Thoughts on Confession

1

“Is that all?”

My confessor had waited a few moments after I’d stopped speaking to ask that question. I sat in the confessional, my mind beginning to turn. I knew it was customary for priests to wait for a moment after the penitent finishes listing his sins, but with each priest it is different, and even if I hadn’t been the last penitent, even if he hadn’t seen me standing by the confessional as he came out and motioned me to go on in as he returned to his side, I could have discerned from his voice alone that this was the new parish priest, with whom I’d never confessed. “Is he thinking, ‘There’s no way that’s all this guy’s done’?” I wondered. “Should I say something?”

He sat silently for at least ten or fifteen seconds — which felt eternal — before he gently asked, “Is that all?”.

Is that all?” I asked myself, mildly panicking that all my fears of seconds earlier were coming to fruition. Of course it’s not all. I could never confess all my shortcomings (read: sins), but the Church technically requires only that I confess mortal sins, and while we’re to include as many venial sins as we can remember, they’re just that: venial. I try, but I don’t try to cover them all, else we would be there for hours.

“Yes, Father, that’s all.” A pause. “All the mortal sins, that is.”

But was that all? The yardstick for a sin’s gravity is the Ten Commandments, and by that light, I’ve broken every single one of them, regardless of the actual sin. Whenever I commit a mortal sin, I’m putting my will and desires above God’s and thus making myself my own god, thereby breaking the first commandment. So in that sense, any sin automatically breaks the first commandment and is a mortal sin.

Less is sometimes more in confession, and I resisted the temptation to explain all the theological considerations that had just passed through my thoughts. Another silence.

2

The first time I went to confession, I requested a face-to-face meeting with the priest. Over the past year, participating in RCIA, I’d come to respect and trust Fr. G, and I knew that I could talk to him face-to-face about my shortcomings and feel comfortable doing so. Well, relatively comfortable: any time you’re talking to someone about the darker side of your soul, I’m sure it’s going to be a somewhat-stressful experience. Still, we met at his parish office and after we engaged in our typical small talk — “What are you reading?” type stuff — he put on his stole, made the sign of the cross and suggested we begin.

“Father, bless me, for I have sinned,” I began. I’d thought long about what to say at the beginning. I knew I technically had two options:

  • Father, bless me, for I have sinned.
  • Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.

Having grown up in a fairly anti-Catholic denomination and gone to a Protestant private college, I knew I only had one option, though. “Bless me” won out over “forgive me” for all the emotional associations I still had with it. Intellectual consent to the fact that the priest is not in fact forgiving sins of himself but acting in the place of Christ is one thing; dealing with the baggage associated with previous assumptions is quite another.

Fr. G dropped his head, closed his eyes, put his elbows on his knees, clasped his hands together, and listened. I finished. He still listened. There was a lingering silence, then finally he spoke.

“Well,” he began, and soon we were discussing some of the things I confessed, unforeseen and unimagined consequences, and how to avoid them in the future, then he said the formula of absolution:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’d gone the last fifteen years thinking there is no such thing as sin, and I’d gone all my life thinking, “Even if there is sin, I would never confess it to a priest.” And yet when it was done and Fr. G made the sign of the cross during the absolution, I felt strangely more peaceful than I’d ever have expected from something I’d only given intellectual consent to.

My Side of the Confessional: What Is It Like for a Priest?

Sins of Omission

One of the things I like best about being Catholic is, ironically enough, confession. At first, it was a problematic concept for me. The idea of telling someone where you’ve fallen short is always an uncomfortable exercise, and for someone who grew up thinking, like many Protestants, that if it’s Catholic, it must be wrong (of the devil, even), my first time in confession was initially a little awkward. But having such a conversation — and any good confession involves conversation — left me feeling lighter, more alert.

It’s not just the confession that helps, though. The preparation for it, the examination of one’s conscience, forces me to look at my own actions with a critical eye, and critical examination of one’s life is always beneficial.

I find, though, that I tend to focus more on sins of commission than sins omission. I suppose it’s easier to remember things I did than to recall about the things I didn’t do. If I didn’t do them, I likely didn’t think about them, making it tricky to recall them.

Immaculate

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church, which means you’ve got to go to mass. Our new parish, though, is only have a morning mass, so we went to the vigil mass tonight. At six. Which meant the Boy was ready to go to sleep before mass even began.

The notion of the Immaculate Conception has always confused me, no less now that I’m Catholic. The idea is that, to avoid the “stain of Original Sin” passing on to Jesus, God removed from Mary at her conception original sin. The mechanics of this, as I understand it, involve retroactively applying the salvific nature of her son’s sacrifice to her — which brings about an obvious question: why not just do that to everyone? In the spirit of “fake it until you make it,” I go along with it. But the whole thing leaves me a little off kilter. So, truth be told, does the whole Christian story, and I guess that’s supposed to be the point of it in some sense.

Mary’s holy and immaculate conception, by Francisco Rizi, Museo del Prado, 17th-century, Oil on canvas. Via Wikipedia

There are so few things we encounter these days that we could call “immaculate.” A newborn child. And I sit here, thinking about what I could add as a second item on that list, and even with the thought of adding a qualifying “perhaps,” I’m stuck. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps that’s what Original Sin is all about. Perhaps it’s human nature. Perhaps Original Sin is human nature. Perhaps it’s not important at 10:50 on a Wednesday.

Part of growing up, I think, is that realization that “immaculate” really doesn’t exist in our world. The natural world is filled with such cruelty, with wasps that plant their eggs in still-living organisms that the larva will literally eat alive — and likely very painfully. Then there are all the natural disasters just waiting to happen, or just happening. Thinking about “immaculate” leads us to think about its opposite, whatever that might be, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps that’s the point.

Listeners Behind the Iron Curtain

They huddle around the radio, their attention fearfully divided as they listen both to the thundering voice on the radio and to every little sound outside their darkened hovel. They’re breaking the law, listening to illegal, anti-state programming, and in listening to Herbert Armstrong’s World Tomorrow broadcasts, they’re risking their lives for the truth of Biblical prophecy while those in the free world who have free access scoff.

“What was that!?” the mother whispers in a panic. “Quick, turn it down!” Her husband silences the radio as the teenage son peers into the darkness, straining to hear another sound. Could it be the secret police? If it were, they could be whisked away and put in prison camps in a matter of days.

The three of them remain motionless. No further sounds. Father decides it’s safe.

The braodcast at right is, appropriately enough, “Russia in Prophecy.”

He turns the volume back up and the three family members continue listening to Herbert Armstrong’s prophetic teachings: German is going to rise again in a Fourth Reich, the revived Holy Roman Empire, which with the Pope as the anti-Christ will crush America and put the survivors into slavery. It’s all prophesied in the Bible if you realize that America and the countries of Western Europe, except Germany, are the Lost Tribes of Israel, while Germany is modern day Assyria. Or something like that.

It’s all silly when you really think about it, and it’s even sillier to think that people still believe that despite the fact that DNA testing has shown conclusively that the only people with Semitic backgrounds are — surprise — Jews and Arabs. But this was the fifties:  James Watson and Francis Crick had just discovered DNA’s double helix in 1953, and DNA testing was still a very long way in the future. In the meantime, the Cold War was in full swing, with Kruschev’s USSR just reaching the zenith of its optimism that a state-run economy could produce the paradise that seemed to elude — at least in Soviet propaganda — the capitalists.

But what of these listeners behind the Iron Curtain? The notion came from an illustration in 1956’s booklet 1975 in Prophecy, a digest-size title laying out a timetable for the end of the age. Jesus was to return in 1975, and so the time of trials so many Protestants see as preceding his return would be in 1972. The book purported to provide an “inside view” of the coming tribulation. Within the booklet were illustrations by Mad Magazine illustrator and Armstrong follower Basil Wolverton.

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Basil Wolverton’s illustration in 1975 in Prophecy.

The purpose of such an illustration in 1975 in Prophecy is simple: make listeners in the free, Western world feel guilty for not taking Armstrong’s message seriously. After all, people in Eastern Europe are risking their very lives to listen to The World Tomorrow, Armstrong’s prophecy radio show. But it also worked to create the illusion that the entire world was listening to Herbert Armstrong, further legitimizing his claims of being God’s chosen. World leaders, Armstrong liked to suggest, read his magazine and listened to his radio show, and so literally the whole world must be tuning in. To support Armstrong’s work, then, would be to support a Global Enterprise, and everyone knows that investing in a Global Enterprise is a wise investment indeed. Especially when such an investment could also ultimately help save your own hide.

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Herbert Armstrong

Just how many listeners were there in Eastern Europe? How many could there be? Given the fact that Armstrong only transmitted in English in the 1950s, linguistic barriers reduce the potential audience significantly. I recall hearing that in all of Poland, for example, in a country of forty million, there was one official church member. Clearly, this was meant for a local audience, then.

Yet that raises a troubling question: is this a lie? For it to be a lie, Armstrong and the administrators of his church would have to know it to be untrue, would have to realize that few people indeed listen to his show in Eastern Europe. But what if the nature of your self-delusion is such that you see yourself as God’s Apostle on the same level as the New Testament apostles? What if you see yourself as the leader of the one true church, with everyone else in the world deceived by Satan? What if you have surrounded yourself with people who support that delusion? In such a case, believing that people all around the world are listening to your little radio show is a self-delusion of almost insignificant proportions. Of course in the 1950’s, there would have been no metric for a radio audience listening in Eastern Europe, no way to prove or disprove the claim that people are tuning in at the peril of their own lives. And it creates a powerful layer of importance on top of all the other self-delusions: If I am the leader of the only true church (which in a sense would make me the most important person in the world), it only makes sense that people risk their lives to listen to me.

I’ve often wondered about stories I hear about this or that miraculous event, wondering if the individual is stretching the truth in the perceived service of God. Surely that’s unacceptable according to anyone’s moral compass. Yet Machiavellian thinking is dangerously seductive. Could something like that be going on here?


Herbert Armstrong died 30 years ago today. For several thousand in the world, it was an earth-shattering, previously-unthinkable event. For the majority of the world’s population, it was a non-event, just like the majority of other deaths. “Herbert Who?” my classmates and even teachers would have asked. Yet he was a significant-enough player that major news outlets wrote obituaries. The New York Times wrote the following:

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 16— Herbert W. Armstrong, the broadcasting evangelist who was founder and pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God, died today at his home in Pasadena, Calif. He was 93 years old. Church officials said no official cause of death had been established, but they added that Mr. Armstrong’s health had been declining about four months because of a heart ailment.

Mr. Armstrong presided as the ”Chosen Apostle” of God over the wealthy fundamentalist Christian church, as well as over the Ambassador College and the Ambassador International College Foundation, both in Pasadena. The Ambassador Auditorium on the campus is a lavish concert hall where famous musicians and artists have performed.

The church publishes Plain Truth magazine and broadcasts television programs on 374 stations around the world, David Hulme, a church spokesman, said.

Officials of the 80,000-member church announced last Tuesday that Mr. Armstrong had named Joseph Tkach, 59, as his successor. Ralph K. Helge, the church’s general counsel, said in a statement that Mr. Armstrong had felt it was time to ”pass the baton” and establish a new spiritual leader to avert dissent when he died. Advertising Career, Then Radio

Herbert Armstrong was born July 31, 1892, to Horace and Eva Armstrong in Des Moines. In 1934 the young Mr. Armstrong abandoned a career in advertising to found the Radio Church of God in 1934 with the first broadcast of his program, ”The World Tomorrow.”

He incorporated his California ministry in in 1947 as the Worldwide Church of God and began spreading his conservative beliefs with alternately fiery and folksy sermons. The religion is a blend of fundamental Christianity, non-belief in the trinity and some tenets of Judaism and Seventh-Day Sabbath doctrine.

Members pay the church at least 10 percent and as much as 20 to 30 percent of their income, and celebrate Passover and Yom Kippur as holy days rather than Easter and Christmas. Mr. Armstrong espoused creationism and enjoying material wealth as a sign of divine favor; he held that he was preparing his followers for a Utopia to be ruled by Jesus.

Controversy and Feud With Son

The church has been embroiled in controversy, ranging from the estrangement of Mr. Armstrong and his son, Garner Ted Armstrong, to lawsuits by former church members and an investigation by the state Attorney General of reports of mismanagement of church funds.

As membership swelled in the mid-1970’s, trouble arose between Mr. Armstrong and Garner Ted Armstrong, his youngest child and heir apparent. The son appeared weekly on 165 television stations across the country as the voice of ”The World Tomorrow” and was executive vice president of the church.

The church had a strict policy against remarriage for divorced people that required new church members to dissolve second marriages and remarry their original spouses. Garner Ted Armstrong vehemently opposed rescinding that order and his father’s subsequent marriage in 1977 to a second wife, Ramona, 44 years old and divorced. His first wife, Loma, died in 1967. He divorced the second in 1984.

Mr. Armstrong and his son also argued over control of the college, the auditorium, and other holdings. Herbert Armstrong excommunicated his son in 1978.

Case Led to Curb in Law

Garner Ted Armstrong, supported by some former church members, subsequently charged that his father and other officials had spent millions of the church’s estimated $60 million annual income on personal expenses. In 1979 the Attorney General’s office got a court order to place the church in receivership, saying the officials had ”looted” $1 million a year from tithed funds.

The case was dropped in 1980 after a new state law, prompted by the Armstrong case, prohibited the Attorney General from investigating the finances of religious groups for fraud and mismanagement.

The father-son rift was never healed. ”I tried repeatedly to contact my father up until two weeks ago, but it was all to no avail,” Garner Ted Armstrong said in an interview from the headquarters of his Church of God International at Tyler, Tex. ”He had a heart condition, and I knew his health was failing quite rapidly. My sister said he died quietly while sitting in a chair.”

Herbert Armstrong also leaves his daughters Beverly Gott and Dorothy Mattson, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Arrangements for private funeral services are pending. (Source)

Thirty years later, and it’s such a different world for everyone mentioned in the article. Armstrong’s successor, Joseph Tkach, is dead, and his successor, his son, is still running the original church, though it reformed twenty years ago and even changed its name.

There are still those who follow the man’s teachings, though. A few thousand scattered among a few dozen off-shoots. The leaders of several of those churches are now in their seventies or eighties, and the pattern will repeat itself.

Forty Years Ago in Prophecy

“YOUR own future is laid bare, now, in prophecy!” Though intended as a compelling beginning, a startling call for readers to wake up and realize the cold reality they’re facing, almost sixty years later the opening sentence of Herbert Armstrong’s 1975 in Prophecy reads like the dating advertising copy it essentially was.

Written in 1956, it was a centerpiece booklet in his radio ministry. Claiming to have discovered — rather, to have received through divine inspiration — the key to unlocking Biblical prophecy, Armstrong claimed a certain clairvoyance unique among other religious figures. To his credit, he didn’t take credit for it: he was merely an instrument of God. Still, there is a certain headiness in being the one to whom has been revealed a startling truth that, for ages, no one knew.

Prophecies that were closed and sealed tight now stand REVEALED. This mystifying, neglected third of the Bible now becomes plain. Mysteries of God, never before understood, now become crystal-clear. God’s own time for this revealing has come. The KEYS that locked the future have been found.

Hidden prophecies seldom sell if they’re absolutely and completely good. Like those who slow down and crane their necks when passing the scene of an auto accident, we all have a touch of the morbid in us and a suggestion of how bad things are really going to get can be utterly fascinating. This could be even more true in the 1950s, when 1975 in Prophecy first appeared. As the Cold War continually escalated, nuclear war with the Soviet Union seemed a very real possibility. Indeed, it wasn’t so much a question of if it happened but rather when for most Americans. Catastrophe waited in the not-so-distant future, and it was this uncertainty upon which Armstrong built his ministry, and it was with this expected nuclear showdown with the Soviets that Armstrong created his catch, because of course, there was always a catch, according to Armstrong:

But what is actually going to happen is not what the world expects!

Today this world is changing – fast! Unprecedented events are shaking the world already. Yet what we have seen is mild compared to the catastrophic happenings that will rock this world in the near future!

You’ll have to live into these tremendous times. This is YOUR life! You live here, in this erupting world! It behooves you to know what the Creator-RULER of the Universe now makes known!

Armstrong claimed that the United States and Western Europe were in fact the original ten tribes of Israel, supposedly lost to the mists of time. (Jews were only of the two break-away tribes the formed the Kingdom of Judah.) The Germans, though, were an exception: they were the ancient Assyrians, forever battling the Israelites. This battle spilled into the twentieth century, and explained both world wars. It was to be the Germans, not the Soviets, who attacked and conquered America.

Before getting to the bad news, though, and perhaps in an effort to pad the manuscript, Armstrong rehearses all the technological advances of the mid-twentieth century.

Feverishly, science, technology and industry are working to produce a fantastic, push-button world of leisure by 1975. The emphasis today is on “saving steps.” Everything is to be done for us, by machines. Just push the magic button, and your work will be done automatically.

Already automobiles are equipped with push-buttons to shift the gears, raise or lower windows, move the seat forward, backward, up or down.

It’s difficult to look at our current reality, with in-dash GPS, smart phones, and loads of cheap Chinese imports, and not think the advances of the 1950s somehow quaint. In spite of the stresses of the Cold War, there was a certain naivety at the time, on both sides of the Communist-capitalist ideological spectrum. Both sides were sure that their economic model would produce a not-too-far-in-the-future utopia. Francis Spufford recently portrayed this in Red Plenty, a clever, well-researched novel about the hope in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev that the Soviet Union would soon be the envy of the West; Armstrong beat Spufford by fifty years with his visions in 1975 in Prophecy:

In the dream-world MAN is devising for tomorrow, it will no longer be necessary to cook food on stoves. Food is to be cooked by heat waves in packages. You’ll no longer bother taking a bath in a tub or shower. You’ll take an effortless and quicker waterless bath by using supersonic waves! When you pick up your telephone, you’ll see the party at the other end! The new automobiles, the new homes, the new schools are to be truly fantastic. The stores, hotels, and railroad trains will take your breath!

So far, surprisingly close to the reality we experience. Of course the waterless shower never took off — or appeared, as best I can remember — but we have had microwave dinners for over thirty years now while Skype and smart phones make land lines obsolete.

And air travel? Well, already leading air lines have placed multi-million dollar orders for still larger jet planes that will leave New York at 11 in the morning and arrive at Los Angeles by noon. These are under production, now. But what do you suppose air travel will be like by 1975?

For one thing, it is expected that many people will commute in their own private helicopters. Very probably these immense jets now being built will then be obsolete, and we’ll travel in rockets at two or three thousand miles per hour. Think of it! Elapsed flying-time, New York to Los Angeles reduced to one hour! Since it is only 9 A.M. in Los Angeles when it’s noon in New York, we may be flying across the continent, and arriving in Los Angeles two hours before we start! And elapsed flying-time from London to New York will be reduced to 1½ hours! As it is noon in London when it’s only 7 A.M. in New York, we may be flying across the Atlantic and arriving in New York 3½ hours before we start!

Yes, MAN is devising fantastic things!

Unfortunately for Armstrong and the other futurists of the 1950s, their own predictions were among the “fantastic” things, though in their case, it’s meant in the original adjectival form of “fantasy.”

It’s easy to look back on those predictions and mock them. We have the obvious advantage that it’s no longer prophecy but history.

Under Cover in Europe

While America has been focusing its sole attention on its clumsy effort to meet psychological cold-war with antiquated diplomacy and military might, the real number one enemy has been perfecting its plans SECRETLY, UNDER COVER, IN EUROPE!

These plans were laid by Adolph Hitler, during World War II. The methodical Germans took into consideration the possibility they might lose, even as they had lost World War I. This time their plans for coming back and launching World War III were carefully laid before the close of World War II.

The day that war ended, the Nazi organization went underground! Their plans for coming back have been proceeding, under cover, since 1945!

Already Nazis are in many key positions-in German industry – in German education-in the new German ARMY!

In World War I, the Kaiser, allied with Austria, sought to conquer France, Britain and America. American Industry finally beat him. In World War II, Hitler tried to conquer the world, first by taking Austria and the Sudetenland thru diplomatic gangsterism; then second, with lightning-quick war, taking Poland, Denmark and Norway, Holland, Belgium and France; and third, while holding these nations by the throat with his Gestapo, and allied with his junior partner Mussolini, to conquer Russia on the east and Britain on the west. But again, American Industry, three Acts of God, at Dunkirk, El Alamein, and the destruction of the German hydrogen-bomb plant at Peenemuende defeated Hitler.

But this time the Nazis plan to side step the causes of past defeats. Instead of exhausting their own strength by holding European nations as captives at the expense of vital Gestapo man-power, they plan to head and dominate a UNITED STATES OF EUROPE — and add the man-power of those nations to their own military divisions. And secondly, they plan to strike their first blow, NOT at France or Poland in Europe, but with hydrogen bombs by surprise attack on the centers of AMERICAN INDUSTRY!

I suppose with enough imagination, one could imagine in the mid-fifties, only ten years on from World War Two, that the Nazis had somehow managed to regroup and were planning a horrific third attempt at world domination. Such a theory certainly would work well with those still dealing with the consequences of the war, with so many people still dealing with the loss of life and property in the war.

It was this coming cataclysmic doom — famines and pandemics would also accompany the military defeat — that 1975 in Prophecy was using to sell Armstrong’s theology. The booklet came complete with graphic, violent images depicting the coming horrors, called the Great Tribulation in Armstrongian theology.
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The man-made horrors would not be enough to cause humanity to repent, Armstrong reasoned, so the natural world would add to the world’s misery with great earthquakes, tidal waves, famines, and pandemics.

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Armstrong had Basil Wolverton, a cartoonist who joined Armstrong’s church in 1941, used his typical over-the-top comic style, creating images that disturb not only because of their content but also their style.

When I flipped through the booklet as a kid, I found these images repulsive and fascinating at the same time, not to mention confusing. They were supposed to be depictions of the coming holocaust, but by the time I was flipping through the booklet, it was the mid-eighties and all of this was supposed to have already taken place.

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It will be, yet it was supposed to have already been.

And now, forty years later, there are still religious groups that believe Germany at the head of the EU will rise again and conquer the United States. The Philadelphia Church of God, the Restored Church of God, the United Church of God, and the Living Church of God are the three biggest groups holding such beliefs, with dozens of smaller groups professing the same thing. They all insist that this is coming, that Armstrong was ultimately correct, and that these pictures are legitimate depictions of the coming horrors.

I find it difficult to believe that people could be so naive, given the fact that so much of what Armstrong taught has been shown to be false. Most significantly, Armstrongists are in the same situation as Mormons due to advances in DNA testing, which show that both groups’ claims about the ultimate destiny of the so-called Lost Tribes of Israel are radically wrong: there are no Semitic markers in the European population (except, surprisingly, the Jews), thus discounting Armstrong’s theory, and the Native Americans similarly lack such markers, thus disproving Joseph Smith’s theory. Still, these organizations pull in members and money.

Long ago I wrote a letter to one of these organizations only to find out later that my letter was read to the entire church as an example of the horrendous persecution that awaits the leader.

I regret that letter in a sense: it seems like I’m saying at the end that I look forward to the death of the group’s leader, David Pack. Not at all. Even in my most skeptical periods, I would have never have wished death upon someone. What I meant was that I was looking forward to seeing the scramble for power and more interesting the desperate attempt to remold Pack’s statements that he would live to see these prophecies come to pass as something less prophetic than they were, just as Armstrong apologists do with Armstrong’s assurances that it would all be over by 1975. Perhaps I should write again and apologize?

A Tragedy in the Making

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Herbert Armstrong

It had to happen. From the morning of January 16, 1986, it became an inevitability. When the charismatic leader of a religious organization dies, change is inevitable. I suppose it doesn’t have to be a particularly charismatic leader to necessitate change when he dies, but the more charismatic, the harder it is to maintain the same arch of theological development because so much of the theology is grounded in the leader’s personality, whether or not followers admit or even are aware of it.

When Herbert Armstrong (HWA) died in 1986, there was no way things could go on as they had before. The most basic reason was simple: everyone believed, implicitly or explicitly, that Armstrong would be alive until the end of time as we know it, until Jesus’s second coming. When he passed in his sleep without a single trumpet blast from heaven, without a chorus of angels announcing the return of God incarnate to Earth, it was the first of several inevitable changes in theology. When the new leadership began changing doctrinal distinctives like British-Israelism and the nature of God, the changes were simply too much for some who longed to return to the age of Armstrong. They removed themselves from fellowship and formed an offshoot. More like a hundred-and-some offshoots, but three or four main ones.

Each of these offshoots were in competition for new members as they left the parent organization for the dozens of newly-forming off-shoots, and for many, the medium for measuring the acceptability of this or that splinter group (as they came to be called) when considering membership became the group’s faithfulness to Armstrong’s teachings, which constituted true Christianity restored again. But slowly, inevitably, these groups began tinkering around the edges of Armstrong’s theology. This point was “clarified,” and that one “elucidated.” Nothing ever really changed — it was all euphemistically described to the followers, just as it had been in the original group after Armstrong’s death.

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David Pack

David Pack, though, founded a group called the Restored Church of God that built its whole membership on the solemn promise that nothing about HWA’s teachings would change. But reality tends to get in the way of such far-reaching promises, and one of the earliest dilemmas for the church was the appropriate use of the Internet in spreading Pack’s (and by extension, HWA’s) theological musings. After all, Mr. Armstrong didn’t use the Internet: he used radio and television. For the outsider, this seems like a simple issue: Herbert Armstrong didn’t use the Internet because it didn’t exist, and so it wasn’t any kind of doctrinal issue, just an administrative decision. Still, Pack took a whole sermon to explain to his small flock that, even though it looked like he was making a change, he wasn’t making a doctrinal change.

But further challenges waited.

As Pack was only ordained a pastor in Armstrong’s church before the breakup, and as he recognized only Armstrong as an authority, he had another problem: He wasn’t doing a pastor’s job. He was preaching the Armstrongite Gospel to the world, which Herbert Armstrong always taught is an apostle’s job. Armstrong was, in the eyes of his followers (which is really all that matters), an apostle on the same standing as the New Testament apostles, and for a pastor to step out of his assigned roll like that seemed mutinous. It was change. So in 2004, Pack declared himself an apostle as well. Problem solved.

But a door opened.

Once a leader who has sworn not to change a single teaching of his claimed predecessor, all doctrines become open for review. This is what happened in the Worldwide Church of God that ultimately led to its turn to orthodoxy and the thousands upon thousands of members who fled to other splinter groups to hold on to the faith once delivered. Pack would have to be very careful not to make changes that seem too drastic, too far-reaching. The solution: add doctrines. Don’t change any existing ones — just add. “These weren’t revealed to Herbert Armstrong because he didn’t need to know it, but now I can restore this truth.”

He has criticized other leaders for doing this, but it was of course inevitable that he do it himself. But how far could he go? He declared himself an apostle in 2004 shortly after declaring himself to be the prophesied “Watchman.” It’s been over ten years since he made a major change that he’s revealed to the public. In his most recent sermon, though, Pack makes the biggest and most dramatic change of his career, arguably of just about any of the splinter leaders.

In short, he makes the claim that if “you were called by God, and you are to participate in his work and walk in his ways, you have to turn over your assets to God’s church” and that “salvation is attached to [this new doctrine].” He calls this doctrine “Common,” and roots it in the observation that the New Testament church apparently shared a lot of things.”Not even Armstrong went that far,” a friend and fellow cult-watching enthusiast commented, and that’s about right: it is such a drastic change from Armstrong’s simple requirement of a 10% tithe on pre-tax income figures that it amounts a wholesale theological change. After all, how can you tithe 10% when you’ve already contributed all your assets?

This change reveals a megalomaniac mindset of literally historic proportions, a cult of personality that is simply dangerous.

Yet how could this happen? How could he go so much further than Herbert Armstrong ever dared, demanding more fiscally from his followers than Armstrong even dreamed of requiring? It is in part because I believe Armstrong was more mentally stable. Armstrong declared himself to be prophesied in the Bible, but he claimed no supernatural powers for himself. Pack has done just that.

Just what these extraordinary powers might be remains unanswered. But clearly there’s a disconnect between reality and how Pack sees reality. But when you see yourself literally in the Bible — well, when you see yourself in the Bible after using some horrible interpretative techniques — there’s almost no limit to what you can attribute to yourself. It’s not too hard to see how far reality has taken leave from Pack.

To suggest that because one Greek word appears to be pronounced like the man’s hometown — that shows just how little Pack understands basic exegetical concepts. But it gets worse:

Moses’s “strong hand” equals Armstrong? It would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that so many people are allowing themselves to be duped with this nonsense.

One would think that after the long history of false predictions, both in the Armstrong community and in the general Christian prophecy-loving population, that a leader of a group in 2015 would have learned some lessons. If he hadn’t learned from others, one would think that Pack at least learned from himself. In 2004, for example, he stated the following, playfully edited:

It is now 2015, so apparently we did have ten years remaining until the end of the world as we know it, and I would wager that, come 2019, we still won’t have seen the end of the world. And yet, on and on he will go until the day that he dies continually proclaiming that “time is short,” just like Armstrong did.

Autumn Ritual

In years past, last Tuesday night’s gathering would have filled a large-capacity auditorium, or even a civic center, like the Scope Arena in Norfolk, Virginia. They would have sat in dozens of rows on the floor, up risers, into the balcony area, and walking into the arena that first night would have produced an excitement in everyone that was audible.

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Thousands of people, gathering for eight days, in locations all over the world. It would look something like this, except for more formal attire.

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Part of my past that I haven’t experienced in almost twenty years as best I can remember. Ninety-five was the last time, I think. Those gatherings have continued through those years, but my trajectory has gone in the opposite direction before veering back to something more like an eighty-degree angle: not quite the same beliefs, but certainly not a denial of all the beliefs.

Those gatherings have continued for the last twenty years, though the single, monolithic church organization that originally held it has splintered into almost countless pieces, with the organization itself changing its name and completely reversing most of its old doctrines — like the required eight-day Old Testament festival observance — so that it is indistinguishable from other mainline Protestant groups. The splinters that fell away have been keeping up the tradition, though, and last Tuesday night, in Bend, Oregon, a pastor opened the gathering with a message that has been repeated every fall with the regularity of the changing leaves.

They’ve been starting like that for decades now — I still wonder every autumn how many more decades it will continue. When will a group that proclaims definitive prophetic events within our generation and has been proclaiming it in vain for something like seventy years (Germany will rise again, don’t you know?) — when will such a group (or in this case, groups) disappear for good? For how long can someone declare that “time is short” and warn people that a great confederation of European nations with Germany and the Vatican at the head will rise up and utterly decimate the United States? At which point does the hypothesis — no, the sure prophecy — become just too ridiculously and obviously wrong for anyone to take seriously?

Temptation

In Mass, there are a lot of temptations every Sunday morning. It really begins well before Mass, when as is always the case, we’re running late. My temper flares, and I have to consciously tell myself that barking out orders won’t make L put her shoes on any faster. But once we’re there, the temptations only increase.

Inordinate pride is a big sticking point. I like to say that my children will be well-behaved in Mass because

  1. they understand the ontological reality of what’s going on there and respect and believe in it;
  2. I am such an awesome parent that I have trained them like good little monkeys; and
  3. I don’t want to disrupt anyone else’s experiences in Mass.

In reality, it’s that second one that gets top billing: I’m just embarrassed because my kid isn’t as saintly as that kid, two pews up, just to the right.

Clothing is another area of temptation. Women come to Mass dressed like they’re going out for a night on the town, and men come dressed like they’re going to the beach or for a hike in the mountains. “Can you believe he/she wore that to Mass?” is on the tip of my tongue, and sometimes the temptation is just too great, and I point out to K the fashion offender. “Don’t they know why we come to Mass?” I always finish, then regret that I even brought it up, that I gave into the temptation.

Then of course there are the temptations of distraction:

  • “Boy, that lector is really stumbling over that reading. Perhaps he should have reviewed more.”
  • “Oh no! She’s singing the responsorial psalm?!”
  • “Dear God in heaven, could he distribute communion any slower?”
  • “Really? Checking Facebook just after receiving the Eucharist?”
  • “Well, if I’d known he was giving the homily, I might have just stayed home.”
  • “Why in the world would anyone select that hymn?”
  • “Doesn’t he know any better than to wipe his nose with his right hand just before we do the sign of peace?”
  • “Cheapskates: they never put anything in the offering basket.”
  • “I’m still kneeling here: you should be too so I don’t have your nasty hair in my face.”
  • “There is nothing in the missal to indicate that we should all be holding hands during the Our Father! Uggh!”
  • “If that kid doesn’t stop putting that kneeler up and down and up and down and up and down, I’m going to…”
  • “Dang, if that guy behind me sang any more off key, he’d be singing in a whole different mode.”
  • “Wow, that’s a big hat.”
  • “Really, only the priest should be praying in the orans position!”
  • “That is just the nastiest perfume on the planet. What is it? Eau de Dead Fish?”
  • “That’s right — do the Judas Shuffle: receive and leave. There’s piety for you.”
  • “You snotty little teenagers: this is the crying room, not the ‘don’t want to sit through Mass and would rather chat it up with my friends’ room.”

Of course in the summer, there’s a whole new batch of temptations, most commonly about clothing selections. It usually goes like this: “He is a grown man, with graying hair and kids who appear college age, and he’s still wearing shorts to Mass? Does he not realize that there comes a time in one’s life when one understands that comfort is not always the be-all, end-all goal in life?” That thought is more often than not amended with, “And he’s wearing flip-flops for heaven’s sake! There’s not a beach within three hours’ drive of here, and even if there were and even if you were going to the beach immediately after Mass, you should be dressed like you’re going to the beach while at Mass especially when you’re a grown man!” Occasionally I can match it with another gripe: “She’s wearing that top to Mass?! Really?” And every now and then, I can tack on one more: “And their teenage daughter is wearing tight short shorts?”

Pride is truly at the heart of all sin.

Will and Temptation

prayerIt’s far too late for this little girl to be heading to bed, but in these last few days of summer vacation, we’ve grown lax.

We kneel for evening prayers, and I think of something Father L said to me today during confession, and it gives me an idea.

“In the name of the Father and of the Son,” we begin, already falling into that rhythm that shows we aren’t really thinking about what we’re saying. We begin, and as we pray “Thy will be done,” I stop L.

“What’s something you can do to help make this come about, to help bring about God’s will on Earth?” L shrugs, so I clarify: “What is God? He’s love, right? So to fulfill God’s will, we must love. So what’s something you could do to help fulfill that?”

She thinks for a moment. “Not yell at E,” she replies confidently. We all do it: we get frustrated or worried with what the little two-year-old bundle of fascination and excitement is about to do, see potential disaster (or sometimes actual disaster), and call out, “E!” He heads for furniture with a drill: “E!” He snaps the head off a doll: “E!” So L and I talk about how we should all take that to heart.

Returning to the prayer: “and lead us not into temptation.” Time for reteaching: “What are we sometimes tempted to do, something that really goes against God’s will of love?”

“Yell at E.”

That seems to be the key to meaningful prayer for a seven-year-old: connect it to real life, make it simple, and reinforce. Sort of like teaching in the classroom…