January 19, 2021

Sundays with Michael Spencer: November 8, 2015

The Vicarage at Nuenen, van Gogh

The Vicarage at Nuenen, van Gogh

Note from CM: The other day I told my wife that it was probably time to empty the lateral file that sits in our bedroom. It has a blanket over it and our TV and other AV equipment sits on top of it now. Hidden beneath the blanket and inside the drawers are files that date back to the mid-1970s. I have notes from Bible college and seminary, every sermon I’ve ever preached, articles I copied over the years, illustrations I kept for use in preaching. I can’t remember the last time I opened it. Why then do I have such trouble chucking it all?

This post Michael wrote in 2005 brought all this to mind again today. I haven’t done a thing to empty the file yet.

• • •

Sitting about a foot away from me, next to my desk, is a green suitcase containing 22 small notebooks, each one full of pages of handwritten notes. The notes are my childhood pastor’s sermon notes; notes spanning more than 30 years of ministry and many different churches. They were given to me as a gift, to do with as I choose.

In the closet at the end of the hall is a box of ancient reel-to-reel tapes. The tapes contain approximately ten years worth of sermons preaching through the Bible, Genesis to Revelation, by a Baptist pastor almost 50 years ago. The sermons were preached by the founding pastor of a church I served in the early 80’s, and were given to me as a gift.

I cannot read the sermon notes. They are written in an almost unreadable, highly personal scrawl, with so many abbreviations, symbols and little codes known only to my pastor, that there is no hope of ever deciphering them. Though hours of labor and prayer poured into those notes, and the sermons that came from them communicated well, the notes do not communicate any more. Even if I could read them, I doubt that I would be able to make much of the heart of those messages. My pastor’s sermons were born out of an experience that really couldn’t be translated into clean, transferable outlines to be imitated. Like Pascal, these notes are evidence of the “fire;” they are the record of the Spirit’s stirring on the waters of his heart, mind and emotions. They will never live again.

The tape recordings are from a man who was well known in Kentucky among Baptists. He was a man who was known as an author, a polemicist and debater as much as he was known as a pastor. He expended vast amounts of energy preaching and writing against Roman Catholicism in our community and liberalism among Baptists. He wrote books and promoted a view of Baptist history called “Landmarkism” that traced the roots of Southern Baptists back to John the Baptist.

Those tapes will be full of this sort of preaching. As a document of anti-Catholic, fundamentalist sentiment among Southern Baptists in the 50’s, it might be interesting to someone, but not to me. There is nothing here for me. I am not a young fundamentalist seeking to delve into the glories of the great battles of the past.

I have been entrusted with these homiletic remains of these two preachers, and I have been wondering for months — years — what to do with them. Both men are dead. No one wants these remains. Their day of usefulness has come…and gone.

I don’t believe in the effacacy of relics, but I do understand what our Catholic brothers and sisters are doing holding on to the finger of Saint Catherine. This is as close as you can get to a person who was, you believe, somehow, a bit closer to God than you. It is the same attachment people have to old schools and their golden age of education, and to old home places, with their images of family. Nostalgia is not a sin, or idolatry, but is it where God wants us to live? Is the reverence we ought to pay to the past ever a distraction from the reality of God in the present?

I have no attachment to these relics of the Baptist preachers who came before me. Regularly, I make a note in some “to do” list that I will burn them both when the weather is a bit less dry. That may shock someone as ungrateful, but I believe the authors would not be offended at all.

My Student Government Association students have adopted a slogan for this year: “Leave Something Behind.” I like it very much. It looks beyond ourselves to those who come after us, and asks how our work today can benefit someone else later on. It invites us to see our lives as part of a great chain of people working and serving, and not just as self-centered moments in a self-centered universe. To see the present moment as full of possibilities that are uniquely your own is wise. To seek to live faithfully in that present moment is a true expression of faith. To spend that present moment in the museum of the past is to misunderstand the work of the Spirit in the past.

These two preachers both left something behind. They left churches. One is thriving and growing beyond anyone’s expectation, but is doing so precisely because the church has deserted the kind of narrow, anti-Catholic tone that marked its early years. The other church had it prosperous years, and now is in decline and difficulty in the inner city, but its influence, fruit and children are everywhere in our community. The historical influence of the church outweighs its present struggles.

Both were churches where the Word was sounded forth, where the mission of evangelism was primary and the duty of Christians to be salt and light was taken seriously. In their own ways, these men created churches that honored Christ, the Bible and the Gospel. But the church must answer Christ again and again in the present. One church has done so, and it’s founder might not be pleased. The other has sought to live more in that past, and found itself dying in the present.

These churches both revere their pastors, but the one that lives has left the past as the past. The other has sought to make the past into the present.

Christ has never required a perfect church or a perfect ministry. He has condescended to use the fallibly faithful, the distracted and the those whose zeal was not always entirely born of Christ. He has never asked us to revere the ministers of the past, but to learn from them for our own time. To honor a faithful man of God is to serve and proclaim Christ in the present; to see where his life was pointing, and to serve and know that One who is the same yesterday, today and forever- but who invites us to live fully in the present.

I look at these sermons that have been left behind, and I realize each one would pass judgement on the men who wrote them. These are not relics of a better, purer Christianity. These are the visible tracks of fellow strugglers, fellow failures, fellow pilgrims.

There are hundreds of tapes of my sermons in my office. Should God call me to himself, my family would be left with these relics of my ministry. So I’ll tell them now: Keep one to remember my voice, but destroy them all.

Look to Christ. Look to scripture. Look forward, not back. Listen to God in your own time and place, not how he spoke in another. Let the Spirit of the Lord create his people in the present, and do not be nostalgic for what he did “back in the day.”


  1. Look to Christ. Look to scripture. Look forward, not back.

    But to look to scripture, or the Church’s tradition(s) in whatever form, is to look back. There is no way forward without the past lighting the way; it’s not a perfect light, and if we stare at it instead of the way ahead that it lights, it will blind us. Nostalgia is a great danger to be avoided, but identity is impossible without memory. We cannot go into the future, or know who we are, without knowing where we’ve come from. The past is not past, said William Faulkner; and he was right: the past is always at work in the present, and will be in the future as well.

    • I would say Michael knew that well. One of his greatest criticisms of evangelicalism was its lack of historical rootedness. On the other hand, we each have our own “traditionalism” that acts like quicksand, bogging us down. Sometimes it feels like disloyalty to say it is time to move past that. Sometimes, as is probably the case with my old files, it feels like throwing away one’s life.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      As metaphor I think looking to the past is unavoidable, the key is not to hold to the past. What one looks to in the past keeps that bit of the past alive – illuminated – so we all brings bits of the past forward in time with us. But the rest must be permitted to fade away lest it become an anchor we drag.

      It is something I think about a lot recently – I am in a period of purging. Selling off the last part of rural property the family has owned, and owned for a long time. Clearing out buildings – three barns, a garage, a house, and a sauna – of generations of ‘stuff’. Rows of file cabinets full of documents ranging from person letters to the operators manual for a VCR to the booklet for a steam locomotive operator. And so many items large and small which I remember, which in the hands of their master had magic, magic which departed with them, but the thing remained. Now all the current generation of the family is urban – meaning a *lot* less space – things have to go. It is an odd an melancholy business.

      • i’m doing that at my parents house. I’ve throw away stuff going back to their marriage, 5-10 years before I was born. It’s just junk. Sometimes they struggle, most times they just forget they had it. None of it they use. Or lose. And everyone who visits compliments on how clean and uncluttered and bigger their home feels now.

        I’m throwing away my stuff too. All my theological books, gone. My Bible collection, gone. Notes from seminars and seminary classes taken on the side, gone. School books, gone. Childhood games and comics and toys and books, gone.

        And it’s glorious. Don’t look bad, don’t miss it. Move forward.

        I wish I had done this ten years ago.

        • I’ve purged my library on two occasions in my life. Dozens and dozens of books thrown away each time. Neither time resulted in the kind of liberation I had hoped for; both times I acted in desperation. If you act in desperation, rather than freedom, these things have a tendency to come back to you. I hope you did not act in desperation.

          • Little bit of both. A realization that that stuff wasn’t me anymore, that it was just stuff I’d accumulated, and it was making me actively miserable looking at, thinking of childhood dreams of amassing stuff and wanting to read and read and read it all again. Also lots of crappy furniture and VHS tapes that no one cared about, lol.

            So far, it’s been nothing but amazing loosely embracing minimalism.

            The next big thing I need to get rid of is my comic book collection. Almost a dozen yard long boxes crammed full of unsellabe and unwantable mass produced coimcs from the 80s 90s and 00s that the Internet has made obsolete. Easily “worth” over $10-25k, doubt I’ll get more than a hundred bucks.

  2. I have thousands of poems I have written. You could stack them high. I have often wondered if anyone would ever read them. I start to see that even I do not so much. I was hoping for a devotional. A 365 day a year with something to ponder as I have done these wonderful mornings.

    Yet I barely graduated high school and working 40 weeks then on top of it sure didn’t help, Studying English and rules seemed like such a drag especially the poetry class that Mr. Edwards could put you to sleep in five minutes or less with the monotone that surely seemed to mean I don’t want to be here.

    I need help to do such an adventure. If I don’t it will be a pile which no one will ever know what to do with and thanks to an article that clearly states what I have always known.

    I truly believe all the churches have been moving forward and building. Some fast and some slow. I am a sort of fast guy but I appreciate slow. Personal experience is the only way I know to exhibit the light and I know that no one is the same. When I do testify it is to hopefully encourage others to have theirs or not it doesn’t matter with a God able to accommodate both. I truly believe that. Our God is mighty and much greater than sin could ever be. So for me when I yell and then later apologize I know he has already gone above it

    Titles for the devotionals I have two. High my name is Bill I am Cindy”s brother. Your butterfly wing and on the bottom allow me to tell you about mine.

    • W, I have a ton of poems, too, and haven’t yet done anything with them. Here’s an idea, though, admittedly one I haven’t yet pursued.

      Google “poetry chapbook”. A chapbook is a small collection of poetry, usually about 20-40 pages long. You can throw some of your best together and some enter contests, self-publish or even send the collection to a few places that might publish for you.

  3. Richard Hershberger says

    “No one wants these remains.”

    I’m not sure that is true. I can see the right historian finding those tapes and regarding this has hitting the jackpot. the illegible sermon notes is more problematic, but you never know.

    Were I asked for my advice on what to do with those tapes, I would say make a brief description of their content, and call around to universities. And the Library of Congress, for that matter. I suspect someone out there would be excited to get them. (Whether their originator would think this a suitable use is another question, but when you give something away without stipulation, what happens to it is what happens.)

    • That Other Jean says

      Indeed. Historians of a certain kind live and breathe this stuff.

      Christianity is not an oral tradition. The spoken word is vital to it, but it is the recording and transmission of those words that has kept the religion alive for two thousand years. They have provided guidance to the doubtful, encouragement in troubled times, correction to the erring, inspiration to the faithful, and passed along the experiences of countless believers before our time. Had they not been remembered and written down, Christianity would not exist.

      Michael’s life as a minister is preserved in part in the recordings of his sermons, podcasts, and writings on this site. We would all be poorer without them. In this case, I hope his family ignored his wishes and kept his sermon recordings, and the tapes and notebooks of his predecessors to pass on to others, as Richard suggests. A historian will be grateful.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Sure. But finding the right historian… Much like finding the right buyer for a vintage object.

      I have found both to have stuffed warehouses of unprocessed documents or objects. Little museums and libraries are struggling. And with demographic shifts there is simply less and less interest.

      Best option if you really want to preserve documents is to digitize them and then send/upload them to everywhere you can think of that is remotely related.

  4. I’m thinking this message today is not only highly appropriate for the move from the 20th century to the 21st, it would be a good one to hang onto as we move over the next two years toward the unavoidable celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Western Modern Religious Protest Movement.

  5. Ah, the irony. Reading an article that Michael Spencer left behind regarding the subject of not looking back.

    Every Sunday we have the fortune to read again Michael’s articles that have been “left behind.” And to me, we are better for it.

    I know. There’s more to what Michael was saying, most which I think we’d all agree with. But still, I can’t help but smile.

    The Lord is good, and He gave us some good writing through Michael. I don’t want to lose that by never looking back or tossing out “the relics.”

    • The Lord is good, and He gave us some good writing through Michael. I don’t want to lose that by never looking back or tossing out “the relics.”

      Agreed. Some things need to be saved.

      • Dave Denis says

        That was close to my first thought. On reading the motto “Leave something behind” it seems the key word there is “something.” There is a big difference between leaving behind a steaming pile of poo, versus leaving behind something of great beauty or value. Certainly, the Landmarkist Preacher felt that his work was of eternal beauty and value. And I have to imagine that there was *some* kernel buried deep within that enabled those who followed to make their shift away from landmarkism. But it was not likely the things that he thought were most important.

        The Israelites meant well when the cast the bull out of gold. I’m sure they thought it would go with them for generations. Did Naaman know that the two bags of dirt he dragged back to Assyria would be immortalized? I wonder if the writer of Jonah had any idea that his tale of a cranky and reluctant prophet would be read 2500 years later. Who can even conceive of 2500 years hence?

        I’m trying to get my congregation to stop looking at the road just in front of the hood, and start looking down the road to where we might be in 10, 20, 30 years. Who knows what we will actually leave and what future generations will find valuable. We can only guess.

  6. I estimated painting a house this week that had been placed into a trust because the 65 year old widower, no children, who lived there died in bed two weeks ago and a realtor I know has been put in charge of fixing it up, selling off the contents and selling the house. We say, “you can’t take it with you” but that seemed eerily true in this context. Very strange seeing his signed baseballs, US Open caps, clothes, paintings, etc. No heirs will sort through it. It all gets sold or given away. I know it’s a very simple thought but it really struck me differently wandering through that entire house. We are well served to travel light as nomads in this land and so are those who have to deal with our stuff when we leave. It really is just stuff, stuffing, fill. And to Michael’s point, the Lord is ever speaking. “I do a new thing”. Only listening with an open heart and mind can keep us tuned when that happens. It’s actually impossible to live in the past when you think about it. Whatever we are doing is only happenig now and that now is eternal and present.

    • It’s actually impossible to live in the past when you think about it. Whatever we are doing is only happening now and that now is eternal and present.

      I love this. Amen. Thank you.

      • The past haunts me. It has controlled me today. It guides my future, and not often in a good way. For years I’ve been stuck in the past, never paying attention to the present, never looking to the future.

        “Who we were has a lingering influence on who we are. It continues to shape us, even after we choose or decide to become something else.”

        I think it’s time I let go of the past, and not let it influence me anymore. Let go of the fear. Fear isn’t real, it’s all in the mind. I need to remember these things every day, and walk boldly forward, casting off the chains and yoke of bondage I was in.

        There’s little worth remembering. What is, is still with us. The best moments, the best things, the best tools, friends, relationships, anything. We do tend to bring it with us, but we need to let the rest go. For some, that could be our childhood church experiences that shaped us. For others, it could be our former glory and dreams from high school. It will be different per each person.

        But we need to live in the present, and hope and dream for the future.

        “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”

        • We need to take the dreaded dragon of our past by the nape of the neck and spit in its eye. It’s not one and done either. That dragon is tenacious until it has faced continued beatings. Finally it hands its fire over to us and we gain its powers. That’s transforming darkness into light. I also have been shaped in substantial part by fear of the past. You’re not alone. In fact, you’re in large company.

          • Jung would say that if we think we have finally beaten the past, we are kidding ourselves: it will eventually come back at us with renewed energy. He would also say that what’s needed is not victory, but knowledge, of the past and of ourselves, so that we may learn to integrate what we would prefer to reject. This I take to be his way of saying that until we make peace with the past, it will return to haunt us; and that when we finally make peace with it, it will have been redeemed. I think in this case Jung was correct.

      • That integration is precisely what I am talking about. Not hiding, suppressing or denying. What comes back with renewed energy is what we hide, deny and suppress. Then it pops its head up at the most inopportune times, revealing its continuing hold on us. By naming and exposing it we bring it to the light where it’s power is coopted. Yes we make peace with the past but there are times when that process requires a standing up and putting down. Resignation and acceptance of deeds and events? Absolutely. There is no changing them. Resolving neuroses, fears and the like is a matter of the utmost will, yes, to assimilate integrate and shrink to size those things that most cripple our psyche. That is the inner work. It is not a passive thing. Perhaps my elaboration makes my point clearer, I don’t know.

  7. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung elaborated on his personal descent to the brink of insanity as he fought that necessary battle. It was only in facing the shadow head on that the superalternate third thing which was neither the light nor the dark but their integration could be found.

    • And yet, and yet….in the last part of his life Jung would say this:

      “I observe myself in the stillness of Bollingen, with the experience of almost eight decades now, and I have to admit that I have found no plain answer to myself. I am in doubt about myself as ever, the more I try to say something definite. It is even as though through familiarity with oneself one became still more alienated.”

      Gerhard Wehr, Jung: A Biography, translated from the German by David M. Weeks (Shambhala Publications, 1987), p. 125.

      Though I try and fail in efforts toward integration of my past with my present, as I look toward the future I find hope not in my own strength and attainment but in the remembered words and life of Jesus, who is my past, present and future.

      • I, too, will ever be haunted by my past and pray the day comes when Christ will reconcile all things to Himself. I don’t know how many times I have read your comments and been encouraged by your continued emphasis on the sufficiency of Christ; thank you again for pointing me to Him and the hope He gives.

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