When California preacher, Harold Camping, predicted the world would end this Saturday evening, several of my Rapture-ready friends insisted I finish reading the Left Behind series and make my preparations.
Camping's ubiquitous billboard messages: "Blow the trumpet, warn the people!" were all over Seattle. People were so giddy with anticipation, it recalled the many loopy, no-exit conversations I've had with my righteous neighbor.
"Why are you so ... well, cheerful, about doomsday?" I always asked him.
He gazed at me with the true alarm of deep pity. "I'm afraid you'll have a rough time of it here during the Tribulations."
"Don't you love any of us you believe will suffer so?" I said.
This gave my neighbor a moment's pause. But then he admitted with some chagrin. "You can't blame us born-agains for at last getting our heavenly rewards. We've waited thousands of years for End Times. We've got holy wars, world financial markets crashing, Israel's military power, Middle East uprisings, and even global warming."
This last sign he pronounced brightly, as if our global climate was gleefully graduating into a hot time in the old world.
It struck me that being "raptured" out of this world trumps the insecurity of living and the surrender of dying or staying on. No bodily indignity. No suffering. One will simply be whisked off with the fellowship of the believers -- the Rapture gang -- to a heavenly reward.
In the twinkling of an eye they say, the righteous will ascend, dropping golden dental work, nightgowns, and perhaps some spouses. Unless you count losing the earth and billions of unfortunate sinners who cling to it, getting raptured is a blast. Who wouldn't want to escape prophesied plagues, floods, and nomadic thug-like legions of the unsaved?
This rather pitiless evacuation plan for only the righteous might seem darkly comic, if not for a Time magazine poll: 56 percent of Americans "believe the prophecies in the Book of Revelation will come true." Perhaps that explains why the Left Behind books are the biggest selling fictional series in the United States.
In complex and challenging times, apocalypse is such a simple answer. Fight-or-flight fear is hardwired into our reptilian, forest-slashing, migrating, pioneering species -- leave the Old World behind, find a New World. No need to really change, adapt or evolve, just find another planet or heaven to plunder for our own rewards. After all, the dark side of fundamentalism is consumerism.
The next time I saw my neighbor he sported a new bumper sticker: "THIS VEHICLE WILL BE UNMANNED IN CASE OF RAPTURE."
I did not say that I wanted a bumper sticker of my own: "IN CASE OF RAPTURE, CAN I HAVE YOUR CAR?"
It was a surprisingly sunlit Seattle day and we strolled down to our backyard beach on the Salish Sea to continue our End Times talk. We sat down on driftwood and watched the comic black-and-white tuxedo harlequins diving and popping up in the waves.
A Great Blue Heron swooped in with the caw of a dinosaur bird. How could this ancient bird fly with such huge wings? How did she escape extinction? Somehow the Great Blue had adapted and survived beautifully. Couldn't we?
"So," my neighbor asked excitedly, "Are you ready for the End?"
He had already taken out a post-Rapture insurance policy from Eternal Earthbound Pets USA to protect his beloved dog -- since animals aren't allowed in his heaven.
I put my arm around my neighbor, the driftwood creaking slightly under our weight.
"Listen," I said softly, "I want to be left behind."
Left Behind to figure out a way to fit more humbly into this abiding Earth, this living and breathing planet we happily call home, we call holy.
My neighbor looked at me, startled, then fell very quiet as we watched a harlequin float past, his bright beak dripping a tiny fish. Happy, so happy in this moment. The Great Blue cawed hoarsely and stood on one leg in a fishing meditation. Wave after bright wave lapped our beach and the spring sunshine warmed our open faces.
"You're a really good neighbor," I told him. "We'll all miss you if you zipped up to heaven. We'd say ... well, there goes the neighborhood."
"I'll miss you," my neighbor said softly. "and ... and all this, too."
It was a beginning.
Slowly he took my hand and we sat in silence, listening to waves more ancient than our young, hasty species, more forgiving than our religions, more enduring. Rapture.
Peterson's 16th book, the new memoir, "I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth" (DaCapo Press) is one of The Christian Science Monitor's "Top 10 Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010" and contains more left behind stories.