Speaker: Rev. Jennie Barrington. “In the Unlikely Event.” This worship service marks the 15th Anniversary of September 11, 2001.
Sermon and more:
“In the Unlikely Event”
Worship Service and Sermon for
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
September 11, 2016
the Rev. Jennie Barrington, Interim Minister
Opening Words, by Sandy Dahl, wife of Jason Dahl, who was the pilot of Flight 93:
“If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.”
the Morning Reading: “Fear,” by Raymond Carver
Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.
Fear of falling asleep at night.
Fear of not falling asleep.
Fear of the past rising up.
Fear of the present taking flight.
Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night.
Fear of electrical storms.
Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek!
Fear of dogs I’ve been told won’t bite.
Fear of anxiety!
Fear of having to identify the body of a dead friend.
Fear of running out of money.
Fear of having too much, though people will not believe this.
Fear of psychological profiles.
Fear of being late and fear of arriving before anyone else.
Fear of my children’s handwriting on envelopes.
Fear they’ll die before I do, and I’ll feel guilty.
Fear of having to live with my mother in her old age, and mine.
Fear of confusion.
Fear this day will end on an unhappy note.
Fear of waking up to find you gone.
Fear of not loving and fear of not loving enough.
Fear that what I love will prove lethal to those I love.
Fear of death.
Fear of living too long.
Fear of death.
I’ve said that.
[Introduction to the Special Music]
In the weeks after September 11, 2001, I kept wishing that a singer / songwriter would write a song, to help us with our grief about the terrorist attacks– in the way that Elton John’s poignant song, “Candle in the Wind,” helped us name and process our loss of Princess Diana. After some time passed, I realized that one of my favorite folk singers had already written that song. The music of James Taylor has been helpful to me this week. Our Special Music this morning is James Taylor’s, “Fire and Rain.”
Special Music: “Fire and Rain,” by James Taylor
The Morning Sermon:
In mid-December of 1951, In Elizabeth, New Jersey, a town adjacent to Newark Airport, people were placidly enjoying the holiday season. They were choosing, with special care, presents for Christmas or Hanukkah, planning parties to welcome in family, friends, and neighbors, and anticipating dances, other festivities, and travel to and from their corner of the world. Then, on the afternoon of December 16th, a Miami Airlines flight, that had just taken off from Newark and was bound for Tampa, crashed into a brick warehouse, and then into the Elizabeth River. All fifty-six people on board died. And the people of Elizabeth began to wonder why this sudden and unexpected tragedy had happened, and why it had happened to them.
Then, just a few weeks later, on the afternoon of January 22nd, 1952, a second plane crashed in Elizabeth. The American Airlines flight was en route from Syracuse to Newark; the weather was stormy and icy. The plane narrowly missed two high schools, but did hit a row of homes on Williamson Street. Seven people on the ground were killed, as were all twenty-three people on board, including former Secretary of War Robert Patterson. People speculated that the pilot, who was familiar with the town of Elizabeth, attempted to divert the impaired plane from the buildings filled with school children. The people of Elizabeth began to demand that Newark Airport be closed, and its authorities began to consider closing it. And people around the nation began calling the town of Elizabeth “The Umbrella of Death” and “Plane Crash City.”
Only three weeks later, shortly after midnight on February 11th, a National Airlines flight headed from Newark to Miami crashed into a four-story apartment building. It landed in the playing field of the Janet Memorial Home for orphans. Of the sixty-three people on board, twenty-nine were killed, as well as four people on the ground. Several of the boys from the orphanage joined together to run to and from the wreckage, pulling out passengers and crew, saving several people’s lives. Newark Airport was then closed for commercial travel. Though it was still used for military flights, during the day and in good weather. It did not open again until, nine months later, runways were closed and reconfigured so that planes took off and landed, not over residences and municipal buildings, but over Kearny Meadows.
I learned about the three plane crashes within three months in Elizabeth, New Jersey, from the book by Judy Blume called, In the Unlikely Event. Judy Blume, who is widely beloved and acclaimed for her novels for young readers, grew up in Elizabeth. During the winter of 1951/1952, she was in eighth grade. So she has first-hand memories of that frightening and bizarre time in her town’s history. Her book is a novel; she memorializes the time and its events by fictionalizing the people and their relationships. But the descriptions of the plane crashes are real.
The people of Elizabeth were trying to make sense of one tragedy after another, in rapid succession, resulting in massive deaths, suffering, and loss. Doesn’t that sound like what we keep experiencing these days, every time we turn on the news? In response, the people of Elizabeth gave extra loving care to their loved-ones and neighbors, deepening their relationships, newly-aware of how precious they were, holding one another close. But they also speculated about why these horrible “unlikely events” happened at all, and happened to them. In her book, Judy Blume has the middle-school children speculating: [pp.61, 62]
“I thought it was comet. It sounded like a comet.”
“That was no comet– that was a bomb inside the plane.”
“That was no bomb. It was something from outer space, some alien thing, maybe Martians.”
“It’s a Commie plot!”
“You sure Senator Joe McCarthy didn’t take the plane down?”
“McCarthy’s the one person trying to save us from the Commies.”
“McCarthy is an evil man. A bully.”
“I can’t help it if you’re too thick to see the truth—“
Now doesn’t that sound like what we hear these days every time we turn on the news?
The sermons I’ve done marking the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 have been the most emotional of my career. For the Sunday after that day itself, I had only been serving the UU church in Winchendon, Massachusetts for less than three weeks. I remember that I used the words of Anne Frank: “Despite everything, I still believe that people are basically good.” The tenth anniversary of that day was a Sunday as well. I was serving in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and focused on the fact that we had survived as a nation, and could find the strength to continue on. The choir sang, for us, Carly Simon’s song, “Let the River Run,” which she wrote as an anthem of, and tribute to, New York City. But we are in a different time, now. And as I have reflected on September 11th, and on Judy Blume’s uniquely helpful book, my concerns are how fearful people in the United States have become. And I think that there are ways we have come to be afraid of the wrong things. If someone is afraid of a woman wearing a head scarf around her hair and shoulders, we should not be afraid of her. But we should be afraid of global warming, and educate ourselves about it and assist with efforts to combat it. We should not be afraid of transgendered people. White people should not be afraid of people of color. People of color should not be afraid of people of color. We should not be afraid of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a peaceful movement, and sorely needed in our nation in these times. Should we be afraid of mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus? Check. Should I be afraid of palmetto bugs? I am, but I’m working on getting over that one. Research shows that we should not be so afraid of plane crashes and shark attacks. We are more likely to die from car accidents or diseases. Why, then, do we become overly-focused on possibly being suddenly attacked, instead of on living a healthier life day-to-day? David G. Myers, in his article in Edge Magazine writes that our exaggerated fears are due to “the ‘available heuristic:” we fear what’s readily available in memory. Vivid, cognitively available images –a horrific air crash, a mass slaughter– distort our judgment of risk. Thus, we remember –and fear- disasters (tornadoes, air crashes, attacks) that kill people dramatically, in bunches, while fearing too little the threats that claim lives one by one.” And Jim Mullen, in his article, “Afraid of the Wrong Things,” writes: “Why do people assume the future will be worse than today? Just in the last hundred years, we’ve gone from outhouses, horse-drawn buggies, and ice boxes to indoor plumbing, electric cars, and central air. Life is demonstrably better. Heart transplants, antibiotics, pain-free dentistry… Most of us wouldn’t even want to live the way we did twenty years ago. Dial-up internet? Fax machines? MySpace? [Mr. Mullen writes] [“I just couldn’t handle it.”]
The living of our days is what we should focus on when we begin to overly fear that disaster could befall us from out of nowhere. We can be more intentional about living in right-relationship with ourselves, our loved-ones, and all life, and we should. So one article I found this week really grabbed my attention. It’s by fitness columnist James S. Fell, and it’s called, “16 Things People Need to Stop Being Afraid of.” Number One on his list is “hard work.” Numbers Two and Three are, “Doing the Right Thing” and “Standing up for What’s Right.” He also encourages us to keep trying to do things that we are not good at doing, saying, “achieving a level of mastery via patience, planning, and persistence builds confidence, not just in that activity, but in the rest of your life as someone who can accomplish goals.” Neither should we be afraid of rejection, nor asking for help, nor for asking for more for ourselves, when new opportunities present themselves. He wants us to chase our dreams. As a fitness consultant, Mr. Fell tells us not to be afraid of cooking, saying that our nation’s obesity epidemic is due to people over-indulging in restaurant food, fast food, delivered food, and take-out and pre-prepared meals, which are all loaded with calories and other bad ingredients that make weight loss next to impossible. And he writes that Americans should not be afraid of equality, saying, “More egalitarian countries have higher standards of living across the board. There is less obesity, bullying, depression, imprisonment, teenage pregnancies, mental illness, drug use, and lower school drop-out rates. Be more accepting of differences and admit that all your fellow humans are entitled to the same rights as you are, and you’ll help make the world a far better place.” He ends by encouraging more acceptance of criticism, apologizing, “walking away / letting go,” committing, leading, and following, each in their appropriate measure.
The living of our days, well and caringly, is what we should intentionally focus on, no matter what day of the year the calendar says it is. But I know that that is awfully hard to do, on the anniversary of a day of tragedy, loss, and grief. For several years running, April 30th was such a day for me. If I had never talked about my anxiety about April 30th, and been listened to in a helpful empathetic way, by friends, family, and by my own ministers, I would not have been able get past my trepidations about it, and be able to just have a nice relaxed day. I mention to you this morning my “Phenomenon of April 30th” because, by talking about it, I have learned that many people, in fact many whole families, have a date or holiday or season that, because of tragedies that have happened during that time in years past, they face with approaching dread. And of course no one feels inclined to talk about those fears with people in general– They worry they’d sound crazy or superstitious– And no one wants to cause anyone else to worry that tragedy will strike during a certain day or week. But here in our congregation, we can talk about the fears we harbor, even ones that sound superstitious or irrational. And in being listened to in a caring and understanding way, our fears can lessen and eventually fade.
My dread of the date April 30th began when, in 2008, I was down in Pennsylvania for a job interview. I was driving across a quiet innocent-looking intersection in a suburban neighborhood. It was much like the intersections right near here where Maple crosses several side streets. Out of nowhere, from my right, a teenage girl crashed into the side of my car. We were very lucky that neither of us was hurt. But my car was totaled, I had to rent one in order to get home, and I didn’t even get that job. That drive back up to Massachusetts, and the terrible days afterward, were a very difficult dark period in my life. But friends, family, ministers, and some complete strangers kept helping and encouraging me, and listened in such a kind and understanding way. In 2009, however, April 30th was far worse. I was serving the South Bend congregation, and it was the middle of their Candidating Week. Since that was my vacation time, I was about to get in the car and drive to Fort Wayne, to the Vera Bradley outlet sale, which my mother, aunt, and cousin were going to. I had put my suitcase in the car, and gone back into my apartment for my purse. My cell phone rang. The call was from a member of the South Bend congregation. His wife, Kathy, had been walking around their quiet neighborhood that morning. While in a crosswalk, she was hit by a school bus. She did not survive, her husband told me. That tragedy shook my sense of the fairness and order and benevolence of the universe far more, and for far longer, than I realized at the time. So many people have given me their compassionate and understanding listening ears, so I could eventually process that day that Kathy Curtis died. As if 2008 and 2009 were not enough, in 2010, while I was serving the congregation in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a friend of that congregation died. He was a beautiful, talented, and generous of heart college student named Ian Smith Christmas. And he was also very troubled. During the week of April 30th, I got a call that he had taken his own life. Suicide is the most difficult tragedy to process, emotionally and theologically. It raises the biggest emotions and theological questions that humans struggle with. It just broke my heart that we lost that beautiful and wonderful young man. Yet I also know that I was able to be helpful to the many people who were so shaken by his death. Since then I have often felt that helping with Ian’s memorial service is the one thing I was clearly in Fredericksburg that year to do.
So now you are no doubt wondering: what about the next year? What was April 30th like for me? With relief and gladness I tell you that nothing horrible happened in my ministry life that day at all. One member who is very dear to me got a flat tire, and her husband had to go get her. When I learned that, I called her up. Was she okay? Was the car okay? But all was perfectly well. The tire was even still covered by a warranty.
Of course on April 30th, I would rather not drive at all. People I have talked to about this phenomenon in my life have said that, yes, they do understand that feeling about a certain time of the year– All you want to do is stay in bed, with all the covers pulled over you, and wait until it’s over. But through it all, I have been determined not to go that route. I have been determined to get out of bed, face the date head-on, and, as they say in the movies, “try and act normal.” –because a person can make themselves crazy if they try to second-guess every choice that is theirs to make in the course of a day. We all have to try to stay connected to a larger sense of reassurance, trust, beauty, purpose, order, and benevolence. On a couple of “April 30th”s after that year, I went to a state park, I went to an interfaith community organizing meeting, I went to a day of planning and visioning for our Religious Education programming for Children and Youth…
I don’t usually preach about what April 30th means for me. But this past year, serving your congregation has been a true blessing for me, in your loveable way of befriending each other, and friends, neighbors, and travelers, meeting people wherever they are at in their lives, with compassion, without judgment, not sweating the small stuff, yet pausing for the momentous occasions. Listening, when we make space for it, can be literally healing. Though I wish I had never experienced my tragedies of April 30th, I have learned a great deal from processing them. The main thing I’ve realized is that, on any given day, some tragedies and some true blessings inevitably occur. When the tragedies seem to be plaguing us or people we love for a certain day or season, there’s no telling why. But if we feel we have been somehow cursed, we also have the capacity to believe we can reverse a curse. And we all have the capacity to convey some of that belief to a person whose faith and hope are wavering. So perhaps the most heartening thing to recall, when fear clouds our day, is that there are always groups of people –countless groups of people– congregations, and also neighborhoods, families, and strangers brought together by a shared loss, who will be present to the terrors that shake our world, and who will lend us those moments of beauty and tenderness that restore our faith. Though it can take a long time, together, we can help one another find the balance and the grounding we all need, in order to face all that each new day may bring.
**Hymn #18 “What Wondrous Love is This”
**Benediction The words of Mary Kate McErlean, whose father died on September 11, 2001:
“My father was the best person I have ever known and though he was taken from me on that day, nothing and no one will ever be able to take away the eight years and two days of my life that I shared with him… I could die in seventy years or seventy hours from now and that is something that I know I cannot control. Something I can control, however, is my life in this moment and what I choose to do with it… I learned to live my life without a single regret. I learned to live for today rather than tomorrow. I now appreciate the people that love me and every moment I am blessed to have with each of them… If you owe someone an apology, tell them you are sorry today. If someone asks for your forgiveness, forgive them. Start being the person you always wanted to be today and don’t waste your time worrying about tomorrow.”