Magazine article The Christian Century

Homestretch: Searching for God after 9/11

Magazine article The Christian Century

Homestretch: Searching for God after 9/11

Article excerpt

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, was a hard clay to be a pastor in Washington, D.C. I spent most of the day trying to find all of our parishioners who worked in the Pentagon. Several of them had offices in the wing of the building that took the direct hit from the hijacked plane. An adimiral who is a member of the church spent hours crawling out of the rubble, and a naval captain who teaches Sunday school was home at the time but lost everyone in his office. Our church treasurer was listed among the missing until late that night. Later we learned that he had just jumped up from his desk and run down the hall to a committee meeting for which he was late. As soon as he arrived he heard the explosion. He then ran back to find an airplane where his office used to be. So he threw himself into the relief, efforts, which was why we couldn't find him. When we accounted for the last of our 11 members in the building, all alive, I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking we had survived the crisis unscathed. How could I have been so wrong?

Few in the country were left unscathed by that dark day in our history. As we stared at the replaying video of the crumbling towers in New York and the gaping wound in the Pentagon, we heard a legion of commentators tell us, "We will never be the same." At the time we didn't know exactly what that meant, but we knew it had to be true. It was particularly true in the nation's capital.

Over half of my congregation worked in government buildings, all of which suddenly felt like targets for terrorists. Parents began to take a little bit longer to get to work in the morning because they wanted to hug their children one more time, just in case. Then the anthrax scourge began. Eventually over 30 government buildings were infected, and we lost count of how many people we knew who were receiving the precautionary treatments. The anxieties were sky high for months.

Actually the anxieties are always there. We are constantly dealing with low-grade anxieties about our jobs, marriages, children, health and dreams that are in peril. But in times of crisis these anxieties are harder to avoid. That is one of the thin slivers of grace that can always be found in a crisis--it makes it harder to ignore the subtle worries that drive our lives. In a crisis no one is still pretending that everything is just fine.

The terrorist attacks didn't just destroy tall buildings and thousands of lives. They also destroyed the American assumption that we were not vulnerable to the atrocities most of the world has known for most of the history of human civilization. In the months since that dark day, most Americans have done all they can to get life back to normal. This is illustrated in the almost manic commitment of the construction workers who were determined to restore the Pentagon within one year to looking like nothing had ever happened to it. But some of us are wondering if all this resolve to return to normalcy isn't a way of missing the possibilities to redeem this horror by allowing our understanding of life to be transformed.

The reality is that our country was never as impregnable as we imagined, and neither is any individual home immune from the crises of diseases, divorce and even violence. Until we take our place among the vulnerable peoples of the world we will nurture only an illusion about home. So it is wisest to take seriously the crisis moments of life. They are our best opportunities to discover the sacred activity of God, who is constantly inviting us to leave the home of our illusions, but only to move us closer to the tree home he has prepared.

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has written about the creative possibilities of what he calls a "limit experience." That is an experience that takes us beyond the limits of normal life and calls into question our ability to comprehend life anymore. A limit experience is the one we spend most of life avoiding, dreading, defending ourselves against, because we think there is nothing beyond the limits of ordinary life but emptiness, loss and anomie. …

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