(Thomas Froese Photo)
(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021)
It was a recent summer evening and she sat me at the bar because there was space, and before ordering a salad and drink, I lifted my rucksack and a couple of books spilled out. “What are you reading?”
I then told her, the waitress, about Philip Roth’s novella “Goodbye Columbus,” about a summer romance that ended in disillusionment. The other book, called “With,” is about God. She asked, “Do you mean God in a traditional sense, or more as an out-there higher power?”
“Both,” I said. “The God who made you and me.”
She told me that she’d experienced God in mysterious ways, and that it was cool. Then I ate, and read, and left, and that would have been the end of it, except it never is, not with these backpack sort-of meetings, brief connections we have with, say, the stranger at the bus stop or the train station or maybe in some taxi in Yemen.
My bar interaction reminds me of it, a taxi ride in the Arab world that I’d otherwise have long forgotten if not for the photo I took of a Dua, an Islamic prayer, hanging from the taxi’s mirror. It was in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, and the written prayer was for God’s blessing on the journey.
Today is an especially good day to remember it because this is the day, 20 years on, when 19 young men enraged about U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia used several airliners as missiles to kill more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
Their journey was a different one, a snaking and misguided trip into dark religious extremism. The terrorists believed that they’d get eternal rewards for their remarkable murders. So the world watched on that Sept. 11 – I stood in front of a row of televisions in a mall – as people jumped from New York’s burning and crumbling Twin Towers, crashing to earth, shifting its axis.
I was newly married with the words still fresh in-mind, “This is the day that the Lord has made,” from my father’s contributing speech. Later, shortly after 9/11, my bride and I started our new life together in Yemen, running into the proverbial burning theatre, into Osama bin Laden’s homeland, while western nations blew full-on into nearby Iraq and Afghanistan for that nation building. You know how that ended.
Which is to say that this is the day that you and I have also made, through our everyday choices. It’s a lesson I learned from those years in Yemen. “Thomas, come and eat!” is what I still hear from our Yemeni landlord: our shared humanity bridging differences in culture and race and religion, differences often magnified by misplaced fears.
Then there’s this lesson. Just as it’s easy for misguided, or evil, people to misrepresent God, it’s easy for anyone to misunderstand what He (She?) is all about, because we carry these common fears and foibles on our journeys.
Some imagine life under some ungracious, rule-oriented deity, like a heavily-yoked pack animal. Or maybe we prefer life over a watchmaker God, if any God, a distant Creator of universal principles, uninterested in our daily affairs. Or there’s living to get from the cosmic vending machine God, a Santa Claus. Or maybe we live for what we think we can do for our Maker. As if.
So we may like to live under God, or over God, or from God, or even for God, none of which works well. Which brings me back to my interaction with that waitress – her name is Corinna – and that book “With” that spilled from my knapsack. “With” refers to imagining life “with” God.
Author Skye Jethani makes a reasoned case for it. Imagine your human journey, my journey, as more of a hand-holding experience, a walk along life’s road like in a budding, well-placed romance. Lose control and fear. Gain surrender and security and deepening companionship.
And isn’t this the heart of it? Life is a journey. And what we believe, or reject, has a profound impact on not just our own lives, but the larger world around us. Because ours is a world of cause-and-effect where nothing happens in a vacuum. This is it.
This is the day. It’s Sept. 11. And what have we learned?