I originally wrote this fictitious conversation between a young father and his young son on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. When I wrote it, I didn’t have a son--now I do.
I looked in the rearview mirror of my car at the questioner, my 8-year-old son. We were returning from a Saturday summer BBQ; the rest of the family had already gone home while Patrick and I had stayed to help clean-up. I recognized the inquisitive tone in my son’s voice.
“Yes?” I replied, mentally gearing up for what could likely be a longer discussion than most dads have with their 8-year-old sons. Patrick had always been more perceptive than most boys his age; and after becoming a follower of Jesus at age 5, his perceptiveness, even on matters adults would find complex, had only increased. So, I anticipated that the question might be more than just what we were having for breakfast the next morning.
“Mr. Rice said something at the BBQ tonight about tomorrow being Patriot Day.”
“I heard some other people talk about it before at church. Is it some sort of holiday, Papa?”
“Well, sort of…Not exactly.” I hadn’t anticipated a question about this topic, even though I’d been reminded about the tenth anniversary of September 11 all week. I knew my answer wasn’t going to be satisfactory to Patrick, and before I’d gotten anything else out, he was already looking for more.
“Well Papa, if it isn’t a holiday, then why is it on the calendar, and why is there a name for it?”
“You saw it on the calendar too, huh?”
“Yeah. September 11. That’s tomorrow.”
“So it is.”
“But Papa, you still haven’t told me what it’s all about.”
“Well,” I paused for a moment, not sure how to delve into telling my young son about one of the most evil, horrific terrorist acts in history.
“Well, it’s a day we remember something that happened 10 years ago, something actually very sad. You see, Patrick, on September 11, 2001, a group of men took over some airplanes and flew them into some big buildings in New York City, and in Washington D.C. They took over one more airplane that ended up crashing in Pennsylvania.”
Patrick processed this for a few moments. “You mean on purpose, Papa?”
“Yes, Patrick. On purpose.”
“Were a lot of people hurt?”
I paused again, not quite sure how to communicate the incomprehensible.
“Yes, Patrick. A lot of people were not only hurt. A lot of people were killed.” I paused again, thinking of how to give my son an idea of just how large the number of the casualties of 9/11 was. “Almost as many people died as who live in our town.” Patrick was intrigued with demographics, even at this young age, so I knew he already had our town’s population statistic down pat.
“3,000 people, Papa?” he asked in astonishment.
He was silent again, this time much longer.
“Why did those men do that to all those people?”
I’d figured this question would come, but I was still deciding how to answer it. How would I give an 8-year-old an answer to that question without going into a hundred other topics along the way? How could I explain to him the roots and nature of Islamic aggression? How did I explain to him the concept of national sin and God’s judgment for it? How did I explain to him the paradox of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility for his actions? “Lord,” I silently prayed, “how do I tell a little boy the answer to a question I’m still figuring out myself?”
Meantime, Patrick repeated his question. “Papa, why?” he insisted. “Why would those men want to make all those people die?”
In a moment, a clear answer came to my mind.
“Because they believed in a lie, son.”
“Huh?” Patrick queried.
“Patrick, the men who flew those planes in those buildings and killed all those people, didn’t know Jesus. You know that Jesus wants us to be kind and loving, even to those who are mean to us. Well, these men believed that they would be following their god by killing people who didn’t follow their god. Pretty scary, huh?”
Patrick was silent for a few seconds. “But why would they ever believe that?”
“Well son, when you don’t believe the truth, you’ll believe just about anything. Because these men believed a lie, they ended up doing something pretty dreadful.”
I paused for a moment. It was indeed unthinkable that the Islamic jihadists who perpetrated the attacks of September 11 were convinced that they were performing acts of holy war, pleasing to Allah, and meriting salvation. What a horrible shock they must have had to discover the opposite was true. But there was another side of the 9/11 attacks I wanted my son to understand.
“But you know what, Patrick?”
“Those men weren’t the only ones who were believing a lie that day.”
“They weren’t, Papa?”
“No. You see, son, our country had been turning away from what is true for many years before those men did what they did. In fact, Patrick, a lot of people in our country had begun to think that we didn’t really need God anymore. We were smart enough, had enough money, and a big enough army to take care of ourselves. We didn’t need to listen to God.”
“That’s pretty dumb,” Patrick replied quickly.
“Well, yes it is. But it’s what we often do as people, Patrick. We tend to forget we need God every day, every moment. We each need Him, and we need Him as a country. But we’d stopped believing that.”
“So when those men flew those planes into those buildings and killed all those people, it helped us remember that we needed God?”
“That’s right, son. It helped many of us to understand that just because we might have the most freedom, the most money, and the biggest army of any other country in the world, we still needed the God of Heaven’s help and protection.”
“And that we still need to follow what He wants us to do,” Patrick added. Once again, I marveled at his understanding. “So Papa,” Patrick continued, “have the people in America stopped believing those lies and started believing in the truth again?”
I paused once again. My initial thought was to tell him what he probably could already conclude from his 8-year-old deductive abilities. No, most Americans were still believing a lot of the same lies they’d believed before 9/11. A trip to the local mall was proof of that. But as I gave it more thought, I realized that there was more than that to tell my young son.
“Patrick, sadly, most Americans are still believing lies. But at the same time, there are many, many people in our country who love Jesus and who are telling others the truth. And even though they may not seem like very many compared to everyone else, God is using those people to help many Americans to stop believing Satan’s lies, and come to know Jesus.”
“You mean like Mr. Ham and the big Creation Museum we saw last year that tells people about Genesis?”
“And Mr. Bowers who brings food and tracts to people who don’t have very much money?”
“And Pastor Sam who preaches from the Bible every week?”
“Yes, Patrick, and all the families at church, and in many churches and places all across the country that are teaching their children about Jesus and His Word and who are telling others about Him through all kinds of ways. Like Mrs. Jones who helps ladies who don’t have a husband to help them take care of their babies. And the Roberts family who pick all those kids up for church who don’t have parents who can take them. And you know what else, Patrick?”
“Jesus is also using people here in America and in many other places in the world to help people like those men who flew the planes on September 11, come to know Jesus too. And many of them are.”
“That’s pretty super, Papa!”
“Yes, it is.”
Our ride home was almost through, but we hadn’t pulled into the driveway before Patrick made one final observation.
“I think I know what Patriot Day is all about now.”
I smiled. “You do?”
“Yeah. It’s about helping people know about God’s truth, so that they can be free, like the Bible says. Then those men won’t fly airplanes into buildings anymore, and America will always remember to follow God.”
I turned around to look at my son. “I think that’s about the best anyone has ever put it, buddy.”
That night, in the wee hours of 9/11/2011, I lay awake pondering my conversation with the 8-year-old sage. The notes of a song, blaring from a distant radio somewhere in our rural neighborhood, drifted through the open window and into our bedroom. It was a patriotic tune, and with a little effort, I could make out the words:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
with a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
while God is marching on.
“May it be so, Lord Jesus,” I quietly prayed. “May it be so indeed.”