Anticipating the 15th anniversary of the tragic events on 9/11/01, I was interviewed by United Methodist Communications about my pastoral experience serving a congregation in Manhattan during that wildly disorienting time. Here’s a link to a portion of the conversation –
It recalls how the city rose to the occasion, first with a sense of some spiritual urgency, but then with remarkable solidarity across many diversities, focusing on the common good.
The explicit spiritual emergence as evidenced by increased church attendance proved fleeting, but as the old dictum affirms, “there are no atheists in a foxhole.” And at the time, I was aware that among the rubble of that Tuesday was the language meant to capture the height, length, breadth and depth of the catastrophe. No words on the news reports were adequate for the occasion. A variety of commentators likened it to one more circle of Dante’s hell, a revisited Mount St. Helens, a nuclear winter, the edge of a crater of a volcano. One said it was bigger than the Hindenburg, bigger than the Titanic. Pearl Harbor was invoked repeatedly.
It occurred to me that our language had become so impoverished in our age of hyperbole, vapid popular culture had so overwhelmed our consciousness, that we lacked an adequate vocabulary to express the size of our experience. One of the principal reasons so many people showed up at church for so many worship services for so many days and months was to help fill this language void. Having no words of their own, hearing no words large enough in media, they sought out those places that might have at least some words that gave expression to their anguish and battered hope.
So we relied mightily on the ancient poetry of Psalms, the proclamation of prophets and the testimony of disciples to give voice to the groans of our souls. And it helped. Many stepped into a church for the first time in a long time and found a word or two that spoke for them.
And here’s the thing: whether one has been steeped in spiritual discipline or has little religious experience, we seem to have an instinct about knowing that these ancient words were forged in the crucible of great human adversity and tragedy over millennia. They have the ring of a holy and humble authenticity that speak from and to our innermost being.
As the psalmist eloquently exclaimed: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away… You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me… How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you…”
So it has always been, and so it shall always be…