9.11.2012: What have we wrought?

The beautiful September Tuesday in Wisconsin today was eerily like the one I remember eleven years ago in South Carolina–brilliant blue skies, bright sun, a hint of fall in the air. Everything changed, we all said, as we watched the planes go into the twin towers and heard about the Pentagon, as we watched, glued to the TV for days. Eleven years later, it’s worth pondering what changed.

We are diminished as a people and as a nation. As I worked out in the gym this morning, I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, those powerful songs of sadness, hope, and resilience that he wrote in the weeks and months after 9-11. I saw on the televisions scenes of our president against a backdrop of American flags, saying something. Fortunately, my earbuds drowned it out.

I thought of how we came together as a nation and as a world, united in grief and in wanting to help the victims. I thought of how we also sought vengeance in small and large ways, of the two wars, the countless dead in addition to the victims of 9-11. I also thought of how we as a nation, as a people have let our freedoms slip away, our consciences, our better selves.

Last week, the Democratic Convention did everything but parade Osama bin Laden’s body through the convention center, glorying in his assassination. A president who was elected on promises to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, to end torture, to bring our troops home, campaigns on bellicosity and assassinates people in far-off lands with drone aircraft while his administration quietly lets the torturers go without judicial accountability. Just after the convention, we learned that another detainee had died in Guantanamo. Apparently, death is the only way out of that prison. But to criticize the president is as unpatriotic for Democrats today as it was to criticize Bush eight or six years ago.

This summer we have witnessed more outbreaks of Islamophobia and the attack on the Sikh temple.

Who are we? What have we become? Fortunately there are voices that challenge the conventional–voices like Glenn Greenwald and Al McCoy who tell the story of torture, rendition, and targeted assassination.

There are others who speak out, too. Tim Kreider has a powerful piece on the way we have allowed fear to govern our lives and our foreign policy:

I believe that we collectively decided, without quite admitting it to ourselves, that somebody, somewhere in the world, had to die for 9/11, and we didn’t really care whether they’d had anything to do with it or who they were, so long as they were brown-skinned and worshipped Allah and lived in the Middle East. We imagined that killing thousands of strangers on the other side of the world might somehow assuage our fear, in the same way that someone who’s been assaulted might buy a gun as a security blanket, a prop to accompany his fantasies of protection and revenge. Our invasion of Iraq was an act of human sacrifice, undertaken for pretty much the same reasons the Aztecs slaughtered prisoners by the tens of thousands: to propitiate the gods. If George W. Bush had slit the throat of a single lamb on live TV it would’ve had much the same net effect on national security, at considerably less cost.

This charge is also a confesssion. I reacted to 9/11 the same way as a lot of my compatriots: by going completely berserk.

And Will Willimon’s sermon from the first Sunday after 9-11, calls us to remember that the God in whom we put our faith is the God who created light in the formless and dark void:

I would have thought the first word might be vengeance, or cowering fear, or at least bitterness. But no, the first word the exiles heard God say to formless void was, “Light!”

It is a word that we cannot say to ourselves. It must be spoken to us, overheard in God’s conversation with the formless void. No word, not mine, or the president’s, or some grief counselor, or therapist can help us when the chips are down, and the mountains tremble and the earth shakes, no word can help except one spoken from the outside. And just at full midnight we hear that word, and it is a sovereign command, a promise, a creative act, “Light!”

The trouble between us and the resilient formless void is serious. If there is not a God who delights at bringing light out of night, who likes nothing better than to go one-on-one with the void, then we are quite frankly without hope and my little words of comfort in the face of your despair are pointless.

Think we’ve (Episcopalians) got it bad? Check out the Methodists

Tony Jones blogs a reflection on the United Methodist General Conference that took place a couple of weeks ago.

The eye-popping numbers: It cost $1500/minute!!! (I hope someone does the numbers for our own General Convention).

Will Willimon comments. Willimon’s warning applies to us as well:

My organizational guru Ron Heifetz speaks of the “myth of the broken system.”  Heifetz argues that all systems are “healthy” in that systems produce what those who profit from thesystemdesire.  Though the CGC can’t produce a complicated, large scale, two week convention, the CGC produces a General Conference that protects those in positions of power in our church.

Jones concludes:

All bureaucracies are good at one thing: self-perpetuation. They may be good at other things, too, but the propagation of the gospel is not one of those. Bureaucracy is good at distributing drivers licenses. But bureaucracies are bad for the gospel.

Early Reflections on Pentecost–The wind blows where it will

Will Willimon former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, now United Methodist Bishop of Northern Alabama, reflecting on congregations, communities and change. While driving to services at a rural parish, he reflects that “the community that gave birth to this congregation has moved away.”

That’s one of the things people love about a church – it doesn’t move. It blooms where planted and, long after it has ceased to be fruitful, stays planted. We build our churches to look at least two hundred years older than they actually are. Inside, we bolt down the pews and make the furniture heavy and substantial. That the world around the church is chaotic and instable is a further justification for the church to be fixed and final.

And, he adds:

What is incomprehensible is that we call this stability-protecting, past-perpetuating institution “the Body of Christ.” All the gospels present Jesus as a ceaseless peripatetic. Never once did he say, “Settle down with me.” No, with vagabond Jesus it was always, “Follow me!”

Willimon concludes by saying that “one way to tell if a congregation is healthy is that it is on the move, trying to keep up with the machinations of the risen Christ.”

The full post is here.

This afternoon, while I was talking about communications with Jody, our Sexton Russ ran into the office holding two pieces of rotted wood that had fallen from the soffit on the corner of the nave’s roof. Looking up, we could see what looks like an opening into the building and evidence of bird habitation. With a building that is more than 150 years old, such things are to be expected. We have an obligation, indeed, part of our mission is to preserve our building for future generations, to pass on the legacy that we’ve received and to ensure that it will continue to be a presence on Capitol Square.

But our mission needs to encompass much more than that. After coming back into the office and digging back into my sermon in search of material, I encountered this video:

Here is some of the script:

“We don’t know the people next door anymore. Why would they want to come to church?”

“We are inside; they are outside. People pass by. No one comes in.”

“We are inside waiting, watching, and we don’t know what to do.”

“ And then it happens: wind… fire… noise.. and, [Silence]. What just happened?”

“The bad news is there is no one coming to fix your problems.”

“The good news is the solutions you seek are all around you.”

Walking around the building daily, I see both its beauty as well as those things that need ongoing maintenance and attention. And I think about those disciples, in the Gospel of John, huddled together behind locked doors and in Acts, huddled together, waiting for what would come next. Pentecost is all about power and chaos and the sheer unexpected direction of God’s call. The image of tongues of fire, dancing on the heads of the disciples, and the power of being sent. In John, the disciples were commissioned to do Jesus Christ’s work–to forgive sins, restoring the penitent. But even more powerfully, Jesus Christ commissioned them to do his work in the world: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

Perhaps it’s because of the storms that went through last night with their high winds and chaotic effects. I am thinking about the power of the Spirit, the power of wind to create chaos and opportunity, to shake us up, toss us around, and land us in unexpected places. Where is God sending us, and who will we encounter?