Monday, August 29, 2011

The New Rugged Cross

Immediately following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, there was an extensive search to rescue any surviving victims. On September 13, 2001, one of the construction workers, Frank Silecchia, was searching in the debris under 6 World Trade Center. He has said that he had been having a silent conversation with God, in despair at the wreckage. He felt lost in his heart, mind, and every other way. In the tangled mess of destruction, there were no longer any straight lines, no reference points.

Frank turned around and saw a void, which he later called a "chapel," and saw three vertical lines through the dust. As he got closer, he saw three crosses of steel beams. The central one, 20 feet tall, had a shroud of ductwork draped over its left beam. Frank took this as a sign that God was present in the midst of the destruction, and it became used as a shrine and place of prayer. In early October, the central cross was moved to Church & Liberty Streets, next to the morgue trailers. It became used as a regular place of worship as the debris was cleared from the WTC site. (See Wikipedia: World_Trade_Center_cross.)

One of the chaplains who worked in the WTC recovery, Lisa Bellan-Boyer, had met the cross and Frank and heard his story and the way the cross was used as a place of interfaith spiritual respite. Just preceding the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, she recalled a well-known hymn about the “old rugged cross.” She quickly wrote down an additional verse and refrain about the WTC's “new rugged cross,” feeling that the words came from a source beyond her. They evoke the way that cross speaks to both the reality of brutality and the hope of God's continued presence. She has said that she felt the new verse answered those who were proclaiming the disaster a sign that God had turned away.

“The Old Rugged Cross, with a New Verse”

On a hill, far away,
stood an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suffering and shame.
And I love that old cross, where the dearest and best,
for a world of lost sinners was slain.

So I’ll cherish the cross, (the old rugged cross,)
till my trophies at last I lay down,
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
and exchange it someday, for a crown.

Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
has a wondrous attraction for me;
for the dear Lamb of God left his Glory above,
to bear it to dark Calvary.   REFRAIN

In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
a wondrous beauty I see,
for ‘twas on that old cross, Jesus suffered and died,
to pardon and sanctify me.   REFRAIN

To the old rugged cross, I will ever be true,
its shame and reproach gladly bear;
then he’ll call me someday,
to my home, far away,
where his Glory forever I’ll share!   REFRAIN

Near the Pit, so close by,
stands a “New Rugged Cross,”
an emblem of catastrophe.
It reminds us of those, ‘neath that bright morning sky,
who faced their own Calvary.

And I look to that cross, that new rugged cross,
As it stands, so solid and square,
With hope, as a sign, from the Spirit of Love:

“The Old Rugged Cross” words & by George Ben­nard, 1913.

“The New Rugged Cross” verse and refrain by Rev. Lisa Bellan-Boyer, copyright 2002 & 2011 and used by permission.

Artwork by Keith Piaseczny,, copyright 2002 and used by permission.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cristobal de Morales Requiem Mass - 9/10/11

Saturday, September 10th at 11:30am, Holy Rosary Church will offer a Requiem Mass in memory of those killed ten years earlier. The mass will be sung by Cantores Sancti Rosarii, directed by Harold Bott.

This is a moving and ethereal treatment of the Mass for the Dead. Cristobal de Morales' music is typical of the polyphony of the middle Renaissance, and the Requiem is a simple, contemplative presentation of the funeral mass. The central theme of the service is in the Requiem text: "Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine on them."

Holy Rosary Church is at 344 6th St (between Brunswick and Monmouth Streets) in downtown Jersey City (FLYER).

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Prayer for faith in the storm

Great God, as tumults rage, grant us the impetuous faith to throw ourselves into a disorderly world, that we may find you there. Grant us the power to bring calm to those in trouble, hope to those in peril, healing to any who are broken, and bread to the hungry, in Jesus name. Amen.

Matthew 14:22-33, with thanks to Matthew Skinner for a great idea and some good language.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Taking Jesus Literally

In the gospels we hear again and again how Jesus loved to break bread with others. He repeatedly sent his disciples out to see that people were fed, even when it seemed impossible (Matthew 14:13-21).

Telling about our churches' food pantries or tallying up our hours at the local soup kitchen doesn't feed anyone. When we have more than we need, there is room to share more. At a time when our government is heading in the wrong economic direction and when Congressional leaders are out-doing each another in doing less for those in need, Jesus asks “do you love me”? If we do, we will feed his people. (You can look it up: John 21:15-19).

Perhaps now is a good time to challenge one another to take Jesus literally. Food ministries in the US are close to crisis status, with declining support and increasing need. The front page of today's New York Times features a photograph of a child starving in Somalia (“Somalis Waste Away as Insurgents Block Escape From Famine”). Its famine hits world attention as the number at risk of death rises towards - or above - one million. Can you look this child, probably dead by now, in the face?

I have a clue about what Jesus would do. How about us?

I challenge us each to make a donation to hunger relief and to ask our congregations to do something beyond what we are doing now. Lutheran World Relief makes great use of donated funds, as does the ELCA's World Hunger program. Bread for the World does a great job of ecumenical advocacy and can help educate congregations about responses to Jesus' command: “feed my lambs.”

Maybe you can even drop in at the local soup kitchen and share a meal with those being served. All at once, you can fill your belly, make some friends, and feed your hunger - for justice.

Photo: “A woman held a malnourished child at a camp. Somali aid workers said dozens of children are dying every day, most buried in unmarked graves” (cropped). Credit: Tyler Hicks, NY Times.

9/11 Books, Video and Other Resources

Some of the best resources I've found for presenting and interpreting 9/11.


City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center. James Glanz and Eric Lipton, Times Books, 2003. The best, most comprehensive telling of the World Trade Center’s history, from its conception and construction to its destruction and beyond.

102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers. Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, Times Books, 2005. Stories from inside the towers on 9/11. Good architectural diagrams of the buildings’ structure, and discussion of the design decisions which had an impact on survival.

Messages: Signs, Visits, and Premonitions from Loved Ones Lost on 9/11. Bonnie McEneaney, William Morrow, 2010. In a different vein, tells stories of peoples’ after-death experiences with 9/11 victims. Well done and respectful of both belief and skepticism in the afterlife.

Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back. Jere Longman, HarperCollins Perennial, 2003. Does a really good job in telling the Flight 93 story, especially given its publication before many in-flight records were released.

The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge. Michael Daly, St. Martin’s Press, 2008. Good biography of an amazing man and faithful priest, the NYFD Chaplain killed at the World Trade Center.

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004. The factual baseline for what happened on 9/11 and the events leading up to it, although sadly limited in many respects.

The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden. Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. Ballantine, 2011. Update on many of the missing pieces from the 9/11 Commission Report.

Portraits: 9/11/01: The Collected "Portraits of Grief" from The New York Times. The New York Times, Times Press, 2002. Brief sketches of most people killed at the World Trade Center, as published in the well-known NY Times series.


Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. Exceptional exploration of faith and theological issues around the 9/11 attacks, focusing on people directly involved in the disaster and its response. Unfortunately out of print. Try your local library.

The Heart of Steel. Angelo L Guglielmo, Director. Moving presentation of some of the volunteer experiences in the World Trade Center response.

Online The September 11 Digital Archive uses electronic media to collect, preserve, and present the history of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. The Archive contains more than 150,000 digital items, a tally that includes more than 40,000 emails and other electronic communications, more than 40,000 first-hand stories, and more than 15,000 digital images.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Preaching the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

I’ll be preaching this September 11th, the tenth anniversary of the Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and Washington DC. I have been involved in the recovery work from those attacks since that date, working as a chaplain in the World Trade Center recovery, and more recently guiding tours of the World Trade Center site for the Tribute Center.

This means that I know a lot about those events. They have been part of my life. They deeply affected me and many people I know. It also means I feel the need to do some extra work to think this one through, to put my feelings and experience in service of proclaiming good news.

Beginning that work, there are a couple of thoughts that may be helpful to other preachers and speakers who will grapple with what to say.

Unique Memories

One of the features of 9/11 for the preacher is that most of your audience will know what you are talking about. As one of the signature moments in cultural history, people remember where they were when they heard the news. Certain images replay in people’s heads. Many people have their own 9/11 story.

September 11, 2001 is also closely linked to other events and themes: war in Afghanistan and Iraq, fear of others (especially Muslims), the desire for security, sacrifice, retribution and forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. People remember 9/11 each time they take their shoes off in an airport or see an old movie with the World Trade Center towers in the background.

Many of these experiences have strong emotions attached to them: grief, helplessness, anger, desire for vengeance, fear, courage, pride, hope, love...

Whether it directly becomes part of the sermon, it will be good to listen for some of those stories and feelings in the preaching process, including your own. Where were you on September 11th? How did it affect you? What did you feel? What did you do in response?

Selected works from "Art for Heart," an exhibition of paintings
by children who lost loved ones in the attacks on the
World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001.

Developing a Shared Memory

Virtually no one under the age of about 14 will remember the events of September 11, 2001. Most will have heard something about it, but few will have covered it in school. Like every other cultural reference (to movies released 20 years ago, to current pop culture, to Bible stories), the preacher will need to assess how much the listeners recognize and understand the referent. You’ll need to make some decisions about how and how much to describe the events, in order to support proclamation of the gospel.

This is also true even of those of listeners who remember 9/11. Those who remember 9/11 have a variety of experiences, feelings, and opinions about it. As with any big story, we will each know only fragments. One of the functions of preaching is to “gather up the broken pieces,” to contribute to a shared view of reality. In choosing what to remember, what to emphasize, what to omit, the preacher has an influential voice in shaping community memory.

1. What is the heart of the gospel? Where do you hear the good news of deliverance, of hope, of life beyond destruction?

2. What parts of the story (the 9/11 story, the scriptural story) are necessary to proclaim the gospel?

3. What parts of the story (the 9/11 story, the scriptural story) hinder the hearing of the gospel? How does God speak and act in the presence of stumbling blocks?

Brief additional thoughts

9/11 was not the first nor the last occasion of terror and the murder of innocents. America took note of this one, not only because of its magnitude, and spectacular, cinematic, media-saturated quality, but because it happened here, to us. It is important to appropriately remember this particular event, and also the 9/11s which happen daily throughout the world. The cross of Jesus Christ illumines persecution, torture, and murder everywhere.

As we see the face of Jesus, we see a human face. Since Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans memorial, remembrances of the world's killing fields have highlighted the individual lives which make up the macro-events of history. You cannot go wrong by looking at the faces of those involved in 9/11 - the victims, the survivors, the responders, and even the perpetrators - with the light of Christ. (See the NY Time Portraits of Grief, or CNN list of 9/11 victims.)

The Appointed Texts

The texts for the day offer a lot to address this anniversary. Some brief thoughts on some of the lectionary texts for Sunday, 9/11/11.

Genesis 50:15-21 - Joseph forgives his brothers

1. “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good...” I get very uncomfortable with the notion that God somehow supports or enables evil, knowing that good will eventually be the outcome. “It's all part of God's plan” can be a facile excuse for wrongdoing and tends to diminish the experience of those wronged. I love this story – but I favor a careful telling where God’s “left hand” is patiently at work behind the scenes, continually finding ways to bring about good no matter how diligently people seek other ends. I recall how destruction is easy. 19 people and a few boxcutters brought down 4 planes and those tall towers. But millions stepped up in response. It may be occasion to point to signs of healing. And yet, there will be a tension not found in Joseph's story - he, after all, survived the ill done to him, and prospered. Those who were murdered on 9/11 are still mourned, and not all who were hurt have found the good that God intends... Come, Lord Jesus, come.

2. Joseph never uses the word “forgive.” Does he forgive his brothers? What does forgiveness look like in the real world?

Matthew 18:21-35 - How often should I forgive?

1. Forgiveness may be a matter of grace - but it usually takes work. On a good day, we might forgive once. Seven times seems very hard. Seventy-seven? Just about impossible. While this is a continuation of the teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation in the preceding verses, this reading ends with a disturbing image of God as torturer. Anybody really listening will hear that, too. (Does God in the text live up to God’s own forgiveness standard?) Preaching might focus on the hell that unforgiving people make for themselves and others. By contrast, living examples of forgiveness might be lifted up, showing the burdens that are lifted when God’s generous mercy finds a home in our lives.

Some of the best resources for presenting and interpreting the stories of 9/11/01.

• St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the only church building on the WTC site, destroyed 9/11/01
• Selected works from "Art for Heart," an exhibition of paintings by children who lost loved ones in the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001
• Artist's rendition of Reflecting Absence, part of the under-construction National September 11 Memorial & Museum, image by Squared Design Lab