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Old Camp Meeting

I sat this question aside for several weeks.  The climax of my depression was behind me, a life of depression still lay in front of me, and I found myself trying to learn how to function while clinically depressed. 

 

Somehow I had gathered enough courage to see a medical doctor and describe my symptoms.  It did not take much description before they were fully aware of what was happening to my body, and they told me for the first time what depression was and how it worked.  They were very helpful in explaining the chemistry of it all, the short-term effects, and what I could expect long-term.  They were not present to diagnose the climax, but from my descriptions agreed that I had suffered through what used to be called a “nervous breakdown.”   And was very fortunate, because in most cases, the patient is no longer able to function until the disorder is resolved.  Medication and therapy were the only answer in the medical world, and my church world had failed me.

 

According to the first and second doctor’s opinion, this disease would be my life.  I would require medication indefinitely, would likely require therapy to determine the best treatments, and could expect a lifetime of adjustments.  These adjustments included changes in medication, but more concerning were the possibilities of a change in career path and lifestyle change.    This was not something I wanted, and not something I felt that I needed.  The world was ending soon, and I would not be here long enough to change anything.

 

Taking the medication was a mountain of fear to overcome.  Not only was medicine a direct violation of my faith, it was one of those “mind altering” drugs I had been warned about.  Before the height of my depression, I had discussions with a “Bride” pastor across the river in Louisville Kentucky, and his warning still rang in my ears:  “I’ve seen it time and again.  People take that depression medication, and a demon comes on them!  Before long, the leave this Message!”

 

The “Message” was another name for “Bride” churches.  There were several names we called ourselves, from the “Evening Light” to the “Bride” to the “Message of the Hour.”  Those who disrespected us called us “Branhamites,” and those who disrespected our particular flavor—even from within the religion—called us “Tape Worms.” 

 

His warning rang in my ears, but now with several questions.  I was no medical doctor, but I understood the science of the medication.  The body’s self-produced chemical that calms the nerves and induces sleep, serotonin, was deficient. The medication simply caused the body to continue producing that which it already should have been.  Did people really leave “The Message” when their mind was at peace?  Did removing mental illness cause one to wake up from something?  What did they wake up FROM? 

 

At the time, I discounted it and tried to forget about it.  We had spent about six months visiting this pastor’s church, and they were a special kind of different.  Refusing to fellowship and even speaking negatively against my grandfather’s church, the people appeared to be proud of their seclusion and separation.  In fact, we continued visiting until the pastor preached a sermon specifically on separation, using his own family as an example.  “My family wonders why I won’t have anything to do with them.  I tell them that they don’t believe the Message!  If they’d follow the Prophet, I would start hanging around them!”

 

I knew this was not right.  The church was fresh and exciting to us, having spent the last several years listening mostly to recordings from 1947 to 1965.  But this, I could not sit through.  Any church that promotes abandoning family has lost their way.  Why NOT hang around them?  Why not do everything you can possibly do to save them?

 

It was about that time that I realized that I needed a fresh new experience in general.  Living in the “Melting Pot” of this religion, it is very easy to become disenchanted.  A blend of all sorts of doctrine sitting in the pews while listening to recorded sermons does nothing to correct the situation.  How can a shepherd guide his sheep when he chooses to play recordings from a different era?

 

I wanted something that would re-ignite my fire, something that would bring new excitement about the Prophet and his Message.  And the obvious choice was a trip down South for Labor Day meetings.  “Camp meeting time,” some called it, a time when churches from all over gathered to fellowship around the Prophet. 

 

There’d be singing, preaching, sports and games for the children, testimonies about the Prophet, and many other ways to kindle the fire.  I liked the music in particular, being a musician myself, and realized the importance of music in worship.  Praise and worship prepares the people for receiving, and brings the heart to a warm place ready to be filled.  And this was some of the best music in the country!  Afterward, they sell CDs around the country, and I absolutely loved my copies from the years past.

 

And it was a pleasant drive.  It was nearby a city that I called “my hometown,” deep in the heart of Georgia.  No matter how often our family moved, and no matter where we ended up, this would be my home.  I’d made the trip several times a year for as long as I could remember, visiting family and friends from my childhood.  It was a special place for me, and I knew that would also help in rekindling my fire.

 

I remember the excitement as I walked in the entryway to the building that held the sanctuary.  Looking around, I looked for new changes and renovations to the building, amazed at how it had grown over the years.  It was not that long ago that I remembered the same group of people, or at least a smaller subset of them, gathering in a mobile home that sat in an open field.  In those days, the music was good, but musicians were scarce.  My family would join in the playing and singing to help out, and I started chuckling when I remembered that one of them stopped suddenly.  He got a little excited one time while playing the bass guitar, and was never asked to play again.

 

I also remembered the time that an assistant pastor at the Temple visited the mobile home church and got a little carried away with his preaching.  Hours and hours went by, until one of the men sitting in the chair in front of me stood up, raised his arm, and started tapping his watch angrily.  The sermon ended about as abruptly as a freight train on a track with a missing bridge. 

 

We sat down in the pew, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves through the first part of the service.  The benches were very comfortable, making it easier to settle in for what we knew would be a long service.  And we were glad that it was – we came a long distance to worship! 

 

When the sermon started, I was particularly eager to hear the speech.  A pastor from a church in Canada was preaching, and his down-to-earth style was very fun to listen to.  He was both entertaining and brutally honest in his wording, making you enjoy the correction that he convinced you that you needed.  We were getting a good “spanking,” but from a rod dipped in chocolate icing.  It made you want to lick your wounds. 

 

But my son did not enjoy sitting on the bench as much as my wife and I were.  Restless and fidgeting, he started squirming around enough to cause a commotion.  Under normal circumstances, this would have bothered me, wanting to hear the sermon from the sanctuary, but I got a little too excited for a fresh, new experience.  In the temple back home, it was customary for the women to take the child out of the sanctuary – usually for the purpose of taking them to the bathroom and beating the living fire out of their backside.  At any point during temple service, if one needed to use the restroom, you could count on a child screaming for their dear lives.  This church was not that way.  I’d been told that the elders respected the fact that children were not adults, and did not enjoy sitting still for hours on end.  And also respected the fact that mothers might enjoy service, just as the men.  So there were rooms in the basement that men could bring their children to “get the wiggles out.”  I headed down.

 

From the contrast of the visions of torture chambers where women beat children back home in the temple, this was awe-inspiring.  As I entered the room, there were plush, reclining leather couches.  A brand-new flat-screen, big screen HDTV hung on the wall with a live feed from the service.  The room was absolutely FILLED with toys of all sorts – from Lego to books to action figures and more.  This was a child’s dream, and a father’s hideaway!  It was the perfect man cave, right in the bottom of the church!  I did not need to tell my son what to do.  Instantly, when he found the toys on the floor, his little motor started spinning.  Before I could count to even two, all toys on the floor seemed to come into motion at the exact same time, while I myself settled in for a comfortable view of the service.

 

It was an experience that on the trip home, I wished that I could forget.  This was the same sermon that I was thoroughly enjoying topside, but watching through the television downside.  It was a beautifully constructed sermon discussing “legalism in the Message,” the idea that people were so focused on living by rules that they had forgotten the true meaning of the Prophet’s words.  A theme that I positively agreed with, having experienced so many different flavors of those rules, and whole-heartedly disagreed with the invention of new ones throughout the gatherings I’d been part of. 

 

In my opinion at that time, however, there was a fundamental element of legalism that was required to follow the Prophet.  The rules that he set in place, as he described them, were a foundation to the Message itself.  To ignore them was to deny the Prophet, to keep them was to honor the Prophet, and to change them was to twist the Prophet’s words.  But to add new rules to the mix seemed senseless to me.  To unnecessarily adhere to new interpretations of the Prophets words was to place salvation upon your own shoulders and take it further away from the Prophet.  What would he say, when he met us in the room on the tent, if we felt we had a better way?  I started to realize that legalism was any rules that differed from the Prophet’s set of rules.

 

It wasn’t the subject matter of the sermon that bothered me.  Watching a “Bride” service through the television was a new experience, one that I could only compare to the Sunday morning televangelists as they worked the crowds.  It was a concept we were all familiar with, one that was often discussed in our testimony gatherings.  Our Prophet was an evangelist, but he was not like the others.  While the others, preyed upon the emotion of the people, ours brought the word of the Almighty!

 

But what I saw through the television in the basement of this church was much the same as I’d noticed in the largely publicized moneymakers.  A story was told.  It was a heart-warming story, one that touched the listener’s emotions and prepared them to listen.  It built to a loud, fast-paced rhythm of teaching, like the beating of an African drum.  You could feel your heart beat with the voice, each word captivating as it flowed through your senses.  And then silence.  A whisper.  A quiet phrase.  A buildup of curiosity as you wondered what was coming.  Then BAM!  An explosion of words, like the eruption of a volcano. 

 

The crowd was like putty, fully formed by the hands of the man behind the pulpit.  Screaming, shouting, waving hands, you’d have thought that any minute would bring a voice in tongues or feet dancing in the spirit!  He would inject topics into the rhythm that I knew for certain others disagreed with, and yet shouts, “Amen” would ring through the rafters.  Quite literally, the man could have told them that Burger King was the Lord’s hamburger, and they’d have cheered him on. 

 

I realized very quickly that something was wrong.  We were the audience in the televangelist camera.  We were the group of people that could be coaxed into anything.  We were the pawns in the hands of the chess masters, willingly accepting our place on the board, even if it meant certain death.