Best of Mike: Of Football, Falling Planes, and False Attachments

August 27, 2008, 11:30 am; posted by
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Originally published September 10, 2007.

Like all of us, I remember exactly where I was six years ago Sept. 11. Those were days while we were both in school, days before we had children, days for sleeping late. So I woke up around 8:15 or so and hopped in the car to the Acme to pick up my Daily News, which I planned to enjoy with a nice cup of coffee. I didn’t have the radio on, which I suppose was unusual. I went in and bought my Daily News (Bobby Abreu was on the back page and the Phillies had a crucial series with the Atlanta Braves coming up) and I saw some employees huddled around a TV. I left the Acme around 9, flipped on KYW News Radio, and it was obvious the world had changed forever. Mixed in with the grief and shock I felt that day was an emotion it has taken me six years to admit to myself, much less to any of you:

I felt alive.

Now, mind you, I don’t mean to say that I liked what was happening that day. But there was a sense on that day that, for the first time in my life, what I was living was real. There was a vitality to the day; when I went to the seminary where the students had a prayer meeting, I kissed Jill goodbye with more intention. The love I had for my colleagues was deeper, as we exchanged warmer hugs. The frustration I felt at some of my would-be prophetic colleagues for their easy answers was more than academic.

Perhaps I felt that for the first time in my life, I was part of something real. Perhaps, in fact, I felt so alive because I felt — maybe for the first time, really — that I might die.

The miracle of the day, or maybe not a miracle but common grace that God gives all of us, is that I was okay with that. I felt like I might die, but still I felt completely safe, like there was a life no terrorist could touch inside me. I felt like the course of my life was being altered by something enormous and world-shaking, that suddenly being a Christian was going to be a dangerous and underground thing again, and at the same time I felt completely assured that I would be okay as an alien and a stranger on this earth — or at home in heaven.

I still haven’t sorted out exactly why I felt that way on that day. But I think that it had something to do with the fact that, for the first time in my life, everything was up for grabs. For the first time, all the things that tied me down no longer had their power to bind. All the secret peace treaties I had drawn up with America — “You protect my body with military might and provide me with a prosperous land, and in return I’ll serve God” — all those treaties were now null and void because it became apparent that America could not keep them. I think I felt alive and safe in God on that day because everything but God was under threat.

Henri Nouwen wrote and spoke extensively about “false attachments.” A “false attachment,” for Nouwen, is when you give your emotions, your heart, to something which ultimately disappoints. In The Genesee Diary, Nouwen talks about how he so often allowed his spirits to rise and fall based on his number of speaking engagements, his perception of how others looked at him, and even whether or not he received mail. As he saw it, he allowed so many things to dominate his heart rather than the One who would free it to be all it could be. I think on September 11, 2001, for the first time, I saw my false attachments for what they really were — powerless to deliver the satisfaction I believed they would. Those terrorists intended it for evil, and indeed wrought great evil through it. Yet on that day, I think I saw what I will clearly see when the Kingdom comes in its fullness: I saw that all earthly kingdoms and peoples were powerless, and I saw that there is only One who is worthy to be attached to. This, I think, is why I felt fully alive.

Fast-forward six years to a time when I did not feel fully alive: Sunday’s Eagles-Packers football game. The Eagles are historically ill-prepared for season openers, and managed to lose a game to a vastly inferior Green Bay squad which spent most of the day unable to get out of its own way. And I was angry. In fact, I was so angry I watched the Giants-Cowboys game in hopes that somehow, someway, both teams would lose, or at least make each other miserable in the process. I wasn’t quite to the point of hoping that players got injured, but I was actively hoping to see some disappointment. The Giants scored an early touchdown on a long pass to Plaxico Burress, but then they botched the extra point and their punter got squashed in the process. This was good, as I saw it, because everyone was disappointed.

I wondered today how things have changed in the last six years, a full fifth of my life. All I know for sure is that today I am still experiencing residual anger about the capricious bounces of a football, while six years ago I felt alive even though planes were falling all around me. This is the power of false attachments, and to be honest, I have no idea when they came back. I have no idea how I got here; I have no idea when exactly I signed away my birthright for this mess of pottage. All I know is that false attachments creep back in when no one is looking, and if we are not vigilant against them, we are complicit in their power over us.

May God save us, his people, from false attachments; and may it not happen through terror, but through a re-birth only his Spirit can provide.


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