It was a golden age. Hundreds of people in our congregation, thousands at the Feast of Tabernacles, more than a hundred thousand in the Church. Herbert W. Armstrong was on tv everywhere. Millions had ordered his books. The Worldwide News was coming out twice a month, and every issue seemed to report another record smashed. It was a good time to be alive.
I grew up in this and in its wake. I remember bits. My parents remember it in high definition.
We had a foundation. We had a school. We had a college. We had pancake breakfasts, chili dinners, clubs, fun shows, weekend tournaments with uniforms, cheerleaders, concessions, fans in vans. We were scattered, separate, sometimes persecuted and definitely different from the rest of the world. But the Church was our life, and life was good.
I remember the adults talking together for hours about the messages and their experiences: in the hall, out in the parking lot, at the restaurant, in the restaurant parking lot, at each other’s homes. Looking out the backseat window at trees going by—that time-honored rite of kids in the Church—we drove and drove and drove—to services, to help each other move houses, to basketball tournaments—because we loved to be together.
And it was deeper than that. We were not just “people in the congregation” and not even just friends, but spiritual Family. We were making the same sacrifices, receiving the same education, loving the same things, serving the same God.
But it was a gilded age. Under the golden surface, something was wrong.
I was barely old enough to remember the turning point. I know Mom cried: I think I remember it. I know I remember my parents helping 3-year-old me change my prayers from, “God, please help Mr. Armstrong” to “God, please help Mr. Tkach.”
January 16 had come and gone. And the Church had started changing.
The Sabbath services were still there. The ministers were still there. Always asking, Does this have pork in it? was still there. Our friends were still there. At the Church’s elementary school, we were still learning math and playing four-square and memorizing the holy days and doing after-services Bible games together while our parents talked about the deeper things.
If you didn’t really stop to think about it—and, speaking for all us kids back then, we didn’t—nothing was out of the usual, except maybe being a little more relaxed about things like clothes and birthdays. But we were still in God’s Church; we just didn’t have to be quite so different from everyone else, so hey, bonus.
The adults were more perceptive, of course. What was unnoticed, dismissed or enjoyed by us kids was much more significant to them. Their after-services conversations were getting a lot more involved.
Their ministers said this was the right thing to do. This wasn’t that different from what they believed before. This was what it meant to follow God. God would work it out. They should never leave the Church. Their friends, to whom they had knitted their lives over decades, said they could see what the ministers were saying, and even if parts were confusing, it was best not to do anything drastic. Others thought that asking questions was offensive or dangerous or self-righteous. Their families, if they were in the Church, felt much more strongly about all of this.
Just go with it. That was the unstoppable, almost inescapable pressure. If they would just go with the flow, our dads and moms would have it so much easier—socially, financially and, everyone said, spiritually. They could have the ministers’ approval, have their beliefs no longer politely scorned, enjoy their weekly routine, be less weird to their neighbors and the boss, stop repenting, stop submitting to correction, not upset anyone, not leave anyone behind, keep their friends, keep their families together, and still believe they were in God’s true Church. They could even just make a “non-decision”: Do nothing, relax, stop wrestling with hard questions about your beliefs, ignore what you can, accept what you can’t, and just enjoy it.
“All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me,” as the devil said (Matthew 4:9).
A spiritual life-and-death defining moment had come. This was one of the most dramatic choices of our parents’ (or grandparents’) lives. It came perhaps years before you were even born, yet it was one of the biggest choices of your life.
Your entire future depended on their choice, and you would never know the difference. Whatever church your parents went to, or didn’t go to, there you would be, just riding along in the back seat.
The parents of all my friends (literally all of them, since I went to Imperial Schools) made their choice and relaxed, flowed downstream, in huge numbers, together. So did my aunts and uncles and grandparents.
Years later, we were all teenagers, and my aunt sent some pictures of the old class getting back together. You could see the choice that their parents had made and the direction their lives were going. They were the friends I was supposed to grow up with, whose names I can still tell you off the top of my head, whom (if one of you might be reading this) I still miss.
But the choice had been made, and everything they learned about life and right and wrong and hope and the future came from those ministers and then whatever influence they later floated into.
They never had a chance.
Last week I saw another picture. It was the most likable guy in our class. It was a mug shot from jail.
I know God works miracles, and I sometimes still dream of one of my friends somehow walking in the door. I know that everyone who hasn’t had their chance will have it in the future. But I’m just thinking about that pivotal choice, and the rest of our natural lives.
Dad and Mom made their choice too. An against-all-odds, courageous, dauntless, epic choice. They gave up their friends, their relationships, their good times, their brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers, everything, for one thing: God.
Our parents loved the Church, their friends and their family, and desperately wanted to be together. But the reason they had love or family or life or breath was God—the real God that they had been taught about and that they knew. Whoever we were going to be together with, it would be people whose love for God was like fire in their bones.
The influence, the power, the goodness and the glory of that time is God’s. But the choice was theirs. With one arm our parents reached out to God like a drowning man to a helping hand. In the other, they were carrying us.
If you’re what we call a “second-generation” or “third-generation” Christian, think about where you would be if a different decision was made. I have. Where would you live? What would you wear? Who would you know? What would you be doing? What would you believe?
Maybe it was your parents. Maybe it was your grandparents or guardian who made that choice and kept making that choice. They made it when your whole future was on the line, and you didn’t even know it. They loved God, and they acted on it.
I don’t know if you know this or not, but you have been living with heroes.