A Nation of Prayers
Thursday, September 13, 2001
I want to turn on the radio for some soothing classical music, but I know there is only more horrifying news. I realize I am depressed, a state I rarely frequent. My emotions have shut down. Too much grief, too much pain. I am overwhelmed. It seems my defense mechanisms have kicked in. They are indeed effective ancient systems of self-protection.
Flashes of sitting in an airplane cross my mind. I have spent many hours in planes, so my imagination makes it terrifyingly real to be trapped with terrorists at the controls. (Did they know they were going to die in such a horrific act?) I try and distract myself by going to the gym, doing the dishes, walking the dogs. I’m not trying to be normal, because normal doesn’t exist anymore, perhaps it never did. I chop garlic for dinner, letting the sweet smell envelope me. I take a shower and enjoy the sensation of hot water and soap cleansing my human dirt. I will never fully wash away the dirt and the pain, but I am so grateful to have my body, my ability to smell, my ability to love. I am alive and have never been more grateful for being alive. I have been taking it for granted although I didn’t think so, before this week. I thought I was grateful for garlic and showers, but now I know I wasn’t. I didn’t really understand just how much gratitude I could feel.
But today, I can’t feel much of anything at all. I am numb, but the news won’t stop coming. There are survivors emerging today, two days after the collapse of the World Trade Center. We are all survivors, but these people literally had their lives blown up. We had our public images and sense of security blown up. As survivors we are coming together, we are finding community where it did not exist before, or perhaps only existed superficially. As survivors we have to make sense of all that has happened, and decide as a people what is next. We have to keep going forward, but in what direction? “If religion is our human response to being alive and having to die, then I believe our direction lies in understanding the purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.” (F. Church)
I’m beginning to feel again, but it is so hard and so painful.
Friday, September 14, 2001
Billy Graham has just spoken at the National Prayer Service. He, like the other clergy, was wonderfully present and seemed non-anxious in front of the President and all those former presidents, wives, military leaders, members of congress and senators. I doubt I could have even walked across the chancel without tripping on my robe. He said we have three things which we can learn from this terrifying nightmare (I’m not sure we’re ready to learn anything yet, but I listen). This is what I heard him say: We have learned we need God. Which means we have learned how important it is to have faith in something beyond the tangibles of life, especially when those tangibles become so full of pain. He also said, we have learned how much we need each other. It is times when we are over whelmed and full of anguish, that we need the care of our family, our friends and neighbors. We need to lean on each other and feel human touch. And finally, I heard him say we need hope. We need hope in the present and in the future. Hope is what keeps us going when all seems beyond comprehension.
I think he is right. Although, it is not so much about lessons learned, but reminders, acute reminders of the importance of faith, human touch, and hope. They work together, like a pyramid. Our faith and human community offer us hope—although, as Unitarian Universalists, it is not always easy to strengthen our faith. Our liturgy reflects many faiths, instead of just one’s own personal faith. We all actively work to filter the words we hear and find comfort in those we like best. Whether we are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Pagan or Humanist, we need faith in something—that force, that presence, that energy which confirms we are not in this alone. Even if it is totally beyond our ability to explain or comprehend, we reach out for something beyond the self. It doesn’t matter what we call it—God, the Tao, Allah, the Spirit of Life, or the human spirit—it remains an active and important presence in our lives.
While it may not always be easy to strengthen our faith, when we do the work it is there for us even when the world is full of destruction, death and pain beyond measure. And what’s more, our community of fellow seekers is here with us as well. We are a community who support each other, and can respond with love and compassion. The challenge to come together has never been more great than now. There are stories everywhere of people coming together to help in extraordinary ways. Indeed, we must look to each other, and to all of humanity to strengthen our faith. We must look to the chaotic, unpredictable and complex human nature and find solace and hope. But there are no easy answers here in this church, no platitudes, just you and me, and our faith and hope.
Rev. Graham didn’t go into all this, of course. He stayed with his own endurable faith, which is right for him. For me, I can’t put my faith in a God who stands apart from this pain and anguish. I don’t understand any God who is omnipotent who would allow such hatred to exist. So, I don’t believe in such a God. For me, the Spirit of Life, the Tao, is imminent. “God” if you will, exists here and now, within the breath of my lungs, and the muscles of my body, and the blood of my womb. “God” is not out there as some great mysterious being to whom I can only meekly succumb. No, the Spirit of Life is present, within this community, within all humanity, and God was present with all those who died this week. I also know we humans have again broken God.
Saturday, September 15, 2001
What is tomorrow about? This Sunday, this day of worship and community? We gather to try and make sense of our confusion and to crawl out of our shock. Both mentally and emotionally we are trying to cope with the brutal and intentional destruction of The World Trade Center, The Pentagon and four commercial airplanes. Even more unbelievable, we know it could have been worse!!! The plane which crashed near our very own Pittsburgh (so close to home), could just have easily hit its target. A week ago we couldn’t even imagine it being this bad. We try and make sense of the media and political messages of revenge and war. So many of us here this morning are a peaceful people. We do not want more death and destruction.
Humanity has entered a new sphere, a new relationship with itself. We must finally face the evil which lies within us. We must walk into a different future, making critical decisions which we have been deftly avoiding for centuries. “The Chinese ideogram for crisis juxtaposes two word pictures: danger and opportunity. Even as our grief today can be measured by our love, the danger we now face suggests a commensurate opportunity ... (and) In Greek the word, crisis, means “decision.” In the wake of this tragedy, it is the decisions we make that will shape our character and (to a degree) drive the plot our lives will follow.” (F. Church). In our hearts we do not really want revenge and war. Peace and justice, yes, we want peace and justice, but is this really possible?
“Yes,” I say, although admittedly, I can’t say it with total confidence. My hope lies in the direction of humanity responding with measured and reasoned actions. Indeed I am hearing this message from Colin Powell, thank God. He recognizes there are economic, political, judicial and diplomatic responses which can help avoid more blood shed. I am hearing it from other UU ministers, my colleague Forrester Church in New York City wrote this week “This is not, as some historians would have it, a war between civilizations. It is a war between civilization and anarchy, a war of God-demented nihilists against the very fabric of world order.” Our response must be one of justice not revenge. Our response must look to love and compassion, not hatred and apathy. Our response must plead for more than peace, for this would be a usurption of our responsibility to humanity. The opportunity in this crisis, the key decision is the path we choose toward justice.
Our hope lies in our ability to respond maturely out of our broken naiveté. We have been so complacent in our belief of protection and security. We have watched from afar other people and other lands being brutally attacked, and we have done very little to respond, or worse yet, we have contributed to those attacks. We no longer have the luxury of not responding or denying accountability. We Americans are a proud and dignified people. We have more freedoms than many humans can even dream of. We are looked to from all over this planet for our leadership and indeed have set the standard of living for many countries.
Patriotism is a powerful healer of our wounds, but it can slide into its own brand of extremism. It breaks my heart knowing our legacy of freedom and democracy is used as a weapon against other governments and people. I do feel gratitude to have been born in such a land of privilege, but not when my privilege is used to threaten and usurp other people. It is time we look up from our over flowing plates and recognize our responsibilities. This is our time to recognize our own complicity in the spread of more pointless violence. The violence must stop, for the sake of humanity, it must stop.
“As we enter this uncertain and forbidding future, we must not only strengthen our minds; we must also prepare our hearts,” (F. Church).We must allow our wounded hearts to inform our intellect on how to best respond. Therefore it is imperative that we find healthy outlets for our fear, our anger and our pain. We must share them and recognize our nerves are on edge and our hearts are overwhelmed. This is the mature response. This is key in our decisions for the future.
Forrester Church also wrote this week, “But, above all else, this is a spiritual challenge, one that each one of us must meet. If before we could seemingly afford the luxury of relegating our spiritual lives to the occasional Sunday, this week, facing a transfigured future, we must redirect our energies and spirits. In times like these, measured against the preparation of our souls, all lesser priorities lose their urgency.” Our spiritual challenge is to rise above our base fears, to sit and meditate, to reach out to our faith, to pray. We are a nation and a world of prayers, and I believe it is this response which will help temper and guide us toward a future of peace and justice.
In this future, we here in our own Meadville religious community will be faced with challenges. There will be many repercussions of this week’s tragic attack, which we have to yet to discern. Whether they be economic, political, social or religious, we need to stand together as a community more bonded than we have ever been. It will be a test of our spiritual and emotional maturity, and a test of our commitment. As we face our future together, in this new world of uncertainty and painful loss, it is a time to come together as a people of mutual respect, religious depth, and personal integrity.
It is not going to be easy. We are facing a paradigm change of unprecedented magnitude. We will grow weary and lose hope. We will forget our goals and revert back to old habits. We will hurt others, and learn to say “I’m sorry.” We will feel disempowered and feel there is nothing we can do. But our government leaders need to hear from us. They need us and we need them. We need each other for we cannot do this alone. It will take all of us working together, both locally in our own communities, and throughout the world. The decision belongs to humanity, to all of us. “If religion is our human response to being alive and having to die, then I believe our direction lies in understanding the purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for,” (F. Church). May it be so. God, may it be so.
Author's Note: It took me three days to write this sermon, three days of prayer and healing, and I owe much gratitude to Forrester Church who ministered to me via the UUA website. Thank you, Forrest.)
Sermon delivered at Unitarian Universalist Church of Meadville, Pennsylvania, on September 16, 2001.