Saturday, April 30, 2005

The long strange trip

The story of the Bowling Green years comes with a disclaimer. Some of the events that had an impact on me spiritually may have different interpretations, depending on who you talk to. Occasionally I will use pseudonyms for some people. The events I write about are according to my perspective. With that out of the way, let’s dive in.

I chose Bowling Green over other schools because my brother and best friend were both attending. I wanted to be a teacher, but other than that I didn’t have an overriding purpose for my life. I started in the fall of 1987 and I knew I wanted to hook up with a Christian group. At the community college in Elyria we had Intervarsity Christian Fellowship; at a big school like BGSU they had to have more than one. And I was right. In the first couple of weeks that school was in session all the groups were in recruitment mode. Campus Crusade for Christ took surveys to get names. BG Bible Studies had a table in the student union and sponsored a concert. Everyone had a method, a hook, and being the spiritual butterfly that I was I hopped from flower to flower. Some guys from the Fellowship of Christian Students invited me to dinner. The Campus Crusade guys had me over for a Bible study. I enjoyed CC a lot because of their emphasis on the Bible, but eventually I settled on a group called Active Christians Today (ACT).

ACT was connected with the Church of Christ. What branch of said church I don’t know. I visited their meetings at first because my best friend had been going before he left school. Simple meeting structure- praise songs led by someone playing an acoustic guitar, offering taken for missions, short Bible study, and out. They had a house close to campus which served as a hangout and meeting place. They also met for worship and communion on Sunday mornings. Nothing fancy. I can’t really say for certain why I chose them over the plethora of other groups on campus. But in the second semester I found a reason.

Her name was Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was a Christian of less than a year at that point, bubbly, full of zeal, the kind of zeal I wanted/needed in my life. It was her zeal that attracted me, and her beauty that drew me in. I had been attracted to a lot of women, but she was the first one I ever totally fell in love with. Separating my emotions for her from my emotions for the Lord became a tricky thing. We spent a lot of time together and became good friends. I fell head over heels and thought this was it. I have met the one.

She wasn’t the one.

Elizabeth had some very definite ideas about where her life was going and who was going to be involved in it, ideas she felt were from the Lord. And the Lord didn’t have me on her things to do list. The “just friends” speech reared its ugly head. I was heartbroken, but instead of just accepting reality and maintaining a good friendship I had it in my head that I could change her mind. We continued to hang out, eat dinner together, go on long walks, and talk. To the casual observer it would have looked like we were dating. 18 years later I say we were dating. She would have a different interpretation.

I am going into detail on this because I firmly believe that theology and beliefs are not formed in a vacuum. If people view Jesus as the ultimate non-conformist it’s because they themselves are non-conformists. Pacifists love the non-violent Jesus. People who don’t want to be judged love a Jesus who never judges. I have frequently heard Christian sisters claim that the Lord wants them in a “season of singleness.” That season usually begins out of dating frustration and ends when the cute guy of the moment finally gives her more than a passing nod.

When this story is complete you will notice that I made a lot of choices about the life of the Spirit based on what girl smiled at me that day. For right or for wrong that’s how I conducted myself, which shows how uncomfortable I was in my own skin and how deluded I was into thinking that the answer to all of my problems would come waltzing into my life with a body very unlike my own.

In the first weeks of the 1988 fall semester Elizabeth expressed to me her dissatisfaction with ACT. She was charismatic (the "soft" way of referring to tongues-talking Pentecostals), I was charismatic, but we were going to a group with a decided anti-charismatic slant. She wanted to try something different. A light went on. I knew a group! The Fellowship of Christian Students. As we sat on the steps of the ACT campus house we decided to visit FCS the next night.

Things continue to get curiouser and curiouser….

Monday, April 25, 2005


I missed one church in my last post so I'm going to cover it quickly before I move on to the college scene.

Toledo Home Fellowship was founded in the early 80's, I believe, by Dean Finnegan in-you guessed it- Toledo, OH. I'm not sure about the exact origins of the church, but I know that they were a group of Christians that met in a home. At some point they bought a large house in Toledo and decided to live communally. I came across their existence in 1984 through an ad in Cornerstone Magazine for their own homespun periodical, True Vine Press. I began corresponding with one of the members, Mark Schwartz, and at some point he invited me to spend the night at their house, known as "Morningstar Manor."

My parents were not in favor of this at all and refused to let me go. In retrospect I can understand somewhat. They had no idea what I might be getting into. At the time I didn't get it. My belief was that they were against this group of Christians because they weren't Catholic and didn't do church in the "normal" way. Eventually they relented, when they realized that I wasn't coming back to the Catholic Church anytime soon.

I was never a part of their fellowship, so I obviously saw only one side of what went on there. I can tell you that I got to know and love the pastor there, Steve Shipley. His tapes and the fellowship's publication became a source of spiritual food for me. Mark Schwartz and his wife Cheri became friends of mine. The idea that someone who loved Jesus Christ and had it in their heart to do something that would honor God and help people had a lot of attraction for me.

I stayed in contact with THF until I graduated from college in 1990. At that point the Schwartzes moved and I lost contact with them, Steve and the rest of THF. But THF was one more step in a lifelong exploration of how people answered "the God question." When Jesus enters your life, when you become conscious of the fact that this historical entity named Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross not just to be the fall guy in a political dispute between King Herod's people and those of Pontius Pilate but to accomplish something much more personal, the salvation of your soul, what is your response?

For the answer to that question, keep reading :)

Friday, April 22, 2005

My place is of the sun...

By grace my sight grows stronger
And I will not be a pawn
for the prince of darkness any longer
---Indigo Girls, "Prince of Darkness"

Christian Assembly of God was (and still is) pastored by Louis F. Kayatin. The church was your basic exuberant Pentecostal church, although I wasn't aware of that at the time, not having been exposed to much of anything outside of my Catholic upbringing. To me it was "alive." And the Catholic church was dead. That's all the impetus I needed to switch my allegiance. My parents didn't approve, but they let me do it; after all, I was 18. They very well could have played the "you're living in my house and will do what I say" card, but they didn't.

I have fond memories of that church; I still visit on occasion, when I want a taste from someone else's plate. I started attending the young adult group which met for Bible study and prayer once a week. The names still resonate in my consciousness- Brian Del Turco, Len McDermott, Micci Wicks, Gavin Wilder, Ed Miller, and others. They became my friends and my Christian brothers in a very real way. The exuberance, the Bible preaching, the fellowship, all of these things made an impact on my forming Christian mind.

I attended from 1985-1986 regularly and enjoyed it. Was there anything I didn't like? Well, pentecostal churches introduced me to the "God told me" syndrome, where if God told someone something there is no question. And those who know me know that I like to ask questions :) It's been almost 20 years so it's hard to pinpoint what may have bothered me. Life rolled on, people got married and moved away, eventually it just wasn't the same.

In 1985 I met a brother who said he attended "the Church In Cleveland." Church simply named after the city in which it resides. No denominationalism. That sounded cool,and again, exuberance was the key. I went to some of their meetings. They were as fired up as any pentecostal, and they talked about the Bible more. I dug it, so in my developing quest to "be biblical", I started attending their meetings. What did I like? The emphasis on the Bible, the friendliness of the people, the fellowship. They had regular conferences just on certain books of the Bible. What didn't I like? Most of the people acted like zombies. That sounds mean but they devoted themselves to the teachings of a guy named Witness Lee. They would memorize whole portions of his books and spit them out to each other. If I had an issue in my life, they had a passage from a book to share. Instead of being willing to invest their lives in a person that was hurting, they used Witness Lee's writings as a shield. That bugged me. No questioning Witness Lee. That REALLY bugged me :)

I was attending the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship meetings at the community college where I was taking classes. Little did I know that IVCF was having legal issues with the Local Church (as the Witness Lee movement was being referred to). I was being pulled in my affections on both sides, the leader of the IV group on one side, my friend Olvin on the other. I was getting a taste of how Christians could act when "doctrinal purity" was on the line, and boy, did I not like it. If only that had been the last time I would see ugly attitudes arise.

Somebody is going to read this who attends a church associated with the "Lord's Recovery", as they put it, and they will probably be offended by what I just wrote. Let me make myself clear. I think Witness Lee is a fantastic Bible teacher. I still enjoy his writings, even though I don't currently attend the church in Elyria. I don't, however, consider him to be "the unique apostle of the present age." I don't ascribe that role to anyone.

Somewhere in this time I attended a few meetings of North Coast Church (now Worldview Community). And I have to think that they finally changed their name so no one would confuse them with Church on the North Coast :) Decent place, Ken Roberts was a good preacher. I didn't attend enough meetings to form a good opinion.

By 1987 I just floated around. I became disenchanted with the church in Cleveland, so I went back to Church on the North Coast as my main church for a time. But in the fall of 1987 I began attending Bowling Green State University. I'll pick that story up next time :)

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Your soul it can't be bought

And though your soul
it can't be bought
your mind can wander....
---U2, "Vertigo"

I never had a chance to become friends with the people from the retreat, because my dad was a military man and we got the orders. I moved to Ohio in 1981 and started 10th grade here, and my chronic depression started all over again. I wanted to die; but in truth I just wanted to really live. I wanted something to make life worth it. I thought a girl would be the key; but no girl would look at me (although I looked at them quite a bit).

One day in study hall I overheard a conversation that intrigued me. You hear God mentioned quite a bit in school, believe it or not, although mention of his name is usually followed by “d*mn it” or some other expletive. In this case, a guy was telling his female friend that she needed to get “saved.” Saved. I had heard the term before, somewhere, probably from Ted Thiry. But something in that word watered the seed that had lain dormant since our move to Elyria. Saved. Yeah. This sounds like something I could use. Saved. Could it get me out of my depression? Someone tell me more.

We joined St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1981. Their Sunday school program was called P.S.R. (Parish School of Religion), and was a tad untraditional, one of the last vestiges of the guitar Mass and donut hour era of the 70’s. One Sunday morning we might listen to a Top 40 song and discuss it; the next Sunday we might ditch class altogether and go to breakfast. The teachers were like Mr. Geimar and really cared about us. The director of the high school program was Larry Coleman, and he had a certain energy about him which he applied to anything he put his hand to. My teacher that first year was one Gerald Zellers, 27 years of age, also known as Jerry or “The Cosmic Mr. Z.” He picked up that nickname because he was always reading books by Thomas Merton, or some other book that expounded a mystical way to God. He taught about the Bible that year, and he made us, or at least made me, want to read the Bible more. So I did. I began to be drawn towards reading the Bible. I didn’t enjoy Mass at this point in time, but man did I like reading the Bible.

In 1982 I count myself as having had the experience of "getting saved", although I've come across old journal fragments that lead me to believe it may have happened in 1981. In any event, by 1982 I had asked Jesus to be my personal Lord and Savior. Born again, saved, converted, actualized my baptismal promises, however you want to put it. I wasn't that concerned with the terminology you wanted to use to describe it, I just enjoyed the experience of possibly knowing what it meant to be loved by God.

But I was 16 and still in the Catholic church. I went to Mass because I had to, but I was becoming increasingly fascinated by the preaching I heard on TV and on WCRF, the Cleveland Christian radio station. I would wake up early on Sunday to watch preaching and then listen to WCRF the rest of the day. My parents were pleased by this newfound fascination with religion but not happy that it wasn't Catholicism I was fascinated with.

In 1984 I graduated from high school. I bought my first Christian rock album, Colours by Resurrection Band. That summer I went to my first Christian concert, Steve Camp. It was sponsored by the youth department of Christian Assembly of God in Lorain (now Church On The North Coast). After that concert I started attending their youth group every other week, as a compromise with my parents. They weren't going to let me, but I was 18, and they finally relented.

In 1985 I attended my first ever Protestant service at Christian Assembly. It was not long after that I stopped going to Mass. Thus began my journey through the Protestant jungle. And on to part III.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Trying to tell you something 'bout my life

There's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
Closer I am to fine
---Indigo Girls, "Closer To Fine"

In order to start this thing I thought I would post a series of e-mails I sent to a friend recently, documenting the spiritual changes in my life.

I was born on October 2, 1966 into a family that was nominally Catholic. My mother brought us to church, but my dad didn’t care, and I knew it; so when I got old enough to have an opinion I didn’t want to go either. When I was young I found it quite boring; as I grew older it took on a certain fascination for me. I can’t pinpoint the time when I first became aware of God. Perhaps because I was in a home that at least gave assent to God’s existence I was always aware. My grandfather being an ordained Baptist minister with a book published was pretty cool. I do remember that around the time of fourth grade I became enamored with the mystery surrounding the Catholic Church, the “smells and the bells.” I would read things and play Mass and even thought about becoming a priest. I didn’t have a lot of understanding about Jesus Christ dying on the cross for me; I knew he died- I could see the crucifix every Sunday- but it wasn’t personal. My concept of God was mysterious and not loving. So I developed some semblance of a desire for God, but it also came and went

I also had no understanding of church at that point. I thought “Christian” was just another label worn by people who went to church on Sunday, along with Baptist, Methodist and Catholic. I didn’t realize that “Christian” applied to all of them, at least theoretically. I remember a couple of things happening that subtly reinforced the differences for me. One time on the way to school, probably when I was in third grade, a guy was handing out flyers on a street corner promoting a revival. He said that if we went we would get a free candy bar. Well that was enough for me- I didn’t care about what a “revival” was, but I could dig free candy. My parents, however, weren’t as interested. Knowing what I know now, I’ve deduced that it had to have been a Baptist thing; they’re the only ones using candy as a bribe, and they’re the only ones approaching children to try and get them to church.

We lived in California in the mid-1970’s and I saw a commercial on TV for a booklet called The Modern Romans, and it was ABSOLUTELY FREE! They also offered a free (free has always been good) Bible correspondence course and a subscription to a magazine called The Plain Truth. I was an altar boy at the time, during one of the years that God was on my mind, and my fascination with the mystery of the church was just beginning. However, why a free Bible study held any kind of attraction for me I do not know. But I called the toll-free number and sent for it. My father didn’t care to see it in the house. I wasn’t sure why he had an opinion on the matter; he didn’t attend Mass regularly and from what I could tell he and God had “an understanding.” In the ensuing years, as I gained an understanding of the kind of church The Plain Truth was a part of, I understood a little more. Garner Ted Armstrong and Herbert Armstrong had some unique beliefs regarding the trinity and the Sabbath. Not that it made a difference to my dad; he just didn’t want to see non-Catholic materials leading me astray.

I attended the Catholic equivalent of Sunday School, and occasionally I had a teacher who made it all come alive for me. One teacher I remember in particular was named Mr. Geimer. He had a certain fascination with the subject matter that was infectious. He made it seem like Jesus Christ was worth knowing about. (It planted a seed in me. Whenever I speak before a group I make a point of being genuine and real. People will know the difference.) Because of his influence I didn’t mind when my mother made me go to a vacation Bible school that was held at the interdenominational chapel on the military base where we lived. I was given a New Testament there, Good News For Modern Man, and this actually looked cool. It didn’t look like a Bible, and that was a draw for me. I think I even read it, but as time passed it went on the shelf and I forgot about it. Being a military brat, we moved frequently, and we couldn’t stay very involved in the parishes where we attended Mass. No matter what kind of influence a Mr. Geimer might have on me, it was lost with the next move. For every Mr. Geimer there were two priests and teachers who made it boring.

In 1980 my parents attended a Marriage Encounter retreat, and something changed. My dad wanted to go to Mass again. I wasn’t too hip to that, because it meant that I didn’t have an out when I didn’t want to go. If he went, everyone went. All of a sudden we were immersed in a culture of family camps and “one ringers” (someone hanging up after one ring to let you know they were thinking about you). It was just too sappy for a 14-year-old like me. Just give me my Kiss albums and my Strat-O-Matic baseball game and leave me alone.

My teenage years held the same changes and challenges that teens still face- all of a sudden I was overwhelmingly concerned with what people thought of me (they didn’t think much), I became painfully aware of my own shyness, and I despaired of ever finding a girlfriend. And boy oh boy, were girls ever a part of my consciousness. For whatever reason my parents decided to send their depressed, chronically shy son on a teen retreat styled after the Marriage Encounter event. This retreat was a turning point for me. I started talking to people, who couldn’t believe that I was shy. I went to Mass with these people and for the first time in my life it held some meaning for me. This 1981 retreat was also where I met my very first bonafide Jesus Freak. Ted Thiry ate, slept, breathed and drank Jesus Christ. That intrigued me. He wore a t-shirt with the Resurrection Band on the front. Now I was on top of popular music at the time, but I had never heard of this “Resurrection Band”; however, since Ted couldn’t go three words without saying “Jesus Christ” in a non-cursing manner I figured it had to be a religious thing. Ted even used phrases like “Jesus saves.” Jesus saves? That’s not something you hear at Mass every day. I was drawn to Ted’s energy and what seemed like his love for me.

The end result of attending this retreat was that I wanted to know about Jesus Christ. If Jesus was more than a fancy picture in a Children’s Bible, if he was more than the body on the crucifix, then I wanted to know. My mother had been attending a neighborhood Bible study, so when I went on this retreat and wanted a Bible, she was more than happy to oblige. She also bought me a basic Bible study book geared to teens which I loved. It was meant to teach basic facts about characters and books, and it whet my appetite for further study.

I still have the notebook they gave us to take notes on the various talks with. At the end of the retreat they served as de facto yearbooks. “I’m really glad I got to know you this weekend.” “You’re a really nice person.” “God bless you!” “Love, Lea... Michelle... Jennine... Diane....” Typical yearbook stuff, but being the naïve teenager that I was, I took it seriously. Wow, all these girls love me! Boy was I in for a rude awakening :)

One more recollection before I leave the retreat to the winds of history. A couple of months later someone scheduled a reunion party. I was excited to see these people that meant the world to me for those three days we were together. What I got was my first taste of an underage teen drinking party. I brought a camera to memorialize the event, and most of the pictures I took were either of people kissing or drinking. At the time the only thing that registered was that some of these people who expressed their love for me two months ago didn’t remember me. In retrospect that party is an example of why discipleship is sorely needed. But I digress.

And with that, I will leave you until Part Two.