Thinking about death

After a long and wasting sickness, a man lay dying in his bed.  He hadn’t been the best of husbands.  He’d been an inattentive spouse, and his relationship with his wife often had been rocky, but as he lay dying the man suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs.  Smiling faintly, he gathered his strength, lifted himself from bed, and slowly made his way out of the bedroom.  With great effort he climbed downstairs, gripping the railing with both hands.

With labored breath, the man leaned against the door frame and gazed into the kitchen.  He thought he might already be in heaven, for there before him on the kitchen table were dozens upon dozens of his favorite chocolate chip cookies.  Was this heaven, or was this an act of heroic love from a devoted wife, determined to coax her husband back to health and life?

Mustering one final effort, the man threw himself toward the table and reached weakly for a cookie.  Suddenly, his hand was smacked with a spatula by his wife who said, “Stay out of those—they’re for the funeral!”

I’m going to tell you a story.  At the outset, I’ll say that I am fine.  I don’t want you to think there’s some sort of awful punchline at the end.  I am fine.  But two months ago I experienced, in a day, three spells of intense lightheadedness, in which I thought I would pass out.  Within a couple of days after that, I developed a persistent, throbbing headache behind my right ear, accompanied by what was, by then, a continual haze of lightheadedness.  It felt as if I had a concussion.  As the days wore on, I had trouble concentrating.  I’d forget a word here and there, or I’d lose my train of thought.  I was mildly worried, so I visited my doctor.  He was more than mildly worried.  After examining me, my doctor said without hesitation that I needed an MRI to rule out a brain tumor.  Only after he had left the exam room did it occur to me that it was a bit ominous he never even broached the subject of what our next steps would be if the MRI were clear.


That was a Monday.  The MRI was on Wednesday, and I learned the results—that it was, indeed, clear—on Thursday afternoon.  My headache and concussed experience lasted another ten days, most likely related to the nerve of the inner ear, but for those four days, between the first visit to the doctor and the results of the MRI, I walked through the world assuming that I might well have a brain tumor.

Conceptual artist Candy Chang says that “thinking about death clarifies your life.”[i]  I am here to tell you, she is right.  I would not want to relive the anxiety and worry of those four days any time soon, but, as I shared with the Friday morning men’s bible study the day after I received the MRI results, I hope I never lose sight of the clarity those four days provided.  It was razor-sharp and piercing.  It was also spiritually potent.  I’m someone who is paid to think about God all the time, and I do.  But rarely, if ever, have I so closely considered my own relationship to the God who creates me in love and to the blessed world in which that God placed me.  In those four days, there was no question about what matters and what doesn’t.  My perception of the outside world was concussed and confused, but my inner compass and center of meaning were crystal clear.

It is in similar circumstances that Paul, we are told,[ii] writes his Second Letter to Timothy.  Paul is in prison, slated for execution.  He is tired, and he is lonely, and he knows that he is about to die.  And thinking on that death clarifies Paul’s life.  He ends the letter today with a poignant and moving personal benediction: “I have fought the good fight,” he says, “I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”


St. Paul in prison, awaiting death

For Paul, that fight, that race, that faith has been sharing with whoever will listen the revelation he has experienced in Jesus, which midway through his life stopped him in his tracks (literally)[iii] and changed everything.  Earlier in the letter he crystalizes that revelation: “Hold fast,” Paul says, “to the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  Guard that good treasure that has been entrusted to you.”  All the rest is commentary.

On normal days, this counsel from a dying apostle is easy to compartmentalize.  When the debit and credit ledgers of business beckon, or when personal grudges or personal desires frame our vision, or when the heat of a bizarre national political campaign brings out the worst in us, it is easy to say to ourselves that sharing the love of Jesus is a thing for Sundays.  It is also easy to excuse that compartmentalization by leaning, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable today, on the false self of our relative uprightness compared to all those awful people we assume (or hope) must be worse than we are.

On normal days, it’s easy to set Paul’s counsel as, at best, an aspiration.  But there are no aspirations when you’re sitting in prison, awaiting execution.  There are no aspirations in the days awaiting potentially dire medical test results.  There is only reflection upon the life one has lived, on whether that life has been authentic, and on hope for our lasting influence and impact after one dies.  Thinking about death clarifies life.

The artist Candy Chang, who offers this insight, says that such contemplation is not intended to be morose.  Candy Chang says that the clarity provided by contemplating death intends to instill a deep gratitude for life.

In 2012, Candy Chang wedded this insight to her vocation as a conceptual artist.  In her New Orleans neighborhood, she painted the front face of a dilapidated and abandoned house with chalkboard paint, and she wrote across it the phrase, “Before I die, I want to…”  Candy left chalk at the site, and she walked away.


The next day, the wall was full of writing.  Dozens of passing people had stopped in their tracks—like St. Paul on the Damascus Road when he met Jesus—and paused to contemplate death.  They wrote:

“Before I die, I want to…sing for millions.”

“Before I die, I want to…plant a tree.”

“Before I die, I want to…hold her one more time.”

“Before I die, I want to…be someone’s cavalry.”

People wrote about their regrets, their loves, their deepest yearnings.  They wrote about what was most authentic and important, and they shed all pretense to what was not.  Their sentiments were true.  They were unselfish.  They focused like a laser on what more could be given, where love could be shared, and where grace could be found.

That New Orleans wall became like a latter-day temple wall in Jerusalem, where the Pharisee and the tax collector went to pray.  But no one approached Candy Chang’s art with the Pharisee’s air of self-righteousness, or with clouded rationalization and excuse.  No one did, because contemplating death clarifies life.  All comers approached like the tax collector, in humility, in tears, and leaning on grace.  They reflected upon the lives they’d lived, and they hoped for those who would endure, and they were grateful.

Whether our time horizon is decades or days, there is piercing clarity in asking, “Before you finish the race, what do you want to do before you die?”  St. Paul says, “Hold fast to the faith and love found in Jesus.”  Guard that treasure, and share it in everything you say and do.



[ii] Most biblical scholars agree that Paul did not actually write 2 Timothy, but that it was, rather, written retrospectively by the Pauline community some year’s after Paul’s death.

[iii] Acts 9:1-4

Bobby Fischer, Babylon, and the Promises of God

It is 1956, and Bobby Fischer is a just a barely teenage kid who is good at chess.  In May of that year, his rating is more than nine hundred points below the best players.  Even so, in October, Bobby is invited to participate in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York City.[i]  The tournament is reserved for the top twelve players in the United States, of which Bobby is not.  His invitation is a kind of novelty.

In the tournament, Bobby draws the short straw to play against International Master Donald Byrne, a classic chess player in thick-rimmed glasses and bow-tie, with a cigarette dangling between two fingers.  Bobby is dressed in a t-shirt.

As the match begins, Bobby seems nervous.  (Who wouldn’t be?  This is his first time ever to compete with adults, and he’s playing against the United States chess champion!)  Bobby, a child, makes a series of child’s errors.  He moves his knight to the edge of the board, where it is boxed in and vulnerable.  Within a few moves, it’s clear that Bobby is losing.  In the seventeenth move, Bobby seems to throw in the towel.  He exposes his queen to Donald Byrne like a lamb to slaughter.  The chess elite gathered around harrumph and smugly smile.  This ending was, after all, inevitable.


Thirteen-year-old Bobby Fischer at the Rosenwald Memorial Chess Tournament in 1956


In the year 597 B.C., after a period of faithlessness in Judah, the military machine of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon rolls in and devastates the tiny Jewish nation. Nebuchadnezzar knows that Jewish resistance will be impossible if the Jews are scattered across the vast Babylonian Empire, far from Jerusalem.  And so, their king deposed, their temple destroyed, the Jews are exiled.  It seems to all the world that God has abandoned the Jewish people, that God has thrown in the towel, leaving them to their fate.  Their hope sapped, separated from one another and from God, the Jews are ready, finally, to give up.

It is then that the Prophet Jeremiah sends a letter to the scattered Jewish communities across Babylon, giving them what appears to be advice detached from all evidence of reality.  Jeremiah says to God’s people today, “Build houses; plant gardens; celebrate marriages for your sons and daughters; make good in the cities in which you find yourselves.”  Live, in other words, not as defeated, despairing people, but in the knowledge of goodness and in hope.

To both the Jews and the looming Babylonians, Jeremiah is delusional.  The ending to the Jewish story is inevitable, and for the Jews the only conceivable outcome is despair and death.  It’s as if Jeremiah is reading a storyline from a different script.  He sees an alternate ending to the story, even when no one else can see it.  In the chapter just after today’s reading, Jeremiah claims that God has spoken through him, saying, “The days are surely coming when I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah…[and again] you will be my people, and I will be your God.”[ii]


“It is as if Jeremiah is reading a storyline from a different script.”

Jeremiah knows that God’s promises are unbreakable, God’s victory assured.  And, he knows that it is often at the very bottom, the nadir of human experience —and only then—that we become vulnerable enough to perceive God at work.  It is then that we find ourselves willing to be changed, transformed, and to begin participating in new ways with God’s very work to redeem us.  When things are most dire, either due to our own lack of fidelity to God’s goodness or due to circumstances beyond us—or, as is usually the case, some combination of the two—when things are most dire we realize we can either trust in the promise of God’s presence and grace or lapse into true hopelessness.  Trusting in God allows us to listen for God, which empowers us to work with God, newly participating in our own redemption.  That is the meaning behind the Prophet’s encouragement of the Jews in exile.  Now, at the moment of seeming despair, is when they can begin to cooperate with God in the very work of moving them from darkness to light.  But that requires the Jews to trust and live in hope.

The struggle is nowhere near over.  Not until sixty years after Jeremiah’s letter does the Persian Empire defeat the Babylonians and grant the Jews permission to go home.  But when that happens, because they listened to Jeremiah and lived in hope, the Jewish people are ready to rebuild their temple and their nation, and live again into God’s great story for them.

Back in New York City, October 1956, at the Marshall Chess Club, young Bobby Fischer has thrown in the towel.  He’s a kid, outmatched, loomed over by the greatest chess players in the world.  He sacrifices his queen to bow-tied Donald Byrne.  The world spins on.

But then, in just a few moves later, Bobby captures Donald Byrne’s rook…and then both bishops…and then a pawn.  The gathered crowd gets confused.  Someone seems to have revised the script.  On move twenty-five, Bobby takes Donald Byrne’s queen.  Ten moves after that, Bobby Fischer checkmates Byrne’s king.  The ending has been rewritten.  The thirteen-year-old boy triumphs.  The chess world is stunned.  And the match becomes known as the “Game of the Century.”


Reviewing the match, analysts soon realized that Bobby Fischer had actually won at what appeared to be his moment of defeat.  The moment his queen was sacrificed, Bobby saw the way, move upon move, to victory.  When it appeared the game was lost, it was, in fact, won.  The kid in the t-shirt saw an alternative ending when no one else did.  And the vision of that ultimate victory, sure and certain, propelled Bobby forward in hope and purpose.

No matter what defeat, despair, or darkness we encounter, no matter how surely the ending to the story appears to be written, God’s promises are unbreakable.  Though the contest may not be over, God’s victory over all darkness, in our lives and in our world, is assured.  Living in that knowledge and hope, cooperating with God’s good for us, makes all the difference now.  “I will restore you, in the end,” says the God of grace and love, “for I am your God, and you are my people.”

[i] The “Game of the Century” is chronicled in the Radiolab podcast “Games”:

[ii] Jeremiah 30:3 & 22

Eyes opened to gratitude and joy

It was the kick-off Sunday for the annual stewardship campaign at a large evangelical church.  Fifteen or twenty minutes into the preacher’s sermon, just as he was getting revved up, the preacher yelled to the congregation, “If this church is going to serve God, first it’s got to get down on its knees and crawl!”  And the congregation yelled back “Make it crawl preacher, make it crawl!”

Feeling the positive energy flowing back to him, the preacher then yelled: “And once this church has learned to crawl, it’s got to get up on its feet and walk!”  To which the congregation yelled back “Make it walk preacher, make it walk!”

Then the preacher yelled, “And once this church has learned to walk, it’s got to begin to learn to run!”   The congregation, now feeling the movement of the Holy Spirit in the room, replied boisterously, “Make it run, preacher, make it run!”

Finally, the preacher hollered with inspired conviction, “And in order to run, this church has got to reach deep down into its pockets and give, give, give!”  Upon which there was a pregnant pause before someone in the congregation yelled back, “Make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.”

Another time at another church, during a particularly long stewardship sermon, a frightened little girl leaned over to her father and asked, “Daddy, if we just give him all our money now, do you think he’ll let us go?”  There is, indeed, a fine line between a stewardship sermon and a hostage situation.[i]

Why is that, do you think? Well, maybe it’s because of the Gospel passages the sages who created the Revised Common Lectionary always assign during stewardship season.  This week, for instance, we have Lazarus and the Rich Man.  This story includes the Gospels’ most extended portrait of hell, complete with tormenting flames and bottomless pits, and that hell is populated not by Hitler or the Unabomber, but rather by someone not a whole lot different from many of us: an affluent man with a comfortable lifestyle, who enjoys the finer things in life.  His worst crime, it seems, is that he wears nice clothes.


Lazarus and the Rich Man

And so, it becomes clear why we have a flight response during stewardship sermons.  The focus during stewardship season—whether it’s the emphasis of the sermon or the strategic choice of Gospel text, or both—seems to be on guilt.  The idea appears to be that making parishioners feel miserable enough about their material things and guilty enough about what they so far haven’t given to the church is the key to a successful Every Member Canvass.

But here’s the problem: Guilt doesn’t work, at least not in the long run.  It doesn’t draw us closer to God.  It doesn’t render us more generous.  It doesn’t enliven and sustain the work of the church.  You know this.  Indeed, very many of you who weren’t born and raised in the Episcopal Church found your way here after leaving some prior church community that used guilt as a cudgel.  Guilt does not give life.  Guilt leaches life, until all joy is replaced by self-loathing.  That’s the hellish torment.  That’s the bottomless pit.  And, in this priest’s humble opinion, as we seek to solicit our contributions for God’s joyous mission for the coming year at the Cathedral, such guilt has no place here.

How, then, do we apply the Gospel story of Lazarus and the Rich Man on this Stewardship Sunday?  How might it inspire in us generous hearts instead of wracking us with guilt?

The key, I think, is in the recognition of the rich man’s error.  There is no indication that he wished Lazarus ill.  There is no inkling that he defrauded Lazarus, or fired Lazarus from a job while taking a huge bonus for himself, or even kicked Lazarus as he walked by.  The affluent man in the parable actually could not have done any of these things, because, upon close reading, we sense that the rich man never saw Lazarus at all.  That is his error.  The rich man has goose stepped his way through life with blinders on, failing to see the evidence of grace and opportunities for goodness all around him.  As he passed through his gate day after day, he never saw—really saw—Lazarus sitting there in hunger and pain.  The rich man wasn’t evil, he just couldn’t see.  Or, more accurately, he chose not to see.

Let me tell you a story.  Last summer I led twenty-five Cathedral parishioners on a pilgrimage to Ireland.  Halfway through our trip, we were supposed to take a small boat from the southeast Irish coast to Skellig Michael, a steep, rugged island that was home to ancient Irish monks and has recently been made famous by the new Star Wars movie, in which it appears.  I’d wanted to visit Skellig Michael for years.  I felt certain that, if I could just get there, I would encounter God.


Skellig Michael

Well, the morning in question the weather was bad and the sea was choppy.  The boats couldn’t make the trip.  Instead, as a consolation, we took a day-long bus ride around the Ring of Kerry.  No one in our group other than my wife Jill knew that my disappointment was really fury.  I stewed on the bus all day.  Jill did her best, in her gracious way, to keep me from interacting with our fellow pilgrims, because she knew in my extreme irritation at the circumstances I might say or do something I’d regret.  And so, I did not see the Ring of Kerry.  In my blinding anger, I did not see the beauty of God’s creation or the wonder on the faces of my twenty-five friends as they did gaze out at God’s glorious landscape.

When we arrived back at our hotel in Killarney, Jill suggested that she and I go for a walk so I could cool down.  We walked the path for almost a mile, and a cold spitting rain began to fall.  “Just great,” I mumbled, as the rain boiled off my steaming ears.

The path ended at the ruins of fifteenth century Muckross Abbey, a creepy and death-haunted ruin that some say inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.[ii]  As we approached, Cathedral parishioner and pilgrim Kay Pieringer emerged from the abbey.  “You have to see it!” Kay said, “In the cloister.  It’s amazing.”

“One more ruin,” I thought, “Nothing to be all that excited about.” But as we walked through the abbey and into the cloister, I stopped short.  There, growing up through the ruins—strong, proud, and emitting life—was an enormous yew tree, one of the largest yew trees, in turns out, in all of Ireland.

The yew tree has been regarded as holy since pre-Christian times.  Ancient tales tell of druids’ staffs and wizards’ wands being made from yew wood.  And for Christians, the yew is a symbol of resurrection because of the unique way its branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which then grow up and around the original trunk, giving the tree renewed life.  There are yew trees alive in England that were planted when the Normans invaded almost one thousand years ago.


The Yew Tree at Muckross Abbey

I’ve never seen a tree more glorious.  Growing up from the ruins of that dead place, it was as sublime an earthly manifestation of God as I’ve ever encountered.  It was as impressive as Skellig Michael.  It was holy.  In an instant, my mood changed.  My hellish anger melted.  My eyes opened.  There was a twinge of regret—not guilt, but regret—as I realized the glimpses of grace I’d likely missed all day, when I failed to see.  And in that moment the chasm that throughout the day had prevented me from meeting God was bridged.

That is what stewardship is about.  It’s not about imparting guilt, but about seeing and responding to grace.  Eucharistic Prayer C asks God to “Open our eyes to see [God’s] hand at work in the world about us [and] make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in [God’s] name.”

That’s why we pledge our gifts to the Cathedral, because once our eyes are opened to glimpses of God’s grace, we also see where there are opportunities for us to be agents of God’s grace.  We see where there are needs we can meet and where there is joy we can share.  We see Lazarus sitting at the gate.  And we know, once our eyes are opened, that we cannot pass blithely by.  Our hearts are too grateful not to give.

On Wednesday of this past week, I filled out my pledge card for 2017.  Again this coming year I will tithe, I will give back ten percent of my income to the instruments of the church.  It was with eagerness and not hesitation, gratitude and not guilt, that I filled out that card.  I pray you will do the same, as we catch glimpses of God’s grace this very day, all around us, and as we empower the grace-filled ministry of the Cathedral for another year.


[i] Both of these jokes come from the internet, where else?


Sam Houston and the Dishonest Steward

The dishonest steward in this evening’s parable is in the practice of gouging his master’s clients for his own gain.  If someone owes his master $100, he demands twice that and keep the excess for himself.  He’s like our modern-day payday lenders, preying on vulnerable people by charging crippling interest for his own gain.  He’s making himself his master, in other words, using and abusing the position in life his true master had granted him.  Only when the steward falls from grace—and only then, when he’s at the bottom—does he give up the pretension to be his own master and let go of those self-serving portions of his collections, asking instead from his master’s clients only what they genuinely owe.  He finally becomes an honest servant, and his life is redeemed.  Remember that, as I switch gears for a minute.

There is no character in the story of Texas more interesting than Sam Houston, the old “Raven” himself.  Houston was one of those nineteenth century Americans incredibly blessed with countless gifts.  He was enterprising and smart.  He was a gifted leader.  At age thirty he was elected to Congress from Tennessee, and at age thirty-four became that state’s governor.  But it is also true that Sam Houston was crassly self-serving—like the steward in Jesus’ parable—throughout the first half of his life, always calculating what any action would do for him, always seeking to control and mold every circumstance for his own gain. And as a result, in 1828 his life fell apart.  His fall from grace, also like the steward’s in Jesus’ parable, was swift and steep.  Houston abruptly resigned as governor, lapsed into a devastating dependence on alcohol, and taking scarcely more than a bottle with him, disappeared into darkest Arkansas, suffering banishment from all he’d known and loved.


The young and self-serving Sam Houston

It took years for Sam Houston’s repentance and redemption to occur, but occur it did.  Houston eventually became a star so bright that his later accomplishments— leading the Army of Texas, serving as President of the Texas Republic, and ushering Texas into the United States—eclipsed everything he’d done before.  These later things were the result of a wife who taught Sam Houston what it meant truly to know the God who both loved him and called him to account.  As Houston came to know this God, he became a self-giving rather than self-serving man.  He gave up his pretension to be his own master and became a servant.

There is more to the Sam Houston story, an added blessing that could only have happened because of the redeemed man Houston became.[1]   It is near-miraculous.  In 1854, during an emotional slavery debate in the United States Senate where Houston then served for Texas, a group of Northern abolitionist clergy petitioned the Senate to be allowed to speak.  They were ridiculed, humiliated, and laughed down by some Southern senators, but Sam Houston rose to support them.  By all accounts he spoke with passion, even though he took an unpopular and risky position by speaking, especially among his Southern colleagues.

Eight years later, the Civil War had broken out, and Sam Houston’s son was far from home, fighting in the Confederate Army at Shiloh.  During an advance, the boy took a mini ball to the thigh and lost much blood, and he was left for dead on the battlefield.  That evening a solitary Union chaplain walked across the field and came upon Houston’s groaning son.  When the chaplain leaned down to offer a dying prayer, he checked the boy’s knapsack and found a Bible with the inscription, “Sam Houston, Jr., from his mother, March 6, 1862.”


The Battle of Shiloh

The chaplain immediately was taken back to eight years before, when as a young minister he had been shouted down and humiliated in a crowded Senate chamber, until Sam Houston, Sr., had risen from his chair in the ministers’ defense, not for self-gain but as a servant of grace.

The chaplain remembered, and because of that speech he dropped all other duties and carried the wounded Texas boy in his arms from the battlefield.  The boy lived.  Sam Houston’s son was nursed back to health and returned safely to his father.

The old, self-serving Sam Houston never would have made the speech in 1854 that saved his son’s life in 1862.  That speech, like the steward’s action in giving up his commission, was self-giving, made without thought of personal stake or gain.  And yet, it resulted eight years later in nothing less than saving the most important thing in Houston’s world.  It was redemption to be sure.


An older, wiser, and self-giving Sam Houston

Whenever we fool ourselves into believing we are the masters of our lives, whenever we use the gifts we’ve been given as self-serving tools rather than self-giving blessings, the result is harm to others and, eventually, to ourselves.  We’ll find ourselves fallen from grace and all too often alone.  It is when, sometimes in a moment of reckoning when life seems to fall apart, that we give up our pretension and decide by grace to live differently—with the loving God as our Spirit and guide—that we find our lives given back to us anew, often in the most surprising and wondrous ways.  It is then that we truly find redemption.  It is then that we truly become the children of light.


[1] See Sam Houston by James L. Haley, pp. 403-404.

9/11, fifteen years later

This is an auspicious evening, and it’s one in which there is some tension.  On the one hand, we gather for the first time in this style of worship, which is both ancient in our tradition and new to Christ Church Cathedral.  We sing, pause, and pray in ways that intend to remind us of God’s deep peace which runs—like water from a sacred well—beneath all of the things on the surface of our lives that would disrupt God’s peace.  On the other hand, we observe today the fifteenth anniversary of that singular event of our lifetimes which spoke so powerfully that we had—and still have—difficulty finding words to counteract the horror of September 11, 2001.


In 2005, Richard Lischer wrote a book entitled, The End of Words.  His thesis is that our world has become so violent, so unpredictable, so chaotic, so insane that words have lost their inherent meaning.  Words are now but tools in the hands of those who wish to manipulate other people.  As a lover and crafter of words, it pains me to agree with this notion.  But too often today, publically and privately, words are combined to fool, frighten, or whip into frenzy, and each time this happens we feel, like the hundredth sheep in Jesus’ parable, a bit more lost.

Religious words can be among the most manipulated, and perhaps never more so than on and immediately after 9/11.  Some, during those days, invoked the Prince of Peace to sound drums of war.  On the opposite extreme, others utilized the Gospel to suggest that we’d brought terror on ourselves, as if we deserved that awful day.  Both extremes felt emotionally like being cast ever further from the sheep herd, more and more lost in some strange wilderness.

But the most abused religious words of all spoken on and around 9/11 were those of the hijackers themselves.  On United Airlines Flight 93, the terrorists were recorded saying—as they killed the pilots and ultimately crashed the plane in a Pennsylvania field—“In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate…O, God, the most gracious.”[i]

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, “[These] religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words [of] murderers [used] in order to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.”[ii]

In a world where the most holy and sacred words are used so cynically, so dishonestly, how can we ever put our faith in words at all?


But, lest we forget, there were other words that day.  From airplanes and from the Twin Towers, dozens of trapped people telephoned family members, friends, and sometimes mere strangers on the other end of the line.  Invariably, the words spoken on such calls are words of love.[iii]  It isn’t surprising that some of these calls express panic.  What is surprising is the large percentage of them that evidence a remarkable calm, even as steel collapses in wrecked buildings or hijackers scream in the background.  The recipients of the calls have fear in their voices.  But the callers are more often steely and intent:

A newlywed says to her father, “Dad, you have to find Sean and tell him that I love him.”

A young professional says to his mother, “I love you no matter what happens.”

The voicemail message a woman leaves for her husband records, “There’s a lot of smoke, and I just wanted you to know that I love you always.”

These words overpower those other words of war and blame and terror.  Archbishop Williams says of those trapped in the Twin Towers and on the planes, “Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in [his] mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone [he] loves.  [He] does what [he] can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile [phone]…These nonreligious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about—the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.”[iv]

Perhaps never have we felt more like lost sheep than on September 11, 2001, when the planes crashed and the towers crumbled.  But we know that love never stops seeking the lost sheep.  We know that love will not give up.  We discover again in those telephone messages that even lost in the wilderness, even on the smoky 89th floor, even nose-down on a doomed airplane, love abides.  And what is love, but God, and specifically the Incarnate Jesus over whom death has no power?  With love—with the Christ of God, with that Word—we can emerge from any wilderness, found and embraced by the Well of life.

In my memory, the word “triumph” was used too often around 9/11.  But what would it mean if we said, with Archbishop Williams, that love triumphed that day?  Pointless, gratuitous love: love that does not panic; love that does not run away; love that seeks the lost; love that is faithful in the face of any threat.  As we prayerfully reflect on this fifteen years past, and as we look forward into the wildernesses ahead, we’ll know which words are those of the God of love, and when we hear them we’ll remember that we are never lost.


[ii] Williams, Rowan.  Writing in the Dust: After September 11, 3.


[iv] Williams, 5 & 3.