Wednesday, June 26, 2019

I, Lonnie

A Book Review
Title: Not by Might, Nor by Power
Subtitle: Set Free
Author: Lonnie Frisbee, with Roger Sachs

This book review concerns the third book of a three book series that is Lonnie Frisbee's posthumous autobiography, which is titled Not by Might Nor by Power. I have already reviewed the first and second books in the series. I strongly suggest that these two reviews should be read first.

Published back in March of this year, the book Set Free consists of twenty-six chapters. The book is a little longer the each of the previous two books.

Chapters one through twenty-one contains Lonnie's memoir, which covers the ten year period from when he left the Anaheim Vineyard in 1983 until about the end of 1991. Intermingled with Lonnie's own recollections are numerous testimonies from people who interacted with him at various stages during these years.

Chapter twenty-two, entitled Eternal Perspectives, could be considered Lonnie's apologia and farewell address, in which he gives his final testimony regarding his life. This chapter might be the most important thing that Lonnie ever wrote, and it contradicts much of the consensus regarding him that you will find by googling the Internet. Now some people will be very disappointed with this chapter if they come to it expecting to get from Lonnie an endorsement of the various nostrums, concepts, agendas, labels, categories, prescriptions, and ideological constructs of contemporary identity politics.

After this, the next three chapters of the book were entirely put together by Roger Sachs, from his and other people's recollections. These describe the final fifteen months of Lonnie's life when his health began to deteriorate, his death at age 43 on March 12, 1993, his funeral, and burial.

The last chapter of the book is more or less a collection of eulogies, in which various people reminisce about Lonnie and the impact he had on their lives. Possibly the most noteworthy item in this chapter, for those who will hear and understand, is a retraction issued on page 271 by Kenn Gulliksen, the original founder of Vineyard. Following this chapter, the book ends with a short postscript by Roger Sachs where he announces that a fourth book, a supplement to the autobiography, might be in the works and which will consist of several transcripts of Lonnie's sermons, along with some other miscellaneous material.

My Overall Assessment
For me, the third book, Set Free, was the most critically important of the three books, and the most heartbreaking to read. It elucidates for the readers a more complete picture of Lonnie's personality, including his character flaws and deep emotional injuries. The book also demonstrates the tremendous grace that God worked in Lonnie's short life, although we had to wait 26 years after his death for his story to be published. And it does a fairly good job of relating the struggle that Lonnie went though as he climbed out of the dark hole of bitterness and backsliding into which he had fallen for a time. I very much recommend Set Free, and I can only hope that it will appeal to a wide audience and have a major impact. It would be good if down the line Roger Sachs published a hardback edition that contains the entire autobiography in one volume.

Two Underlying Themes
On page 1, in the Introduction, Ken Fish made the following observation regarding prophets:
…one of the rarest and least well understood are prophets of power. Such prophets are enigmas who nearly defy description…. They are people who carry something of the overt, explicit, numinous power of God…. Moses, Samuel, and Elijah were such prophets, and so was Lonnie Frisbee. [emphasis mine]
He was being a little rhetorical by putting Lonnie on a par with Moses, Samuel, and Elijah, but Ken Fish does have a point. Lonnie Frisbee was in many ways an enigma. So how does someone go about writing a critical biography about an enigma? Well, it would be difficult and may require a certain amount of inspiration.

Now by the term "critical," I simply mean employing a careful process of methodically examining and weighing the sources, trying to discern motivations and reasons, and then constructing the story about a person's life in a more chronological form — where the purpose is not that of debunking or destroying, but instead to gain a better understanding. For a biographer, one difficulty about Lonnie's memoir is that he isn't overly concerned about giving dates and timelines when he tells us his recollections. He was a preacher and not a scholar or historian. Another problem is that Lonnie doesn't always explicitly tell the readers everything that he knew regarding a situation. We often have to fill in the blanks, connect the dots, and read between the lines.

If I were setting out to write a critical biography about Lonnie Frisbee, I could begin by pointing out several things. First of all, as the saying goes, Israel loved its prophets, after they were dead. And secondly, the Church (in particular the leadership thereof) didn't always treat its mystics all that well while they are still alive. And in many ways this was also true about Lonnie Frisbee — although it can be said that even after his death he still isn't well regarded by many people. In any case, I would state that there are, at a minimum, two major themes that underlie his life, which are very intertwined:
  1. His personal tragedy
  2. His difficult relationship with church leadership
There are other themes in Lonnie's autobiography, some of which were covered in earlier reviews, but I would like to cover these two in particular, as briefly as I can.

Personal Tragedy
The first of these themes began in Lonnie's early childhood and would affect him throughout his life. His father Ray Frisbee was alcoholic, very violent, and had severely traumatized Lonnie as a very young child. In my opinion, the physical abuse he gave his wife and children should have sent Ray Frisbee to a penitentiary for a very long time. Let me further illustrate the lasting effects of this in Lonnie's life by pointing out an incident, mentioned in Set Free, that occurred many years later. On one occasion, probably sometime after 1990, Roger Sachs suggested to his friend Lonnie that he needed to meet up and be reconciled with his father, Ray Frisbee. However, Lonnie's reaction was swift and very angry. He became "totally unglued" at Roger's suggestion, and the readers can easily imagine the cause behind Lonnie's intense feelings about the issue. Furthermore, Roger doesn't record anywhere that Ray Frisbee had ever changed or had expressed any remorse for how he had treated his children. And Lonnie also tells the readers that Ray Frisbee once had assaulted and nearly murdered Wesley, one of Lonnie's brothers. This must have made it doubly hard for Lonnie to cheerfully accept Roger's advice, however well-intentional it might have been. Given all this, we should ask instead why Roger was surprised at Lonnie's very heated reaction. The book never informs us if Lonnie ever met with Ray afterwards, and we can therefore assume that it must have been too painful for Lonnie to do so. The incident is enough to show us that for Lonnie the wounds down in his heart were still raw and bleeding.

Later, when he was growing up into adolescence, Lonnie experienced nothing but complete rejection from his stepfather Lyle. This was bad enough. The only light that came through was the godly influence of a grandmother, which led Lonnie to have faith in Christ at the age of eight. Throughout his autobiography, Lonnie always maintained that this was the starting point of his relationship with God. But what proves the existence of the Devil, who hates what is good and wants to destroy our souls? How much proof do you need? The reader is told that shortly thereafter a male teenage babysitter had started terrorizing Lonnie by sexually molesting him, which occurred repeatedly over a extended period of time. As Lonnie expressed it in chapter 22:
That was the beginning of a nightmare in my life that I cannot fully express. That babysitter was a dark evangelist sent by demonic forces to ruin my life two weeks after I became a christian as a child. [213]
Lonnie's mother and stepfather, for some reason, never had the wherewithal to watch, listen, and understand what this predator was doing. This was a case of parental negligence that bordered on criminal. Now the term "broken" is the one word that Lonnie's friends used most often throughout the book to describe him, and we can understand why it seems almost like a glib understatement. For what person could endure all this abuse and not end up becoming deeply confused, vulnerable, and psychologically scarred? Later in the 1960s, Lonnie drifted off into experimentation with drugs and the dissolute hippie lifestyle, and all these entail. That this would eventually happen is not surprising, and Lonnie's story could have ended there, as a drug overdose statistic in some back alley near the Haight-Ashbury. But God's grace and calling reached down and changed the direction of things that singular day when Lonnie was hiking alone up in Taquitz Canyon.

Church Leadership
A critical biographer would also have to deal with the second major theme of Lonnie's life; that is, his complicated and often difficult relationship with church leadership, specifically pastors Chuck Smith, Bob Mumford, and John Wimber. These men could be considered the most important substitute "father figures" in Lonnie's life. And in the book Set Free, it is John Wimber who played the most crucial role in the story.

The most surprising aspect of Lonnie's autobiography is the one question it never fully answers: Did these "father figures" in his life ever have the percipience to see beneath the surface of things and understand that Lonnie, though he was gifted in a most unusual and powerful way, was also a deeply wounded man who also needed help? This is what I wonder about the most. Apparently at the time they did not, as far as I an tell. And it is especially sad that John Wimber didn't, which is something even more difficult to understand given that John Wimber in his ministry had put some emphasis on "inner healing." Yet Lonnie never gave us in his autobiography any clear answers to this important question. From reading Set Free, we do know that there was an especially catastrophic breakdown in Lonnie's relationship with John Wimber, which would have a very drastic impact on Lonnie's life.

But what was the cause of the breakdown? Again, we are never told exactly what happened at this very crucial turning point in Lonnie's story, which occurs on pages 12 to 13 of Set Free. We do know that the breakdown must have been traumatic, in that all trust was destroyed, because thereafter Lonnie immediately plunged into a rapid downward spiral of anger, bitterness, isolation, backsliding, and drug addiction. His reaction would become very self-destructive, and it would take several years for him to begin recovering from the dark wilderness he went through. It is very much to the credit of Rich Buehler and Phil Aguilar, whom Lonnie encountered later, that they were perceptive enough to see a little of the deeper picture, and as a result they sought to help Lonnie find recovery, emotional stability, and wholeness.

It is easy to find on the Internet a huge amount of misinformation regarding the reasons for Lonnie's departure in 1983 from Vineyard and his breakup with John Wimber. But the reader can check pages 12 to 13 for himself to get Lonnie's own recollection about what had happened during this very important point in his life. I will briefly recount here what he said:
One of he final blows for me at the Vineyard happened soon after in 1983. Lots of rumors about my sexuality were circulating, but my role at the church stayed on the same schedule. I had my own office, and when there were no trips or speaking engagements, I had counseling appointments scheduled like the rest of the pastors on staff.…

…all kinds of temptations and demonic setups seemed to be increasing. I decided to confide with and seek some help from one of the other pastors I respected and considered a friend. I asked this experienced staff leader if I could confidentially share some struggles I was experiencing and then told him about the gal in my office. In addition to attractive women throwing themselves at me, there were gay men doing the same. I knew for an absolute certainty that the satanic strategy was to label me a homosexual to discredit everything about my ministry. I had rejected that lifestyle, knew the Scriptures concerning the subject, and was seeking prayer from this pastor for all the attacks coming at me from both men and women.

The next day John Wimber confronted me and wanted to know the name of the young women who had exposed herself. The pastor "friend" had broken my confidence and taken the information directly to our leader. I was furious!

I told John, "I'm not telling you!"

"You have to tell me! I'm the senior pastor!"

"Well, I won't! I already dealt with the person, and besides, your trusted senior staff pastor broke a confidential agreement with me!"

That was that — or so I thought. The next day I came to the church and asked the secretary for my schedule. I was told that there were no appointments scheduled. The next day was the same, and the next, and the next for two weeks straight. I got so bored that I shut the window blinds, laid on the carpet, and went to sleep every day! It only got worse from there. I had several more meetings with John Wimber over the next couple months, and more accusations came at me until my final blowup when I declared, "I quit!"
There are several things a biographer would notice in this account. First of all, Lonnie had already gracefully handled an awkward situation with the young woman, and he wanted to spare her any further embarrassment. Also, Lonnie had a mind of his own and was not overawed by John Wimber. Therefore, he wasn't going to comply with John's demand to divulge the lady's identity. John probably did not like getting this kind of pushback from a younger subordinate. Secondly, Lonnie does not tell the readers who the "senior staff pastor" was. Since we know this incident happened in 1983, a diligent biographer could probably track down who this person was without too much trouble. Whoever he was, he had in extreme betrayed Lonnie's trust. This was bad enough, but John Wimber next added ridiculousness to the situation by clearing Lonnie's appointment roster yet expecting Lonnie to turn up for work everyday. This kind of pettiness makes no sense and is a ludicrous way to send a signal to someone. For if John Wimber didn't want Lonnie to do any more counseling, then why didn't he just tell him to stay home? Finally, in the meetings with John over the "next couple months", the tension must have increased, for Lonnie tells us, "more accusations came at me." Something must have gone very wrong. However, this is a case where Lonnie, for some reason, had decided not to tell the readers all that he knew about the situation, and the readers are left having to make educated guesses. We can only assume that John Wimber must have been the person making the accusations. But where was John Wimber getting his information? And where were the two or more witnesses as required by the Scriptures:
Do not entertain a accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. [1st Timothy 5:19 NIV].
And what exactly were the accusations? When approaching this difficult question, the biographer will have to take into account several things. First of all, by the time Lonnie and Roger Sachs had begun working in earnest on putting together the autobiography, Lonnie was already going through an program of professional therapeutic counseling to deal with his emotional and psychological issues. These counseling sessions were undertaken in response to the suggestions made to Lonnie when he had earlier met up with Rich Buehler. And according to Buehler, Lonnie was greatly helped and had made progress. Secondly, Lonnie was also by this time actively involved with pastor Phil Aguilar's Set Free church in Anaheim, and Lonnie had started ministering again publicly under Phil's supervision. Thirdly, and very importantly, towards the end of his life, Lonnie had started receiving much needed financial support from Vineyard Ministry International (VMI), with John Wimber's permission. This support consisted of an small apartment on Balboa Island, a car, and a modest monthly stipend. Roger Sachs informs the readers in chapter 24 that Steve Zarit and Paul Cain were the ones who separately convinced John Wimber to provide help for Lonnie.

Whatever they were, Lonnie knew the accusations were false. He wanted to tell the readers the truth about what had happened, yet at the same time he also wanted as much as possible to avoid casting John Wimber in a bad light. In other words, he wanted to cover for John Wimber, because to do otherwise would have been very ungrateful, especially since Lonnie was receiving financial support from VMI. Furthermore, by the time he was putting together his autobiography, Lonnie had largely worked through his feelings of anger and bitterness, and he had genuinely forgiven John for the wrong that was done. "Love covers a multitude of sins," as the Scriptures tell us in 1st Peter 4:8. I believe this is the simplest and most plausible explanation for why Lonnie didn't give more detailed information regarding this crucial incident in his life.

Some Minor Criticisms
I do have a few very minor criticisms regarding Set Free. I have kept this until last because I don't want to detract from my recommendation of the book. So feel free to ignore this section.

Lonnie's autobiography incorporates the testimony of other people to convey and confirm what was happening at various stages in his life. The third book Set Free leaned a little more in this direction than the previous two books. However, there is always a danger from uncritically pasting in testimony from other people — they sometimes have their own agendas, or axes to grind, and they might assume that their being asked to submit a contribution to the autobiography also constituted a kind of open-ended invitation to toot their own horns. There are a couple of places in the book where I think that things got a little bit out of hand in this regard.

The first of these involves Paul Cain, who died in February of 2019 shortly before Set Free was published. My view is that Cain's actual contribution to Lonnie's autobiography seemed to be materially pretty negligible. And what he said in pages 73 through 78 looked more like attempt by Paul Cain to puff up his own ministry. Other than one time, through a third party, sending Lonnie a "message", Paul Cain apparently never had any substantive interaction with Lonnie, although they had coincidentally attended the Docklands conference in October of 1990 — there Paul Cain and John Wimber were up on the stage, and Lonnie was somewhere in the audience. However, Paul Cain does mention that Lonnie was up in the balcony during a side meeting held at Kensington Temple around that time, stood up, and loudly prophesied. Paul apparently knew who the person was, although John Wimber didn't acknowledge that it was Lonnie:
And Lonnie, I remember, sat in the balcony on the left side of this church, and at one point he got up and gave a prophecy that just rang out all through the meeting without a microphone or anything. It made the hair on my neck stand straight up. It had a resonance about it; it was a real prophecy, but he and John Wimber had already parted ways, and John didn't acknowledge or recognize him in the meeting or anything. [78]
Lonnie once said that he had a "microphone voice." In any case, Lonnie didn't give the readers any details about the "message" from Paul other than "that I needed to reach out to a particular list of people and attempt to reconcile with them" (see page 79). Lonnie later mentioned that John Ruttkay was on the list, but otherwise we are not told who else was on it.

The second instance is where, on pages 87 to 96, Phil Aguilar spends a good amount of time talking about his own ministry. However, Phil's bold self-promotion here is much more excusable because he did give Lonnie a helping hand at a time when Lonnie very much needed it.

Paul Cain died on February 12th, not long before final book of Lonnie's autobiography was published. It is interesting to note that Paul Cain and Phil Aguilar are also controversial people, each in his own way. However, that would be an altogether different topic, and covering it would make this book review much too lengthy.

Final Words
I would like to end this book review of Not by Might Nor By Power by citing a few words from Ken Fish, given on page 2:
Lonnie left us all too soon, and the drama of his life and death reverberates through the pages of this book. … this small, frail, conflicted individual who carried the power of the Spirit and who sought to say yes to Jesus and to follow in his footsteps.
I regret that I never met him.