By early summer, my brothers and I had been rather forcibly introduced to Armstrong's god and he was a demanding piece of work. All unnecessary social contacts with the heathen world, such as playing baseball at school or hide and seek with the neighbor children were terminated. God's people, including their offspring, were commanded by God (through Herbert) to "Come out from among them and be not partakers of their sins!"
The sect's marching orders were simple and succinct coming nearly straight as they did from the Lord via Armstrong. "Fear and Tremble," to question Herbert, his hand picked ministry, or their god. While the enduring task of the laity, on the other hand, was to listen and obey. All else emanated from the evil one.
This new deity didn't mess around. He was extremely touchy. One never knew what might set him off. But there was nothing prejudiced about the way he evidenced, in general, an unbiased and unmitigated disgust for all his children. He was an equal opportunity destroyer.
Besides wreaking vengeful havoc upon rebellious teenagers, lipsticked females, and skeptical males, he was a killer of disobedient children. He waited his chance, bided his time and kept the most meticulous records imaginable of every six year old's felonious crimes and gross misdemeanors. For soon enough they would all add up into a veritable mountain of blasphemy, and carnal depravity which no amount of forgiveness could ever expunge, and they would dwell in the lake of fire forever, amen.
-------------Sooner or later (sooner knowing me) I'd spit on the sidewalk, say "Ah, shit," or be thumbing happily through the pages of the National Geographic to gaze in wonder at the dark naked ladies and remember: HE was watching, listening, taking it all down, and I would be toast.
I discussed this (and other) theologically weighty problems with school yard buddies to get their slant on the matter, but they were all of different faiths and persuasions (if one could believe first graders had faiths and persuasions) and what I learned was shocking. None of them knew the truth, at least the truth as I'd heard it. Furthermore, they'd never even heard of the fundamentalist church I was forced to attend, the Armstrong congregation of the called and the chosen.
That being the case, they could lie, steal, and fornicate to their hearts' content...and still have hope in salvation! That really sucked, and for the first (but not the last) time in my life I looked heavenward and mentally asked, "Why me?" What offense could I possibly have committed to be unfortunate enough to have parents who'd stumbled across "The Way" and worse yet dragged me along with them? For I knew the truth, but instead of setting me free it seemed determined to slit my throat.
I knew the year of my execution as well. Herbert had written a book on the subject entitled 1975 In Prophecy. 1975, he publicly proclaimed, was the year a merciful God had lovingly chosen to show humanity the error of its ways. Privately, however, church members were instructed to be prepared for their Lord's return by 1965. As religious tracts go, 1975 In Prophecy was crude, even for its time, full as it was, of prophetic invective and coarsely drawn pictures.
For all of that, it was still a nightmare booklet designed to strike terror into the hearts of all who read it by purporting to show the ghastly end of a corrupt and decadent world, a world which had stubbornly refused to heed the dire warnings of God's last true prophet, Herbert W.
--------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).
----------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.
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