January 21, 2021

Sundays with Michael Spencer: September 6, 2015


It was 1973, a year before my high school graduation. I was sixteen, a young preacher-boy at a revival meeting at a church in our community. I remember the tiny church being packed, but I don’t remember anything about the service, or the sermon or the preacher.

I do remember something that happened at the conclusion of the service. Something that has stayed with me all these years and haunts me.

I see the face of a preacher, looking at me, looking out across the room, to see if he is alone, or if there is someone who understands what it’s like to be human. Is there anyone else hurting like this? Is there anyone else this broken?

His face comes back to me across the years, and as I think about my own brokenness, failures, and the desire for common humanity that drives me to nail my thoughts to the door of the world, I wonder if he wasn’t showing me the face of every man and woman I’ve ever met.

You see, the invitation concluded, and that preacher began talking. His words were nervous, not the sure and confident tones of the sermon, but the halting, breaking, fearful tones of the guilty confession. He wasn’t in preacher-speak. He was speaking differently. Humanly. It bothered me.

In my church, our pastor seemed super-human. He was God’s man. A Spirit-filled man. He was different than all of us. He spoke differently. He dressed in suits all the time, even on hot summer days when he was doing yard work. He knelt behind the pulpit when he prayed, even though it was a very large church. He cried and shouted in the pulpit. He declared the Word of the Lord, and pled with sinners to come to Jesus. He was an embodiment of heaven’s man on earth.

He was not like the rest of us, and we knew it.

He did laugh, but not in the same way or at the same things. His wife was saintly, and always dressed like royalty. He could be tender, but he could also be frightening. You knew he spent hours with God, and was different as a result. He was a holy man.

As a young preacher-boy, I wasn’t a thing like him. I’m not sure that I wanted to be. I had walked the aisle and “surrendered” to preach, but could I ever be like that? Holy and separate? Anointed with power? I did believe, I am sure, that being a preacher meant I would be different. God would give to me…..something. The mantle of the prophet. The fire of the preacher. A light in the darkness. I wouldn’t be like other people. I would be safe and protected.

But this evening I was looking at another preacher, not my pastor. And he was not supernatural or holy or other-worldly. He seemed small and frightened. He was talking about his wife. He’d come home, and found his wife with another man. He just said this, to the whole church, as if they must know. He wept. His fear and self-loathing oozed out of him and into the atmosphere of that revival. Everything changed.

His wife was not present, though we all looked around to see her. I was uncomfortable. I wasn’t the only one. I wanted him to stop talking. He was scaring me. Real humanity, and the mess of a broken marriage, weren’t welcome in this revival, or in my world.

He said he and his wife had a lot of trouble, and he’d been taking medicine. But the medicine hadn’t done any good. Now his wife was with another man, and he wanted the church to pray. We did not know what to do with this. It was too much. Too much. Too real.

This was the pastor. The pastor was talking like this. I felt sick. I wanted to leave. Eventually, we did leave, and I went straight to my car and drove home.

Something had changed, though. The world was different. There were Christians- preachers- who were messed up. Christians and preachers with mental problems and wayward wives. I didn’t want this to be true. I wanted Christianity to be a safe zone, a magic place of protection from such terrible brokenness.

7616598516_b375a0258c_zI did not realize until many years later what had happened that night. The preacher was calling out of his darkness, calling into a room of other people, looking for something. What? He was looking to know he was not alone. He wanted to know if anyone else knew and understood what it was like to be human, to hurt and be a failure. To have failed at marriage and now, to have failed at being a “good Christian.” Did anyone care that his life was a wreck, or would they just condemn him? Would they pray for him, or did they just want him to go away?

I have no idea what he found. In me, he found the shock that comes from being confronted with my illusions. I wanted this to be a freakish exception to the rule that God makes us all better and makes everything all right. I wanted this to be a bad dream that would go away, because I did not want to think about the waking realities of infidelity and mental illness and desperate, despairing people. I did want to think that the man standing in the pulpit with the answers might not have all the answers for himself.

My faith rejected such a vision. I thought of that preacher as a sick fool. Today, I know better. He was a window into my own soul. A picture of the human race. A representative of the our true nature. And even more, he was, for that moment a sacrament of honesty in a religion of pretense. He stood there, falling to pieces, asking, “Am I alone? Am I the only one?” But we couldn’t let the secret out. We had to say the “amen,” and go home to a religion that protects us and makes us better.

Some twenty years later, that preacher took his own life. I do not know his path, I only know that in the end, he could not live with himself.

How many times did he stand and tell others to trust in a God of love, mercy and grace? And what did we hear? Did we hear the truth….or did we hear, instead, the invitation to paint ourselves in colors of self-deception and denial, and pretend another week, another year?

Over and over, Jesus reached into the lives of people like that preacher. The last, lost, least, losers. The unacceptable, the unreformable. The failures and the frauds. Those whose lives could not be tidied up with a little cultural religion. And from that, we have constructed a Jesus who prefers the “good Christian.” A Jesus who wants moralizing and religious superficiality. A Jesus who hardly needs to die for us, because a little exhortation to do better and keep on the straight and narrow are more our style. A Jesus without a cross, but with smiles and blessings for our homes and marriages full of “Christian moral values.”

The preacher stood there in his honesty, asking, wondering, reaching….not so much out to God as to his fellow humans. He looked at us and asked, “Am I alone? Am I the only one?”

I still hear him, and I still see his face. And I wonder what I would do today? Would I sit there….or would I embrace him as my brother?


  1. We all hope for a hero to show us the way, to give us hope that the mundane life we now live can be transformed into something extraordinary. We hope that just by being in the presence of such a person we can become them by transference, but the reality is that we are believing in an illusion created by our own minds, an illusion that is magnified by those around us. It is as if the more people that believe the illusion then it would become reality.

    The truth is that we are all broken, even those we look to as heroes. There is no magical standard that will lift us up to super saint, only the grace and forgiveness of God for His imperfect creation. I, as scripture says, Jesus learned obedience through the things that He suffered (endured), then how can we expect anything better? That includes those “other world-ish” preachers who so successfully hide their hurts and fault under a veneer of appearances.

    We are ALL jars of clay, some to honor and some to less than…

  2. Dan Crawford says

    Thank you, Chaplain Mike, for reminding all of us that even preachers need the Good News of compassion and mercy brought to them. And we all need to be reminded that we are broken and wounded and in need of healing.

  3. It seems to me that a lot of American Christianity – even parts that would disavow being “evangelical” – insist on this kind of “happy-face” facade because it’s the only practical proof we have of our faith being true. “Look at our changed lives! That’s the power of the Gospel for you!”

    If it turns out that we – even our most exalted exemplars, our pastors – still have broken and sinful lives… Well, then, how can we say that this ridiculous faith in a guy who got executed 2000 years ago is worth *anything*?

    Better to bottle the pain up, and insist our leaders do so especially, than face THAT can of worms.

  4. Oh my, oh my. Oh my.

  5. it’s like a Lenten reflection . . . so painful that the image of the poor broken pastor somehow evokes the crucified Christ Himself

    • ” Jesus begins to make the passage from the one who is healer to the one who is wounded;

      from the man of compassion to the man in need of compassion;

      from the man who cries out: ‘If anyone thirsts let him come to me to drink,’ to the man who cries out: ‘I thirst.’

      From announcing the good news to the poor, Jesus becomes the poor. He crosses over the boundary line of humanity which separates those whose needs are satisfied from those who are broken and cry out in need. ”

      (Jean Vanier, The Body Broken)

  6. This is such a terribly sad–but good–message for a Sunday morning. What a sad fate for that preacher who took his own life. How broken we are, and how much we need the Cross!

    My wife and I were going to a good, crucicentric church for years (it was a Calvinistic megachurch, but I have nothing bad to say about it). There was monthly communion, and not a Sunday went by without the proclamation of good news for sinners–including sinful Christians!

    Now we’re going to a small neighbourhood church where the emphasis is all about obedience and sanctification…and I feel like I’m suffocating! Jesus always gets mentioned, but almost as our exemplar! Where is the Cross? Where is the mention of His blood to wash away our sin?

    What that preacher needed and what Michael Spencer ultimately realized he needed is what we ALL need: to hear the refreshing good news of the Gospel over and over again, for that is our only hope!

  7. Did this man sin or was it the sins of his parents that caused him to be born fully human. I’m guessing this man had the good news of the good news coming out his nostrils. I’m guessing what this man really needed was a congregation that would step forward as one and lay on hands for comfort and strength and healing, then continue to batter down the gates of heaven with their prayers for him 24/7. I’m guessing he needed a friend closer than a brother, probably a man to avoid even more complications, someone he could lay it all out with and it would go no further, maybe another pastor in another denomination with a gentle perspective and with Jesus uppermost in his heart.

    In church today and recently James told us it was folly to speak words of blessing and comfort to someone in dire need, and do nothing to alleviate that need in the here and now. We’ve been discussing that here this week. The church seems to be waking up here and there to the idea that our life in eternity is not set in concrete by what we have believed or done here, that there is room for learning and growth and improvement on the other side as well as here.

    I believe that this means we are just as able to lift up people in prayer who have left the planet as the folks who surround us here in the flesh. Michael didn’t know what to do when he was 16, and likely there was nothing he could have done short of God speaking thru him like a donkey. But Michael wrote this down and Chaplain Mike brought it to our attention today, and there is nothing stopping any of us from sending prayers of comfort, strength, and healing to this man here and now. I’m guessing he could still use this. Michael might well be able to be of more help now than then, a needed brother. Blessed be.

    • Carl Jung told of a vision where he entered heaven and the people that greeted him inquired with great intent about what insights he had gained and was bringing with him that would benefit them. Whatever they had not attained in the flesh in terms of insight and knowledge they were still in the process of acquiring. That doesn’t quite match the traditional picture of heaven where we now know everything and don’t know need but paints quite an interesting picture for eternity.

    • I think you are right, Charles. Michael’s words strike home, and yours do too. If you do not mind the company, my prayers join yours.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The church seems to be waking up here and there to the idea that our life in eternity is not set in concrete by what we have believed or done here, that there is room for learning and growth and improvement on the other side as well as here.

      I believe that this means we are just as able to lift up people in prayer who have left the planet as the folks who surround us here in the flesh.

      Isn’t that the basic idea behind the Communion of Saints and Purgatory?

  8. I think we all prefer resurrections to crucifixions. And anybody who has spent some time in the garden of Gethsemane can tell you it’s the loneliest place on earth. “Pipe down, will you Jesus, we’re trying to get some sleep here!”

  9. Don’t know the whole story, but what strikes me here (apart from the fact that I ‘miss’ Michael) is that the ‘pastor persona’ that this guy seems to have presented previously was ultimately what created the barrier between him and the congregation which made it harder for them to provide the comfort when it was needed.

    Time and again in my life I have been reminded not to put preachers/pastors/leaders on a pedestal. Today I see that this is also for THEIR good.

  10. Captain Whitebread` says

    I can so relate to the pastor in Micheal’s story. Almost a decade ago, I was that broken man. My wife had left me for someone else. I was so locked in the pitch darkness of depression that I would have thrown myself off the top of the tallest building in our town…only, for once, the door to the roof was locked.

    After getting some help, and medication to treat my depression, I felt as if I should share my story with the members of our church to show that God is gracious (I think it was his doing the door was locked that day), and He is merciful (through the doctors and the medicine that began my path to healing).

    I was naive, I guess. Many, if not most, of the friends in that church stopped speaking to me after that. One even approached me to say they’d pray for my deliverance from the false teachings of psychology. Most of the people in the church I had attended for ten years started treating me like a pariah. I had opened myself up to these people and shared my story in order to give hope for any others who were broken.

    It was then that I learned being broken was not allowed.

    I’ve been to church once since.

    • How hurtful, to so open about yourself, especially with a desire to bless, and have that all tossed back at you. Gotta love the whole, “Here’s an idea – How about I pray at you and about you, and your great error, rather than with you?”

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