The way that his congregation remembers it, the former Rev. Glenn E. Miller had a gift for explaining life's mysteries, great and small. He could make the Bible clear, illuminate the path to righteousness and keep a Christian from the fiery lakes of hell.

So, too, he had an explanation for the Mercedes, a 1978 navy-blue coupe with a book value of $19,000. Some members of his tiny Solid Rock Church of God said they had wondered how their young minister could afford such a car on a salary of $400 a week.

Miller told them that he had bought the Mercedes for $5,500 at a government auction. The price was low, he said, because someone had been shot in the car and the interior was "all messed up."

The young, charismatic minister also had explanations for the $17,500 deluxe motor home, $70,000 worth of video equipment, $11,000 Steinway piano, tractor, rental truck emblazoned with the words "Solid Rock Church of God," $6,951 Honda motorcycle and the $87,500 Cessna twin-engine airplane.

"He always had some good-sounding story," recalls one member of the congregation. "He would say the Lord had blessed him."

But this summer his congregation, and many in the Shenandoah Valley, were startled to learn that what Miller said God gave, the government was taking away.

Federal and state investigators, tipped off by a discovery in the church's basement of a large air conditioner identical to one reported stolen in Roanoke, converged on Miller's parsonage, ending what a police detective said in an affidavit was a four-year spree of counterfeiting and fraud, from Bethesda, Md., to Savannah, Ga.

And Miller, the 37-year-old, self-proclaimed "born-again" Christian who often renounced from his pulpit a past that included convictions for larceny, insurance fraud and two years in state prison for cattle rustling, appeared to bewildered friends and disappointed associates to be on the wrong road again.

Police affidavits paint a picture of a man who had become the Valley's own flimflam man, at the same time he was shepherding his church. According to search warrants filed in Rockingham County Circuit Court, Miller used six or seven aliases to fleece vendors and friends in pursuit of what some former church members say were dreams of a career as a prime-time television evangelist.

"He sure took us, he surely did," said the Rev. Lin Lockwood, the pastor of a nearby church who is suing Miller in an effort to recover $8,000 that Lockwood's congregation paid Miller for a tractor. The tractor, Lockwood said he later learned, was stolen.

"The man is a con artist," said Jamie Cox, co-owner of the Roanoke car dealership. In 1980 a man calling himself Russell M. Dickerson spent all day dickering over a Mercedes and then paid for it with a counterfeit check. Cox has since alleged that the man was Miller.

"He told us he worked for Panasonic and the company was buying him a car," Cox said. "He wasn't in any hurry. He even read the service reports and negotiated the warranty."

Miller fled Harrisonburg in his Executive Motor Home before police could arrest him earlier this summer, according to friends and associates. He hid for two months, but surrendered recently to face various state and federal charges of grand larceny, interstate transportation of stolen merchandise, check forgery and loan fraud.

Miller's mother posted his $35,000 bail. Miller could not be reached for comment, but, Robert F. Rider, his lawyer, said that Miller has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges. Miller has not pleaded to the state charges, Rider said. The lawyer did not comment on specific charges.

Miller has not appeared before his congregation since his arrest Aug. 11, but Natalie Miller, his wife of 19 years, did speak during a recent worship service, telling the members that her husband needed their prayers. Harry Miller, a cousin who lives in Roanoke, said that the fugitive minister sounded distraught when he telephoned for advice before his surrender.

"That night he sounded very out of it, and said he didn't know what to do," said the cousin.

Away from the courtroom, news of their preacher's troubles has his old congregation reeling.

"These are good-hearted, trusting people, and this whole thing has been like a dagger in their hearts," said Damon Keck, the Wisconsin preacher whom the Tennessee-based Church of God placed in charge of Miller's church after revoking Miller's ordination.

"He has literally destroyed this church," said a former church official, who asked not to be named.

The Shenandoah Valley long has been home to Mennonites and others who lavish upon their churches the devotion that other people reserve for television or weekend sports. The thriving city of Harrisonburg is no exception. Its rolling hills are flecked with tiny red-brick churches, and giant billboards that loom up over the two-lane highways with announcements like: "Draw Nigh Unto God and He Will Draw Nigh Unto You. Call 434-0766."

The Valley's largest denominations are rather sedate, but there is no shortage of churches like the Solid Rock, where the worship includes faith healing and speaking in tongues, and preachers are fond of what outsiders sometimes refer to as the "stomp 'n snort" school of preaching.

Miller's congregation of housewives, truckdrivers, welders and workers in the poultry industry that dominates Rockingham County admired the way his sermons could impose a kind of order on a world often baffling and chaotic.

"He gave it to you straight from the Bible," says Donald Crist, a local builder who attended from time to time. "We liked the word he taught."

The congregation's 150 members showed up for services three times a week, and Sunday school besides.

"It was a joyful place. Going there was like coming home to your family after you'd been away for a few days. It was lifting," remembers a former church member who works at a nearby plastics factory.

Now a number of families have quit the church and others are staying away.

"I can hardly understand how he could get up and tell 150 people a week that such-and-such was sin, and if you did it, God was going to punish you for it, and all the time be doing wrong himself," said a former member who asked not to be named.

Those who have left, including a group who say that they confronted Miller over equipment that turned up in the church basement after the pastor had reported it stolen and collected insurance on it, say that the minister exploited his congregation's faith in him.

"People in this area, we feel that if a person proclaims Christianity, that he is completely trustworthy," says Wayne McDorman, a welder and former assistant pastor who has left the Solid Rock Church. "It's shaken my trust and many others. I've heard several people say they don't know who to trust anymore."

Miller, the son of a minister, attended a Church of God high school in Tennessee but left one semester before graduation. His troubles with the law began soon after, according to a presentence report filed in Augusta County Circuit Court.

At age 19, a year after his father died of a brain tumor, he was convicted, along with his younger brother, of stealing scrap copper from a Westinghouse lot in Verona, Va., where he was employed. Miller received a two-year suspended sentence. Two years later, while still on probation, he was convicted of grand larceny for pushing his 1923 antique Ford roadster into a quarry near Interstate 81, then collecting the insurance money.

He was given a three-year suspended sentence and probation, on condition that he return the money. A year later, he pleaded guilty to charges of forgery and obtaining money under false pretenses for a scheme involving a wrecked station wagon.

A week before his 22nd birthday, according to court papers, he bought a truck with a post-dated check and stole 14 head of Black Angus and white-faced Hereford cattle from two livestock markets.

He fled to Roanoke before police could find him, but was arrested in Roanoke shortly afterward, living under the name of George E. Miller.

At the time of his trial for rustling, a parole officer's report noted that at previous sentencings Miller had received probation after he "appeared repentant" and asked for the chance to "prove to the court and society . . . that he had learned his lesson."

This time, Miller told Augusta Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Holstein that his problems stemmed, in part from the difficulties he had encountered as a minister's son, taunted by his peers. Miller also claimed that he had undergone a jailhouse conversion.

"I mean I will not even jaywalk," Miller said. "I mean this is the way I feel. I . . . I can't, since I have received God as my Savior."

Miller had two ministers, one his uncle, as character witnesses. Holstein listened, but revoked Miller's probation and sentenced him to six years and 10 months in the state prison.

Miller served only two years, spending part of his time in a work-release program that allowed him to leave the prison each day to work at an auto body shop. When he was paroled, he returned to Harrisonburg, eventually opening a body shop of his own.

He also began attending the Solid Rock Church. By 1976, he had been installed as its pastor, with the sponsorship of the two ministers who had pleaded for his parole.

His preaching is credited with winning the church new members, and by 1980 he had his own half-hour of Sunday morning television evangelism called "Solid Rock." The church expanded, adding a day-care center, a school, and buying a larger building in downtown Harrisonburg.

Miller never concealed his criminal past from his congregation, but used it, along with a vivid account of his 1975 spiritual rebirth, in sermons about the possibilities for redemption. An account of his transformation was featured in a national church magazine and often is quoted by members of his church.

Some have lost faith in Glenn Miller, but there are others who are hoping that their preacher will return to the fold.

"We don't know what the problem is. It still seems unbelievable," says Anna Mae Crist, who like many has known the Miller family for decades. "We still love him."