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The whole world changed on September 11

By Daniel Paul Matthews
2001-281
10/2/2001
[Episcopal News Service]  Dust, everywhere. Everywhere, everywhere, dust. Everything was covered in dust. It was unbelievable. We couldn't imagine how the whole southern part of Manhattan Island could become covered in dust.

It wasn't long before we began saying: What should we dust first? What should be the priority? We decided the first thing was the pews, so people could come in and rest and pray and reflect and receive some counseling.

What next? Well, what about the prayer books? People need to pick up the prayer books and find the prayer that speaks in this moment to them. Dust the prayer books!

What next? The votive candles of course. There'll be people coming in who will want to light a candle for someone who has died or someone who is missing.

Dust the votive candles!

And we're still dusting.

But the dust did not just fall in the southern tip of Manhattan. The dust fell all over the world on September the 11th. Not one inch of this earth is without dust. Little villages all over the world, people, nations, religious groups of all traditions, all faiths--everybody is covered with the dust of the World Trade Center. None is without dust. Of course, they are saying the same thing we did: What do we dust off first? What's most important to us? What do we need to use immediately? What's secondary? And what's not very important?

Different lives

They are saying that around the world because the world changed on September 11. Values are different. People are saying what's it all about and what do we need to dust off and keep? You and I are saying the same thing. What about your life? What about my life? What about our lives? What's important to dust off, right now, to preserve and keep and use? What seems superficial and empty now?

Have you ever been in an antique store? You walk in and see all this stuff from bygone times. Then maybe if you are interested enough, the owner offers to take you out to his barn in the back. So you follow him out, he unlocks the big padlock, opens the door and turns on all the lights. You walk in and the place is full of things from bygone eras, all covered with dust.

Everything is so covered in dust you can't tell one thing from another. You begin to wander through the barn, trying to distinguish one thing from another, and you come across a table that has something on it, and you say, 'I believe that's what my grandfather used to use, and I haven't seen one since.' You reach in your pocket, pull out your handkerchief and begin to dust it off. Pretty soon you discover, yes, that's exactly what my grandfather had in his house. I remember it as a little boy. You smile and say to yourself, no matter what it costs, I'm going to buy it, because it reminds me of him. It bespeaks my traditions. As you leave the barn, you look around and say, such a treasure among so much junk.

Our treasures

That's what some of us feel like. What are our treasures? What are those things that really matter? Some of them are covered with dust. Some of them we're visibly trying to dust off and polish because we have ignored them. Some of these treasures are not things, but are people, ideas, and beliefs.

What's true and what's false? What's real and what's junk, what's to be preserved and what isn't? It's like everything's changed as a result of September 11th. Our value systems' all being adjusted.

St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway, completed in 1766, is part of our parish. The oldest public building in continuous use in Manhattan, it is the place where George Washington said his prayers after he was inaugurated and it has served as a refuge during times of revolution and war. On September 11th, despite being directly across the street from two 110-story towers which collapsed, that little building miraculously survived.

In the midst of this terrible tragedy, President Bush called for prayers and ringing of bells at noon on Friday September 14th. I called the engineers who operate our churches and office buildings downtown and asked them if they could ring the bells of St. Paul's at 12 noon. One of them, Mike Borrero, said, 'Dr. Matthews, I'm sorry, we can't possibly do that. You can't imagine what it's like down here. We just can't do that.'

About an hour later, Mike was on the phone and said, 'Guess what? We got in the church. Crawling up the wooden bell tower, I saw an iron bar. I picked it up and crawled up to that bell, and I beat the hell out of it, 12 times, while Jim held the flashlight so I could see. When I got back down, they told me that all the police officers, all the firemen, and all the volunteers heard that bell, and when they did they took their hats off.'

The rescuers stood in silence, as if to say: 'The Lord God reigns, even in this hell.' The Lord God does reign! And sometimes in the midst of the most horrible tragedies, we see with eyes with which we haven't seen before.

I wonder how many people even knew there was a bell in that tower. Now, God willing, we hope to ring it at 12 noon every day as long as we exist, remembering to announce to the world, 'God reigns.'

Symbols of life

At times like this a bell becomes more than just a bell; it becomes, in our language, a sacrament. When we celebrate the Eucharist, it's not just a little bread and a little wine, it's a sacrament saying God loves me and God loves you, and God gives himself to you and to me.

A lot of us have little things that have happened that have been powerfully big. We'll never forget the voice of the man speaking to his wife from that doomed plane over Pennsylvania--words that you and I need to dust off. Words that you and I need to say more often: 'I love you. I love you. I love you!' It needs dusting off. We know that nothing is more profound for that widow, and nothing is more profound for you and me, than to know that God loves us, and that we love each other.

I have my own symbol, my sacrament. When that smoke was so thick after the collapse of the first tower, and we thought we were going to die--we all admit it now--someone handed me a little white mask to over my nose and mouth to help me breathe. I can't tell you what a treasure it was, and I've worn it every day I've been down near Ground Zero. I'm going to save it because it symbolizes life to me--a little inexpensive mask. It means more than I could ever imagine such a simple thing could mean.

Lots of simple things are meaning a lot more to you and to me than they ever have before. Maybe someday my grandchild will find this and say, 'My grandfather wore that and it saved his life, back in 2001.'

Providence has a way with us at a time like this. The Collect for today is so powerful, so profoundly prophetic and appropriate, I hope you'll go home, put it on your refrigerator and say it every time you grab that door.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.