"Will someone I know get sick, and maybe die? I don't know. I don't know if the administration will make sense or create confusion. I don't know if anthrax will be replaced by something else. I don't know if more buildings will be attacked. I don't know if the terrorists have some other plans, something worse—I don't know. … And what's worse, I've come to believe that this is the way life is going to be. Not knowing is the new normal."
CNN anchor Aaron Brown opened an October newscast with that summary of his feelings about the anthrax threat and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. He spoke for us all.
To that frustration, the pastor has the added duty to assuage fears and to preach with certainty about what we know for sure. That's not easy these days, when there's so much we don't know for sure.
How do we preach in times like these? Here, three pastors help us sort through the issues.
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.
Will Willimon, dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
And first, an interview with James A. Forbes, senior minister of the historic Riverside Church on Manhattan's upper West side. On the tourists' maps as one of the inspiring sites to visit in the city, Riverside Church has seen an influx of worshipers, too, since the attacks.
Do you think your congregation will ever return to normal after the World Trade Center disaster?
James A. Forbes: Healing will take a long time. Flashes of normalcy last only a few days. Survivors still struggle with guilt: "Why did I survive? Why didn't my colleagues?" The national response, economic turns, and war effort are still unfolding, so we've been unable to find closure.
Here in New York we're still asking "Which bridge can I cross? Which flight is safe? Which letters should I open?" My goodness, it's premature to anticipate returning to normal. I suspect we are moving toward a new and different normal.
How does that "new normalcy" affect you as a preacher?
In minor crises, the preacher can extract himself emotionally and allow others to express grief and fear and doubt while he remains strong. In this case, we cannot extract ourselves from the general malaise. We are a part of it, and it affects our spirits, too.
I've found myself torn in different directions. My church has an historical emphasis on peace, but we can't enjoy peace without honoring the blood our soldiers shed for it. I've struggled between my pastoral care role and offering a prophetic voice. I've thought, So I've preached some sermons to comfort and assure people it's going to be all right. Is it time to question what the Spirit is trying to say to us?
Uncertain where the Spirit was leading and what emphasis to take, I wrote myself a prayer. It stabilized my response to the different impulses that were coming to me as I tried to look at the crisis. Every day I sing:
Holy Spirit, lead me, guide me,as I move throughout this day;may ...