Breaking from the heart

And all the world held its breath.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Today many individuals, groups, and nations around the globe will pause to remember the lives lost on that day and the days that followed: at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. We also pause today to mark the many relationships lost or destroyed on that day; the geography forever altered, and the very social fabric — that which binds us together as a family, a community, a nation, and a world — severed and sliced apart. If you are old enough to remember that day, you will almost certainly recall exactly where you were and what you were doing — and how what began as just another ordinary Tuesday in another ordinary week, somehow ended in smoke and flame, in weeping and in disbelief, and in pain so deep that it went beyond despair.

And all the world held its breath.

Individually and collectively, we all held our breath in a sense that day as we tried to "figure out" the horror; to find explanations for the unthinkable; to work through deep and unspeakable grief; to rethink our previously taken–for–granted assumptions about our world and the people in it; to increase our vigilance; and to understand how everything had changed in an instant, in a day.

And now – today – and in many ways, we are still holding our breath. We know that something in our world – and something in ourselves ‐ has changed. We will mark the remembrance of "nine–eleven" in various public and private ways. And yet (at the same time that we pause to remember), we may also keep this day for today – September 11, 2011 – and the events that will happen within it. There may be a tomorrow for us now that we did not envision on that day, September 11, 2001, ten years ago. I invite you then to consider, along with me, something about the shape of that tomorrow.

In one of the lectionary readings for today, Genesis 50, we read about Joseph's brothers saying to one another, "WHAT IF Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did to him?" The brothers are afraid of Joseph's retaliation, and yet they go to Joseph with the words from their father, now deceased, who begs Joseph to "forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you." Joseph and his brothers weep at this petition from their father. The brothers ask to become the slaves of Joseph, but Joseph refuses such an arrangement that would lessen the humanity of those who are his brothers. Joseph not only forgives, but says that he will now provide for his brothers and for their little ones.

In Psalm 103 and Romans 14, we read about another WHAT IF. What if we were filled with compassion and mercy and kindness – and – what if we were not impossible to anger – but slow to do so, and even then not hold onto that anger forever? Conversely, what if we were filled hate for our sisters or brothers (either our actual siblings or our sisters and brothers in community) and felt only them (and certainly not us) to be accountable before God for our actions and practices?

Each of these WHAT IFs? can be drawn into the passage in Matthew 18 which contains Peter's question to Jesus: How often should I forgive someone's sin against me; that is, how often should I forgive something that was clearly wrong that came to me through the agency of another? In answer to this, Jesus relates a teaching story about a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves – and about the wicked slave who was forgiven by the king of his debt, but who then refused to forgive his debtors. "Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?" the king asks him. In this parable, Jesus speaks not of forgiveness on the surface, so to speak, but forgiveness from "your heart": the kind of forgiveness that cleanses the spirit of both the forgiver and the forgiven – a true turning of the heart in a new direction – the kind of forgiveness that made Joseph and his brothers weep. And so: WHAT IF we could and should forgive another and leave not even one small doubt or shadow of animosity behind? This then would be heart-forgiveness, forgiveness from the broken pieces.

But how hard this kind of forgiveness is! And yet Jesus instructs us to forgive not only our friends who have hurt, offended or committed injustices against us, but also to forgive our enemies and our persecutors. And Jesus also carries out these words of instruction. In the very throes of death on a cross and feeling forsaken by all, even by God, Jesus forgives his murderers. This is forgiveness - true forgiveness. Donald B. Kraybill's 2007 book Amish Grace talks about this kind of forgiveness and its legacy. From such heart-forgiveness springs the possibility of new life and new relationship. That which was once torn apart has now become reconciled; a heart has been broken apart and then broken open; the emptiness and the "hole" once there has become restored and made "whole" again.

I remember that fateful day of September 11, 2001. I remember where I was and what I was doing. I held my breath with the rest of the world as the horrific events of that day unfolded. I could not even rest that night, thinking of all of the brokenness and human tragedy that the day had brought forth, of the 3,000 lives lost, and of a world forever changed. The hardest thing that I had to do that day and the hardest thing that I continue to have to do is to forgive my enemies - those who have harmed me or hurt my family. And yet this is the very thing that we must do for it is the very message of healing - the very breath of new life.

In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, author Parker J. Palmer writes: "When things we care about fall apart, heartbreak happens. . . . There are times when the heart, like the canary in the coal mine, breathes in the world's toxicity and begins to die." (Palmer, 2011: 3) Yet it needs to be here in the heart that the coming together (this re-membering) must begin. Such a re-membering heals the heart of ourselves, the other in us, and we ourselves in the other. For in turth we are not insiders or outsiders, not the self and "the other," but sisters and brothers in a common human family. And it is precisely because of this (again citing Parker J. Palmer) that we must find the ways to open "our hearts to each other, no matter how deep our differences. That way begins 'in here,' as we work on reconciling whatever divides us from ourselves - and then moves out with healing power into a world of many divides, drawing light out of darkness, community out of chaos, and life out of death." (Palmer, 2011: 4)

And all the world held its breath. And then, slowly and with its heart, began to breathe once more.

—Dr. Connie Devilbiss