Strikingly, the theme of today’s sermon message in my local congregation, which was one of the few local congregations to have services today, since most people are either at or en route to the Feast of Tabernacles as we speak, which starts tomorrow night, was how an observance of God’s Sabbath and Holy Days keeps us on track. In a way, speaking to a small audience of about 50 people that attended services, several of whom were from neighboring congregations that did not have services, is the sort of audience that would assume that it was already on track, by virtue of attending Sabbath services en route to attending to the Feast of Tabernacles. It is always nice when a speaker can give a message that manages to talk tough about the larger issues of society where one’s audience is generally inclined to think of themselves as doing well but when the minister thinks that others can do better, as he commented on at least twice in his message. As I never assume that someone repeats something over and over again without a meaning to it, I figured from the message that we are going to be expected to go to the feast and come back resolved to do better than we are doing right now.
In not all cases, though, was the repetition of the message something I particularly enjoyed hearing. At times words have an ominous meaning to me that do not always have an ominous meaning to others. The fact that the person giving the sermon used the phrase “on track” at least three separate times, at least one time referring to the way that trains are kept on track in an extended metaphor, was something I took as particularly ominous. The reasons for this are somewhat profound, wrapped up in the difficult years at the beginning of life. As I was born in the early 1980’s while both of my parents (and a significant amount of my mother’s family) were in the Worldwide Church of God, it so happens that the time I was born in was a time after a period of abortive reform in the 1970’s that had ended in a grim determination by some very grim authoritarian leaders to get the church my family attended back on track. In retrospect, it is possible to judge this reaction as an understandable if lamentable pendulum swing away from what was seen as too rapid and too drastic a change in approach and mindset in terms of authority seeking to serve rather than dominate, and it certainly marks the last time that such tendencies ever had wide success, given that after the death of Herbert W. Armstrong in 1986, things were never on track again, and all efforts to arrest changes in either doctrine or approach on the part of Worldwide or any of the organizations that came from it only increased the fragmentation of the culture as a whole.
It is difficult to convey the level of horror I feel about hearing the expression on track when it comes to life and behavior. Part of this is because I do not tend to conceive of myself as a train, or even as a car in a train, under the direction of an engineer, to be directed on a narrow track towards a given destination. I tend to conceive of myself along a path that is less clearly defined than a train track, less rigidly tied to others, and where there is more individual freedom of movement, something more like a path through the mountains and forests, narrow and difficult, perhaps, where there is record of others having trod on it before, but where there is often a lot of solitude and individual choice about how to navigate the pitfalls that come along the way. It is my conception of my own path that gives me a certain leeway in developing my own capacity for reflection and judgment, disinclined to want people who believed that they should judge me and not in turn be judged, or to teach me and not be taught in turn as if I had nothing to provide to them. For while I am quick to learn from anyone or anything that crosses my path, I am likewise compelled to communicate to others, to reach out to them in hopes that they may learn something from me.
When I hear people say, even if it is an interpretation of what they say, that they believe that things are not on track and that they need to be put “back on track,” it takes me to a very scary place. I am taken to the place I was as a small child, where a horribly abusive family situation was tolerated because people were more interested in defending the legitimacy of authority in a household than making sure that authority was exercised in a just and humane and godly fashion. I am taken to a place where there is continual pressure to conform to a particular mold of how someone should be, without any flexibility or any desire to appreciate those who are simply different in their own ways, where women and children are to be seen, often seen working at chores or tasks around the home for the glory of the pater familias, but are definitely not to be heard with their own voices, except if those voices parrot other authority figures. What I see, in short, is a horror that is entirely unacceptable to me, and that takes me to the darkest years of a life that has had few years of brightness and cheer. Perhaps it is unreasonable that my mind jumps to such a dark place with a simple expression, but those who have lived the sort of life I have do not have the luxury of viewing the defense of sacred boundaries of dignity and self-respect lax in the face of such serious threats. The hope, of course, is that others will disclaim any unfriendly intent, and so trust can be built on friendly and open communication. Such a blessed state is far less common, though, than it ought to be, and it cannot be assumed or taken for granted, at least not yet.