Note from CM: I wrote this post shortly after Michael died on April 5, 2010, seven years ago this week.
We’re still hungry, still searching, still on the journey. Some of us have found helpful oases where we’ve been able to slake our thirst somewhat and find a bit of nourishment. But conversation among the exiles continues, and invitation remains open to join us here for a safe place in which to take part in it.
Michael started this refuge for pilgrims. We are forever grateful.
• • •
Now in Another Wilderness
By Chaplain Mike, April 2010
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.
David left there and escaped to the cave of Adullam; when his brothers and all his father’s house heard of it, they went down there to him. Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him…
• 1 Samuel 22:1-2a
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.
Now we find ourselves in 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