I was walking out of Trader Joe's last week when an extra-smiley man in a tie-dyed dashiki stepped in front of me. "Would you like to invite Jesus into your life to be your Savior and Lord?" he asked, beaming maniacally.
"Actually, no," I replied. "I would like to go to Linens 'n' Things and return some tab-top panels I bought there yesterday. They look really ugly in my bathroom window."
"'Here I am!'" the smiling man exclaimed. "'I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.' That's a quote from Jesus, from Revelations."
I thought for a moment. "'Pour a little sugar on me, honey! Pour a little sugar on me, baby!'" I bawled. "That's a quote from the Archies, from their second album."
He stepped aside to let me pass, still smiling. "You must save yourself, because End Times are coming!" he hollered as I lowered myself into my tiny car.
"Wacko," I muttered under my breath as I waved merrily to Smiley Guy.
But lately I've found myself thinking about that parking lot conversation. End Times. Even though I don't believe that there's a big, invisible man who lives in the sky and is controlling our every move, I have been wondering these past few months about the wave of natural disasters that seem to be overtaking our planet. They're coming faster and bigger and closer together, and it's got me to thinking that maybe there is a big, vengeful God up there who's pissed off at us for putting a chimpanzee in charge of our country. For taking prayer out of our schools. For making Ryan Seacrest into a star.
I tried talking to some church people -- a Catholic priest; a nut job from the Watchtower Society; a theology professor -- but they mostly just quoted Scripture and clucked their tongues at my atheism. So I called Bonnie Paul.
For nearly three decades, Bonnie Paul -- a grown man with a small girl's name -- and I were inseparable. We met in the fourth grade and spent what seemed like every moment of our lives together from then on. That is, until a few years ago, when Bonnie Paul got God, gave up homosexuality, and faded from my life. He, I knew, would tell me whether there was any connection between Hurricane Katrina and that wealthy senator who won a million bucks in the lottery last week. Bonnie Paul would tell me if we were hurtling toward the last few weeks of life as we knew it. And interviewing Bonnie Paul -- to whom I'd never gotten to say "goodbye" -- about the end of the world seemed like the perfect way to present this, the final installment of this column.
New Times: Okay. You know I don't believe in anything -- there is no God; there is no heaven; there is no preordination.
Bonnie Paul: I know you believe that. Ever since we were kids.
NT: But lately I've been thinking about all the horrible crap that's been happening. I mean, what's with the natural disasters? Hurricane Katrina. The earthquake in Pakistan. Taunton Dam. Hurricane Wilma. Geena Davis has her own TV show! What the hell is going on here?
Paul: Natural disasters. Some of them are acts of God. He has ultimate control, whether you believe it or not. But I don't think He's sending a message that the end of the world is getting near. It's not a sign.
NT: It just seems like everything's going straight to hell since 9/11. I mean, the guy who won that lottery is already wealthy! And he's a politician!
Paul: I know. I don't think God was in on that one. As far as the frightening frequency of these natural disasters, I don't know. But I do know I was given a prophetic dream about 9/11.
NT: Oh, no.
Paul: It was a very vivid dream, and I was so alarmed in my heart that I wrote it all down and dated it. It was November of 1996.
NT: Why didn't you tell someone?
Paul: God has his plan. Also, some of the details of my dream were unclear. Like I knew that the buildings that the planes hit were going to be popular buildings, but I didn't know which ones they were. I remember thinking, "Is it the Honda Corporation buildings?" Anyway, God could have foiled the terrorists' plans.
NT: Great. So why didn't He?
Paul: It's because there's such a push in America to get God out of everything. For years now, certain ones in our society have been pushing God out of our culture. No more mention of His name in the Pledge of Allegiance. Prayer not permitted in schools or classrooms or before court sessions. The removal of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the Federal Court Building in Montgomery, Alabama, because it offended the conscience of two lawyers. So, with things like September 11, God is saying, "Okay. Why should I rush in to protect you if you want me out of society?" And indeed. Why should He protect us?
NT: Uh, well, according to all reports, He loves us. So you're saying that God is sending tragedy our way because He's mad about being overlooked. Yet we're supposed to love Him and devote our lives to Him. This seems just a tiny bit inequitable: "Keep me a superstar or I pull my protection!" What a big baby.
Paul: Well, He's certainly protected me. And truthfully, the important thing is to live in such a way that you make Heaven your home.
(At this point in the interview, the phone line goes dead. After several minutes, Bonnie Paul calls back on his cell phone.)
Paul: Sorry about that. We lost power. It was the strangest thing. All the electricity is off in our house.
NT: Is it a message from God?
Paul: Probably. You know, you mentioned Hurricane Katrina. That was a clear message from God.
NT: Well, it wasn't clear to me. Was He saying, "Too many poor black people!"? Or maybe it was, "Mildew is fun!"
Paul: No. Katrina hit two days before Southern Decadence [a weeklong party by and for gays and lesbians on the weekend before Labor Day in New Orleans] was to take place.
NT: Oh. So once again it's the fault of all us homos. But how can that be if everything is preordained?
Paul: You can change God's mind about things. Moses did. You can pray to Him and tell Him what He wants to hear, and He won't send tragedy. By the way, the preordination thing is that everyone was preordained to be holy.
NT: Yeah, and Adam and Eve screwed that all up. But I'm not buying this bit about just asking God not to kill thousands of people with a hurricane or an earthquake or an evil terrorist act, and he'll say, "Oh, all right. Since you promised to be good!"
Paul: Uh, yeah. You're right. But He's probably not going to intervene when our radical enemies recognize the ungodliness in American culture and do something against it.
NT: God is such a politician.
Paul: No. The terrorists -- and I'm talking about radical Islam here -- are afraid our ungodly culture will creep into their culture. They see harlots with painted nails, driving around in SUVs and shoving their breasts into midair, and they think that's American culture. They don't want that. Plus, they want us to be a more godly nation.
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NT: The Islamic terrorists are sort of God's little soldiers. So, is this End Times?
Paul: No. If you study history, you see a pattern. Right after the sins of the Roaring Twenties, the Depression followed. A lot of our nation's tragedies are a result of sin, not punishment from God. Natural disasters have been around since He created the Earth, and some are sent by Him when He wants to put His foot down about something in order to send a message. And we no longer have the protection we once had from God, whose eyes are in every place beholding the evil and the good.
NT: Oh, good Lord, Bonnie Paul.