By noon on September 11, 2001, we were just beginning to comprehend the magnitude of what had happened. We could not be certain if it was still happening or not. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital, Flight 93 in a field outside Shanksville, for those of us in Beaver, Pennsylvania, less than two hours away.
Jeff, the pastor at First Presbyterian Church, two blocks from our own Park Presbyterian Church, and I talked to each other, as good friends often do, and I can’t remember who said it first, but we knew, without much conversation, that the people of our churches and our little town needed to be together; to pray together and worship together, to come into the presence of God together. We would gather that night, that night of September 11, at Park Presbyterian because our sanctuary was the largest among all the churches.
We divided the list between us. I think I called the pastors of the Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Christian Missionary Alliance churches. Jeff called the pastors of the Methodist church, the Church of Christ, and the Assembly of God. Emails were sent as fast as our dial-up modems could handle them, phone trees were activated and the merchants on Third Street posted hastily made fliers in the windows of their shops.
We designed a simple service. There would be readings from Scripture, the Psalms and Jesus’ call from the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies. We would sing familiar hymns and the pastors of our churches would lead the people of our town in prayers for the injured and the families of those who had died, for our leaders and police officers and fire fighters. We prayed for comfort and for strength. I remember well that Jeff agreed to be the one to pray for our enemies; we weren’t quite sure who they were.
I sat down with our church musician to pick hymns. Larry is a fine organist and understands worship well. Among those we picked were Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God, from Psalm 46 and Isaac Watts’ interpretations of two other psalms: Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, Our Hope For Years to Come, Psalm 90, and My Shepherd Will Supply My Need, Psalm 23. These hymns would be sung three days later at the Presidential Prayer Service at the National Cathedral.
The sanctuary at Park Presbyterian Church seats around 600 people, and by 7:00 p.m. the seats were taken and people were standing in the back and along the sides. The pastors had never read the Scriptures more clearly or prayed so deeply. The pipe organ in all its majesty led God’s people in hymn and song like I had never heard it do so before. The voices of the Methodists and Lutherans and the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and all the others joined together as one, rising to the throne of God above as incense rises above the altar.
After the final hymn was sung and the benediction given, people huddled in the sanctuary aisles and on the sidewalk, and in McIntosh Park across the street. We were reluctant to go home, to be alone in front of our television sets watching hour after hour of frightening and discouraging news.
All of us who are over 25, maybe younger, remember that Tuesday in September. We’ll be talking about it this weekend. Among my memories are those of a sad and, yet, glorious night when God’s people worshiped together as I had never seen them worship before and maybe as I will never see again.
See you Sunday, September 11