"If I’d come out of school five seconds earlier," said my ten-year-old
son C. J., when I finally found him, "I would have been in trouble."
was covered in white dust, later called "dust of death," his hair
speckled, his black backpack now gray. When Trade Tower One collapsed
only four blocks away from C. J.’s school, firefighters pushed the
children inside and shut the school doors.
The fireball of jet
fuel incinerated thousands in a second and exploded a chain reaction of
trucks and cars up Greenwich Street to the school. C. J. and his
friends ran from one designated store to another, guided by teachers
who told them to close their eyes. He almost ran into a tree, he said.
It was a Japanese red maple tree planted in front of the schoolyard, a
part of a garden and trees that he had helped to plant five years
earlier. The next morning, when my family returned to get essential
items from our loft (now at Ground Zero), I walked by the tree, now
covered in soot, each leaf sagging, coated in concrete dust.
The Beauty of Metanoia
My studio is located ten blocks north
from my loft. As I come home from my studio every day, I have to face
south and walk toward Ground Zero. The Greek word for "repent,"
metanoia, means to turn 180 degrees around. In that sense, I am
"repenting" every day. To walk toward the reminder of so many lives
lost is to daily confront the evil that took place that day. The
physical act of turning 180 degrees, doing this volitionally every day,
began to link in my mind to the deeper repentance I needed in my own
life, my own journey of faith.
Developing a habit, a culture of
repentance, will require us to walk straight toward the darkness,
including our own imaginative power of vengeance. In the months after
9/11, many times as I walked home I began to hope for my own heart to
forgive those who masterminded this catastrophe. As I did, I was
reminded of how my sense of justice so easily leads to vengeance toward
others. I was convicted of the terrorism in my own heart, of my desire
to act out of vengeance and not out of love for my neighbors.
own acts of terrorism toward God drove Jesus to the cross. Jesus’ slain
body absorbed our anger and defiance, but more important, it absorbed
God’s just anger toward us. In that moment, all of what was most fair
and beautiful in Christ became the hideous stench of a dying beast.
Beauty was literally pulverized, destroyed, and the Eternal experienced
the decay of death.
New York is, and has always been, full of
idols. They are substitutions, created for the convenience of living a
life without the reminder of our dependence on God. Material goods,
appearance, personal comforts, family, and sex are all good gifts that
we easily twist into our gods. These idols were exposed in our
post-9/11 journey, at least in the hearts of those who are willing to
turn to God. Of course, New Yorkers will choose to erect new idols or
even rebuild old ones to cover up our dysfunctions. But my walk from my
studio became a way to turn away from my own idolatrous heart, walk
home to Ground Zero, and face a vacant reminder of our fallen nature
On one of those walks, I realized it is not enough
to turn from our idols. We must run toward the tower of Jesus, which
stands beyond and through our own ground zero experience. Jesus is the
God of Ground Zero. Thus, God will turn our repentance into building
blocks of the City of God, a vision of the New Jerusalem.
Surprised by Beauty (in Otego)
Late on the evening of September 12,
2001, my family and I drove north. Miraculously, we had been able to
get our car out of our garage before it was shut down because of a gas
leak. Even at the north end of Manhattan near the George Washington
Bridge we could still smell the acrid smoke. We drove to Oneonta, New
York, after dropping off a kind neighbor (a complete stranger before
9/11) and her dog on our way. She and her husband had welcomed us into
their home that night so we wouldn’t have to sleep in my TriBeCa
studio. As I watched smoke rise from another freshly fallen
building, Number Seven, the series of lithographs I had been working on
at Corridor Press became a welcome goal. My wife and I needed to keep
the children away from the smoke and the calamity as much as possible.
At three a.m. on Interstate 81, thousands of stars lit up the sky,
echoed below by the flags. The desolate highways brought back to my
mind the ghost town of TriBeCa that morning, filled with the odor of
death. In my head I still heard sirens shrieking in the bitter night
and my own inept, feeble prayers uttered during my subway ride, trying
to rush home.
Trapped in the subway for the forty minutes that changed the world, I
had not even known that hell was breaking forth above me. All I had
been able to see, finally having come out on Seventh Avenue at
Fourteenth Street, was the smoke of the fallen towers. I had brushed
against hundreds of evacuating businessmen and women as I ran toward my
home, my studio. I saw again the blood-drained face of my wife, who met
me at the studio, and experienced again the relief of hearing that all
three of my children had been evacuated safely.
We left Otego early on the Sunday morning of September 16, the car full
of apples freshly picked by our children from the Sheesley’s yard, and
drove back to New York City. We needed to be back for what we thought
to be a special time of mourning for our church, The Village Church. We
found out that a few of our members had indeed escaped alive from the
towers. A few, like us, had been displaced. None were lost.
On that Sunday, our son C.J. was to be confirmed as a full member of
our church and to take his first Communion. It was to be his first
public expression of faith. He had been meeting with our pastor
throughout the summer in preparation for this day. We wanted to invite
family members and friends to join us. We were planning to have a party
for him. Now, the best we could hope for was to get to the service on
time. I asked him, as I negotiated the hills of the Catskill Mountains,
if he still wanted to go through with it. "Dad, I can’t wait. I want to
take Communion today."
After my fellow elders and our pastor prayed for C.J. to officially
recognize him as a full communing member, he expressed his exuberance
with a victory gesture I had seen him give after scoring a goal in
soccer. Then, at Communion, he came up to me as I broke the bread to
him, his hands cupped, and the voice of shalom filled my heart again.
"This is Christ’s body, bread of heaven," I said to C J.
If God can turn ordinary bread into a sacrament, God can turn anything
into a sacrament. There is power of resurrection in this piece of bread
going into the hands of a child. These hands, covered in September 11
dust last Tuesday, would be redeemed. God would take the very dust of
death and turn it into life; he would turn twisted metal into a
memorial of hope, and even the broken city of New York into the City of