Originally published in Crux, June 1999
Every month or so I would see it again. A giant billboard blurting out the question, "Are you ready?" You couldn’t miss this sermon of a sign. It was posted at the T-junction of Illinois State Highways 36 and 79, just before you turned right to cross the Mississippi River heading west into Hannibal, Missouri. Our gray Chevy Impala would slow to a stop sign and meet this message head on as if we were momentarily parked in the front pew. The billboard pictured cars careening off other cars, recklessness resulting from The Rapture. The picture frightened me. It introduced hazards into my life of a size and proportion I had yet to encounter. Nevertheless, I knew that this sign asked a question I would one day need to answer for myself before ever getting behind the wheel. Having Jesus with you in the car was something like wearing your seatbelt or putting on your glasses for proper nighttime vision. It was essential to good driving. One could be warned against hydroplaning, or could take precautions against over-aggressive motorists. But what to do when cars on the freeway were suddenly abandoned by the mass disappearance of other drivers? I figured any safe motorist concerned with defensive driving would no doubt repent at the junction of State Highways 36 and 79.
That, at least, is the place where it all came together for me. I began the day shopping in Illinois a sinner, unprepared and unrepentant. By the end of the day I had met God at the gospel junction. While my dad was watching for a break in the oncoming traffic, my eyes were transfixed by the sign. My heart was beating to the rhythm of a blinking turn signal. Before Dad turned right, I turned to Jesus — a kind of metanoia in motion. Less than thirty seconds later I crossed the baptismal waters of the Mississippi and came out on the Missouri side a seven-year-old saint.
Saintly living in Hannibal was none too easy for me, however, and I needed a lot of help. The periodic shopping trips to Quincy, Illinois were too infrequent to keep me from backsliding in between junction stops. The billboard couldn’t always remind me of who I was and where I was going. I needed something more local than that. Help arrived in my mother. She was a sort of in-house invitation hymn. She lived to make sure my head was bowed, my eyes were closed and that I was ready to meet God. Mom had given some money to the PTL and 700 Clubs, and for her advancement of the kingdom she had learned how to decode Satanic messages encrypted in rock music. She knew when music had left that old-time religion and was no longer "good enough for Grandma." She could keep time well enough to know when a beat had jumped the chasm between heaven and hell. For the price of a love offering, Mother’s ear was trained to discern the subtle nuances of heaven’s music and the distinct bugle sounds of "the last trumpet." Any other music was suspect. Any other music would precipitate one of her apocalypses. "Travis, they’ve done backward masking on ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Hotel California.’ You listen to that music and you’ll still be mowing the lawn during the Rapture."
Mom was a guard dog who could smell the scent of fear. She knew exactly what to say to make sure I didn’t commit a pleasure in humming my brother’s tunes. Because of her I was born with an over-realized eschatology. An end-times fixation passed right through the placenta. I could chart the last days before I could say my ABCs. I began counting 666 before I ever got to 1-2-3. While other children were watching Sesame Street and Jailhouse Rock, I was watching A Thief in the Night. While they were learning the fifty state capitols, I was plotting global developments with Gog and Magog. I knew how ominous the future could be. Rapture reality was nothing to take lightly. Cars swerving off the road without drivers. Jumbo jets falling out of the sky as a result of white-robed pilot souls ascending from their cockpit to higher, more heavenly altitudes. Cemeteries swirling with saints rising like hot air balloons. A woman wakes up and her husband is suddenly gone, nowhere to be found — faucet water still running, razor still buzzing. There’s no time to change your mind; the Son has come and you’ve been left behind. The unraptured penitents going hungry and homeless during the Tribulation. Getting turned down at the grocery store, not because they are shoeless and shirtless, but because they don’t have the mark of the beast, the end-time equivalent to a Sam’s Card. (A mark, incidentally, which had already been spotted on the UPC codes of all General Mills cereal boxes.) A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold. Running until your legs feel like Jello as you flee satanic surveillance at every turn. Finally getting trapped in the middle of a bridge and given the Tribulation choice: get tattooed or guillotined.
My eschatological imagination was feverish. Not a morning went by but I woke up expecting Jesus to return. Every breakfast became the battle of Armageddon. A spoonful of wrongly coded cereal might involve me in the work of Antichrist so I had to be on guard in this skirmish for the soul. Fortunately for me, I had a mother who shopped for groceries as if Ezekiel’s watchman. She labored to deliver my family from hell by avoiding Satan in the cereal aisle.
Such was life on The Late Great Planet Earth. It was high drama stuff. Other neighborhood children might fritter their time away, but I was different. My life was cosmic in scope. At any moment I could be whisked away. . . .
Some years have gone by now and I am still here. The sign at State Roads 36 and 79 has been taken down, replaced by more worldly commercial interests like advertisements for Chinese buffet and a free checking account at Farmers and Merchants Bank (perhaps signs in their own right that we are "as in the days of Noah"). But the billboard served its generation well. It lodged a question in my mind that will last for a lifetime: are you ready?
That question for me is no longer framed simply by the wooden construction of a junction sign and its picture of urban apocalypse. It has taken on vastly wider, more biblical proportions. It stretches across the horizons of time to include all the saints of God who have ever hoped for something: the nomadic patriarch who walked with his head up to heaven counting the stars of the sky as his promised future; a captive people who cried out for deliverance amidst the sweat of an Egyptian sun; the Hebrew poet and king who sought to dwell in the house of the Lord and gaze upon the beauty of his face; the spice-bearing women who received Easter good news from an angel at the empty tomb; the exiled islander who daydreamed of a new heaven and a new earth to come; African-American slaves who put a melody to their mistreatment by singing of a chariot "coming for to carry me home." And . . . I suppose it includes me, driving down the highway ready for ascension, having second thoughts about my box of Cheerios and wondering how many more weeks I will need to mow the lawn.