My teenaged years were spent in my father's small Reformed Baptist church in Ohio. We never had thoughts of becoming a mega-church, but we never turned away a new family or two. A sight I remember seeing repeatedly, however, was the tendency for us to suddenly have a caravan of visitors.
There would be nothing for months. Just the regulars would show up. They'd worship on Sunday, fix the roof or cut the grass on Monday, worship on Wednesday, show up for Bible study on Thursday, clean the church on Saturday and repeat.
Then visitors often showed up in groups of three to five families, and there was often a story involved -- a story of being removed from another church. At times, these stories were one of injustice, and in some situations, my father would try to help them heal the rift with their previous churches.
Often, however, it was a case of what I see as a messianic complex. The new arrivals believed they had some truth, the ultimate truth, which would range from a hyper-Calvinistic determinism to a secret knowledge of when the end of the world would come.
We were Reformed, so having some extreme Calvinism enter our doors made sense, but on more than one occasion we had several end-of-the-world prophets. In 1988, the book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988 was in circulation. I remember a very large man with white hair and a trademark white suit leading that call. My father welcomed them to the church, but with a warning -- ultimately unheeded -- not to use their views to divide the community.
Spoiler alert: Christ did not return in 1988. That, however, did not stop new predictions for just about every year after. In the early 90s, another group came to our church, followers of a man named Harold Camping, founder of Family Radio and the author of the book, 1994. (Clever titles are rarely the thing of end of the world prophets.)
They were on the move, looking for a receptive church for Camping's end of the world predictions. Things came to a boiling point. Leadership was being interrupted with absurd interpretations of the Bible during morning services. They emptied their bank accounts to pay for large black billboards across the city. They printed pamphlets and bought 1994 by the cart-load.
Spoiler alert: Christ did not return in 1994. That fact, however, has not stopped Camping from starting a new set of predictions. Christ will return, according to his latest calculations, on May 21 of 2011. A part of me cannot help but laugh at yet another prediction. I am reminded of an epic Simpsons episode, "Thank God, It's Doomsday," where Homer discovers that his end of the world predictions were off because he miscalculated the number of people at the Last Supper.
[Video from The Last Year on Earth, the blog of Justin Berton at the San Francisco Chronicle, which monitors Harold Camping's movement.]
The new generation of Camping followers is resorting to high-tech ways to spread the word of May 21, like phone apps. But billboards are still involved. Some of the fans on his Facebook page can hardly be old enough to remember what happened (or didn't) in 1994.
It is not that I begrudge anyone the belief in Christ's return. Today I'm Episcopalian, and we, like many Christians across the globe, affirm the ancient creeds that talk of Christ's return. I admit that not all of us interpret it the same way -- Episcopalians are not necessarily known for their apocalyptic flair -- but it seems to me that Camping's followers have turned this ancient affirmation into a form of the lottery.
These end-of-the-world prophets are often well-meaning, decent people. The world they live in is less than enjoyable -- either because there is little to hold them or because it does not fit the ideals they have been raised to embrace -- and so they are looking for a first-class seat out of here.
This is much like the office lottery. Lean on whatever you need to hope that this time around your office pool will pick the big one and everyone gets to retire. Who knows if the astrologer in human resources and the Christian in accounts payable have divined enough answers to finally set you free from the misery of a dead-end job. Perhaps enough prayers and wishful thinking can make it happen on your appointed day.
Unfortunately, like the lottery, these hopes are built on the hard earned money of the desperate. When the dust settles on May 22, will they buy another ticket and repeat?