There has been a lot of remembering of 9/11 going on this past week both on television and in the print media. All of that press triggers for me some very vivid memories of where I was ten years ago: who I was with and what I was doing when I first heard...
I read in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette this past week that on December 7, 1951—the tenth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor—there was very little public remembering. No mention at all in Life Magazine, for example, where all the news was focused on the Korean War.
Now maybe that says more about how much the world has changed in sixty years and the impact of cable news on our lives. Perhaps earlier generations wanted to forget and move on; and maybe we are still grieving and can’t yet move on. In any event, we are where we are on this September 11, 2011 - ten years later - and 9/11 is on all of our minds.
Memories are tricky things. Always, our memories of what happened are filtered through what has since unfolded. So there is never a return to the event—to what happened, even when we can go to the tape. Memories are selective, and are at best about what we think we remember. They can get skewed. Anyone who has ever been at a family gathering and discussed an important event, something that happened in that family ten or twenty or thirty years ago, knows what I am talking about and how this works. No one has access anymore to the event itself. So as each person tells her story, there are likely to be comments like, “that isn’t at all what happened!” So it is important for us to try to be reflective and open and self-aware by doing the best we can to remember rightly. This is not a terribly controversial or profound insight, but I think it is worth being clear about from time to time, especially on a day like this.
If we aren’t careful, memories can re-traumatize us and it would probably be better to forget than to do that. As a nation, I do think we were traumatized in those weeks of September 2001 as we watched those images of the towers coming down over and over and over again. Whatever our own memories may be, first and foremost it seems appropriate to me that we remember those who died ten years ago at Ground Zero, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. I hope we will remember their families for whom this weekend must still be so raw. You never completely get over such loss. We also remember the first responders, many of whom are now dealing with serious health issues, and the men and women of our Armed Forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the subsequent “War on Terror.” We should also remember the countless civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, mindful that there is no bomb smart enough to protect innocent men and women and children from the ravages of modern warfare. As we remember all the saints who “from their labors rest” we are called back to the heart of our faith: for we are a people who even at the grave dare to make our Easter song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
I remember driving up north with my wife a week or two after 9/11—I am no longer certain if it was to New Hampshire or Vermont. We saw a father and son who looked to be of Middle Eastern descent, sitting by the side of the road next to an enormous American flag and waving to the cars that were passing by. It seemed to us as if they wanted to be very clear that they were a part of “us” and not a part of “them;” that they, too, were grieving and that they, too, loved this country. I didn’t agree with President Bush very often in the eight years he was in the Oval Office, but I thought he was steadfast, and correct, when in his address to a joint session of Congress he made a very clear distinction between the vast majority of faithful Muslims and a few radical terrorists who committed an atrocity in the name of religion.
The President was clear, but as you may recall, incidents of violence against Arab Americans and fear of mosques escalated in the months after 9/11. Those incidents were based in fear and ignorance, and the gospel has something to say about both. I thought it was important for the Church to speak clearly then and now: to bring light where there is darkness and to allow love to cast out fear.
I made a promise to myself and to God to learn more about Islam, and I began to live into that by taking a class at Georgetown University which brought imams and pastors together to read and discuss texts from both The Holy Bible and The Holy Qur’an. I attended The Trinity Institute in New York City, at Ground Zero, when they offered a program on Christian-Jewish-Muslim relationships. A decade later, we’ve made it part of our Confirmation program to engage our Islamic neighbors on Mountain Road at their mosque, to learn and to grow and to live more faithfully into the promises that we made at Baptism “to respect the dignity of every person” and “to strive for justice and peace among all people.” I’m committed to staying engaged in the conversation for the long haul.
In one of the remembrances I saw this past week, a piece on CBS’"The Early Show" caught my eye: a story about the Heartsong Church just outside of Memphis, Tennessee had a mosque built right across the street from them. Instead of reacting in fear and ignorance, that congregation put up a sign that said “welcome neighbors.” The pastor challenged his congregation and told them that in his view Jesus really did mean it when he commanded his followers to “love your neighbor.” He lost more than twenty members of his congregation for taking that stand.
But then they went further. As the mosque was being built, that Christian congregation opened their doors and invited their Muslim neighbors in to use their space for prayers during Ramadan. Today those two congregations have a picnic together on Labor Day weekend and they celebrate Thanksgiving together and they support various outreach projects to help the poor and downtrodden in their community. The kicker for me came at the end of the story, as the imam and the pastor were standing together and the pastor revealed that the imam also happens to be his cardiologist. This, of course, is the world we live in and it is the sort of story that makes me proud to be both a Christian and an American (in that order.)
I remember how full my congregation was on the weekend after 9/11. People came out of the woodwork; people I’d never met before (or have seen since.) I think they were looking for a word of comfort and hope, or maybe just a place to be with other confused people. The uptick in church attendance didn’t last long, but it served as a reminder to me that in a crisis, people really do still look to the Church for guidance, if not answers, and for a place to pray even when they aren’t sure whether or not they believe in God or are ready to commit their lives to the Way of Jesus.
For me this tenth anniversary reminds me that we really do have a calling to be the Church in good times and in hard times—that we have a mission. Or more accurately, God has a mission, and asks the Church to be a part of that work by continuing to proclaim the good news - on our vocation to be Easter people and light that shines in the darkness.
This weekend our minds are on the events of September 11. But next month marks another anniversary, the fifth anniversary of the terrible shootings at the West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania on October 2, 2006, where Charles Carl Roberts IV shot ten school girls, killing five of them. As you may recall, the Amish community made national headlines when they sought to forgive that murderer and offered reconciliation to his family, a story chronicled by John Ruth in Forgiveness: A Legacy of the Nickel Mines School. Some of the Amish community attended the calling hours of Roberts and extended a hand to his wife and mother. They bore witness to the power of forgiveness to heal and in so doing to reveal a way forward. They tore down that old schoolhouse and built a new one called “New Hope School.” For me, that is a very powerful witness to the Gospel.
If this day is only about remembering the past, then we are destined to remain stuck there in a kind of vicious circle. We are called, as an Easter people, to find our way toward the dawn of a new day: to the new hope and the new life that Christ offers to us and the world when we move through pain and suffering and loss to forgiveness and healing and reconciliation. That is the way to the new hope that comes at the dawn of that Sunday morning at the empty tomb. Even at the grave, we dare to keep making our song…alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.