Where Was God?
By Bob E.
I had reasonable expectations of what Ambassador College would be like, because by the time I entered in 1966, my family had been attending the then Radio Church of God for approximately ten years. During that time, there had been opportunities to attend the Imperial Schools Summer Educational Program three times, participate in Spokesman's Club for one year, and attend numerous Feasts in New York City, Big Sandy, Texas, and Jeckyl Island, Georgia. As a second generation Christian, Ambassador, quite frankly, was really the only college option which I had available. So, in spite of my interests in things technical, and in business, I applied, was accepted, and flew out to California. Many of the young people from the Eastern Seaboard had applied to A.C. in the U.K., but I really wasn't interested in going over to stodgy, foggy old England. The Pacific Ocean, and the Southern California lifestyle were attractive to me, and I figured that if A.C didn't work out, there I would be right in the middle of paradise. The verse in the Bible that said we were called to a life of suffering.....I decided should be read a life of surfing!
I already knew a good deal of the student body the day I walked onto campus. Many of them had attended S.E.P., either as campers, or counselors. One thing that struck me immediately, was that the ones that had been there for one to three years were completely different in personality from when I had known them several years before. That is because there seemed to be a universal "Ambassador College personality". I, of course, resolved not to become infected with it, because it seemed to be, at best, contrived. If you happened to tell a joke, people with this personality may tell you that your joke was "crass". They might also ask you if you thought Jesus Christ would do the very thing which you had just done. If you had a reasonable sense of humor, you might be thought of as "not catching the vision". Students were encouraged to counsel regularly with the ministry. Having been indoctrinated as to the purpose for this in our local church area, I chose to avoid the ministry like you would police officers. My fellow students began to notice that I was somewhat of a rebel, and took to regularly telling me that I would probably become a minister! I also resolved not to let this happen. In all honesty, I could not envision how someone could come right out of high school, attend college for four years, and then suddenly be qualified to counsel people who actually did have some of life's experiences. Words, after all, must be backed up by experience in order not to appear hollow.
Everyone around me seemed to be pre-occupied with prayer and Bible Study. And, actually looking forward to the end of the age. Priceless opportunity was a phrase which was frequently used. I found myself wishing that someone else could have the priceless opportunity in my stead. Soon, marvelous news started to spread across the campus! So-and-so had just been baptized from the freshman class! By the end of my freshman year, most of the entering class had been baptized. It just didn't make sense to me. Obviously, they had a relationship with God. I assumed that it was a two way street. Yet, I never really felt that my prayers were going further than the ceiling. I started wondering if I could have been somehow accepted to Ambassador College, and not have been "called". or "chosen". We were often told that many are called, but few are chosen. What I did not understand was how all of these people seemed to get totally caught up in the church, the college, God's work. I honestly thought that they really felt something that somehow I was missing. I am a very good actor, and could very well have faked it, but chose not to. I kept waiting for something to happen which would make me feel the way that all the rest of the students apparently did.
It was suggested that deep personal Bible study might be of help. Two thoughts immediately occurred to me. One was that this would make the relationship with God a two way path. I would talk to Him in prayer, and He would speak to me thru his Word, the Bible. Interesting! The second thought was a bit more troubling: How could you have this type of communication with God, if Herbert W. Armstrong and his faculty were telling you, in advance, what your conclusions had to be? I had heard stories from some of the upper classmen about a technique which they employed with some success. You would kneel in prayer, and ask God to lead you thru his word, literally guiding your fingers, so that when you opened the pages of your Bible, it would be to a passage that He had personally chosen for your edification. I tried this numerous times, even coupled with fasting, and nothing special or even remotely noteworthy ever happened.
So, I began wondering if the special relationship came about from God, Jesus, or even one of the Angels speaking directly to you. This was really dangerous ground. If someone mentioned that this had happened in counseling with the ministry, that person would be treated about like an Air Force pilot who just told his commanding officer that he had seen a UFO! Others related to me that God spoke to them thru his ministers. This raised several questions. Often, the ministers, who did not know you personally, took it upon themselves to tell you things that completely missed the mark. And, how could all of the ministers be receiving their inspiration from the same source, as frequently they were of totally opposite opinions, and debated their viewpoints in ministerial conferences? So, how did this special relationship with God come about? And, when one had it, why did one always agree with the viewpoints of, and begin parroting the Armstrongs? Could it be that my fellow students were practicing self-delusion?
In order to understand Ambassador College at this time, you need to know certain things about the era, and to be introduced to the cast of influential characters who were orchestrating the program. First, this was prior to 1975. It was an era when Herbert W. Armstrong was frequently able to call to attention marvelous doors which were being opened. There were no dissidents in sight, there was tremendous unity in the ideas being advanced, and the campus buildings and grounds were being remodeled and growing. The decadence we now know was taking place was nowhere in evidence. It appeared to all onlookers that everything was completely above-board and legitimate. Now that we've set the scene, let's take a look at the cast of influential characters.
Herbert W. Armstrong: I can't think of a single endearing character attribute that this man possessed. The universal reaction which he inspired was fear! He was the quintessential flaming asshole of arbitrary authority. Many people claimed to see a lot of love in him, but at best he was a megalomaniac of nearly the same proportions as Adolf Hitler, and was once quoted as saying that he would lie, cheat, or do anything else to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Garner Ted Armstrong: If one were looking for someone in whose valence to comfortably act, it was Garner Ted. He had developed his natural talents in so many ways that it was impossible not to admire him. A natural athlete, singer, hunter, and inspiring radio personality, he was the one who made his father's message appealing. In terms of types and antitypes, he was Elohim to his father's Yahweh. Unfortunately, as is now well-documented, he was deeply flawed.
"Hot" Rod Meredith, God's Apostle of Masturbation, so called, because he was totally incapable of preaching a sermon or teaching a class without introducing this disgusting topic in some graphic way. His personality was shaped in the Herbert W. Armstrong mold, but unlike his mentor, he would usually say the first thing he thought about anything rather than refining the thought. He could be both fun-loving and mean-spirited. Racism was one of his less endearing qualities, and he was the brunt of frequent derogatory imitation in the dormitories.
Herman Hoeh, an articulate intellectual. He was quite benign as compared to the above characters, but gave Herbert W. Armstrong the research and documentation to support his reign of terror. Dr. Hoeh frequently surprised others by responding to announcements requesting help in set-up and clean-up for various functions, often showing up not as an evangelist, but as a simple worker to help in performing the most menial of tasks. He later actually gave up his Lincoln, and used public transportation to get around.
David Jon Hill, the rebel. He claimed that the rules in the student handbook were necessitated by his behavior during his student days. A charismatic but tormented company man, whose drinking problem became legendary.
Richard Plache: One of the most arrogant men that I have ever met in my entire life. Having said that, I am also convinced that he meant well and honestly cared for the welfare of those for whom he felt responsible.
Dr. Clint Zimmerman, a very caring individual. He was a hard-line company man, but also a very good hearted family man. I am convinced that AC was exploiting his status as a Dr. of Chiropractic, as in no way was he a "natural", but nonetheless he could be a very inspiring speaker.
Albert J. Portune, Mr. Sincerity. Arguably the most inspiring personality, along with Garner Ted Armstrong, on staff at AC. His business background gave him a practical common sense approach, as well as the good ethics which appeared lacking in others.
Dibar Apartian: Mr. Culture, a true bon vivant! A benign but firm company man, who brought a continental approach to his work as professor of French and voice of the French language version of the World Tomorrow. It really choked me up when I recently learned of his son's suicide.
Jack Elliott, talented teacher, Dean of Students in 1966-67, who brought a sense of humor to his work. He reminded me of the actor Joe Flynn in McHale's Navy. Perhaps Mr. Elliott was too smart to aspire to the ministry.
Howard Clark, compassionate, outspoken, gentle soul, known for his bombastic and often outrageous sense of humor. He was one of my personal favorites. Mr. Clark was in a great deal of pain resulting from his war injuries, and legend had it that his recovery from paraplegic status was due to anointing and prayer by Mr. Dick Armstrong just prior to his tragic accident and death.
Paul S. Royer. Every campus needed some kind of ex-marine or military man. Spit and polish, authoritarian, no mercy. Produce, or you are washed out of the program. He could also be very inspiring, at times.
So, now the stage is set. We can return to my personal dilemma. Since Viet Nam was ongoing, I had placed a really serious bet on my ability to succeed at Ambassador College. I resolved to continue to be me, i.e. be true to myself. I would apply myself to my studies, continue to question authority and those who senselessly parroted it, and wait for the kind of validating sign that I assumed my classmates had found, leading to conversion. Having come from an upper middle class background, I had been privileged to attend some of the best public schools in the entire USA. We were taught the scientific method, inductive and deductive reasoning, logic, and we had been introduced to the works of some of the worlds greatest philosophers. However, I really was not well rooted from a philosophical standpoint. Hence, my angst. On the one hand, I didn't want to believe that the end of the world was forthcoming in 1975, but if it were, I wanted my shot at living as much of a normal life prior to that, as possible.
It amazed me that those integral to the work of God's Apostle were accorded no special treatment. Both Dick, and Loma Armstrong had succumbed, as opposed to the miraculous healing promised to Christ's followers in the Bible. If one were looking for the validation God had given to all his messengers in Mosaic and Apostolic times, God had clearly missed out on a key opportunity to validate Herbert W. Armstrong! Not being really good at blind faith, I usually do fairly well if someone can explain the whys and wherefores and to answer some basic questions. Doubting Thomas was made an example out of, but remember, he was given the proof that he needed! I, on the other hand, was expected to accept Herbert W. Armstrong's Apostleship because he and his staff told me that he was the Apostle!
Garner Ted Armstrong had a very valid saying: "Authority only exists where you choose to accept it." I've heard this paraphrased in another way: "No-one can make you do anything. They can just make it really difficult for you if you choose not to do what they ask." There is an even more poignant moral truth. If you advise someone to do something, you are responsible for the results! The Armstrongs consistently managed to side-step this responsibility by subtly shifting the blame to God. We were told by them to accept the commands of the ministers as if they had come directly from Jesus Christ, Himself. That way, if something does happen to go wrong, God and Jesus are culpable. Of course, what Christian is going to take this to its logical conclusion? The missing detail is that if God or Jesus, being the perfect beings that they are, told you to do something, what they said would be correct. I once knew a man whose son was several hours away from dying of a deadly bacterial infection. He loved his son, and was relying on God's healing for this medically treatable condition. God appeared not to be taking action. In the eleventh hour, some ex-Worldwide Church of God members visited this family and very forcefully persuaded the man to get his son to the hospital, immediately. The man did the right thing, which took a lot of courage. His son fully recovered, went to Ambassador College, graduated, and was ordained a minister! Was it God's will for this young man to die? He well might have if Herbert W. Armstrong's rules had been followed, yet he lives to this day though those rules were disobeyed. Does this prove anything?
Following my attempts at developing a relationship with God, I decided that if He wanted to get my attention, He would! So, I elected to just go about life, and have some fun. It was often disruptive. But, I also did some positive things, sometimes at the last possible moment, which made the faculty at Ambassador College feel that there might be some potential there worth saving. Most of the students were very inhibited. It was difficult for them to really come out, let's say, in an Attack speech. Not me! I had been watching the ministers for years. During my Attack speech, I was right up there with the most fiery of the ministers. At a critical juncture, I actually picked up the podium, raised it completely overhead, and then splattered it on the ground. The poor guys in the front row actually ran to take cover! It ruined the new carpet in the just opened Loma D. Armstrong Academic Center! My instructor told the class that it had been an A+ speech up until this incident. This was towards the end of my sophomore year, and I still had not been baptized. It was wondered what God would accomplish thru me if I ever did become converted.
Sadly, I never found the answers I was looking for at Ambassador College. Much the same as my cousins and I would try to act out the adventures of Tom Sawyer when we were in grade school, I came to the conclusion that those at AC and in the Worldwide Church of God were attempting to act out the adventures of Jesus Christ, without the undeniable presence of Jesus himself. This came from my constant testing, amassing of empirical evidence, questioning authorities who really didn't want to be questioned, and catching key people in lies. God was not validating the Apostle in the Mosaic or Apostolic sense. In fact, any inherent goodness emanated from the poor exploited membership, a collection of sincere people honestly trying to do what they were told was right. God was only present to the extent that God is a metaphor for good. Unfortunately, those good people suffered unprotected the same things that all of the rest of humanity suffered throughout history, plus the incredible evils visited upon them by Herbert W. Armstrong! What is the answer? It is simple. Living the Golden Rule doesn't have to be a religious experience, it is also embodied by secular terms such as good ethics. Treat people like you want to be treated, and you'll find that you are looking into a mirror. That positive flow comes back to you. So simple, so difficult, so abysmally lacking at the Worldwide Church of God.
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