On this day, 14 years ago, the world as most of us knew it was forever changed with the attacks launched on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Just yesterday, it was announced that the memorial to those on United Airlines Flight 93 has been completed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the location where the plane went down after passengers who learned about the other hijackings confronted the hijackers of their own plane, causing it to crash rather than reach its unknown target. Many of us remember exactly what we were doing when we heard about the attacks on this day in 2001.
I was teaching high school, and had a free period. I had the radio on the NPR as I worked in my classroom. The first announcement was that a small plane had somehow accidentally crashed into one of the towers. Then a few minutes later, when the second plane hit, our understanding of this event changed, and it became obvious that this was not a random event.
I was a social studies teacher, and so I went quickly up and down the hallways, quietly informing my colleagues of what was happening. It didn’t take long for word to get to the students, since some parents began calling school and withdrawing their children to take them home, especially after all planes in the US were ordered grounded, and the images of that terrible day began playing in a terrible loop on CNN and the other networks. Most of us spent the rest of the day trying to help the remaining students make sense of what was happening and what it could mean. One of my dearest friends had a daughter who was on a business trip to Manhattan on that day; the superintendent of our district personally came to her and arranged for her to go home as she awaited word. Everyone—both students and teachers—realized that our lives would never be the same again, although at the time we had no idea exactly about the extent of the changes we would undergo, and how strongly they would reverberate in our consciousness.
It was during this time that I found several psalms to be of comfort to me as I would pray each day. Psalm 23, certainly, and Psalm 91, with their beautiful promises of God’s abiding love for us. And then, this morning, I am reminded of the first two verses of Psalm 40, which appears in this morning’s daily office, were among those that spoke to me, and became a kind of mantra:
I waited patiently upon the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
One of the most beautiful things that happened in the days and months after these terrible events was the unity that was expressed by people of all faiths in response to events so imbued with suffering and evil.
Many ask where God was during those terrible days and months. To me, there was God, rushing into the inferno, wearing uniforms, wearing street clothes, tending to the wounded, feeding and comforting the rescuers. There was God in every message of love telephoned to friends and loved ones. There was God leading people out of the Pentagon. There was God, taking the hand of those on Flight 93 and steadying their courage. God heard untold prayers, and God was in the prayers themselves.
It is easy to believe in God during times of blessing, but often it is most necessary to allow ourselves to rest within the embrace of God in times of tragedy and pain. The life of faith often encompasses suffering and grief. Faithful people are not insulated from tragedy. The difference is that we can find God there, with us, in our suffering. God is with us, even in desolation, listening as we cry out in grief or fear. God is with us, and suddenly the shifting sand becomes solid rock, for we are not alone, or bereft. God’s ear is inclined to us, and our cry is heard. Amen.
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.
Image: Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach OR by James Fontaine