September 9 – Grieving Without God: 9/11 Ten Years Later

At some point this weekend most of us who are over twenty years old will answer the question, “Where were you ten years ago when you first heard the news?” The memories will be solemn and sobering. Our world was jarred, knocked off its axis. Assumptions crumbled. In time we would come to know some of the names and stories of innocent office workers just arrived for another day on the job, courageous first responders and the bold passengers on Flight 93.  But during that long Tuesday morning, we watched and listened and worried.

By Tuesday evening, Americans began to gather in their churches and synagogues to pray and receive comfort from the words of Scripture. In Beaver, PA, 700 people, members of every church in town and some who hadn’t been to church in years, jammed the sanctuary of Park Presbyterian Church – because we had the most space – and every pastor prayed or read Scripture and we sang “Our God Our Help in Ages Past” and “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.”  People lingered in the sanctuary and on the sidewalk outside for over an hour after the service was over. We needed to be with each other.

Friday, September 14, was declared a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance and many of us watched the service from the National Cathedral in Washington.  The choristers sang “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” and the congregation sang “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” An 83-year old Billy Graham preached on God’s care and compassion.

Whether it was in the sanctuaries of small town churches on the day of the attack or three days later at the National Cathedral, our responses were more reflex than design, more spontaneous than planned. We did what we knew we needed to do. We turned to the One to whom we knew we needed to turn. Dr. Graham quoted the old hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”:

Fear not, I am with thee;
O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God,
and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee,
and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous,
omnipotent hand.

At the time, and certainly in hindsight, it seems that there was something right and good in the simplicity of our response. We did what we needed to do.

There has been much controversy in how the nation will publicly remember the Tenth Anniversary of the attacks.  In New York, at Ground Zero, Mayor Bloomberg has decided that it would be best not to remember the spiritual solace we sought ten years ago.  The remembrance ceremony will be religion free. The mayor’s office says it would be too difficult to decide which religious traditions to include and which to exclude, so none are invited.  That may be a good decision.

At the National Cathedral they’ve been planning and designing a weekend of events for a long time.  The main ceremony on Sunday, the one the president will attend, will be in the evening and feature a couple of pop stars and a country western singer. It is called “A Concert of Hope,” but there will be no invocation of or prayer to the God of Hope.

Prayers will offered at an 8:30 a.m. less-than-prime-time vigil.  It’s going to be one of those Whitman’s Sampler events.  One prayer from as many religions as they can think of – Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Jewish and, representing the 75% of Americans who identify as Christian, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington.  No Roman Catholics and no other Protestants or evangelicals. Some evangelicals are incensed. Maybe they should be.  I for one am not particularly interested in a Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors prayer event.  It is political and cultural theater, not prayer. I’d rather not attend.

Given time to plan and design our Tenth Anniversary commemorations, we’ve decided that God just complicates things. This Shepherd who will supply our needs offends some who fancy themselves self-reliant. The Mighty Fortress is an affront to those who would rather rely on the force of arms. The God who has been our help in ages past is an embarrassment to those who would cleanse our history of all references to a God who calls us to firmness in the right as he gives us to see the right.

Our national commemoration of 9/11 will be with no reference to God or with reference to all the gods.

At our Chapel and Sanctuary services on Sunday, September 11, 2011, the people of Langhorne Presbyterian Church will sing, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” and “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”  At the contemporary service we will confess that we are “Sweetly Broken” and that “All I Have is Christ.”  We will celebrate a God of all comfort, but acknowledge that we, like the ancient Hebrews, are those who believe God’s word and sing his praise, but soon enough forget his works and do not wait for his counsel. (Psalm 106:12-13)

For reasons of their own, those who are planning and designing the events to commemorate the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11 have chosen to exclude the God of all comfort. He really does complicate things.

Shamed by our tendency to forget his works and not wait for his counsel, we at Langhorne Presbyterian Church will gather to praise God for his faithfulness in supplying our every need.  In humility we will thank him that we do not grieve as those do who have no hope.

I hope to see you Sunday.