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.