The Painful Truth About The Worldwide Church of God. The Painful Truth About The Worldwide Church of God

Childhood Lost 03


God didn't change much either during the fifties. Neither did the sense of impending catastrophe I carted around with me.

It was like some bad religious hangover that just couldn't be gotten rid of. Every time I kissed a Gentile, lit up one of the four or five camels I'd taken to smoking daily, or surreptitiously flipped off my older brother, there was this undeniably muted, yet stridently vociferous voice deep inside my soul which cheerfully whispered, "You're gonna burn, you're gonna burn!" And there was no way short of selling my soul to the Devil (just to get things over with) to shut that bitchy little voice up either.

In light of my rapidly advancing age (I was almost ten by now) and because I had semi-publicly suggested a rather smutty little game the local minister could participate in with the aid of a rolling pop bottle, I was no longer a welcome guest in the church of the first born, I was barely tolerated, and that with a jaundiced eye. Nevertheless, I was not at peace in my defiance. Parents and children alike had been so repetitiously warned about the consequences of rebellion against God, Armstrong, and his ministry; "Remember what happened to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram! This could happen to you!" or of asking inconvenient questions, that pondering the validity of the least of their opinions was intrinsically regarded as heresy, while to actually challenge their private interpretation of scripture was spiritual suicide. They were heavily into "Thou shalt not's," especially when it came to skepticism regarding divine revelation.

The Sabbath, as all had been taught, was the biggie. This was the day, their theology had it, that God, after creating the entire universe in less than a week, settled down to rest and admire his handiwork. And on that day all Christians were to do likewise, period. The problem, as I saw it, was that having never created a universe I had nothing in particular to admire on that day and, that furthermore, God apparently had not anticipated the advent of a five day school week. Otherwise he would never have created the Sabbath on a weekend. He would have placed it in the middle of the week and interrupted classes on Wednesday when kids would really appreciate a break.

On top of all that, the church's idea of a properly kept Sabbath bordered, if not wholeheartedly tromped, on the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Sabbath, in their estimation, began some hours before, at sunset the previous day to be exact. From then on, no form of activity outside of reading Herbert W's private interpretation of the Bible was permitted. On the big day itself, the called and chosen bestirred themselves from their mild mannered walks of life, donned such formal attire as they were capable of affording after numerous tithes and offerings and, strode forth to become the future masters of the universe.

A rented grange hall was the arena for this weekly metamorphosis in my neighborhood. A hollow shell of a place with windows too high to look out of and filled with the most uncomfortable fold out steel chairs humans have yet devised. Here the merry throng gathered for at least five hours every Sabbath and the exhausting ritual of rest and relaxation began.

Some deacon or elder would hop up on stage, bid the congregation

be seated and, once it was, to rise. The first of four hymns was then thoroughly butchered...and they were no ordinary hymns either. Herbert W. had a brother who fancied himself a song writer and musician. He'd taken many of the more bloodthirsty of the Psalms and added what he thought were appropriate melodies, most of which sounded like lugubrious variations of the funeral dirge played backwards. Once the joyful noise had been replaced by blessed silence, the called and chosen were told again to sit, and they did. For the next four hours.

The ministry of the church labored mightily under the illusion that they were experts in every field of human endeavor. Their training and education did little to relieve them of this happy burden. They were, to a man, all educated at Ambassador College in Pasadena, California. This college had been invented by the big man himself to teach young minds his version of God, the universe, and the hereafter. Among other things, the curriculum fostered a humble attitude of self importance, spiritual arrogance and personal conceit. They were, they were told, the most called of the called and chosen.

The rest of the curriculum at A.C. was decidedly simple. The entire universe was six thousand years old, modern science was all wrong, contemporary educational institutions were tools of the devil, as were medical doctors, dentists, and especially psychiatrists. If you had the faith (and were as nearly perfect as they were), God would cause all you did to prosper. If you had the faith, he would protect you from all manner of evil and heal you of all maladies...except mental illnesses (these were, and remain to this day, in private church theology at any rate, products of either self deception or demon possession).

If you had the faith! That was the catch. And it couldn't be just a smidgen of faith either. Anyone who expected results had to have it all (and what a cop out for the ministry). There were actually members who, during after services counseling sessions, were overheard to complain, "But I tithed thirty percent of my gross income to the Church; I've given offerings (free will and otherwise) amounting to another twenty percent. Income taxes ate up twenty-five percent and I'm having a hell of a time feeding my fruitful bough and our four young olive plants on the twenty-five percent that remains. Why hasn't God provided for me?" BECAUSE YOU LACK THE FAITH, BROTHER!

The sermons themselves were models of inspired inventiveness. It was assumed the inspirations came down from on high, that every word in them was useful for "correction, admonishment and reproof!" as the gathered faithful were sternly and often reminded. Being inspired, they ranged unhindered by facts over the entire length and breadth of human experience and history.

As a first grader, I was surprised to learn I was an Israelite. It meant nothing to me outside of some personal embarrassment caused when the teacher asked us all our nationalities and I replied with pride, "I'm Jewish!" It was soon established that the closest I'd ever been to Bethlehem was a nativity scene in the last Christmas play I was allowed to attend and that, furthermore, my ancestors were of German and English extraction. But Herbert had assured us that the mysteries of the ages had been laid bare before him. America, Britain, France, Holland, Finland, Ireland, and a handful of other mainly Scandinavian countries were the lost ten tribes of Israel.

God's purposes in hiding them out all these years were closely held secrets and, as such, only gradually revealed. But, little by little details of the divine plot leaked out via the church media, and through them to the church as a whole and we all understood, at last, God's awesome plan for us, his called and chosen people.

We were, it seemed, the true descendants of the ancient Israelites and heirs according to prophetic promises. As such, we were destined for greatness, for grandeur beyond human comprehension; we were going to be bigger than Elvis! We were born to become 'Gods,' and after our Savior had returned and gratuitously laid the planet waste, it would be our solemn task to rule over the rubble and the rabble with a mythical, yet oft quoted, "Rod of Iron."

As a ten year old, my interest in international politics was apathetic at best, while any future personal participation by me in some religious monarchy was beyond my comprehension. Furthermore rods, iron or otherwise, would have been banned in any province I was elected tyrant over. Like most children of the called and chosen, I'd had too much first hand experience with the "rod of correction."

Among Herbert's many accomplishments, and by his own admissions they were many, was his assertion that through decades of careful Bible study he had become an expert on raising children. Moreover, he was delighted to share his profound wisdom with all who asked; in fact he insisted on it. In his estimation, foolishness was bound up in the hearts of children but the rod of reproof would drive it far from them.

Immediate corporal punishment was his prescription for any childish behavior which in any way annoyed or inconvenienced adults in any manner whatsoever. Babies who couldn't yet talk were openly cuffed for crying during the weekly marathon church service. Toddlers who fidgeted or squirmed midway through a four hour sermon received slaps, kicks, punches and whispers of more robust remedial retribution as soon as services were over. And this was okay and quite all right. To slap, punch, or kick a child while in the presence of other members, the ministry, and their Lord was a solid sign that the parents were operating strictly out of the good book, The Plain Truth About Child Rearing, and more or less out of the Bible as well.

A typical sermon from a ten year old's point of view was nothing if not boring. What Nero or Vespasian did hundreds of years in the past was meaningless to me, none of their antics were, in my estimation, worthy of note. Antiochus Ephiphines was another matter, however. I remember Antiochus well, but only because of his culinary excesses. He had the mildly disagreeable habit of frying Christians sunny side up in huge frying pans. This was suitably horrifying enough to stake out a claim in my memory.

Because of these and other eccentricities he was a constant fixture in many sermons...the very epitome of a futuristic world ruling Catholic Pope who was going to come one day soon and brand everybody on earth with the dreaded number 666.

Those who refused to participate in this Roman Catholic cattle drive would be enslaved, tortured and, in some cases, fried to death; and that was the good news. The bad news was, anyone who accepted the devil's brand of Catholicism would be roasted alive when God got back. It often seemed to those of us on the receiving end of all this religious largess that our only real choice was where and when to burn.

Interesting characters like Antiochus, however, were few and far between in the average sermon. The usual bill of fare dealt with sin in all its depraved manifestations, followed closely by damnation and limitless amounts of hell fire and brimstone. After a few years of listening to such heart warming doctrines, most kids were burned out.

But now and then some semi unexpected event would invigorate the inspired discourse. A brother or sister might have engaged in conduct unbecoming a world ruling trainee, profaning the holy name of Israel. Lest the infection of sin spread, contaminating the virgin body of the bride of Christ still further, emergency surgery was required to remove the gangrenous appendage. That was when things got interesting, at least from my perspective.

Fortunately for those accused, convicted, and tried, (and usually in that order) they lived in America where the only unlimited power the clergy still wielded was the power to raise money. Heretics must not be burnt, in frying pans or anywhere else for that matter. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI, and the U.S. Marshall's Service were quite strict about this; that was their department! Neither could a person's assets be seized, his children stoned, or his wife sold into slavery. (State and local municipalities reserved those rights unto themselves.) In short, all the quaint, time honored remedies for spiritual turpitude were denied Armstrong and his merry men of the cloth, many of whom to this day resent that fact. So they did the best they could with what they had.

The order of worship in a standard disfellowshipping, which is to say that of a lay member, was precise and prescribed. It entailed verbally flaying the flesh off the unrepentant, vocally roasting their heretical remains over brightly burning cauldrons of collective self-righteousness, then figuratively holding the still smoldering carcass up before the entire congregation for spiritual edification and formal disfellowshipping.

When a member was disfellowshipped, all regular sermons were temporarily preempted to deal with the juicy allegations. Questioning the authority of the ministry, divorce and remarriage, use of tobacco products and poor attendance were all capital offenses, spiritually. Once a member was amputated from the body they were regarded as dead, spiritually now (unless they humbly and abjectly sought the pardon of the ministry) and literally later when God returned.

On the great day of a disfellowshipping, the pastor would mount the podium with that dejected air of reluctant regret which only the hopelessly self-righteousness can muster, the consummate spiritual executioner too weary to wield his axe.

He would then stare out over the sea of gathered faithful and begin. But he wouldn't just solemnly announce the distressing news and get things over with. No, he would begin softly, sadly, blending shadow with shade, color with hue, till, in the middle of his discourse, the lurid portrait of a vile sinner would slowly begin to emerge and take horrifying shape. Toward the end of the sermon this despicable creature, once known as a Christian, was conclusively identified and their craven deeds of rebellion and intransigence fully and finally described in a crescendo of sound and fury from the pulpit that would have had even Satan quaking in his boots. And members would park pitiful expressions of dismay and shocked disbelief on their incredulous faces and ask each other, "How could this be? How could Brother or Sister... have fallen from grace so horribly?"

But in reality none of them were surprised in the slightest. Everyone had been discussing the situation for weeks as befits concerned responsible Christians and, as a rule, had socially ostracized the poor bastard many Sabbaths previous. The obligatory casting out was a mere formality. Except when it involved, as it sometimes did, the ministry. In those cases, the hell fire and brimstone was kept to a minimum with little or no information on dastardly deeds forth coming; other than "by the way," asides to the flock to pray for an endangered brother who was fighting a deadly one man battle in hand to hand combat with Satan himself.

The sense of relief at any sermon's end was palpable. More than a few of the called and chosen would quietly (but wholeheartedly) whisper "Thank God!" as the minister wrapped things up, and not for the spiritual sustenance they'd nearly gagged on either. But even this wasn't the end. Two more uplifting hymns were essential, plus a closing prayer.

The hymns I could live with, I just dry mouthed the words anyway. But the prayer...Well, it wouldn't have been so bad except that it was never performed by a professional; any baptized brother would do and most invariably did! And it usually took forever. A mini sermon, that's what one heard. Because this was the only forum available to them, the only place they could publicly vocalize their righteousness, their Christian concern, their all encompassing love for their brothers, sisters, and those teeming hordes of uncalled heathens they planned on ruling over one day. Besides, they were always trying to outdo each other.

They would pray for dear Herbert and that God would continue to sustain and inspire him; for his son Garner Ted; for Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Cole and Frank Longuski; for Gerald Waterhouse, Tony Blackwell, and Burke McNair; that the tithes and offerings would continue to pour in from the faithful (and even from those who were not); that God would defend his people from the muted but growing scourge of religious persecution, so rampant in the 1950's. And especially to protect his people from the polio epidemic which they, in accordance with sacred instructions from Herbert, had refused to get themselves or their children inoculated against. The prayer usually ended with barely audible sucking sounds from a scattering of the more obviously unrepentant, which was swiftly over ridden by whispers of adulation and thanksgiving for the wisdom and eloquence of his eminence the local pastor courtesy of an inevitable cadre of posterior oscillators after which the entire congregation wearily murmured, "Amen."

Chapter 2


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