As Bill Powell stood in line to get a hot dog on the busy streets of New York City, the hotdog vender said, “You don’t sound like you’re from around here. Where are you from?”
“I’m from Georgia. There’s a group of us here volunteering at Safe Horizons. We are assisting people displaced from their jobs and homes after 9/11.”
A man in line behind him heard the conversation and chimed in.
“I grew up in Georgia. What part of Georgia are you from?”
“I’m from Athens,” Bill replied.
The man responded, “I grew up in Moultrie, down in South Georgia.”
“Moultrie?” Bill asked with surprise. “We’ve got a group of volunteers with us from Moultrie! You need to come down and meet them.” That’s how I met Dan Puissegur.
Later that day, Dan walked into Safe Horizons Volunteer Center and introduced himself to our group.
While I was the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, a team from our church had joined members of others associated with the Georgia Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as volunteers to help the victims of 9-11. We were interviewing those who had lost their homes or jobs when the Twin Towers fell and were assisting them
Dan was not a typical Moultrian. He is a Cuban American. He graduated from Moultrie High School (now Colquitt County High School) in 1969. His father came to this country from Cuba as a boy and ended up settling in Moultrie as an employee with Swift and Company. That’s how Dan ended up as a student in Colquitt County.
As we sat and talked, our conversation oscillated from answering his questions about people he grew up with to his answering our questions about his life in New York City, before and after the terrorist attacks.
Dan is a very successful realtor in the city. His apartment overlooks the Hudson River. Through his window Lady Liberty greets him every day.
His story is typical of those who were near Ground Zero the day the Lady Liberty flame flickered as jets filled with innocent people served as bombs for the terrorists.
Dan was in the shower when the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center. The building shook; the lights went out. When the current came back on, he turned on the television. At first he thought the plane that hit the building was just a small plane. Only later did he understand that it was an American Airliner filled with passengers.
He went downstairs, across the street and into Battery Park, adjacent to his building. He was standing in the park when the first building fell. Within minutes, thousands of people had reached the park. The day turned from sunshine to a dark gray because of all the dust.
The pervading image many of us have from video and photos is the enormous plumes of dust rushing through the streets of New York City, choking every person and covering everything in its path. Dan remembers being covered from head to toe in the dust. There was no escaping it.
By the time the second building fell, ferries and tugboats had arrived to carry people to Ellis Island, where a triage center had been set up. Dan ended up at a Coast Guard base in New Jersey and had to stay with friends for a month before he was allowed back into his apartment. Three months passed before he sold another piece of real estate.
One day after working my shift, Dan led me to his apartment on Park Avenue and up on the roof. The vantage point gave me a clear view of Ground Zero. Only the day before, the remains of another firefighter had been discovered.
As I looked into the hole, which at that point resembled a construction zone, I tried to imagine the carnage, the bravery, the fear, the heroism, the evil, and the good that had taken place in that 16-acre area site in the months preceding our visit. I realized I didn’t have the ability to comprehend it all.
At the Safe Horizons Volunteer Center, we were told story after story that week of those who lived through that infamous day. I discovered that they didn’t have the ability to comprehend it, either. Even after a year, they seemed to be walking around in a daze.
As Dan and I looked into the hole that was once the most important economic community in the world, we mostly looked without talking, struggling to sort through our feelings, struggling to comprehend the magnitude of that infamous day for our country and the world, listening to the sounds of the work crews below. My thoughts kept carrying me to my own children. I wondered what kind of world awaited them.
On the evening of the attacks I gathered my family in our living room to talk. We prayed together and we cried together. To my children, New York City, Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania field seemed a million miles away. They were still too young to understand that the tremors of that infamous day were felt in every city in our country and in every city of the world.
The day my older son John left for boot camp to train to become a Marine, I knew he was closer to understanding the cost of freedom than ever before.
The day he deployed to the Persian Gulf, and the day he volunteered to go to Afghanistan, I knew he was even closer to understanding that our freedom comes with a price.
In addition to that, I also knew he was closer to understanding that life can be brief, that we don’t have any guarantees of living long lives, so it’s left up to us to make each day count to help insure that we live a significant life. We need to take the advice of the Psalmist, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12 NIV).
Ash Wednesday reminds us that life will end for all of us and that all of us will be judged by God. Our time on this earth is limited. We should number our days.
While it is easy to look at the world and name its problems, evils, and injustices, Ash Wednesday is not really about complaint. It is a day of personal introspection to look inward and ask, “God, what in my life needs changing? Where have I sinned against you? Before my body turns to dust, what part of my life needs to turn to You?”
The prophets of the Old Testament used to sit with ashes on their heads or even roll around in the dust as a way to express their deep emotions. This was sometimes done in lament, to express their deep grief. Such people may have been in deep distress or mourning a great loss and they might have dressed in sackcloth and placed ashes upon themselves to protest their lot in life, as did Job.
But Job also used ashes in another way, to repent of his attitude to God. That’s how we use ashes on this day. We come with ashes on our heads to acknowledge that life is short, that our time to live a life of significance is brief, so we need to ask ourselves and God, “How am I doing?”
Where we are found lacking in our service to God, we come to God in repentance.
I have reminded you by my story that the world is filled with evil and that we can be turned to dust very quickly. Life is fragile.
But while the potential of evil is great, the potential for good is so much greater. Just as the Freedom Tower rises today from that empty hole that Dan and I looked into 13 years ago, the gospel tells us the compelling story about the Lord Jesus rising from the dead and overshadowing his gruesome and depressing death on the cross.
Had Jesus’ story ended on the cross and in a closed tomb, there would be no Christian faith, no promise of heaven, no hope of eternal life.
Today as you come to receive ashes upon your head, they symbolize that life is brief and are a reminder to you that you should not delay tending to spiritual matters. We never know when life will end. Each day God wants to journey with us and help make our lives better, useful, productive, and joyful.
We place them on your forehead in the form of a cross as a reminder that Jesus died to cover the debt of your sins.
Remember, today we begin a journey during this season of Lent toward that cross and then the empty tomb. That is the reason death cannot swallow us up. Yes, we are all going to die, but Jesus has promised the gift of eternal life. So even though we shall become dust, there is yet hope for those whose lives are entrusted to the hands of God.