Churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2001, and people gathered on that day, and for some days later. There was a draw to sacred space in the midst of our everyday space being turned into dust–profane, unholy, hollowed out. The liturgies I attended in those days that followed were stripped down, bare, and profoundly vulnerable. The psalms were prayed. People wept together. We clung close. We resisted asking questions of meaning, and allowed ourselves to grieve, to lament.
A lot fewer churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2002. And even fewer today. The gravitational pull to gather in sacred space has waned. And it has become impossible, for the most part, to disentangle our liturgies from our politics. No longer gathering together out of unvarnished need for the divine presence, some of us gather now precisely to ascribe meaning to the unfathomable through the inextricable linking of nationalism with religion.
As a survivor of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I worry about how we will remember that tragic day 50, 100, even 200 years from now.
I worry because our nation does a poor job of commemorating our most historic heroes and events. Our efforts to honor history consistently lead to one of two disappointing outcomes.
Our official holidays have become increasingly commercialized. Consider the relatively recent exploitation of Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Virtually all other anniversaries have been marginalized. Consider how little attention is paid each summer to the July 20th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, one of humanity’s most impressive achievements.
They were among the youngest martyrs of the civil rights movement, four young black girls — three 14-year-olds and one 11-year-old — whose deaths in a church basement horrified a nation already torn apart by segregation.
This week, 50 years after the Ku Klux Klan bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., shook hopes for a colorblind country, the four girls are getting their due.
Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Tuesday (Sept. 10), a day after a piece of shattered stained glass from the church was donated to the Smithsonian.
As a fiction writer, I tend to think of God as a novelist writing this epic story wherein every bureaucrat, cicada, and horsehead nebula could accurately be described as the main character. As a novelist, it's God's job to bring all things together toward a happy (or at least satisfying) end, but that doesn't mean that we the characters are mere puppets.
Novelists who write about their craft often speak of characters taking on "a life of their own" and thereby taking the novel to different places than the author intended to visit.
So this "soul" that we speak of — this part of our selves that isn't grounded in physical being but is spiritual (whatever that means) that we expect or hope will live on after our mortal coils shuffle off — what if it's simply God's memory of us? What if the afterlife takes place in God's heart?
If God's memory were like human memory, that too would feel like a cheat, but I suspect that God's memories are not dissimilar to God's prose. In other words, as real as spiders. As real as continents.
"If you tell a lie, it will be all over the country in a day or two. But if you tell the truth, it will take ten years to get there." ~ Eddie "Son" House
And the truth is what Jesus offered the people of his hometown in this tale from Mark's Gospel. Jesus offered his prophetic witness of truth-telling. He held up a mirror and showed them who they were. He held up a mirror and said to them, "The Kingdom of God is with you."
They were enraged that one of their own would do such a thing.
He was utterly astonished that the people who had raised him were incapable of facing their own truth.
He also knew that if they could not face the realities of their own complicated lives they would not be able to embrace the healing and forgiveness that God offered.
Jesus had the blues. He had the hometown blues.
So, rejected, he fled his hometown.
Then he sent his apostles out into the world proclaiming peace, healing the sick and the lame, and prepared to face the same rejection. People don't like to be reminded of the complications of real life. None of us like the feeling of being judged when the mirror is held up before us.
I have been thinking about the church of my youth. I have been remembering, if you will, as a guy who has read too much Updike (I'll never forgive him for the Rabbit books) might remember his youth.
There is a melding of nostalgia for what was as well as what might have been. It's a mess, to be honest, a kind of lie that draws me in no matter how often I tell myself it is a lie. Sometimes these lies of memory are the heart's truth.
Mother’s Day and today is a celebration of the role of my maternal life, a role that has proved to be more satisfying and blessed, which is closer to my heart, than writing or art or friendship or even marriage. The work and longing of a life-time, almost, has been invested in my children — the beings who had their start like seeds in my own body, who have bloomed and flourished, who overcame barriers and difficulties caused by my own parental inexperience or ignorance, who grew as I grew, who now have lives of significance, who are learning along with their own offspring, much as I did but in a far more swiftly changing world.
So there were pleasurable moments as I heard from all five individually. And flowers — yellow daisies and Queen Anne’s lace from Robin, my eldest. (It’s a favorite flower for us both. She and I remember back to her wedding to Mark, on an island in an Illinois forest preserve, when her wedding bouquet was made of those white lacy flowerets, exploding like fireworks.) I hope to use those delicate flowers as objects to write about when I talk about poetry at an elementary school next week.
This weekend, if you can believe it, marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King trial that acquitted four police officers of any wrong doing. Maybe some of us are old enough to remember the beating that King took as he was being arrested.
Maybe some of us are old enough to remember the violence that followed. Fifty people died in the riots.
Why do we bother to honor such memories? Why do we hold them up? St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite mystic, writes of a temporal veil that separates us from God. It's an unavoidable separation, he said, that every creature encounters.
We live in time. God does not. He also said, however, that by grace that veil can be torn, time and memory collapsing in upon one another and we are no longer separate from God.