A River of Tears

(subject:  September 11th)                                                                                Central Unitarian Church
Paramus, New Jersey
16 September 2001

Reading:  #IX from Twelve Songs, W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


Sermon: A River of Tears

The poem you just heard is one of the most poignant expressions of human grief that I know of in English literature. W.H. Auden put into words the feelings we have all known when someone beloved has passed from our lives. For me, the pain and sense of despair expressed in the poem is almost overwhelming. And yet, that is the nature of grief.

On this Sunday morning — as individuals and as a people — we have much for which to grieve. So much was lost this week in that awful attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The most terrible loss was, of course, the lives of so many innocents. And as I stand here before you I am painfully aware that you have lost family members, friends, neighbors, and business associates. It is as if, in one shrill cry, a whole patch was torn from the fabric of our society, the fabric of our community. It is almost unimaginable.

Still others have lost their offices, some their very jobs, and many have lost the networks of association that allowed them to operate professionally. It is almost unmanageable.

Yet all of us, every single one of us, has lost something in this tragedy. I think that, as a nation, we have lost a sense of security that we once enjoyed. A sense of certainty. It’s been 200 years since a foreign power threatened New York and New Jersey. We grew confident in our safety during that time. In a way, I think there has been a terrible loss of innocence in this attack.

In a way, I feel fortunate. Because I think that I have been partially insulated against some of the shock of lost security. Having grown up in Europe during the height of the Cold War, living around American military bases, I think that I internalized at an early age a sense of vulnerability. It wasn’t something we dwelt on, but we were aware of a lingering, and immediate, threat.

I think that, from that same experience of living in a Europe reborn out of the devastation of the Second World War, I also absorbed an understanding that the human spirit is stronger than we know and that life can grow out of the very ashes of destruction. And it can be a better, fuller, richer life than was before. We must always remember our losses, but it is the memory of the experience that helps shape our response to life; helps shape a vision for the future.

But it is too soon for us here to really make sense of what has happened — it is too soon to create visions for the future. Today we must sit with our grief and allow ourselves to mourn. We must add our portion to the River of Tears.

Feeling all the emotions that wash over us is a critical part of healing. Yet grief itself is messy and unpredictable. You may be feeling sad, frightened and vulnerable right now. You may feel lonely, confused and anxious. You may feel guilty. You may feel joyful, because a loved one survived. You may feel angry. All of these emotions are normal. They are understandable, and predictable, responses to a loss such as we have experienced. It is alright to feel this way, and it will take time to move through these emotions. Be patient and forgiving of yourselves, and each other, as we struggle to come to terms with what this means for us. The depth of our grief is but a mirror reflection of the depth of our love for those and that which we have lost.

Yet there are some who will not be patient with their grief. Beware of them. These are the voices which, in their pain and anguish, will call for swift vengeance. These are the voices that say our nation must act NOW with fury and power to visit massive destruction on those even suspected of perpetrating this attack on America. Beware these voices.

In the midst of our mourning, our hands atremble with grief, how will we steady ourselves? Will we seek to steady our trembling hands, by grasping the sword hilt? Or will we reach for something else?

Will we, rather, reach for the beating breast of one who has suffered the unimaginable, the unmanageable, and by drawing them close, calm our own unsteady hands? I say to you, in the midst of this grief, reach for your children, hold close your spouses, hug your neighbors . . . your friends. Life is too precious to waste on fury, and our grief will not be reduced by vengefully visiting grief on others.

Because to extract raw vengeance — to react with blind fury — is to disregard, disrespect, dishonor the uniqueness of every life that has been plucked from our midst. Hear me now, there is no River of Blood that can be shed which will ransom back even one of the lives that has been lost in this tragedy. They were too precious, they were too dear, they were too important for us to think that the blood of some stranger will wash the pain of their loss from our hearts.

Let us set fury aside and instead, pray and work for justice. Justice does not preclude our holding individuals accountable for this villainous assault on our people, but it does prevent us from foolish fury. We can effect justice; a justice that does honor to our loss and builds a better world out of this tragedy. And there will be no more worthy monument to the dead than this.

But beware the voices of vengeance. Vengeance is about the past; justice is about the future. Vengeance is destructive; justice is constructive. Vengeance will jeopardize the future; justice will secure it.

The key challenge for us, in the months and years to come, will be to make some redemptive meaning out of this senseless tragedy. We have the power to choose how we will respond, the power to make some good out of this tragedy. Redemptive meaning will require that we search our souls and commit our hands to finding the greatest possible good that can come from all our losses. Truly, this will be holy work.

Just last Sunday, many of you heard me stand in this pulpit and say that all of life is the stuff of religious experience, and that we must discover the religious dimension to all our experiences. We must ask the questions: “What can I learn from this? How is God in this for me?”

As we struggle to come to terms with Tuesday’s tragedy, it is hard to imagine how God might be in any of this. But let me say this, the God that I believe in has revealed Godself through the outpouring of love, courage, and support made manifest by all who have responded to this crisis. The God that I believe in is the very current in the River of Tears and the very glimmer of hope that still lives. The God that I believe in will be discovered in the creative, powerful, life-affirming meaning that we make of this tragedy.

The ancient Greek poet Aeschylus wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Let our monuments to the dead be the lives we build from this day forward.

I am reminded of the passage from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy (1:7), in which he said: “For God did not give us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power and love and self-control.” I believe this is true. We have the power within to choose what redemptive meaning we will make of this cataclysm. We have the love within to care for one another with renewed compassion and tenderness. And we also have the self-control to steady our angry hands and turn away from blind fury. This is indeed the spirit that dwells within us . . . and it is to this spirit that we must now turn.

I was speaking with a young professional woman the other day who had recently relocated to the metropolitan New York area. She had literally arrived in the last couple weeks. Tuesday’s catastrophe struck her like a shockwave and the repercussions of the attack impacted her directly as a professional. She said to me, “People tell me that this situation presents a unique opportunity for me, but right now I can’t help but feel that this is a curse!”

Her saying that brought to mind for me the passage from Deuteronomy (30:19), in which God says to the Hebrew people: “[Behold] I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.”

And so, in this tragic time, I say to you friends — even amidst the pain and sadness, even amidst the fear and anger — choose life. Choose life in all its small and wondrous ways. Choose life in all that we would make of our futures. Choose life in thought and word and deed. And make that choice through love, through strength, and — above all — through justice. Let our monuments to the dead be the lives we build and the love we share in remembrance of all that has passed away from us. AMEN.