Category Archives: Tragedy

The Path of Placeholders

A single story in fractured pieces.  We can never know in advance how our divergent paths will converge, even when the paths are all our own.

One: 1997

During my first year of seminary I was given the chance to take a one-week intensive class in pastoral care and chaplaincy at the City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, California.  City of Hope is known for its work with with cancer and terminal illness, and the one-week intensive promised many chances to work with patients and their families. When my professor presented the information on the program, I felt God pricking at my heart and I knew that this was something I needed to do. I filled out the application and sent my money to the program director and started looking for someone to help my husband Phil take care of our children while I was out of town for the class.

The date for the class was fast approaching and I called the director of the program at City of Hope to get information about housing and transportation, only to be told that the class had been cancelled due to financial problems.  The hospital had been bought by an investor who was less interested in the not-for-profit ethos the hospital had been founded under.  They were even less interested in providing training for chaplains that would never work at the City of Hope on a regular basis.**  I was deeply disappointed, but what could I do?

Two: 1998

I sat in the kitchen and listened to Phil share horrible news: Lee had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma.  Lee and his wife Tracy both worked at Boeing, and Tracy was on Phil’s team.  Phil’s team had lost their boss to cancer only a few years before, and now they were facing losing another coworker.  The diagnosis was all the more devastating because Lee and Tracy had three young daugthers.  Phil had spent many days taking care of our two girls while I was in California; he knew the burden of being a single parent intimately, even if he only had that responsibility for a few days a week.  He deeply sympathized deeply with Tracy and worried for her children.  I remember Phil asking me if I would be there for Lee and Tracy “at the end” as if somehow, they would ever ask for me…a coworker’s wife who wasn’t even an ordained minister yet.  Shocked, I said I would do anything for them if they wanted my assistance.

Three: 1999

Churches who accept student pastors do their best to make sure we get a full platter of pastoral experiences, and so I taught a Disciple Bible Study on Sunday mornings.  I had a class of 12 and we had become close as a group, praying for and with each other every week.  So when one member’s 18-month old daughter needed a heart valve replaced, the class covenanted to fast and pray on the day of the surgery.  I was going to be at the hospital with the parents and promised that I would pass on word to the class so that they could praise the Lord and break their fast when the surgery was successfully completed.

The surgery went on much longer than initially anticipated.  I stepped out into the parking lot so I could get a cell signal (ahhhh, 1999 cell phones…remember Nokia?) and called Phil to let him know that I would be home later than we had planned.  He was somber.  “They are transferring Lee out of the bone marrow transplant unit and into the hospice.  There are no more options.  He’s dying.  Can you go?”  Lee was only a few floors up from the surgical waiting room where I had spent the majority of my day.  I agreed to go but reminded Phil that Lee and Tracy had never met me and would likely want nothing to do with me at such a critical time in their lives.  I hung up the phone and headed back into the hospital to see what I could do.

Certain that I would be turned away, I got into the elevator and headed up to the bone marrow transplant unit, which was on the 12th floor.  As I stepped out of the elevator I looked up at entry to the unit and saw these words:

Welcome to the City of Hope!
An extension of the City of Hope in Duarte, California.

It took my breathe away.

Four: 1999

I went to the nurse’s station and asked them to speak to Tracy. I told them that I was a minister, that I was Phil’s wife, and that I would go away if Tracy was not interested in seeing me.  The nurse went in for a moment and Tracy came out of the room and invited me in.

Thus began several hours of going back and forth between the surgical waiting room where my friend waited for word that her daughter’s surgery had gone well, and the room where Lee was being prepped for transfer to a hospice bed.  It seemed that the timing was always perfect as I moved between locations; guided by God’s timing I arrived at each spot just as the doctors came to speak to the family, just as critical decisions were being made. I went back and forth repeatedly, watching the families receive words at opposite ends of the spectrum of emotions from their doctors.  Your daughter is doing well and her heart is strong.  Your husband’s organs are failing.  She’ll be going home soon.  He won’t home for Christmas; he won’t live that long.  I struggled to contain my emotions as they swung from one end of the spectrum to the other.  I called my class members to relay the good news and then to ask them to pray for a family friend who would probably not be alive come morning.

With the surgery over and the family comfortably settled in the room with their daughter, I headed upstairs to the hospice wing.   When I got there, Tracy asked if I would be willing to stay for a few hours while she went home to see her children in their Christmas programs at school.  She planned to tell them afterwards that their father would not live until Christmas and would never come home again.  I agreed to stay and prayed with Tracy before she left for the last fun evening her girls would have for quite a while.

Death can be a painful thing even with medications, and I watched Lee move in and out of pain as I sat at his bedside.  I wanted to be useful and comforting, so I tried reading the Psalms out loud, very quietly. I prayed between each Psalm.  As a sat there watching Lee suffer, I realized a horrible truth: every person faces their death alone.  There are plenty of pain medications, but not one thing that can be done to ease the pain of leaving behind everyone you love, knowing that they still need you.  And it disturbed me to know that there was nothing that I could do to take that pain away from Lee.  Essentially, he was all alone in this journey and I could do nothing but sit and watch.

So I sat and watched and wondered why I didn’t know what to do.  I was a pastor, I was trained…isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing?  Isn’t there some relief that I’m supposed to bring?  Certainly I provided assistance to Tracy, but what could I offer Lee?  He was dying!  Reading scripture wasn’t going to help him much, and even if it could help, most of the time he wasn’t conscious to hear it. I prayed but he didn’t hear that either and what was I supposed to pray for…a quicker death?  I sat there for several hours feeling futile and useless and stupid.  The critical moment of pastoring had come and I had nothing to offer. I felt like a failure.

I finally made it home later that night.  Phil and I went into the bedroom, sat at the edge of the bed and cried bitter tears.  He felt Tracy’s pain and loss acutely, and I deeply identified with Lee who was leaving his children behind much like I left mine behind week after week to attend seminary.  We sat and cried and tried to comfort each other.  It was all we could do.

Five: 2000

Even student pastors go home now and then, and so I would occasionally cut out of services at my student pastorate and attend church with my family.  St. Matthew UMC was the church that confirmed my call into the ministry and sent me off to seminary; attending worship there felt like coming home.  It was springtime and we were all gathered on the patio after worship for coffee and doughnuts.  That was when Dan approached me.

“Thank you for being there for Lee at the end. We really appreciated it.”  I was stunned!  How did Dan know Lee, and how did he know that I was there at the hospital for Lee and Tracy?  I discovered that Dan was Lee’s boss at Boeing, and that he and his team had been devastated when they found out that Lee was going into hospice.  They hadn’t known what to do.  Should they call?  Should they send someone to the hospital?

“That’s when word came from Tracy’s team that Phil’s wife, the minister, was there at the hospital to take care of Lee and Tracy.  I knew you and I told the team about you…and we were okay after that, because if felt like one of us was there, because Phil is one of us, and you’re his wife, and I knew you…you know what I mean?”

I did know what he meant, but what Dan said had revealed something much larger to me. Suddenly, I understood what my purpose had been when I sat at Lee’s bedside. I was a placeholder. I sat there at Lee’s bedside as a placeholder for a number of people.  I sat there in Tracy’s stead until she could return so that Lee wouldn’t be alone.  I sat there in the place of each member of Lee’s team at Boeing, because they couldn’t be there and weren’t sure what to do.  I was there in place of each member of Tracy’s team who wanted to support her and be there for her in a terrible moment of need.  And I sat there with Lee to represent God, and God’s presence with Lee even in his final moments.  While there was nothing I personally could offer to comfort Lee as he faced death, I could hold the place of every person who wanted to be there.  I could be a placeholder for them so that Lee would know that he would be missed, that he was loved, that his life had value, and that God was present even as He eagerly waited for Lee to come home.

Six: 2000

When I returned to school after Christmas, months before Dan revealed my purpose to me, I told my Field Education professor the entire story.  I was still distraught and feeling worthless.  Strangely, several of my classmates had experiences similar trials in ministry and were feeling particularly broken as well.  The professor reminded us that God was not wrong when He called us to dedicate ourselves completely and entirely to the Kingdom.  She said that we can never know just who we are in the Kingdom or what good we have done, because none of it will be clear until all is revealed to us in Heaven. Until then, she said, all we can do is trust that God knows what He’s doing.  Then she read us this Psalm.  To this day, whenever I hear it, I think of Lee and Tracy and the revelation that all things, even me, have a purpose greater than what we realize at the moment.

Psalm 19:7-11, 14
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

** This was back in 1997, so please do not levy judgment on the current leadership of the hospital.

A Litany of Fear and Hope

Last night, my husband and I talked about fear.  Both of us think that the nation has been overcome by fear of violence; fear of terrorism; fear of refugees; fear of the government taking their guns; fear that the government will take their rights; fear that foreigners will destroy our freedoms in the US; fear of the unknown.  Can you blame people for being afraid? The litany of violence is overwhelming:

December 2, 2015            14 dead, 21 wounded in San Bernadino, CA, shot by a US citizen and his wife.

October 1, 2015                9 dead at Umpqua College in Roseberg, OR, shot by a US citizen.

August 26, 2015                2 dead, shot while broadcasting the news in Roanoke, VA, killed by a  US citizen.

July 23, 2015                       2 dead, 9 wounded at a Layfeyette, LA theater, shot by a US citizen.

July 17, 2015                       9 dead, 1 wounded in a church in Charleston, SC, shot by a US citizen.

October 14, 2014              4 high school students dead in Marysville, WA, killed by a US citizen.

April 2, 2014                       3 dead and 16 wounded at Fort Hood, TX, shot by an active duty US soldier.

Sept 16, 2013                     12 dead, 3 wounded at Washington Navy Yard, shot by a US citizen / former US Navy sailor.

Dec 14, 2012                       26 dead, 20 of the children, at Sandy Hook Elementary, shot by a US citizen.

July 20, 2012                       12 dead, 70 injured in a theater in Aurora, CO, shot by a US citizen.

Jan 8, 2011                          6 dead, 13 injured, including Congresswoman Gabriel Gifford, shot by a US citizen.

In case you are wondering, all of these guns were obtained legally, either by the killers themselves or by their parents (in the case of the Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza, who used his mother’s legally obtained weapons, and in the case of the Oct 14, 2014 shooting by 15 year old Jaylen Fryberg, who killed students at his high school.)

You may have noticed that this list is missing the recent terrorist attacks in Paris at Charlie Hedbo and the Bataclan as well as the shootings in Denmark. Why do I list these only these acts of terrorism? Because…all of these acts of terrorism were committed by US citizens on US soil with legally purchased weapons.  So much of the fear that I hear is of ISIS and foreign refugees.  It seems to me that Americans have developed a short and selective memory.


As a child, I remember watching the news with my parents.  My parents felt that watching the evening news, especially the World News, was something akin to a duty.  In my parent’s world, there was no excuse for being ignorant of the world around you.  My father repeatedly reminded me that those who were ignorant of history were doomed to repeat it; my mother echoed his sentiments by encouraging me to read about history and do my best to see the needs of other people, especially the poor, no matter where in the world those people were living.

All those nights watching Frank Reynolds broadcasting the World News gave me a view of the world I wish I didn’t have to remember: the 1975 LaGuardia airport bombing; planes being hijacked and diverted to foreign countries (so many I cannot remember all of them); Israelis taken hostage and killed at the Munich Olympics; US citizens held hostage in Iran for more than a year; people hijacked and then held hostage in Entebbe, Uganda.  This doesn’t include the many acts of terrorism that I witnessed after I became an adult, including the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah building by Timothy McVeigh that killed 168 people in Oklahomah City, OK in 1995.  I sat the couch nursing my newborn daughter Katie, horrified by the carnage that I saw on the TV screen.  I watched the television for hours on end, cuddling and nursing my baby girl that day, shaking my head and crying.  Again…this act of terrorism was committed by a US citizen, carried out with products purchased legally that created bombs of mass destruction, killing hundreds of American citizens.

Why am I sharing all of this with you?

Right now, thousands of Syrian refugees are praying that the US will grant them safe haven inside our borders.  At the very same time there are people who swear these refugees are terrorists waiting to destroy our country.  They will tell you that admitting 9,999 legitimate refugees is unacceptable if even 1 member of ISIS comes across our borders into the US, hoping to harm our citizens.  I am here to tell you that you have more to fear from your own fellow citizens than you do from any foreigner, to remind you that your own countrymen have taken up arms against you and slaughtered innocent US citizens in the name of their politics or religion, and that US citizens will continue to do so whether you admit thousands of Syrian refugees or not.  No matter who you ban from this nation, there will be plenty of people waiting to shoot you, hijack you, hold you hostage, or blow your body to bits and each and every one of them will be a US citizen.

Ted Kaczynsky (nationwide bombing campaign, 3 dead, 23 injured). Ted Bundy (30 homicides in 7 states). David Berkowitz (New York City, 6 dead, 7 wounded). Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City, 168 dead, 600+ wounded). Jared Loughner (Tucson, 6 dead, 13 wounded).

Is the litany of violence getting to you?  I’ll bet it is.  And yet…

The sun rises every day, revealing beautiful sunrises and later that day, another gorgeous sunset.

The world is filled with kind and wonderful people who love and serve each other daily. If you don’t believe me, go to your local food bank or your local hospital and watch as people come and go throughout the day.

Neighbors watch over each other, banding together in neighborhood watches so that the entire neighborhood can be safer.

Families take care of their children and adult children care for their aging parents, leading to ‘circle of life’ moments that are beyond beauty and that give testament to the depth of love we have for one another.

And it isn’t just at the macro level that we see kindness, generosity, and selflessness.

My daughter, who could be earning six figures working for a local micro-factory (yeah they really offered her that much money) instead chooses to open a business that helps other startups who are crowd-funding and prototyping their product; she and her partner and putting 2% of their profits into a vacation fund for their employees to encourage their staff to take their days off and be emotionally and physically healthy.

My friend, who could be a totally self-centered lawyer focused on earning a salary that would pay off her student loans, instead chooses to focus on serving Native American persons and joins the board of United Food Bank.

My colleague, now retired, spends her days volunteering at a hospice to help the dying and working with local Jewish leaders to create a new Synagogue where progressive Jews can gather and worship.  Her husband, a retired professor, spends his days rocking premature infants so that new moms and dads can take a break for a shower or a nap while their child gets the most loving care possible.

Another colleague, still busy with a full practice, works in the Buddhist community to create as much peace and reconciliation as she can create between wounded factions.

I provide low-cost (and almost no-cost) counseling to people who fall through the social safety net because everyone, no matter what their income level, deserves the right to mental health care.

My husband sits on the board of a local outdoor behavioral health organization, raising funds so that low-income families can receive the same high quality treatment for their children that the rich families get for their kids.

I suppose that I could list each and every person I know who is choosing to be a part of the solution instead of the problem, but I’d be here writing all night long.

THERE IS NOTHING WORTH GIVING IN TO FEAR.

There will always be terrorist, hijackers, murderers, haters, bigots, racists, and people who simply vote for anger and hatred over peace and reconciliation.  But that doesn’t mean that you and I need to give in to fear and despair.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”    Christianity    1 John 4:18

“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Christianity    1 John 4:18

“When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.”  Hindu Bhagavad Gita 6.28-32

“Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings. Let his thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world: above, below, and across without any obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity.”  Buddhism. Sutta Nipata 143-151, Metta Sutta

“Have benevolence towards all living beings, joy at the sight of the virtuous, compassion and sympathy for the afflicted, and tolerance towards the indolent and ill-behaved.”  Jainism. Tattvarthasutra 7.11

“A man is a true Muslim when no other Muslim has to fear anything from either his tongue or his hand.”   Islam. Hadith of Bukhari

“Who sees all beings in his own self, and his own self in all beings, loses all fear.”  Isa Upanishad, Hindu Scripture

“We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.”   Islam, Surat al-Ma’ida, 48

“Indeed, Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred; and forbids indecency, and manifest evil, and wrongful transgression. He admonished you that you may take heed.”  Islam, Al Quran 16:91

“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.”    Gandhi

The world’s religions say it again and again: have compassion and love for one another, not fear.  When we let ourselves soak in fear of “The Other”, no matter who that other is: foreigner or citizen, male or female, rich or poor…none of it matters…when we let ourselves soak in fear of the “The Other” our decisions are made by fear, driven by pain, and not one of them is wise.

Only in unity can we be greater than all the bombers and mass shooters and terrorists that can darken our days with their violence.  Only in unity will greed be overcome by generosity.  Only in unity will we find the peace and contentment we seek.

For perfect love casts out fear…let his thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world…(have) compassion and sympathy for the afflicted…the enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.

Unity Ain’t As Easy As You Wish It Was (for Paris)

Jeremiah 29:11    New International Version (NIV)

11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I’m not quite sure what happened or why…I only know that people in Paris are dead and the world is horrified.  I also know that extremists have once again captured our minds by filling our hearts with fear.

I am so very tired of finding that there is very little left that gains attention that doesn’t involve terrorizing someone else’s soul.

There are so many reasonable people in the world; so many people who are devoted to making the world a better place through dialogue and hearing the ‘other person’s’ opinion, and yet we are still locked into never ending debate by terrorists and hard-liners who are unwilling to hear any political or theological position but their own.

I was blessed to go to seminary with a host of people who were different from me theologically.  People who came to school as deeply liberal individuals when I had been raised as a fundamentalist evangelical; people who held a deeply conservative line as my theology slowly shifted into a more liberal perspective; people who deeply disagreed with my understanding of God and who felt that I was a diluting the scriptures and therefore perverting the word of God.  I have stayed friends with the grand majority of them (as long as they were willing to remain friends with me despite our growing differences) and still find each and every one of them to be incredibly valuable to my understanding of my political and theological world; I can only hope they think the same of me.

I found myself at peace with all of them during the years that we studied the Bible; we often stayed up late into the night studying and arguing over deeply held theological beliefs.  Now I serve the Methodist Church with these exact same folks, united in the purpose of reaching the world for Christ even as we are divided in the specifics of our theology.  The funny thing is that I cannot imagine my life having the same value and diversity without their voices and their brilliance.

I am deeply aware that division in thought doesn’t have to become hatred, violence, or the desire for annihilation of ‘the other.’

I was commissioned into the clergy of the United Methodist Church in 2003 and fully ordained in 2006. I have worked in the United Methodist Church longer than any other job that I have ever held, and if I have to be honest, I have also worked for myself in private practice as a counselor longer than any professional job that I have held at any other corporation.  In the end, going to seminary and counseling school so that I could be a minister and counselor in God’s Kingdom has brought me more job security than any other position I’ve ever taken anywhere else.  Maybe I was always intended for success in God’s Kingdom?  I don’t know…I just know that I’ve found more peace and more space to disagree and yet work together in the United Methodist Church than I’ve found anywhere else in my entire life.

It is actually quite difficult and rather exhausting to ‘agree to disagree’.  I’d like to think that it’s easy and that people can live in theological/political/philosophical tension relatively easily…but I have not found that to be true very often.  I have been blessed with many friends who were willing to do this, but I’m guessing that it is our mutual commitment to work together for the Kingdom that brings about our diversity in unity rather than our evolved nature as human beings.  Achieving a healthy balance of ‘agreeing to disagree’ in the UMC (United Methodist Church) has involved far more effort and sacrifice than I ever planned on.  You see, agreeing to disagree involves constantly holding open the possibility that the other person just might be right after all.

Tolerating your opponent’s opinion with true open-mindedness demands that you admit that your opponent has a really good point somewhere in his/her argument.  Sometimes it demands that you admit that your opponent has a really good point, period. It demands that you assent to the logic and reasonability of your opponent’s opinion.  Open-mindedness demands that you constantly review your own viewpoint and argument looking for weaknesses and failures to adhere to rigorous logic.  In the end, to remain open-minded, you must constantly examine yourself and be willing to let go of your own viewpoint whenever your opponent has a more solidly constructed, more logically founded viewpoint than your own.  This is difficult, since our personal viewpoints tend to come from our most deeply held morals and values…and Lord knows we hate to question our own morals and values!

I am not a fan of Donald Trump.  And yet his success as a Republican candidate for President of the US tells me that he has a number of followers who enjoy the bombast of his speeches and the harshness of his stance.  Open-mindedness demands that I ask “What do those people need in order to feel safe and honored in my United States of America?”  Am I willing to let their needs matter to me?  It sure would be easy to say that the people who love Donald Trump are uneducated rubes who are looking for a leader who absolves them of their responsibility to think critically for the sake of the US.  Then again maybe I should consider how deeply those exact same people fear immigrants and the prospect of having their beloved American culture diluted by people who are ignorant of all that the US symbolizes.  There is some validity in the fear that drives Donald Trump’s popularity, and I am free to ignore it, but only at the cost of my fellow US citizens.

I am deeply aware of the grief in Paris today, the shock and horror that drives the French people’s desire to unite in nationalistic pride to restore their own country.  It was not that long ago that I wrote about the unintended effects of 9/11; the uniting and deeply nationalistic effect that 9/11 had that no terrorist had intended when they attacked my beloved country.

I eagerly await the day when terrorist attacks against any nation cause us to pull together worldwide to comfort a terrorized nation and to declare our awareness that we are a brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity worldwide.  I long for a day when no religion, national boundary, or personal creed can separate us from the siblinghood of humanity and the awareness that each and every nation has good things, good knowledge, and good skills to bring to our awareness as a worldwide community.  The odd thing is that the killers, the suicide bombers, the terrorists, and the hate-mongers among us are simply seeking a smaller version of the exact same unity that I wish to see worldwide. They want to unite with people who are like-minded (in hatred and fear) in order to create a world that is better than the one they currently live in.  It’s just that extremists seek their unity through violence and exclusion, and I seek  my unity through service, tolerance, diversity, and respect.  Perhaps that’s the most important take-away from this moment: the truth is that we are all seeking unity and brotherhood/sisterhood—we just don’t quite know how to get there without stepping on the brothers and sisters that we don’t know very well yet.  We don’t know how to create unity with those we don’t agree with.

May we forgive those who hate us and seek to destroy us; may we forgive those whose ideology we don’t understand; may we reach out with peace and acceptance to those we have not yet included in our circle of friends; and may God create the greater binding force that brings us together in love and not in mutual hatred or destruction.

You have heard our prayer over and over again Lord. Make it so, as it is according to your will, absent of hatred, violence, or destruction. Amen.

In Memory of Tragedy, Terror, and All That Is Good

I never saw it coming.  You never do.  You’re just rolling along one day, and boom! The next minute is tragedy.  I remember that I was getting the kids ready for school that morning.  We had already gotten breakfast, and everybody was dressed, and like moms and kids all over the world, we were watching cartoons until the kids had to leave for school.  My husband called, and when he asked me if I was watching TV, I remember laughing at him and saying “Duh!  Of course we’re watching TV.  The world would stop revolving if we didn’t watch “Rocket Boy and Big Mike” every morning!”  He told me to get the kids out of the room and turn on the news.  That made me nervous, because he was not the type to chase the kids out of the room for anything.  I shooed the kids out of the room and changed to the morning news and immediately saw why my husband had called. The World Trade Center tower 1 had been hit by a plane. I remembered seeing the news footage after the Empire State Building had been hit by a plane, but the damage was nothing like the gaping hole in the side of tower one.  Of course, that was because the Empire State Building had been hit by a small, private plane. My husband and I talked for a minute, and we both wondered if this was a terrible accident or if it was a terrorist act. Of course, we were also concerned because it was a Boeing plane and if this was a terrorist act, there was risk that there would be further strikes against Boeing—which is where my husband works. We started talking about other Boeing sites, and if they had been evacuated or put on lockdown.  We spent a few moments discussing what I should do if he was unable to leave because of a lockdown.  It didn’t take long for the kids to come back to the TV, and it took quite a bit of fast talking to get them out of the room once they saw all that black smoke.

Finally, I got them out of the door and off to school, and I sat down to watch the news coverage.  At that point, no one really knew what was happening.  There was no word about the hijackings, there was no idea if this was deliberate (although they assumed it was), and they had no idea what was going to happen next.  All that confusion reminded me of another day six years earlier when I had sat on the same couch, watching the same television, listening to the same confusion.  I had watched the entire story of the Oklahoma City bombing unfold.  My youngest daughter was barely 4 weeks old when the Oklahoma City bombing took place, and I remember that I spent the entire day on the couch, holding her, feeding her, too absorbed by the news to do anything else.  I remember hoping that this would turn out to be a terrible, terrible accident, because the idea that we might be under attack was too horrible to really thing about.

I had been sitting there for a while, lost in my own thoughts, when the second plane hit.  The shock of seeing it live made it almost unbelievable.  I couldn’t understand what had happened.  I couldn’t believe it was possible.  I kept thinking “This can’t be real.  It just cannot be real.”  I truly wanted to reject reality, because once the second plane hit, there was no chance that the first plane had just been a horrible accident.  It was obvious: we were under attack. I didn’t know whether to be mad or sick, and while I wanted to be mad because it felt a little safer, the truth was that I just felt sick and scared and uncertain of what to do.  My husband was at work; my children were at school.  I started chiding myself for letting my children leave for school, and I was tempted to go and get my children and bring them home, to not let them be away from me.  I was afraid that something would happen and that I wouldn’t be able to get to them.  I talked myself out of it, reasoned that all I would do was scare them witless, but I really wanted to go and get them.

Realizing that other mothers like myself might not know, I called a friend of mine and discovered that she hadn’t seen the news either.  I spent a few minutes on the phone with her, sharing what I had seen already.  Then I called two other moms on my street who also turned out to be unaware.  Each time I was amazed to hear how happy they sounded when they first answered the phone, and how stunned and sickened they sounded once they saw the live pictures on TV.   Usually I feel better when someone else feels the way I do about something; it feels validating.  Sharing that sick, stunned feeling wasn’t nearly as nice. I finally called my mom, and we sat watching the TV, praying that the people inside the towers would be rescued.  We prayed for a long time, praying for the dead and their families, and for the families waiting to receive their survivors; we prayed for the rescuers and the hospital workers, even for the media.  We were pretty deep in prayer when my mother suddenly stopped speaking and she moaned.  She had been praying with her eyes open, and she had seen the jumpers—the people who jumped from the towers rather than die in the heat and the flames. Neither one of us could pray another word.  We just sat in horror and watched the people jump and die. I remember hoping that the words in Romans 8:26 were true.

“For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” 

We were still on the phone when the news came through that the Pentagon had been hit in Washington, DC.   We finally hung up.  There really wasn’t anything else to say.

I sat there in silence on the couch, wondering what was going to happen next.  Then the south tower collapsed.  By this time I had been sitting there watching the events unfold for almost 90 minutes. At this point, the constant replays of the planes hitting the towers were making me numb. They added the footage of the south tower collapsing to the stack of repeating images, and I became even more numb.  The newsmen started talking about protecting the president; that the vice-president had been taken to the secret bunker; that the president was in the air and wouldn’t be allowed to land until things were safe.  I can’t tell just how much those phrases chilled me: the presidential bunker, the president being kept “safe” in the air.  I remember being a young child afraid of nuclear war—that was the threat when I was a kid.  The Cold War was going strong, and we feared that one day, Russia and the US would finally have it out in a huge nuclear battle.  When we talked about it at school, many of the kids would ask what would happen to our government if there was nuclear war, and we were always told that the president would be protected from any harm.  He would either be taken to a special bunker where the radiation couldn’t harm him, or he would be up in a plane in the air, and he would stay up in the air until they could find a safe place to land.  Back then, that information was comforting, but on 9/11, hearing that the president was “in the air” and would remain “in the air” was terrifying.  It was like all my childhood fears had come true. The terrible thing I had feared as a child had suddenly appeared and instead of nuclear war it turned out to be random attacks on US soil. I kept waiting for the Civil Defense siren to go off, or for the TV channels to start playing that awful alarm sound that used to be associated with Civil Defense warnings; now we use it for Amber Alerts.  I was still sitting there wrapped up in my fear when the reports started to trickle in about a plane crashing in Pennsylvania.  But there didn’t seem to be much information about the plane in Pennsylvania, and then the north tower collapsed, and all the focus came back to the World Trade Center.  Then the images started to roll in from the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and I began to wonder where that last plane had been headed before it crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  Anymore, I honestly don’t think I want to know.

It occurred to me that eventually my children would come back home from school, and I would have to somehow explain what had happened to them. They weren’t little kids anymore, and they had a right to know—to know something at least—maybe not the whole truth. I couldn’t imagine what I would say, and yet I couldn’t imagine letting them see the news coverage either. How do you explain terrorism to a child who still believes that the world is full of good people? How do you explain why someone kills thousands of people? How could I explain that they shouldn’t be afraid when I was so afraid?  I had no idea.

 After all the horrible images and the sickening news on 9/11, the news in the following days took on a different sound.  It was subtle, and at first, I didn’t hear it.  There were so many reports of death and destruction, and the images were as horrible as the images of the attacks themselves.  There were reports of hundreds of firefighters and police officers that died in the towers; there was footage of the terrified, debris-coated people who flooded over the Manhattan bridge on foot trying to get away from the destruction; there were the first-hand accounts of those who had evacuated the World Trade Center, who had had to run from the collapsing buildings.  That part was still horrible, but there was this other part, another sound in the news, and it sounded bittersweet and even hopeful.  There was the thousands of people who lined up to give blood; cities all over the nation were getting record amounts of blood donations as people realized that this was one thing that they could do to help what we hoped would be the injured who were found alive in the rubble. The donations persisted even after we realized that no one else would be found alive in all the wreckage.  There were so many accounts of firefighters and police officers that had continued climbing the stairs as others had evacuated, hoping to reach the people trapped by the impact of the planes. Their deaths only increased the sense of nobility and selflessness that it must have taken to run into that inferno even as others ran out. And the pictures from the capitol: George Bush, walking alone from Air Force One into the White House, fearless, only hours after the towers fell, walking without a security escort even as the nation feared more attacks. Seeing our Congress, gathered on the capitol steps, singing “God Bless America.” The inevitable country music song that popped up to remind us that we are free people who must fight to keep our freedom. The stories of assistance, and rescue, and bravery by common people who, despite their own desperation to escape the burning towers, stopped to assist another person, often saving their life.  And finally, the story of a group of airline passengers who fought their hijackers to the death in order to prevent others from having to die with them.  A few of their final known words became our war cry in Afghanistan: “Let’s roll!”

I realize that 9/11 is a national tragedy that will never totally be healed for those who lost their loved ones, but I also realize that 9/11 gave America a gift that the terrorists who attacked us did not anticipate. They had not imagined how this nation would pull together, how we would support and care for one another, how we would face this tragedy not only with courage, but with compassion and with an outstretched hand, reaching out to help our brothers and sisters in New York, in Washington, in Pennsylvania. They didn’t count on our suddenly realizing and honoring the heroes in our midst. And they didn’t count on our unfailing faith in God, either. As we remember the events of September 11, 2001, as we remember the many who were lost, let us also remember the essential goodness of the American people. Let us remember not only the death and destruction, but also the noblesse and self-sacrifice, not only the suffering, but also the healing. And most of all, let us remember that in all of it, God was with us then and is with us now, weeping, mourning, and remembering. Let us dedicate this day to their memory, and to the hope that we can create a better peace in our time, a peace that will be worthy of their memory and of their sacrifice.