As we approach the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I find myself saddened by the consistent reminders of the horrible tragedies from our friends in the media. I don’t understand what good comes out of posting videos of the attacks, or writing stories about the injury the events caused, or in analyzing what it has done to our society and culture. To me, these reminders seem to only open wounds that are trying desperately to heal, and incite and grow the anger, fear, and hatred that we are trying desperately to overcome.
When can we just move on and forgive? I remember after 9/11 happened, there were bumper stickers that you can even still see today that simply said “Never Forget” with an image of the twin towers. Those bumper stickers always have bothered me, because I feel that their sole purpose is to act as a means to continue the fear and skepticism that people have in overcoming the tragedies we suffered. I’d rather see bumper stickers that say “Fear Not” or “Forgive Always” with an image of the twin towers. That would be so much more powerful than “Never Forget”.
I have recently begun to reread a book that had an immensely positive impact on my life: In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God. One particular chapter in this book speaks to the horrors of 9/11 and to God’s message to us to Fear Not. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 7 of this book, titled “Fear Not”:
We hear a lot about “homeland security” these days. Did you know that in the month following the tragic events of September 11, 2011, gun sales in the United States jumped 22 percent, and that now there’s a handgun or shotgun for every man, woman, and child in America? Is there any doubt that “security” issues, at home and abroad, “drove” recent elections in the United States and elsewhere? Our anxiety about security is so acute, it now comes color-coded. An “orange alert” tells us to be more anxious about our safety, without giving us a place or time or method to avoid the danger — just be more anxious! Some of us are afraid to fly; some are afraid to invest; some are afraid to go overseas; some are nervous about opening their mail. Some of us are afraid of what we might have to learn about ourselves as a community of nations if we honestly ask why some people in the world hate us so much. Some of us fear losing our jobs; many are afraid to be generous in their giving, fearing what the future might hold. Some of us are fearful because we find ourselves in a shaky marriage; some are fearful because of the uncertainty and pain of a recent divorce; some of us fear intimacy with another; some of us fear being alone. Some of us fear the pain and change of confronting an addiction — in ourselves or someone close to us. Some of us face a life-threatening illness in ourselves or our families. There are so many things to be fearful of on any given day.
And yet, time and again, God’s message to us is “fear not.” God sent a whole slew of angels to ordinary humans proclaiming those very words in the midst of the most fearful circumstances. To Mary, a first-century Palestinian peasant girl about to have an out-of-wedlock child. To shepherds, tending their sheep, minding their own business, when the Angel Tabernacle Choir shows up on the hillside. To Joseph, the decent and kind man whose fiancée has somehow gotten herself pregnant and made him the butt of every joke in Nazareth. To a trio of Eastern astrologers who take a different route home because Herod is killing every child in Palestine under the age of two. (Terrorism is not new; the slaughter of innocents has been going on for a long, long time.)
All those angels seem to be hopelessly naïve and just don’t understand the ways of the world. Or maybe something else is going on. What in God’s Name could take the fear out of these fearful situations? What was happening in Nazareth, or Bethlehem, or wherever these angels decided to show up, that could possibly make the exhortation to “fear not” remotely possible? And what could those exhortations possibly have to do with you and me, sitting in Manchester, New Hampshire, or Manchester, England, or Kuala Lumpur or Kigali, two thousand years later?
Stories with angels are usually very pretty, or so you’d think if you went by the greeting card companies and the purveyors of religious knick-knacks. But the angels are really harbingers of a dirty and tough story. After all, God was doing a dirty thing. No deity in the ancient world worth his salt would want to become human. Gods, after all, dwell in the heavens, untainted by the lowliness of humankind. Fine for humans to strive to become god-like. But God, desiring to become human? I don’t think so.
But that’s the foundation of our faith — not so much angels and babies and stars, but the Incarnation. The “c-a-r-n” of incarnation is the same root word we hear in “chili con carne” — which is chili with meat. The Incarnation is God’s decision to put meat on God’s self. To become enfleshed. For so long, humankind had wandered in darkness, making crude guesses about what God was really like. And if you read much of the Old Testament, you see that people like Abraham, Moses, and King David didn’t always get it right. But because God loved us so much, and so wanted a relationship with us, God did the only thing God knew to do: God became one of us to get to know us from the inside, to walk with us and understand us, with all our hopes and fears and heartbreaks and joys. He didn’t show up in a nice house, laid in a baby blue bassinet. He was born on the edges of society, into a despised race, in a conquered and occupied nation, to lowly, uneducated, scared-to-death teenaged parents, in a feeding trough — no more than a hole dug out of the floor of the cave out back, in which animals were locked up for safekeeping. God becomes a little baby, nursing at his mother’s breast, while Joseph waves his hand over them both, trying to keep the flies away. The incarnation is dirty business because this humanity of ours, especially for those who live at the edges, is messy and not always pretty. Yet because of God’s love for us and God’s longing for intimacy with us, God wanted to be a part of it.
In an episode of the TV show The West Wing, Leo McGarry, the president’s chief of staff, tells a story to his assistant, who’s having a really hard time. Leo promises to be there for his friend and reminds him that he knows about hard times, because he himself is a recovering addict. He tells his story with a kind of twelve-step authority wisdom:
It seems that there was a guy walking along an unfamiliar road, and he falls into a huge hole, with steep, vertical sides well above his head. He calls out for help. A doctor comes by, writes out a prescription and tosses it in the hole. Not much help there. Then a priest happens by and, in response to the call for help, kneels down, says a prayer, and goes on his way. Finally, another man comes along, and hearing the cry for help, promptly jumps into the hole. The first man says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” “Yeah,” says the second man, “but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
In the Incarnation, we celebrate God’s jumping into the hole of our humanity and into the whole of our humanity, with all its joy and pain. We have reason to hope, after all, in an unrelentingly fearful world, that the angels’ message makes sense after all. We can “fear not,” because we know and worship a God who’s been down here before and knows the way back up to the Light.
It’s not that God will make everything all right. God never promised to take away all the pain, either that inflicted by an Osama bin Laden from afar, or the pain inflicted by those we love near at hand. But this God promises to be with us to the end of the age. Our joy and fulfillment don’t depend on the size of our portfolio or the size of our waistline, nor on the economy nor on our jobs. Our confidence isn’t destroyed with the collapse of towers of steel and concrete, or by explosions in railway stations. Our hope is undiminished because our God is with us. That’s the mystery and miracle of the Incarnation. And that’s why these angels knew what they were talking about when they said, “Fear not.”
This year, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, let us remember God’s constant reminder to us to “Fear Not.” Let us remember that reminiscing on acts of evil will only incite more evil. Let us remember that arming ourselves with weapons and bombs and walls will only incite more fear and anger in the world. It is in accepting God’s constant reminder to “Fear Not” and enfleshing that ourselves that we can truly be open to God’s forgiveness and love and grace. Let us remember that we are all humans, all created in the likeness of God. And no matter what happens, God is with us.
Thanks be to God.
–Excerpt taken from “In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God” by V. Gene Robinson, copyright 2008, pp. 65-69.