Alfred Place Baptist Church

The week after Nine Eleven

Forty years ago this month, on Labor Day 1961, the German cargo boat Carl Fritzen, which I had boarded at the Liverpool docks 11 days earlier, began its entry into Chesapeake Bay. We sailed past the beach where the Jamestown settlers had landed in 1607 where on the sandy foreshore they gave thanks to God for their arrival, dedicating America to his glory. In ’61 we docked in Norfolk. On that holiday Americans were at play: the water skis, the speedboats, the fishing and the barbecues were sights I had seen in hundreds of photographs, but I was now a part of it. Entry was no problem. I presented the officials with a huge X-ray of my chest which I had been required to have taken by the Welsh Embassy at Cardiff (long closed), and suitably impressed they stamped my passport for "unlimited entries" to the land of the free, and opened the doors of the USA to me. Soon I was another anonymous inhabitant, sitting on a Greyhound on the road to New York.

I never saw that city so attractive again as it was that September week, clean streets, wide boulevards, opulent and safe. Such a contrast with the cities of the UK at that time. No pollution, and no threat. Familiar and unfamiliar sights were visited, the Guggenheim Museum, the Red Circle line boat trip on East River and the Hudson, an evening at Yankee Stadium to see Roger Marris hit homer 52 on his way to beating Babe Ruth’s record ("but there were fewer games in the season in Babe’s days," Babe’s admirers pointed out).

For the next three years I lived in America. It was 1971 before my wife and daughters were introduced to the USA and they have come to appreciate it almost as much as me. A niece we took with us twenty years later fell hopelessly in love with America not wanting to return to Wales and it was not long before she married an American pilot. How can any British child not ‘lurve’ America? Now, so very fortunately, hardly a year goes by without a visit there, and still the pulse beats more rapidly after passing through immigration and customs and picking up my case from the carousel. I go through the doors greeting friends and I am there again in the United States of America. What a remarkable country it is, surely amongst the greatest in the history of the world?

In September 1961 autumn was on its way to Philadelphia and outside the stores in Glenside there were those plump, brilliant orange pumpkins for sale heralding the arrival of Hallowe’en. I get an ache of nostalgia from that memory alone, and all that is associated with it. Forty years have gone by . . . what privileged years they were at Westminster Seminary. How I failed to take full advantage of them. Many sweet memories: – the new foods: the fruit, vegetables and meat on display in the vast foodstores: eating out – bagels and cream cheese and lox, the food malls, salad bars and sushi and chop suey, clam chowder, crab meat in melted cheese: the ice-creams, donuts and cheesecake. Until that time eating out in Wales had been the local chip shop after Christian Endeavour on Friday nights for 25c for French fries.

Then Thanksgiving came along – we have nothing like it, the most spiritual and non-covetous annual festival in the world. Cruising along Inter-states in a loaned car nowadays one can hear Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on a Christian Radio station. Would he have approved of my listening to holy preaching in a car? The four seasons. The beautiful fall colours. Those sudden snowfalls in the winter, headlights cutting through large flakes slowly swirling more.

But the aspects of life in the USA I miss more are of course human rather than culinary and physical. Although one should not generalise about nations and people, there are qualities which can be described as being "typically American." Openness is one of them. A free society. The right to know something. Banks are more accessible and the staff more smiley with their "Hi’s!" and "Have a nice day!" in their greetings. Americans tend to be much franker that their British counterparts. Only in America has a church-goer described my sermon to me as "quite good." It was exactly that. When they ask you to come to their towns, visit them and stay with them they are in dead earnest.

Optimism is another endearing feature. Americans used to do much less whinging than people on this side of the Atlantic. The US is a "can do" society. Despite the growing signs of an economic crisis now emerging Americans seem confident that they can cope with it. The terrible events of September 2001, never to be forgotten, will also be transcended with that same determination and hope. Americans are also generous to a fault. There have been few acts of international philanthropy so magnanimous as the setting up of the Marshall Plan after the Second World War. Can you imagine any other nation acting with such open-handedness? That same generosity is seen in the bursaries they give to theological students (how otherwise would I have been able to study at Westminster Seminary?). Their unfailing support of missionary endeavour is a reason for the wide expansion of the gospel into the Third World.

Most of all, church life and family life sets a standard for the rest of Christendom. There is true godliness and spiritual maturity in Christian homes with their dedication to the education of their children, instilling biblical family values and a work ethic. There is a commitment to the life of their congregations which is waning here. How they pray for their nation. Scarcely a church did not open its doors and announce a prayer meeting this week, and millions across America attended. The followers of the Lord Jesus have established an alternative community of friendship and service centred on home and church. At times I feel we are falling further and further behind American Christians – not just financially and numerically (where we can never compete), or in the extraordinary para-church world of Christian organisations, but in basic discipleship, overcoming the world through faith, and loving the brethren fervently.

I could easily have settled down and lived my life in America. There is that remark of football-player Ian Rush, the great Welsh centre-forward for Liverpool, who joined an Italian club for a few years. He said, "I couldn’t settle down there. It was like living in a foreign country." But I didn’t have that feeling about the USA. I would have been happy and busy and fulfilled there, but God had called me to work in Wales. At times I feel that Wales is like an elderly, poor, very affectionate maiden aunt who embarrasses and depresses you, about whom you constantly worry – "how is she going to survive?" – for whom you have a tremendous responsibility, whom you can never desert, and who rewards you with tearful appreciation for the little things you do for her, that you feel fulfilled and embarrassed about your criticisms and frustrations, though no one else can understand you exhausting your life on old Auntie . . .

What am I glad to leave behind in the USA as I fly back to Wales? Not very much. 100 degree days, the newspapers, denominational and missionary bureaucrats, the church music staff, worship leaders, church bulletins, uneven concrete block sidewalks, their ‘Christian’ book shops, sweaty joggers pounding away under the sun, the roads on the fringes of each town with their neon light signs (they are all the same everywhere from Miami to Maine), polyester clothes (in that climate), television, that it is impossible to go anywhere without a motor car, and how few blacks there are in Reformed churches. That’s not much of a grumble is it? And I had to scratch my head to make up that list. American Christians grumble about the
same things too.

Of course, I am writing all this cruising around the monstrous horror of the past week. You know why I am saying all this. It has been a black week of woe ever to be remembered while moons wax and wane. The world will never forget what happened to the World Trade Center, one of the most ghastly and heartless terrorist atrocities ever committed. I am trying to express my affection, admiration, respect, and especially the ache which returns with every news broadcast and newspaper. I felt like stopping any American I met here in Wales, shaking his hand earnestly and saying, "I am so sorry." What else can one say? I had to write a few E-mails to some American friends immediately and just intone, "So sorry. So very sorry." It was my grief too. I called some folk here to say, "Have you heard the news? Are you watching the TV?" It was live on almost all our channels, hour after hour. It was so big a story that if you divided it by hundred you still had a big story. A single human mind could not begin to fathom all the consequences. We watched the CNN broadcasting so measuredly, with dignity and sobriety, and saw the second plane crashing into the second building and two towers of the World Trade Center collapsing a hundred times. They seemed to be just down the road in our global village.

Where would we be without America? Would we have come under the domination of Hitler or Stalin? We certainly would not have been free Europe without America. We are under American influence, but they are also under ours. Our security and danger are as keenly felt in the US as theirs are felt in England and Wales. Indeed, there now seems to be far more honest loyalty to British laws and institutions in America than there is in Britain. The shared legal heritage remains with its associated habits of adversarial government, open discussion, and public spirit. So too remains the basic loyalty which goes back to our Shakespeare, before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The demise of America would bring incalculable loss to Great Britain. The attack on New York and Washington this week was an attack on a political tradition, noble ideas of constitutional government and common law which are Britain’s basic freedoms.

We both face the same huge problem caused by the secular spirit of relativism that continues to sap absolute moral values. Where can the Western world find the courageous ethic to defeat terrorism? How can it kindle conviction about the things that are worth dying and living for? An indiscriminate tolerance of all views, which lacks clarity about what is good and true, undermines the will to resist the terrorist. At the same time it opens up a vacuum which may be filled with calls for violence against scapegoats.

We need the parable of the Good Samaritan to be told in 2001 dress – maybe the parable of the Good Muslim? Nine months ago in East Java a Christian church accepted an offer made by a 25-year-old volunteer named Riyanto to stand guard outside their building while they worshipped God. He saw someone place a bag against the church and became suspicious. He picked it up and ran away from the church with it, but as he was doing so this good Muslim was blown to pieces. That information helps to temper some of the hard attitude against all Muslims.

Now the culprits explaining the divine judgment have been named by some of the fundamentalists – the gays and the abortionists. What of the Arminians who have taken glory from our Sovereign God? What of the prosperous TV preachers? What of the proud, hard Reformed people? What of me? There is enough sin in me to keep hell burning for a million years. So I will be silent over the secret things of why God decreed such an event That belongs to God, and I must confess my own iniquities to him.

The heaviest of spirits hangs over us, and it will be weeks before they will be lifted. We are so sorry for what happened. We grieve with America, and pray for the American church at this dark hour.

God bless his people in the USA and have mercy on our world.

GEOFF THOMAS