It was not these words used in the title, “narrowly escaping death,” that lured me into reading the article in the newspaper. Those words were buried near the end of the article. Rather it was the two pictures that drew me. One picture was an ordinary looking guy holding a rather battered briefcase. He was standing in front of a lovely green background of some trees. He was a fairly old guy, handsome enough in his own right. There certainly was nothing special about him---a story on some business guy or someone’s grandfather, I supposed.
The other picture was something else. It showed three guys walking away from what looked like a war scene. They were covered with dirt, clothes tattered---almost looking like miners emerging from deep underground. The figure on the right was carrying a briefcase. At first sight I would not have guessed he was the same guy I just described in the above paragraph.
He is a survivor of the World Trade Center fiasco. He is now retired and living in my part of the country. The local news reporter did a wonderful story on him that I immensely enjoyed reading. It is a human story. And it is a divine story. It is a story worth retelling. Thank you Phillip Morris, reporter and storyteller.
“George Sleigh was a dead man walking as he stepped into the stairwell of the 91st floor. He just didn’t know it,” begins the newspaper article. That’s a great opening paragraph and I had to read further. “It never occurred to him that not a single soul would survive on the 19 floors above his office.” I cannot imagine what George experienced that day, nor can I imagine what he thinks today as he remembers that fateful day in the fall of 2001.
We are simply told that he heard the roar and saw the plane a split second before it crashed into the building. I laughed at his response. “It never occurred to him to let go of his briefcase---his work---as he said a quick prayer and began his exit from the North Tower…”
The reporter, Phillip Morris, did a great job in the interview. George Sleigh told Morris about “two incongruous visions that continue to command his thoughts on that day. One involved the certainty of death. The other involves the normalcy of life even in the face of death.” I agree. Those two thoughts are incongruous: the certainty of death and the normalcy of life. Perhaps only folks at the margin of their lives can entertain such incongruity and make sense of it.
I realized I had now two more clues about Sleigh’s spirituality. I had nearly missed the first clue. That clue noted that he said a prayer before beginning to descend the stairs from the 91st floor. Perhaps folks unaccustomed to praying always miss this clue. Others of us who might believe in prayer believe in a way that does not really take it for the power that prayer might actually have. For us prayer is more like the “God bless you” that accompanies a sneeze!
Because Sleigh was a spiritual guy, he believed in prayer and was able to face the certainty of death and accept the normalcy of life in the face of that certainty. “Wow,” I thought! The story continues to unfold. Obviously Sleigh made it down and out of harm’s way. And now he is living in my region telling his story.
There was one more paragraph in Morris’ article that I found fascinating. Morris quotes George Sleigh. “I believe that God is firmly in control…But the lessons we must never forget is that we are vulnerable and must remain vigilant.” This is Sleigh’s theology that doubtlessly buttressed him on his walk down 91 flights of stairs. I can appreciate that theology.
It is good for me to read this and ponder it. I am not sure Sleigh’s theology is my theology. But that is ok. I can learn from him. Clearly his theology shapes the way he sees life and lives his life. That is powerful. I can ask myself whether my theology is as powerful for me?
I agree with Sleigh that we are vulnerable. We may not be living in our own World Trade Centers. But we are vulnerable to attacks from without and within. Most of us don’t need foreign terrorists. Some of us are capable of terrorizing ourselves with our bad choices, stupidity and stubbornness. Too many of us never find the stairs to the safety of the good life and we perish in the mayhem of our life’s choices.
God may be in control. But we have to do our part. We have to be responsive and responsible. God does not walk down the stairs; we do. And if we choose to walk down the stairs of our life, then we also will narrowly escape death.