An atheist’s Christmas prayer

December 25, 2014 § 56 Comments

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the saying goes. But there’s a corollary: “Stay the hell out of foxholes.”

It’s Christmas time again, otherwise known as my birthday. And as Manslaughter observed while texting me the other day, “Hey, Wanky, you know what? I’ve never seen you and Jesus together. Weird.” Actually, he said “u.”

For many years I hated my Birthmas celebration for the obvious reason of present shortage and complete absence of birthday partyage. We once tried to do it in July and learned the cold truth. You can’t change your birthday. All those kids swarming around the cake and stuff didn’t mean anything when they said, “You’re birthday’s on Christmas, though, isn’t it?”

It’s like spending all that money on a nip and tuck and stretch and having all your friends say, “You got a nose job, didn’t you?”

Christmas I was born, and to Christmas I was consigned, hating it until about age 30, when I realized that the good thing about everyone forgetting your birthday is that everyone forgets about your birthday. “How old are you again?” asked in June is so much better than, “Hey, happy 51st!” spoken exactly on schedule.

This is really the essence of Christmas for me: A spoiled old man complaining about having gotten shorted on presents when I was seven. Now that I’m a full-grown atheist, we don’t even buy a tree anymore, just a Christmas shrub. A few years ago I tossed the lifetime of Christmas decorations that had accumulated, handmade things from my childhood and the childhoods of my children. All we have left are some stockings, two of which were made by my grandmothers. I’ll hang onto them, I suppose, and may even hang them up.

But Christmas is more than an earnest attempt to avoid crowds, eschew impulse shopping, and avoid over-laden tables of sweets, cakes, eggnog, and food. For some people, Christmas is a chance to pray, and to pray from the heart.

I have ridden a few times with a guy named Justin. I don’t know his last name, but I know he is a good rider and a really kind guy. He is a professional tutor in Manhattan Beach, and at age 39 he has helped hundreds of young people navigate the increasingly complex and increasingly competitive world of academics. Little by little he fell in with the MB crew, a gang of riders that includes Jeff K., King Harold, Jaeger, Manslaughter, and the other hardcore South Bay cycling addicts.

In October they planned a four-day ride from San Jose to LA, a 500-mile leisurely jaunt along some of the most gorgeous coastline in the world, during which they would all stare intently at their stems and drool for six hours a day. On the first day Manslaughter went zinging through a tight, gravelly turn that was marked with a giant sign saying “BICYCLES CAUTION: TIGHT, GRAVELLY TURN!!” and, to his surprise, at 35 mph his wheels slipped out and forced him to engage his secondary braking system, otherwise known as the skin up and down the left side of his body, and his head.

As Manslaughter is wont to do, he snapped a few photos for Facebag, taped up his frame, and continued on. Later that day Justin, who was also along for the fun, fell and broke his wrist. At the ER one thing led to another and when he returned to Los Angeles for further treatment he ended up getting a biopsy on a small lump on his tongue. It turned out to be stage four cancer, and Justin is now heading to San Diego for chemo and radiation. His Christmas just turned into a foxhole.

I also learned that a week or so ago there was a mass for him at which several hundred friends, family, students, and former students gathered to express their love and support. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a rough slog, something that makes our “suffering on the bike” look absurd in comparison because you know, if you choose to do it, it’s not really suffering.

There’s something about that slog and about the love of the people around him that resonated with me. A couple of nights ago I met up with Jami and Derek and Daniel and Andrea for dinner. Afterwards we went upstairs to the bar where a handful of friends had gathered to wish me a surprise happy birthday. It filled me warmth, that feeling that people love you, even the same people who gleefully pound you into mush on rides and in races.

As I basked in the glow I thought about Justin and wondered how I could pray for him because well, atheists don’t pray. Then it struck me. No matter what you believe, I hope you believe that love matters. I do. And that’s my prayer for Justin — that the love around him will make the difference. Merry Christmas, man. See you soon.



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§ 56 Responses to An atheist’s Christmas prayer

  • JF says:

    Beautiful awesomesauce dude. Happy everything.

  • Brian in VA says:

    Sometimes you write something that really smacks me in the face. It’s usually just when I need it, too. This was one of those times. Merry Birthmas, Wankmeister!

  • dan martin says:

    Nice work putting the Christ back in Christmas…after all, behind the love is Him.
    You’re not that much of an atheist after all.

    • Winemaker says:

      Wanky, remember what the Reverend Billy G. said:

      You might not see him in person but lord, he’ll see you just the same.
      You might not see him in person but lord, he’ll see you just the same.
      Talkin’ about Him now….Yeah, yeah.
      You don’t have to worry ’cause takin’ care of business is his name.

    • fsethd says:

      Merry Christmas and happiest of holidays to you and yours, Dan!

  • Lovely. Thank you. Happy Birthday, Seth.

  • DangerStu says:

    You did it again!
    Happy birthday!

  • Peter Schindler says:

    Happy Birthmas Seth. You make the world a better place.

  • Winemaker says:

    Have a blessed birthday, mate…I raise my glass to you!

  • Chris Roberts says:

    Very touching post, Seth.
    Happy Birthday!!

  • crshnbrn says:

    Beautiful Xmas morning read. Thank-you and Merry Birthmas!

  • Tamar T. says:

    ♪ ♫ ♬ Happy birthday to you… ♩ ♫♪

  • PK says:

    Wow that was beautiful. Happy Birthday to you and yeah much move for Justin and his family.

  • PK says:

    Much love for Justin and his family

  • Carlos Ovalle says:

    It’s the worst time of the year for me as I find the orgy of spending and giving useless gifts rather disgusting. If it’s the spirit of giving that counts, why not give during the whole year to those who truly need it? There is no religious meaning to all this either as even in the context of christianity, Christ wasn’t even born in the winter, the newly christianized Romans simply coopted the ancient Saturnalia festivities. And in modern times it’s the spirit of business that guides the holiday, starting with Coca Cola’s Santa. But I’m a fellow atheist which puts me even farther from this jolly season.

    But now, after my parent’s death I’m the official patriarch of our large catholic and mormon family. And it’s customary for the patriarch or matriarch to issue a Christmas proclamation. Mine was a remembrance of the Christmas truce held 100 years ago today in the bloody and cold trenches of Europe. The truce lasted one day at best and was ended by the generals and politicians who would have no fraternizing with the enemy. Yet the soldiers quickly figured out that they held more in common with each other than they’d been told. I ended with this:

    “…each of us has our own “general”, whom we fear, and does not allow us to enjoy this season to its fullest. Search within your soul for that “enemy” and declare a truce, and like those brave soldiers, find that there is more to gain by sharing what is common than what is not.”

    Happy birthday Seth!

    • fsethd says:

      Beautiful words, Carlos, and a stirring remembrance. You are a patriarch, indeed. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jeff M says:

    Great post, brother.

  • Liz says:

    Beautiful. Alas, it was one that made my heart slip down a bit. I don’t prey because I’d feel like a hypocrite if I did. Yet, when I pass by a ghost bike, I feel a need to do something. I don’t cross myself (or whatever it’s called)and I really don’t even know how. I feel I need to do something so I generally whisper ‘I’m so sorry’ but that seems somehow hollow. Being an atheist can be tough. Especially since I do believe in an afterlife, just not a supreme being. My love goes out to Justin and his family.
    I wish my heart didn’t hurt so much right now.

  • Double the celebrating and merry wishes for you today!

  • Jim Ganson says:

    Happy Birthmas and Merry Festivus! Thanks for always starting my day with a laugh.

  • Robert C says:

    Happy Bday Seth! Welcome to the next half century!

  • Wily says:

    Happy birthday Seth! U R Awesome

  • sibex9591 says:

    To you and all the other Christmas babies in the world, including Merry Clayton, gospel vocalist who killed ‘Gimme Shelter’ with Mick Jagger and the Stones in Let it Bleed, who, given her name is Merry, was also born on Christmas day, Happy Birthday!!

  • AA says:

    Merry Wankmas Seth. I thought my friend had it bad having his b day on new years day. That was nothing!

    BTW atheist don’t pray, but they do hope. That’s about the closest we can get to praying. Which is in my book begging. :-))

  • Garrett B says:

    In a lineup you probably wouldn’t get picked out as the prophet but your message is more profound than any I’ve heard in this season. Thanks for putting into words the angst and hope of those not inclined toward prayer that community and concern make some small difference to the recipient. And a great message to bring this day back into perspective.

    Heartfelt best wishes to Justin W. and Happy Birthday Seth.

  • Tom Morgan says:

    I thought I’d opened all my gifts and low and behold, I found one more in my in-box. Thanks Seth! Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas and to you and yours, Happy New Years!

  • David Wehrly says:

    You are followed by many, guide people by focusing on what is important, your name is passed on to others as someone to follow and have become a special “light” in the world for many. Perhaps your birthday being celebrated at the time of Jesus’s isn’t complety a coincedence.

    Not that I am trying to equate you and Him, for Christ’s sake.

    • fsethd says:

      Thanks, Dave. Best holiday wishes to you and yours, and thanks for all you do to make the world a better place.

  • Jim Bangs says:

    Good post Seth. Made my day

  • cdukulele says:

    When you believe in God and also believe that God is Love….Then you wonder if someone who believes in Love might find themselves believing in God. Love and prayers.

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