It’s Always the Apocalypse

Photo: David McNew / Getty Images

I was born into a world that was always ending.

In our sweaty Texas church of fire and the end of days, we sang, “People get ready, Jesus is coming.” Our Baptist pastor preached that at any moment we’d be taken up in a divine rapture, rescued from this earth, which would burn in damnation, according to the prophecies.

The signs were there. First there was Clinton’s peace deal in the Middle East. Soon the temple would be rebuilt in Jerusalem and then the world would end. My dad showed us how Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name worked out in numerology to 666 — the mark of the beast. There would be an atomic world war. Yasser Arafat would be murdered.

The first news story I saw on the television my parents kept in the closet was in 1993, when the Waco compound was on fire, not far from where I lived in Dallas. The sound was muted, so I didn’t hear the screams, the helicopters, or the bullets. I didn’t need to. At church the next day, we were told this too was a sign. The government was coming for us, the righteous.

As you may have heard, Jesus never came. Yasser Arafat died of natural causes. Hillary was not elected. We’re all still here. And when I grew up, I left that apocalyptic faith. No more would I live in a world of eternal end, I vowed.

But I was wrong. Modern life has been an endless parade of apocalypses. There was the Y2K bug, then 9/11, then the market collapse. The climate crisis. Then, the 2016 election with its daily horrors. My own small apocalypse, the end of my marriage. And here we are now, facing a pandemic.

We were born for this, I joke with my siblings. If there are not four horsemen is it even the end times? Give us a whore of Babylon like it says in Revelation or go home!

We laugh. But we are nervous. Quarantined. My sister-in-law has a presumptive case of coronavirus. We grew up hypervigilant about apocalypse, and maybe we never really stopped waiting for it all to end.

But on the bright side, at least we’re emotionally prepared! Here is what I know about living in end times:

You can only control so much

Matthew 6:34 is the oft-quoted Bible verse that tells us not to worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will take care of itself. But people often forget the last part: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” In other words, each of our own days contains enough evil for us to conquer.

As a child, I was afraid to pee, because the rapture could happen while my pants were down and those left behind would see my butt as I rose to meet Jesus in the air. It was (and is) a comically horrifying thought, but I knew there was ultimately nothing I could do to prevent it.

I still can’t control tomorrow. I can’t make the U.S. president do what needs to be done to protect Americans right now. Early in the outbreak, I could not stop my friend from traveling to Puerto Rico because it’s “just a bad flu, it’s fine!” I cannot make my governor order a shelter in place.

But I can try to conquer what each day offers. I can talk to my family and make sure they are safe. I can give money to my local Meals on Wheels and food banks. I can keep my children close, read books, sit by the fire, laugh at fart jokes. I can give them all the reassurance I wish someone would give me.

Offer what you can

And even if we are not on the frontlines of this crisis, providing medical care or working to produce or deliver essential goods and services, there are things we can all do: We can stay home as much as possible. We can care for our neighbors. We can resist cynicism. And when it’s time, we can — and will — vote.

In the book of Luke there is a famous story about Jesus watching people bring offerings into the temple. He sees rich people bring in their money and then he sees a widow who brings the equivalent of just a few cents. This offering, Jesus says, is worth more because the widow gave everything she could.

I write a column for my local paper and when the pandemic hit, I panicked. What could I say? What could I offer? The answer, only what I had to give. So I gave it and I will continue to give all I have. I have to hope these meager offerings are enough.

Learn how to turn away from the end

Are you the head of the CDC? No? Okay then, you can probably stop reading every scrap of new epidemiological data, and do what you actually do.

As a journalist, it’s my job to pay attention. So, I read through the feeds, click on the stories. I have national and local news websites I check every day. Last week, as I sat on the couch with my small son, who was reading a book, he asked me what I was looking at on my phone. “The news,” I said.

“You make the news, why do you want to keep reading it?” he asked. I didn’t have an answer. He was right.

So I put down my phone and we sat by our fireplace and ate cupcakes sitting on the floor. I am always learning and relearning that I need to look away. To turn on a show instead of the news. To bury my face in a pillow and scream, and then let my screen-burned retinas heal.

I go for long, exhausting runs where I look at my city, each piece of trash on the road, each child in each yard. I look for signs of spring, and cheer when I spot a new leaf. I know when I come back, the world will still be ending. I also know it’s okay to take a break from watching it burn.

Everything is also always mending

I read every single Left Behind book when I was growing up, furiously scouring each for clues about exactly when the rapture might be coming. I prayed at night that God wouldn’t rapture me before the rivers turned to blood, because that seemed cool.

My new church is way less metal. It’s a tiny Lutheran one that flies the rainbow flag in the sanctuary. Here, we don’t talk about damnation.

One recent Sunday, the pastor preached that there isn’t just one apocalypse, but that we daily live through hundreds of small endings. A family member dying. A heart breaking. Each loss and each fear an end of sorts. Everything is always breaking, she said, but everything is also always mending.

I cried right there in the church. I’ve been waiting for the apocalypse for so long, living under the shadow of looming dread. Maybe you have too, even if you didn’t grow up waiting for rivers of blood to flow.

But what if it has already happened, millions of times over? What if the universe is always ripping, always healing? Then this world that is always ending might also be always beginning.

Author of God Land. Columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The book Belabored is forthcoming from Bold Type Books in August of 2020.

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