September 18, 2018

Monday with Michael Spencer: A Chronicle of the Journey (2008)

Wooded Path (2014)

Monday with Michael Spencer
A Chronicle of the Journey (2008)

In April of 06, I felt God instructing me to resign from the church I was serving. It was the church our family called home for a decade. I’d served them for 12 years. I had no idea that it was the end of almost any sense of spiritual “home” at all, and the beginning of a season of much change.

In May of that year, my son left home for college. In June, my daughter married. A few weeks later she would move to another state and temporarily quit college. (She’s graduating OSU in a few days, and I am very, very proud. But at the time, it was tough.)

In July of 06, my mother, who was living with us, came to the breakfast table and started speaking in a confused manner. Fourteen hours later, she was dead.

In September, I turned 50. The empty nest and the second half of life threw the party. I wouldn’t book them if I were you. Those guys are not much fun.

In these months, I was also trying to begin a home worship fellowship with some hope that, within 2-3 years, it might become the early version of a church. I was trying to preserve what my family had loved about worship in our little Presbyterian church and what I was discovering in the emerging tradition.

Despite many good aspects of that effort, it failed and in the summer of 07, I brought it to a tearful and embarrassing end. Two “church” losses in a year was devastating to my sense of having a spiritual home, and I still haven’t recovered.

In the meantime, God and my wife got together and decided that what I really needed was for her to start down the road to joining the Roman Catholic church. Everything my wife knew about Catholicism she’d learned from me, and she had almost no experience with the Roman Catholic church until Lent of 07. God’s directives to her at that time, however, were so clear that she knew she had to follow them despite the obvious consequences on various levels of our relationship and my ministry.

She told me the news, Pandora’s Box was opened and the Harpies took the keys to my life for the next few months.

Today, she’s somewhere in the RCIA journey and recently thanked me for my “support,” because she has been happier this past year than ever in recent memory. I had to laugh, because my “support” came from an experience somewhere between the rack and a 6 month root canal without anesthesia.

I was literally bombed out of my previous understanding of “the way things are supposed to be in a minister’s life.” It was like living through repeated showings of an imploding stadium, and I was the stadium.

Fortunately, God was determined to keep me in the wrestling ring until I yelled “Bless me.” I don’t have to tell you how that turned out, do I? I can now say “Bless me” in several Biblical languages.

I’ve still got an occasional bit of fight left in me, but the new version of my faith is considerably lighter, more Jesus shaped and – you’re going to love this- quite Shack/Greg Boyd influenced. (Oh calm down. I don’t believe everything Greg Boyd believes, but the last few weeks his preaching has been wonderful in its ministry to my confused heart.)

Oh. Did I mention that God and I are talking a LOT more these days, and I’m learning to recognize the voice of Jesus separate from my own head and the soundtrack of all the religious garbage that’s filled my head and heart for decades?

God provided a sabbatical so that I could have 8 weeks to work on the process of getting down to Jesus basics and knowing who I was in the new terrain of my existence. I appreciate it, because I needed (and need) it.

Simultaneously with all of these events, strange things began to happen to me at my job. Exceedingly strange. For instance, I was criticized for writing in my moleskine during sermons and for going to the restroom. All who live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

Nothing you’d find interesting, but plenty to make me wake up every day and wonder if someone is filming a reality show about me, with the premise of changing all my certainties when I’m asleep and then watching the confused reaction. If you see Season One on DVD, I’d like to purchase a copy. Maybe I can laugh at the commercials.

Oh, I thought I needed a friend, so I bought a dog. The dog hates me.

When I talk to Jesus about all this recent history, he says things like “It’s all mercy,” and “The only response is to be a servant,” and “What are you here for?” and “Who are the people who simply suffer and pray? Ever thought about them?” and my favorite “Just let me take care of _______________.”

The genuine Jesus, if you can actually get the station, can really be annoying to your natural survival instincts of blame, self-pity and anger.

You see, I’ve been trained my whole life to think like a pietistic Calvinist. There had to be a REASON for all of this. There has to be a LESSON. I get to ask WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO LEARN? So picture me spending all kinds of mental energy trying to find what was the great lesson at the core of all of this that, when I learned it, would make it all go away.

Riiiiight.

And when I ask what all this means and what I am supposed to learn, Jesus just asks questions back, or says things like “Why don’t you go down that road and see what happens. You’ll never know if you just pout.” Or “Just obey me tomorrow and we’ll find out.”

There doesn’t seem to be some resounding THEME or amazing LESSON. As Greg Boyd says, from my point of view, it just all seems to be hitting the fan. God BRINGS good out of it, but if I want to say that he caused it all (which I still do for lack of any other way to express faith and confusion simultaneously) with some CERTAIN LESSON in mind, I don’t get very far. Like he said, “Go down the road, and you’ll see what’s there.” Kind of God’s version of “When we get there, you’ll know.”

I’m a fifty one year old guy whose days leading churches in his denomination are probably over, whose wife got burned out in the non-existent “spirituality” of 30+ years of Baptist church life and ministry, who has been at his current job long enough for some people to wish he wasn’t, who has been stationed out on the frontier where there are no churches to shop, who spent so many years thinking so many things in his head were scriptural, reformed and right that it really hurts to have to admit he was wrong, wrong and wrong. In that order.

I’m just a guy with a life, and life is full of failure and loss. I wanted MINISTRY to be the ongoing reward. I wanted USEFULNESS to be my satisfaction. I wanted to be SIGNIFICANT. I wanted the contract to be in place and the insurance to protect me because I was the guy with the Bible. Well, that didn’t go very well, did it?

God thought it was time for all that nonsense to stop, and for the lifelong addiction I’d developed to my church as my universe, my wife as unquestioning supporter and my theology as my version of the inerrant Word of God to end. He made an appointment to pull the teeth, and I was not consulted in advance.

Ordinary life, extraordinary events and stuff that just don’t make no sense all combine to rearrange the furniture of my world. Every time I head for a comfortable seat, God sells it. Every time I look for the comfort food, the fridge is empty. Every time I get out my copy of “Things You KNOW Are True,” the dog has eaten it.

My faith continues. Jesus now fills the picture in a way he didn’t before. I realize I have a lot to learn from simple people who never get into pulpits and who aren’t supposed to know everything in the Bible like I supposedly do. My love for my wife and our Christian marriage continues, and there is much good that was not there before. I returned to church today, alone- something that in my anger I said I wouldn’t do. I was reminded that here I won’t ever be turned away from the table. I prayed for the five who were baptized. I was reminded that the faith goes far beyond me, my time, my preferences and my lifetime. I looked, and there were the people of God, and I was one of them. They asked me to lead in prayer, and the words were more careful than before.

I was grateful. I talked to Jesus and he told me it is all going to be all right, that I’m free to walk the new path as I can, and he will not leave me or forsake me. I felt sorry for my sin, and happy to know my Savior loves me.

Life goes on. Losses, gains, light, shadow, confusion, laughter, tears, God, Jesus, Denise, me.

When I look up from the road, I notice that the lights in the distance are closer and the noise behind me is not as loud.

Good journey friends. See you on up the road.

Comments

  1. senecagriggs says:

    My road has been different

  2. senecagriggs says:

    Comment deleted. Off topic. Seneca if you meant to post on Saturday Brunch you may do so.

    • Wow, Seneca. Way to start the morning.

      I was going to say something like, “Michael shoulda got a cat instead of a dog.”

    • I’ll be checking Saturday Brunch today to see if he does. IF he does, I’ll post my original intended reply. If not… well, I wouldn’t be surprised.

    • senecagriggs says:

      I was actually thinking about Michael wife moving towards Catholicism which appeared to play a significant part of Spenser’s post. But oh well.

      • Christiane says:

        Did you think you were mis-understood, senecagriggs?

        There is a part of the post that could be taken two ways. It’s where Michael writes:
        “She told me the news, Pandora’s Box was opened and the Harpies took the keys to my life for the next few months.”

        in the context of both what precedes and what follows, and to people who do not know of Michael’s struggle with terminal brain cancer, that phrase absolutely could be taken two different ways. I even thought about it and I know Michael’s story from when it was ‘happening’, which was a sad time for all who were here.

        One way that quote could be interpreted would be
        how Michael reacted to his wife’s conversion to Catholicism;

        Another way that quote could be interpreted might be
        how Michael got the news about his terminal condition

        Sure, you might have been mis-understood depending on how you read that quote. I can see that, all though I do not know what you wrote OR what you were trying to convey OR why you specifically were ‘deleted’.

        ?

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > something that in my anger I said I wouldn’t do

    Oooopfh, yep, that sounds too familiar.

    I am thankful to have had a dog which would come to me carrying a ball, and ever so disappointingly set it down and sigh, whenever I was in process of being a self-involved asshat. A good prompting of if whatever high-minded narrative running through my bloated human brain was really all that important that it should deny enjoyment of Now.

  4. Ronald Avra says:

    Now, on up the road. Thanks, Mike.

  5. Clay Crouch says:

    Michael Spencer was a brave soul and a wonderful writer. He put into words what so many of us have experienced in our faith journey.

  6. Christiane says:

    “Life goes on. Losses, gains, light, shadow, confusion, laughter, tears, God, Jesus, Denise, me.

    When I look up from the road, I notice that the lights in the distance are closer and the noise behind me is not as loud.

    Good journey friends. See you on up the road.”

    sometimes I forget how beautifully Michael wrote, and I doubt he even realized himself how much his writing impacted others . . . . people of different faith traditions, people from very different backgrounds . . . . we all were brought together in Michael’s ‘great hall’

    he is much missed, but these ‘Monday Mornings’ bring him back to us and the impact of reading his words remains as fresh and startling an experience as ever

    thanks for this, Chaplain Mike

  7. Christiane says:

    Speaking of ‘journeys’, this is a shout-out to ROBERT F.
    whose wife is having surgery this morning . . . .

    please let us know how she is doing, Robert, when you have time

    • Ronald Avra says:

      Yes, hope surgery goes well.

    • Robert F says:

      Christiane and my other iMonk friends,
      My wife came through the surgery well this morning. The surgeon said things went very well, and he believes the hyperparathyroidism has been remediated, though certainty of that will require follow-up testing. He’s keeping her in hospital overnight as a precaution because of her complicating health issues, but she should be coming home tomorrow. I just left her a short while ago, and will return in the morning. Thanks so much for everyone’s prayers and good wishes.

    • Robert F says:

      Christiane and iMonks friends,
      I just posted a reply, and it went missing. I imagine it will show up at some point, but in the meantime: All went well, my wife is being kept in hospital overnight as a precaution, I will pick her up tomorrow. Thanks for your prayers.

  8. Burro (Mule) says:

    Life goes on. Losses, gains, light, shadow, confusion, laughter, tears, God, Jesus, Denise, me.

    Michael sums it up so well here. Sometimes life is just life. If God is at work in our lives it is not always dramatic and more like Tolkien’s description of the Vala Umno:

    Ulmo loves both Elves and Men, and never abandoned them, not even when they lay under the wrath of the Valar. [M]ostly Ulmo speaks to those who dwell in Middle-earth with voices that are heard only as the music of water. For all seas, lakes, rivers, fountains and springs are in his government; so that the Elves say that the spirit of Ulmo runs in all the veins of the world.For he [Umno] kept all Arda in thought, and he has no need of any resting-place.

    The busybody god of popular Evangelicalism exhausted me decades ago.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “The busybody god of popular Evangelicalism exhausted me decades ago.”

      I think this is a reason why I feel like I’m in the midst of a spiritual desert again. Services at my church have become so “noisy” (and long) that I get exhausted just stepping inside the sanctuary.

      • Burro (Mule) says:

        A word that comes to mind frequently in contemplating the spiritual landscape of our world is ‘racket’, as in an exasperated mother screaming at her children ‘Why do you have to make such a racket?’

        Arguments in favor of or against who should do what with whom with which body part for me is ‘racket’ and I really don’t want to add to the confusion thereof. ‘Racket’ aptly describes the majority of services I attend outside the historic Church (by which I mean Rome and the East).

        Even this post is basically ‘racket’, and I ask your forgiveness for inflecting more racket on a racket-wracked world.

      • Christiane says:

        you need the peace of a retreat for at least three days . . . somewhere in the countryside or the forest, with monks and the whole ‘sacred space’ thing: the silences, the sanctuary, the peaceful nature, being fed, having a chance to sit quiet and ‘rest’ or maybe spend a while in conversation with one of the monks who ‘listen’ and then will pray for you, in short, your spirit needs to be nourished

        “The world is too much with us; late and soon,
        Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
        Little we see in Nature that is ours;
        We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
        . . . .
        For this, for everything, we are out of tune”
        (Wm. Wordsworth)

      • Rick, the Episcopal Rite 1 service would do you good. Short, to the point, Eucharist, no music.

  9. Stephen says:

    I truly regret never having known Michael Spencer. I do appreciate his writings. I am glad this place did not pass away with him. Thank you, Chaplain Mike. What a remarkable site where people of such divergent points of view can argue without assuming bad faith on the part of the opponent. No internet echo chamber here!

  10. Radagast says:

    I remember reading this post when it was written…. At that time I thought I might be witnessing Michael’s eventual conversion to Catholicism. Looking at it as time has passed I don’t believe he ever would have swam the Tiber. In some ways he knew he had important work to do with his tribe.

    I just liked the way of his writing, honest, vulnerable, emotional at times, he shared his angst inside and sometimes his prophetic side. I always looked forward to his posts.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Indeed, and even today there is nobody else who can write with that voice, and that level of honesty [without rancor].

  11. john barry says:

    I deeply respect and value the writings of M. Spencer. I cannot , will not and should not comment on his personal journey that he shares . That was his earthly journey and all I can say that M. Spencer was and is in the Care of God, which is a great expression that I learned from CM. I found that simple statement so comforting .

    One thing I will say that is so obvious, M. Spencer was “real” as the young people say. I like how his memory and work is respectfully treated here.

  12. I miss Michael’s writing and his voice. He was honest and genuine.
    I deeply appreciate how CM has continued this blog and the vision Michael started.
    This remains one of the few safe places for those of us still wandering in the post-evangelical wilderness.

  13. Robert F says:

    Okay, I posted two replies to Christiane’s inquiry about my wife’s surgery. Both disappeared, one after the next; wanna see what happens with this one, which I’m posting as a freestanding comment.

    All went well. Thanks for your prayer; they were and are a great support.

    • Susan Dumbrell says:

      Good news, may she have a speedy recovery.

    • Christiane says:

      Yes, good news, Robert.

      as to comments that disappear, I think there may be some kind of time delay before some appear, but I don’t know that for certain . . . . mine ‘disappear’ sometimes for hours and then show up, and I’m not sure why that is, so you are not alone

      Hope all continues to go well. God Bless!

      • Christiane, those that get held by the system are set free when I (or another moderator) has time to look at the site. Sometimes, because of life, we are delayed. Thank you all for your patience!

    • Clay Crouch says:

      Thanks be to God!

    • Got it, Robert. Sorry for the delay. Thanks be to God for good news. Prayers continue.

  14. john barry says:

    Robert F. Thanks for posting good news concerning your wife. To me nothing is “minor” in the medical world, I fear getting my teeth cleaned. Good way to end the night . They say no news is good news but really good news is good news.

  15. Something in what Michael wrote in this piece really resonates with me–well, several things do, but I just want to comment on the failure within a year of his house meeting. A lot of dreaming and emotional/mental energy gets wrapped up in such an effort and when failure occurs it’s very draining. Our house church lasted 6 years then collapsed after the deaths of two participants combined with a failure to lead the group through a time of disagreements and anxiety. I’ll not do it again–don’t have the energy–but my advice is that strong, personable, and plural leadership must be in play. “Diffuse leadership” is an simplistic myth that only produces incapacitating anxiety.

  16. Thank you CM for your devotion to Michael’s legacy.