By Chaplain (Lt.Col.) Mark Johnston, U.S. Army
Immediately following the terrible destruction of September 11,2001, first responders began arriving at the Pentagon to rescue survivors, locate the missing and bury the dead.
Teams of persons equipped with flashlights, helmets and shovels entered the darkened wreckage, still smoldering from the jet fuel that exploded upon the impact of American Airlines Flight 77 into the building’s southern façade. The nightmarish grotesqueness of twisted metal, shattered concrete, smashed office equipment along with the red glowing embers and horrific smell of burned flesh, presented rescuers with images of hell.
Someone once observed that religion was for those who believed in Hell, but spiritually was for those who had been there. That was how the First Responders felt that day. Those anchored in their spiritual traditions recognized the power of their spirituality as they bravely faced that tragic day when the whole world changed.
The somberness of the First responders in their search for persons who might have miraculously survived was heightened by the knowledge of awaiting families desperate for any news that could lead to hope or closure.
Organized teams left the blue skies of the outside world and stepped into the darkness of the Pentagon’s cavernous ruins.
Stress, trauma and grief accompanied each of the Responders in their painstaking discoveries. Forgetting themselves, many First Responders did not eat, hydrate or properly rest as hope for survivors remained. This cumulative denial of their own needs took a toll as persons struggled to continue a search for life.
Sometime during the third day, a team of worn out rescuers emerged back into the sunlight from the darkened, jagged corridors of death. It was apparent that they had seen too much. The continual entrance into and emergence from that tomb of death finally overwhelmed this team. Bystanders outside the wire could hear the team captain say “We’ve had enough… we can’t do this anymore!” At that very moment a military chaplain, who had been praying nearby, boldly stepped over the dividing wire between death and life, placed a helmet on his head and taking a flashlight in his hand, said, “That’s alright, I’ll lead the next team in.” With those words , the next team followed this chaplain into the darkness, to eventually emerge back into the light. With that one example all the teams were strengthened and inspired to continue their difficult rescue operations.
This is one of the realities of spiritual fitness. Spiritual fitness is a source of strength when our natural limits are reached. We might define spiritual fitness as “being right with God, being right with others and being right with yourself.” Those who have a nurtured spiritual dimension in their lives whether through prayer, fellowship, Scripture readings or other devotional practices, are able to give an inward look in acknowledgement of their own limitations while simultaneously looking outward to a world in need of rescue. This inward look is always accompanied by an upward glance to God who is the embodiment of Love, Life and Light.
God himself was the original First responder who searched for a lost Adam and Eve within the destroyed remains of Eden, and Who found them and redeemed them. It is no coincidence that the sight where Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon is now a chapel, a place where an upward glance is encouraged to any who would survey the history of that terrible day. It is the wreckage of this world that First responders imitate the Divine Rescuer and through their courageous efforts, bring love, life and light in answer to the darkness.