The church of my youth was tiny, not much bigger than the pole barn in my Aunt Brookie’s backyard, and wrapped in the same light blue metal siding that would get dusty and hot to the touch in summertime. Our old church dwarfed it, with its towering steeple and delicate stain-glass windows nestled in hulking brick walls the rusty color of dried blood. But fewer members need less space, and so here we were in the youth group classroom, which doubled as a nursery during church services. There were at least two big windows in the room, with no curtains or blinds to block the sunlight that streamed in and splashed against the walls. My dad had painted those walls an eggshell white. He did it to appease all the busybodies who worried about his “soul” when he skipped out on church every Sunday to go play golf. But he was also a good painter, and a nice guy, and I’m sure he gritted his teeth while he watched other members of the congregation rolling paint onto the walls in thick gloppy streaks, first veering the roller to the right, then the left, then up, then down, as if it were a car whose driver was lost. I’m sure he shrugged his right shoulder, like he does when he’s irritated, and went back to putting perfect lines of eggshell paint on the walls.
The little youth group room, which doubled as a nursery, played host to my first serious Bible study class. The pastor’s wife, Terri, a tall, sturdy blonde woman with brown eyebrows, was the teacher, and she’d chosen the book of Revelations – focusing specifically on the End of Days – as our topic. There were maybe ten of us kids in the class on a good day, and as is true of most Nazarene churches, everyone was loosely related, either by blood, marriage, or years spent in the same church family. At least three of my cousins were in the class with me, along with two of our teacher’s kids, two of their cousins, and at least another pair or two of siblings. It wasn’t the kind of environment where I could say, “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by this topic,” or, “Do you realize that these classes are putting me into a constant state of dread?” for fear that word would get out that Peggy’s oldest girl wasn’t a good enough Christian, or maybe something was wrong with her. I’d probably end up on the Prayer List, which is just a fancy name for the list of people the church was gossiping about.
Our pastor was quite the champion of the End of Days, so the apocalypse was a topic I was used to. He had fire and brimstone in his veins. But this youth group Bible study was something more. I suppose the motivation behind the class was, “let’s tell a bunch of pubescent teens a litany of reasons why the world is coming to an end.” We picked apart Revelations like it was a corpse and we were the county coroners, and it left me feeling just as grim. I would sit there in that sweltering room, breathing in the vaguely sour smell of diapers and baby wipes, the sunlight crashing through the windows, so bright it was easy for me to imagine I was standing in front of God on Judgment Day. Meanwhile, Terri went on in a bizarre, chipper voice about how we had turned into a Godless nation, thus signaling the End of Days. I felt as if there were a heart in each of my ears, pounding and pounding and muffling most of her words. My head was hot and the sweat gathering on the backs of my legs and pooling behind my knees caused me to slide lower in my chair.
I would draw little patterns all over the handouts, in hopes that the monotony of doodling squares would ease my mind. Prayers would zip in and out of my head as I mentally thumbed through a list of all my perceived transgressions. “Sorry I called my sister ‘stupid’ last week, Lord.” “Sorry I thought the word ‘crap’ in my head Thursday in school, God.” “Sorry I had impure thoughts about Mike Seaver while watching Growing Pains yesterday.” I’d cap each prayer with, “Please don’t let the world end and make me go to hell, and please don’t let Dad go to hell, and please forgive me for anything I forgot about. Amen.”
With each reason she listed as a sign of the coming apocalypse, a wave of hot panic would rush over me. Even today, I can work myself up into a tizzy just thinking about how globalization and bar codes are signs of the End Times. My first panic attack was due to the Swine Flu fiasco, which I regarded as a surefire warning that the world was ending. The oncoming apocalypse was something I was convinced of for years, and it took me entering high school and gaining an entire new set of worries to finally dampen the noise that my End of Days phobia created in my mind.
I still struggle with the fact that everyone seemed so delighted that God would return and that their lives on Earth would cease to exist. I could never find that kind of contentment thinking about my life ending. The idea of Heaven and God wasn’t something that put my mind at rest; it was something that gave me a headache, something that made me taste bile at the back of my throat. I wasn’t going to get in to Heaven, and if I did, my dad wouldn’t get in, or maybe my mom would slip up and she wouldn’t be there. My interpretation of the Heaven and salvation concept was that I had to ask forgiveness for every single sin. Every impure thought, every word that might be considered bad, every episode of TV I watched that I thought God might disapprove of, every time I thought about kicking the pastor’s daughter in the teeth because she and my cousin Kelsey had formed some exclusive little church clique and completely ignored me. If I didn’t catch these “sins” in time, and pray for forgiveness, and that’s the moment God chose to return to Earth and escort all of His believers back to Heaven, then I would be stranded here, with just my dad as my apocalypse companion. At the time, this was not a savory prospect. Because of these fears, I’d spend a good portion of my waking moments in silent prayer in my mind. Sure, I might have my eyes open during geography class, but I was probably pleading with God inside my head to forgive me for sneaking a peek at my neighbor’s test just moments before.
It was such a complex dance, I was almost certain that I’d never execute all the moves correctly, and I’d end up left on Earth to burn with the other sinners. So why was everyone else so assured of their fate? What’s more, why were they happy that their life on Earth would end? As much as I hated middle school, I didn’t want to be ripped away from my little reality. I was used to it, and I had lots of things to look forward to. Sitting in that Bible study, listening to the reasons why I should be happy that God was supposedly coming to rescue me, all I could do was stare at the crib in the corner and think, “it hasn’t been long since I was in one of those.” Why would I be willing, excited even, to check out this soon?
Perhaps if someone had said this, had admitted that they were also a bit wary of the whole situation, I would’ve felt more at ease. But our congregation wasn’t the kind of people who would consider these things, nor were they full of good ideas. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have been teaching “Apocalypse 101” to a bunch of preteens in the first place.