9/11/01 - That Morning

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The earliest memory I have of that day is fighting with my now-wife-but-at-that-time girlfriend (Theresa). We both don’t remember what we fought about, but we both remember her going to work in Brooklyn in a sour mood. I was set to leave the house in the morning to go meet Carol Chun to go engagement ring shopping. As I was leaving the house (I already had my shoes on), I woke my computer from sleep to see if I had any AIM messages waiting for me (this was 2001, after all). Usually at that time, I don’t. And usually, I don’t check. However, that day, I did have a message. It was from Jonathan McCurley.

“Is it true? What’s happening?”

Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about. After I asked him, he told me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I turned the TV on and saw the burning buildings. It was after 9:00am.

I had a few friends that worked on “Wall Street” and I tried to get in touch with them to make sure they were ok. At this point, I wasn’t too concerned because The damage was contained to the World Trade Center towers. I called a few friends, but couldn’t get through because “all circuits are busy”. I couldn’t get in touch with Theresa either. With her commute going through Manhattan to Brooklyn (and probably right below the towers), I was concerned about her. Through my AIM, I was able to talk to Jeannie An, whose calls to Theresa were going through. What a gift to have the comfort of knowing Theresa was safe and where she was and what she was doing (she ended up stranded in Manhattan and slept at a friend’s place). (Thank you, Jeannie!) Eventually, I called Gene Joo, who was a student at Columbia. This was probably around 2pm. He told me that all Wall Streeters from my church were accounted for except for Andy. 9/11 is also Gene’s Birthday… “Worst birthday ever” is how he put it.

At this point, I did not consider death an option for Andy. Partly because of naïve faith and partly because I knew that the damage was central to the WTC. Then, the call from Michele came.

It was during that conversation that she told me that Andy didn’t work around the WTC, he worked in the WTC. I knew he had recently taken a new job, but I hadn’t realized yet that his office was in the North Tower.* Naivete and ignorance were quickly replaced with panic and dread.

*The first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46, which is earlier than most people got to work. Andy wasn’t usually at work until 9am, but had decided just the week prior, to start arriving early to get in a workout. So he was most likely already at his desk.

At the time, I wouldn’t say Andy was my best friend, but he was my closest. I spoke with Andy over IM or on the phone almost every day. He was there on my blind date with Theresa. He gave me computer advice, worship advice, relationship advice. And now he was missing.

Later that evening, around 7:00pm, I had an A-team (Administrative Team) meeting at my apartment to plan for the Intown Open House that Saturday. We spent the next 3-4 hours planning our Open House for the college students. I was fully engaged in our conversations and honestly, surprised at my poise and composure when one of my best friends was still missing.

However, at around 10pm, we were discussing trivia questions for the Open House. I was sitting at the computer and looking at the TV with the scenes of the plane running into the tower over and over. [You remember how many times they showed that? Some said that it was the most photographed event in history.] From where I was sitting, in order to focus on the events on the TV, I had to gaze past the table where we were discussing our Open House. Poetically, I realized that summed up what I was feeling in my heart: I could no longer focus on the task at hand. I had to focus on what was going on up there. I could not stay in Atlanta. I had to be up to NJ.

The meeting ended and I was finally able to reach Theresa by phone. I didn’t trust my decision making myself anymore, because I knew I wasn’t thinking straight. She said that if I need to come up, then I need to come.

The next morning, Wednesday, I packed up my car to head up to NJ. It was about 11am when I turned the key to my ignition. My battery was dead. I knew I had about at least a 12 hour drive to NJ (Google Maps has it at 15hours). I was starting to feel anxiety if my drive got pushed back too late. I called my friend, Fuhlim , and he offered to drive me to the shop, where I got a new battery. As I was about to leave, Fuhlim offered to drive me up to NJ in his car. Perhaps he didn’t trust the way I looked or didn’t trust me driving in my car. Either way, we left around 2pm and didn’t arrive until probably after 5am Thursday morning (we got rerouted through West Virginia around the DC area).

I spent the next two days traveling to NY and NJ hospitals exploring any feasible option that Andy made it out of there alive, but there simply weren’t any unidentified bodies.

That Saturday, I was asked to lead a practice of a praise team that Andy was leading. And, it wasn’t until that morning that I turned the corner and came to grips that I wasn’t going to see Andy alive ever again. The hardest thing about his death was that it wasn’t a sudden realization, but it was a slowly diminishing hope. Basically, I had to make my own personal decision that Andy was dead. Some decided before me and some decided after me. But when I decided, I decided alone.

The next day, Sunday, I was asked to share in front of the Youth Group at our church and to lead praise for the adult service. Andy was a Youth Group teacher and was scheduled to lead worship that morning. I stood in front 2 congregations and was being asked to make sense of the catastrophe that happened 5 days prior. To explain the unexplainable and to comfort the uncomfortable.

This is the gist of what I said:

During this past week, I prayed and prayed that the numerous rescue workers spending countless hours sifting through the rubble would find Andy. I prayed that Andy would be saved and rescued and found alive. And that’s when I realized that Andy has been found. He was found underneath a heap of rubble that crushed him to the point of death. But, this rubble was far more widespread than the WTC. You see, Andy was crushed underneath the weight of the heap of his sin. But, God, the tireless rescue worker did not sleep, nor tire in his pursuit of Andy. And God saved him and rescued him and made him alive.

In times like this we are tempted to find the tallest building still standing and climb to the top and shake our fist at God and curse God. After all, I can’t comprehend how a good God would allow this to happen. How can a just God allow such injustice? In fact, these questions cause many to doubt God’s goodness and justice. What we are essentially saying is that because it doesn’t make sense to me, I can’t believe it. In other words, God must make sense to me. However, the biggest injustice in the history of the world is Christ dying a sinner’s death–my death–when he was himself sinless. If we can readily accept the grace that is so incomprehensible to us, we cannot in the same breath reject the seeming injustice that we don’t understand.

These are lessons that still teach me today and every year on this day, I am reminded of them.

9/11 Eulogy

andy

13 years ago, I lost a friend on the 93rd floor of the North Tower.

I delivered his eulogy about a month later. I was 26 years old and was tasked with honoring my friend's life, making sense of the senseless and comforting the mourning. It remains to this day, the hardest message i've had to deliver.

Every year, as this day comes around, I try to remind myself of the lessons that I've learned since then. I repost my thoughts every year to as an exercise of reminding myself (and hopefully some of you, too) of what it was like. I guess I am trying to take that #neverforget hashtag seriously.

My hope is that through reading this, you are reminded of God's goodness and sovereignty.

“I stand before you with the hollowing and daunting task of honoring our friend and brother, Andy, with mere words, simple anecdotes, and a limited perspective. So, forgive me in advance for any injustice I may do to his life or to his impact in your life.

One of my earliest memories of Andy was his sophomore year. I visited him while he was living in Plimpton. He had this screen saver—back when screen savers were scrolling text and simulated starfields—that he couldn’t stop talking about. He made me sit down and watch it with him. It was this guy stranded on an island striving and trying to make his way off the island, but failing. Andy would watch this guy constantly, hoping and waiting for him to make it home. A screensaver that was supposed to keep his computer busy when Andy was away was keeping him busy. But to hear him talk about it made you believe that computers were created for screensavers like that.

In college, we served on praise team together. He would always lug his keyboard, amp, and keyboard stand from his dorm to Earl Hall. Week after week, he would barge through the door always about to drop everything. But he never complained, never whined, and most importantly, never asked me to carry them for him. Week after week, he showed up, instruments in hand.

When he was a junior, he was working downtown about 25 hours a week. On top of his already-packed Engineering schedule, his free time was completely soaked up. He would begin his day before 9am and with work and school, wouldn’t return until around midnight. At which point, he would begin studying for the day. During this time, he cut out all of his commitments… all of them except praise team. It was his joy. He even designed and paid for our very first KCCC Praise t-shirts. One time he came to our meeting and asked for prayer because that morning when he was shaving, he was unable to feel the razor on his cheek. That’s when he knew he was working too hard, when his nerve endings finally gave way. But he wasn’t complaining, he just wanted us to know and pray for him. And he still showed up for praise team, instruments in hand.

Andy was annoying to those close to him. Gimme a sec to explain. You see, Andy was very good at what he did. He picked up snowboarding in half a day, much to the chagrin of his brother. His first instrument was piano, and yet he played the guitar better than I do and I don’t even have a “2nd” instrument. But more than just snowboarding or guitar, the annoying thing about Andy was that he was so humble about his abilities. He was never in it for himself. He always just wanted to worship God with his life.

On two occasions, Andy came down and served with me in Atlanta with my church’s youth group. The first trip he paid for out of pocket and flew down on Christmas day. The second trip he drove down his new car to Alabama and back up again… willingly. Or at least if he wanted to complain about it, I never heard about it. At both retreats, he led praise and led a bible study. Have you ever seen Andy worship God? I mean really worship him… with his eyes pressed shut and his hand motioning the notes as he sings them? I knew at those moments that there was nothing to distract Andy from his love of worship. To hear him worship made you believe that Andy was created to worship God.

I can still hear him leading the seniors at my church during those retreats, yelling—motivating, never scolding—at these students, “Isn’t this awesome? Don’t you guys want to live like this?” For Andy things were so clear and so simple. You live for God. That’s that.

Andy and I were doing the pamphlet for a Youth Group retreat. He designed the cover and I was doing the inside. He took a bus from work and walked up French Hill Rd. to get to church so that we could work on the booklet together. We are both meticulous in formatting to the very last detail, so we stayed until 7:30am, at which time he called for his company car and went back to work. This was the amount of sacrifice that he had, for a booklet, for a retreat, for a bunch of kids. But he was doing it for God.

I never saw Andy play basketball. He didn’t like to play. But I did hear him constantly talk about video cards, RAM, motherboards, BIOS, and LINUX. I heard him talk about Matt Redman, Hillsongs, Caedmon’s Call, Delirious to no end. If you looked at his room, or rooms, in his home, you would very quickly see that Andy loved computers and music very much. He knew what he liked and he poured himself into it. He knew what he didn’t like and he didn’t try and front to impress anyone. I always respected him for that.

Passion. Sacrifice. Humility.

Passion for computers, for music, for worship. Sacrifice for praise team, for an Atlanta YG, for Bethany Youth Group. Humility in his abilities and standing before God. Passion for God, sacrifice for God, humility before God.

If you ponder those three terms as I have done this past sleepless night in Greensboro airport, you begin to see that those three qualities are at the core of the person of Christ. Jesus’ passion, Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus’ humility. Could it be that Andy was just trying to reflect the person of Jesus? His constant striving and trying to achieve Christ-likeness in this lonely and empty world? Well, Andy, I’ll tell you, the guy finally made if off the island and he is home now.

I would like to take a moment and address Andy directly: “Andy the hard thing is that you are gone. I won’t be able to see you smile, sing, laugh, or cry. But, the harder thing is that I won’t be able to learn from you anymore. No more computer questions, no more .mp3’s, no more relationship advice. Still, the hardest thing is that I will never have the chance to repay you for all you have taught me. I’m sorry that I wasn’t a better friend and a better brother to you.

The good thing is that you are in heaven. You are with God and I can hear you saying, “Rich, this is incredible! You wouldn’t believe it! God is tremendous!” The better thing is that you will be able to see me try and reflect the things I have learned from you with my life. I will honor God and honor you. Still, the best thing is that I will be with you in heaven soon enough, Andy, soon enough.”

Left for Dead

What sort of solitary and lonely life is that the only reason someone notices you are not alive anymore is because your roof developed a hole! Think of how many people you come across every single day. Think of all the opportunities for personal contact, where you can make an impression on someone, that you have every time you leave the house. Your co-workers, your neighbors, your family... If you were to die today, how soon would anyone know?

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Old Feelings from Newtown

On Newtown Memorialthe morning of Friday, December 14th, I dropped off my 6 year-old daughter at her kindergarten class for the day. Just a little over an hour later, my perception of elementary schools as safe havens would irreparably violated. The tragedy at Newtown cuts deeper and lingers longer than other stories of shootings because of the age of the victims. The idea of terrorizing 6 and 7 year olds is seemingly inconceivable and unforgivable.

On Monday, Fort Lee residents and clergy gathered for a candlelight vigil in Monument Park (video). The passage I shared that night was from Habakkuk 1 and 3.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

~ Habakkuk 1:2-3

The prophet Habakkuk found himself amidst a society that had increasingly become rampant with violence and injustice. He called out to the Lord for salvation but felt that his cries went unanswered. Many hearts of the people in this nation today must be echoing the cry of Habakkuk.

Where are you, God? Why is there so much evil around us?

We have been here before: Columbine, VA Tech, Ft. Hood, Aurora.

And those are only the ones we remember. Even fewer people remember the spa in Georgia (5 killed), the high school in Ohio (3), the psych hospital in Pittsburgh (2), Oikos University in Oakland (7), the racial shootings in Tulsa (3), the coffee shop in Seattle (6), the Sikh temple in Wisconsin (7), the house near Texas A&M (3), the Empire State Building (2), the sign company in Minneapolis (7), the spa in Wisconsin (4), the mall in Oregon (3).

And those are just the shootings in the last 12 months!

How do we deal with the issue of injustice? How can we reconcile what we want to believe about God with the evidence around us in this world? CS Lewis writes is his theodicy work, The Problem of Pain:

If God were good, He would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.

"God, we are not happy..." That is at the root of our struggle with events like Newtown. And either you don't want us to be happy or you can't make us happy. Either way, we're hopeless and left to fend for ourselves in this God-forsaken existence that some call Life.

Questioning God in the face of suffering is not a new phenomenon. However, it does place us on a steep slope that eventually leads to a subtle belief that the entire universe orbits around its singular most important object, Me. If we are wont to question God's goodness or power every time something unhappy happens, then guess what? You're already living in that universe.

So what can we believe?

No amount of blame put on gun laws, mental health or bad parenting is going to provide any solace to the problem of pain. Instead, it merely distracts us and masks the real underlying insoluble issue. Placing blame may provide solace, but it doesn't provide answers. No explanation will suffice. Nothing can explain Newtown or 9/11 or cancer or sex trafficking. And on we go living in that pain every day.

Instead, when I am faced with a situation that defies explanation and refuses resolution, I don't use that as a time to doubt God; it is precisely that time that I must have more faith in God. Once I take God out of the equation, then we are left in a world where individual decisions of happiness and justice reign. And nothing distinguishes my views from the views of murderers and terrorists. With a belief in a sovereign authority in the universe, then (and only then) do I have a platform to stand on and outrightly reject the act as wrong.

When the unexplainable occurs, resist the urge to dismiss God's goodness or power, because once we lose God, we lose all sense of justice and we lose any right to punish violators of injustice.

Habakkuk chapter 3 ends with his deepened commitment of faith in God, despite the violence and pain around him. There has been no explanation and there has been no resolution. Rather, there was an acknowledgement that a world of injustice without God was worse that a world of injustice being ruled by a just God.

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.

~ Habakkuk 3:17-19

How Christians Should Vote

We have been told from all parts of society that we should not mix politics and religion, the church and the state. However, for Christians, faith is meant to be instructive to them in their relationships, their careers and all aspects of their lives. So, why should we cordon off politics from our faith? The truth of the matter is that many Christians today don’t know how their faith affects their vote. Instead of shying away from the issue. I would like to tell you how I think all Christians should vote. No, I’m not gonna just come out and say vote Republican or vote Democrat. That would be too easy... and too polarizing. Instead, I will outline the principles by which I believe all Christians should vote.

Vote For Citizens

In some ways, Christians have a unique place in our society, because we have dual-citizenship. We are commanded to be ‘aliens and strangers’ in this world because our ‘citizenship is in heaven’ (I Peter 2:11, Philippians 3:20).

However at the same time, we are nevertheless citizens of the towns, states and country in which we reside. Voting for Citizens means that we should not simply be voting for what we think is best for people in the Church, but rather as a citizen of Ft. Lee, or New Jersey, or the United States.

“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” ~ Jeremiah 29:7

The other aspect of Voting for Citizens means that we are not trying to usher in a church-state. We are not trying to legislate Christianity. That didn’t work for Constantine nor for the Crusades. And it won’t work today.

Any attempt to moralize society with Christian ethics is not only impractical but also impossible. It may not only be deceitful, but  also destructive. We should not be after people who follow morals without faith. Those are what we call hypocrites. In fact, Jesus’ harshest judgements were reserved for the most morally upright in society (Matthew 23), because their ‘righteousness’ was not based on faith. We don’t want a society full of Pharisees and professional moralists.

It is precisely this acknowledgement that is at the center of our understanding of the Gospel. It is our admission that we are NOT good enough or morally upright enough to be considered righteous that is at the core of our believing the Gospel. It’s not that we live a life ‘good’ enough, it’s precisely that we cannot. And we turn to Jesus for salvation.

Vote With Peace

Have we lost all civility during election season? Everything you read on social media and the news is so polemical and divisive. Politics has become so polarized today that you cannot even buy a cup of coffee without being told to choose who you’re going to vote for. Between all the smear campaigns and negative ads we have lost the ability to have conversations with respect and humility.

People post political views on Facebook and then people complain about other people’s views because they don’t agree. I’m sure thousands of people have been ‘unfriended’ (sometimes literally) because of what they post on Facebook. As Christians, we should remind ourselves to be peaceable and respectful. Be above the rhetoric of rabble-rousing.

“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.” ~ Titus 3:1-2

Vote With Knowledge

You should know where each candidate stands on a myriad of issues. If you don’t inform yourself then you are merely becoming the type of person that gets swayed by negative ads. You need to develop your own filter so you can evaluate the things you hear in debates and ads.

Part of the problem is that too many Christians have become One-Issue Voters and once they encounter a candidate that doesn’t agree with them on the hot-button issue, then they stop listening and stop learning.

Perhaps your One-Issue is Abortion or Gay Marriage or the Economy or Foreign Policy. It could be anything really. I know of a  woman whose One-Issue is stem cell research. You never know what that issue may be to different people.

The fundamental problem with being a One-Issue Voter is that your president doesn’t just vote on that one issue. If you vote for a candidate because of his stance on Gay Marriage, then you are also voting for his policies on the Economy, Healthcare and the Environment.

I’m not saying to ignore the issues that you feel strongly about. In fact, I would encourage you to continue to feel passionate about them; study them, research them. Christians should pursue what the Bible has to say about these issues like poverty, abortion, etc. Don’t vote ignorantly, vote informed. So, when you cast your vote, understand how your vote is cast along the broad spectrum of issues, not just one.

Vote For Others

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” ~ Proverbs 31:8-9

Throughout Scripture, we are called to be advocates for those that have no advocate. We are called to be a voice for the voiceless, to stand up for those that have no standing. Cast your vote for the benefit of others.

Whether you advocate for an unborn fetus or gays or those in poverty or those at war... or all of them. Don’t simply vote for whoever will give you the best tax break or the best health plan. Rather use your vote to bless others.

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” ~ James 1:27

Again, the very foundation of our faith lies in the advocacy of Christ. II Corinthians 8:9 states, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus became our Advocate by taking on our poverty and making us rich. He took on the poverty of our sinfulness and gave us his rich righteousness. For this reason, we are called to advocate for others.

“Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.” ~ Zechariah 7:10

Vote With Prayer

Whether you vote for Obama or Romney, one of these men will be the leader of our country. And regardless of how you feel about them, you are called to pray for them.

“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior” ~ I Timothy 2:1-3

Pray for who to vote for. Pray for the different issues. Pray for peace among the parties. Pray for those that need a voice. Pray for whoever wins, regardless of who that is!

In fact, if you haven’t been praying for the person or party with which you disagree, then let the first time that you open your mouth be in prayer to God, not in criticism to others.

Vote With(out) Hope

The first election I remember was in 1984, when I was 9. Reagan won 49 of 50 states and garnered 525 electoral votes to Mondale’s 13. As the incumbent president, I don’t think that election was about hope as much as this one is. I don’t think people were so concerned about their future being better, because they were pretty happy with their present!

This election, however, is about hope. The rhetoric among the parties is about who will raise America out of the recession, who will create new jobs, who will change the trajectory of our nation in the world at large.

But, as Christians, we need to realize that we need to Vote Without Hope. Don’t place your hope in any one person. Ultimately, whoever wins will not deliver on everyone of his promises or plans. Neither candidate will be able to accomplish everything they intend. And in four years, we will be probably be using the rhetoric of hope once again to nominate new Presidential candidates.

However, we can Vote WITH Hope. That is because we believe in a God who is sovereign over the President and Congress and supreme over the Supreme Court.

Proverbs 21:1 reminds that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord”. What a promise! God is in control. In fact, Romans 13:1 tells us that “there is no authority except that which God has established.”

No matter who wins and whether ‘your guy’ wins or loses, you can hope in our God who is the ultimate ruler of nations. So, whether you agree with where we are going as a nation or not, rest assured that you can hope in the literal “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:6).

9/11, OK City & Me

In my mourning, the impulse was to stare at the injustice of it all—What had Andy done to any of these people?—and blame someone. I wanted to climb to the top of the tallest building still standing and shake my fist at God and yell, “How could you do this? How could you let this happen?” And then I remembered something that stopped me dead in my tracks.

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