David W. Lloyd
October 14, 2001
There is still one week left before Recommitment Sunday, so I want to suggest three tasks for us as we prepare for recommitment.
Let us begin by putting ourselves into the Gospel. Can you see yourself as one of the lepers, shunned by families, communities and faith communities? Can you see yourself standing by the side of the road, calling out, "Unclean, unclean," and begging for alms to buy food? Can you really imagine yourself having no power to change this situation?
The concept of powerlessness is un-American. Part of the American myth, reinforced by books and courses and self-help gurus, is that we control our lives and destinies. It has never been true, but at some level as Americans we really believe it to be true, and what's more we believe that as Americans we are entitled to feel in control of our lives. After all, we are members of the richest, most powerful nation on earth.
34 days ago in less than two hours, this myth was shaken to its core. Thirty-three days ago, our nation was attacked, and not in distant Hawaii as it was 60 years ago. We were attacked, not just two hundred miles away in New York City, but at the Pentagon less than three miles from where we are sitting this morning. We did not just hear it on the radio or see it days later in a newsreel as we did 60 years ago; we saw it on TV as it was happening. However, we cannot quite believe it. Some of us truly are still trying to believe what we all saw. I have been listening closely and most of you use the phrase "September 11th," “the tragedy,” or even "the event last month." At first, I did, too, but when I could say "the attacks," I realized I had begun to face up to what really happened. Several weeks ago, I finally got up my nerve to see the huge gaping hole at the Pentagon. It is real — it is almost 40 yards wide and about the same deep, and it is six stories high. We were attacked, within 15 minutes of where we are this morning, and there did not seem to be anything we could do about it as it happened. Moreover, with uncertainty about whether the next attacks will be with chemical or biological weapons, there is nowhere we can go that is exempt from being the next "ground zero."
So we feel powerless. Moreover, we cannot bear to feel powerless. We are Americans and Americans are not powerless! We face problems, we roll up our sleeves and we tackle problems. Faced with a wilderness, we settled it and domesticated it. Faced with an economic depression, we created government programs to put people to work. Faced with an attack at Pearl Harbor, we mobilized the whole nation into a war against Nazism and Fascism. Faced with a communist nation that put a sputnik in space, we accelerated our science programs in schools and universities and spent the money to put astronauts on the moon first. Faced with a disease that attacks our immune systems, we have spent an extraordinary amount of money to find and publicize ways to prevent its spread and to develop medical treatments for those who have it. We believe that we have power to change things, individually and collectively.
Last week Carolyn Shields talked to our children about how she felt she needed to do something after the attacks, so she wrote to the President. Carolyn is not alone. Some Americans — political leaders, the military, conservative talking heads in the media — rolled up their sleeves for war. Moreover, some Americans — religious groups, social activists, liberal talking heads in the media — rolled up their sleeves to organize to stop war.
In our meditations for Recommitment, let us ask ourselves a hard question: when we do something in response to crisis are we acting out of faith, even faith as small as a mustard seed, which can move mountains? If so, let us rejoice and commit to faithfulness in carrying out that vision. Alternatively, are we doing something primarily because we cannot bear to feel powerless? If we cannot bear to give up the illusion that we control our lives, if we cannot bear to feel that we are dependent on God's love, then our first recommitment task is to embrace our powerlessness. If I see inside myself the temptation to seek power because I fear being powerless, then I need to commit to stand by the side of the road calling out, "Jesus, Master, take pity on me."
A second recommitment task for us: It has to do with creating safe space for each other. In the passage in the Hebrew Scriptures for today, Jeremiah tells the exiles who have just arrived in Babylon to build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce, marry and have children, and seek the welfare of the city to which they have been exiled. In other words, create safe space and endure.
In the Luke passage, Jesus and the disciples are traveling in the borderlands of Galilee and Samaria. This is not safe space, for the Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with each other. Then he sees the 10 lepers calling out to him. These lepers really had no safe space at all. They could not be in either Jewish or Samaritan villages. They had to fend for themselves, living in caves during inclement weather if they were lucky. Jesus encourages them — maybe he commands them — to show themselves to the priests, the required ritual for them to be declared free of whatever skin disease they had. There is no guarantee that the priests will declare them healed, and even if they do, there is no guarantee that they will be welcomed back into their families, their communities and their synagogues. All 10 lepers showed great faith in trusting Jesus. All 10 trusted his healing to provide them with safe space.
In the movie, "An American President," the President comments at a press conference that, "America isn't easy. American is a graduate course in citizenship." Over the last few months, I have felt myself saying, "Seekers isn't easy. Seekers is a graduate course in the Body of Christ." People have joked that getting consensus in Seekers is like herding cats. In the best of times, Seekers have disagreed over everything from who selects what kind of music for worship, to whether to buy a particular building, to how we describe our sense of belonging and commitment to our church, to what external groups and events we will support with endorsement, participation or contributions.
When I read the Bible and church history, I find that Seekers is not unique. In the Hebrew Scriptures, people of faith always seem to be disagreeing. If you look closely, you will see factions among the disciples following Jesus. Both Paul's letters and the book of Acts make it quite clear that dissension in these newly birthed Christian churches was not a rare event. Therefore, this is the reality for people of faith in the best of times — we disagree, we wound each other and we need Christ's healing. That is in the best of times.
In her sermon several weeks ago, Deborah Sokolove pleaded with us to find a way to discuss the anguish of the Jews of Israel, the Palestinians living in Israel and the Palestinians living in the occupied territories, without slipping into anti-Semitism. My heart ached for Deborah when I read her sermon. I hear it as a cry for safe space, where different views can be invited and reflected upon. I hear it as a cry for space that honest disagreements can be raised without making anyone feel isolated and devalued and where maybe, just maybe, we can discern some views that we all can embrace. I felt that way when Marjory Bankson suggested in a sermon that we could help feed Afghanistan. It seemed to me that regardless of whether or not one might support or not support retaliation against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime that has protected him and been supported by him, one could agree that we would try to get food to starving people.
Deborah’s cry for safe space for her in Seekers Church is my own cry. In the last month, I have found some safe space here. Learners and Teachers mission group has provided me with safe space, and so has the class on the New Testament that Deborah and I have been leading. However, there have also been times when it has really felt like unsafe space for me. I have felt myself to be at a very different place from most of you, and that has felt very lonely and scary. I want to be clear that I do not feel like a leper, and none of you cast me out in any way. Quite the contrary, many of you individually expressed your love and concern for me. Nevertheless, from people's prayers during worship, and from their comments during the coffee hour, and through their comments in e-mail, I know how different my situation has been from yours. Let me tell you a bit of what my last month has been like, and why I am in such need of safe space.
For those of you who do not know, I work in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, heading the DoD program that addresses child abuse and domestic violence. I took that job in part to live out my vocational calling of more than a quarter century to try to end children’s suffering from child abuse and neglect. My office is in Crystal City, not the Pentagon. When the terrorists attacked New York and the Pentagon, I was attending a DoD meeting on domestic violence in one of the high-rise buildings in Rosslyn. To get home, I walked across Key Bridge and saw the huge plume of smoke arising from the Pentagon, and began to fear for friends and colleagues who work there. In a phone call, I learned that one of my closest work colleagues from Crystal City had been hit by debris from the blast, but she was OK. Like you, I was glued to the TV Tuesday afternoon and evening.
Unlike you, on Wednesday the 12th, I went to the Pentagon, in response to a request for volunteers to staff the phones in our agency's headquarters. My Crystal City colleagues began to set up an assistance center in a nearby hotel for the families of those missing after the attack. There was an air of unreality about being in the Pentagon. The smell of smoke was present, though not in our part of the building. Periodically we would look out the windows across the Pentagon courtyard to firefighters standing on the roof of the innermost ring of the building, 6 stories up, directing their hoses to the outermost rings where smoke was still rising. The courtyard itself was choked with rescue equipment. We could see piles of oxygen tanks and a supply of empty body bags. Late that morning we were all temporarily evacuated when an approaching plane failed to give the appropriate recognition code, and I was tense for the remainder of the morning. However, by mid-afternoon, there was no more smoke coming over the roofline, and we relaxed a bit.
The next two days, Thursday and Friday, I continued to man phones there. Security was tight; we had to pass three separate checkpoints where guards had automatic weapons, trigger fingers along the barrel. I had begun to mourn for two people I knew who were presumed dead: General Maude, whom I knew slightly, but more for his widow, who I work with regularly, and for another person I had only talked to on the phone several times. I met a young Army officer who had crawled out on hands and knees in a chain of people. I could see in his eyes the memory that some in that chain did not make it.
Moreover, despite Sharon’s efforts to comfort me, I could not forget the carnage in that building. As a child advocate, I thought a lot about those three young D.C. kids on the plane, crying for their mothers in their last moments before the plane hit the building. I thought about the day care center in the World Trade Center, hoping all the children were evacuated safely. I thought about the 10,000 children who lost one or both parents in New York. I ask your forgiveness for the anger in my heart and my voice as I worshipped with you that first Sunday. The beautiful offertory music from Godspell we heard last Sunday is the beginning of Psalm 137; the angry cry for vengeance I recited on the 16th is the second half of that Psalm.
I know some of you were mourning yourselves on the 16th, but from the prayers you voiced, some of you had either skipped mourning, or had already moved beyond mourning, and were beginning to plan for peace-making. I do not think I have ever felt as alone in Seekers as I did that Sunday. Ecclesiastes is right, there are different times for different purposes, and I was stuck in the time to mourn.
On Friday the 21st, I went to take my shift at the Family Assistance Center. It was a hive of activity, with grieving family members, military social workers and chaplains, volunteers, and others, as well as donated items for the families. In the ballroom of the hotel, one wall — longer than this room — was lined with a table of photos, and love notes, and other memorabilia brought by the families. On another wall was a huge poster of tastefully arranged obituaries as they had appeared in the Washington Post. It was a room of powerful grief. I helped check in family members, including the husband of the woman I had talked to several times on the phone.
I pulled another shift on Saturday night, and listened as an Army staff sergeant related in a flat voice how she had left the Pentagon after the attack, used the duty roster to account for everyone, and then came a call for medics to re-enter the building to help the wounded. She had been trained as a combat medic, although she had never used her training, but she ran back into the courtyard with many others. She held out her arms to take a stack of blankets and medical supplies, and then helped attend a bleeding, choking woman who could only say, “Tell my son how much I love him.” Then the announcement came of the fourth flight, headed back towards Washington. She helped carry wounded outside the Pentagon even as the plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Those of us hearing her sniffed back our own tears.
So as I worshipped with you on the 23rd, I prayed for the continuation of Alan’s healing, and for the people of Afghanistan, and for peace, along with you. Nevertheless, I prayed even more for an Army staff sergeant, who asks herself if she could have done more to provide medical care in those first few minutes. Moreover, I prayed for my colleagues who continued to work at the Family Assistance Center, some because they are afraid to go back to work in the Pentagon, some because they cannot bear to feel powerless.
This Thursday at the Family Assistance Center, I cried along with colleagues during the memorial service. Today I have been praying for a former co-worker who had surgery two weeks ago for cancer of the salivary gland, much more extensive than planned. She, who was always smiling, who jogged and walked most days of the week, now cannot form a smile on the left side of her face, and walks with a cane, since they removed nerves there to implant them in her face. In addition, I have been praying for the family of a former summer intern in our office, whose father remains in the burn unit of the Washington Hospital Center. I just learned of his injuries this past Thursday.
I have never done the grief work I have needed to do. I have never fully grieved for my oldest sister, who died when I was five, or for the almost 5,000 children who came to my attention when I worked at Children's Hospital because they had been physically abused and sexually abused. Nor have I fully grieved for the parents of abducted and murdered children I talked to or for the children seduced, bribed or threatened into participating in child pornography when I worked at the Center for Missing Children.
So today, I have been praying for safe space in which the healing I need can begin. Frankly, I need a safe place where I can express my grief in the presence of others who are just willing to be there, not necessarily to grieve also, but just to be with me in my time to mourn. I hope that soon I will be able to be with you when you need safe space, perhaps safe space to work on peacemaking, or safe space to grieve for failed efforts at peacemaking.
In the last few weeks, a sizeable number of Seekers have worked at Carroll Street to demolish the parts that will be renovated. We have made astounding progress, opening up the space for our sanctuary and classrooms, and salvaging materials that Manna may reuse in other projects. Each time I have felt that our time together there created safe space. We work together, we help each other and we listen to each other’s suggestions on addressing the particular tasks at hand. Yesterday we began with a reminder of our need to work safely, and I thought, “Yes!”
Therefore, I think we can create safe space for each other, if we recommit to doing that. We can invite dialogue and listen respectfully to each other, rather than immediately try to create consensus. Instead of circulating documents for people to read, or drafts for people to agree with, maybe we can take the time to hear each other and see what emerges. Instead of using loaded words that lead to defensiveness and isolation, we can use neutral terms respectfully that invite different perspectives. I think we will find great spiritual power in Seekers when we do this. I know we can do it. I saw a safe place created for Alan and Mary Carol as we gathered at their home before his surgery.
Peter Bankson spoke last Sunday of how healing had begun since the attacks. I suggest that our third recommitment task is to be moved to compassion with each other and with those who need healing most. People noticed this predominant characteristic in Jesus. He was moved to compassion. The Greek expression indicates that the feeling came from his gut, the center of his body, so that his whole being was moved to action. I think we have some learning to do here. I do, because my well of compassion seems to be drying up.
Therefore, I suggest three tasks to begin this week in preparation for recommitment: Learning to discern when to accept powerlessness and when to move in faith; creating safe space for each other; Learning to feel compassion as Jesus did. We can commit to take these on for a year as spiritual disciplines, and use our spiritual reports in our mission groups to measure ourselves against our commitment.
We are the Body of Christ. Let us recommit to it.