9/11

NPR did wall-to-wall anniversary coverage all day yesterday, which feels excessive. Not that it's not important to remember, but why so much more hoopla on the 5th anniversary than the 3rd or the 4th? It feels a little like a 5-year college reunion: you haven't been out long enough to make it worth going back. We haven't gotten enough distance from 9/11/2001 (henceforth and forevermore just "9/11") to make a big commemorative anniversary with all the analysis and drama make sense, just because the number of years past happens to correspond to the number of digits on a human hand.

Not for the families, of course. They can and should make as big a deal as they want, as long as they want. But how much does it help them for the media to make a public spectacle of their grief? And then fill the airtime with talking heads fussing about the administration's policies in the middle east, or the slowness of the rebuilding of lower Manhattan?

But as long as everybody's reminiscing...

The central thing I recall from 9/11 was watching the administrators of Yale Divinity School kick into pastoral mode the moment the crisis was evident. The emblematic image is of David Bartlett, then-Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, striding up from the temporary quarters of the admin. offices toward the side entrance of the Divinity School, where our just-arrived scheduled chapel speaker (Paul Fiddes, I believe) and one of the student chapel coordinators were waiting. I don't recall the exact words out of his mouth, but it was something to the effect that it was time to go back to the drawing board with the chapel service plan.

This was minutes after the second tower was struck. And not that many minutes before chapel was scheduled to begin.

In less than a half hour, the Div. School Dean and two Associate Deans threw together an ad hoc ecumenical service of prayer in the midst of unfolding crisis. From their collective years of ministry experience, they knew which Psalms to turn to and which hymns to sing. They knew it was much, much too soon to go for "It Is Well With My Soul," which would have been my instinctual choice. (I wasn't one of the students burning up my cell phone trying to reach loved ones in NYC.) They knew what to say, and how to pray, to minister to a shaken congregation in a standing-room-only chapel when we, and they, didn't even know what was going on.

I remember thinking that this was probably the most important moment in the pastoral education of my classmates -- to observe, and participate in, the profound ministry in the moment that you can never plan for.

I remember being bewildered by the desperation to do something expressed by some of my colleagues, because it was obvious to me what the something was that we were positioned to do. "We're almost-pastors!" I thought (even though I wasn't a ministry-track student). "Let's go pray with people!"

Some of my classmates did just that, volunteering with the Red Cross to offer spiritual support at the southern Connecticut crisis centers, where Gold Coast family members were sent to wait for word on the fate of their loved ones at work at the WTC.

The one opportunity I had to pray with someone who was deeply troubled by the news, I was struck dumb. My church, like many others, immediately threw its doors open to the community as a place of sanctuary and a host of frequent services, but it took a few days to get the word out, so the services in the first couple of days were sparsely attended. After one of these services, a man lingered. He was not a regular at our church and had not personally lost someone in that week's tragedy, but current events had reopened old wounds for him, and he was grieving afresh previous loses. Our pastor spoke with him briefly and then prayed with and for him. I stayed with them, listening and praying, but I could not think of a thing to say to encourage or comfort this person.

Our pastor later thanked me for "helping" him to care for that stranger. I hadn't felt like I had done anything. But my presence and concern were apparently encouraging to our pastor (if not the consolee).

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