It has been a year… A meditation for 9.11

It has been a year…

…and the skyline of New York still hurts.

Every morning, as I drive over the rusting crest of the Pulaksi Skyway, I still secretly hope to see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center bragging to the sky and announcing New York City to the world.

But, of course, they are not there. They are forever gone. And so much is lost with them.

It has been a year…

…and we are just beginning to remember.

The quality of that memory is changing now. No longer is remembering September 11th all about the scenes and senses of that day, the unbearably vivid reminders we have relived too often lately on TV and in newspapers and magazines.

I still find myself jolted by specific memories from the attack. Weeks ago, I found the shoes I wore that day, which I thought I’d thrown out, and their thick coat of the dust of destruction brought back the smell and taste and sound and feeling of the towers’ collapse. I buy many books about September 11th and in one, about the women of Ground Zero, I thought I saw the face of a police officer who helped herd us out of danger that day; I heard her voice again yelling at us to “Run!”; I hope this is her; I pray she is alive. And when I heard the rescued miners in Pennsylvania – those angels of badly needed good news – talk about their ordeal underground and how there came a moment in the dark when they thought they would never see their wives and children again, I could feel the darkness of the cloud of debris close around me once more and I was again haunted by those very same fears.

But these are not the memories that matter.

And remembering September 11th does matter. It matters that we remember the lessons of that day.

It matters that we remember the good – the heroism and the sacrifice – so we can pay tribute to those saints who gave so much; so we can keep their memory alive; so we can learn by their example; so we can hope.

All you need to do is hear about one firefighter who kept climbing in one of the towers knowing the peril but also the need; or one coworker who helped another escape to safety; or one soul who was thrust into bravery on one of those jets and you must have hope for mankind, for you have seen the best in us.

That is why we must remember the good of September 11th.

But it is also vital that we remember the bad – just as we must remember and bear witness to the Holocaust and Jonestown and Columbine and other of our modern abbreviations for evil. We remember the bad so we can hope and pray and try not to repeat it.

It has been a year…

…and we will never forget.

But will we ever be able to forgive?

No, I cannot yet imagine it.

So does that make me less of a Christian?

No, I hope it does not.

But isn’t that the lesson we learn in this room week after week: forgive those who trespass against us?

Yes, but I learned another lesson from Rabbi Benjamin Blech, who wrote the upcoming book, September 11th: God, Let Me Ask You Some Questions, excerpted at He advises:
God’s great gift to us is a heavenly pardon. But his present is predicated on a condition. What He asks us to do before He grants us forgiveness is to acknowledge that we were wrong and that we renounce our sinful behavior.

“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, and He will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)….

Forgiving people who aren’t sorry for what they did makes a statement: Repentance isn’t really necessary. No matter what you did, you don’t have to change….

Evil unchallenged is evil condoned. To forgive and forget, as Arthur Schopenhauer so well put it, “means to throw valuable experience out the window.” And without the benefit of experience’s lessons we are almost certain to be doomed to repeat them.

The terrorists who piloted the planes into the twin towers never asked us to be forgiven. They expressed not the slightest remorse as they went to their deaths together with their victims. Those who sent them, those who financed them, and those who applauded their mission never for a moment regretted what happened. Forgiving them is no less than giving them license to murder 4000 more innocent people. That’s why to forgive in a case like this is to become an accomplice to future crimes.
So I shall neither forget nor forgive.

It has been a year…

…and we still see American flags on lawns and cars and stores and shirts. Yes, some of them are faded and tattered from flying in the wind but I see new ones every day.

We are seeing a new day in our America. Our unity has not worn off. But I am also glad to see that we are still an America that prizes our ability to disagree and debate. We are not marching to war or away from war in lockstep; we as a nation are frankly not sure what we should do next. So we balance vengeance with patience and anger with civility as we try together to find the right path. That is what we do in a democracy.

And we have one common goal: To protect, to protect our nation, our children, our future. That is our right and that is our obligation.

We may no longer live in innocence. But we have told the world that we refuse to live in fear.

It has been a year…

…and my greatest fear today is not of attacks or airplanes – though I still do dread more violence, and I still have not boarded a jet.

No, my worst fear is instead that I have wasted this year.

The first words I wrote after surviving the attacks were, “Yes, I am blessed to be alive.” And I am reminded of the truth of that every day. I compare my fate with those who were only a city block away from me that day and who died. I look at my family and my friends and the circumstances of my life and I do not call this just luck. I know it is a blessing. I am blessed to be alive.

I had thought – I had hoped – that that the important events of September 11th would lead to important change not only in the nation and the world but also in my life. Of course, I was not alone in that hope.

Writer Norah Vincent said in the Los Angeles Times:
Scratch most Americans these days and you’ll find that many of them have made a big change in their lives in the last 12 months, something not obviously attributable to Sept. 11 but a response to it nonetheless.

It might be something as outwardly trivial as finally sticking to the Atkins diet, quitting smoking or taking up yoga. Then again, it might be something monumental like ending a decades-old bad marriage or quitting a cushy job to pursue a life in the arts. But whatever it is, the impetus behind the changes we made is essentially the same for everyone.

Deep down, we all did it because we knew that it might have been us in those towers.
I am frankly appalled by this sort of self-absorbed California-think: reducing the unimaginable tragedy, the monstrous crime of September 11th into an excuse for a diet or divorce or a yoga class.

No, the blessing of surviving September 11th is an obligation: an obligation to take the time that is now a gift and use it well, an obligation to return the blessing, to improve the world, not just yourself.

I had hoped that I would have had the courage to do something important. I don’t know what I had in mind: writing a book of note; starting a good company; helping build this small church.

But I did none of that.

For it did not take long at all for life to return to normal. And the truth is that normal life can be banal and irritating; normal life can be filled with petty politics and silly make-work and turf squabbles and self-centered worries; normal life is the distraction from the important; this is the nature of normal.

September 11th, on the other hand, was profound: profound in its tragedy, in its heroism, in its challenge, in its evil, and in its virtue.

And so I suppose I have been suffering a withdrawal from profundity. I suppose I wanted to find the way to make life stay profound.

But now I admit: that’s not normal; it’s not possible; it’s not even desirable; it’s not what life is about.

Life is about the every day.

And I have come to realize lately that the true test of us is not how we act in profound times but in normal times. Can we take the selflessness and sacrifice and courage and generosity and loyalty and concern and charity we saw on September 11th and bring it to the every day of normal life?

When you think about it, that is the exact challenge our God gives us: Can we take the profound virtue in the profound tests in the Bible and bring it into our daily lives, into our work, and homes, and friendships?

I had lunch a few weeks back with a talented writer named Rossi, whom I befriended online after I read and admired her pieces about September 11th. She lives in downtown Manhattan and in the days after the attacks, she worked at St. Paul’s Church, neighboring Ground Zero, catering to the workers there. Recently, she told me about the change she saw come over these workers about a week after the tragedy.

At first, she said, everyone working there was full of energy and enthusiasm; they were powered by will and hope and optimism. They were determined to save lives.

But by September 20th, Rossi tells me, things suddenly changed. People realized as if in an instant that there were no rescues to be made; they realized that all that lay ahead was hard and depressing work. They got irritable; people started playing games of territory and credit-grabbing and politics. She wrote on that day: “This day is different than the others have been. There is a sense of gloom in the air that is thicker than the dust. Gone is the rush of adrenaline and hope.”

You see, even at Ground Zero, things return to normal. Normal is not profound. Normal is hard. Normal takes work.

This is one of the hardest lessons of September 11th.

It has been a year…

…and no lesson stands out clearer and stronger for me than the need to remember the blessing of family every precious day. I’m sure that is true for all of us.

What I told you on the six-month anniversary of September 11th is still true today: My children and I will not let each other out of our sight at the start or end of any day without simply saying, “I love you.”

Of course, those are just words, and being a good parent takes much more than that. Being a good parent is no easier or no harder than it was before September 11th. It’s just more important.

It has been a year…

…and our greatest concern as well as our greatest hope lies in our children.

It is far too soon to know what that impact of September 11th will be on them.

Our greatest sadness comes when we look at the children of the victims. Who among us can see such a child and not feel a helpless, tragic pain?

And who among us can look at any child today and not fear for their future, for the new threats they will face, for the unfinished business we leave them?

Yet when we look at children, don’t we always see hope? We see a future that will be theirs to rule and mend.

And so this anniversary is not just about looking back – though it is about that. It is vital that we remember and tell our children to remember.

But this anniversary is also about looking forward to the next year and the next and many beyond. It is about having the faith that things will get better, that justice will be done, that attacks and fear will subside, that pain will fade, that the examples of the saints of that day will live on.

This anniversary is about the dead and the living, the evil and the good, the past and the future.

It has been a year…

…and the year after the death of a loved one marks what Jews call the Jahrzeit, the year’s time, when mourners light a candle and read the prayer of the dead, the Kaddish.

I found the text of the Kaddish online and with it came a commentary that pointed out that “there is no reference, no word even, about death in the prayer. The theme of Kaddish is, rather, the greatness of God….” It is also a prayer for peace: “peace between nations, peace between individuals, and peace of mind.”

Six months ago, on that anniversary of September 11th, I ended my time here with the prayer of the late Father Mychal Judge, the chaplain of New York’s Fire Department.

Today, on this anniversary, on this Jahrzeit, I ask that we end by lighting a candle and reading Kaddish for the dead of September 11th.

Let us pray:
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; let us say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; let us say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; let us say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; let us say, Amen.