How many times in your life can you remember where you were when something major happened? We were at my Uncle and Aunt’s house in Great Bend, Kansas when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I can remember the shag carpet, the wood paneling, sitting on the floor in front of the television. It was July, 1969, I was 8 years old, and I remember distinctly watching it with my family.
I also remember the year before, 1968, being led outside along with all the rest of the kids in in our elementary school, I don’t remember if there were high school kids on the lawn down the way where their building was. We stood surrounding the flagpole in Almena, Kansas. There were two trumpet players, one at our end of the school and one at the High School building end, and they played a rendition of taps with the echo. I was seven, and that image and sound stick in my mind like it was yesterday. It was after Bobby Kennedy was shot, and Martin Luther King had just been shot two months previously and President John F. Kennedy 5 years earlier. I didn’t understand much of the happenings at the time, I simply remember so starkly our outside gathering under the bluest of skies, at least that’s what I see in my mind’s eye.
My guess is some of you remember where you were when other momentous things happened. The sinking of the Arizona in Hawaii that started WWII and the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended it. Getting under your desks as protection from a possible nuclear threat from Russia, or lining up to receive the Polio vaccine in the mid to late 1950’s. We certainly have moments individually that we remember in our personal lives, but the larger moments take on significance because we experience them as a nation, a community, a gathered populace that for brief periods of time, know ourselves more together than separate, even in our differences.
September 11, 2001. For this generation, this chapter of history, that is the moment. When everything else seemed to stop. Can you remember where you were 20 years ago when you heard? Planes had been flown into the twin towers, and then one into the Pentagon, and then one down in a field in Pennsylvania.
I was on the way from Baldwin City 1st, my appointment at the time, to Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City to interview a candidate for ministry. I left the house at 8:00 o’clock. I remember the sky was so, so blue that September morning. I can’t remember if I thought that after I turned on the radio and heard the news or before, I simply remember thinking that. I wondered for a moment if I should stop my car and turn around when I heard, but then I wasn’t sure what I would do if I did. So I kept the appointment, we all did, three of us interviewing and the candidate as well. Maybe it’s the human need for “normalcy” in the face of the unexpected and uncontrollable. We all prayed together, before and at the close of the meeting, and then we all left for our respective churches. The news continued to get worse and the sky remained overwhelmingly and beautifully blue. Maybe the striking nature of that is one of the things that continues to trouble, intrigue, and mystify me in some ways. The sometimes sheer ugliness of what we humans are capable of toward one another, and the unbelievably awesome beauty of God’s creation on midwestern summer into fall September days. Like today.
Decade markers strike us somehow, their significance seeming to bring back the details in ways some other years don’t, at least for those of us not most directly affected. For the families who lost loved ones, I don’t doubt that every year is a stark reminder. Those among us who are 24, 25, 26 years old don’t know a world without 9-11. Those of us older don’t know a world without 9-11 and other historical markers going back to our earliest memories. And what have we learned? That’s not a rhetorical question this time, I truly wonder, what we have learned as a people, and as individuals, and as communities and people of faith? I oftentimes think God’s tears are bigger than ours, God’s heart breaks as much and more than ours do in response to our worst moments as humans beings created to be in relationship with one another. Maybe God wonders what we have learned as well.
We are preparing for a big weekend at Grace. Lots of laughter and fun and eating and worshiping and reminding each other how fun it is to be together albeit with masks and some distancing. And . . . Chiefs! We’ll move forward with all those things, and somewhere we will stop, as individuals, as a church family, as members of this Republic, we’ll stop. And with hearts of humility and recognition, we’ll remember. We’ll remember what we can be at our best. We’ll name what we sometimes are at our worst. We’ll ask for and offer forgiveness for so very many broken things in our lives and in our world. And we’ll celebrate that God in God’s wisdom continues to “come alongside” us through the Holy Spirit as an ongoing and eternal presence to help heal, teach, invite, and envision us into our better selves for a better world. We’ll pray for the grieving, for the loss, and for the courage to come together in a chapter in history where nearly everything we’re about is tearing us apart.
We will live in the incongruity – the beauty of God’s world and recognizing the brokenness of our humanity; the promised presence of the holy and our inability to see the best in each other; the sorrow of a 20 years old tragedy and the joy of being together in God’s grace at Grace in the present. Maybe, maybe what we experience together will help build a better tomorrow, and maybe for today, that’s grace enough.