February 26, 2020
Dr. Michael Helms
In 2012, several four of us from Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie joined several other people from Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches around the state of Georgia, and we went to New York City to help process claims from victims of 9-11. We were interviewing those who had lost their homes or jobs when the Twin Towers fell, and we’re assisting them with claims.
While I was there, I met Dan Puissegur.
Dan had been in the same hot dog vendor line as one of our team members from Hartwell and overheard his Southern accent, and they stuck up a conversation.
My friend Bill found out that Dan grew up in Moultrie, so he sent him my way.
Later that day, Dan walked into Safe Horizons Volunteer Center and introduced himself to our group.
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 him answering my questions about his life in New York City before and after the terrorist attacks.
Dan’s successful life as a realtor had landed him an apartment overlooking the Hudson River. Through his window, Lady Liberty greeted him every day.
His story of the infamous day was typical of those who were near Ground Zero.
Dan was in the shower when the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center. His 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.
Apart from the planes hitting the towers, 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 was 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 was 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 didn’t have the ability to comprehend it all.
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 what the impact of that day had on our country and the world.
Last year, my wife and I visited the Pennsylvania field where United Flight 93 crashed, killing all 44 onboard.
Thanks to the heroism of many of those on board, the plane crashed there instead of another primary target like the White House.
The United Flight 93 crash site is a place of solemnness because it is the gravesite of all of those souls. Except for just a few objects, nearly everything on board was reduced to ashes and tiny fragments.
Ash Wednesday begins our journey toward the cross and to Easter. You cannot get to Easter without going through the cross.
The cross reminds us that life is filled with suffering and that God is O.K. with our laments. Even Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.
When in deep distress or when mourning a significant loss, people of the Old Testament would dress in sackcloth, sit with ashes on their heads, and even roll around in the dust.
There is much in this world that is unfair and unrighteous, and we can voice our feelings to God without fear of God retaliating against us.
God already knows what we feel, so why not express it to God.
Saying these things to God and expressing them to Him is healthy.
While it is easy to look at the world and name its problems, evils, and injustices, Ash Wednesday is not really about a 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?”
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?”
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, so we should number our days.
The Psalmist wrote: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12 NIV).
While the potential of evil is great, the potential for good is so much greater.
Ash Wednesday is a time to remember that our time for doing good is limited, so don’t waste it.
Today, the Freedom Tower rises from that empty hole that Dan and I looked into almost twenty years ago. It is more than just a building to replace the Twin Towers. It is a symbol of hope to the world.
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. The ashes are a reminder that we 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.
As you come, we will place the sign of the cross on your forehead as a reminder that Jesus died to cover the debt of our sins.
Remember, today we begin this season of Lent, which is a journey toward that cross and then the empty tomb.
So, even though we shall become dust, Jesus has also said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
If you are not sure if this is true for you, talk to one of us afterward and let us help you with your decision to follow Jesus as your Lord and Savior.
Photo Credits: Christianity.com; deposit photos.com; mccarthykelly.com