Today I remember another day, a day thirteen years ago when I sat near the prayer table in our school atrium. Around me were gathered fifteen third graders who were waiting for me to talk about what had happened the day before, to offer them God’s explanation of the images they had seen playing in continuous loop on their television screens at home: planes crashing into the twin towers; fiery, collapsing buildings; ash strewn streets filled with crying people.
My heart was a desert. My tongue sered dry of words.
I escaped to the lesson plan I had prepared the week before, the week before we knew the terror, uncertainty, and grief that the day before had brought.
“We are studying the Maxims today,” I mumbled, refusing to meet their eyes. “A maxim is a moral commandment. These are commandments Jesus gave us.”
I rolled out the mat. Placed the ark containing the scriptures on the mat. Kept my eyes averted.
“Let’s take them out and see what we find.”
I took the set of tablets from the ark and shuffled them, face down, spread them in a fan on the floor, and asked three children to pick one tablet each and read it to themselves silently. Then while these three sat back to turn over their chosen tablets and discover the scripture written upon it, I scooped up the remaining tablets and returned them to the cabinet.
While I was still occupied, my eyes averted, I heard the first child begin to read the tablet he had chosen randomly from the stack.
“Pray for those who persecute you,” he read.
The stillness and silence in the room seemed suddenly expectant, as though an invisible presence waited amongst us.
I looked up and saw another child looking at me, her eyes asking if she too should read her tablet aloud. I nodded to her.
“Love your enemies,” she read.
The silence felt like a great weight, and I felt an unreasonable anger well up in me. No, these were not the words I wanted to hear. I was afraid of the friends I might have lost; I was grieving those I knew I had lost. While grappling with these emotions I heard the last child begin:
“I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you.”
What could this mean? How could I approach these texts on this day, this September 12th, this day when the world had changed around us forever?
The children asked if we could light more candles on the prayer table, and so we did. They asked if we could pass the prayer cross around and pray together, and we did. Prayers for comfort, prayers for the injured, prayers for the responders were all offered.
The class of seven year olds left; the next class of seven year olds entered. Again, I introduced the term “maxim.” Again, I shuffled the tablets and placed them face down in a fan on the floor. Again three children picked from amongst the fifteen tablets a few at random.
The first child read, “Love your enemies.”
The second child read, “Pray for those who persecute you.”
The third child read, “I give you a new commandment; love one another as I have loved you.”
Again, I sat speechless, struggling against these words that hammered me like stone tablets.
“It’s like Jesus,” said a small red head with a large bow. “He told God to forgive the people who hurt him on the cross.”
The children all nodded.
Then one young boy who had been sitting in contemplation, rereading over and over the tablets which had by now been placed on a mat before the prayer table, looked up.
“Ms. Kay, isn’t God everywhere?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Remember how you told us that there are two kinds of time? That our time goes only one direction, and we can’t go back, but that for God all times are one time?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then, Ms. Kay, can we pray for God to be with the people who flew those planes, to help them not be so sad and angry? If we pray for them, and if God is in our time and their time too, then perhaps God will give our love to them and will help them. Maybe then no one will be sad.”
It was not what I had wanted to pray. What I had been unconsciously praying all day was a simpler, harsher prayer: “Give them, Lord, what they deserve.” Yet in the expectant silence, in the midst of that invisible presence, and with the eyes of fifteen trusting children upon me, I knew my unspoken prayer took on a new meaning. Give them, give them all, the children in the room, the lost in the two towers, the hijackers, the mighty in their places, and the powerless in their refugee camps, give them all what they truly deserve: a love which knows no limits, a time when no one will be sad, a future when “nation shall not lift up arms against nation.” This was a prayer which could fill the room with light, peace, comfort, and meaning.
Yes, this was a prayer we could offer. I knew on that day, and I believe it still, that there will come a day when no one will hurt or destroy in all this holy creation, when “they shall beat their swords into pruning hooks and their spears into plowshares.” (Isaiah 2:4) I long for that time proclaimed in Isaiah when all creation will be sustained in harmony, and nothing living will inflict pain on any other living creature simply because “the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11) Believing in the power of prayer to change the hearts of all men, in all times and all circumstances and spiritual conditions, we bowed our heads and prayed.
And prayer indeed worked miracles. In one angry heart, in a small school in Texas, vengeance and suffering was soothed though God’s grace to become, if not not sad, at least at peace . . . and trusting in a day to come.