Reflections on 9/11

Originally broadcast on September 11, 2005 

      It is appropriate that this day comes around the time of the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, and the ten days leading up to Yom Kippur are a time to reflect on your sins and mistakes in order to make amends to those whom you have harmed in the previous year. The goal of Yom Kippur is not to wallow in guilt, but to be reconciled to those you have cheated, insulted, abused, ignored, or otherwise treated as less than the living image of God on earth. 9/11 may serve as such a day of reflection and reconciliation for all Americans. It is a sobering day to contemplate the reality of evil, tragedy, and loss. It is also a day to remember courage, fortitude, prudence, justice, faith, love, and hope.

Extraordinary Time

We all have memories of 9/11. I was the chaplain of Salem Academy and College at the time and was teaching a course on Western Religious Traditions that met at 9 a.m. When class was over a colleague told me the news he had heard on the way to work. Like many people, I didn’t believe it at first. I went to my office and turned on the radio to hear the news that the towers had collapsed. Symbols of the economic and engineering might of America had fallen. Countless hundreds were dead. A handful of terrorists inspired by a hate-filled theology of war and revenge had used our own technology against us.

            We gathered the students to tell them the news and reassure them that they were safe, and we made extra sure that our international students were cared for. One of my clear memories of 9/11 is that in the midst of crisis, people showed their true mettle. Locally and nationally there were some who failed the test of leadership, but there were thousands more who responded heroically and sacrificially to the tragedy.

            The evening of 9/11 we held a candlelight vigil on Salem Square. Over a hundred students gathered to hold a light as a sign of hope in the midst of their own fear and grief. I was reminded of the candlelight vigils held in Leipzig in 1989 which lit the flame that brought down the Berlin wall. I was reminded of the candles that we light each Christmas to light the flame of Christ’s love in every heart. In a moment of hopelessness, the simple act of lighting a candle gave witness to our conviction that there would be a better day.

            I had no words of mine to say to those students, so I turned to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. In the liturgy for Compline I found this prayer, “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your sake. Amen.” It is a prayer that we can repeat this September for those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Working, watching, weeping

The week of 9/11 was a time when millions worked, and watched, and wept. Despite the tragedy, I was never so proud of my fellow human beings who sacrificed themselves in service to others. It was not just fire-fighters and police who were trained to do so, but ordinary citizens who leaped in to help. One of my favorite stories from New York was that masseuses spent days working on the bodies of the rescuers to keep them going. One cellist played for fire-fighters during their breaks for days – until his fingers were too raw to play. The fire-fighters were so grateful for his soothing presence, they made him an honorary member of the company.

            My brother-in-law walked several miles home to Brooklyn, and all along the way people gave the crowds water and ice cream as if it were the marathon. Pastors, priests, and counselors worked with all ages to help them deal with what they had seen and experienced. I will never forget the late Peter Jennings manning his post throughout the ordeal. And the greatest story of sacrifice and heroism by far were the passengers on the fourth plane who gave up their own lives to keep that plane from becoming a weapon. Strangers cried with one another. People held hands to comfort each other, even as they leaped from the flaming buildings. Phone operators prayed with people who knew that the end of life had come. I know that you cried for people you did not know and sent relief to those who could not say thank you.

Extraordinary Time

            I spoke to many groups on campus and around the city the week of 9/11. It just so happened that I was scheduled to be the guest preacher at Unity Moravian the following Sunday. My theme was going to be on Ordinary Time, the season of the church year which we are in now. I was going to say that the Christian life is not about dramatic moments of conversion and martyrdom, but the day to day joys or sorrows we know. I had to write a different sermon, which was based on what I had been saying to the students at Salem all week. Never was I more grateful for our Moravian Book of Worship. The intercessions in times of crisis reminded us of our deepest values in the midst of confusion and fear. As we have seen this past week in Louisiana, crisis merely reveals who you truly are. It is the daily habits of life that make us heroes or cowards, people of faith or people of violence in times of crisis.

            This morning I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts from that time as we reflect on what has happened in the last four years. What follows is quoted from my sermon that Sunday. On Tuesday, Sept. 11: “We discovered just how far men of hate will go in expressing their wrath.  We also found how far some will go in acts of courage and valor.  There were those who were willing to die in order to bring destruction on others.  There were also those who willingly gave up their own lives to prevent the deaths of others.  Still others died while trying to rescue the victims of the attack.  There were also those whose courage failed themselves and others.  In between the hatred and the heroism were millions who watched and prayed and wept.  As individuals and as a nation we are no longer in ordinary time.

            President Bush declared a day of prayer for all Americans, but even before there was an official call for prayer, people across this country and throughout the world have been in prayer, both privately and in large gatherings and vigils.  I walked into the chapel at Salem College to see housekeepers, groundskeepers and students bowed in prayer together.  These events have touched us all, from the young to the old.  My two-year does not know what has happened, but she has been desperate to see me often every day.  Somehow she knows that our world has changed and in her own way, she is afraid for me and her family.  Somehow she, too has felt the loss of innocence that we as a nation are experiencing.

Music

            And here we are this Sunday, so different from any other Sunday that we have known.  Here we are gathered in prayer, hoping for comfort and guidance.  Here we are singing in the midst of tragedy.  It is appropriate that we are here to sing and pray.  There are times when there are no words that express what we feel, but music speaks to us and through us to bring the healing that we need.  In the vigils I have been in here in Winston-Salem and have witnessed around the country, I have noticed that there is a strong desire to sing.  I believe that is in part because music expresses our deepest emotions, but even more so because we must join together in order to sing.  Our many voices, with our many pitches, all somehow unite in sentiments that are harmonious and true and beautiful even in the midst of our greatest nightmares.  You may remember a few years ago when the city of Sarajevo was being slowly reduced to rubble by terrorists of a different kind.  Every day at noon, one man sat in the center of the square and played his cello in the midst of the fighting.  Why?  It was his way of saying that even in the midst of barbarism and senseless hatred, there is hope for civilization.  His music carried the hopes of an entire world that the forces of evil would not prevail.

            I remember a winter’s night years ago when we were driving to North Carolina in the midst of an ice storm.  It was treacherous but there was no where safe to stop, so on we drove, slowly and carefully.  My wife sang to keep our infant daughter calm – over two hours of Moravian hymns, if you can believe it.  She sang every hymn she knew until she was too hoarse to sing.  The songs were for the baby, but they gave me the courage and calmness to continue driving over the dangerous roads.  So, today we sing in order to keep up our courage.  There is no safe place to stop; we must continue on the road ahead even though it leads to a future that is so different from what we had planned.  So we sing and we pray and, yes, we cry together.

Unprepared

            Like many of you, I was unaware of the events unfolding in New York on Tuesday morning.  I arrived at work before the first plane struck the Trade Center and I was in class when the towers fell.  A colleague told me the news right after my class.  One of my first thoughts was how meaningless that class had been.  Suddenly what had seemed of vital importance for students to know at 8:30 a.m. seemed meaningless at 10:30 a.m.  My normal world was shattered as if it were an illusion.  Priorities were rearranged and there was a new sense of what is vital as opposed to what is trivial.  My experience is just a pale reflection of the experience of the tens of thousands of people who have to adjust to life without a spouse, a parent, or a child.  We pray for them.

            You also have suffered.  I have talked to dozens, perhaps a hundred people during the last week, and I have heard their anguish and our anguish.  We feel anger, fear, confusion, grief, and even despair, but I can assure you that you are not alone; we are not alone.  We are all heartsick and frightened, and yes, angry, each in our own way.  Be aware, also, that the world shares our feelings. 

            Hundreds, perhaps over a thousand of the victims from Tuesday’s attack were not Americans.  They were Japanese, British, German, Korean, Brazilian, and the list goes on.  I received an email from a friend in Germany who expressed her grief and told me that the entire country had stopped work for five full minutes to show support.  200,000 people marched in Berlin alone to show the world that they are grieving with us. 

            It was not just America that was attacked on Tuesday.  The whole world and everything we hold sacred about human life was attacked.  Our greatest ideals and aspirations were assaulted, and now the whole world is being asked to unite just as I ask you to unite in sharing your sorrows and drawing courage from each other.

Preparing

            Gradually, though, things will return to normal, and once again we will know what a great blessing ordinariness is.  In fact, we may learn to take even greater joy in the ordinary goodness that surrounds us: the laughter of children, friendship, and family.  Now more than ever, take the time to tell those you love that you do love them and care for them.  Now more than ever, let your own better self have priority over your life.  Now more than ever, listen to your friends, open your arms to new friends, and open your heart to the world around you.  Now more than ever, sing and pray and work for what is right and just and good.  Now more than ever, recognize what is truly important.  Now more than ever we need to remember that our true treasure is not clothes, homes, money, and food.  Our true treasure lies in God. 

            Tuesday’s attacks demonstrated dramatically the uncomfortable truth that we are asked to follow Jesus through a dangerous and uncertain world.  We need to remember that our only security lies in God, and that each day we should be prepared to meet our creator.  We also need to remember what Moravians in the past did in the face of unspeakable horror, such as the slaughter of an entire mission outpost.  They prayed and rededicated themselves to reaching out to those who had attacked them.  In their own way, they asked “What would Jesus do?” and the answer was clear.  Jesus would reach out in love.

Conclusion

            At this time in particular, we need to remember that the three major Western religions all share a common heritage.  All call for us to live a higher righteousness that respects all people.  Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike are offering the anguish of their souls to the Creator and praying that God will help us bring good out of this evil.  We are all praying for mercy and for strength for the journey that lies ahead.  Let us also remember in our prayers, the teaching of a Jewish rabbi, whom Muslims regard as a prophet, and whom we Christians follow as Lord and master.  “Do not return evil with evil.”  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  As Paul of Tarsus reminds us, “We cannot overcome evil with evil, but only with good.”  May we all rededicate our lives to doing good in this dangerous and uncertain world.  Each person has a choice in life.  We can build or destroy.  We have seen the path of destruction.  I hope that we will build and will continue building until the master returns.”

Four Years Later

It is now four years later, and I wonder how we have measured up as a nation and as people of faith. My biggest fear on 9/11 was not that there would be more terrorist attacks. As long as there are ideologies of hate and as long as weapons are readily available in every neighborhood, there will be terrorist attacks. Terrorism is `a virus that assumes new forms with each generation as hatred finds new tools for destruction. No, it was not terrorism I feared most. It was the possibility that cynical people would use the tragedy of 9/11 to pursue an unrighteous agenda of violence, oppression, and greed. My fear was that the quest for political power and personal profit would corrupt the goodwill and heroism of all Americans. I was afraid that we would turn away from honest self-reflection about our place in this world and our actions. I was afraid that we would respond to 9/11 with fear rather than faith, and that we would ignore the Bible’s instruction to rely on God rather than swords and spears. My fear was that people would remove their wristbands that said “What would Jesus Do?” because they did not like the answer to the question.

            My fear was that our country would make enemies rather than friends in the world, and that Americans would be divided from one another. My fear on 9/11 was that religion would become a tool for damning those who are different from us and a justification for hating others. My fear was not the threat of violence. Christians have always had the courage to face the hatred of the world. My fear was that Christians would deny their faith in Jesus without even knowing they were doing so. My hope on this 9/11 is that we look at ourselves, our faith, and our actions so that in ordinary times and extraordinary times we may live as Jesus has called us to live. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

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