America the Beautiful

The North Tower Fountain (9/17/2011)

Photo: Kai Brinker (CC BY-SA 2.0)

America the Beautiful is one of those patriotic songs that we Americans heard so many times growing up that we barely think about it anymore. Like the National Anthem, we only know the first verse, and when we sing those words it’s from memory and often from habit.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

My view of this song changed forever after September 11, 2001. Due to the mix of grief and patriotism that naturally gripped us all in the weeks following that horrible day, I heard all four verses of America the Beautiful sung for the first time in I don’t know how long. It was the last verse that brought me to tears.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

May God comfort those who lost loved ones that day, shed his grace on all of us, and grant us peace.


Twelve Years and Two Days Ago

The Moving Wall in Florence (9/9/2001)

Photo: Julia Ozab

On Sunday, September 9, 2001, Julia and I visited the portable Vietnam Veterans Memorial (“The Moving Wall“) during a stop over in Florence, Oregon. I’ve never been to the permanent memorial in Washington D.C.—it was built three years after my family moved to California—so this was the closest I would get unless I ever made it back east again.

Under normal circumstances, this would have been a memorable visit. But that week was anything but normal. Two days later, almost 3,000 innocent people would lose their lives on a day none of us will ever forget.

And in my memory, these two events that came two days apart by coincidence will be forever linked in my memory. I pray every year at this time for the families that lost loved ones on 9/11, and I also pray for those who lost loved ones serving in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq.

Some September, I hope to make it back east again. To visit the Vietnam War Memorial and also to visit the September 11 Memorial. To return to the place where the towers once stood, and to pray for peace.

The North Tower Fountain (9/17/2011)

Photo: Kai Brinker (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A Suitable Mass for a Difficult Day

Maria Regina Chapel

The Chapel of the Carmel of Maria Regina. (Photo: The Aquero Foundation)

I knew I had to go to church yesterday, but the question was “where?” I like my new home parish—particularly the music ministry, which I plan to get involved in once I’ve had a full year to settle in. My only complaint is the director’s fondness for patriotic music on national holidays. I don’t like patriotic music in church. I think it blurs the line between the kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of God—but I can put up with a little now and then in return for the beautiful music programmed the rest of the year. Yesterday was different, though. I knew I could’t handle hearing America the Beautiful (the usual closing hymn on holidays) much less The Star Spangled Banner (the usual organ postlude). So instead I attended Mass at the Carmelite Chapel just outside of town.

The Carmel celebrates Mass most Sundays at 7:30 AM. The nuns sit apart from the rest of the congregation, but can see the altar—which is turned at a 45 degree angle in order to be visible from both outside and inside the cloister. The sisters usually sing a couple of hymns plus the psalm and propers, but yesterday there was no music. I prefer sung masses in general (when the music is good anyway) but in this case the absence of music provided more room for silence—an appropriate choice for the day.

The readings were taken from the Lectionary, but, due to a fortuitous alignment of the church and secular calendars, were also appropriate for the day:

Sirach 27:30-28:7 (“Forgive your neighbors’ injustice, then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven”)
Psalm 103: 1-4, 9-12 (“As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put his transgressions from us.”)
Romans 14:7-9 (“Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s”)
Matthew 18:21-35 (“I say to you (forgive) not seven times but seventy-seven times.”)

The priest’s homily focused on forgiveness, and he did an excellent job tying the readings to the anniversary. He talked about how forgiveness doesn’t preclude justice (stepping beyond the readings to use the words of the “repentant thief” in Luke as an illustration) and then contrasted forgiveness, which is unilateral, with reconciliation, which is relational. He then talked about how forgiveness opens up the possibility of reconciliation and how God wants us to be reconciled to him and each other through Christ. It was short, to the point, and sensitive to the occasion.

Prayers were then offered on behalf of the victims of 9/11, for those who have died in the Iraq and Afghan wars, and for peace in the world. The perfect choice of petitions for the day.

The combination of the peaceful setting, the quiet liturgy, the readings, homily, and prayers conveyed a sublime sense of God’s grace that reached its fullness in the Eucharistic Prayer. We said the Our Father together—asking to be forgiven as we forgive others—and as I stood and walked up front to receive, I felt both forgiven by and reconciled with God.

I spent the rest of the day with my family, and I told my wife and daughter I loved them every chance I got. It was the best way to spend this difficult anniversary that I could have imagined.

Crossposted at The Pangea Blog.

Dealing With Closure

There is a controversy roiling on the internet regarding the death of Osama bin Laden. It is perhaps the second most foolish controversy surrounding this historic event.

(The most foolish controversy—that he isn’t really dead—is too stupid for words. I will leave that one alone.)

The controversy centers on the following questions: Is the celebration of the news of Bin Laden’s death inappropriate? Is it un-Christian? Are those uncomfortable celebrating his death unpatriotic? Or un-American?

Like any American over the age of fifteen or so I know where I was when the planes hit the World Trade Center. I was at home 3,000 miles away and that day is still burned into my memory. I can’t begin to imagine how the people who lived through the attack—some losing family or friends—recall that horrible day, and I can’t begin to judge how they react when they finally got just a small bit of closure.

I know how I felt when I heard the news Sunday night. I was relieved. I knew someone was dead, and that death is never a time for celebration, but I also knew that this wasn’t going to end any other way; that if and when we found Bin Laden we weren’t bringing him out alive.

“This is the Navy SEALs. Come out with your hands up.” It just doesn’t go down that way.

After I watched the President address the nation, I saw the video of the people in New York and D.C. celebrating. I was happy for them. I didn’t think for one minute that they were gloating. I saw emotions that had been pent up for almost ten years finally coming out. I expect that around our country that night people were cheering and crying, maybe at the same time. Because just as we all handle grief differently, we all handle closure differently. These emotions are overwhelming and we shouldn’t judge others who express them in different ways.

Those of us who rejoiced that night did so not at the death of a human being, but in the knowledge that some imperfect measure of justice had been achieved.

Those of us who reacted in a more somber fashion did so not because we regret a mass murder’s death but because we realize what a terrible waste any death is.

The first reaction isn’t un-Christian; the second isn’t un-American. Both reactions are human and understandable.

It isn’t our place to judge either one.