The other night, my girlfriend and I went out for a late dinner at Denny’s. Halfway through our respective artery cloggers, a dour-faced preacher and his small band of dead-behind-the-eyes followers stormed the dining area. Little kids who don’t know better, a few adults—one rather fat guy wearing too-tight clothes, circling this preacher like a lap dog, laughing dully at his own jokes, all of which the preacher chose to ignore.
This preacher, you see, had a steeled gaze on the waitress. His face exuded a sense of indignant rage that the restaurant didn’t have tables put together for he and his band of followers. He stood there, silent and stoic, in a black suit, black shirt, black cowboy boots, with jewelery glittering beneath the cheap florescents. Two night shift waitresses finally came and shuffled the chairs around him and butted two tables together for his lazy little crew, apologizing profusely that he had to wait all of three minutes while the tables were joined.
I wanted to beat the hell out of that wannabe Wyatt Earp, not just because of his display of self-importance. Mostly because, back in 1999, he had the nerve to go on his privately owned radio station and tell his listening audience that January 1st, 2000, was going to be the rapture. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. He also told his radio listeners that if they truly loved Jesus, they would cash in their savings accounts, retirement funds, sell their second car—do whatever they could to raise money to give to him, so he could reach the world with the gospel before the rapture swept them all away during Y2K.I’m well aware that he wasn’t the only one propagating this lie. Another preacher in my hometown, one whose family happened to own their own television station, went on TV and laid out the exact same scenario at roughly the same time.
You have to remember, in those pre-millennial days, the news was all abuzz about the coming Y2K disaster. Computer systems designed in the ’70s and ’80s, still in use, couldn’t process the date. No one expected those systems to still be in use and engineers warned that everything relying on them would grind to a stop once that magic changeover happened. Paranoia was so strong that otherwise respected news outlets were letting every nutcase who claimed to be a computer expert spin a tale of impending doom. Cars would no longer start, life-saving gear in ambulances would simply shut down, entire hospitals full of equipment would cease to function—anyone having surgery when midnight hit would die on the table.
Anybody who didn’t know the first thing about technology could easily be fooled into believing that an electronic apocalypse was at hand.
And yet, January 1, 200o became January 2, 2000 without any major problems whatsoever. No rapture, no end of the world, not so much as a PC failure that I’m aware of.
All that hype for nothing.
I often wondered whether anyone actually did as those preachers suggested. If so, their lives were ruined. Those preachers had already spent that money on their cars, their clothes, their fancy steak dinners.
Go ahead, call me a cynic.
Camping has, rather famously, convinced his followers that he has knowledge that even the Bible says is forbidden for man to know. In Matthew 24:36, Jesus Himself states that He doesn’t know when the world will end, that only God knows. But for followers of men like our wannabe Wyatt Earp and Harold Camping, this scripture is brushed aside in a fury of anecdotal “proof” to the contrary.
Assuming this worldwide catastrophe he seems to hope for doesn’t materialize as scheduled, what will happen to all of Camping’s followers on May 22, 2011? What will happen to Camping himself?
In the case of the TV station preachers in my hometown who encouraged their followers to sell everything and give to their ministry while there was time, the father died of a sudden heart attack shortly thereafter—he was only a few hundred pounds overweight, so it came as quite a shock—and the son went AWOL after his wife found him screwing a sixteen year old girl. Problem was, this guy decided to take the sixteen year old with him when he skipped town. Not only is that statutory rape, but it’s also kidnapping. He got caught, thrown in the clink, and to this day, people back home still defend him as a persecuted man of God.
Numbers 32:23 anyone?
I suspect that May 22, 2011, will see most of Camping’s followers still devoted to their leader. Sure, a disillusioned few will bemoan the fact the world didn’t tear itself apart. But there will be some for whom no Bible verse, no reasoning, no amount of argument will ever shake their faith in the man they followed named Harold Camping.
It all reminds me of the Acts 5 story of Ananias and Sapphira.
Their story starts off with this great man of God selling a valuable piece of land and giving all the money he raised from that sale to the church to be used to feed the poor.
So Ananias and Sapphira decide to do the same thing, except they don’t want to give away all their money from the sale of this land, but they want everyone to think that they did give away all the money. How do they accomplish this? They lie.
When they give the money to the church, they tell the church leaders that it is all the money they raised, while secretly holding some of that money back for themselves.
Why would they do this? Most likely, they saw the attention this other guy got for his act of charity and wanted in on that action. Such attention-seeking behavior isn’t uncommon in our day and surely wasn’t then, either.
Sadly, what they did was a mostly good thing. They gave a lot of money to the church so that people who were starving could eat. But the fact is, according to this story, they did it for the wrong reasons—and they lied about what they did so they would appear to be greater than what they are. They made themselves a lie (For those inclined to study the Bible, see Revelation 22:12-15).
What happened to Ananias and Sapphira? First of all, the church leaders rightly called them out. Ananias was told in no uncertain terms that nobody asked him to give the money in the first place, and if he wanted to keep some of it for himself, all he had to do was say so. Secondly, it is asked of Ananias why he is so given to evil (Satan) that he would lie to God. The implication here is that this desire for attention-seeking came from the ultimate evil in all the universe.
Ananias and Sapphira are then struck dead—there’s argument whether or not the intent of the story is to imply that God struck them dead or the church leaders themselves.
Isn’t it interesting that this particularly ugly incident was a fundamental part of the New Testament’s early church account?
Isn’t it even more interesting that so many within the church today commit exactly the same sin that led Ananias and Sapphira to death?
Ultimately, the sin that Ananias and Sapphira committed was to one of manipulation. They surrendered to an evil spirit that led them to seek undeserved attention, glory, and honor, elevating themselves to the same status as one who gave everything to the church.
Take away the talk of money and land and focus on the idea that they wished to be of elevated status.
Like, say, a wannabe Wyatt Earp who is visibly offended that the waitress staff of a restaurant didn’t have a suitable table arrangement for him and his flock to walk into and sit down. Who, some twelve years earlier, tried to convince his followers that he had special knowledge and urged them to make the kind of commitment Ananias and Sapphira claimed to have made. Who, on January 2, 2000, probably weaseled some kind of apology and went about spewing his own brand of holier-than-thou hatred without the kind of radical altercations that his comrades across town suffered shortly.
It’s hard for me to look at a man like that, knowing what he did, without experiencing sudden, intense rage. And yet I know God is judge, God exacts judgement on some swifter than others, and only God has the right to judge.
Still, that man reminds me of Harold Camping. I don’t know Camping personally, have no idea whether he tips well or is gracious to waitresses, but it seems to me that Camping and our wannabe Wyatt Earp and the Y2K televangelists all fell victim to the same kind of evil. In Camping’s case, he’s fallen victim several times, apparently.
It seems, and this may be an unfair assessment based on my own personal experience, that so many who get involved in ministry begin to crave power so much that they find ways to invent a crisis in which they will be seen as heroic, self-sacrificing, and authoritative.They won’t be challenged and they can’t be proved wrong. Not scripture, not logic, nothing stands in the way of their self-imposed omniscience. Like bullies, they get a rush from pushing around those weaker than them. They’ll never apologize for whatever wrong they’ve committed, never live up to the promises they make. And in the end, these people—who like Ananias and Sapphira—do just enough good that its easy to overlook the bad as merely “being human”.
The difference between someone who is sincere but misguided and someone who is manipulative and controlling, I believe, is the lies they tell. Sooner or later, these manipulators start telling and believing lies so big the rest of the world mocks. Like, maybe, that the world will end on May 21, 2011.
Here’s the truth about the end of the world: for most of us, it’s not even going to matter. The end of the world can come any day, at any minute, and for thousands of people every day, it does. A car accident, a heart attack, an IAD or a gunman’s bullet.
Life is a gift. We don’t know how long that gift is good for, and it can be revoked at any moment. That should give us all the impetus to live life to its fullest, to love and experience love, to see all the beauty of life, to give back as much as we can.
Even though it’s cliched at this point, I can’t think of any more appropriate way of ending this entry than this: