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2020 - A Simply Divine Mystery (About God, Country and Terrorism) by Lee Raudonis - HTML preview

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“O righteous God, who searches minds and hearts, bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure.”  Psalm 7:9


The massive pipe organ of the National Cathedral had never sounded quite as majestic to Winston Tobias “Toby” Sullivan as on this sunny Sunday morning of March 1, 2020. It seemed as if the organist was putting a little something extra into the entrance hymn that was most familiar to Toby as “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,” but today was Hymn 595, “God of grace and God of glory.”  The volume was cranked up so high that Sullivan could actually feel the vibrations from the giant instrument’s 10,000 pipes as the choir and congregation prepared to join in.

God of grace and God of glory,

On Thy people pour Thy power.

Crown Thine ancient church’s story,

Bring her bud to glorious flower.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,

For the facing of this hour,

For the facing of this hour.

As Toby added his tenor voice to the baritones, mezzos, sopranos and those that he felt were most charitably described as “none of the above,” he could not help but question why he was in this magnificent house of worship.  If the truth were to be told, he was an agnostic, and it was primarily his love of classical music that led him to attend this particular church.  That- and he would have been ashamed to admit- the fact that his boss’s assistant, Margaret Peabody, also attended the same service, and he knew the chances were good that she would mention to Associate Director Carl Drake that she had seen Sullivan at church.  Of course, Toby knew that it might be even better for his career if he attended the same church as Drake, but there was no way in hell (or heaven) he was going to an evangelical church that specialized in the latest “praise” music. Being hypocritical was bad enough, but even in this era when a person’s religion- or lack thereof- could influence his professional advancement, enduring musical torture would be much too high of a price to pay.

Save us from weak resignation,

To the evils we deplore.

Let the search for Thy salvation,

Be our glory evermore.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,

Serving Thee Whom we adore,

Serving Thee Whom we adore.

After the last note from the entrance hymn faded, Toby prepared to make himself as comfortable as possible in his usual spot in one of the rear rows slightly behind an enormous column that helped support the impressive Gothic structure. Before sitting, he glanced around to see if he could locate Margaret, and he was quite surprised that neither she nor some of the other regulars, such as United States Senator Langdon Stevens and his wife, seemed to be in attendance.  Given all that had happened that week, he was certain they would want to be in their usual pews.

After completing his visual inspection of the congregation, Toby sat down and began, as was his habit, to tune out much of the service and focus his thoughts on the week behind and the week ahead.  He knew that what had happened in the previous week was certain to change the course of his career and perhaps his entire life.

A violent explosion on each of three different days in different parts of the nation’s capital had resulted in the deaths of a dozen people, including two United States senators and the assistant secretary of Homeland Security. As expected, Associate Director Drake, a terrorism expert, had been personally selected by the FBI director to put together a special unit from the Joint Terrorism Task Force consisting of law enforcement personnel from several different agencies including FBI, Homeland Security, CIA, Metropolitan Police, Federal Park Police and Capitol Police. Sullivan and his partner, Davis P. Rawlings, III- nicknamed “Trey”- were selected, although Sullivan was well aware that Rawlings, a member of Drake’s church, was the one the boss really wanted and Sullivan was included only because he had been Trey’s partner for the past two years.

Toby watched and listened as Rector Samuel York read Psalm 19:14:

“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”

The bombings constituted the most serious terrorist attacks on United States soil in more than a decade and had caught the entire nation flatfooted.  Not the Department of Homeland Security, nor the CIA, nor the FBI had any hint that such attacks were imminent. Nothing that had been done since 9/11/01, including a complete reorganization of the nation’s security infrastructure, the appropriation of billions of dollars in additional funding and hiring hundreds of thousands of new security employees, had been able to prevent one or more people from setting off two powerful car bombs and a bomb on a train in the Metro subway system.  While no one had claimed responsibility, al-Qaida was the name being mentioned on all of the television news channels and by most of the Internet bloggers. Even the usual “high ranking government officials” were telling reporters off the record that a rejuvenated al-Qaida or some other Muslim extremist organization was likely behind the attacks.  Sullivan had no reason to doubt this theory.

The rector continued as the congregation kneeled.

“Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear this holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation. And so that we may prepare ourselves in heart and mind to worship him, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.”

On the other hand, Sullivan told himself, he had no reason to believe the speculation, either.  True, multiple explosions were a hallmark of al-Qaida and other radical Islamic organizations, and successfully killing several top government officials gave the attacks the publicity the Islamic extremists craved, but that really wasn’t proof, was it? No physical evidence had been identified to conclusively link any organization to the horrendous crimes.

Then the congregation joined the rector in reciting:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, spare thou those who confess their faults, restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord; and grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.”

With the nation on the highest level of alert- it would have been Terror Code “Red” if the old color codes still existed- the taskforce was under intense pressure to identify those responsible and capture or kill them quickly.  Members of Congress were both scared and angry, clearly a dangerous combination.  Some of the more hawkish members were calling for the president to launch a unilateral military attack on Pakistan, Syria and Iran simultaneously, because they were certain that al-Qaida leaders were hiding in all three countries.  In a special televised address to the nation, the president said “all options are on the table,” making it clear that he would not hesitate to launch an attack on any country that provided support to the people who murdered the assistant secretary of Homeland Security, two prominent members of Congress and nine other Americans.

The service progressed solemnly in the background as Toby continued to reflect on the tragedy that had the nation asking how- and why- America had once again been attacked.

He heard the priest say:

“The Almighty and merciful Lord grant you absolution and remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit. Amen.”

And then Sullivan joined the rest of the congregation in reciting a Collect for Peace:

“O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

After the Collect, Sullivan glanced at the Space Window on the south aisle of the Cathedral.  There were more than 200 stained glass windows in the historic building, but it was this one, containing a piece of lunar rock presented by the astronauts of Apollo XI, that was clearly his favorite.  His second favorite was the magnificent Rose window high above the west front entrance.  Briefly glancing at this spectacular work of art, Toby noticed that the thousands of pieces of stained glass were not as vibrant as in the afternoon when the sun shone more directly from the west.  Even so, the 26-foot diameter window was breathtaking. 

While admiring the colorful glass, Toby’s thoughts suddenly returned to the tragic events of the week and their effect on his personal faith- or lack of it.  “How could a merciful God let something so awful occur? And, if the perpetrators were in fact radical Muslims, how could any sane Muslim believe that Allah- or God by any name- would advocate or condone the killing of innocent people?”

As Toby turned to face the front of the church, his thoughts about Muslims quickly drifted into thoughts about his own country and its majority religion- Christianity.  He was becoming more and more concerned about the ever-increasing role of religion in the government. Over the course of the last two decades, Christian activists had made steady “progress” (as they saw it) in making the United States a more “Christian” nation.  And in the last few years, this trend had- at least as Toby saw it- spun out of control. Christians of all denominations and political beliefs had joined together to form the Christian Democratic Republican (CDR) Party.  Their goal, pure and simple, was to make the United States a theocracy.

This train of thought led him to recall a folk song from a couple of decades earlier.

I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh.

I ain't afraid of your Allah.

I ain't afraid of your Jesus.

I'm afraid of what you do in the name of your god.

I ain't afraid of your churches.

I ain't afraid of your temples.

I ain't afraid of your praying.

I'm afraid of what you do in the name of your god.

Suddenly, Toby’s mind cleared of thoughts of religion and bombs.  He began thinking about Tiffany Ashley Davenport, better known to family and friends as “Tad.”  Tad, who had a PhD in mid-eastern studies from George Washington University and spoke fluent Arabic, had been working undercover with the CIA for nearly five years, but Toby had just learned that she was being rushed home to work for the Associate Director for Homeland Security, Terrorist Threat Integration Center, and to serve on the bombing task-force. 

Sullivan thought about how much he had missed Tad during the last five years.  They had been so close before she took the undercover assignment, but since then, he had been with her for only a few brief visits- once in the U.S. and twice in the Scottish Highlands at a place isolated enough to protect her cover and their privacy.  He had not seen his lover for more than a year, and the thought of being with her again had him feeling both excited and anxious.

And then, before he knew it, it was time for the recessional hymn. But how could it be? He could barely recall the homily- something about not allowing one’s heart to be filled with hate against an entire group of people for a vile act committed by a few evil or misguided individuals.  “Easier said than done,” Toby thought as he stood and looked at the sea of faces in the packed church.  Even without some of the regulars, such as Margaret and Senator Stevens, there were obviously more people here than on an average Sunday.  That was understandable.  It was as if people needed to be someplace in which they could feel secure again. 

Being in God’s house, away from the hysterical hype of the news media and, yes, if the truth were told, isolated from those people, i.e. “Muslims,” helped people feel a little safer than being in a shopping mall or even in the privacy of their own homes.  God and their Christian faith would make everything better. Or, at least that is what they believed.

The mighty organ pipes, the choir, the celebrants and the congregation joined together to fill the giant Cathedral with a much beloved and comforting hymn.

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved…

As Toby and the congregation held the note- a middle “G”- at the end of “relieved,” a terrible, almost deafening explosion ripped through the sacred house of worship, shattering in an instant people’s lives, limbs and whatever sense of security they had felt just seconds before. Gone were the joy of music and serenity of worship. These were destroyed by a frightening conglomeration of noises, including shattering glass, screaming children and wailing men and women.

Almost immediately, after the initial shock wave and terrifying noise had subsided, Toby recognized what had happened.  He had been shielded from the blast and flying debris by the column that stood partially between the explosion and him.  Others were not as fortunate.  People of all ages were screaming and pushing toward the exits as fast as they could run or crawl.  Some lay on the floor and in the pews, dead, injured or too stunned to move.

By voice command, Sullivan activated the miniature cell phone that was imbedded in his ear, connecting him instantly to taskforce headquarters. “This is Agent Toby Sullivan, Code Alpha John 465.  There has been an explosion at the National Cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue.  Send the bomb experts and notify hospitals in the area to send every ambulance and EMT they can find.  Many people have been either killed or injured.” And then, as he looked westward above the chaos at the undamaged Rose Window, he added emotionally,  “The bastards have attacked again.”