On the last day of the world, I forgot to set my alarm.
“Get up! It’s time to go!” came my father’s voice, followed by the pounding of footsteps.
I snapped upright in my bed, thinking that it was actually happening—that Jesus had been spotted somewhere over Colorado Springs like the Goodyear Blimp and that there was no time to lose getting into something more respectable than an oversized nightshirt with Snoopy’s Woodstock on the front.
When I finally realized that it was the car that was my destination rather than the upper stratosphere, I took a few deep breaths and turned my attention to my closet. Fifteen minutes later, my younger sister and I strapped ourselves into the backseat and we were on the road. In tense silence, Dad navigated the streets through the legions of fish-studded vehicles, all schooling toward their designated places of worship. We might have even made it on time, had we not suddenly been sandwiched into a holding pattern in the right lane between a large church van on the left and a brown Subaru in front of us which bore the bumper sticker, “Do you follow Jesus this closely?”
I glanced up at my parents sitting quietly in the front seat. My father was a tall man with sparkling green eyes and a lung capacity that allowed him the volume to address large groups on the subject of Jesus Christ. He had an easy smile and was prone to bouts of blind optimism, for which I dearly loved him. Like he did every day of the week except for Saturday, he was dressed in suit and tie. His silver hair was in a side part and held in place by five pumps of V05. My mother sat next to him, her short brown waves swept neatly over her ears. She was dressed smartly in a rust colored dress with nude stockings and black flats. Both Christian academics, they were not nearly as impressed by the imminence of the End of the World as I was. The year was 1988 and they had seen End Times prophecies from within the Evangelical church before. Each time, they explained, people got all riled up over nothing and they were not going to join in the panic.
“It could happen today,” Dad admitted, “but really there is no way to know in advance. The Bible says, “No one knows the day or the hour.” It could happen any day.”
I thought about the picture I had seen of Gorbachev’s birthmark looking suspiciously like “666.” Maybe there was no way to know which exact minute it would happen, but I had read some pretty convincing arguments that we were looking down the barrel of it. I thought back to that birthmark and shuddered.
“Just try not to get your hopes up, dear,” my mother added.
We pulled into the church parking lot and my parents marched off to their class where Dad taught Sunday school to a group of adults.
This could be the last time we do this, I thought and headed inside toward my own Sunday school class. As I walked, I was aware of my feet. Would I be taken after this step? How about this one? Would I make it all the way across the church before I was whisked suddenly away into the clouds? Would my boyfriend be there, too? Would my English teacher understand when I was not there to turn in my as-of-yet unwritten essay on Chaucer the next day? I smiled deliciously to myself as I mulled this last one over.
By the time I walked into the service an hour later, I was getting antsy. It was 11 A.M. and still no end of the world. My boyfriend, Scott—the only person with the misfortune to be called by their real name in this memoir—waved at me from a pew and I made my way over to him. I was so overcome by the Holy Spirit that I flushed pink.
I looked around the church with Scott at my side as if I were seeing it for the first time—the brown carpeted aisles, the beige padded pews, which were comfortable, but not too comfortable, the stained glass at the front depicting the life of Jesus at different stages of life on earth. My eyes fell on the kneeling altar that wrapped its way invitingly around the entire front of the church. Scott and I had prayed there a couple of times together. I looked over at him and giggled nervously. I determined I ought to say something to him.
“Want a mint?” I produced a tin from my purse.
“Thank you,” he answered, pinching one between his fingers, which brushed mine on the way back out. Scott was tall and intelligent with gorgeous green eyes and blond hair. I swallowed hard and prayed a quick prayer aimed against any lust demons who might be hanging out in the Lord’s house. Angels and demons were real, and if Armageddon was kicking off that day, then I could be certain of one thing: there was going to be a final fight for our souls and it wasn’t going to be a clean one. One sin—just one wayward thought, even—would make me unclean. And what if it was that exact moment that Jesus came back and I had not had a chance to ask for forgiveness yet? Would I be doomed? Would I miss out on heaven for all eternity?
Just then, the deep, reedy sound of the organ filled the room, causing me to jump like I had been busted for peeking at swimsuit models on the magazines in the checkout line. Pastor Brown burst onto the platform with the enthusiasm of a wrecking ball and everyone stood to sing the first hymn, “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”
Next to me, Scott shifted microscopically closer and brushed my arm with his shirtsleeve. A shock of alarm bolted through me and I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. I needed a trained team of angels and I needed them stat.
“‘When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder’—it may not be long, friends, it may not be long,” said Pastor Brown somewhat cryptically. Not wanting to seem reactionary, the church leadership was not discussing the Rapture prophecy openly from the pulpit. But we all knew what he was talking about.
I didn’t have to look around me to be able to sense the mood in the congregation. It was one of excitement. In response to nearly every statement, somebody called out an “Amen!” or “Hallelujah.” I tried channeling my own excitement about sitting next to Scott toward the front of the church. Surely Pastor Brown would say something to send the demons sailing. I knew no demon could withstand the name of Jesus Christ. Surely it was just a matter of time.
“When our beloved Savior walked this earth amongst us two thousand years ago, he made us a promise. He said ‘I will return!’”
The congregation shouted various approved phrases of holiness such as “tell it” and “that’s right” and someone began clapping. Next to me, Scott fidgeted closer to me so that our shoulders were touching. I suddenly found that I couldn’t move.
I reminded myself that I should not be allowing myself to be so distracted in the midst of what was going on—that I was going to need to focus if I wasn’t going to miss out on the roll call. I stared hard at Pastor Brown, noticing how the perspiration had already begun dripping from his forehead. He pulled out a white handkerchief from his pocket and began mopping his brow.
“The groom is coming to claim his precious bride,” he continued, “but the question is, will the bride be ready? Will the bride be pure?”
Scott inched a little closer. My cheeks were radiating heat at this point and I was conscious of beginning to perspire, myself.
He went on to extend the metaphor into how we must not let the groom catch us sleeping and that we must make every effort to prepare for his appearance. This necessarily meant, of course, cleansing ourselves from all that is sinful. In my particular case, it meant scooting a couple of inches to the right.
Finally, he began a sinner’s prayer for redemption, which we all prayed in case it hadn’t taken the last time we prayed it. If Jesus was coming back, then we had all better make sure that we were on the guest list. I closed my eyes, focusing all of my attention on the spiritual battle I imagined was raging around me.
“Jesus, we hear you calling to us. We know how much you love us and how much you sacrificed for us,” said Pastor Brown.
Faces swathed in shimmering light appear at the top of the ceiling. Arrows are poised in the direction of our pew, where I am willing Scott’s hand past the hem of my skirt against all that is pure and holy. Instead, he reaches his opposite hand behind his back toward me. I reach my own hand behind my back on the other side and meet his in the middle. My chest convulses with teen delight.
“We accept your gift and thank you for your love. We surrender ourselves to your ultimate purpose.”
A tension is rising and a silence rings out through Heaven—for about seven seconds.
“We thank you, oh Lord, for your promise to return for us one day.”
Inexplicably, I uncross my legs. Oh, God, I pray—put an end to this torture!!!
“We look forward to that, Dear Lord, and we know that you have conquered death once through your Son. In Your Son Jesus’ precious name, Amen.”
Screams recede into the bright sunlight. I reach for a Kleenex.
We were then invited to an altar call. Pastor Brown never knew an empty altar. It didn’t matter how short the sermon, he could always coax a couple of sinners down and away from the gnashing of teeth. But he has never—and I mean never—had the success he had on that Sunday.
It started with the familiar tune “Just As I Am” coming through the organ in the background of the pastoral prayer. It was a couple of kids from the Youth Group. With people as moved as they were by the thought of Christ’s imminent return, it didn’t take long for a few more of their friends to join in. I knew I should join them. My own sanctification process had suffered a severe setback that day. But I am ashamed to say that I was not among them. I was still glued to Scott’s shoulder.
Longingly, I watched from my paralysis as several more individuals stood from their seats from various places within the sanctuary. Clusters began to form. Friends, families—it didn’t matter. All the while Pastor Brown was in the background, begging Christ to come for us sooner rather than later. People were wailing; a few children were crying; I felt like I was dying. What had gone wrong? Had I not prayed for help?
It didn’t make sense. I was pretty much the perfect Christian. Well, OK. Not the perfect Christian. But I tried really hard. I read my Bible daily. I went to services of one kind or another at least four times a week. I had even quit the Christian school that year so that I could be a better witness for Christ amongst heathen high school kids. Why was I being forsaken in my time of need? Here I was on the last day of the world with all of eternity before me and all I could think about was…sex?
Scott chose that instant to reach over and take my hand. Completely in the wide, inappropriate open.
And it was in that moment—that exact moment—that something inside of me began to rebel.
As I sat petrified into a flushing statue of adolescent desire, a thought occurred to me. I don’t want to go yet.
I was instantly consumed in guilt. What would God think of me for not being ready? I was supposed to be ready. I had been preparing for this day my entire life.
This world wasn’t real. “Real” life was in Heaven. And sometimes this world fought hard to pull me in and make me believe it was real, but I had made sure that I made all of the appropriate substitutions to get me through the cravings. I listened to Christian contemporary music instead of rock n’ roll, I went to Christian activities instead of hanging out with the worldly kids, I said “darn” instead of “damn”….
Maybe I could wait it out until the middle, after all. The Tribulation couldn’t be that bad, could it? We could dig a secret shelter in my backyard—like a bomb shelter. We would stock it with everything we could possibly need, like food and batteries and toilet paper. And lip balm. Maybe I could open up an underground business—among other Christians who were also in hiding, like we were. I could sell two kinds: plain and cherry. That would be enough.
I wasn’t supposed to not want to go yet, but there it was. Like it or not I had thought it in all of its juicy sinfulness. Jesus may have been on his way ready to take us, but I wasn’t ready. I wanted to grow up. Go to college. Have sex. Get married. Have sex…. I was supposed to have my whole life ahead of me. And maybe it was with Scott, and maybe it wasn’t—I didn’t know. The point was, I was only fifteen—and I wanted to find out.
I looked at my watch. It was noon. The last day of the world was only half over.
“The End of The World” is a chapter excerpt from Devangelical: Why I Left to Save My Soul by Erika Rae. It has been exclusively reprinted by The Rumpus with permission, and was originally published by Emergency Press, © December 2012.