Saturday, July 28, 2012

I, Lonnie

Lonnie Frisbee in Poway CA, 1990
A Book Review
Title: Not by Might, Nor by Power
Subtitle: The Jesus Revolution
Author: Lonnie Frisbee, with Roger Sachs

How does somebody write a posthumous autobiography?

Well, one way might be like something out of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, where the ghost of sea captain Daniel Gregg comes back and dictates his memoirs to Mrs. Muir, who publishes them as a best seller.

I don't think anything like that happened here. No necromancy was involved. No Ouija boards were used. The ghost of Lonnie Frisbee wasn't interviewed by Roger Sachs during a séance in his kitchen. Speaking of Lonnie, Roger Sachs does say this in the book's introduction:
He died in the midst of controversy and disgrace. However, during the last three years of his life, he was compelled to tell his own story.

…I had the privilege of being a close friend. Lonnie asked me to help tell his story. I was more than willing and honored. I am not a professional writer, but together we audio-taped, filmed, and documented his life for most of those last three years.
Lonnie Frisbee died on March 12, 1993, so the last three years to which Sachs refers must be the time frame of 1991 through 1993. The biggest question I have is why did it take so long to publish this book? All that Sachs has to say is:
Pray for us because as Lonnie said "It's like the devil himself has put everything concerning Lonnie on his hit list." There has been much resistance to getting the true story from Lonnie's personal perspective out there. I can attest to that.
Sachs does not elaborate on what form the "resistance" took. I don't mean to complain, because I do in fact very much appreciate the book; nonetheless, for the last nineteen years that Sachs has sat on the sources that he had, the Devil has been diligently weaving, like a busy spider, his own tangled narratives about Lonnie Frisbee. After reading it, I feel like the book is about nineteen years too late.

The Ersatz Internet Lonnie vs. The Flesh and Blood Lonnie
Because what in effect we have today are two Lonnie Frisbees. One is the flesh and blood person named Lonnie Frisbee who died in comparative obscurity and whose moldering body now lies in the grave, returning to the dust from which it came. His grave is located in the Crystal Cathedral Memorial Gardens in Garden Grove, California. The other is the mythic icon that still trudges along on the Internet, like a long-haired virtualized revenant, forever immutable as the Hippie Preacher — or the "gay" Hippie Preacher, depending on what your specific political objectives might be or what propaganda points you're trying to score. In actual life, the living, breathing Lonnie didn't stay a hippie, for he lived many years after the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the heyday of the "Jesus Freaks" and Calvary Chapel and Vineyard. But his later years have disappeared into the mists. Today, even the term "hippie" itself has become a burned-over caricature. Yet all that is left in everyone's memory is this shrunken and cold ember, a one-dimensional caricature, an icon which gets deployed by people for their various purposes, financial, political, or otherwise.

What fascinates me is how the mythic icon still exerts a fascination on some people after all these years. There are people who want to dig up Lonnie's "prophetic mantle" again. They want to leverage the icon. But most of all, they want to make the icon profitable.

Voice From The Grave
In any case, Lonnie finally now has a chance to bypass the icon still lurching around on the Internet, and to speak for himself from the grave, as it were. How many people will listen now is another matter altogether.

The story of his life is told in the first person throughout the book. In several places, the speaker will refer to "this book." So I would guess that Sachs already had available materials that Lonnie himself had previously written out. In other places, the speaker sounds as if he were preaching, giving a personal testimony. These portions might have been transcribed from tapes or videos where Lonnie was speaking to an audience. It is difficult to know for certain, and unfortunately, we have no explanations from Sachs regarding the editorial process that he used in selecting and organizing his materials. There are a few places in the book where some names might have been misspelled. My guess would be that Sachs pretty much transcribed verbatim what Lonnie had to say without trying to correct him. Overall, the writing style is colloquial, enthusiastic, and unrefined. For punctuation, em dashes abound everywhere, which seem to indicate pauses in speaking. Although the style gave me the feeling of sincerity and liveliness, I would not describe it as "polished." But preaching and writing can be two different things, and Lonnie was most of all a preacher.

Although I was a contemporary of his, being just a couple of years younger and living in Southern California, I never once met Lonnie Frisbee. And I never heard him preach, other than watching a video of him speaking at a service in Tom Stipe's church in Denver, which was filmed years ago. Yet his book was of personal interest to me because through Lonnie's preaching in Riverside, California, my wife came to the faith in Christ. So in a way, I do owe him for something I have, although I somehow missed him — we were like two ships passing each other unaware in the night. I was living in Riverside at the time.

Mixing Water and Oil
Now back in February, I read Chuck Smith's autobiography. If there is one main impression that book had left me, it was how conventional Chuck Smith really is. I am not necessarily saying this is a bad thing, but rather that I think Smith would fit with little difficulty in nearly any setting that represents typical evangelical Xnty in this country. He could just as easily have been the pastor of a very staid Southern Baptist church, one of those with a more Dispensationalist outlook. Or he could have been a prudent but humdrum businessman who owned and operated a successful retail corporation, but who was no more remarkable than most other businessmen. There is hardly anything cutting-edge or revolutionary about Chuck Smith, and it is difficult for me to understand why there are people who hate him so much. I think they must be motivated by the envy that despises other people's success or blessings.

On the other hand, after reading Lonnie's autobiography, I can say that it is hard for me to imagine any person being more unlike Chuck Smith than Lonnie Frisbee. There was absolutely nothing conventional about Lonnie; he was a risk taker, mercurial, adventurous, and exuberant. He had a sense of humor that could laugh at himself. And his book turned out to be the most interesting I think I have read in a long time. But it now seems even more remarkable to me that Chuck and Lonnie could ever have worked together for the amount of time that they did. Given the right emulsifiers, oil and water can sometimes mix, although I think that Chuck would have been very mistaken if he ever had it in his mind to somehow "domesticate" Lonnie and turn him into your typical youth pastor. That was never going to happen.

Now I would like to point out several things:
The Wikipedia Meat Grinder
When it comes to biography, much of the time the Wikipedia is a concoction of half-truths, distortions, misinformation, and outright lies, especially if the biography is being used for political and propaganda purposes. As an example of misinformation, let me cite where, speaking of Lonnie, the Wikipedia says:
He quit the art academy and moved to Novato, California, to set up a commune and later reconnected with his former girlfriend Connie whom he then married. The community was soon dubbed The House of Acts after the community of early Christians in the Acts of the Apostles.
This is inaccurate and gives the false impression that Lonnie originated the commune in Novato. In fact, Lonnie did not "set up" the commune in Novato at all. If we look at page 53, Lonnie says he was invited by Ted Wise and others to join their already existing operation. Also, in recounting this incident, Lonnie curiously misspells Ted Wise's name as "Ted Weiss." Now according to Randall Balmer's Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism (page 634), it was Ted Wise and three other families who started the House of Acts, which lasted for around 18 months. On the other hand, also on page 53, Lonnie does appear to take credit for naming the farmhouse in Novato "The House of Acts." However, straightening out Wikipedia would be a futile task, and I wouldn't attempt it. Wikipedia makes a hash of things, and then freezes it in place. There is not much that can be done about that, but it does brings me to another point.

Lonnie's Testimony and Taquitz Canyon
How did Lonnie view his relationship with Christ? Here I got my first surprise in reading his autobiography, because what Lonnie had to say about this matter is more complicated and differs from the dominant narrative out there. On page 27, Lonnie names his grandmother Naomi and her church as being very influential in his life. Listen to what Lonnie has to say about it:
One day they brought me to a little puppet show. It was in a Union Hall on Chapman Avenue in Orange, California. For the first time in my life, I really heard the Gospel story. I heard how Jesus died for me and give His life on the cross — so that I could have eternal life. Suddenly, I understood that, and went forward to the stage area at this little marionette puppet show. I got down on my knees and accepted Christ into my heart. I was eight years old, and can take you to the very spot, in the very same building where it happened. I was born from above by the supernatural resurrection power of God. It was absolutely the greatest miracle anyone can experience no matter what age they are!
Oddly enough, years ago, I once served as a Sunday School puppeteer. Now after this section, Lonnie goes how to explain how in his young teenage years he started drifting away from God and ended up deep in the Orange county drug culture. If we look at pages 49 through 51, a turning point early in the book — or maybe a "returning" point — Lonnie describes happened to him up in Taquitz canyon, near Palm Springs. I'll just let him speak for himself:
In spite of the many highs, I was still troubled. I felt a destiny surrounding me, but was at the same time confused about life and death. Who really knows the truth? I remembered from my church background that Jesus claimed to be the truth. I had definitely felt the presence of God when I asked Christ into my life as a child. I also felt his presence, at the summer camps, but it was pretty bold for Jesus to say things like — "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." …I was definitely confused, but very open, and honestly seeking. I would wonder — "how does it all fit?"

One day I was up in the canyon again by myself. It was a real hike back into the local Palm Springs mountains. There is a beautiful stream, and waterfalls along the way, and it is such a cool place. I finally arrived at one of my favorite spots. I took off all my clothes, and literally screamed up to heaven — "Jesus, if you are really real — reveal yourself to me!"

Suddenly, the whole atmosphere began to change around me. It began to tingle, and shimmer, and glow. I thought — "Ahaaaaa Ahaaaw! I don't even want to be here!"

I was scared, and shocked, and positive it was not an LSD flashback. I didn't hear an audible voice, but knew that I was in the presence of God Almighty. Then I saw a radiant vision clear as crystal. I saw thousands and thousands of young people at the ocean, lined up in huge crowds along the coast — and they were going out into the water being baptized. I could see it! I knew instantly that Jesus was real — and that He was calling me to follow him. As the Lord lifted up my eyes I saw a harvest field of people. They were like a huge wheat field. I saw in the vision thousands and thousands of people in the valley of decision.

The power of the Holy Spirit surrounded me from within and from without. Then I saw a light from heaven come down, and ordain me — and I could hear Him say: "Go in my name for I have touched your lips with a coal of fire that burns ever before the presence of God. Proclaim to the people that I am coming soon."

It was the most radical moment of my life. At eighteen years old God was calling me to serve Him. It blew my mind — but I was definitely saying — "Yes Lord!"

I came off that mountain a different person. I still didn't have all the answers — but I knew for sure that Jesus was real. He had responded to my desperate cry. I had an instant revelation of my calling.…
This is a remarkable story, but what I am trying to point out is that Lonnie viewed what happened as being a revelation of his calling as an evangelist and that it was something entirely connected to his experience he already had as a child in a church setting.

Sweating Through His Shirt
Further on, there in chapter 7 on pages 66 to 71, Lonnie adds this regarding his relationship with God. The setting is a Foursquare church in Fullerton where a visiting evangelist had come to preach:
…He was just carrying on, with a white hanky in his hand. He was sweating profusely, and continually whipping [sic] his face with the hanky. He was just — you know — even hard for a hippie non-conformist to say — unruly. I have never seen a Pentecostal preacher strut his stuff on the platform like that before.

When I finally walked forward, the man slapped his hand on my forehead, and was screaming, and shouting — "Wooo! Thank you Jesus! Thank You Jesus!" The volume was way over the top, and way past acceptable. He was not only sweating, but he was sweating through his shirt. His shirt was soaking wet. But when he laid his hands on my head — heaven came down! It wasn't a light fluffy experience. It was heavy oil — it was a heavy oil experience. The power of the Holy Spirit started coming through him as an instrument of ministry, and the power of God filled my whole body with about ten thousand volts of electricity.

…The Holy Spirit and I — were off to the races. Racing to reach as many people as possible with the time that I do have. The power of God never rested on me like that before! After that initial experience in the church, I had many infillings of the Holy Spirit, and my communication with Jesus became stronger.
I can't give the whole incident here. Hopefully, without running afoul of copyright laws, I have given enough to convey a little of the flavor of Lonnie's style of communicating. We can see that Lonnie was very serious about what mattered to him — what mattered the most to him was the Gospel. He could also be very humorous, even a little crude. But what I am trying to point out is that Lonnie did not consider his "Taquitz vision" as being the single and only defining aspect of his relationship with God. In fact his view of his relationship with God was also formed by what had happened to him in church settings. This surprised me, although it really should not have. God does use His Church to accomplish his purposes, believe it or not. If some people thought that Lonnie was purely a "hippie rebel" who rejected the Church as an enemy, they would be very mistaken.

Knocked Off His Horse
As I have said, Lonnie was more a preacher, a very bold one, and not a writer. Lonnie talks about many things is his book, some that are surprising, some that are strange, some that are funny, and some that are very heartbreaking to read. Roger Sachs has promised that a second volume in Lonnie's autobiography is forthcoming.¹ Let us hope it doesn't take another twenty years to get here.

There are many more items I would have liked to mention. But I will conclude with pointing out how Lonnie described his encounter with the teenage Greg Laurie, which occurs on pages 124 through 126. The setting is an open air meeting, which took place on a lawn at Harbor High School in Orange county, around the year 1971, on an especially hot day in southern California:
…Our group was on the lawn area, and I was preaching the Gospel like Peter on the day of Pentecost. The believers were standing all around and I stood in the midst. I began to open my mouth and the anointing of God was on me — I'm telling you!

In the back ground I could hear someone saying things like — "So you think that you know it all huh?"

Little railing accusations from a brat came flying at me. He said rude things, and began to mock openly. —He was making my train of thought get off, because he was railing disrespectful blasphemous things.

And so the Lord said, "Stretch forth thy hand and with the authority I've placed on your life — bring him down."

So I did exactly what the Lord said. I stretched forth my hand, and used the authority that God put in my words, and I turned everything that he was saying around on him in divine judgment. He fell on the ground powerless. Before everyone God struck him with the power and presence of God. The young student, Greg Laurie, was saved that day, and God also baptized him with the Holy Spirit.

It was dramatic. Subsequently, God raised him up to be a pastor at the age of nineteen years old.…
Lonnie then goes on to speak very favorably about Greg and his ministry. Back in California, up until 1993 when I left to move to Idaho, I had attended Greg's Harvest church for around fifteen years. So naturally I found Lonnie's account of Greg's conversion, where he was knocked off his horse so to speak, to be a bit amusing, yet because of it, I can say that I have something else that I owe to Lonnie's ministry, although in more indirect way.

The Kingdom of God
In a little less than 200 pages, his book covered other matters besides what I pointed out above, such as several encounters with demon possessed people, his time in Florida, why his marriage finally came apart, and the mission trips overseas, which includes an unusual story about some Russian soldiers he met, just to name a few. To comment on everything would require writing book of its own. But this is just a book review. I can say that Lonnie's autobiography has its rough edges, and could have used much better editing, but it was very much worth reading.

The last chapter is titled "Bregetta." In it Lonnie talked about being in Washington, the year being 1978, and seeing in the home of an assistant pastor a book containing paintings by a Swedish artist whose name according to Lonnie is "Bregetta." That year was a difficult point in his life when he was thinking of quitting the ministry, but he believed that God had used one particular painting to tell him that "you will never be out of the ministry no matter what." Later in 1978, he met the artist herself in Jerusalem, at the Garden Tomb: "…to my complete surprise, there was Bregetta sitting in the tomb dressed in a World War II red cross nurses uniform." And then years later, in 1990, Lonnie encounters the same painting again during another missionary trip to Sweden. Since he referred to his first seeing the painting as being fifteen years ago, I strongly suspect that this final chapter must have been written in the year 1993, the year that Lonnie passed away, which ironically would be the year that he finally left the ministry, so to speak. I believe that the artist "Bregetta" is almost certainly Birgitta Yavari-Ilan. Lonnie described the painting as "a full spread glorious painting of Jesus with his arms stretched out, and me, Lonnie Frisbee, painted in the bosom of Christ speaking at a microphone." I believe I have tracked down the painting to which Lonnie referred, and I believe the book that Lonnie picked up was titled "Forsake Not Your Heart." In the painting we see three figures in the bosom of Christ: a red-haired woman holding a white dove, a young blonde girl praying, and Lonnie preaching at a microphone. Christ himself, whose eyes are smiling, is dressed in red and purple, and his head is surrounded by dark green palm leaves.

The words written on Lonnie's grave marker are "For the Kingdom of God … righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." It is sad that he is gone.

Somewhere in the Kingdom of God, Lonnie Frisbee still lives on as a person known only to the saints and angels, although the humanity he once had remains mostly unknown here on Earth. Even the "Calvary Chapel movement," which he helped to launch, has relegated him to being a minor historical footnote. We might think this is a sad outcome to his life, but perhaps it is not, at least not in God's view of things. Pastor Chuck Smith will soon join John Wimber and Lonnie Frisbee in that Kingdom — maybe even sooner than what most people would like to anticipate.² Who knows? I hope that over there they are all reconciled with each other. Maybe Chuck and John will finally agree that both tacos and hamburgers go good together. And maybe Lonnie will say, "Welcome, Chuck. By the way, not everybody is cut out to be a standard youth pastor. I wasn't. But it doesn't matter now."


¹ Apparently, there has been an unexplained delay. This second book hasn't been published yet, and it's been over three years since.

[Update 2016 Dec 31] Please see this review of the second book in the series, which finally came out in October of 2016. The subtitle is The Great Commission.

² Chuck passed away in the early morning of October 3rd, 2013.