Yesterday morning we woke up here on Earth and got dressed for church. Our youngest daughter, who is in year two of a dogged princess phase, wanted to wear a particularly awful pair of costume shoes, hot pink heels with little tufts of fur at the toes. “I think you should wear other shoes,” I told her.
“Mommy said I can wear these!”
“It’s true, I did,” Alia said.
“I just don’t think she should wear h-o-o-k-e-r shoes to church,” I groused.
“I’m trying not to fight with her about this on weekends,” Alia said.
“I know, I know.”
“It’s not the end of the world," she said.
It was a glorious morning. We sat on the left side of the sanctuary because on sunny days the right side gets snoozily hot. I’d been wondering if we’d have a rapture-themed sermon, perhaps congratulating us on our common-sense progressivism and poking gentle fun at those who think they can count off days through the Old Testament and declare the End Times nigh.
But it was Confirmation Sunday, so four nervous-looking eighth-graders delivered the sermon, one at a time, reading statements about what church means to them. Some stumbled their way through ill-prepared notes that went nowhere; others proclaimed with the polish of well-trained Forensics geeks. (“Some other words for faith are acceptance, belief, and trust.”) As you might expect from a group of uncertain 15-year-olds, though, the unifying theme in the four messages was that none of them—none of us—really know who or what God is, or Jesus, or faith, or the spirit.
We stood for the hymn, No. 265. I sang the first two verses on autopilot—just plain-vanilla 19th-century hymn action—but something about the third verse caught my attention:
Teach me to feel that you are always nigh.
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear:
to check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
As the organ faded, Pastor Hank stepped forward. Hank, the jovial youth and family minister, is a former camp counselor who still gives off the air of someone who just dropped in to teach everyone how to make friendship bracelets. He’d spent the past year teaching the Confirmation students, and was clearly moved to be leading the service in which they’d be ushered into the congregation. It was time for the prayers of the people.
“Ever-living God,” Hank began, “we have a number of prayers for friends and family in need today. But first, let us pray for those who feel this weekend that their faith has let them down.”
I looked up. Hank’s head was not bowed. His ruddy face was solemn. “We don’t all believe the same things,” he said, “but we all know what it’s like to have our faith shaken. Let us prayerfully be with those who don’t quite understand what God is doing.”
The day before, a small crowd had gathered in front of the Oakland headquarters of radio doomsayer Harold Camping. “There were atheists blowing up balloons in human form, which were released into the sky just after 6 p.m. in a mockery of the rapture,” the LA Times said. And: “Someone played a CD of ‘The End’ by the Doors, amid much laughter.”
And for much of the day, my Twitter feed was a cornucopia of rapture humor, much of it very witty. “I feel fine,” one friend dryly noted. But the net effect of so many people writing on the same topic meant that jokes (Blondie, raptors, Randy Savage) got overplayed, and the overall tone was aggressively mocking—a roomful of comedians one-upping each other to belittle the morons and hysterics who’d wrapped their lives around the notion of apocalypse.
As the weekend closed last night, I was reading about disappointed believers when my mom called, frantic with worry. The town where her brother lives, Joplin, Missouri, had been struck by one or more gigantic tornadoes, and reports were coming in that swaths of the city had been leveled. “Can you look on the computer?” she asked. “I don’t know if Mike lives near that hospital that was destroyed.”
After I did, and we hung up, I Googled the hymn from that morning, ”Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” Rereading the second verse, which I’d sung unthinking the first time around, I found it Midwestern in its modesty: We ask God to make himself known, to descend upon our hearts, but want to make sure that he doesn’t put himself out too much.
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no opening skies;
but take the dimness of my soul away.
A few minutes later, my mom called back. Mike was okay, she said. He’d called his brother Ed and told him that he’d taken cover in the bathtub, only to see his whole house blow into the sky above him.
“The bathtub?” I asked in disbelief.
“That’s what Eddie said,” my mom said. The edge of panic had not yet left her voice. “Maybe it was, you know, it was attached to the plumbing or I don’t know what.”
What did those believers hope to see on Saturday? Tractor beams from space? Pneumatic tubes to Nirvana? A whirlwind, sucking them into the clouds? The struggles their souls now had to bear were unthinkable to someone who kept his beliefs hazy and inchoate, perhaps in order never to risk disenchantment. I heave the rebel sigh every day, of course, dissatisfied with my extremely satisfying life, but do not often feel that rising doubt.
My uncle Mike was born in Wisconsin over seventy years ago. As a teenager, I thought of him as sort of the loser uncle, the one who lived with his parents well into middle age. To my great shame it wasn’t til much later that I realized that my grandparents weren’t really taking care of him, even if that was how my grandmother saw it; he was, of course, caring for them, and he did until the end of their days. My grandparents died just months apart, and are buried together in Joplin. Mike, left behind, built a new life without them. I haven’t seen him since the funerals.
Some other words for spirit are air, breath and wind.
When the storm came last night, and the fingers of cloud descended from the sky, Mike faced it alone. I wonder what it was like, watching his house break apart and scatter across the earth. I wonder what he saw, crouched in that bathtub with his life swirling around him. The opening skies? The angel visitant?