Ten years is a long time, but the wound the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks inflicted on the American psyche has had a deep effect, prompting many to re-examine mortality, morality and faith. Even for pastors, the answers do not come easily.
How do you make sense of what some have likened to “this generation”s Pearl Harbor?” How do you answer questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Where was God?” How do you forgive the unforgettable?
Today, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, clergy members around the nation will grapple with these dilemmas, trying to tie a thousand loose ends into a solid narrative, attaching a knot of meaning at the end to which their parishioners can cling and find comfort.
Friday morning found most pastors tucked behind desks, their heads bent in concentration as they tried to find words succinct enough to hold attention but deep enough to resonate.
”Not so sure I”m ready to forgive”
It”s a topic he”s wrestled with all week, admits the Rev. Olin McBride, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Starkville. It was a difficult day to follow Jesus — so much so that McBride has chosen that as the title of his Sunday sermon.
The Bible calls for Christians to forgive one another “70 times seven.” And yet, even in simple matters, at the heart of being human is the tendency to seek revenge and retaliate when we are hurt. It”s hard to forgive a sequence of events McBride says he”s “not so sure any of us are ready to forgive.”
And yet, that”s what he, and many other pastors in the area, is calling his congregation to do. Forgive. Seventy times seven. It is the path to freedom, McBride says.
It”s a message he knows may not be well received.
“I”m either going to say too much or not enough,” he said Friday morning. “It”s going to be interesting to hear the comments after the service. I”m not so sure I”m ready to forgive either, but that”s our mandate as Christians. At some point in time, we need to focus on the forgiveness and the grace of God.”
”Finding room in your heart to move forward”
Members of St. Paul”s Episcopal Church in Columbus will also be exhorted to forgive. The only way to move forward is to stop looking behind us, says Pam Rhea, a deacon at St. Paul”s and the first female Episcopalian deacon in northeast Mississippi.
Ten years ago, she was driving to her job at Fitzner Cadillac, lost in thought as she listened to the news on the radio. The Twin Towers had not yet fallen, and a plume of smoke had not yet marred the skyline. Yet, the morning radio broadcast was already bleak.
Rhea walked through the door of the car dealership and said, “My goodness, the news is terrible this morning.”
Her co-workers stared past her, riveted by the television in the customer lounge.
The news on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was, indeed, terrible. Flames were shooting from the World Trade Center, and planes were crashing into buildings over and over, in a loop of horror as TV anchors scrambled to gather information.
Rhea didn”t know anyone who worked in the Twin Towers, but she had a friend who was an Episcopalian priest. In the months that followed, he would walk that ashen ground many times, ministering to the spiritual needs of the rescue workers and victims. His heart was already weak, and she attributes his death, in part, to the strain.
For her, the key to forgiveness lies in focusing on the road ahead.
“It”s not necessarily about forgetting, or not being prepared, but finding room in your heart to move forward,” she says. “9/11 is something with so much emotion in it, and it”s still a sore wound. I”m certainly not going to say we have to forget about it … I don”t know that our faith helps us to make sense, so much as it helps us be strong enough to get through it and know all of our questions won”t be answered in our own reasoning.”
In places like Murfreesboro, Tenn., Christians and Muslims who lived alongside one another for decades now are at odds, fighting over whether or not a new Islamic Center should be built. The issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor, and drawn nationwide media attention.
Rhea has traveled broadly throughout the Middle East, working with seminary students in Syria, Jordan and Israel. Experience informs her perspective on the friction.
“I”ve been among people there who are just genuinely loving people, and I see it a little differently,” Rhea says. “We”re all people, and there are bad people in every place, along with the good people, and we have to understand that. It doesn”t make it hurt any less on either side when you are a victim.”
If part of being human is the ability to hurt — and be hurt — so, too, is part of being human the necessity to experience the bad alongside the good.
Rhea encourages people of all faiths to hold memory sacred, not lowering defenses and not forgetting the past, but choosing to move forward in peace.
“We won”t have peace until we”re all able to sit at the table together,” she says.
”Hands folded in prayer and opened in service”
Even as people fled the towering inferno, there were those who rushed to the scene, risking — and in some cases, losing — their lives to save others.
There are the men and women since then — more than 6,000 in all — who have died serving in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
There are those who saw a need and answered a call, across every gamut of life. There are those left behind.
Sept. 11 afforded the opportunity for ordinary people to do things they thought they could not do, in places many would not tread. Clergy seeking inspiration for Sunday”s sermon found fodder in these “hometown heroes” as well.
At First Assembly of God in Columbus, Senior Pastor Jody Gurley decided to combine National Grandparents Day with Patriot Day, offering a video dedicated to honor all heroes in our lives, from mentors to teachers to public servants.
“A hero can be defined in a lot of different ways,” Gurley explains. “I”m going to talk about different ways people can be a hero and how we can be heroes to other people.”
Sept. 11 should be a time for “remembrance, resolve and renewal,” states a brief section in this week”s church bulletin at Annunciation Catholic Church in Columbus.
While recognizing those directly affected by the day”s events, along with the first responders, the church”s message also encourages parishioners to remember not just the tragedy but also the nation”s response.
“We turned to prayer, and then turned to one another to offer help and support,” Annunciation”s bulletin states. “Hands were folded in prayer and opened in service to those who had lost so much.”
The message concludes with both promise and premise: “We resolve today and always to reject hatred and resist terrorism. The greatest resource we have in these struggles is faith.”
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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