Remembering 9/11

Twenty years ago, September 11, 2001, 3,229 people lost their lives to terrorism. Most of us remember exactly where we were we heard the news or tuned into the newscasts. It was a national tragedy like Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, the Challenger explosion, and other seismic events that have rocked our lives. At first it seemed like an awful accident that a plane had hit one tower of the World Trade Center. That notion quickly evaporated as another plane hit the remaining tower. Then there was news out of Washington that the Pentagon had been hit, and next was the word that Flight 93 had been hijacked, put on autopilot and was headed for D.C. Possible targets were the Capitol or White House.

We recall with poignant pride that Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer said, “Let’s roll!” He and the other passengers assaulted the terrorists holed up in the cockpit, and selflessly gave their lives in a Pennsylvania field just 20 minutes flying time away from Washington. Forty-four souls died on Flight 93. One hundred eighty-nine souls died at the Pentagon, and two thousand nine hundred and ninety-six died at the World Trade Center. Of those, three hundred forty-three were firefighters, twenty-three were NYPD, and thirty-seven more were police with the NY Port Authority.

Some of you, like me, have been to one or more of these historic sites. At Trinity Church, two short blocks away from where the twin towers once stood, I saw the photo-copied faces of the missing on the makeshift barriers as the nearby buildings were held together by wire, rebar, and blue tarp. This was just a few months after 9/11, and the graveyard at Trinity was still covered in the gray ash of the dead mixed with debris. None of us will forget the scenes: fire departments and police from all over the country doing their part to sift through the rubble; President Bush with bullhorn in hand at perhaps his finest hour standing on the twisted metal; enlistment lines at local military recruitment stations; churches that were full. We were one nation pulling together.

NFL star Pat Tillman turned down a multi-million-dollar contract to keep playing for the Arizona Cardinals so he could enlist. It was 8 months after 9/11. Pat Tillman became a US Army Ranger and served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He died in combat from “friendly fire” in the mountains of Afghanistan. He gave the supreme sacrifice like all those first-responders who ran toward the destruction, not from it. We can honor them by continuing to stand in the breach, and declare, “Not on my watch!” We will honor them by filling churches once again like the Sundays after 9/11. We can promise to stand tall and support civility and civilization. We will depend on our faith in our struggle against injustice, tyranny, and the destruction of morality.

Foreign adversaries laugh now at how our fissures have exposed our weaknesses. We have given them fodder for their attacks. We have become what Jesus and Lincoln both described as a “house divided against itself.” It is our turn to say, “Let’s roll!” We cannot let our freedoms divide us. Can we not do what was done in 2001? Can we not pull together and honor one another though we might disagree? Can’t we embrace the Golden Rule by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us?

Jesus came to foster freedom, but it was not a freedom from responsibility. It was a freedom to embrace responsibility: to love God and neighbor because we want to, not because some totalitarian government threatens us. We can all be American, and live and let live if there is a common cause worth the greater fight or larger battle. We can all do our part to save America from another 9/11. The fabric and soul of our country depends on more than the few and the brave. Each one of us has a part to play.  God bless every 9/11 family, and God bless America.

Above the Din

Sunset from Campsite #2 on Mt. Mitchell

I watched some of the families and survivors of 9/11 this morning before I went to church. It was very meaningful, in fact, maybe more so ten years later than it was at the time. I was a very distracted person ten years ago. I’m no less busy now, but maybe I’m more reflective. Perhaps it was 9/11 that had something to do with that. Maybe it was the need for time away in the cacophony that comes from the tyranny of the urgent. Anyway, listening to the recorded phone messages from those who perished on 9/11, and hearing their families experiences of reassurance was powerful. I heard a theme of God’s presence and it gave comfort.

For the past ten years, truly since I was a little boy, I have found that kind of reassurance on top of Mt. Mitchell. Solitude and reflection are easy to come by up there. I went there as a teenager to sense God’s call. All alone. Me and God. I went back during college a number of times. I have been going there multiple times a year ever since just to be, to listen, to soak up God’s presence. It’s such a beautiful and awe-inspiring place. It’s the highest mountain east of the Rockies. It’s always 30 degrees cooler than South Carolina. There are balsam and spruce and it smells like Christmas year round. It snows every month of the year. It’s a Canadian climate zone. There are no showers, but they have a restroom and two hand pumps for water. There are only 9 campsites so you’re never really overwhelmed by noise. The photo is from just a few weeks ago when I went with a fellow clergy friend to scout things out for our district retreat. He’s spending the night with us tonight and in the morning 15 of the Columbia District clergy are heading up for our yearly retreat. I wish more were going, but we do have some newbies. I hope they will find it as wonderful as I think it is.

We all need a place to hush our runaway minds. Perhaps you have read one of the many versions of the story that I will call “The Overflowing Tea.” The setting changes, but the cast of characters remains the same. There’s always a wise monk or hermit living in a remote place, and an earnest student who has made a pilgrimage to see him, traveling a long distance to find the teacher who will give him all the answers that he needs about life. The student arrives with all kinds of questions and the teacher just sits there saying nothing. The student asks for his questions to be answered. The teacher finally says, “Pour me a cup of tea and I will tell you when to stop.” The student pours away and keeps pouring as the tea overflows the cup. Exasperated the student speaks up, “Can’t you see the cup is full? It can hold no more!” “And so it is with you,” the wise teacher replies. “Your mind full of too many things. Only when you are empty will there be room for more knowledge to come in.”

I am headed to Mt. Mitchell to open my mind to God and others, or maybe it’s better said that I’m going to open my mind to God THROUGH others. We will hike together, laugh together, eat and fellowship together – know God together. Distractions will be few because cell service is non-existent up there. We will have a wonderful fire and hopefully it will warm our souls with God’s comforting presence. It’s the day after 9/11 for a lot of people. Listen to God’s voice above the din of sirens and tears. Aren’t we all ready for that extraordinary sense of God? Yep!

A 9/11 Memorial

This weekend’s commemoration of 9/11/2001 and a decade of heartache and wondering about the meaning of it all have me thinking about epitaphs and memorials. What did all those people die for? What have the soldiers and wounded warriors died or survived for? How do we sum it up? How do we capture what they went through and fittingly remember? What slogans or proverbs should we devise or utilize to help us frame the angst of a decade marred by fear and death?

Will simple proverbs or sayings do? No, of course, they won’t. That’s too easy, mercenary, or cheesy. Proverbs and the like are a dime a dozen in our culture. New ones are as fresh as the new television season with its Madison Avenue pitches. Slang words and phrases are quickly assimilated into our common vernacular at the speed of our web browser, email carrier, or twitter hash tag. How can we memorialize 9/11 with both poignancy and permanence? A bumper sticker won’t cut it, that’s for sure! That’s not enough. I’ve tried to come up with something catchy, theologically sound, and respectful but I can’t. Where I think I’m headed this weekend is in how we live as a fitting memorial. Our actions will either honor or dishonor the memories of those heroes from the past ten years.

This begs the question: How do we live? What are our life mottoes? We all make some sort of statement when we walk in and out of the house, wear an US flag-themed tie, or a Gamecock hat. Most of us have little mottoes and mantras that define who we are, what we stand for, or where we’re from. Decals on cars declare OIB (Ocean Isle Beach) or HI (Hilton Head) or an allegiance to a certain sports team. One of the best symbols of the fair state of South Carolina is the Palmetto and Crescent that grace everything from vehicles to t-shirts.

Symbols and life mottoes give us an identity. They provide us with instant affinity groups. They do have rules, though. They should pass the t-shirt test. If they can’t fit on a -shirt, then they’re too long. Before t-shirts we put them on tombstones and called them “epitaphs.” Someone once said that such epitaphs, life mottoes, or mission statements should be short enough to be memorized and long enough to be memorable. How appropriate! The one that fits the United Methodist Church is like that: “MD4C” – Making Disciples for Christ.

I’ve seen some remarkable life mottoes in recent years from comedians to poets. Lily Tomlin purportedly claimed, “We’re all in this together – alone,” as her motto. Poet John Gay’s epitaph reads: “Life is jest, and all things show it. I thought so once, but now I know it.” There’s the humorous and the sublime. You can decide which is which: “Some days you’re a pigeon. Some days you’re a statue.” Then there’s the one: “God give me work until my life shall end and life until my work is done.”

What sign or symbols will be on your memorial? Could it be that we’re writing them right now? Joanne Lynn and Joan Harrold in their book Handbook for Mortals give some guidance in writing life themes. They call them the “Four R’s for the Spirit.” First is remembering. They ask us to take time to reflect on life and all of its happenings – accomplishment, failures, triumphs and tragedies. Next comes reassessing. They suggest that we should ask what our lives have added up to, or who we really have been, then share these thoughts with the people who know and love us so that they can give us their take. The third “R” is reconciling where we try to be at peace with our own imperfections. Last they suggest that we try reuniting, being at peace with others, friends and foes. As they put it about reconciling, “It is important to come together with friends when you can have the chance to say farewells and it’s important with enemies to say forgive me and I forgive you.” All four “R’s” can aid us in getting our epitaph written before our death rather than afterwards. I think this process can really help us do justice to those touched by the 9/11 tragedy.

With all the death and destruction from 9/11 and the resulting wars, we need to be people intent on memorable mission statements and life mottoes, creating epitaphs worth remembering. After we’re dead and gone people won’t have to wonder what to put on our tombstone. Maybe we should go ahead now and ask them what they have in mind to use because it’s not too late for a revision. 9/11 has me thinking about memorials, both mine and the ones we erect in our day-to-day actions for the victims of the last ten years.