Remembering 9-11

[Five years ago, I published this piece. It remains, by far, the most read piece 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, 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 consider 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]

So what are you readers doing to remember 9-11?   A few weeks ago our church lead in a community wide presentation on a Sunday evening with joint choirs and full orchestra as a remembrance of 9-11.  It was inspiring, somber, reflective and hopeful.  I expect that this year will be an especially somber time for our nation as we mark a decade since that terrible day.  It has been one of the most challenging decades of our nation’s history.

One of the most intriguing books I have read in recent years is Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction.  It really is not, mostly, a book about Johnny Cash.  It is about the religious, cultural and political ambiguities of the American psyche that were embodied in the life of Johnny Cash.  One of the points he made was that whereas the center of community life in New England was the public square, as expressed in the parade, in the South, the center of life became the church, and the great public event was the revival.

The result of this caused the church to bear all the weight of life, public and private.  It was the center of its members’ lives in a way that did not play out the same in the Northeast.  Therefore, patriotism also had to find its way into the church and live there.  I have thought about this a great deal since reading it, wondering if we do not suffer greatly from the diminishment of shared public life so well-chronicled in recent years.  More and more, we live disconnected from our fellow citizens, isolated into interest groups, religious ghettos and our homes with their entertainment centers.  It’s hard to get us all together.  Even churches need to get out in God’s wider world sometimes…

In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life (I know, how DID it take so long!).   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 Continue reading “Remembering 9-11”

Remembering 9-11and 9-15

1963 cover
1963 by Barnett Wright

So now here it comes again.  For many, a very painful day, still and always.  For all of us who were old enough to witness it live, a memory permanently engraved, an ugly tattoo over scar tissue.  Yet with time, inevitably, the intensity is not the same.  This is an odd week for those of us in Birmingham.  Sunday, we will have a painful memory remembered from fifty years ago.  The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed just before services began.  Barnett Wright has written a wonderful remembrance in words and pictures of that fateful year, 1963, that changed America forever, and Birmingham with it.  Those painful memories still rankle or stir devotion and sadness, depending on the person you talk to about it. Continue reading “Remembering 9-11and 9-15”

Dreaming On


The anniversary of 9/11 is not only a marker of a terrible historical moment, it is a reminder that we have lived an entire decade in the collective shadows of fear and diminished hopes.  Our children graduating now have spent their childhoods absorbing tsunamis, wars, terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes and economic catastrophe.  They enter a job market that will test their ability to hope.  It may be a great moment not only to remember 9/11 but also to remember how to hope.

Howard Thurman once wrote that “as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.” (Meditations of the Heart, 36-37).  He went on to say that realism, daily facts, are unavoidable, but without that ineffable presence of something bigger inside us, life turns into “a swamp, a dreary, dead place and, deep within, a man’s heart begins to rot.”  This dream does not have to be some world-shaking vision of dramatic change, although moments of history sometimes require these.  Instead, “the dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables [us] to ride out the storms of  [our] churning experiences.”

Thurman grew up in Daytona Beach during segregation, but rose to national prominence as a preacher, writer, pastor and academician. He traveled widely and participated in many Christian missions and among his travels, spent time with Gandhi.  He was a college classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr., and was the Dean of the Chapel when King’s son, Martin, came there for study.

Thurman took the young man under wing and mentored him.  He was, in many regards, King’s spiritual director through his short life.  His book, Jesus and the Disinherited, written in 1949, profoundly influenced King.   In 1953 Life magazine) rated Thurman among the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States, but time has moved on and, outside the African American churches and historians and theologians, Thurman is not well-known.

When we think of all of these echoes of Thurman in the life of a young preacher from Atlanta, and how Thurman’s thoughts lived out through King’s life, it underlines the importance of his words about dreaming.  Our dreams do not have to be cosmic or political and yet they can roll out to change the world.  The Apostle Paul had a dream one night of a Macedonian man who said, “Come over here and help us,” and the gospel came to that place.  Peter had a vision that opened the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10.  Dreaming is powerful.

These dreams do not have to be world-sized.  They can be quite simple—dreaming of a better life for your children, to help a friend whose life is crushed, or as simple as “I want to be a better person than I have been up until now.”  It can be a dream to rebuild out of financial ruin or when your circumstances have taken a devastating turn.  We can dream of helping the next generation do more than we ever imagined and so give ourselves to a career of teaching and guiding.

There is something very determined about dreaming.  While “dreamy” often describes escape, inward dreams are just the opposite—they occupy our hearts and minds and drive us toward something that is ultimately better.  We imagine a future worth attaining.

Don’t underestimate the dream.  It is quite powerful.  It raised the ancient Jewish patriarch Joseph out of prison and into the Pharaoh’s court, and ultimately Israel into existence.  Thurman’s dreams lived into a young man who was part of calling America to its best self.

In these times of rebuilding, re-imagining and renewal, biblical people ought to dream.  Who knows what might come of it?  Just when life is at its worst is when dreams matter most.