[Now it has been many years since I first published this piece. It remains one of the most read pieces I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word of hope they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and reconsider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today. I have edited the original to a shorter version, but it is important to me to remember.]
In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life. I was truly inspired by the experience. In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, but looking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot where Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart. I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and read the two inscriptions on either side of him—one of the Gettysburg Address and the other the Second Inaugural Address. I felt a sense of the “hallowed,” one of the few spaces where I have seen public and religious come near one another without either losing itself.
So as we mark yet another anniversary of 9-11, we truly need public places to come and remember together. I wonder what our remembering will be? Now the years are passing, and the anguish and fury and violation have dulled into annual observances. We have found a whole new litany of grievances and sorrows to lament. An 18 year old having their birthday today was born on that day.
Remembering matters, but it also shifts and changes with the years. Remembering in the sense I speak is not sugarcoating or forgetting the pain, but neither do we let the loss become the entire narrative of a lost life. If there is value in living with the end of our lives in view, it is also necessary that we not merely remember lives by the way they ended.
I once shared this perspective with a friend whose dear aunt had been murdered by a yardworker she had hired, a drug addict who broke into her home at night and stabbed her to death. She was a caring, devout Christian who taught literacy, helped the poor and gave her life to the unfortunates, only to have one of them take her life. My wife, a friend to his wife, went over and cleaned up the terrible scene once the police had finished, and it haunted us all. I said to my friend, “I hope you will be able to not merely remember this terrible end. However long it went on, whatever horror she went through, it was over in a while. But her life of more than eighty years far outweighs those few terrible moments.” He was comforted by this. To be remembered and not forgotten is to continue to be loved.
We do not have forever freeze the dead of 9-11 in those burning buildings, or falling to their deaths, or the horror of crashing planes. To do so is to provide the psychopathic fanatics who did it their hollow little victory. Remembering must stretch out, farther and deeper and wider, to remember all that those 3,000 lives meant. Neither do we have to sink into endless rage against the sinners. They’re God’s problem now. I remember an extraordinary quote from Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize winning writer who survived Auschwitz. He said something to the effect that “it is a greater sin to forget our sins than to have committed them.” Remembering is the path to forgiveness, ironically, not forgetting. Forgetting is denial and it’s not the same as choosing to relinquish our right to hold on to our resentment.
Ritual and worship are powerful, too. When times are hard, they can lift us and sustain us. Many years ago in our little book, The Dialogue of Worship, Milburn Price and I wrote this:
Sometimes people are in crisis when they come to worship. Their faith is weak, or their life is one of defeat and discouragement. The writer of Hebrews warned early Christians not to “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25, NRSV). The very act of gathering is an act of mutual encouragement. We allow ourselves into the presence of others. We leave behind our solitary troubles and connect with like-minded believers. We cannot overestimate the power of this fellowship. But there are mercies of God offered to all, not merely the church. There was a time when we talked about “General Revelation” as the goodnesses that God revealed to all people–nature, morality, and all the traces of Godself that hint at the divine being at every turn to help us find our way to grace.
I think, somehow, that on this occasion of 9-11 remembrance that we are most in need of this, too. As a nation, perhaps we could reconnect to that deep resolve, unity of sorrow, and spirit of generosity and kindness that flowed for a while in that moment.
Some events are transcendent, even larger than the church. They are part of the human condition and its tragic anguish in the cosmos. God is mysteriously working in this larger picture, but it cannot be neatly explained or rationalized. It must be simply offered to us, where we can weep, remember, and find some sense that this is not empty in the universe.
It ought to comfort, not threaten, us who are people of faith that God is not just in the place where we come every week, but here, too, and in the terrible, cruel and merciful turns of history. We will leave our churches, synagogues and mosques, even our agnostic lake houses and condos, and gather together to weep and remember. And the remembering will help heal our souls.
I close with this beautiful rendering of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, performed on September 15, four days after the attacks, which says what only music and tears can say. The grief of all humankind, the follies of hate and domination and the thirst for revenge, wars and rumors of war and all the pain and suffering they bring, often to those least intended, is contained in the naked emotion of this piece. Remember, so that we might be one day healed.