Struggling with Sept. 11

How do atheists respond to a National Day of Prayer and Mourning? Working for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, that perspective isn’t something I run into every day. So perhaps I’m a bit naive.

But it seems like Lauren Sandler, the author of “Now More Than Ever: Witnessing hell has made me a born again atheist” on, has jumped ship a little early. Now I admit that struggling with weighty theological questions is difficult. In the light of the terrorist attacks we can’t help but ask God why. And it’s a fair question to ask.

Of course you have to understand who you’re asking. Just because it’s a fair question to ask doesn’t mean you’re going to get an answer. Some people seem to think this is a startling, new question that makes belief in God laughable. But an entire book in the Bible is devoted to the subject of seemingly unjust suffering: Job.

The article also referred to a woman who said that God must not exist because God wouldn’t allow it to rain in New York, hampering the rescue efforts. That theology seems so half-baked to me. What kind of God do you believe in if he can allow such a tragic attack, and that’s okay, but if he pushes his divine luck and makes things a little worse, he’s out? Things are going to get worse, baby, you better figure what kind of a God you don’t believe in.

So many people seem to think God is something you keep in your back pocket and pull out at times like these. They seem to think God is a teddy bear that makes things all right when you’re hurting, and then you just put it away and forget about it. Some people seem to think God resides in their pocket and they somehow have control over God. They seem to have completely misunderstood the concept. Somehow they think God can only do certain things, they think that God is bound by our reasoning and our understanding. A God bound by our reasoning isn’t much of a God.

The Day After

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.'” (Romans 12: 18-20, NIV)


Words fail me. What are you supposed to say after something like today? I’m finding some comfort in the those who have had an appropriate reaction to this tragedy:

“In times like this we realize how weak and inadequate we are, and our greatest need is to turn in repentance and faith to the God of all mercy and the Father of all comfort. If ever there was a time for us to turn to God and to pray as a nation, it is now, that this evil will spread no further.” – Billy Graham

You’ve all seen the video and heard the reports, so there’s not a lot I can say. I will comment on two things, though:

I’m scared. Not scared of the actual attacks or afraid of my safety. I’m scared of the possible retaliation. A lot of people are very angry right now and completely unfounded accusations are being made. This country already has problems with racism, and I hate to see what happens after something like this. I’ve heard enough early reaction from people condemning other groups and calling for us to nuke certain nations. I’m just afraid of visions of violence in our own country, Americans striking out against Americans simply because of the color of their skin, their religious belief, or whatever other feature may match that of potential suspects.

I’m also scared not only of personal retaliation, but of the retaliation this country as a whole will make. It’s almost without a doubt that there will be a military response. President George W. Bush seems to have no qualms with using military force against terrorists, and “those who harbor terrorists.” Those are the words that start wars. I certainly understand that action is needed, that America must defend herself. But in our bloodthirst, we cannot sacrifice innocent lives in pursuit of justice. Any justice that claims innocent civilians is no justice at all. I pray that this country will move forward with wisdom like we’ve never had before.

The other thing I’m finding curious right now is the line of cars outside my window. They’re all lining up to fill up on gas. Apparently there’s a scare that gas prices will spike, that the supply will dwindle, who knows. They’re all rumors, and the prices haven’t gone up at all. Watching the panic take place around me brings it one step closer to home. While watching the news you see one image of Americans rushing to help one another. Outside my window I see another image as brakes squeal and two cars nearly slam into one another. The drivers begin swearing at each other, all in an attempt to top off their gas tanks. Perhaps not all of us feel that American resolve we speak so highly of.

Buying a Car

You know you’ve entered the real world when you decide it’s time to buy a car. And not just the old used car you drove in high school. The one your parents paid for. I’m talking about the time when you buy your first new (or close to new) car. The time when you walk into the dealer and you look at the sticker prices and you freak out and think you’re resigned to drive a rust bucket, but then your wife pats your arm and forces you to press on.

I’m talking about test drives and sales people and brochures that don’t tell you anything and those annoying car commercials with deals that sound so great until you realize the fine print targets the whole package at born suckers.

The other day we went to a dealer for the first time and had the quintessential salesperson experience. The guy was vague, overly friendly, and too eager to sell us something for as much as possible and give us as little as possible for our trade-in. The price he gave us, complete with rebates and discounts, was in the same range as the price the web site gave me. Something tells me he’s pricing us a bit high.

Tonight we went to a couple other places. One was hassle-free. Whoa. What a difference. At first the salesperson seemed kind of high and mighty, but then I realized he was just being hands off. He sat quietly in the back during the test drive and didn’t pitch the car to me. He only talked when I asked questions. He answered our questions and gave us tons of numbers to take home and pour over. The other place would let me right stuff down, but he didn’t give me any paper — just his ink-jet printed business card, which a sixth grader could do a better job designing.

Then we went to another place and had that feeling about a car that you really like. Suddenly you realize you can get something really nice for your money, and it’s a good feeling. It’s certainly no luxury car. It’s the car a college grad should be driving. Economical. But it doesn’t make you feel like a tight-wad. That’s always nice.

I’m a little scared of what I’m turning into. I think they call it an adult.

Socially Inept

I’m amazed at how completely inept I am at socializing. I must have been absent when they covered that in school. Last night my wife and I went to a little coffee & dessert thing at the pastor’s house as a kind of ‘meet the new people’ thing. There wasn’t any agenda to the evening, it was just couples standing around and talking all evening.

Did I mention it was a house full of couples who didn’t know each other? So every conversation was the same. Have you been coming to this church for long? What do you do? How long have you been married? Do you have any kids, or in case, when did you graduate? It was a little odd, but it’s nice to actually recognize a few faces in church.

My favorite part was when we finished one conversation and reached the socially awkward moment of having to talk to someone else. We’d stand there for a few minutes, noticing the groups of people conversing, all in little circles with their backs to you. I was not prepared for these kinds of situations in college. And they call it a liberal arts degree.


You’ve got to give it away.

A young woman, white, brown hair that curled at her shoulders, a peach knitted sweater that revealed her pale stomach, tight dark jeans and black boots with a clunky two inch heal. She had a square black purse slung over one shoulder and a baby strapped to her front.

The child was in a pouch like a kangaroo, sleepily clinging to his mother’s chest, face buried in breast, tiny hand clutching fistful of peach sweater. The baby pouch gave the woman a hands free way to carry her baby, and she sauntered around with a swing in her step like she wasn’t carrying an only child.

She stepped off the bus, holding a newspaper in one hand and adjusting her purse with the other. She didn’t touch the baby. Her hands reached for her purse, reaching for her need. She put a cigarette to her lips and paused in the middle of the parking lot to light up. The baby hung there like dead weight and she blew a puff of smoke into the wind and walked on.

Slow dancing in your underwear, turning slowly, not quite on rhythm, singing not quite off key. The darkened room, an overcast afternoon, gray light streaming in and you’ve got to hang on tight. The speakers reverberate with the vibe, you wonder if they’re blown. A revolving dance, twisting, yearning, holding–the song fades and so do you, standing in the stillness of a warm embrace.

A white woman striding down the sidewalk with a black toddler on her hip. She works the bus system like a pro, going three blocks up to drop off her son, then walking two blocks over to catch another bus bound for Randolph Avenue and another job.

She’s skinny, tight white jeans, a no nonsense stride, sticky bleach blonde hair that clings to her scalp in curls. Not exactly stylish, but it works.

She speaks with force, telling a stranger of her towed car and the exaggerated fees. It’s no longer worth the price. She’s found that a lot of things aren’t worth the price. So she rides the bus until she can find something better. Winter’s coming, she’ll have to, she says.

She’s made mistakes, but she lives with them. She won’t let you look down on her. She finds strength in the toddler, the one-time mistake, the former accident.

What Happened Next

Recently I’ve been reminded how much I want to tell stories. It’s not just something I want to do, it’s something that I yearn for. It seeps from my fingers and re-focuses how I view the streets I walk upon. I wish I had the focus and intensity to do this as often as I should.

I think of the artists, the storytellers, the people who do it so well. Flannery O’Connor and her stories of the grotesque. Bono and his snapshots of redemption, grace, and the fall. Anne Lamott and her real honesty. They inspire me. I know I’m miles from them, but they act like the muse, beckoning me on, and sometimes you have to give in and let it flow, let the words come and worry later about what it will be, what it will say, how bad it really is.

Taste is the enemy of art. As soon as you start tiptoeing around something you’re doing it wrong. So you just bore into it and do what you can, say what you can, and redo it later.

What happens next is something along this vein. It isn’t a story, it’s a character sketch. It’s a glimpse of two people coming together and apart. It probably drips with my vision and my truth, my condescending tone. That’s why it’s only a sketch. Merely practice. A bit racy too, considering my audience, so put the kids to bed.

What Happened Next

He turned away and blew the smoke slowly across his lips. Aleah looked down and tried to hold her breath. She counted: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, breathe. Andy looked off in a daze.

Then, snapping back to the moment, he turned to Aleah and a slow smile appeared. She looked up to catch his gaze and blushed, her eyes falling and then rising again. Andy ground his half-finished cigarette into his shoe and flicked the butt in the air.

What happened next is nothing new. They’d been building up to it all month, eyeing each other as they stocked the shelves at the grocery store. At first Andy seemed aloof and crass, but now he was just crass and there was something about him Aleah felt drawn to. In the beginning Aleah seemed like any other girl, but she hung around when others would have walked away. She sat on the bench during breaks, feeling the summer night around them, watching the solitary cars drive by and the empty parking lot.

Then there was that night. Andy had parked his crumpled Grand Am next to Aleah’s cute little Dodge. Andy swore when the driver’s door wouldn’t open, and he came around to the other side right when Aleah was coming out to her car. He stood there for a moment watching her, and she watched him. They had awkward conversation, but there was something in the air. It was electricity or nerves or hormones or something.

Finally Andy cracked a joke that made Aleah laugh and the air seemed lighter. Their hands touched for a moment and their eyes met and Andy felt a ball in his throat and a flashback from TV dramas and he wanted to get out of there. Aleah watched him go with interest, and Andy drove home confused and horny, trying to figure out this girl who didn’t seem to care that his jeans sagged and that he always wore a faded Yankees hat.

With Andy’s cigarette snuffed out the air was clear again and they moved closer, two bodies, a mere island in a secluded soccer field in a forgotten park. They sat in the middle of the green grass field, which needed to be mowed. It was surrounded by forest, a field often overlooked and needing attention. In a few moments Aleah was staring up at the blue sky and the cumulus clouds and Andy above her. He’d taken his hat off, a rare and vulnerable act.

She slipped into a daze during what happened next, a sudden flood of tingling emotion that registered so far off the scale she didn’t know what to do. She breathed in deeply and closed her eyes for a moment of blind love.

Unlike Aleah, Andy was all too aware of what was happening. His stomach was in his throat and his eyes kept flirting with the edges of the field. He had to clench every muscle in his hands to keep them from trembling as he unbuttoned her shorts.

Winnie-the-Pooh graced her underwear and he tried not to notice. Her stomach had a slight curve above the thin band of her underwear and her thighs seemed to bulge below her crotch. She was anything but fat, but she wasn’t toned and shaped like the girls in the Sears underwear ads.

The Winnie-the-Pooh’s came off and it was another jarring site, another image that didn’t measure up to his soft-focused expectations. It was too harsh, too real, the grass poking and scratching, the sun beating down, the feeling of a million eyes watching from the nearby trees. His sagging pants sagged a little farther and Aleah murmured. They tried to kiss but it was sloppy and awkward.

In a moment it was over and Andy rolled away. Two kids, lying in an empty green field, giving themselves away. It was so much, but it was not enough.

Andy zipped his pants and reached for a cigarette, leaving Aleah to take care of herself. And she lay there for a moment, wondering what just happened, wondering if anything just happened. The breeze felt cold and she could feel the grass scratching her thighs. She watched Andy take a slow drag and blow the smoke across the sky and she wondered if she’d ever be so close and so far away from anyone.

Lake Itasca State Park

Nature is an amazing thing. It’s sad that we’ve spread so wide and deep across the land that there isn’t much wilderness anymore. Today I hiked a half-mile trail through dense undergrowth. The trail wasn’t well kept (which was intentional), and when I looked to either side I couldn’t see more 5-10 feet into the forest. There was that much vegetation. I could have been within snack range of a bear and I wouldn’t have known it.

It made for an interesting hike. But occasionally the wall of vegetation would break open and I could see across a clearing or a swamp. At one point the trail broke through and opened into this vast hidden lake. It was completely wild, no boat ramps or swimming docks in site. There was a beaver dam in the middle, and green slime coating half the surface. Forest, reeds, and marsh claimed the lakeshore–no sandy beach for the kids here. It was beautiful. A completely wild body of water like that is extremely rare.

The whole scene was stunning. It just reminds me how amazing the creation is. You go out into the wilderness and see something like, compared to man’s ideal: green lawn stretching into green lawn and houses butted up next to each other butted up next to the lakeshore with docks pushing out into the water from every other yard. Our way is so boring.