October 19, 2017

Now in Another Wilderness

By Chaplain Mike.

I had been wandering in the post-evangelical wilderness for a long time. But I never knew what to call it until I began reading Michael Spencer. And I never knew a genuinely safe place to talk about it until I entered the discussions on Internet Monk. Then I knew I had found a guide, and a group of fellow-wanderers.

The site’s popularity testifies to an undeniable fact: I am not alone. There are multitudes of us out here in exile, weary and dry-mouthed, panting for streams from which to slake our thirst.

  • Longing for grace.
  • Longing for some thoughtfulness and common sense instead of the gnostic fanaticism that tries to pass itself off as vibrant faith.
  • Longing for a faith that is not simply another attempt to avoid, escape, or transform our humanity into something else.
  • Longing for real good news of a real Savior for real people.
  • Longing for a Jesus-shaped spirituality.

Michael’s blog was the first site on which I ever commented. I had found a kindred spirit. His posts and the comments he gave in response to those who entered the discussion revealed a no-nonsense lover of Jesus, tired of religion as usual, willing to point out “spiritual” craziness, never too proud to admit his own weaknesses, intolerant of intolerance, especially from those called to love even their enemies.

Oh yeah, and he loved baseball too. “What’s not to like about this guy?” I thought.

I drive a lot for my work, and Michael’s podcast became a regular passenger in my car. His homely accent, humor, and self-deprecating manner belied the depth of his wisdom. No one did better play-by-play on the evangelical circus. Listening to him, I nodded and laughed my way into insight.

Gail and I took a vacation in September last year to northern Tennessee. I got in touch with Michael and asked if we could meet Denise and him for dinner. We had a great time getting to know each other, hearing about the progress of his book project (he was so excited!), Denise’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, Michael’s own struggles with feeling at home in church, and the ministry of OBI, where he taught and ministered to students. A memorable evening for us.

Some time later, Michael asked me to do an interview on pastoral care for the dying. It was an honor to be asked to share this with him and the iMonk audience. This led to a couple of instances when I had a chance to minister to Michael personally as he dealt with some situations involving the death of friends. I was moved by some of the things he wrote about the unhelpful ways Christians deal with illness, pain, and death, and sensed some spiritual discouragement in what he was saying. So I called and we talked about it. I hope I encouraged him.

These conversations continued when Michael himself became ill. Almost from when he first began feeling bad, it seemed he knew something was seriously wrong. It wasn’t long before it was difficult for him to write, so he asked if I would fill in for him until he could resume. I did so gladly.

When Michael was admitted to the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington, Gail and I made a day trip down to see him. We had a good visit in his room, but Michael was sleepy and left most of the talking to Denise. At that point, the doctors still hadn’t pinpointed the main site of his cancer and none of us knew what he was facing.

And then commenced the path for the Spencers that I as a hospice chaplain have become all too familiar with: diagnosis, radiation and chemotherapy, a new life built around trips back and forth to doctors, hospitals, and clinics, coping with side effects, keeping family and friends up to date, dealing with visitors and inquirers, answering the same questions over and over again, hoping against hope. And then the day you learn the treatments aren’t working. Crossing the line from looking for a cure to accepting comfort. Until the final breath.

I drove down to see Michael, Denise, and the family a couple of weeks ago. Michael had just been admitted to hospice. He was still sleeping in his own bed. I was pleasantly surprised at how he looked and that he was able to talk with me about some matters related to Internet Monk and other things that were on his heart. I also enjoyed visiting with Denise, as well as the children and their spouses. In the midst of such a trying situation, I sensed God’s peace upholding and sustaining them.

I have been keeping in touch with Denise regularly since my visit, checking on Michael’s condition and how the family was doing. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1), and it seemed to me that God was there, helping, each time I phoned.

As they were going through this, what a tremendous outpouring from cyber-friends too! Rarely did a day go by with someone asking about how Michael was doing, expressing appreciation for his ministry, asking if anything could be done to support him or the family. Michael Buckley held his art auction. Alan Creech had his rosary sale. Many, many folks simply sent checks or hit the “donate” button to assist with medical expenses. I’m sure there is a multitude of kind acts and generosity I know nothing about.

And then Denise called Monday evening and told us Michael had taken his last breath.

To be honest, I don’t know what to say about that.

Vocationally, I deal with death all the time. I comfort those who mourn. I lead grief support groups and teach others what happens when we lose a loved one. But it’s all a fog to me at the moment. Today, I am one of the grieving.

This is what I hear you saying as you write in the wake of Michael’s death. We are astounded that we could feel so close to a friend few of us have even met. In our contemporary world of internet connections we somehow found a genuine bond with an authentic human voice that had our best interests at heart and tried to give us Jesus. No matter that we only met him in cyber-space or heard his voice on a podcast. His death leaves a void and we fear that it cannot be filled again. At this moment, we don’t know what we feel, or where to turn.

Another kind of wilderness.

O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.
(Psalm 63:1, NLT)

Comments

  1. Michael Mercer,

    So glad that you were able to step in when and where you did. You have been greatly appreciated. Your efforts will help ensure that Michael Spencer’s voice will continue to be heard.

  2. Thanks, Chaplain Mike – for all you’ve done these last few months for the imonk community – and for the Spencer family.

  3. Thanks Mike. He was my only support for the past 6 years. My last shared e-mails were helping him with the DNS issues. As has been said many times in many places the last couple of days, he has helped a great deal of us and will be truly missed; missed already…

    – Craig

  4. Thank you.

    Both of you.

    I’m a musician, although sometimes I pretend I’m a writer. I’ve been wanting to write about this for a few days. Looks like the pretending is up on that one.

    I’m about to buy a new instrument soon. Maybe I’ll play Ashokan Farewell on it…maybe It Is Well…maybe I’ll write a song. That’s the best I can do.

  5. I wanted to add my voice, Chaplain Mike you have done an admirable job in a very uncertain situation. You have our gratitude. We will miss IM, but his thoughts as well as the evolution of the subject are vital for Christians often sent out to this wilderness. May God’s Spirit fill and guide you as plans are laid. And thank you for ministering to Michael. We often forget that Pastor’s need pastoring as well.

  6. The Guy from Knoxville says:

    Mike,

    I too agree with the comments others have written above – thank you for stepping in and keeping things running smoothly here at I-Monk. As I put in my email to you earlier in the week – Michael would never have put this into anyone’s hands except one trusted to contiue it as he designed it as he desired it as he presented it…… a wonderful job my brother during these last few months and now in this time of grief as the whole of the I-Monk readership mourns, grieves and remembers a friend who made a difference like no other in all our lives.

    I went back in the archives last evening and looked up a post from March 2009 where I had responded to a to one of Michael’s posts and was, more or less, letting loose on issues related to a church situation my wife and I were going through and he posted a response to me saying that our familes needed to get together for dinner – some of our issues were similar to recent issues he was and had been having church wise. I did a copy an paste into a word document and saved it as part of my memories along with the emails that Denise and I exchanged during Michael’s sickness.
    I wish I could say that we got that dinner meeting in but…… we didn’t – we both got busy and while we emailed and Facebooked about it we just didn’t get it done and the sadness and hurt over having missed that opportunity has been so heavy since news of his passing and the tears have flowed and the “whys” have been asked of God yet there is peace despite all this.

    Thank you also for sharing about your meetings with Michael – that has helped me to, in a sense, have an idea of what, perhaps, that meeting that never was might have been albeit different somewhat in subject matter yet the essence of the person of Michael Spencer comes through in your writing. Thank you again….. it has helped even as the final crushing blow for me has come about – not being able to go to Oneida this Saturday because of my work situation – I’ve looked at it and can find no way outside of God’s intervention to be able to get away – pray that that might change and if not that God give me a peace about this. My wife knows a bit of my grief about this but even all I’ve written tonight I’ve not told other than here.

    Mike, one last thing – there’s the thought of what will become of Internetmonk.com…… it seems fitting that it should continue to be a place of refuge for all walking in this Post Evangelical Wilderness and while no one could take the name Internet Monk – that was uniquely Michael Spencer yet somehow this site should go on – maybe something for you to consider in time something that, when the time is right, might be talked about with Denise and Michael’s family.
    You have been uniquely trusted to handle this amazing site and it’s priceless information during this difficult time……. maybe….. in God’s time…… think about it. We love and apprecite you Chaplin Mike.

    Signing off for now on this comment as Michael always did…..

    Peace

  7. I don’t think there is anything I can add to what has been said already. I merely wanted to include my voice among those lifting up prayers for the family in their time of loss. I have read posts here at IM for years and commented in bursts, although not as much lately. I am deeply grateful for all that Michael has done through this site and his willingness to put himself out there in search of a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. I never met him in person on this side of eternity, but I look forward to the time when we shall praise our Savior together on that side of the veil.
    Shalom

  8. Another Mary says:

    Thank you so much for your faithful service to Michael. It seems God knew he would need a chaplain in his last days and brought you two together. As a wife and mother I can imagine how much you are appreciated.
    I too am wondering (selfishly) what will happen now that his active voice is gone. You are right, there are so many of us out in this evangelical wilderness wondering if we are just crazy, lazy or malcontents because our hearts cannot/will not settle for ‘business as usual’ type of Christianity.

    I am so grateful you have been such a friend to our friend.

    Mary

  9. Thank you, Chaplain Mike, for taking the reins here…your insights are appreciated, and thank you for this lovely post to tell more of your history and to share sad news..

    A prayer for Michael’s family-

    Dear Heavenly Father, we praise Your holy name … grant mercy, O Lord, to this grieving family and bring peace to their minds and hearts. Comfort them Lord, in the assurance of glorious heaven and the beauties that await us there. Thank you for Michael’s beautiful soul and gifting him in such a way to share Your love with many… bless those who mourn. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, Amen.

    May his memory be eternal.

  10. I don’t have anything big to say except thank you. Thank you for being a friend to Michael and Denise. I, like you, have been surprised at how a ‘virtual’ friendship has impacted my life. This loss has evoked so much more of the losses of my life. This has been much tougher than I thought it was going to be. Michael touched a spiritual nerve. Thank you Mike for being the friend you have been.

  11. I continue to pray for the IMonk’s family, it’s amazing how fast he went home; he was diagonosed the same time I was (I’m currently battling cancer). He will be missed, that’s an understatement, I was surprised that Michael actually commented at my site a couple of times — I felt like a celebrity had visited (seriously) — he was (and now is even more so) a wise man.

    I hate death, I’m glad our LORD does too; it’s amazing to think about what Michael’s entrance to heaven was like. Who met Him? I would think sweet Jesus welcomed Michael; and I would imagine that Michael is still right by Jesus’ side (wandering no more). It’s almost a surreal thing to contemplate, it is hard to imagine; and yet it’s not!

    Michael will be missed, I’m praying for all you Spencers and his dearest friends; this is a hard time, but thankfully we grieve as with hope!

    • Bobby, the Lord be with you.

      • Thank you, Mike! You are doing a great job with Michael’s site; I’ll be praying that you experience the peace of the LORD at this moment!

    • Denise Day Spencer says:

      Bobby,

      Your words “wandering no more” were what brought the tears today. So true, and such a blessing to know. Not just to wish for or to hope for, but to KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt.

      We are the ones who are wandering.

      Please keep our family in your prayers.

      Thank you. ~ Denise

      • Amen, Denise,

        We can KNOW, what a blessed assurance!

        From one wandering with Jesus I continue to pray for you and the family; I am so sorry for your loss (thankfully it’s only temporary, amen!) . . . the LORD is coming, and I say “come quickly, even so, come!”

        Grieving with HOPE,

        Bobby

  12. Boethius says:

    Thank you, Chaplain Mike.

  13. Rob Grayson says:

    Thanks, Mike, for articulating so well what so many of us are feeling…

    Rob

  14. I agree with the guy from Knoxville. I think the site needs to continue, especially in light of Micheal’s yet to be released book.

  15. JoanieD says:

    As long as we are together here, we are not really alone in the wilderness. Thank you, Chaplain Mike, for your service to us and to Michael. You were a good friend to him and I know he appreciated all that you did for him and for us. And I appreciate your work, writing and compassion very much.

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/april/10.37.html
    We WILL see Michael when God empties ALL the tombs and we all walk in the light and love of God. This article by J. R. Daniel Kirk (“A Resurrection That Matters: If we are completely saved from our sins through the Cross, what’s the point of the empty tomb?”) is wonderful! Happy Easter season to all of you.

  16. It is sad for me to admit, but there are very few people whose passing would actually cause me any sort of deeply felt grief. Michael is one of those people. He had answers to questions I did not even know I was asking. The evangelical conservatives did not have it. The liberal theologians did not have it. Michael Spencer, that guy from Kentucky called Internet Monk, had the answers, simply with the idea of an evangelical wilderness.

    I’ve never met the man face to face and only began reading his site about a year ago and yet, here I am, missing him.

  17. JoanieD says:

    Michael’s writings made me laugh, cry, think, read more, pray more. Not many writers do that for me. I will miss him very much.

    • Amen to that, Joanie….he had a way of getting my full attention, and that rarely happens.

      glad that Michael is totally pain free
      Greg R

  18. Scott Eaton says:

    Thanks for writing this, Chaplain Mike. I was caught off guard by how deeply painful Michael’s death has been for me.

    Back in Summer 2008 we had dinner together in Wheaton when he was on sabbatical. It was an evening we both enjoyed immensely. We commented to each other that night how we both felt that we had truly met a brother in Christ and experienced genuine Christian fellowship.

    But I have only spoken to him in an email or two since then and an occassional comment on the blog. So when I heard of his illness and now his death, I was suprised at the depth of my grief. I thought, “Come on, this is silly, you hardly know the man.” But I did know the man because he allowed us to know him on this blog. He was a daily companion for many of us. He spoke our language and voiced our own struggles and guided us and provided us with wisdom and even once in awhile made us angry. He kept us gospel-focused, grace-oriented and Jesus-centered and shaped. We learned what being a “mere Christian” was really all about. I miss all that. I miss him.

    As deeply as my heart grieves I can only imagine how Denise, Noel, and Clay and their families feel. I’ve been praying for them alot.

    I’m sorry to ramble, but I’m grateful to be able to share my feelings with a blog community that I know will understand.

  19. Thank you Chaplain Mike and thank you IMonk.

  20. “We are astounded that we could feel so close to a “friend” few of us have even met. In our contemporary world of internet “connections” we somehow found a genuine bond with an authentic human voice that had our best interests at heart and tried to give us Jesus.”

    You’ve articulated exactly what I’ve been thinking. I’ve been reading and following imonk for 6 years or so at BHT and here, and I’ve missed “hearing” him these past few months. I can’t believe how quickly his illness progressed and am so sad. I’ve tried talking about it to others, but I think it’s hard for people to understand that I could be genuinely grieving someone I’ve never met.

  21. I found the Internetmonk at a critical time in my spiritual journey and the questions, thoughts, and comments posted here helped to heal so much of what I had not even know was wrong on a cognizant level.

    May this blog continue to be a catalyst to thought, a fighter for grace and hope, and heal others. For so long those of us who felt and thought this way were scattered and disconnected but thanks to brave authors and thinkers (and- of course- Al Gore for inventing the Internet) we have begun to find strength and cohesiveness.

    May we all be covered in the dust of the Rabbi.

  22. I’ve never grieved so much for someone I’ve never met. I never knew how much you had touched me until I realized you were gone. You will be missed but I’ll meet you in the sky.

    Andy

  23. Chaplain Mike,
    Thank you for eloquently summarizing what Michael and this blog are all about and poignantly describing his last days. Please know that I appreciate all the work you’ve done to “hold down the fort” and keep the blog consistent during these difficult months for the Spencers. And what an amazing God we serve Who connected a hospice chaplain with Michael!
    As someone who unexpectedly lost a sister, I agree that it’s a completely different scenario to be the one grieving. And Bobby Grow is right; it’s so hard to imagine the iMonk gone from this world to be next to Jesus, and yet it’s not.

    Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam (Irish for “May he rest in peace” but literally “May his soul be on God’s right side”).

  24. I agree with a lot of the other comments. Although I never met Michael Spencer I am grieving his death like that of my own brother! How can it hurt to lose someone I have never met, except through his blog~! There will only be one I-monk … the site must go on with the archives available!

  25. Through his writing, Michael helped me to understand grace. Greatly looking forward to the book. Through this, his gift to humanity, Michael continues to proclaim the gospel of truth to those who thought they knew it. My deepest sympathies to his wife and family.

  26. Thanks.

    Peace.

  27. ATChaffee says:

    For all the saints
    Who from their labors rest,
    Who Thee, by faith
    Before the world confessed-
    Thy Name, O Jesus,
    Be forever blessed.
    Alleluia, Alleluia

    O sweet communion,
    Fellowship divine-
    We feebly struggle,
    They in glory shine.
    Yet all are one,
    For all in Thee are Thine.
    Alleluia, Alleluia

  28. PrairieDog says:

    He taught me how to appreciate other denominations without going off an extreme liberal theological cliff, and still maintain a strong commitment to Christ and the supernatural truths of Christianity. He taught me that one can be an intellectual Christian without having to “demythologize” everything in the Bible.

  29. Chaplain Mike,
    Amen brother.
    Thank you.

  30. Thank you Chaplain Mike. You are doing a great job, and I’m sure you’re an incredible blessing to the Spencer family.

    Thank you Michael Spencer for your being open and faithful. You’re home now.

    Thank you God for blessing your Church with these two men.

  31. Chaplain Mike,

    Thanks for being so faithful to Michael and Denise and to the rest of us. You have been doing a terrific job running the iMonk blog and, as someone else has mentioned, this has been crucial with Michael’s book nearly published.

    I started lurking at iMonk a little over a year ago, then after the Christian Science Monitor article (an atheist friend emailed me that link!) I started reading more regularly and began to get a sense of what Michael was all about.

    I began to think there were at least three Michaels: He worked full-time as a teacher; he preached in church on a regular basis; and where in the world did he find time to write all of those articles for the blog, let alone to answer our posts and to moderate unruly comments? I thought he must have had a few assistants to handle details, but no.

    One of the wonders of the blog is the sense of camaraderie it generates. I have come to look forward to the opinions of many frequent visitors, even some that I disagree with. Bouncing ideas off one another helps us all, like iron sharpening iron.

    As for the book coming out, here is an appeal to all of you who haven’t ordered a copy. It’s easy, it’s $9.44, and it’s almost as cheap to buy three as it is to buy two, because then you’ll get free shipping.

    Why would you need three copies? You got friends, that’s why.

    And if we buy enough copies the publisher will get the idea that there is money in this, and there will be a sequel based on Michael’s previous essays.

    And a third book, based on the wild and crazy comments generated by all of us. Something like a “Phantom of the iMonk Blog”, complete with murder and love scenes.

    Well, maybe not a work of fiction for that third volume. It would take a lot of editing.

    You can help make this work. Denise could use the income and we could use a few more good reads. Hit the link and buy three copies. $28.32 total.

    Sorry about this, Chaplain Mike. Are you up for it?

    • “And a third book, based on the wild and crazy comments generated by all of us. Something like a “Phantom of the iMonk Blog”, complete with murder and love scenes. ”

      Now THAT would be interesting, Ted!

      Or, Jeff Dunn could rent a big lodge and invite 50 regular internetmonk commenters to spend a weekend talking about Michael’s essays. Maybe a few people would present a skit. Someone else writes/reads a poem. A few people drink a little booze and get teary. More of us cry. Then music and dancing break out. Some folks get disturbed by the music and dancing (especially when socks start being swung in the air and the Holy Ghost Hoky Poky begins.). Others get disturbed at the folks that get disturbed. Jeff makes sure the person appointed to write the book based on the weekend is getting it all down. 😉

      (I hope Jeff reads this. Maybe I should put this over where he has posted his note about how the site is going to continue with his help!)

      • Maybe on a train. From the Orient. On a dark and stormy night.

        (Or) on a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets—while on the 12th floor of the Acme Building one man is still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions…