Armpit

 

Background: My sixth year of life was the worst. That’s when two very important people checked out on me, my sister and my dad. Of course I couldn’t help but wonder what I did wrong. I became introverted and fell out of step with those around me. When I became a Christian years later, it was tempting to identify with the “less honorable” armpit in the Body of Christ, as Paul expresses it in 1 Corinthians 12. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.

    Daddy was only in the picture for the first six years of my life. That’s when Roxanne, my nine year-old sister, became severely brain-damaged from mumps meningitis and measles encephalitis. She was eventually reduced to lying on a bed, wearing diapers, unable to talk, walk or feed herself. Because my dad couldn’t handle the imperfections, he left us for good. 

Story: Mom’s deep faith carried her through the daunting task of raising us three kids alone in rural New Hampshire without a car or a husband. Her parents stepped in and became our Deliverer. They came as often as they could, since my grandpa was still working full-time for a coal delivery company in Detroit.

    I was empathetic for Mom’s plight. I didn’t want to cause any problems. Other than general mischievousness, I was a pretty good kid.

    When she was able, which wasn’t often, Mom took us to church. I remember the cold damp church basement and flannel-graphs during summer vacation bible school. My brother and I sometimes rode our bikes three miles up the dirt road to church.

    We also used to play “church” at home. We’d take turns reading from the “Upper Room.” This pocket-sized magazine had a scripture reference, a couple paragraphs of “sermon,” a closing prayer and a thought for the day. Sometimes we’d pretend we were doing communion with grape juice and Mom’s fancy crystal goblets.

    After two years of struggling to sell greeting cards and dresses to supplement the $25/week child support, Mom moved us to Pennsylvania. At the same time Pop retired so he and “Graggie” could move to Canton to help us out on a daily basis. It wasn’t long before Roxanne, Roy and I got baptized by sprinkling when the Methodist pastor came to our house. We became members of the Canton Methodist Church.

    We had our favorite pew. It was six feet long, way back in the corner of the sanctuary all by itself. From third grade through my senior year I sat there, wearing a hand-me-down jacket, fake tie and a too-tight wrinkled white shirt. I went to Sunday School faithfully. Starting in junior high, I would sometimes attend the youth group meetings. That’s where I first played billiards.

    I showed signs of a spiritual hunger but they didn’t last long. I was given a bible with large pages that I tried to read but didn’t get too far. Mom also had some scripture memory cards I tried my hand at. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart...” came from that inspired push.

    Without a doubt, Mom was my spiritual mentor up to this point. Her laying down her life for the sake of my sister Roxanne had a powerful influence on me, modeling what true love is. She made sure we connected with church. So impressed was I with her deep integrity, I recently assembled the book “How to Play During a War” about her life based on the letters she wrote. She resonated with me because she was wise, accessible and different.

    By senior year in high school I had mastered the art of being good. I was considerate and thoughtful and respectful to elders. I was a serious student too. But I wasn’t “on-fire” for God.

    Then came the summer of 1971. (See Falling in Love) I had argued with my born-again friends that I was good enough, that I didn’t need to change. But deep down inside I knew that something essential was missing. Namely, the Holy Spirit.

    By the time I went to college in the fall, I was born again, and filled with the Holy Spirit. But my freshman at Cornell got off on the wrong foot by getting involved with a cult called “The Way.” (Their doctrine denied that Jesus was part of the Trinity.) I had only participated in a few bible studies at a frat house. Fortunately, two guys from a mainstream christian group convinced me “The Way” was wrong. I then plugged into the campus fellowship group InterVarsity. But studies always took precedence, since I was a pre-med “grind.” We who lived and died for good grades were called that and worse.

    By my senior year I was involved with the Love Inn, a hippie church located in a barn in Freeville, NY. Scott Ross was the personality behind the Love Inn. Scott had been a well-known DJ in NYC who was now doing his syndicated “Scott Ross Show” from a second-floor studio in the barn. Phil Keaggy, Ted Sandquist and Lynn Nichols were just a few of the talented musicians living at the Love Inn while I was there.

    I was taking Cornell’s one and only film course. For my final project I did the 15-minute documentary “A New Song” on this fascinating community within the Jesus Movement that was rocking the entire country.

    Pastor Denny Reedy and his wife Vonnie wielded the most influence over me during these years. Their youth group at the East Canton Methodist church was on-fire for the Lord. That’s where I saw the baptism of the Holy Spirit commonly manifested. Because of the Reedys I was able to attend Jesus ’73 where I heard the world’s greatest bible teachers, including Tom Skinner (listen to “The New Community” link). The youth group later went to New York City where we saw David Wilkerson’s drug rehabilitation ministry Teen Challenge. All the while we organized our own spiritual retreats at a local scout camp. The Reedys resonated with me because they were wise, accessible and different.

    After Cornell I went to Temple University School of Medicine, presumably to become a doctor. The rigors of study made it harder than ever to attend church with any regularity. There was a group of christians from the five Philadelphia med schools that occasionally got together. Sometimes I went to John Poole’s Gospel Tabernacle. John was a talented pastor and nationally-known speaker who eventually left his wife and kids and ran off with the church secretary.

    I was way over my head in med school. I discovered too late I’d taken on more than I could handle. In my junior year I took a year off to attend Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC. (My college film instructor had told me about BJU’s famous cinematography school and suggested I check it out someday.) I decided to take as many course as I could in 9 months as a “special student.”

    I did not know what I was getting myself into. Bob Jones University is a ultra-conservative, fundamentalist institution with a handbook of rules and regulations that dictated the music I was allowed to listen to, the churches I wasn’t supposed to set foot inside, even the way I was supposed to dress. I deliberately chose a black-listed charismatic church. Over spring break I again flaunted the rules by going to a Jesus Music festival in Orlando, FL. Of course my roommates felt obligated (ratting was encouraged) to report me to the authorities. Mrs. Stenholm, the elderly and stern film department head, expressed her outrage by shoving me up against a classroom wall, shaking her finger in my face and shouting “You’ve gone into left field. You’ve let me down. How could you do this?”

    My fate was in the hands of Bob Jones III. Would I be expelled? No, he decided I could stay and finish out my final few weeks as long as I didn’t “proselytize” or tell anyone what I had done.

    I’ve always said that going to Bob Jones brought out the long-haired radical in me. (Of course, long hair wasn’t permitted on campus). Within a month of my making a hasty exit from BJ (I skipped the final exam for a required bible course), I was back in med school. But I couldn’t deal with the extremes of having enjoyed filmmaking so much and now feeling so ignorant, so confused and never knowing enough. Two weeks into my senior and final year I quit.

    After a horrible month of assembly line work in a plastics factory, I eventually focused on making videos, first for a TV station as a news cameraman and then as a freelance videographer. While I was at WBRE-TV, the NBC affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, PA, I made a couple of public service programs on interesting christian events and personalities in the area.

    I was living in Williamsport, PA, since that was where WBRE had their central Pennsylvania news bureau. Naturally I gravitated towards a local charismatic church called The Door Fellowship.

    The Door had been formed in the sixties as an outgrowth of the Jesus Movement. It was a family-run operation. Wayne Holcomb was the pastor and his wife Margret was co-pastor. Her sister Ann was married to Jack Hess, the worship leader. It was an exciting place to be.

    That is, until I started questioning why so many people were being kicked out or as they called it, “disfellowshipped.” That prompted me to write a letter to Wayne Holcomb. (See How I Got Kicked Out) Around this time I witnessed what was probably the strangest incident I’ll ever see in church. During the Saturday evening service Wayne was explaining why he was about to disfellowship Ted Hughes, one of the elder. Two of Ted’s friends, Laverne Zellers and Bill Wilson, were in the back of the room. They had come to speak on Ted’s behalf, who wasn’t present. As Wayne was speaking up front, Laverne and Bill started shouting. Wayne quickly led the congregation in a chorus so as to drown out the ruckus. Meanwhile, several burly men were dispatched. They grabbed Laverne and dragged him out the door. Bill was thrown over another man’s shoulders and also dumped outside.

    Needless to say, after reading my letter of concern, it was only a matter of time before I would be targeted. I had already been labeled a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” To avoid another embarrassing show-down, I just stopped going.

    Overnight I became an outcast. Friends didn’t associate with me anymore. Realizing that this hinted of cult mind-control, I put together a packet of damning information on the so-called “shepherding movement.” This movement was characterized by leaders exercising heavy-handed tactics to keep their people in line. Under the anonymous name “Church Watch,” I mailed about 50 large brown envelopes from a New York address to Door members back home in Williamsport.

    I was so put off by church that I didn’t attend any for the next five years.  But I wasn’t stagnating. I started the christian rock radio program “White Light” on a local FM radio station. It aired on Sunday mornings. I was bass player for a couple of christian bands, including “Steve Vermilya and Malachi” (the first band ever to play in the county prison) and “Nazarene Sect.” 

    Many of us who had been kicked out of the Door got together for a picnic one summer so we could lick our wounds and try to make sense of it all.

    The spring of 1985 I discovered Dr. Gene Scott, who became the dominant spiritual force in my life for the next 15 years. At the time I was taking a “Video Engineering” course at New York City’s Center for the Media Arts. Things were not going well. I was losing interest and skipping classes. One night while watching cable TV I tuned in the program “The Doc is In.” Dr. Scott was smoking a cigar, wearing a cowboy hat and talking about Atlantis, the Great Pyramid and the bible. So impressed was I with his scholarship I eventually installed a 10’ diameter satellite dish in my front yard so I could pick up his free 24/7 programming. Doc won me over because he was wise, accessible and different.

    By 1988 my need for real fellowship finally overrode my distrust and I began attending Agape Fellowship, a slightly charismatic church under the Mennonite banner. Ignoring ever-present caution, I got involved in small home groups and the worship team. The feeling of family was intoxicating. Mike West, the pastor, introduced a year-long series of sermons on grace, a truly radical concept for me at the time.

    But by 1994 Agape’s leadership was starting to unravel. Major disagreements regarding church government finally caused Mike West to resign. His recently appointed assistant, Mike Diehl, assumed the senior pastor role. It had only been a few years earlier Mike had dropped out of pastoring after burning out on his very first church. Now here he was back in the frying pan and his discomfort was painfully obvious to me.

    Two years later I found myself in Mike’s office, calmly outlining my concerns. I knew he wasn’t cut out for pastoring. Of course, we came to loggerheads. I couldn’t ignore the warning signs, however, so after 8 years at Agape, my longest stint in any church, I next found myself playing bass for the Christian Church at Cogan Station’s worship team. (Post Script: Thirteen years later the Agape elders saw what I had seen and forced Mike to resign.)

    During my five years at Cogan Station I made a documentary on CCCS’s mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Their emphasis on short-term missions was refreshing, since everyone was encouraged to participate. But the church’s size (600) was ultimately a major turn-off and so I was looking for a reason to leave. The worship leader’s affair with a married lady in the choir and the church’s clumsy attempt to cope with it gave me the excuse I was looking for.

    Next stop, Muncy Evangelical Free Church with Dr. Rob Palmer at the helm. Rob turned out to be the best pastor I’d heard locally. He was eager to teach! To accommodate his many notes and illustrations, Rob had two large white-boards installed on rails on the platform for ready access.

    Rob gave me a copy of his doctoral thesis. I had never heard of “chiasms” or “stair-steps” or “weaves” before. Everyone who sat under Rob picked up on his enthusiasm and started looking at the bible in a new light. I found myself riding my bike 20 miles to church just so my head would be clear and ready to absorb when I got there.

It was during this tenure at E-Free, the spring of 2001, I started going to Bible Study Fellowship. BSF is an international organization that conducts free bible studies in select larger communities, based on a 9-month semester. In eight years the major books of the bible have been studied and discussed and the cycle begins anew.

Bible study was what I’d woefully neglected the first thirty years of my spiritual life. I ate up BSF like a starving man. In the process I gained a deep and reverential love for God’s Word. Eventually I was confident enough to sign up for Yolkfellow Prison Ministries and help lead a weekly bible study in the county prison.

    But alas, a year and a half into the E-Free experience, friction with an old friend and former worship team member, complete with physical threats to my well-being, caused me to flee. (This was not the first messy conflict I had with this person. The previous encounter had been at CCCS where a group meeting with concerned elders solved nothing. When Rob proposed a similar meeting, I asked if we could deal in writing instead. Rob wasn’t willing to go that route and so I had no choice but to leave. The aggressor chose to stay.)

    Another five year drought with no formal church fellowship followed.

    In 2008 I moved back to my home town of Canton and the 115-year old homestead, which had sat empty since mom’s passing five years earlier. My top priority was to find a church. The first Sunday back a blizzard raged. I found myself trudging up the street a few blocks to the old Methodist church I’d gone to as a kid. It had since merged with the Presbyterians, moved to their building down the street and changed their name to the Ecumenical Parish. I was almost the youngest person in the room! The services were formal and a pipe organ played the hymns. But I stayed because I didn’t want to go through the agony of church shopping.

    For three years I rode the nostalgia wave, since the Ecumenical Parish was where Mom had gone. But my heart wasn’t in it and I finally told the pastor I couldn’t keep up the charade.

    During the early years of the 21st century my main spiritual instruction was found in Chuck Missler’s Koinonia House ministry. K-House offered in-depth on-line computer courses for every book of the bible. Chuck’s background in Information Technology as well as many years in the business world allowed him to look at the bible with a fresh perspective. It was Chuck who taught me about Nephilim, UFOs, quantum physics, bible codes, as well as making sense of the fascinating world of prophecy. His landmark book “Learn the Bible in 24 Hours” provided the big picture I’d been longing for. Chuck impacted my life because he was wise, accessible and different.

    Guess what? Now I’m looking for another church to plug into.

Comments: I love God’s Word.

Meanwhile, it’s obvious my relationship with the institutional church has been a stormy one. I’m very quick to pick up on a pastor’s heart. This comes from my general distrust for men, given what my dad did to us. Yet, there is hope. If I sense the pastor is a humble person who doesn’t seek the spotlight, who’s a true servant and a passionate teacher at heart, I’m in.

    Of course it doesn’t help matters that I’m introverted. Nor am I a team player. Given that most evangelical church’s programs are oriented around extroverts, there’s a bit of a disconnect. My eyes were opened to this reality after reading Adam McHugh’s book “Introverts in the Church.”

I’m mailing 50 “ChurchWatch” envelopes to Door members, using a friend’s NY address. The tactic worked. They never suspected me.

Standing next to me is Laverne Zellers, the loyal friend of Ted Hayes.

One of only two family portraits ever taken. Mom’s holding me. Behind is Roy III, Roxanne and Dad.

My sister Roxanne with her leg brace, paralyzed right side and left arm brace.

My grandparents after their move to Canton.

Vonnie and Denny Reedy and their two kids, Elaine and Joey.

The cover of a Gene Scott cassette tape series.

Rob Palmer’s doctoral thesis cover.

Self-portrait taken en route to BJU for my first interview. Naive me, I didn’t know my hair was abhorrent to them.

The back cover of one of Chuck and Nan Missler’s books.

Look Up:

Traveling to other universes

How I Got Kicked Out:

A Sort-of Cult

Once Before Time:

A Story You’ll Never Forget

Entangled Up in You:

The Quantum Secret

Armpit:

My Spiritual Biography

Clothesline Theory:

The Future Hangs On It

Bible Codes and DNA:

Life is a Strand

The Perfect Church:

I Can Always Dream

Falling in Love:

God and Betty

Bubble Boy:

Free will is a joke

Look! The Cross:

It’s Everywhere

Cross Shopping:

When Satan almost fooled Jesus

Communion:

Power Meal

A Quick Look at Eternity:

The Big Picture

Take Me Home:

Home Page

Contact:

Let’s Talk

Life’s a Script:

Book of Life

Moses:

The UFO Connection

Jesus, this hurts!