Looking up at the sky, I noted that it was more piercingly blue than ever before.
I remember the moment. With a slightest chill breaking through the humidity, a welcome relief that I recall from my boyhood Georgia days of growing up. The humidity of August was oppressive and we would look for the coming Fall, to break away from the heat of summer. Summer, and it’s lazy days had worn out its welcome. We were glad to see it go and ready for new beginnings. Fall… my favorite time of year.
On this particular morning, I had come back from my decade sojourn to Texas, the home of my McBrayer ancestors, but a different country, for sure…. becoming more so by the day as I write this.
I was returning to Atlanta to begin my work as the leader of a large parish on the edge of the city. The bishop had told me it was now an urban parish, tied to the city. He lied. But I did not know that yet as I looked up into the sky, before going into my office. I was excited about continuing my urban ministry, if not from downtown, then in a hub. Boy, did I get that wrong.
I was to be meeting with the two lay leaders to finalize the contract for my services. It was to be a congenial gathering with two men that I had already begun to love and appreciate. As the meeting progressed, my new administrative assistant opened the door to inform us that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. Having taken flying lessons while in Texas, I imagined a small plane having mechanical problems inadvertently flying into the structure. Waving off that thought, I imagined a suicidal person flying their small plane in order to make a largesse exit. And then, dismissing that as my tendency for drama, I offered a more rational explanation that perhaps the report was wrong.
She soon returned to the door, informing us that a second plane had crashed into the other tower. One plus one equaled a planned attack, The group of us went to the youth lounge where a television monitor was giving us the local news feed that would become the event now known to us by three indelible numbers and a slash: 9/11.
This 9/11 event in New York formed the contour of my first months at my New Work.
I learned soon that my high school hero, Ken McBrayer, our quarterback and West Point grad, was on one of the top floors of the Twin Towers, losing his life. I discovered later that one of the terrorist pilots had trained at a flight school near where I had trained, perhaps overlapping my own time. Later, a college student from my parish is Tyler, who was now serving as President Bush’s chief aide, called to let me know how things were going on the inside, and to invite me to a speech the President was to deliver later in Atlanta, the first formal speech after the attack.
My days were spent imagining and planning how to help my new parishioners process this disruption in their life, the rip in the fabric of their sense of meaning. To point, America lived in the illusion that we were free from such terrorist actions. That kind of stuff only happened in the Middle East. That was the reason to think twice about visiting the Holy Land and surrounding areas. It was what we called “dangerous”, “risky”. But now, our world had changed. The risk was no longer “over there” but in our backyard.
We immediately gathered that day instinctively for prayer. A Day of Prayer was called for, and gather we did, trying to make sense of this experience. I remember thinking as I was sitting in silence, prior to climbing into the oak pulpit, that this must be how clergy felt right after Pearl Harbor. How do you make sense when tragedy strikes like lightning. It was now my hour, my responsibility, my call to speak into this pregnant moment, curious as to what meaning could be birthed.
It was a time of endless moments of focus that found footing in the liturgical space. Bells tolling, periods of silence, names read….say their name! In addition to this public moment, my schedule was packed with individuals, and strangely to me, couples, wondering together how to make sense out of this. At the heart of their questions was the perennial never-resolved question of theodicy: Where was God in all this?
Theology is a tough subject to teach in crisis. While my experience tells me that our best learning comes in tight spaces, that is not necessarily so when your presuppositions about basic cosmology are lacking. Here were corporate officers of major businesses, civic leaders, counselors in the law, the proverbial brain and urological surgeons, all highly schooled in their fields of expertise, coming up seriously deficient in their conceptualization of how the world works, particularly when trying to fit in anachronistic theological language. The best they could muster was a question: why did God let this happen? or an angry protest: this is not fair!
I was aware that my response to their lamentation, “Damn straight, it’s not fair!”, would not be up to their expectations. As I was going through the same existential grinder they were, I pondered with them, asking probing question, trying to tease out their unconscious, largely unexamined thoughts on the nature of human existence. Remedial philosophy is hard-pressed in such times.
I remember the collective anger that emerged. President Bush caught the spirit of it while standing on the ruins of the Towers. “They will hear from us!” he said, with a primitive bullhorn microphone…. and the thunder rolled, as Garth would say. Over 90% of Americans supported a retaliatory action by going to Afghanistan, and so we did. We now look in the rearview mirror and wonder at the lack of planning. React is exactly what we did. And it good, righteous even, for a moment.
I remember the sense of unity that filled our country. People who had been smirking at the fumblings of my friend, W., suddenly lifted him in prayer and praise. It was fun to feel the patriotism, even at a terrible cost. Fire trucks rolling through the streets of my hamlet with the American flag flapping from its back. We unconsciously transferred our positive feelings onto our local firefighters, police, first responders out of our deep thanks for those who valiantly responded to the terrible Tower moment. People seeming to care for one another, across all kind of divides. Where the hell could you see that today?
Spike Lee. the Morehouse master of film, who proudly hails from Brooklyn, has offered a tour de force documentary on the 20th anniversary of that fateful day and the time following. It’s on HBO and worth the price of subscription. It’s four episodes, dealing with the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and ends with a retrospective on 9/11 and the aftermath. I guess you can tell that I think this is worth watching. It’s not an easy watch, regardless of your political leanings. Fragility and limited thinking and decisions are evident on all sides. There’s something to piss everyone off, because it tells the truth, and, like I said in last week’s column, maybe you can’t handle it.
My favorite “pay off” scene in this documentary is that of a young black man, clearly distraught, sitting on a curb of a New York street after the Towers came down. A white policeman is kneeling down next to him, his arm outstretched, with his hand on the young man’s shoulder. You are not privy to the verbal exchange but you can decipher the care that is going on. Human to human. It moved me deeply. I have been that young man, needing a word of hope. I have been that cop, with the opportunity and ability to reach out in love to another human being.
That is so clearly in contrast with another scene, also portrayed. A white police officer with his knee on the neck of a black man, his face pressed into the street. He pleads for air. He calls for his Mama, for who else would you call to at a time such as this. “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And the life went out of George Floyd…..say his name.
The truth is both of these vivid scenes portray a truth about our country. Both.
We are caring, empathetic, capable of Great Love. That is us.
We are fearful, angry, capable of ignoring humanity in the service of order. living out of fear. That is us.
On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, Spike lives up to his mission statement, to tell the truth “by any means necessary”. This time, he used his skills with film to tell the story of us, Us, US.
It is a story of vision, of aspiration, of brotherly love, of fear, of anger, of retribution.
When we dare to tell the Truth, to one another, and especially to ourselves, all these things are the Truth about us. Sho nuff.
4 thoughts on “The Day The World Changed…But Not Really.”
What a coincidence — the morning it happened, we were both in our church offices — it was our rector who burst in to alert us all to what was happening, and we all gathered around the TV in his office.
The variety of documentaries capture the “surprise” of the moment, wherever you happened to be. Thanks for responding, cuz!
Thank you again, David. . .
Stark, painful, beautiful writing.
You have triggered a memory of something I wrote in 2004, ‘What I (Now) Believe’, invited by my spiritual development coach at that time, a woman from the East Coast whom I never met personally (even back then before COVID), who challenged me to put down what I DID believe, rather than what I did NOT believe. Below is the section, ‘Where Was God in the Tsunami?’ that came to mind reading about your struggles to find and speak about ‘God’ immediately after 9/11. . .
On that fateful day, as I remember it, Terry and I had just come in from a morning run (he and I had finished leading an LDI near Seattle the day before) and as we walked in we saw his teen-aged daughter, Cara Beth, staring at the TV screen, clutching a pillow to herself, with a look of total shock on her face. We rushed into the room and turned in time to see the second plane hit the tower. I recall dropping to my knees, thinking, ’OMG. . . The world will never be the same’.
(What is your memory of that moment, Terry?)
– – – – – – – ‘God’ as Presence Itself
The week the tsunami hit the coastlines of Asia, I was ‘on deck’ to preach at my Lutheran congregation in Spokane. That Sunday Larry King interviewed a panel of religious leaders about the tragedy. The two Christian representatives—a Catholic Priest and a Baptist Minister, were in agreement with the Muslim cleric on this one point: that God had caused the tsunami for reasons beyond our knowing, and that he had personally intervened to either save or allow to die those who met their fate there—again for reasons beyond our understanding. In my sermon the next day I said that I could not and would not follow the path of a divine being who acted like that. Some powerful entity who sat or stood way off somewhere saying, ‘I think I’ll save that little one over here, but not that one over there. . .’
But God did not cause that tsunami, the forces working on the tectonic plates caused that tsunami. God did not drown that little girl or that crowd of people. The tsunami did. Nor did God save the ones we say were miraculously spared. You can go back up the causal chain as far as you want looking for divine causality, but I believe it is a fruitless search. We tend to find an explanation (a likely story), then turn it into causality.
So, in my belief system, ‘God’ does not cause things to happen. When a football player points to heaven after catching the winning touchdown pass, it is, I am sure, a faith-filled gesture. But then why doesn’t he also point to heaven when he drops a pass to lose the game? We have created a ‘God of the gaps’ where we drop ‘God’ in as the cause when we can’t explain it by other means. A plane crashes and three people out of 300 walk away unscathed. ‘A miracle!’ some say. Yet, thousands of planes land safely every day, and thousands of passengers walk off unscathed; do we not see the miracle in that? As Einstein said, ‘There are two ways to live: one as if nothing is a miracle; the other as if everything is a miracle.’ We are making it up either way. . .
What if life/stuff just happens, and, facing it all, we struggle to find an explanation/meaning that gives us reason to continue living and maybe even loving. The biblical writers faced the same struggle. From the beginning accounts of creation (I love the Genesis, story), they spoke of God as ‘doing’ things to and for the world and its people. That model has been passed down to us in the heilsgeshichte (salvation story), and we are still operating as if that’s the way it is. What if it isn’t?
What if God (the Creator, the One, the Father/Mother of us all, Allah, Brahma—you name it) is not a cause of everything that happens but is a loving presence with us as life happens? That’s the way Jesus seemed to see his relationship with his ‘heavenly father.’ The theistic God-off-somewhere did not save Jesus from what happened to him; you could say he saved him through what happened. Maybe our prayer to whatever the divine is should be, ‘ I want you to save me from all this, but I know better. So please be with me through it. . .’
For me the stories about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are reminders that when the lines of life seem to be closing in, they don’t end, they cross, and there is life on the other side. Different, sometimes very painful, but if I have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, I can let go of the way it was and embrace the way it is. That’s the root meaning of the Hebrew word for ‘salvation:’ to be released, to be unleashed, to go from being trapped in a tight space to having infinite freedom of movement. Free to be with everything and anything. Free to be with what is—free to live with ‘God’ or even live as God, co-creating reality. (Now there’s a blasphemous thought!) It is fascinating to me that my company’s tagline is ‘unleashing the human spirit at work.’ Ever since I left the parish ministry, I’ve literally been in ‘the salvation business’!
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John Dr John Scherer FACING THE TIGER: Unleashing the Human Spirit at Work https://www.facingthetigerbook.com/webinars Scherer Leadership Center Transforming the world at work
Thanks, John. I have been struck with the panoply of documentaries that are basically listening to the experiential responses to that singular moment in time. So raw. So real. I am left wondering about the effect of reliving that moment, processing it, remembering it, Good news, bad news? Who knows.