Without God

Posted on September 11, 2010, the 9th Anniversary of the attacks.

October 15, 2001

An open letter to Joanna Tipple, pastor of the Craryville and Copake Churches in New York State.

Dear Joanna:

Sorry I missed you when you came to the city to deliver the bears. I've been wanting to write you. I've found it hard to write at all. There are no words.

I want to thank you and the congregations of the Craryville and Copake churches for welcoming me at your services that first Sunday after September 11. While it may have helped to be the preacher's wife, I know there was more to it than that! It was comforting to feel held there, knowing that John and I had to return to our homes in New York City that afternoon. I didn't know what we'd be returning to. I wept during both services. I've wept a lot since.

I work two blocks from where the towers were. I've seen it from the street, from the roof of my office building, from our lunch room twenty-seven floors up. I try to approach my presence in the city at this time as a naturalist, observing and recording changes in the physical environment and the behavior of its inhabitants. I want to remain present without withdrawing, so I can bear witness.

The fires still burn. Smoke still scents the surrounding streets and buildings. While rain has rinsed most of the gutters, ash still coats statues, windows and rooftops. In low and sheltered areas, the rain and ash mixed with shredded documents from the towers to create a gray papier mache. The "Missing Person" posters - and only those closest to them held any hope they would be "found" - and sidewalk memorials of candles and the poetry of anguish, rage, and hope, are slowly eroding.

I've been thinking a lot about something you said during one of your sermons that Sunday. I think it was at the Copake service, while speaking to the shock and terrible loss of the preceding week, you said something like "I don't know how someone could get through this without God." I heard this as a question. I want to respond. I want to give something back to you and the congregations. For myself, once again I must make sense of senseless loss.

The Friday after John and I got back to the city was my first visit back to my office, and downtown. Power had been restored to our buildings and some of us went in to ready our offices and equipment for our colleagues' return that Monday, two weeks after the attacks. My colleagues and I hugged when we saw each other. In a conversation that day with one of our vice presidents, she observed "Nothing is permanent, except God." What struck me was that she seemed to be realizing this for the first time.

Nothing lasts. Not the smoke and ash, not the wreckage of the towers, not even our grief or the memorials we will erect. Everything that is, all we experience, survive, and celebrate, occurs without God. Nothing is always. This makes it all the more mysterious, not less, all the more wonderful, precious and beautiful.

Most of my twenty-three years in New York City I've been surrounded, touched, by death. Death from AIDS. Death from suicide. Death from overdose. The slow deaths of addiction, of abuse. I do not consider death a friend, but it is not my enemy. It is familiar to me. I have grieved, and grieved again, and more, and each new loss touches all the others through me. Through countless repeated uses over the years, my grief has become burnished, polished through use like a favorite tool. Comfortable to hold. Fitting my hand. Perfectly balanced for the task. I can pick it up when I need to. I can set it down when this work is done.

In the past I've described myself as a rabid atheist. John has known me a long time and can attest to the accuracy of this assessment. I've mellowed somewhat over the years, but nothing in my experience has yet to dissuade me from my fundamental disbelief. By the age of ten I realized that what was being taught to me as the Word of God was simply wrong. Not wrong as in incorrect, but immoral, unethical, unjust. The vision of heaven conveyed to me was no place I'd want to be. The God I was supposed to worship was nothing I could respect. Growing up gay in a world rife with homophobic cultures didn't change my disbelief. If I were to believe so-called religious leaders, my love is an abomination, my kind deserving of extermination. There seems little point to believing in any of their hateful Gods.

Again, and still, horrors are committed in the name of God. A month ago, more than five thousand people lost their lives in a smoking crater, killed in the name of God. It makes no difference to me whether the banner reads "Holy War" or "God Bless America." This crisis has brought out both the best and worst in people. Like any tool, the idea of God is used for evil as well as good. Then what good is God?

A problem with the word "atheist" is that it simply means "without god." The word doesn't summon anything new. It doesn't suggest any alternatives. It doesn't address your question. It's as useless and inadequate as "non-white." There are within me other beliefs, moral convictions, even something I am sometimes willing to call spirituality, which transcend God.

As I tend my garden, I recall how it was a minute, a day, a year ago. That flower was, or was not, blooming yesterday. This plant has grown over the years and now crowds its neighbors. A label in the ground shows where another plant has vanished. Should I replace it, or try something new? I weed. I plant. I water. I sit. The garden asks me to see it as it really is, not just how I remember it, or how I wish it to be. Gardening continues to teach me many lessons. Gardening is my prayer.

So I must be in the world. Remembering what was. Observing what is. Hoping for what can be. Acting to bring it into being. When we struggle to understand, we question what is. Science can ask, and eventually answer, "What?" and "How?" It cannot answer the one question that matters, the question for which Man created God: "Why?" Now, as with each new loss, I ask again: Why am I here? Why am I alive?

The only answer I've come across which satisfies me at all comes from Zen: The purpose of life is to relieve suffering. Not to relieve pain, or grief, or loss. These cannot be avoided. But to relieve suffering, which we ourselves bring into the world. Because death is senseless, the only sense to be found is that which we manifest in our own lives. The only meaning there can be in life is what we impart.

Or, as someone else might say, the kingdom of god is within each of us.



This Week in History

Posted on September 11, 2010, the 9th Anniversary of the attacks. This is the text of an email I sent to all my contacts the week of the attacks.

September 14, 2001

Some of you've I've already corresponded with, or spoken with, this week. Most of you I have not.

I was not in New York City at the time of the attacks. Monday, September 10, John and I went on the road for a week-long vacation we've been planning for months. As I write this on Friday, we're still on the road, visiting John's mother for two nights. On Sunday, John has two preaching gigs in the area before we return to the City.

Monday we drove to Mohonk Mountain House, a grand and rustic retreat in the Shawangunk Mountains outside of New Paltz. None of the rooms have televisions. Our room had a wood-burning fireplace. Our balcony looked over Mohonk Lake to the surrounding cliffs and mountains. Mostly I said "Wow" a lot.

Across the lake from the lodge a peak, called Sky Top, rises several hundred feet above the lake. On Sky Top is a stone observation tower which looks over the lake, the lodge, and the surrounding cliffs and mountains. Tuesday morning John and I hiked to the peak and climbed to the top of the tower. On the way to the trailhead I overheard one woman saying to another something about a plane being hijacked. I didn't think anything about it at the time. John and I were joyful to be together in such a beautiful setting. We were at peace with each other, and surrounded by nature.

As we climbed down the stairs inside the tower I was singing, "I love to go a-wandering ..." As we turned the third flight of stairs down, we met an old man climbing up. I joked to him "Don't mind me." He looked up at us. His eyes were welled with tears. He said to us "Did you hear what happened?" That's how John and I first learned that both towers of the World Trade Center had been struck by hijacked planes.

By the time we got back to the lodge, the staff had setup several televisions in public rooms. None of these went unattended before we left on Wednesday. Most of the afternoon and evening activities at Mohonk were cancelled. The evening's scheduled film, "Deep Impact," in which the world is struck by an asteroid, destroying the eastern seaboard cities of the United States, was replaced by "City Slickers." By sundown, the flag flying over Mohonk Mountain House's highest tower was at half-mast.

Sometime Tuesday morning the initial denial had broken and I was able to watch one of the large-screen videos setup in one of the rooms. As I watched for the first of many times the South Tower explode and crumble. I was able to send off two e-mails Tuesday afternoon before I was no longer able to get an outside line. I sent one to my family to let them know I was okay. I sent another to my colleagues at work to let them know I was thinking of them. It was surreal to be among all that natural beauty and have the images of destruction flashing through my mind, trying to wrap my mind around two seemingly discordant realities at once.

The week has continued to unfold in slow motion. Driving along the local roads of upstate New York, the reminders are constant. U.S. flags are everywhere, on buildings, along the road, on car antennas, and at half-mast on flagpoles. In Wappingers Falls, yellow ribbons have joined the flags. The commercial street-side signs of replaceable letters have been converted to expressions of national pride and pleas for prayer. In front of firehouses, fire-fighting gear have been set out to commemorate the firefighters lost in the towers' collapse. Churches stand with their doors wide, with signs explaining they are open for prayer.

My first waking thought each morning has been of the images of the fireballs and the progressive collapse of the towers. The buildings where I work are just two and three blocks from ground zero. Until a few hours ago, when I was able to get my e-mail and make some phone calls, I didn't know if the people I work with were okay or not. I don't yet know if I will be going to work on Monday morning, and if so, how I will get there. I'm concerned about the impact of the asbestos-laden fallout blowing across Brooklyn and Queens, and possibly my neighborhood, my home, my garden.

Like an earthquake, the initial shocks have affected each of us differently, and to different degrees. The aftershocks will continue for months. The effects will ripple out for decades. If I believed there was anyone to listen, let alone, answer, I would pray that each of us gets whatever we need to come through healthy and whole. I would pray that, individually and collectively, we respond to this violence with compassion, wisdom, courage and strength.