On 9/11 Twenty Years Later


9/11 is personal for most Americans. I am no different. Perhaps being in New York City that horrible day makes my sense of loss a bit more acute. Perhaps all the events surrounding my life at the time does the same. I don't know.

I had just moved to Manhattan a couple weeks before that world-altering event. My wife and I for the year prior were teaching Conversational English in South Korea. It was overall a terrific experience, but some serious health issues related to air quality and physical limitations made the month before our departure from Korea rather tenuous and stressful. Holly was forced to leave early a month earlier than expected (July 2001). She'd recuperate in Florida with her parents while I went to New York City to begin seminary. She'd join me in mid-September.

Union Theological Seminary is on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, some 4 miles north of the Twin Towers though connected by the Subway system as most places in NYC are. My first day of classes was on that unbelievably beautiful Tuesday. That day felt very much like this day as far as the high blue and cloudless skies and the pure, dry and breezy air goes. Maybe just a little cooler.

My first day of classes were cancelled. 

I was alone in a new, humongous city just getting my bearings straight before 9/11. When it hit, bearings being straight was beyond the realm of possibility. I did not know what was happening in those moments after the tragedy. I did not know how to flee, which was my natural instinct. Head home due north to Albany where my parents were - that was my first thought. But the City shut down. No car. No cell phone or landline connection. Dazed people walking out of the Subway whose line runs stopped. Sirens wailing. Then, helicopters and military planes flying overhead, the latter of which was hard to differentiate from possible commercial planes like the two that just hit the Towers. All I could do was stay put and pray.

My wife would fly into NYC just a week later on 9/18. Not able to find work in NYC, which was economically depressed for weeks, she’d be forced to move out of the City just a couple months later. She’d eventually enter grad school herself, and we’d live in two locations for awhile.

I did not lose a loved-one on that day, for which I thank the Lord. I in no way compare my losses to the losses experienced by the victims or their loved-ones. But we all lost something that day. I certainly did and in poignant ways. 

A loss of innocence and insulation. A loss of a sense of security. A loss of togetherness with Holly in those difficult months and years after 9/11. And maybe more significantly, the loss I experienced all around me in a city drowning in grief, in a nation numbly wading through trauma and loss, in a world that was forever changed.

Then came the wars, one of which continued for almost 20 years. More grief. More loss. More lives forever changed.

Twenty years later, the last war connected to it over (at least as far as we know), we mark 9/11. Yes, “I’m proud to be an American,” as the song says. I am as patriotic as the next guy, I like to think. But I must admit, the strongest feeling I experience remains grief and loss. Maybe an even deadlier and worldwide pandemic effects this. I am sure it does in some indecipherable way.

Related to my sense of grief and loss is the knowledge that we are so disconnected as a people. We are so torn and frayed and ready to lash out. We are as divided as we’ve ever been. 9/11 has not resulted in us being better as a people. We are a shadow of a collective self we always envisioned ourselves to be. 

I just finished watching a powerful TV series on HBO-Max titled “Mare of Easttown.” It is a crime drama involving a murder and two disappearances in a small, eastern Pennsylvania town. But is about much more than that. It is about individual and collective grief. 

A major theme that develops near the end of the series points to an integral truth. We often experience a severe loss or trauma, and instead of facing and grieving that loss, we lose ourselves in other people’s issues, their losses, and in our work. We transfer our grief onto other things, in other words, to escape the wrenchingly hard work of facing our own grief. No judgment here, but how sadly this effects us, keeping us locked down and preventing us from moving forward!

Could it be that in the wake of our collective loss on 9/11, we transferred our grief onto the almost immediate talk of war followed by multiple wars? Could it be we’ve never fully or properly grieved 9/11 as a people? We went from singing God Bless America on 9/11 to literally battling in front of the doors of the Capitol on 1/6 this year. 

As we’ve seen in our history, namely in our never coming to terms with our original sin of slavery and with the Civil War that resulted, not fully grieving collective loss and trauma has dire consequences.     

So, as an American and as a pastor, I am profoundly sad these days surrounding September 11th. But in this sadness, I rely on my faith and prayer. I pray as an American living in a nation filled with promise and possibility and progress but held back by collective loss and pain. I pray that we can somehow tap into our shared grief, nourish ourselves in the common bonds therein, and experience healing together. I pray we can somehow, someway begin to actualize again some semblance of compassion and togetherness as a people.  

Masks - WWJD?

We are experiencing a dilemma these days. Public health versus personal freedoms. Collectively getting a vaccination for better collective health or refusing to do so using your individual rights. Wearing or having your kid wear a protective face covering to improve public safety or refusing the wearing of masks declaring personal freedom.

I won’t get into the science that overwhelmingly shows the efficacy of both vaccines and masks.

What I want to look at today is what ethics and Christian ethics has to say on the issue of individual freedom versus the pursuit of the collective good, in this case, good public health.

Let me begin by looking at basic, secular ethics when it comes to individual freedom and the public good.

First, we need to define freedom.

I define freedom in general terms as the capacity to live fully, void of forced constraints. Put simply, freedom means being able to live without some kind of power constraining us.

But that “us” is vital. Look at masks. You may say, well, I am free to live free from the constraint of a mask. But unless you are living on an island alone, there is someone else to consider. I and others live alongside you on the island. And if we live in close contact, notions of personal freedom must be considered alongside persons. I deserve to live free from constraints just like you do, namely the constraints that the Covid virus would entail.

This raises a dilemma, doesn’t it? What happens when individual freedoms conflict? We are seeing that play out now, aren’t we?

This dilemma tells us something crucial - freedom must exist in community, among individuals living together, for it to matter much. If your freedom restrains my freedom, there is no freedom shared among us. You have it and I don’t.

The ideas is to maximize the freedom of all, not just individual me or individual you. How we can all live as free as possible, that is the key question. Is life amid a pandemic feeling so free?

So, the dilemma is really about individual freedom and collective freedom, between your right to personal freedom and the community’s right to be as free as possible.

Christian ethics actually helps us confront our dilemma. In fact, it seems to me what Jesus would do and what Christian ethics has to say is often left out of the debate.

The best way to approach the idea of Christian freedom is to consider two things: where human freedom comes from in the Christian understanding. And what the point of human freedom, what the aim of freedom is.

Well, the source of Christian freedom and the point and aim of that freedom are one and the same – God!

Freedom comes from God. Freedom is a gift of our Triune God. Want to know what freedom looks like, look at the Trinity. Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, on the basis of love, selflessly and freely living in community with one another. The freedom found in the selfless love of the Trinity overflows as a gift to us.

The overflowing gift of freedom is revealed most powerfully to us in the person of Christ. Jesus was the freest person who ever lived, right? He revealed the free life to us most potently and most clearly.

And what did Jesus do? He lived a selfless life, a selflessness that took him to the foot of the cross, and the freest of choices – to lay down his life for us. His selflessness and his freedom were one and the same in him.

As for us, the truest freedom amounts to a life transformed by this selfless and fully free Christ. By taking in Christ, we are given the capacity to freely live, living in a free-flowing way on the basis of his selflessness and compassion.

The opposite of a free life, according to the Christian faith, is a life lived on the basis of selfishness. A life filled with choices and ways moved by selfishness, is a life that is not free at all.

Paul in his letters to the churches of Rome and Galatia focuses a great deal on this enslavement to selfishness. Most Bible translation term this, slavery to the flesh.

The Bible says, we lack godly freedom because of our enslavement to selfishness.

But thanks be to God, the selflessness of Christ frees us from such enslavement to selfishness.

Through Christ, we overcome freedom's opposite – enslavement to selfishness.

And what does a life freed by Christ, what does a life free from the slavery of selfishness look like. Paul points to fruits of the Spirit as the answer. If someone is truly free spiritually speaking, they exhibit these attributes:  love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If one is truly free, one is loving, joyful, peaceful and nonviolent, forbearing and tolerant, kind, goodhearted, faith-oriented, gentle and humble, and self-controlled.

So what it the effect of all this, as we come to a close? Well, when it comes to public health or anything else in our collective lives, a choice or decision based primarily on self-interest is not the mark of a free person. Freedom and selfishness are not in the same camp, according to the Christian understanding.

The freest thing we can do as Christians is act out of this sacred knowledge – that we don’t exist alone but live connected to God and interconnected with the world around us  The freest thing we can do is to act out of this sacred insight – that our freedoms are tied together and are sourced in God’s freedom, and God’s freedom is always based in selfless love. The freest thing we can do is to free ourselves from selfishness in service to God and to others.

As we come to a close, we ask what would Jesus do?

Its clear where Jesus stood. The story most often told in the gospels, told some 6 times, is Jesus feeding the thousands. You know the story. Jesus’ disciples just want to get on with things and leave the scene after working all day helping Jesus heal and teach. Despite his disciples and his own weariness, Jesus says, no, no, we are all about sacrificing our personal comfort, we are all about getting past our desire to do what we want to do. Jesus says, yes it's hard, but let’s feed them!

Then there is that Old Rugged Cross, the heart of the Jesus story. Remember the story? Jesus sacrificed his individual life for the collective good of all. Remember the story? Christ selflessly giving all away for the sake of all, giving away his freedom in an ultimate way, all to free us. Remember the story? Jesus endured the pain and the persecution out of love for the world, even portions of the world nailing him to the cross.

We are called to be like Christ! The very word Christian means just that – Christ-like. To use that name means to assert that selflessness and sacrifice are core to who we are and to carry our own crosses.

As for masks, show your freedom in God and wear your masks out of a free-flowing love for others! It's what Jesus would do. 

Connection


This is the 2nd Part of a Sermon Series titled "The C3P2 Church." Last week we discussed Community. This week is Connection. Next week is Compassion. The C3 of Community, Connection, and Compassion will be followed by the P2 of Prayerfulness and Progress.

1. To God

“Breath…Light…Us… (Genesis 1) “God is Breath…” (John 4:24); “God is Love…” (I John 4:8, 16); “God is Light…” (I John 1:5)

God is Breath, scripture originally says.
And Breath breathed, breathes life into us
in the beginning, at the dawn of Creation.
The Life of God enlivens Life in us, through us.
We are alive in God. Our connection
to our Life-Giver more a inter-bond,
unbounding us to do Divine Life’s work.

God is Light, scripture originally says.
And Light enlightened the stars and sun,
sculpting this universe, the source of creativity.
The Light of God undimmed our dark rooms.
We are now alight in God. Our connection
to our Enlightener more an extension
from You to me and out to the world.   

God is Love, scripture originally says.
And Love loves us into becoming and being
in the here and now, and infinitely so.
The Love of God loves us, in us, infusing us.
We are beloved in God. Our interconnection
to the Loving One more an at-one-ment,
atoning us to love one another as One loves us.

Genesis 1 indicates that before the beginning of creation, there was Light, there was Breath, usually translated as Spirit, and there was a loving, harmonious we.

God created light in the universe as one of the opening acts of Creation. “Let there be light,” Genesis 1:3 says. But before Creation, was there light? Well, yes. God was light. Light created light.

God as Breath was moving from the before the beginning, Genesis 1:2 says. And the Breath moved over creation, and more creativity happened. Then later in Genesis 2, verse 7. God breathed into the nostrils of Adam, the first human, the breath of life.

God as Love is a little more implicit. It is not directly obvious in Genesis 1 and 2. That God is Love itself is really a Christian original idea. What we call an innovation gifted to the world. But we can interpret God as Love in the Genesis story. Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us make human in our own image…”

Who is the Us and the Our?

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity provides an answer. In the beginning and before was the Trinity. And what is foundation of the Trinity? Love. An intra-love between Creator, Christ, and Sacred Spirit. That’s why we say, God is Love.

So, light, breath, love, these three define God.

How does God connect to us? How do we connect to God?

We breathe and do it mindfully. Mindfully and gratefully breathing connects us to God.

We notice light from the sun rising in the morning, gracing us with vision and warmth. We notice how there’s a light that guides our path. We remember Jesus telling us, “you are lights unto the world,” and we seek to be the light, as Amanda Gorman so powerfully reminded us Wednesday. Noticing light, seeing that we are light, and being it – these practices connect us to God.

 

2. To Each Other
“So God created humankind in God’s image, in the likeness of God he created them” (Genesis 1:27)

You like me carry a little of God within
You like me walk like God. Do you know?
You like me speak like God. Do you know?
You appear like God from dawn to dusk. Do you?
Will you? Can you? Will I? Can I?
Can we, can we see one another anew?
Can we see one another in the manner
we enter Sunday morning, worshipful,
reverential, sanctuary-filled and feeling?

Buddhists with palms together
bow arriving to one another.
To the Awoke One in you I bow.
To the Awoke One in you I bow, too.

The Christ-christened, let us do the same.
Let us with our hellos if merely inwardly
bow to the Anointed One in you and me,
bow to the Anointed One in you and me.

That of God in us, as the Quakers say,
encompasses us and connects us,
creating in us compasses of compassion,
compasses carrying a little piece of the Cross,
a little touch of Christ who empties self to save.


A central doctrine of the Christian tradition is known as Imago Dei. We are each created in God’s image. The Hebrew word for image here tselem. It can also mean likeness, image, or form. When Gen. 1:27 says we are created in God’s tselem, it points to a powerful, unbelievable reality. We carry God’s likeness, God’s form in the human things we do such as walk, talk, and live our life. Realizing this and acting according is the point. Forgetting this means we fall into the scenario that Adam and Eve experienced.

Some Christian teachings argue that that Image of God status we were created in was degraded by the Fall to such a degree as to have disappeared. But how can anything resembling God die? God doesn’t die. Neither can the divine image. It merely got covered, hidden, forgotten in such a way that it seemed lost to us.

Imagine the moon covered with thick clouds. The moon is imago dei. The cloud sin. God’s image, the moon, though hidden by the cloud of sin, remains. Christ, Christ’s work, and our internalization of Christ’s transformative life, is what moves those clouds away.

Anyway, that we each carry God’s image as human beings means God connects us, unites us, creates a common ground that we all share. Realizing our connection to each other via God’s connection to us is everything, changes everything, and can heal us and our divides.

 

3. To Our Communities
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

God is in Community;
Community is in God.
Creator, Christ and Sacred Spirit,
the primordial community
giving way to the diverse glory of Creation.
Two or more gathered,
an earthly society mirroring the heavenly one,
called to unfold the loving bond that enfolds
more and more into belonging as it goes.  

I am in my community;
My community is in me.
This is true,
This is truth
Like it; like it not.

I choose to love,
to love the Truth,
making it present and future together.

I choose in the now ever-coming
to push myself outward and out there,
to compel my self to expel self-enclosure,
to love neighbor as neighbor alongside neighbor.

We are in our Community;
that Community is in us.
A community like ours cannot be cloistered,
enclosed within walls
and within the claims of personal heaven.
A community like ours cannot be quiescent
at least without dying a slow collective death.

Shall we choose to breathe the church where we live,
crying good news to the people, news of connection,
Shall we embody communion amid the lost, the left-out, the lonely,
baptizing our neighbors in the name of active love?


As mentioned, the Trinity is the primordial Community. When two or three are gathered in Christ’s name is a Christian community. Three gathered in one divinity, that is a Triune Community.

The task of the Christian community is to mirror the Triune Community in heaven.

It doesn’t stop there, as the Triune Community reached into human history and the created world via Christ’s works of compassion, we are tasked as a church with reaching into our wider communities and creation found there to do the Christ-like work of compassion. Christ’s act of self-emptying talked about in Philippians 2, where he let go of godly form to selflessly provide us refuge – this is what we are to mirror as a church.

How we do this and in what form, that is the key question.

 
4. To All Things
“God saw every created thing, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

The Ultimate Good
unspooled the Blue Marble,
the planet we recall seeing
through the eyes of space’s photographer.

That Blue Marble
and All things within it,
the Ultimate Good
declared Good.

Each day of the week
upon each workday’s end,
the Good Word declared:
“It is so and it is good.”

Good begets Good,
Good into the Good,
Good infused in the Good,
Good upon Good upon Good.
The interconnection of Good.
The harmony of Good.
And Good is Harmony with Three Parts.

The ungood? The ungodly?
The absence of harmony,
the beginning of harm,
the resorting to a sole self singing out of tune.
to no one, for no one.

Let all things join the Holy Trio.
Let all things sing their song,
finding their voice and a melody
in harmony with the whole.
Let all things find belonging in community,
Community akin to a choir
Singing a holy song, an infinite song,
a song that unites heaven and earth,
a song that takes up residence
in each and every heart
that in turn touches the heart of the universe.


God with each day of creation declared all that was created good. From the heavens and the earth to the smallest animal, God declared it good. In the same way, God declared human beings, God’s closest creation, good. If creation is still, human as the pinnacle of creation contain the good still.

This is understandable. God is the Ultimate Good. God is good itself. And if God includes God’s self in God’s masterpiece, like any magisterial artist does, then good is part and parcel of what God creates.

God’s goodness, like God’s love, comes from within the Trinity, shared among Creator, Christ, and Sacred Spirit, and overflowing out in creativity to paint creation. Good is akin to harmony innate in the Trinity.

Where does the non-good, the ungodly come from?

The absence of harmony within us. Or our refusing to hear that harmony that is God. Or our forgetting of the song of God. These lead to cacophony, even chaos in our souls. And they may lead to a harming of our own psyche and then a harming of those around us.

Returning to God’s harmonious way that is our hope and our salvation. All things Joining the Holy Trinity and singing in a kind of worldwide Community Choir of God – that is the sacred duty of Christians, of the Christian church, and all Compassionate beings of Good Will.

King & Courtship

Thumbing through the library’s card catalog (yes, card catalog!), I came upon a new card with a new book that looked very intriguing – Testament of Hope: The Essential Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King. Coincidentally, I was in the throes of a self-study of the Civil Rights Movement at the time, and this was surely an essential new addition to that study.

In a more lasting way, it is this book that in many ways is responsible for my marriage and that marriage's child. Let me tell you the story now that is now part of family lore.

I excitedly went to locate that book that day. But the book wasn’t in the new arrivals section as it should have been. I wrote down the call number, went downstairs to the stacks, and where the book was supposed to be there was just empty space. I went to the checkout desk and asked about it. They informed me it had just been checked out, but that I could place a reserve on the book so that no renewals could be placed on it after the short borrowing time for new books. I did just that.

A couple weeks later I got a notice via inter-campus mail (no email yet either) that the book was ready to be picked up. I went straight to the library and checked the book.

I carried that book everywhere. I read it as often as I could. In chapel. In classes big enough to hide it. At meals. It became my Bible for those days I first had it.

A couple days after, I brought it into a student organizational meeting. I was early and so I began reading the book. I planned on doing so until others began arriving. 

The first to arrive was the chairperson of the organization called Social for Social Justice. She was a petite young woman with dark brown hair and almond shaped eyes. She easily distracted me. I placed the large book on my desk as she sat down. Immediately, she frowned.

“So you’re the one!” she spouted

Surprised by her remark, I answered with a one-word question, “what?”

Continuing in her faux-frustration, she responded, “I was enjoying that book just a week ago, but wasn’t able to finish it. I was kind of disappointed with the unknown person who took it away from me. That unknown person is now known! I am glad someone is enjoying it.”

Of course, I offered to let her finish it. But she was herself - gracious and patient enough to wait. She then introduced herself – Holly Glenzer. 

This introduction began our love story, one that resulted in our son and one that continues to this day. We still share our own copy of the book. It sits prominent on our bookshelf as a reminder of not just the greatness of a man and of the movement he led but as a testament of our own shared hope as well.