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… preaching the anniversary

If preachers don’t articulate the Zeitgeist on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks – then they can be sure that everyone from newspaper columnists to placard-toting protesters will do it for them. It is part of our role as preachers to ‘step up to the plate’ at times like this. However, we must do so carefully. Thinking back to Bonhoeffer’s gentle wisdom yesterday, here are a few personal pointers and cautions:

  • “The man who despises others” – anything we say about the attacks ten years ago, or the unfolding conflicts since must not slip from comment to caricature about any group of people.
  • “A generation with so little ground under its feet” – 9/11 was a sign of the times, but it did not utterly define them. Just after the attack I visited North Eastern India, where it was barely a blip on their horizon. To treat the WTC attacks as defining the state of the world at large is too big a deal, and may promote the kind of Western preoccupation which belittles other parts of the world.
  • “Hardly anything can be more reprehensible than the sowing and encouragement of mistrust”- the pulpit is not a place to encourage the kind of fear and suspicion which makes us treat the ‘other’ as a lesser person.
  • “It is not the genius we need…but honest, straightforward men”  – a preacher is not a geo-political analyst, a military tactician, nor a sociologist – a preacher is a man or woman with God’s trumpet in their hand and God’s spirit in their heart.
  • “The only cure for folly is spiritual redemption” – whilst I may stand accused of perpetuating a ‘sacred-secular divide’, preachers must never forget that their primary script is redemption. Our greatest gift to our listener is always to extend God’s gracious invitation to them.
  • “Tomorrow may be the day of judgement. If it is, then we shall gladly give up working for a better future, but not before.”  Sermons this Sunday may catch the retrospective wave – but they must point forwards.
Below is a picture of the USS New York, a warship commissioned in November 2009. Its bow is fashioned from 7.5 metric tons of steel from the wrecked World Trade Centre.  In this way, something new has arisen from all that destruction. Mangled and twisted steel has been fashioned into something streamlined and purposeful.
As we trawl through the stories, recollections, and columns about 9/11 this week – may our sermons emerge as something streamlined and purposeful, with bows turned towards a new day.

image: wikimedia

… but any wiser?

Many years ago, before the ‘war on terror’ had entered our vocabulary, I was a student at St Andrews University, reading for a degree in Practical Theology.  One particular course I took was in “theology: theory and practice”, specialising in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Our aim was to study how his theology influenced the practice of his faith, and how the practice of his faith interrogated his theology.  In late 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay entitled ‘After 10 years’. He gave three copies to his friends, and hid a fourth one in the loft of his house – where it was later discovered after his arrest and execution at the hands of the Gestapo. It represents a mature and reasoned reflection on the experience of living through evil times.

Since I cannot open a newspaper or visit a news website at the moment without seeing an allusion to the impending 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I have found myself returning to this gentle, profound, and challenging document. Below are some salient selections from After Ten Years, and tomorrow I shall reflect a little further on the task of preaching this Sunday.

  • Surely there has never been a generation in the course of human history with so little ground under its feet as our own.
  • The man of freedom…is ready to sacrifice a barren principle for a fruitful compromise or a barren mediocrity for a fruitful radicalism.
  • There is no defence against folly Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason.
  • The only cure for folly is spiritual redemption, for that alone can enable a man to live as a responsible person in the sight of God.
  • The man who despises others can never hope to do anything with them.
  • We know that hardly anything can be more reprehensible than the sowing and encouragement of mistrust
  • If we want to be Christians we must show something of Christ’s breadth of sympathy by acting responsibly
  • It is not the genius that we shall need, not the cynic, not the misanthropist, not the adroit tactician, but honest, straightforward men.
  • Tomorrow may be the day of  judgement. If it is, then we shall gladly give up working for a better future, but not before.

Note the absence of bitterness, but also the deep sense of personal responsibility. The language seems a little stilted, and its male bias sounds very out of place in 2011. Are there not lessons for us here though , ten years on?

The attic where Bonhoeffer's essay was written -image from

Richard Littledale

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