Greetings from the End of the World


"I feel fine."—R.E.M.

It’s hard to know what to say.

I’m sure I am not alone with that feeling. 
The whole world has stopped for Coronavirus and Tiger King and we all seem at least a little unsure about how to process either of those things.
Lord knows that the media has been the news that called wolf a few too many times during my life, but it is becoming painfully clear (to most) that this is not another case of africanized bees or satanic preschool teachers, but is a very real thing that will have a very long lasting impact on the entire world.

That’s a hard thing to process. Especially since we can only guess at what the damage will be and how bad things can get. And I know that for a whole generation of church kids, this might feel like something else altogether. 

I don’t know how much time “normal” kids spent thinking about how the world was going to end. I imagine most of them did not believe that it was going to end horrifically and within their lifetimes. But I did. A lot of us did.

The fancy five dollar theological word for it is premillennial dispensationalism but I think most of us know it better as the plot of those Left Behind books. It is a belief that the Bible (mainly Daniel and Revelation with just a dash of 1 Thessalonians) predicts with a great deal of specificity how this world will come to its end.

This end, as I imagine many of you will know, involves “the rapture” (where all the righteous will suddenly disappear from the Earth and be teleported to Heaven). 

Followed by “the tribulation,” a seven year period where the Anti-Christ will have free reign over the world and destroy all human life several times over by way of nuclear war, fire, famine, and disease (among other things).
Now that I am writing this, I remember some preachers saying that those “Left Behind” from the rapture will not be able to die during this seven year period and thus must be forced to endure radiation poisoning and drinking the water that had turned to blood.

This all will be followed by a thousand year reign of Christ over a brand new world (picture any of the gardenesque covers of a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet) and then...

well, I am not really sure what happens after that. 
But it goes on for eternity.
And depending on how cool your Sunday School teacher was, might include motocross trails and dinosaurs you can ride or might just be a really, really long worship service (which we kids were promised would not find boring, but I always had my doubts).

All of this is to be preceded by “the signs of the times” which were things like war and the rumor of war, natural disasters, pandemics, as well as certain geo-political moves that shift gradually with time.

I grew up not only believing that this was true—the only possible truth—I was also told repeatedly by nearly every adult I had contact with to expect it all to happen soon. And I was by no means alone. According to a Pew Research study in 2010, some 41% of Americans believe the rapture will happen before 2050.  

Of the kids I grew up with, even the most rebellious or sleepy pew sitter would always come alive when the book of Revelation was the subject of a Sunday sermon. It kind of had everything. Bloodshed, dragons, multi-headed beasts, the Whore of Babylon. It was like the church’s version of Game of Thrones (with an ending that made about as much sense). 

Oh, and fun fact: calling the last book of the Bible “Revelations” instead of “Revelation” is the equivalent of saying “Frankenstein” instead of “Frankenstein’s Monster” for pedantic church kids.

Maybe it was because I was a pastor’s kid (and somehow therefore knew more about the Bible), but I remember almost every sleepover involving my friends and I sitting on my trampoline in the dark while I regaled them with stories about locusts from hell that looked like armored horses with human faces and lion teeth and the power to sting like a scorpion.
These were our ghost stories. The things that gave us nightmares and played with our imaginations.

But unlike, say Freddy Krueger, when we woke in panic in the middle of the night our parents did not tell us that it was just in our heads. They reaffirmed that fear. This was going to happen and soon. We just needed to be ready. My favorite bands even sang about it.

And it was that need to be ready at all times that was even more frightening.
My friends and I knew full well that if we had sinned—whatever “sin” was for prepubescent children. Losing our temper? Not sharing? Maybe something we didn’t even know was wrong—we might be left behind, all alone, while our families got to rejoice in Heaven. 

“Won’t those in Heaven be sad about their friends and family left behind?” I remember asking a Sunday School teacher.
“No,” I was told, “in Heaven you can’t be sad. Those left on earth and who’ve died and been sent to Hell will all be forgotten.”
What a lonely and terrible thought. For either side of that equation.

I know a lot of people who were raised with this version of Christianity, and we all have stories about panicking, certain that the rapture had happened, simply because our parents went to the neighbors house unannounced or we lost sight of them at the grocery store. 

I can’t speak for anyone but me here, but I know that the way these beliefs and fears saturated my still-forming brain had an effect on me. Of course they did.
I don’t want to put too much weight on Armageddon as the cause of my mental illness. I know there are a million threads that make up that tapestry. There’s no doubt that this was a factor though. And I’m certain I am not alone there.

I grew up with the innate sense of a foreboding ticking clock. It’s like I had one of those kooks with an “The End of the World is Nigh” sign marching through my brain all the time. Everything has always felt like it was too late. As emo songster Bright Eyes once sang, “working on the record seems pointless now/when the world ends who’s gonna hear it?”

I was in my teens when I was the most “on fire” for God and that was why I decided to skip a conventional college for a ministry training school, because “time was of the essence.” I scoffed at the idea of buying a house, or investing in a 401K, or developing skills to pay off in the long run. That was all faithlessness. All that mattered now was saving as many souls as possible from such a dire fate that I knew to be imminent. 

When I lost my faith, I did not lose that feeling. All of the big existential questions that I now had to face about purpose and meaning carried an extra weight with them. What was the point if it’s all going to end? What to do when, even at 23, I felt like I had already wasted my life?

My therapist called this “catastrophizing.” It’s a trauma response where the brain feels nothing positive will happen again, that all the good times are gone and ahead of us only doom and danger. It’s a feeling that you’ve already made the decisions that will condemn you. That it is too late to change anything. That you are powerless to stop any of it. 

And you know what’s a bummer? I have spent years and years trying to rewire that part of my brain. I have fought hard to see the world as a beautiful and safe place; that I have time and freedom to grow and change; that nothing bad will happen to me if I am not perfect. That the world will not soon be baptized in blood, fire, and ash.
I stopped believing in the end of the world just in time to experience climate change and covid 19.
And that sucks.

And it’s not like things were going peachy before this longest month of March that anyone has ever experienced. A good portion of the globe was recently on fire. The major democracies of the world are once again flirting with fascism, nationalism, and war. A good chunk of Americans already did not have access to healthcare. Financially, many of us were already living unsustainable lives.

I am not saying this to freak you all out. I am saying all of this because I am freaked out.

When you grow up seeing any and every major global event as a sure sign that the world was about to end, it can become hard to gauge reality. I don’t know if I am over-reacting. I don’t know if what I am feeling is my traumatised brain doing the thing it always does, or if we really are in trouble. 

Added to my confusion is the fact that we are living during a strange epistemic schism where liberals and conservatives not only have their own slant on the day’s news, but they have their own facts. We are receiving contradictory information about how bad this thing is and what we need to do to respond to it.

I do find it confusing and worth mentioning that it seems that it is the most fervently faithful that feel fine. The believers who believe in the end times seem the ones most likely to believe this all a hoax. Maybe it’s because they believe the president over other sources of information. Maybe they think they’ve got a one-way ticket on the Rapture Express and won’t have to stick around for the devastation and clean up. Maybe I’m the one in the wrong to worry. It’s hard for me to say. 
Which is kind of my whole point.

Here’s what I do know:
The future is no more uncertain today than it was back this last December or November of 2016 or November of 2008 or whenever it was that you last felt secure. 
The future is always uncertain. 
And you might trust in a prophet, a psychic, or a holy book, but you won’t really know if you interpreted the details right until it’s happened. Which kind of means you don’t actually know what’s about to happen, just like the rest of us. 

The truth is that our safety, security, and future have always been illusory.
Anything can happen.
And it always seems to happen in ways we didn’t expect
And at the worst possible times.

I want to say something hopeful here.
The best I can come up with is to say:
Anything can happen.
And that includes lovely, beautiful, and joyous things.
And it can happen in surprising ways.
It can make all the bad that came before seem worth it.

So what’s left to do but prepare for both and fight, where we can, to tilt the scales toward the good?
The grandfatherly mantra that I try to follow is:
“pray for rain, but dig a well.”
And that’s probably good advice at all times. 

Not to be so blindsided by optimism that we are left unprepared, 
but also to not be so paralyzed by pessimism that we are unable to act.
It’s a hard balance to strike. 
Especially now.

I have no advice.
I just want you to know that if you are feeling like I am feeling, you are not alone.
And it is fine to feel whatever it is that you feel.
And if you want to make crafts, take naps, or watch a million hours of TV, that’s fine.
Whatever gets you through this.

And if you are like me and struggle to come up with reasons to live even when things are going great, I ask you to hold on. 
This is not the end. 
This is not your end. 

It is my dearest hope that this is all just the prologue to a very new and bright beginning.

But whatever happens,
please be kind. Love yourselves. Take care of people.
It is the best that we can ever do.

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