responding with courage and sacrifice, and others with hatred and division.

Many of us complacently drift along in life until a moment in time that rocks our foundations and calls out either the best or the worst in us. This is true for both a culture and for us as individuals.

It may be an act of terrorism or a pandemic. Or, it may be discovery of our spouse’s infidelity, the death of a child or a dire diagnosis. Whatever it is for you personally, we all have moments of tragedy that force a response from us.

Do we dissolve into bitterness and hatred? Send the Japanese to camps, close our borders to Muslims and persecute Asians? Do we turn away from God, teach our children to hate our ex, or let resentment become our rule of life?

Or will we instead choose courage and grace, demonstrating the power of the gospel message to our families and our communities?

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

Romans 8:5-6

Will we hold our leaders and our own souls to a higher standard, or insist that they pander to our worst inclinations?

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:25-26

These are the choices we make, whether consciously or not. And none of them is made in isolation – we either spread discord or we spread peace. These are the moments that challenge us to greatness of spirit and action.

How will we respond?

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time; Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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