With Friday’s eighth anniversary of 9/11, it was time once again to ask the annual question: where would we be, had the attacks never taken place?
And once again, we had to accept the fact that we’ll simply never know.
Saturday’s dramatic thunderstorm shattered the morning calm and reminded us that disaster can strike at any moment. Yes, we do remember.
Looking again at the image of Satan’s face imbedded in the foul cloud of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, I remember well the rising fumes of American fury and the pervasive sense of solidarity and purpose we felt.
Now, eight years later, I’m more conscious of the toll to our economy, to our young men and women in uniform, and to hundreds of thousands of innocent people - many of them already victimized by the situations in which they had been living - of our nation’s military response, and of the brutal, chaotic and sometimes demonic effort of certain totalitarian fanatics to dominate - or destroy - the entire middle east, and from there, the world.
Recent statistics place American casualties in Afghanistan at roughly 760 dead and 2,380 wounded. In Iraq, our fatalities number over 4,328, and those wounded, 46,132. Add the total loss of uniformed Americans in these two theatres of war (5,088) and the figure nearly doubles that of 9/11’s 2974 innocent deaths. As for the casualties of enemy fighters and innocent (or at least marginally innocent) civilians, only God knows.
In spite of - or because of - all this bloodshed, the number of extremists dedicated to our nation’s destruction seems only to be steadily increasing.
Like sharks in troubled waters, they seem drawn by the scent of blood.
Unlike sharks, they seem to delight in killing simply for killing’s sake.
But to successfully fight a determined killer, you risk becoming like him.
What can we say to this miserable state of affairs? Unfortunately, rather than outgrowing our thirst for violence, it seems that we Americans, both as individuals and as communities, are getting more violent than ever.
This dilemma has been troubling me ever since my childhood, and struck me as especially desperate as the arms race escalated in the early 1980s.
As I walked 7,000 miles to Bethlehem, West Bank, together with a dozen other Christians seeking a better alternative to international tensions than warfare, my favorite scripture became Psalm 46. I first heard it prayed outside a weapons facility responsible for manufacturing the cluster bomb - a devise capable of anti-personnel attacks so horrendous, it had been outlawed by international treaties and tribunals. This beautiful hymn is not an invitation to apathy, but rather to calm confidence in our Creator:
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Come and see the works of the Lord, the desolations he has wrought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46, NIV)
Now, 26 years since our pilgrimage arrived in the Holy Land, I’m planning to return. God willing, I’ll be in Jerusalem at on midnight Monday, Sept. 21st. There, and throughout the journey to Galilee, Jordan, the Dead Sea, the Sinai Desert, across into Egypt, and onward Oct. 2nd to Nairobi and East Africa, I will try to still myself (yes, I can!), listening more carefully to the quiet voice of God. He speaks the words of truth and life.
When Good Morning America interviewed me for the Christmas Morning 1983 broadcast, the reporter followed the story of our two-year pilgrimage, together with my words about our call to reconciliation, with this remark:
“For thousands of years now, prophets have walked this land calling their people to make peace, to turn their swords into plowshares. The question is today, as it has been since time immemorial, ‘Is anyone listening?’”
Well, if we haven’t been listening yet, the time has surely come. The violence in my own heart has only increased since we returned from the Shepherd’s grotto. I hope that going back to the wellsprings of my faith-tradition will help. Each of us, in our own way, needs to re-discover the Fountainhead of peace, justice, and compassion. We need to seek better ways than war. If we don’t, 9/11 will remain just a bitter memory, our wars will wear us down and out, and our many disasters will seem, in comparison, like gentle breezes whispering messages no one wants to hear.
Every hope-inspiring activity brings new light into the world. Although the newspapers Friday morning announced that prosecutors would seek the death penalty against Melissa Huckaby, reminding us of the string of shocking accusations against her and the death of Tracy’s angel Sandra Cantu, September 11th concluded with good news for everyone: the Space Shuttle Discovery successfully landed, in perfectly clear weather - here in California. In fact, Stockton’s own Jose Hernandez - not to mention the internationally acclaimed astronaut Buzz Lightyear - descended with the crew over L.A.’s dense smoke to land in the Mohave Desert. And though Discovery’s return was accompanied by nervous memories of past Shuttle disasters, the incident-free landing encouraged us all to keep on hoping.
Our future is being molded daily by the decisions we make and the manner in which we respond to our circumstances. I saw that yesterday, as youth from across South Stockton and a variety of churches gathered to celebrate their love for Jesus Christ and to share dances, raps, music, and laughter.
I saw it, too, in the evening, as we gathered outside Stockton with migrant and permanent farm workers to celebrate First Communion for five youth.
The sun was moving westward, preparing to sink quietly into the sea. The sky was now clear overhead, washed clean by the morning’s thunderstorm.
In place of gigantic twin towers, we had a pair of simple wooden homes.
And instead of billowing clouds of heavy smoke, we enjoyed the rustling of bright green leaves in our cathedral of vigilant trees. During one quiet moment, it was just a single prop plane, not a space shuttle, much less a jet bound for New York City, that passed by overhead. I could hear a whisper saying, “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
Yes, our God is with us. We just need to make sure we remain with him.
September 12, 2009, by Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Church, Stockton.