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The After-Effects of 9/11: When Hell Meets Heaven

Monday, September 11th, 2017

After spending the spring and summer of 2001 teaching a new computer system to Port Authority employees in New York City, I was briefly assigned to another client in nearby Newark for a three-day class in early September. This meant that I was 25 miles from my classroom at the World Trade Center and 200 miles from my home in Washington, D.C., when the world witnessed the event that would forever change our lives.
One of the greatest honors in my life was being asked to return to help the Port Authority folks deal with the aftermath of 9/11.  Of an original team of forty of more, the Port Authority specifically asked for me and two others (and I was the only non-local, which meant that they had to cover hotel and per diem).  So I return in early October to spend a month helping the staff learn the basics of the new system.  Most hadn’t taken the previous classes in the summer, and those who had couldn’t remember diddlysquat. The documentation that my team developed has, literally, been vaporized. But bills are piling up, vendors are demanding payment, and equipment must be purchased.
I spend two days with Jane, who was in my classroom on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. She and five others escaped, but two classmates went to a different stairwell and were never seen again. Three weeks after the bombing, I see that Jane is still too traumatized to take an elevator or enter a building of more than two stories.
Her husband had been on the 74th floor. He, three colleagues, and a janitor with a lunch box and cleaning bucket, were bunched in the express elevator speeding upwards from the 44th floor, when it suddenly plunged downward about a hundred feet and just as abruptly stopped. Picking themselves off the floor in the pitch-black cage, they had no idea where they were. Prying the elevator doors open, they found only a dark wall.
Smoke was seeping in through the elevator cracks. Covering their noses with handkerchiefs soaked in milk, they took turns with the metal edge of the squeegee to laboriously cut through the sheetrock. They eventually broke into a bathroom, but then had to cut through ceramic tiles. Emerging on the 50th floor, they walked downstairs single-file leaving room for firemen who were running up. They saw the light of day just four minutes before the building crashed. If the janitor had not had a flashlight, a squeegee, a pint of milk, and the cool to mastermind the rescue, no one would have survived to share their adventures of the morning. Was he a guardian angel in disguise?
Several days later, I was at the agency’s temporary headquarters in Hoboken sharing an office with Diane, the training manager, a delightful middle-aged woman with whom I had spent many happy hours over lunch and in meetings. But now, she’s a different person. Once attentive to her subordinates, she has morphed into a protective mother bear; determination and deep weariness have replaced the twinkle in her eyes.
I don’t know what war is like, but I have an idea of what it’s like to “go through the wars”: it is the process by which we are forced to acknowledge our vulnerability. For most of us, war is external; its “over there,” or “back then,” and it involves others. But after 9-11, war is here and now and within. The reality of who we are is struggling with our preconceptions about ourselves. Suddenly we are fearful, and we don’t like the people that we have become.
Another reason Diane has lost her sparkle is because her commute is now 2 ½ – 3 hours each way, instead of an hour previously. This means that she leaves home just before 6:00 am and doesn’t usually get back until 9:00 pm. Twice in the last week, she was an hour late because Penn Central had been evacuated for “something” (never explained); this required her to walk almost a mile to the subway and a then several blocks to the PATH station, extending her one-way commute to nearly four hours. And some of her weariness is because the computer system is often down; what once was a simple, two-minute transaction is now a cause for major celebration.
One morning, as I was reflecting on the difference between heroes (all of the people in or anywhere near that building on September 11th) and saints (those who have devoted their lives to God and God’s people), a woman entered to drop off files. Hearing her mutter “Jesus Christ” under her breath and assuming that she has just broken a fingernail, I looked up to see what was wrong. Instead of a scowl, I was greeted by a warm smile and a cheerful “Good morning, sister” from a woman I had never before seen in my life.
After brief courtesies, Victoria shared her impressions of that day. She was sitting at her desk on the 63rd floor when the plane hit. Rather than run or scream, she dropped to her knees in prayer. She had a clear vision of God “sitting on His throne” looking down on her and saying, “Look at my baby girl calling on me in the midst of this terror.” Directing some unseen angels, God told them, “Go and see about my daughter.”
When the image of God’s radiance faded, she went with waiting colleagues to the nearest stairwell. Walking down, she began reciting the 23rd psalm and singing praise songs. Others joined in, and many came up later thanking her for the calm faith she radiated in that dark, smoke-filled stairwell. Is not Victoria an angel and a saint?
The next day, Don and Raoul shared memories of walking down from the 70th floor. People were orderly at first, mostly because so many had survived the 1993 bombing and trusted the structural integrity of the towers. Don and Raoul were nonplussed by burn victims and others who were actively bleeding, but they never feared for their own lives until the 20th floor, when the smoke intensified, making it hard to both breathe and see. An incredible, inexplicable, rolling, deafening roar (which they later learned was the crash of the other building) made the north tower shake intensely, cutting off the emergency lights and causing people to stumble over each other. After this, it was a superhuman effort to maintain control, and some began weeping. But still, the group kept talking to each other to stay calm, groping their way down, most of them holding hands, some sobbing, but with little screaming and no pushing – just cold, stark determination.
In the middle of this horrific retelling, Raoul blurted out, “And, you know, we were the lucky ones. We had no idea of what was going on. When the south tower fell, we knew something dreadful had happened, but our stairwell was fine and our tower still stood…. Actually, people like Diane had it worse. She was walking in from the plaza and froze, not knowing whether to rush up and help people or run away as fast as she could. A policeman ordered her to leave – which was good because this was just when debris – huge blocks of concrete and metal, enough to kill you if they landed – started falling from the sky.”
Raoul felt sorrier for Diane than he did for himself…
When employees arrive for a meeting and see someone they haven’t seen since 9/11, work abruptly ends and co-workers pour out from cubicles to chat. It is like the excitement that accompanies a woman returning from maternity leave with a new baby in tow. But unlike the gushes over the beautiful child, this is a chastening calm with unspoken but clear affection. It is both endearing and terrifying.
The following week, as anthrax poisoning replaced hijacked planes as the terror of the day, the agency conducted daily safety drills and distributed safety glasses, nose masks, rubber gloves, and flashlights to all employees. Diane was away when a flashlight was placed on her desk; within two hours, five coworkers stopped in to ensure that that the batteries were installed and her flashlight was working properly.
People looked around at their ordinary colleagues with their ordinary foibles and realized that their ordinary assumptions were all wrong. They discovered that they had been working amidst heroes, including the two procurement officials who returned from the stairwell to retrieve their blind colleague from the 71st floor, the ten co-workers who carried a 250-pound, wheelchair-bound man down 69 flights of stairs, and the two marketing managers who got Tina and her motorized wheelchair down from the 68th floor. Of the Port Authority employees, only 74 of the 2,000 in the building were killed (half of them the police and firemen who – according to the people I spoke with – seemed to know that they were going to their deaths). In both towers, only 2,753 people were killed in the collapse. Everyone credited the low number of casualties to the fact that mutual care trumped panic and pushiness.
Returning just before Thanksgiving to my company’s home office in Columbia, Maryland, I found myself suddenly depressed. In the midst of the hell that surrounds us, I had been graced to witness the best of the human condition. For some, self-sacrifice for others was absolute and cost them their lives; for most, it was timid and tenuous – but nonetheless transforming – if only for a time.
And I know that I too am forever changed, for good as well as ill. The trivialities of life gnaw at me. After spending six weeks in the company of saints and heroes, ordinary mortals seem frivolous and self-absorbed. With the exception of faith-filled Victoria who sang and prayed her coworkers to safety, I do not know the religious beliefs of the employees at the Port Authority. But watching people show genuine care for each other, I realize that I have just witnessed the kingdom of God on earth.

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When Seeming Failures Are the Opening for Grace

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Those of you who have read previous blogs or Facebook postings know that the keyword for describing my 9 weeks in Britain was … magical. Magical, just magical.

But, in many ways, the sabbatical was marked by failure. First was the failure to get the Lilly Foundation grant that would have made it much easier for the church and for me. Then, in the last Church Council meeting before heading off, I shared my three goals: to finish Circling, begin research on Returning, and lose 20 pounds.

I failed – and yet the sabbatical still was magical.

And now I wonder: is there a connection between seeming failure and undeniable magic? Was there something that God was trying to teach me? Have I focused too much in life on success? Might I have tried so hard to accomplish the goals that our culture identifies as the hallmarks of success that I overlooked the less obvious and more tender qualities of God’s ever-present grace?

I’ll let you ponder that as I give you a brief chronology and overview of the people and places that have caused me to rethink my life…

First of all, there’s Maurizio. Some of you have heard me talk about him before, and most everyone was skeptical. It’s wonderful when you get to a certain age and your children begin to worry about you (nice switch from those decades where parenting was just a synonym for worry and guilt). And so my daughter is on the phone hearing about my plans and asking, “So how do you know him, Mom?” I explain his email connection with the family when he was researching the role of my grandparents in improving the lives of the Sardinian villagers 100 years ago. To which she says “Yes, but …” She then asks how old he is, what he does for a living, whether he’s married or not …” I don’t have answers to any of those questions. Fortunately she’s gracious enough to simply admonish me to be careful rather than call me a blooming idiot.

My plans were just to meet Maurizio in London over lunch or dinner. We had occasional email conversation over the last seven years, but that was all. When he asked where I was staying, I replied that I was looking for an inexpensive hostel or Air B&B because, after all, I did not receive that wonderful grant that would have paid for nicer hotels. He found a convent that had been converted into a B&B, but it was still 125 pounds – or just shy of $200 / night (this was before the Brexit vote) and I was hoping for something cheaper. So I kept looking and then got an email that his good friend Patrick, a chamber orchestra conductor who lived two blocks from Westminster Abbey, would be happy to host me for a week. Magic.

Patrick was delightful and so were all of the assortment of young international musicians who came over to party, practice, and plan their next two concerts. The flat was filled with laughter and music. Another woman staying there was going through some challenging emotional stresses, and she liked to hang out with me and unload. And Maurizio, who had decided to end his work as an economics researcher and concentrate on renting two flats and doing professional tourism, became my personal tour guide for all of the highlights of London. He knew everything and everyone, it seemed. Magic.

We took a four-day trip to Sardinia where I met his family and an elderly couple that had been married at the church that my grandmother helped establish. Everywhere I went, there were hugs and thanks – along with free cappuccino or a glass of wine. They all professed knowing about my grandparents, although – quite honestly – I think they were just being nice to Maurizio and me. Magic.

Maurizio went back to London as I headed for Northumbria, in northeast England, where I stayed in the manse where another new friend, Dave Herbert, lived. Dave was a friend of a friend of a friend, who learned of my appeal to find inexpensive lodging in exchange for helping in whatever way possible. He was going on vacation, and I agreed to manage the garden, preach twice, and deal with any pastoral emergencies. This never would have happened if I had been awarded the Lilly Foundation grant.

Yet I failed here as well. My intention in staying two weeks at the quiet manse was to finish the first book Circling. But I had lost my laptop on the airplane and with it, the latest draft. I had a copy on the desktop but that was a continent away. So I read and walked and watched sheep and played a few too many computer games. I spent time with several women who were part of the associated parishes; one was considering ministry and the others just enjoyed chatting about issues with their churches or life in general. I didn’t accomplish my three goals, but enjoyed the way we each became agents of grace for each other. Magic.

Spending two weeks on Iona with Philip Newell and a bunch of other new friends, I was filled with new ideas and great excitement. But while there was lots of reading and walking, there wasn’t much writing and no dieting. I had become a happy failure. I returned briefly to Northumbria for another preaching opportunity and visits with my new friends before returning to Argyll (the western isles of Scotland) to research ancestral history. And then came what I later realized was a watershed moment.

Wanting to visit the center of the Campbell clan in Inveraray, I reserved a room at a small B&B in Ford, about 8 miles away. A young family ran it; it was homey rather than fancy, and it was cheap. But driving there from Edinburgh took twice as long as I expected. It involved endless miles on small rural roads that were sometimes dirt and often one-lane roads will pullouts for cars to pass each other. Sure, it was 8 miles from Inveraray … as a crow flies. It was 50 miles and well over an hour by car. I arrived around 9 pm and discovered that there were about 5 homes and no store of any kind in this little town of Ford, in Argyll, Scotland. The owners offered to make me dinner, which I accepted happily.

Waiting, I silently chastised myself for my stupidity. In my haste, I had selected a B&B in the middle of nowhere. What an idiot! What a … failure …

Dinner came. It was delicious, and of huge proportions. While eating, I watched a young man in the small living room eating dinner from a paper bag. After finishing what I could, I offered the rest to him. And thus began an unforgettable evening.

Leon is a German working in Scotland embarking on a new career importing fine Scotch whisky into his home country. After the usual pleasantries, I learned that he had a rather traumatic background and wasn’t close to his parents, who were divorced. I also surmised that he had gone through a number of challenges in his youth and that he was now in his early 30’s and hoping for a new start. He worked at a distillery north of Edinburgh and was in Ford exploring distilleries in Argyll. He returned my kindness of sharing dinner with a lesson in how to drink whisky. The young couple and their daughter and dog came and went for the rest of the evening.

I listened as he talked about his family, his work, his love life, his dreams. He had several heart-breaking love affairs but recently met a woman who was nearly 10 years younger but they really liked each other. And, all the while, he punctuated the stories of his life with an education on whisky. Magic.

The next morning, he came down for breakfast and thanked me for our conversation. He said that, although he wasn’t sure that his new girlfriend would ever be “the one,” he realized that he was worthy and good and there was happiness in his future.

He went off to local distilleries and I took the long drive to Inveraray, coming home to another delicious dinner with Leon and more in my whisky education. This time we talked about his business plans. I asked a number of questions and made a few suggestions based on the years when I was running a consulting business years ago. Three hours later, I went off to bed, again feeling warm and kindhearted. In the morning, Leon came down and said he was totally rethinking his business plan based on our discussion. We haven’t seen each other since, but he has sent me several emails and Facebook postings thanking me for our time together and letting me know the success of his new strategy. Somehow, my “failure” in booking a B&B in the hinterlands became an opportunity to bring magic into someone else’s life. It felt wonderful!

I then headed to Leeds to pick up a colleague from the US, and we returned to Scotland to explore her family history – and again spend time with some of my new friends. After dropping her off in London, I picked up Maurizio, who decided he wanted to learn about Celtic Christianity. [This was a big and unexpected compliment because he is a good Roman Catholic boy who hadn’t had much interest in the progressive or Celtic church.] But his heart was opened – more magic.

Maurizio and I went to Lindisfarne (Holy Island) with one of the three ladies I mentioned earlier, and visited the Lindisfarne Scriptorum, where I purchased a beautiful poster. The front is beautiful script, and it reads:

“Love is always patient and kind. Love is not boastful or conceited. It is never rude, and never seeks its own advantage. It does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. These remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest is love.”

The back reads:

“Based on 1 Corinthians 13: 4-13. A good exercise is to replace the word ‘love’ with your own name to see if you match up – not an easy task but one worthy of aspiring to.”

I tried that: “Felicity is always patient and kind. Felicity is never boastful or conceited. Felicity is never rude, and never seeks her own advantage…” Ouch! Oh yes, I am a failure indeed! I am not always patient and kind. I am sometimes boastful and conceited. I can be rude and seek my own advantage… I could go on and on.

And so it was in reading this at Holy Island that I had my epiphany on the connection between failure and magic. The failure was in the need to accomplish something; the magic was with the present and the presence. The magic was the pure and simple grace of sharing time, hearts, and minds with others. The magic was that, for two months, I had been patient and kind. I had not been boastful or conceited; I had never been rude or sought my own advantage. I had not taken offence or stored up grievances. I did not rejoice in wrongdoing….

My need to be successful had become a stumbling block to living in the present and in the presence of divine grace. My failures had nothing to do with losing the sabbatical grant or not completing my three goals. My only failure was that I had forgotten about the magic that comes when one is open to God’s grace as explained by St. Paul in this much-treasured passage.

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Trying to live like a saint … or perhaps just a hero in my own story

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

On this All Saints’ Day, I’m recalling those people — grandparents, ministers, teachers, friends — who have lived as saints for me, by which I mean those who live in such a way that one knows that their love of God is central to everything they feel and do.

Whether or not I might qualify for sainthood, the bigger problem for me its just being a hero in my own story. Here’s the history and the challenge…

Many years ago, I jointed a support group for parents of children with birth defects. During the introductions, the psychologist, an elegant older woman who reminded me of the renowned psychologist Anna Freud, asked for a one-word synonym for parenting. Most of us came up with the usual schmaltzy stuff – “caring,” “nurturing,” “loving….” Some were more honest, with responses like “anxiety” and “worry.”

When we finished, this classy woman who reeked of wisdom sat back in her chair, took a long pause, and smiled knowingly. “Bullshit! There is only one true synonym for parenting, and it is ‘guilt.’ Get used to it; guilt will be a major part of your life from now on. The only difference between you and other parents is that you will have a worse case of it, because you have the added guilt of whatever caused your children to be here in this hospital. Learn to live with it, and don’t let it rule you.”

Over the years, I’ve shared her wisdom with new parents everywhere. Guilt really is about the most honest and fundamental synonym for parenting that I’ve ever heard. It was many years after my daughter died that I understood the kind of guilt that I felt – the guilt over inexplicable events – was its own kind of hubris. In my own way, I was playing God just by holding myself responsible for things I had no way of causing or understanding, let alone fixing.

A decade later, a pastoral therapist and close friend summarized it differently: “Try to live life so that you can be a hero in your own story. Things go wrong. If you’re responsible, then fix it. But don’t play the blame game. You can blame your parents, your spouse, the President, God – but that only makes you a victim. Acting like a victim is a terrible, destructive way to live. First, they are no fun to be around, and second, they may unwittingly use their victimhood as justification for abusing others – witness religious militants. So work at being a hero in your story, managing life’s challenges with grace and courage rather than succumbing to them. That’s as good as it gets.”

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When Hell Meets Heaven

Friday, September 11th, 2015

After spending the spring and summer of 2001 teaching a new computer system to Port Authority employees in New York City, I was briefly assigned to another client in nearby Newark for a three-day class in early September. This meant that I was 25 miles from my classroom at the World Trade Center and 200 miles from my home in Washington, D.C., when the world witnessed the event that would forever change our lives.

I return in early October to help the Port Authority staff at La Guardia Airport. Most haven’t learned the new system, and those who did take the class can’t remember diddlysquat. The documentation that my team developed has, literally, been vaporized. But bills are piling up, vendors are demanding payment, and equipment must be purchased.

I spend two days with Jane, who was in my classroom on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. She and five others escaped, but two classmates went to a different stairwell and were never seen again. Three weeks after the bombing, I see that Jane is still too traumatized to take an elevator or enter a building of more than two stories.

Her husband had been on the 74th floor. He, three colleagues, and a janitor with a lunch box and cleaning bucket, were bunched in the express elevator speeding upwards from the 44th floor, when it suddenly plunged downward about hundred feet and just as abruptly stopped. Picking themselves off the floor in the pitch-black cage, they had no idea where they were. Prying the elevator doors open, they found only a dark wall.

Smoke is seeping in through the elevator cracks. Covering their noses with handkerchiefs soaked in milk, they take turns with the metal edge of the squeegee to laboriously cut through the sheetrock. They eventually bust into a bathroom, but then have to break through ceramic tiles. Emerging on the 50th floor, they walk downstairs single-file leaving room for firemen who are running up. They see the light of day just four minutes before the building crashes. If the janitor had not had a flashlight, a squeegee, a pint of milk, and the cool to mastermind the rescue, no one would have lived to tell their adventures of the morning. Was he a guardian angel in disguise?

Several days later, I am at the agency’s temporary headquarters in Hoboken sharing an office with Diane, the training manager, a delightful middle-aged woman with whom I have spent many happy hours over lunch and in meetings. But now, she’s a different person. Once attentive to her subordinates, she has morphed into a protective mother bear; determination and deep weariness have replaced the twinkle in her eyes.

I don’t know what war is like, but I have an idea of what it’s like to “go through the wars”: it is the process by which we are forced to acknowledge our vulnerability. For most of us, war is external; its “over there,” or “back then,” and it involves others. But after 9-11, war is here and now and within. The reality of who we are is struggling with our preconceptions about ourselves. Suddenly we are fearful, and we don’t like the people that we have become.

Another reason Diane has lost her sparkle is because her commute is now 2 ½ – 3 hours each way, instead of an hour previously. This means that she leaves home just before 6:00 am and doesn’t usually get back until 9:00 pm. Twice in the last week, she was an hour late because Penn Central had been evacuated for “something” (never explained); this required her to walk almost a mile to the subway and a then several blocks to the PATH station, extending her one-way commute to nearly four hours. And some of her weariness is because the computer system is often down; what once was a simple, two-minute transaction is now a cause for major celebration.

One morning, as I am reflecting on the difference between heroes (all of the people in or anywhere near that building on September 11th) and saints (those who have devoted their lives to God and God’s people), a woman enters to drop off files. Hearing her mutter “Jesus Christ” under her breath and assuming that she has just broken a fingernail, I look up to see what is wrong. Instead of a scowl, I am greeted by a warm smile and a cheerful “Good morning, sister” from a woman I have never before seen in my life.

After brief courtesies, Victoria shares her impressions of that day. She was sitting at her desk on the 63rd floor when the plane hit. Rather than run or scream, she dropped to her knees in prayer. She had a clear vision of God “sitting on His throne” looking down on her and saying, “Look at my baby girl calling on me in the midst of this terror.” Directing some unseen angels, God told them, “Go and see about my daughter.”

When the image of God’s radiance faded, she went with waiting colleagues to the nearest stairwell. Walking down, she began reciting the 23rd psalm and singing praise songs. Others joined in, and many came up later thanking her for the calm faith she radiated in that dark, smoke-filled stairwell. Is not Victoria an angel and a saint?

The next day, Don and Raoul share memories of walking down from the 70th floor. People were orderly at first, mostly because so many had survived the 1993 bombing and trusted the structural integrity of the towers. Don and Raoul were nonplussed by burn victims and others who were actively bleeding, but they never feared for their own lives until the 20th floor, when the smoke intensified, making it hard to both breathe and see. An incredible, inexplicable, rolling, deafening roar (which they later learned was the crash of the other building) made the north tower shake intensely, cutting off the emergency lights and causing people to stumble over each other. After this, it was a superhuman effort to maintain control, and some began weeping. But still, the group kept talking to each other to stay calm, groping their way down, most of them holding hands, some sobbing, but with little screaming and no pushing – just cold, stark determination.

In the middle of this horrific retelling, Raoul blurts out, “And, you know, we were the lucky ones. We had no idea of what was going on. When the south tower fell, we knew something dreadful had happened, but our stairwell was fine and our tower still stood…. Actually, people like Diane had it worse. She was walking in from the plaza and froze, not knowing whether to rush up and help people or run away as fast as she could. A policeman ordered her to leave – which was good because this was just when debris – huge blocks of concrete and metal, enough to kill you if they landed – started falling from the sky.”

Raoul feels sorrier for Diane than he does for himself…

When employees arrive for a meeting and see someone they haven’t seen since 9/11, work abruptly ends and co-workers pour out from cubicles to chat. It is like the excitement that accompanies a woman returning from maternity leave with a new baby in tow. But unlike the gushes over the beautiful child, this is a chastening calm with unspoken but clear affection. It is both endearing and terrifying.

The following week, after anthrax poisoning has replaced hijacked planes as the terror of the day, the agency conducts daily safety drills and distributes safety glasses, nose masks, rubber gloves, and flashlights to all employees. Diane is away when a flashlight is placed on her desk; within two hours, five coworkers stop in to ensure that that the batteries are installed and her flashlight is working properly.

People look around at their ordinary colleagues with their ordinary foibles and realize that their ordinary assumptions were all wrong. They now realize that they have been working amidst heroes, including the two procurement officials who returned from the stairwell to retrieve their blind colleague from the 71st floor, the ten co-workers who carried a 250-pound, wheelchair-bound man down 69 flights of stairs, and the two marketing managers who got Tina and her motorized wheelchair down from the 68th floor. Of the Port Authority employees, only 74 of the 2,000 in the building were killed (half of them the police and firemen who – according to the people I speak with – seemed to know that they were going to their deaths). In both towers, only 2,753 people were killed in the collapse. Everyone credits the low number of casualties to the fact that mutual care trumped panic and pushiness.

Returning just before Thanksgiving to my company’s home office in Columbia, Maryland, I find myself suddenly depressed. In the midst of the hell that surrounds us, I have been graced to witness the best of the human condition. For some, self-sacrifice for others was absolute and cost them their lives; for most, it was timid and tenuous – but nonetheless transforming – if only for a time.

And I know that I too am forever changed, for good as well as ill. The trivialities of life gnaw at me. After spending six weeks in the company of saints and heroes, ordinary mortals seem frivolous and self-absorbed. With the exception of faith-filled Victoria who sang and prayed her coworkers to safety, I do not know the religious beliefs of the employees at the Port Authority. But watching people show genuine care for each other, I realize that I have just witnessed the kingdom of God on earth.

I just wish it had not come to this.

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Noah Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Their Message for Spirituality and Religion

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Garrison Keillor, in today’s Writer’s Almanac, reminds us that it was on April 14, 1828 that Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. We at The Park Church celebrate Webster for his literary and genetic gifts: we love (or should love) his dictionary, and we love (or should love) his granddaughter, the magnificent Julia Jones Beecher, celebrated wife of Thomas K. Beecher, dear friend of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”) and treasure of Elmira. (You can do a Google search or just wait for me to get around to writing about this extraordinary gift to the human condition.)

Keillor’s reflection reminded me of the connection between religion, spirituality, and the history of dictionaries. We yearn for a belief system or set of life principles that will guarantee either eternal salvation or earthly glory or both. We disagree, however, on how to read the road map or which of several different roads to take. Some of us prefer the fast route; others want the scenic one. Some of us prefer well-worn boulevards; others want to forge new walkways.

The various religions only add to our confusion. They all promise that if we follow their tenets, then we are likely to live with joy and die in peace. Some suggest it will happen in the here-and-now; others promise rewards in the afterlife. Some have rigorous life-style specifications, including what we can eat (and when), whom we can marry, how we must worship. Others emphasize self-control, charity and justice in more general terms. What are we supposed to do? What decisions must we make, what religious path should we follow, in order to live with joy and die in peace?

I believe that divining a personal theology is like creating a dictionary. Seventy-three years before Webster and a century before Oxford University began work on its great dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language was the most successful attempt to codify the English language. The six-year effort by the second most-quoted author after William Shakespeare is impressive not only for its breadth (43,500 words defined using 118,000 illustrative quotes) but also for its underlying philosophy. Unlike the “Forty Immortals” that have met since 1635 to create and maintain a national standard for French language and usage, Johnson believed that language, if it were to be an effective way of communicating, could be no more fixed than the changes of the season. Ideas change, needs change, knowledge changes – and so must language.

Arguing for an immutable dictionary akin to the Forty Immortals was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who wanted to define correct pronunciations, correct spellings, correct usage, and decide which words were or were not proper. Swift wanted a yardstick against which to codify correctness; Johnson wanted a process by which to measure common usage.

Is it not that different from comparing the Ten Commandments (that spell out the do’s and don’ts of acceptable living) with Jesus’ broader commandments to “love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”
Detailed rules or general guidelines: why is it that some people need well-defined creeds to codify their philosophy, while others are comfortable with more general belief statements? Is there value in creating two theological lexicons – one for the Johnsons and Websters and another for the Forty Immortals and the Swifts?

— Or can we just focus on the basics (love, peace, and justice) and ignore the details and the judgment?

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Celebrating a Life Well Lived

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

On Thursday night at 10:00 PM Eastern time, PBS will feature a fabulous movie as part of their “Independent Lens” programming. Written by Eric Neudel, the film is “Lives Well Lived,” about the disability rights movement; it features, among others, my cousin Frederick Allen Fay, who died last month at his home in Concord, MA.  It was one of my greatest honors to be asked to lead the worship service for him, for he changed the lives of many — including mine.

Here is a portion of my remarks:

How does one do justice to a man who is so much larger than life? How does one do justice to a man who spent half of his life flat on his back and yet was more powerful than a phalanx of soldiers?

As we ponder that, I need to tell you that, as a child, Fred wasn’t my favorite cousin.  He was a few months older than my brother Peter, which meant that both of them were two years older than I. Peter and Fred were into sports and girls and … teasing me.   I really liked Bruce and Margaret and Jean and Aunt Janet and Uncle Allan and their wonderful dog Bandit. Fred was OK, but no, he wasn’t my favorite.

That all changed after his accident.  Or, I should say, after he transformed his life – and mine, and many others – following the accident.  He was not only my favorite, he became a personal hero. Except that he didn’t like the idea of being put on a pedestal.

Now, in my life, I’ve been fortunate to meet – if only in passing – Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King, Jr.  And I’ve read a lot about Jesus and Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others who changed the world. Speaking for myself, Fred is way up there with these other luminaries – so much larger-than-life, so able to make wise and loving choices especially when they’re difficult or unpopular. What is it that they have-or-think-or-believe that gives them the faith or the vision or whatever-it-is to become pioneers in courage?

Ever since Trish and Derick asked me to develop and speak at this service – one of the great honors of my life – I’ve struggled to discern what makes a hero. In addition to Fred and Jesus and Gandhi et al., I’m thinking about 9-11 and the firefighters in New York and the airline passengers in Pennsylvania who looked death in the eye and decided that a brave life was more to be treasured than a long life.  So, for two weeks, Fred, 9-11, hope, and heroism have all been spinning together like the makings of a milkshake in the blender of my mind.

It took a while, but I finally “got” it. Some of it has to do with opportunity, but there’s more.  I finally “got” why Fred, powerless by the world’s standards was the most powerful man I ever had the privilege of knowing up-close-and-personal. I finally “got” what underlay Fred’s “can do” attitude even when he – physically at least – “could not.”  I finally “got” why my young and rambunctious children preferred to spend the day at home with Fred than out sightseeing or going to the playground or a movie.

Namely this:  what Fred had in common with Jesus, Gandhi, FDR, MLK, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Viktor Frankl, and other champions of justice has everything to do with power – specifically, the use and misuse of power.

It is often the case that someone abused as a child grows up to become an abuser himself. Physically and emotionally, one inflicts the injury upon one’s children that was inflicted up them. That goes for groups and countries also: a few crazy Muslims that were oppressed by their US-supported governments felt justified in lashing out against their tormenters – to whit 9/11.  We, the most powerful country in the world, then felt victimized and retaliated against those countries that harbored the abusers. It’s a perpetual seesaw of victim – abuser – victim – abuser…

And if it’s not the seesaw of violence, it can be the less obvious but equally destructive iron triangle of victim-abuser-enabler.  People involved in Al-Anon or other codependency programs know how easy it is to accommodate those who are addicted or abusive. When we’re caught in that victim-abuser-enabler triangle – and most of us are at one time or in one way or another – we identify ourselves by our lack of power.  We think of ourselves as “less-than” – less-than-perfect or less-than-powerful in a cruel and unjust world, whether because we are black, female, physically challenged, of the wrong religion, or children of alcoholics, or the child who wasn’t the favorite, or one who lacked the advantages of his peers… well, you get the idea.  We self-identify by what is missing – our lack of influence and power. We don’t recognize, embrace, or live our God-given power in healthy ways.  When we do claim our power, it’s often at the expense of others, making them into victims or enablers.

But not Fred.  Not Jesus or MLK Jr. or Mandela or FDR or the other truly great men and women in history. They never self-identified as “less than.”  They never got trapped in the vicious triangle of abusive power. What makes Fred so remarkable is that he never felt sorry for himself; he owned his power without oppressing others. Further, it upset Fred when folks put him on a pedestal because that necessarily meant that he was “more-than,” and the other was “less-than.”

But this only half the equation. Too often, we think of power as a limited resource, like money and food, without enough for everyone to be comfortable.  For me to enjoy as much power as I want, you need to have less.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world – right?

This is what I realized while thinking about Fred, Jesus, Gandhi, et al. – true heroes declare their power AND teach others how to claim theirs.  They empower those who think of themselves as “less than.”

So where do we go with this?  Before answering that question, I’d like to share Fred’s response when I asked how he managed to stay positive and playful.  (I was feeling sorry for myself after some life challenges and wanted to know how Fred avoided self-pity.) “How do you do it,” I asked.

“Granddaddy,” said Fred. “Huh?” I replied, to which he continued: “When I came out of the surgery and realized I was a paraplegic, I thought about our grandfather after that terrible car accident that broke his pelvis when he was 83.  No one expected him to live, or, if he did, it would be in a wheelchair. But other people’s assessments of what Granddaddy could not do didn’t stop him from doing what he could.  It took six months, but he was up and walking with the help of braces and special shoes.  He sometimes used a cane, but rarely. He never stopped hobbling out to pick blueberries, or make a fire, or serve people food and drink.  He never complained, and he never stopped enjoying life.  So whenever I feel sorry for myself, I remember how much fun Granddaddy had in living and how much he enjoyed people and vice versa.  So I consciously work on being grateful and it brings joy.  I wouldn’t change my life for anyone’s.”

In closing, Stephen Covey talks about the four aspects of a quality life: living, loving, learning, and leaving a legacy.  The legacy Granddaddy left was a can-do spirit and a joy in living regardless of physical challenges. Fred’s legacy is all that plus an awareness that we don’t need to be trapped in a victim-abuser-enabler triangle.  We can embrace our power and we can give it away.  As Granddaddy was a transforming image for Fred, so was Fred for me – and I hope you.  By sharing our gifts and power with others, we, like Fred – and Jesus and Gandhi and the others – can and will change the world.  And the saints and heroes in heaven and on earth will cheer.

If you’d like to read more about Fred, please go to my brother Peter’s website (http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/memory.fred.fay.htm) or do a Google search — you’ll be amazed at the range of his influence.  Though physically limited to a wheel bed in a Boston suburb, his moral and spiritual presence has been felt throughout the world. Truly, we give thanks to a life very well lived.

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