News Articles

9/11: When 3,000 folks woke up on a bright Sept. day

COVINGTON, Ga. (BP) — The thing that activates my pen today, on the 17th anniversary of 9/11, is something that actually rendered me speechless when I first heard about it — the abruptness of death intruding in what seemed to be an ordinary day

After a pretty emotional weekend at The Covington News — the metro Atlanta newspaper where I serve as sports editor — covering the shooting of Covington Police Department officer Matt Cooper, complete with the magnanimous outpouring of community support for the wounded officer and his family, I heard of the sudden deaths of two high school students.

Both of them were seniors, exemplary students who left indelible imprints on the lives they touched.

One went to Eastside High School in Covington which is part of my coverage area; the other, Forest Park High School, my wife’s alma mater where she currently teaches biology and coaches softball.

It was a punch in the gut to hear of the unexpected demise of two young men who seemed to have the world in front of them. The Eastside student died in a car accident; the young man from Forest Park simply slipped away in his sleep.

As a believer in Christ and a pastor, death has always been an interesting conundrum for me. For those who trust Christ as their Savior, we often couch death in equal parts sad and flowery terms — grieving the earthly loss while celebrating the heavenly gain, remaining hopeful to see them again in eternity.

More than 21 years of preaching and 12 years of pastoring, and officiating many funerals, has taught me that no two experiences with death and dying are the same, despite many similar characteristics. For me, it’s always been the sudden, here-today-gone-tomorrow type of death that causes me to struggle.

It’s one thing when a person is diagnosed with some sort of terminal illness or a disease like Alzheimer’s which currently afflicts my father. You watch them almost with a haunting sense of inevitability in a balancing act of trying to prepare for it while not grieving prematurely.

But what about when death didn’t seem to be on the horizon? On the last day these two young men woke up, they had no reason to believe it was their last day among us. Nothing clued them to the notion that their lives would soon come to a screeching halt, leaving the rest of us to deal with the emotional aftermath.

And yet, it’s perhaps these kinds of deaths that provide the greatest reminder of the futility and brevity of life, and the sheer urgency we should carry daily to live it well.

When accosted by sudden death, a certain Scripture always pervades my mind and spirit. James 4:14: “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

It’s a sobering thought when held in juxtaposition to how important we seem to think we are.

We may not boastfully say that we’re a big deal, but often the vigor we use to push forth our non-salvific thoughts and beliefs onto others, or the vehemence with which we tell others why they are wrong and we are not as wrong, seems to say as much.

The truth is, those here-today-gone-tomorrow deaths are, perhaps, the best embodiment of that biblical truth expressed by James that one can find. The truth is, each of us could fall to the same sudden plight that those two young men did at any time.

The thought of it makes me consider my stewardship. And I’m not necessarily talking about tithes and offerings.

Rather, how well am I living with those around me? How effectively am I using my time, my energy or even my words for God-honoring purposes? How much of the “quality me” am I giving my family? Am I wasting my time and energy on things that take away the best of me, leaving them with the rest of me?

Are those 20 minutes spent on social media arguing with someone who thinks differently than I do about a matter really the best way to utilize my finite moments?

Is that active anger and ongoing grudge I hold against the one who did me wrong really worth my energy?

If I knew that today would be my last day, how much would the stuff that mattered yesterday mean now?

Seventeen years ago about 3,000 folks woke up on a bright, beautiful late summer September day, not realizing it would be their last.

Many of them got up, ate breakfast, saw their kids off to school, kissed their spouses, chatted with their parents, followed through with their travel arrangements and made plans for moments beyond that day, with no thought that they were making their last moves, speaking their last words and finalizing the last pages of their earthly story.

Who’s to say that even today, some of us are not in a similar place? We know not what is around the corner in life, so it behooves us to maximize each moment for the glory of God and the love of His people.

The apostle Paul puts it like this: “Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the time because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:15-17).

Over time after 9/11, we adopted this phrase, “Never forget.” Sometimes in how we treat each other, particularly in matters of disagreement, I feel like we have forgotten. We’ve forgotten what we felt for each other during that horrific September day. We’ve seemingly forgotten that there’s something bigger than politics, religious sparring or even race and ethnicity that’s supposed to bind us together.

As we navigate through the re-emerging emotions that this day brings, I pray that we can also find and recapture that spirit that pulled us together. I pray that we won’t need another tragedy on the scale of 9/11 to make us live that unity out again.

    About the Author

  • Gabriel C. Stovall

    Gabriel C. Stovall, online at GabrielCStovall.com, is senior pastor of Butler Street Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward community and a state missionary for church planting and church revitalization in the metro Atlanta area through the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. He also serves as the mission board’s Baptist campus ministries pastor at Clayton State University in Morrow, Ga. This column is republished from his website and The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.

    Read All by Gabriel C. Stovall ›