15 years ago, today.
You know, we often talk about this, when the 11th of September rolls around.
We talk about where we were, when we heard the news. When we watched the second plane hit. When we saw the towers fall.
We also talk about how that moment is seared into our minds. How the sheer magnitude of those moments “imprinted” where we were, at that moment.
I was at a grocery store. Trying to save money by using double coupons. I left the dozen or so items I had chosen in my cart and went home.
Grocery shopping, in that moment, was trivial. Getting home to my crew was all-consuming.
If you are old enough to remember, you know where you were, on 11-September-2001.
When something traumatic, or devastating, or even when something overwhelmingly joyful happens, we tend to remember the moment with an uncanny clarity. We remember where we were at, the moment we received the news. We remember things that otherwise we would forget–for example, ask any New Yorker who was in Lower Manhattan on that Tuesday. They will probably tell you that the sky was a brilliant blue. Why? Because it was. And because that image is seared in their memory.
Why is this?
I’m sure there are all sorts of biological and psychological reasons why we remember these moments. And I’m sure there have been many scientific studies defining why one moment is remembered, while others are forgotten. If we were to read these studies (and were able to understand the technical findings), we would think, “Oh. Ok. That makes scientific sense.” But alongside that evidence is this: I believe that we were created to remember those moments.
If we don’t remember those dark times with some degree of clarity, then we run the danger of losing our sense of gratitude.
This morning at church, we honored the First Responders in our community: Our firefighters. Our rescue personnel. Our local sheriff’s department. Our military. We invited them to join us for worship, in their uniforms, and we publicly thanked them.
Eric Spence, our worship pastor, opened the service by sharing a memory he has from that hellish day 15 years ago. He recalled that, as he watched events unfold on his TV, he was struck by the juxtaposition of hundreds and hundreds of people running away from the chaotic inferno of the towers…..
……while dozens of men in uniform–the firefighters, the policemen, the rescue workers, the first responders, the heroes—ran not away, but to Ground Zero. They had to have known at some level in their minds, that they could perish. They had to have known at some level in their souls, that what they would witness inside those buildings would be terrifying. But they ran the opposite direction of what common sense had to have been telling them.
They ran to those in desperate need.
It was a beautiful site this morning, looking out over the congregation, and up into the balcony, and seeing these men and women in uniform, with their families beside them. It was fantastic to see two of our own band members in uniform as they played their trumpet and trombone this morning. To begin the service, a video was shown that featured some of our church members sharing first-hand accounts of the impact first responders have had in their own lives.
Here’s the thing though–knowing these deputies, these lieutenants, these Fire Chiefs, these rescue workers, I am confident of this: not a one of them was comfortable with the thanks or the praise.
Why? Because it is not just a job to them. It is a calling. They don’t see themselves as heroes.
But, oh my friends, they are most definitely just that. They are heroes. They are our heroes.
I’ve never had a fire destroy my home. I’ve never had a medical emergency requiring rescue workers to provide me oxygen or life-saving medicines. Yesterday, I saw the movie “Sully” (by the way, fantastic movie.). I’ve never stood on the wing of a sinking airplane, in need of rescue from the frigid water by Police Scuba Divers.
Thank you, God.
But I am fully aware that one second in any one day, and that could be me–or one of my crew–or you–or one of your crew–in desperate need of their calm, professional, knowledgeable and effective assistance.
While I’ve never experienced such an acute life or death need, there was a day seven years ago, when a crime that had been committed came crashing through our world, shattering it into a million pieces. And on that day, I remember every detail of answering a phone call from our local sheriff’s department.
Because, just like we all remember where we were on that clear September morning 15 years ago, I remember where I was when I received the first call from the Sheriff’s department. I don’t remember much else of that day that sharply, but that phone call? I’ll never forget it. The sound the phone made. The color of my kitchen walls. The movie–Transformers–playing on the TV, in the living room.
And you know what? Even in that non-life threatening-yet-very-devastating situation, the officers at the Sheriff’s Department were first responders to my family’s dark day. We didn’t need fire hoses or CPR, but we needed those officers, all the same. Their calm, professional reassurance and take-charge actions helped me to settle down my shaking soul. They treated me with deep respect that day, and the days that followed. They cared–deeply cared–for my children….and that care carried on for months. Months. In fact, a year and a half later, they reached out and invited my smalls to participate in their local community outreach at Christmas, where they bring kids in to the local Wal-Mart for a “Shop-with-a-Cop” event. That was huge. And my kids loved it.
I am so grateful.
This morning as I saw these same personnel from the Sheriff’s office–faces that I remember sharply like I remember that phone call–enter our sanctuary in their uniforms, with their families, I realized that I had never personally told them “Thank you”. I may have said something in court, the day I had to testify, but I am not entirely sure if I did or did not. I know I had intentions to say something from the stand, to thank them. But that day is such a blur. I don’t remember much.
But this morning, 7 years later, I was able to briefly introduce myself, shake their hands, and tell them thank you. I should have before this day. I should not have waited for 7 years. But I’m grateful to have had the opportunity this morning, to do so.
And you know what? They deflected my words of gratitude and did what they do best: they expressed their concern and compassion for us, and asked how we were doing.
It was such a joy to be able to tell them this: We are doing so, very well. My crew is good. Incredibly good. God has been gracious. And one of the reasons why we are doing so well, is because they answered the call upon their lives, and were willing to be first responders to our dark, seemingly hopeless day. They did not run from our nightmare.
They ran to it, to stand by us.
I want to add this: there are other first responders, beyond the ones we typically recognize by their uniforms–I have known this full well in my life as well. Our pastoral staff and their families in those days were also first responders to our nightmare. And they often are–ministers are often the first ones called in a crises. They are called to the bedside of those who are dying. They are summoned in the middle of night, to sit with grieving parents who are worried about their child. They care for their congregants in the midst of our messy life and in the hardest nightmares.
And so the same thoughts hold true, for these ministry “first responders” and their families, as well as for my church and community and the York County School system, too–their care, compassion, and protection in those nightmare is also a huge reason why my crew is doing so well today. I will always be grateful.