For The Someday Book

Remembering 9/11

Posted on: September 8, 2011

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

 –Psalm 46

On September 11, 2001, I had been serving my first church for exactly five months. I was the second associate pastor at a big, downtown church in the heart of Boston’s Copley Square. The church was a tourist attraction with a giant tower, the sanctuary open all day every day for passersby. That morning, I had been at an 8:00 a.m. meeting at the homeless shelter downtown. I left the shelter with a couple of colleagues, and we overheard the guys gathered out front talking about planes going into buildings. They were miming the crash and making the sound of explosions, but we dismissed it as the talk of the mentally ill. As we walked the five blocks along Boston Common and back to Copley Square, we began to notice to the cell phone conversations of well-dressed business people we passed, and heard the story repeated—planes crashing into buildings. People were pouring out of buildings and subway tunnels. No one was going back in.

The Boston skyline, our church between those two tallest buildings.

When I got to church, the receptionist told me it was true. She had the radio on, and it told of the World Trade Center, two planes, and terrorism. I went upstairs to my office and colleagues, and found them huddled around the only TV in the building, adjusting the antennas to try and get a picture. Through the snowy black and white screen, we saw two giant rectangles with smoke pouring out. That was the only image I saw of the tragedy until late that night. I had only been there about five minutes when the receptionist called—people were downstairs, coming into the sanctuary, and someone should tend to them. I stopped by my office to grab a box of tissues, and headed downstairs.

And that’s where I stayed, for the rest of the day. For me, the details of what had happened came not from the television, but from the strangers who entered seeking solace. Brokers in Boston had been on the phone with traders in New York when the screaming started, the line went dead. Co-workers had traveled to New York for a meeting at the World Trade Center that morning, no one knew where they were. Colleagues had traveled from the World Trade Center for a meeting in Boston, and knew that they would have died if they had been in their home office that morning. Sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters worked on the 18th floor, the 38th floor, the 102nd floor, the Pentagon. The planes came from Boston, and loved ones had left this morning on a flight from Logan. Fighter jets had been scrambled to shoot down potential threats, and we heard them fly overhead. The Red Cross needed blood. Could we post a sign, direct people down the street to the emergency blood drive? Of course, we said, and people responded to their grief by opening up their veins.

All day long, people kept pouring in. Our church was located right between the two tallest buildings in the city, and our high tower suddenly seeming conspicuous and vulnerable. Everything around us had closed, even the other churches and the public library across the street. We wondered if we were unsafe, foolish even, to stay open, those two buildings looming over us, our tower defiantly pointed toward the sky. But it felt like an act of faith, to be present in the midst of such fear and doubt. We kept our doors open, and the people kept coming to seek shelter for their bodies and comfort for their souls. I couldn’t offer much, but together we sat, prayed, shook, wept, held hands, shared our fears, wondered if our world had changed forever.

Upstairs, my colleagues made their own preparations—one calling all our members to check on them and their families, the other preparing a service of prayer and mourning for that evening.

It was at that service, in that place of fear and uncertainty and terror, that I first understood the power of that Psalm. People entered with tears and fears, wondering if it was wise to be together in such a public and unsecure place, in the shadow of such tall towers, in spite of our need to gather and pray. And yet our shoulders relaxed, our eyes turned heavenward, and our fears began to abate when we were reminded of these words:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth…

Everything was in crisis. It was not just a national crisis, but a personal crisis for most of the people in the sanctuary that day—they had lost co-workers, friends, family members. Everything had changed—their job, family, security, schedule, everything. The Psalm reminded us of what had not changed—God’s love and power was still in charge of this world. God’s hand was still guiding us, a refuge and strength that no earthly actions could dissuade. God’s is an unchanging love and an undying pursuit of peace.

Ten years later, I am filled with dread at the flag-draped, red-white-and-blue commemorations planned for this weekend. When I stop to remember my experiences that day, I weep at the intimacy of loss and destruction. When I hear politicians, pundits and fellow preachers invoke “9/11” as a call to patriotism and heroism and war, I am angry and repulsed that someone would try to spin the heartache of that day for political or pecuniary purposes. When I think about the thousands upon thousands of additional lives lost and displaced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel sick to my stomach that we have inflicted the same grief on so many other families, in our nation and other nations. When I contemplate all that has changed in our nation since that day, I am overwhelmed with the economic crises, rollback of civil rights and liberties, scapegoating of the poor and immigrants, relentless natural disasters, political vitriol, dysfunctional government, corporate greed and all the hurting souls resulting from it.

On this anniversary, the only commemoration I want is a reading of that same Psalm 46, surrounded by silence. I need to be reminded of God’s unchanging love and undying pursuit of peace. Tell me again that everything in the whole world can change—nations and safety and security, kingdoms and powers and cities crumble around us—but the love of God does not change. Keep open the doors of my heart, in defiant faith and love. Anchor me against the quakes and floods, moving mountains and foaming waters. Insist that I should fear not, for God is here and God will help. Convince me that the weapons of war will not triumph, that peace will prevail. Speak to me of rivers, of gladness, of dawn. Give me refuge from the clamor of despair. On this day above all other days, urge me to be still and know that God is still God, always.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear…

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5 Responses to "Remembering 9/11"

We agree, Jennifer. Members of some of the churches, and the temple in the town where I serve will gather for a very quiet evening prayer of Psalms and readings. We will light candles, remember, and hope. No flag waving, no faux patriotism, no commentary. Just prayer, and remembrance.

Amen. Thank you, my friend.

You are good; keep it up! I know how hard it is to take time to focus enough and write from the heart. Thank you

You said that you didn’t offer much to people on that day back in 2001….but I would say that your very presence was what they needed. A very present help in a time of trouble. Thank you for sharing.

Dear Jennifer: Thanks for helping me get clarity on my own emotional reaction to 9/11 this year! I remember that day in 2001 well as we left that meeting together. Upon returning to my office, I too found my colleagues gathered around a small black and white television as they filled me in on the horrific events connected to the billowing smoke. Remaining in the city I too watched it empty and wished there was more I could “do”. Yet, the only intervention of substance that was available then and remains the same today was to be present and pray. Indeed…it appears we have not as a nation learned much since then but instead continue to move toward more destruction and devistation on every level. I could not agree with you more. STOP, be SILENT and LISTEN : for God is our refuge and our strength an ever present help ALWAYS!

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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