Reflection on the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, 2001
The Reverend Ellen Rowse Spero
First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Chelmsford, MA
September 11, 2011
Reading: from 1 Kings 19
11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: 12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
Anniversaries are evocative. I have certainly thought about the events of September 11, 2001 in the intervening ten years. But certainly with time, the intensity around the feelings and images have dissipated: the horror, the sadness, the anger, the fear, even some guilt, receding as life returned to normal.
After all, a lot of things have happened in 10 years. I often measure time in terms of my children and my oldest, now 15, was only 5. His memories are vague about the horrors of that day. My youngest, 8 years old, was not even born. A whole generation is now in school for whom the events of 9/11 are history rather than lived. This event, so much part of our national consciousness, is not part of theirs in the same way.
Other things that have happened in our country and around the world on a much grander scale: a whole new leadership of this country, involvement in 2 wars, a period of economic hardship, and the death of Osama bin Laden––the man who masterminded these terrorist attacks. The consequences of that day continue to be with us. We take off our shoes, put up with body and luggage searches, as we are herded through the airport. Now we have family emergency preparedness plans, and lockdown practices in our schools and other things that we may not have thought about before.
Today, though, I want to focus on remembering. For this anniversary has been evocative for me, haunting images, buried deep in my psyche, have risen up with an unexpected power. The day itself: glorious in its fall crispness and clear blue sky. The wondering with an increasing horror as each plane hit, when it would end. Images of people jumping from the burning towers, and the stories of people joining hands to jump together, a sign to me that even in the most horrifying moment, love could be stronger than fear. I remember the e-mails from my colleagues describing the day in Washington DC and seeing the name of one of the parishioners from my internship church on the Pentagon’s fatality list: Army Specialist Craig Amundson. I could see in my minds eye the path of the plane hitting the Pentagon. Josh worked there for 14 years, Sam had gone to the daycare center there, and I had driven that route past the Pentagon, over 395 from Virginia to Washington on a regular basis for five years. I remember watching with Sam his video about firefighter Scott telling kids how to stop drop and roll and showing them in the shiny fire trucks off to rescue, and I had tears rolling down my face. It broke my heart to watch that video, to know what happened in New York City when all of those police and firefighters and EMTs ran in to do what they do and so many were lost. I remember in the days after how quiet the skies were without airplanes. I remember fans in Fenway Park, holding up signs, “God Bless the Yankees” and I cried again. And I remember loving my country with fierceness I had not experienced before: not a rah-rah patriotic bluster, but with the sense of shared grief and love that these are my people and we are hurting all at the same time, and yet, that we are also resilient, and what a beautiful land this is and how lucky I am to be here. And I remember the words that came to my mind that became my prayer the image the prophet Elijah, standing on the edge of the world through a terrible wind, an earth shattering crash and that horrible fire. That was that day. And yet beneath it all, as the story goes God was not in any of these things, even if that’s what the hijackers wanted to believe. God was not in any of those things. For underneath it all, the horror and the noise and the intensity terror and the incredible, incredible loss was the still small voice, more powerful than the wind or the earthquake or the fire. Its power was not in its destructiveness but in its requirement that we work to listen for it, for it is always there, and not even these terrible things could drown it out.
Archibald McLeish writes in his poem “The Young, Dead Soldiers”: “They say: we leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.” I do not believe that anyone died on 9/11 for any good purpose or as part of some larger plan or some divine retribution. I do not believe that God wanted these deaths, anymore than I believe God wants any other violent deaths anywhere, and mourns whenever they happen. While I believe there is such thing as evil, I see it as a very human thing, the capacity for which is in each of us. The death of nearly 3,000 people and the wounds of body and spirit to thousands more, and the loss of family, lovers, friends, neighbors, colleagues to even many thousands more transcends any political messages about What This Day Means or How We Are Stronger. The loss and grief around all these names is too real for that. Looking through the fifty pages of names, we see that the lives lost transcend race, they transcend ethnicity, they transcend religion, they transcend gender and sexual orientation, because ultimately we are a country that makes that claim, whether in grief or celebration.
I am religious leader, and so, I make meaning from my faith, even in the face of death. As a Unitarian Universalist, and much more Universalist than anything, I do believe in a couple of things that require me to respond and reflect on this day, to give meaning. I do believe that every one of us is a beloved child of God, that God loves each and every one of us. This does not mean that I think we are each required to love or understand the hijackers and Osama bin Laden. Nor those who attacked American Muslims in retaliation for simply being who they are. I can understand why that may be beyond the capacity of many of us. It simply means to me that thank God, God is there to love us all because we can’t do it ourselves. Our capacity to love one another is not yet there in some terrible, terrible ways. And yet it is in so many other ways, it is there, it was there ten years ago—that still, small voice in the face of terror and horror and destruction: not only in the jumpers holding hands but in the moments when strangers reached out to others to walk them, carry them, urge them to safety. In the cell phone calls to loved ones to say goodbye. In the courage of the passengers on Flight 93 who made sure their plane crashed where it could do the least harm. In all of the acts of kindness and mourning and grief that followed, the gentleness with which we treated one another for awhile. “We leave you our deaths give them their meaning”: know the names, remember the individuals who died but also those who survived with wounds of body and spirit, and those who are left behind to live their lives in 9/11’s huge shadow.
I also believe that in the end the power, the spirit of love is greater than the power of fear and of terror of revenge and hate. That is my song, that is what the still small voice tells me that beneath all of it. And I trust that voice more than the wind and the earthquake and the fire. Not that those didn’t happen and they’re not real. They were so real and I have the pages of names to prove it, as a testimony to the power of hate and fear and horror. But being a person of faith means holding the paradoxes of conflicting truths. Here, the paradox is that even with all of this terror and destruction, God or the power of love, the Spirit of Life or the Human Spirit is greater and that it transcends time and death. And whether we like it or not, life goes on. And that requires of us bearing witness and remembering. The holding of one another in our grief and at the same time an affirmation that despite what the hijackers believed that each and everyone of these people matter, and that this life matters, and that nothing can take that away.
On the walls of the Holocaust Museum is a quotation from the Torah: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses…that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children and your children’s children may live.” Rebecca Ann Parker, a Unitarian Universalist professor and theologian, writes very much the same thing: “Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be— can be used to bless or curse the world. The mind’s power, The strength of the hands, The reaches of the heart, The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting. Any of these can serve to feed the hungry, Bind up wounds, Welcome the stranger, Praise what is sacred, Do the work of justice Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door, Hoard bread, Abandon the poor, Obscure what is holy, Comply with injustice Or withhold love.
You must answer this question: What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
None of us alone can save the world. Together—that is another possibility waiting.”
Our faith teaches us to choose to blessing: to choose gratitude and hospitality, to choose to love deeply and fiercely this world and this life, both as they are, even as we work toward what we imagine they can be. So I offer that comfort and that challenge on this 10th anniversary of a terrible day in our country’s history. “They say: ‘Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and hope or for nothing, we cannot say; it is you who must say this.’” (Archibald MacLeish). And so I say, let us listen and trust the still small voice, which calls us to choose life, to choose to bless the world.
I hope that everyone made it safely through Tropical Storm Irene. I know that several of you live near rivers, so I hope basements and homes weren't too wet nor tree limbs falling. Pastor Ella called me from New Orleans, worried about our well being. She promised she would come up and help us rebuild if necessary. I reassured her that we were mainly just very wet, and that Irene was no Katrina. I know that up north, out west and on the coast, the impact was much greater. Even a weak hurricane is a powerful show of nature, a reminder that we are part of it, and not above it.
Every September brings with it changes. When I step back in the pulpit, I see how our children and youth have grown. I see new faces and new families. I see also who is not there: those who have moved away or moved on. I remember and miss the faces of those who have passed on: Norm, Pat, Hal, Jane, Mark, Shirley, Roy, Aaron...the list grows a little each year. And my heart still clutches at their absence.
This year, we will see something we have not seen for several years: significant transitions in our staff. As she writes in her letter in this newsletter, Sadie has decided to stay home full-time with her family. We have been very blessed by her presence. She and we have grown together in a lot of ways. She came here straight from college. She presented an exciting and invigorating vision for our religious education program. She brought creativity and energy, competence and organization. Together with the Religious Education leaders and volunteers, she helped us create a strong and healthy religious education program for our children and youth. We saw her through personal changes of marriage and family. We also saw her through professional changes, as she became a credentialed Director of Religious Education, and a leader among her DRE peers. Sadie has helped us build a strong foundation for RE. We are in a position to reflect together all we have accomplished in her eight years here, and to support her in her decision to do what is best for her and her family at this time in her life. I have full confidence in the RE Council and leaders, volunteers, and in our children and youth to work together during this transitional time. We are coming from a place of strength and accomplishment.
We also are welcoming Russ Menk as our ministerial intern. While our congregation has mentored interns before, it has been over a decade. And it will be my first experience as a ministerial supervisor. Russ brings a fresh and energizing presence, a new and different voice. He is full of enthusiasm and ideas. He brings a lot of experience of life in UU congregations and in the larger world. I am excited and delighted that he will be joining us for this church year. We will have a special welcome for him and his wife, Jackie, at our social hour after our opening worship on September 11th.
Some notes for our opening Sunday and beyond. Our opening Sunday coincides with the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11th. To honor and to remember, I will be holding a service at 9 am in the sanctuary to offer a time of reflection and quiet prayer and meditation. At 10:45, we will hold our traditional opening Sunday worship with the water communion. I invite you to bring a little water to share from something or somewhere special to you to pour into our common bowl. The goal of the common sharing is not to list the places we've been but to offer a brief reflection on what of your spirit is symbolized by it. It may be something of healing, of hope, of starting anew, of accomplishment, of anticipation. of loss, of sorrow, of joy. What of your spirit are you bringing to this new church year?
For those of you who enjoy the evening services, we will begin those again on September 18th, at 5:30 pm. These informal, circle worship services meet in the chapel.
Many thanks to Lynne Cole and the Worship Committee, and those who led services over the summer. Worship matters and I am grateful to all of you who keep it going during the break. And I am really looking forward to seeing all of you soon. I miss us!