In my family the two things that were inevitable were not death and taxes. The first absolute certainty was the cataclysmic end of the world that would be heralded in by the literal return of Jesus Christ. The second was the establishment of a kingdom on earth led by Jesus himself and managed by God’s chosen people. You could be one of the chosen if, at the great judgment, you were deemed a sheep not a goat.
Thus, from the cradle, I was raised to be an end-of-the-worlder.
“We are living in the end times,” my father would say with the same sort of enthusiastic anticipation he had when he was announcing a family holiday or a visit from an old friend. The end times, meant that the apocalypse was imminent. To me it meant doom was just around the corner—that THE END would be the next important event in my life.
After THE END things got a bit fuzzy. While the kingdom was supposed to be a good time the story was complicated by 1000 years of cleansing the earth. This was to take place under the management of the sheep, which, if you’d gotten it all right during your lifetime, would include you. I remember being skeptical. When I looked around at the people in our religion, the ones aiming to be a sheep, the chosen, and thus lined up for the management positions in the kingdom, they didn’t look like a good crew for such a job. I knew from a very, very young age that being a sheep wasn’t a good quality for leadership. Don’t worry, I was told. God will work that out. I hoped so.
As a child my family read the Bible twice a day. We followed the Daily Bible Companion that set out a plan for reading the Old Testament once and New Testament twice each year. On top of that we were encouraged to do personal Bible study—to mark up our Bibles with explanatory notes prepared by church leaders. While not strictly forbidden, we were discouraged from reading anything other than the Bible or Bible related books that were written by men from the church. We had a few Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins books in the house although I don’t remember reading them. My oldest sister hid her romance novels under her bed. That was the extent of my worldly literary education.
The single most important message I got from my early life was that it would end. Soon. I remember wondering if I would ever reach double digits. Being 10 seemed out of reach given the imminency of THE END. I worried about whether I would become a teenager. Would Christ’s return give me time to get my driver’s license? Turning 20 was something I assumed would never happen. Each new stage in life came as a surprise and I was completely unprepared. Without realizing it I was a living example of Dolly Parton’s “One day at a time, sweet Jesus”.
Other than doing what the Bible instructed in preparation for the judgment where I would hopefully achieve sheep status what was the point in making plans? Education, career, travel; these things had little value. If Jesus held off his return giving me a chance to grow older I assumed I would get married and have children.
Bleak as this worldview sounds it provided certainty; God was in control and he had a plan. There was comfort in that idea. The trouble was that no matter how bizarre the plan sounded your job was to believe; it wasn’t your place to question God.
For many of my church peers the plan made sense. Daily Bible readings, followed by personal Bible study, augmented with three or four church meetings a week left them with no time to question anything except themselves. Would they please God in the end? Were they sheeply enough? It was a constant worry.
I wasn’t willing to question myself without questioning everything else as well. I started with “Why would God make such a strange plan?” and then “How could such a plan succeed?” Given the evidence I could see of how badly God’s first creation was turning out for humans and the planet and I was unconvinced his next plan would be any more successful.
Looking inward I was pretty confident that God would not choose me to be a sheep. Sunday school teachers taught us early-on the difference between sheep and goats. Goats, they said, are naturally curious and independent. Goats love to escape the herd and head off solo. They will try and outwit and challenge the herder. We were told that these were not characteristics God was looking for in his chosen people.
Sheep, on the other hand, have a strong flocking instinct. They don’t like to be separated from the flock and are much easier to handle than goats. Sheep are less likely to challenge the shepherd and are more prone to follow and do as they are told.
I was pretty certain that I did not have the sheep-like qualities God wanted. Challenging God and questioning his plan was the only way I could make peace with what appeared to be my lot in life. But with THE END coming just around the corner and seeing myself much more of a goat than a sheep, challenging the Bible, the teachings and God himself didn’t result in peace, it became an obsession. This journey culminated during five or six years in my mid thirties. I became absorbed in an internal theological debate that spiraled into a personal existential crisis. Was there a God? If so, what did he want from human beings? If anything, what was I supposed to do about it?
As one strange interpretation of the Bible after the other fell away from my worldview I was left in what felt like the Biblical beginning…without form and void. The one thing that remained in place was the belief that human existence, as we know it on planet earth, was barreling towards some sort of end. I wish that wasn’t the belief that stuck with me. It’s no fun.
In my youth being an end-of-the-worlder was uncommon. Not anymore. Today most people either believe in some sort of THE END or are actively denying it. Most people are either eating, drinking and making merry, as it says in the Bible, or are trying to save us all before it is too late.
While I have recently been firmly in the “save it” camp I am revisiting the existential crisis of my 30’s. This time my journey is not in search of a relationship with God and my goal isn’t really to save myself or to save the world. My goal is the same as it has always been…to understand the human condition.
This time I’m exploring the relationship between humans and our fellow beings…animate and inanimate. This time, rather than examining the worldview held by my father where man has dominion over the entire creation to destroy or to save, I am drawing on my son’s perspective. His worldview comes from teachings from his indigenous family and holds that we are all relatives…insects, mountains, islands, fish, human beings…all of us…relatives. That perspective changes everything right down to the core of being itself.
I have no tidy conclusion to this post. It’s pause time. Time to be. More later.
4 thoughts on “More from the zealot’s daughter”
What a great read Sylvia. It certainly echos “in my bones”, the worry of END OF DAYS and whether I would be acceptable come judgement time.
Added to that was the belief that I was born in sin and would die in sin, thus NEVER being anything more than BAD; no matter how hard I tried. This was not only damaging to my sense of self worth as a child but carried through to adulthood. I spent 30 years in Toronto running from the guilt of not having followed the rules of getting baptized and going to church.
It was difficult to understand why I was such a bad person because I tried so hard to be good so people would accept me. Even though everyone said I was a good guy I knew inside I wasn’t. And to some extent today I believe this still. Talk about the burden of Christ!! I doubt that’s what the religious leaders meant.
Today I look for a spiritual awakening because I believe there is a powerful goodness out there in some form. I can’t call it God because it brings up too much disharmony and fear. “Universe” makes me think of planets and inanimate objects that don’t relate to my spirituality. Higher Self has been suggested but doesn’t work well because, remember, I’m basically bad. . . .
So goes my journey. I would love to hear more of your.
Good morning Kim. It’s great to hear from you. Our families shared a lot in the day. I still have raging nostalgia for Vernon. That’s where so many wonderful times were had and also where the teachings were ground down and almost force fed to us. The idea that “the heart of man is desperately wicked who can know it” just doesn’t go away. My father, however, never reinforced that teaching in the way you describe (my mother was more inclined that way)…he told me that “anything my sons can do my daughters can do better,” which was a pretty astounding thought given the gender roles of the day. Your father and mine were equally as much raging zealots but they had very different personalities. I joined up when I married Carl…he loved the church. But I was the sort of person who was unwilling to question my self worth without questioning the source of that belief. By the time I was in my early 30s I was interrogating one Christadelphian belief after the other. They began falling down. It was as if a bomb had gone off and the walls of my belief system was collapsing. It was terrifying. I became very anorexic and fearful. Finally I decided that it was more scary to stay than to leave and now here I am, never regretting a day of it, both in and now out. I do have regrets for my father. He was such a loving, gregarious, creative man and the Christadelphians sucked the life out of him, demeaned him and marginalized him. When he died he told my children that he wanted them to know that I did the right thing leaving the church. He said that he was proud of me. Sometimes I think he wished he had done the same. Writing these memories are so important. I’m sure you will get the same benefit as me…first there is the living, then there is the remembering but the real value in the story comes when you write it down and then tell it….Lots of love…we will keep in touch…
Yeah, it was all about the impending apocalypse. It was all about Jesus showing up tomorrow. It was all about deferring the life you could have lived.
Some CD groups are pedestrian in appearance. Some are cult-like. Some are definitely cult groups. Members of my family ended up dead, as a consequence of their memberships. And the good stuff — the morality codes and virtuous behavior — most were pretenses of things that did not really exist. I escaped decades ago, battered and damaged. I have refused to see some of my family members for over 40 years. Why? Because I still bear the physical and psychological scars they placed on me as devout “believers.”
Hello Harriet. Thanks for your message. It’s been over 30 years for me. While I don’t feel scarred the CD experience was incredibly formative in what I have become.