I was a freshman in college. We had been in classes for just a few weeks. I had a 9:00 am intro-level Music class with Dr. Gorlick. I woke up, threw some clothes on, and headed across campus.
As I remember it, when I arrived in the classroom, a few students were already there talking in a whisper about a plane flying into one of the World Trade Center towers. Dr. Gorlick was working to get the news on the projector at the front of class. The footage came on just after the second plane struck the second tower, and the possibility that the first collision had been a terrible accident vanished against the new, harsh reality that this–whatever it was–was intentional.
Class was dismissed. We all went back to our dorm rooms. As the rest of my hall woke up, we gathered around TV screens for the remainder of the day. We were all still getting to know ourselves, let alone one another, 18 and 19 year-olds away from home for the first time. Both of those educations would be accelerated in the hours, days, and weeks ahead. We learned to confide in each other as we and our world changed. To grieve together. At times even to pray together. But more often to simply sit together in silence, even if in front of a TV screen and trays of chinese food–which itself, I learned as a pious young baptist boy, too, was a kind of prayer. This is what I remember well.
“Never forget,” we were told in the aftermath, in what would become a refrain over the next 20 years.
For some these words became a battle cry: Never forget what they did to us. Never forget the pain, the horror, the humiliation.
For others it would become a lament: Never forget those whose lives were taken. Never forget how our world changed forever.
For others it would be a call to gratitude: Never forget the first responders and those who walked into buildings as they fell. Never forget all those who cleaned up the wreckage.
And for others still, it would become a political tool, appealing to our base responses of rage, fear, and desire for retribution.
As Christians, we are a people of memory. Just two Sundays ago we gathered again, as is our custom, around a table and repeated those words of Jesus at the beating heart of our faith, “As often as you do this, remember me.” We know the value–the necessity–of memory. And yet we also know that it is not enough to simply remember. We must pay attention to how we remember. We must aim to remember well.
To remember well is first to remember with accuracy and honesty, not sparing ourselves the harder memories–the painful, the unflattering. But for people of faith, remembering well also means remembering in such a way that honors the presence of God in the events of our lives, both large and small, personal and communal. The light amid the darkness, yes. But also the God that sits in the darkness with us.
As we look back on that day and the immediate aftermath 20 years later, especially against the end of our occupation of Afghanistan that came in response to it, we may ask the question anew: What is it that we hope to remember? Which is another way of saying, what have we learned?
Surely we will remember the chaos and terror, and we must. But I hope too that we will remember the pain and vulnerability, the compassion and tenderness that overtook us in our collective grief. I hope we will take care not to forget these.
And for us in the church we might ask, too, where was God in it all? Surely God was in so many different places. As many places as there were people. As many places as there was pain. We would learn something new and important in naming as many places as we can of where God was. For we can attest as people of faith that we remember best when we remember together.