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Scared People

When the TSA guard pulled me out of line for a personal pat-down after analyzing the results of my x-ray Glamour Shot close-up, Robert Frost’s mordant observation came to mind: “There’s nothing I’m afraid of like scared people.” Apparently the airport security screening team was busy that day profiling fat, middle aged guys who happened to be wearing just the right kind of underwear. But apart from a mild case of embarrassment over being publicly examined over in Aisle 3 by a gentleman wearing latex gloves and his bomb-sniffing German Shepherd, I made it through the gauntlet to board my plane on time, none too worse for the wear. No doubt my fellow passengers were just as relieved to know that the fat, middle aged guy with suspicious underwear seated in 13B posed no real threat. So off we flew into the wild, blue yonder fifteen years after 9/11, now programmed as we are to live oriented around our darkest fears rather than our brightest hopes. This is perhaps merely another way of saying that fifteen years on it can be tough to tell who is really winning given the way that being at war all the time can really mess up your sense of identity.

Now the truth is that we all gained some new and significant perspective after the events of 9/11. Writing in the New York Times, Alesandra Stanley pointed out the obvious fact that nobody who remembers September 11 actually wishes to relive the day. But she also went on to tell the story of Richard Fern who barely escaped from the 84th floor of the South Tower at the World Trade Center. All these years later, Fern says his present work colleagues sometimes ask him why he doesn’t seem to get upset as others do with the inevitable problems and challenges that confront him in his job. His answer? As long as there’s not an airplane crashing into this building . . . we’re having a good day.

I suppose he is right, but still there remains more than enough dread and anxiety to go around for all of us who remember. In our household, the endless parade of news features and documentaries that cluster around 9/11 always pluck at least a few rather uncomfortable chords of memory given Carmen’s years working as a risk management analyst for an international brokerage firm that lost 358 of her fellow employees and contractors when American Airlines flight 11 crashed into floors 93-99 of the North Tower. I’m pretty sure that Carmen’s memory of earlier days peering out the windows of those World Trade Center offices toward the Manhattan sidewalks far below never help her much when we watch video footage from those awful hours following the attack. On 9/11 itself, we were living in Los Angeles where Carmen worked high in the Gas Company Tower rising above the downtown financial district, a place rumored to be on some sort of Al-Qaeda terror target list. So during the weeks following 9/11, her company joined with other tenants in that urban skyscraper to plan and prepare for a building evacuation drill just in case. Even now we remember newspaper accounts of what happened on the day Carmen and all of her co-workers actually made their way down the stairwells of the building to receive high-fives and treat bags when they exited to the sidewalks after trudging single-file, floor by floor for more than an hour after two weeks of training and preparation. Most were stunned by the realization of what a real emergency evacuation would entail just a few weeks after the televised tragedy of the North and South Towers in New York. As the Los Angeles Times noted, a good number of those financial district workers simply walked off their jobs with tears in their eyes, vowing never to return to the high-rise office buildings that now seemed more threatening than anything they might face when “the Big One” finally exploded under the city along the San Andreas fault. After all, how are you supposed to live day after day in a perpetual state of fear?

Before his death in 2011, Peter Gomes served as chaplain and professor at Harvard. In one of his books, he remembered a trans-Atlantic flight from Boston to London where he was scheduled to preach the next morning. With the plane suddenly bucking almost uncontrollably from turbulence at about the midpoint of their journey, Gomes said the pilot announced on the intercom that everyone needed to return to sit with belts fastened in their assigned seats until the plane was finally able to clear the storm. But Gomes also mentioned that at the time he was less worried and nervous about the mid-air turbulence than he was about his assignment to preach in a prestigious pulpit on the next morning, so after hearing the captain’s instructions he took out his Bible and sermon notes to resume his preparations. At that, the woman seated next to Gomes who had remained quite mercifully silent throughout their flight thus far, looked at the preacher, looked at his Bible, and then asked rather nervously, “Do you know something I should know?”

Because I am a pastor, I hope that any Christian would feel prepared to answer, “Well, yes, there is something you should know.”  For over and over again the Christian Scriptures have much to say about the issue of our fears. “Do not be afraid,” say the angels repeatedly with whatever it is that angels have to work with in the way of lips, reminding the humans to whom they have been sent that the God who sent them will see to it that there is nothing left to fear. But if we left it at that, we would only be trafficking in a kind of Christian Triumphalism that tends to accept easy assurances at face value without really thinking about the true cost of what we desperately want to say. Perhaps you know that kind of hollow piety that announces itself with a type of bumper sticker certainty that almost convinces you to believe that this is all that is necessary to say: God said it . . . I believe it . . . that settles it. Really? Well then, what about that agonizingly dark night of the soul that Jesus spent wrestling with his own very real and completely understandable fears, sweating blood over in the Garden of Gethsemane? Why does he keep praying the same thing over and over that night, offering his life up in trust to the Father he has known and loved forever only to repeatedly pick up the same sharp-edged petition yet again as if he cannot completely and finally settle the issue? Maybe the Lord himself prays this way on our behalf simply because we’ll never entirely face down our own moments with the serene assurance of our Final Outcome like a hundred-dollar bill already tucked into our pocket. So yes, do not be afraid. But even when we are afraid, there is one who keeps company with us trusting that despite the darkness of a Good Friday the sunrise of an Easter still awaits. The loss is real and the pain is real, but this is really only our way of trying to remember that the tomb of the crucified Christ was a cave and not a tunnel. There are days we come to a complete and full Stop. And then we simply wait to see what our God will yet be able to make out of that darkness and Death that ultimately yields to the transformative power of Christ’s Resurrection.

In the interim, it seems that we are often called to wait. More precisely, it seems that as disciples of Jesus we are called to wait together, to quite literally be there for one another as those who wait in hope. I’m not always very good at that, so I appreciate the fact that we can at times rely upon one another for the strength that will be necessary if we are to sustain ourselves in the waiting. At least that is what I’m thinking this 9/11, joining with my fellow congregants who will gather to remember and wait together in hope by praying over and commissioning the leadership team of our new Stephen Ministry initiative to train and equip a generation of skilled, compassionate, Christian caregivers who will serve in and beyond this faith community. I think it is a wonderful way of remembering our essential identity and vocation as people of faith now caught up in a seemingly endless war. In fact, when we pray over our Stephen Ministry leaders, I will probably be remembering a gift I received from my students the last time I taught a class at our Nazarene Theological Seminary. On a final day together in class, those ministers-in-training presented me with a book containing a quatrain by Rumi, a famous 13th century Afghan Muslim mystic describing the local Christians he had come to respect in the town where he lived. Now known to us in the West largely because it was long ago carved into stone over the door of a Christian church in Shiraz, Iran, it testifies to the generous spirit of compassionate care that all Christian Believers might hope to embody. Who knows? Perhaps our new Stephen Ministry initiative will help us live up to Rumi’s description of what the Church can and should be:

Where Jesus lives, the great-hearted gather.

 We are a door that’s never locked.

 If you are suffering any kind of pain,

 Stay near this door. Open it.

Jeff Crosno