Monday over Coffee: A September 11 Memorial Edition

Tares

 

The world seems inordinately messy as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches. In response, here’s a reflection from a few years back. September 11 fell on a Sunday that year.

 

In the Parable of the Tares, Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a man who sows good seed in his field. However, while the man sleeps, his enemy sows tares in the midst of the wheat. When the crops begin to grow, the man’s servants ask if they should pull the tares—the weeds—and he responds like this:

 

No, lest when you’re gathering the tares, you uproot, at the same time with it, the wheat. Permit both to grow together until the harvest, and in the strategic season of the harvest, I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘Gather first the tares and bind them in bundles for the purpose of burning, but the wheat gather together into my granary, into my barn.’ (Matthew 13:29—30)

 

The roots of the bad tares and good wheat, Jesus is saying, are so intertwined you can’t weed out the tares without tearing out the wheat. That is to say, it appears good and evil are as inextricably combined in the world as they are in our own hearts—and once sown, they can’t be separated. Further, Christ seems to be suggesting that God, even seeing all the terrible things in the world, still says: Good and evil. Let them grow together. 

 

But why?

 

At 9:42 on September 11, 2001, Ben Sliney, chief of air traffic control at the FAA's command center in Virginia (on his first day on the job)gave the unprecedented order to ground over 4,000 planes, redirecting any still in the skies to the nearest airport. Canada began taking many of the diverted flights, directing 38 to Gander, Newfoundland, population 10,000, a town, which while equipped for large aircraft, lacked accomodations for the 8,000 passengers now stranded there. 

 

Soon, folks from a hundred countries filled the town’s schools and churches, sleeping on cots. Bakeries and restaurants stayed open 24 hours a day. Hospitals staffed up while many in town opened their homes to the ‘plane people’ as they were called, cooking them meals befitting honored guests, even caring for their pets.

 

As no one would accept money for what they were doing, when Shirley Brooks-Jones, a fund-raiser at Ohio State re-boarded her flight after three days in Gander, she asked her fellow passengers to contribute to a scholarship fund she was starting for the town’s children. When they landed in Atlanta, she had $15,000. The money’s now grown to over $2 million, funding scholarships for hundreds of Gander students.

 

On the same day, three days after the attacks, six reporters from the New York Times divided a stack of missing person flyers collected from lower Manhattan and began dialing phone numbers. After speaking to family members, they began to write, not obituaries, but stories, anecdotes, revealing the truthful good of the seemingly invariably remarkable souls who had perished. As you read these short essays about each life lost, you quickly absorb, in the place you’re most human, the sublime beauty of our everyday existence—the extraordinary that resides inside the ordinary. You begin to comprehend the depths of the unforced dedication with which those who died went about their days— as wives, husbands, parents, traders, teachers, waiters, attorneys, secretaries, window-washers, bankers, security guards, police officers, firefighters—simply doing the little things on which true religion is based.

 

In reading a few of the almost three thousand essays, one becomes immutably persuaded that we live in a wheat field, not a field of tares. For while there’s a tragic mystery in the persistence of evil, human beings have an equally undeniable capacity for kindness and selflessness which emerges reliably and durably under the duress that evil brings, like the wheat among the tares.

 

Consider, this week, Adam Zagajewski’s poem, Try to Praise the Mutilated World, which evokes how the wheat and tares grow together, how hope persists, and how God, who having created the field, must mourn with us, its tares.

 

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June's long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world…

You've seen the refugees going nowhere,

you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

 

Amen.
 

—Greg Funderburk


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