Tim Keller Preaches at 9/11 Service with Bush

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Puritan Board Graduate
From NY Times: Clergy Again Shoulders Burdens of Consoling and Explaining. Keller was asked by White House to preach at this service.
What to say after five years?

The Rev. Timothy J. Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, began wrestling with the question about a week and a half ago. He was working at home when the church´s receptionist called with an urgent message: "œTim, I think you better return this call. It´s the White House."

White House officials asked Dr. Keller to deliver the sermon at an ecumenical prayer and remembrance service yesterday evening at St. Paul´s Chapel in Lower Manhattan for family members of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. President Bush and his wife, Laura, would be attending.

The invitation came as a surprise to Dr. Keller, who is pastor of one of the city´s largest Protestant churches but seldom preaches outside his own church. After hesitating because it would mean missing his church´s two Sunday evening services, he accepted. But what to say?

Yesterday and today, the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the city´s religious leaders were being asked again to shoulder much of the burden for making sense of the tragedy and offering consolation.

"œIt´s an enormous challenge for a preacher," said the Rev. Thomas P. Devery, whose parish, Holy Child on Staten Island, lost more than two dozen members.

At a special Mass at his parish yesterday evening for family members of Sept. 11 victims, Father Devery presented prayer shawls, crocheted by volunteers in the congregation, to 14 families that lost loved ones.

In his homily, he posed a question he wanted his congregation to reflect upon five years after the attacks: "œAre we bitter or better?"

Earlier in the day, at St. Bernadette´s in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, during a Mass honoring police officers who died, the Rev. Robert Romano, a Police Department chaplain, read from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 35: "œSay to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you."

Later, at St. Patrick´s Cathedral, during a packed service honoring firefighters who perished, members of the clergy offered prayers for the lost, alongside the reflections of politicians and Fire Department officials.

Msgr. Marc Filacchione, a Fire Department chaplain, suggested that the long process of healing was yielding results. "œYes, today is still a gray day," he said. "œHowever, may I be so bold as to suggest that the shade of gray is lighter and maybe there is coming, now, a little tinge of blue, pushing away the gray."

For many pastors and spiritual leaders in the New York area, the answer to the question of what to say was to say nothing at all, testament perhaps to how the passage of time has dimmed the impact of that day.

Even at St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in New Monmouth, N.J., which lost more than two dozen members at the World Trade Center, the Rev. Chuck Griffiths did not address the attacks during his homily at the 10 a.m. Mass, although during the Prayer of the Faithful he did remember those who died. The church is also participating in a joint memorial service with other parishes today.

Msgr. Jeffrey Conway, whose congregants at Holy Star of the Sea on Staten Island endured 13 memorial services in the months after Sept. 11, said he planned to address the continuing bereavement process at a special Mass this morning.

As for Dr. Keller, given the task of addressing a church full of family members of the lost, not to mention the president, he said he initially pulled out the sermon he preached at his church on Sept. 16, 2001. But he recognized that the circumstances have changed, he said.

In the initial aftermath of the attacks, he said, the city was laden with fear and uncertainty. Today, much of that has dissipated, though sorrow and, for many, anger persist. He decided to burrow anew into the difficult question "œWhy?"

The question is impossible to answer completely, he said in his brief sermon. But Dr. Keller pointed to a theme that runs throughout Scriptures, that God identifies with those who suffer.

"œWe don´t know the reason that God allows evil and suffering to continue," he said. "œBut we know what the reason isn´t. We know what the reason can´t be. It can´t be that he doesn´t love us. It can´t be that he doesn´t care."

He went on to urge those in the audience to yearn, even if it was difficult to fathom or believe, for a future time, when everything would be made right.

He cited a passage from the last book of "œThe Lord of the Rings," when a character, Sam, awakes thinking all is lost but then sees his friend Gandalf. In his joy, he asks him, "œIs everything sad going to come untrue?"

The answer, Dr. Keller said, is "œYes."

Sewell Chan, Maureen Seaberg Erturk and Ann Farmer contributed reporting.

Correction: Sept. 13, 2006
It's always dangerous to judge a pastor based on one sermon, but a few years ago when we were visiting New York City (where I was born and raised, and knew next to nothing about Reformed faith), we attended a service @ Redeemer Pres. I was amazed and thankful that a PCA church which did not exist when I lived there (early 90s) was attracting thousands of worshippers among its four services.

Anyhow, I bet Rev. Keller loves "Lord of the Rings." He referred to them three times at the service we attended, and is still referring to them!
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