Festival of Tabernacles

Possibly the thing that I miss the most about the old WCG is the Festival of Tabernacles.

As an adult, I’m aware that there were many unsavory things going on behind the scenes that I only ever got a glimpse of – they didn’t call it the “Feast of Booze” for nothing – but as a child, it was and remained the highlight of the year for many of my formative years.

In fact, some of my earliest memories involve the Feasts. I remember dragging the suitcases out of the closet a full two weeks ahead – we couldn’t wait to start packing. Even making the list of things to pack was a special time.

I remember the big white building at Wisconsin Dells. Looking at it now it’s just a utilitarian pile of tin, but back then it was really something. I remember the administration building, the tram that would take people back and forth from the immense parking lots. At one point, between services, my parents packed a picnic, and we had it on a small hill overlooking the site. There were a whole lot of small yellow flowers. I couldn’t have been more than two or three, and I still remember this vividly, and with an intense feeling of nostalgia.

I remember playing “Little Professor” on the floor with another, slightly older, kid from my congregation. Basically, I remember a lot, and I miss most of it.

And there was such an atmosphere of celebration! It’s like the entire city just became.. happy. Whereever we were. Occasionally I’d be at a site when the feast was not in session, and it was not the same. Something was missing. You could feel it in the air.

It’s never coming back, though. For a while, earlier in my life, I actually used to stay in a local hotel – at some expense, actually – for a couple of days in a vain attempt to recapture even a small part of the experiences that I remember. But it’s all gone. Even if the church existed now and the Feasts were still going strong, the world has changed out from under them. There’s no smoking section at Denny’s anymore, so the smell of stale cigarette smoke mixed with coffee is gone. (You might think that a terrible smell, but it’s terribly nostalgic to me). The freeways are different, the drive would be different, the cars would be different… it would all just be so different. The experience would be gone, ruined, just as it’s already ruined by memory.

I don’t miss the sermons, or the ministers, or the theology. But somehow, that never seemed to matter. It was fun. It was one of the few good experiences I had as a child. And it, like everything else, was ripped away. Either by the loss of childhood innocence, the destruction of the WCG culture, or other familial situations that were also very destructive.

What can replace it? The problem is, I fear nothing. Nothing has ever come close. I’m not convinced anything ever can. For all of the WCG’s flaws, the feast was… unique. Unique, and irreplaceable. The experience can never be relived, but there isn’t a whole lot I wouldn’t give if it could. Because, honestly, there is little to nothing in the culture I find myself in now that even remotely comes close.

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Optimism

The WCG was actually surprisingly optimistic. Yeah, yeah, I know what they taught, and I know that they expected some really awful stuff to happen in the short term. I also know why all those teachings existed, etc. I get it.

But compared to many other Christian or Christian-like denominations, the WCG was actually surprisingly long-term optimistic. For example, they did not believe in hell or eternal conscious torment – something that many Christian denominations do believe in, and with which scares the crap out of people. Instead, they were annihilationists instead, who simply believed that those who didn’t “get with the program” would just be destroyed in a lake of fire. They never taught that they’d be conscious throughout. Just poof, and gone.

Compared to many Christian theologies, that’s actually a step up. In point of fact, this has made some aspects of my Christian journey really easy, because it’s a bit of theology I never had to unlearn. “Hell doesn’t exist”, they say, put forth a lot of scripture and expect a lot of blowback, and I just say “okay, that’s cool”, and move on. I’m not invested in that.

And the “millennium” was actually something to (generally) look forward to. A time when Jesus would bodily come back to earth and set things right? In general terms, who wouldn’t want that? Watching all of the things that were causing trouble in the world at the time, like famine, nuclear proliferation, rampant pollution, etc., all be fixed at the snap of a finger? It’s no wonder that so many people bought into the hype! Even now a part of me feels cast adrift, as the fate of the world, and the fate of me, is no longer ensured, or even known. It could all go to heck at any moment and there wouldn’t be a deus ex machina to fix it all anymore.

And there was an optimism in the community, too – those that were “saved” or “came to the truth” were expected to live up to a standard of behavior – and that was enforced, too. Sure, people were people, but you generally knew what to expect from a “church person”. Crime, etc., was so rare in that community that when it did happen people were genuinely shocked. Of course it’s true that this was all outward behavior and there were some very black hearts in the church (I lived with one), but there was still a great deal of comfort in the predictability of people.

The Festival of Tabernacles was such an exuberant example of that unbridled optimism. It was specifically designed to be a microcosm of the coming millennium, and it was so perfect at that! For a week, life was good! Good food, many people who were just as excited as everyone else. An atmosphere even came over the city of excitement and promise. I’m sure even the locals felt it! It was an amazing experience, and it was another example of the optimism that permeated the cult, at least among the laymembers. The feasts still remain some of the high point memories of my entire life!

When it all went tango uniform, one of the things that impacted me the most was the loss of community, and the loss of predictability. The wider world doesn’t operate to those standards – people are both better and worse. There’s no standards of behavior now – anything goes. People want to hurt you, they’ll just hurt you. There’s no reason for them not to! Navigating through the world now is like stumbling through a minefield – all of the certainty, all of the commonality, all of the predictability – it’s just gone.

And, to be honest, I don’t really know how to cope in this world.

Even as the rose came with a lot of thorns, I miss the optimism of the WCG. The sense that things were going to get better if we waited just a little bit longer. The sense that we were all in it together and things would be set right soon. That’s gone now. Now I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know who to trust, and I don’t know who to rely on. All of that imploded with the WCG.

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