I remember sitting in front of the TV in my mother's long living room watching the news coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing back in 1995. I was 34 and just beginning my Christian walk and as the helicopter rolled tape of the Murrah building I closed my eyes and thought of the souls suddenly released that April morning, all at once freed. The horrible thought came to me that not all of them were as safe after death as they had been while alive and I cried. My mother leaned over and patted my hand and said, I know. It's horrible. but she's an atheist and I knew she wouldn't understand why I was crying. I didn't say anything.
Six years later, I was giving a lecture on "Architecture as Poetry" to a group of college students one Tuesday morning in September of 2001. Before I went into the lecture Corey said Holy shit! loud enough to bring people out of their offices and down the hall to his, and he turned his computer screen to us so we could see the headlines that read, "Plane strikes World Trade Center" and we all shook our heads, talking about our certainty that it was some small plane with a novice pilot and wondering if it was just sticking out of the building or what, a thought that made us laugh. When I came out of the lecture I walked down the hall whistling, stopped at Corey's door and crowed I smoked that lecture! but stopped smiling when Corey looked up.
"The towers. They both fell," and he walked past me toward the auditorium because they'd wheeled in all the big TVs there for people to watch CNN.
I came into the dark lecture hall behind him. On the screen was the familiar shot of New York City, except now a long dark plume of smoke was rising from the place where the Towers once stood. The announcer was saying the Pentagon had been hit, and another plane was missing. I slowly got my mind around what had happened, and when I turned to look at Corey he was gone but Dennis came in crying, wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his blue oxford shirt. Our eyes locked and all I could think of to say was Nothing will ever be the same again and of course it never was. I didn't think of souls being loosed, or whether they were safe, or anything really except that I didn't want to go home and be alone. I called my wife and my mother, and that night my wife and I held each other all night without sleeping or talking. In the next weeks I wondered why God was so unhappy with my nation and I learned how to pray again.
Today I watched the videos of the wall of water crushing its way across Japan, I watched the cars and boats and buildings rolling like macaroni in a dark broth and I was awestruck by the power of what God has wrought. But then the camera zoomed in on a white car on the road just past the wave, coming to a stop and making a three-point turn in the middle of the road before tearing off across a field, trying to get away. From our vantage point, it was clear it wasn't going to make it, but I was rooting for it. Then the wave caught up to it and all we could see was a silent slow roll and bob and then the car was gone. I rewound the video over and over at that point, as if I could change the ending if I willed it hard enough. I wanted to reach out, pick up that car and hold it safe in the palm of my hand until the danger was past.
In the palm of my hand. I remember that song from Sunday school at Tusculum Hills Baptist Church, back in 1973: He's got the whole world in his hands... So I guess today I wanted to play God; when the wave was coming down on that tiny white car I wanted to play God and hold it safely in the palm of my hand.
If I was completely honest with myself I'd admit I want to play God a lot, that maybe in some way I think I'd do a better job of it than He does. I would have given Timothy McVeigh some sort of vision that made him decide he'd just give all that fertilizer to a farmer, then join the Peace Corps. Bin Laden would have been visited by an angel on September 9th who would have convinced him to call the whole thing off. And while I was at the whole "being God" thing I would have just placed my arm along the coast of Japan and let the water rage straight into the air for 6 miles then fall back into the sea.
Yeah, I sometimes think I'd be a better God than God. But not often, and never for real.
Just at moments like these.