November 26, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: January 4, 2016

Stone Arch

Back in the day, I got a psych major in my undergrad work. That’s pretty ironic, believe me, in more ways than you can imagine.

I can’t say I learned a great deal, but I did begin a lifelong journey of making observations and drawing tentative conclusions about myself. If I would have paid attention to all I’ve discovered about myself, I’d have a very different life. Some psychologist can tell me why I routinely ignore the lessons I’ve learned and repeat all the same mistakes.

One thing I’ve learned is that I’ve got some holes in my personality that go a lot deeper than I can understand. They are caverns in my self-understanding; potholes in the soul, so to speak. Like a series of tunnels that connect with points in my past and experience, these dark places are imperfectly mapped, sometimes frightening and very, very real when you fall into one.

What I’ve found in some of those dark places can be amusing, irritating or terrifying.

Of course, I’ve learned to avoid these traps whenever possible, and some of the time I’m successful. I have the most well known holes in my soul marked with warning signs that I respect. The trouble is that you never know when a new hole is going to appear, often in the most unexpected places. And you never know how that dark place in your soul is going to help you understand what you’d rather not even thing about.

When it became apparent that my wife was going to go down the road to the Catholic Church, I fell down one of those holes. It was, in a word, an overpowering dark place of fear and anger. It came from someplace in me, but I couldn’t see where. For many weeks, it was my world.

In that hole was everything I heard about Catholicism growing up in a fundamentalist church more than 30 years ago. In that hole were a collection of fears about things I thought I understood and had under control. In that hole, was my fragile concept of vocation and marriage.

I fell into that hole and stayed there for a very long time. All I knew was how I felt. Feeling and fear were everything. I was thinking, reasoning, talking and asking questions, but I could not pull myself out. My journey out of this irrational, fearful darkness was slow and may still be incomplete.

The other night I picked up my son for dinner. I noticed that he had pierced his ears.

I have no problem with this sort of thing. He’s almost 21 and engaged. I don’t tell him how to live or dress. I have dozens and dozens of friends with pierced ears. I teach a lesson on this very issue in Bible class. I’ve told my son a dozen times that I don’t care, God doesn’t care and it’s not an issue.

But there I stood, and for that moment, I was falling down a well of feelings from another place in my soul. I was overwhelmed with feelings of anger and disappointment. I had failed as a dad. My son was going down the wrong road. I was hurt and wanted to say how I felt; to express my disapproval.

It was, in a word, irrational.

Now in just a few moments I recalibrated myself back to rationality. My thoughts and my feeling matched back up with what I know and believe, and those moments in that dark place of irrationality faded away.

Now, why am I talking about this? More iMonk whining and dirty laundry? No, something different.

How much of our lives do we spend reacting entirely out of those places of darkness, fear, irrationality and disconnected feelings? How many of our conflicts and problems come because we are deep in a hole, and do not recognize where we are?

How many of us are dominated by aspects of our history and experience that we are unable to view truthfully and rationally? Instead, we are speaking and acting in ways that are destructive and hurtful to ourselves and so many others?

I wonder how many of us are dealing with our spouses and our children out of places of darkness, but we are so submerged in the darkness and so afraid to see where we are that we will fight to the death anyone who challenges out view of reality?

Stone Wall 2When I listen to Christians speak- especially pastors and other leaders- I hear a lot of anger. I wonder where it comes from. I hear anger from Christians over things they say they believe deeply about love, truth and justice, but what comes out from so many is confusion and bitterness, but they don’t realize this is happening. They are unable to see that they are living out of fear and irrationality.

Years ago, a friend- an older man- was widowed after caring for his sick wife for many years. Six months later, he remarried. But his son, a good Christian man who I knew to be a loving and reasonable person, went completely over the edge objecting to his father’s marriage. His behavior was embarrassing…and it didn’t take a great deal of insight to see that his feelings came from places within himself that he could not acknowledge.

I can point out this fellow as an example, but I believe many of us are as conflicted and live out our lives in similar embarrassing conflicts. And I believe that if we can find a place where we can see what is happening to us, we will realize that these “holes” of emotion and irrational fear are not where we want to spend our lives.

The answer? Certainly we need to ask for insight in prayer into how we are living our lives, what we are living “out of,” and who we have become.

We also need spiritual direction, or at the least Godly counsel of those who can gently help us see the illumination of the Holy Spirit on the effects of our words and actions.

In our personal journeys, all of us should begin to map out those dark places we are aware of, and we should consider how we can grow in ways that will not lead us down those roads so easily.

Where we’ve done damage, and where we’ve insisted we were right and rational when we were, in fact, irrational and wrong, we should go back and make amends.

Somewhere, we need a community that can come to know us with an honest awareness of our personal “potholes of the soul.” In the honest acceptance of others, perhaps we can learn to accept ourselves with grace, contentment and compassion.

I will never come to a place where these “holes” of fear and emotion are not part of me, but I can live aware of them, transcend them by the grace of God, accept forgiveness and continue the journey on a better path.


  1. Hi Chaplain….It is 3:22am here in New Mexico. I am a 61 year old guy gettting ready for work at the psych hospital where I will be seeing patients in about an hour from now. This is the first time I have read anything from you. I can tell you that what you say here strikes a very deep chord in my life. I wish I had the time to sit with you and share my story. But…alas, that is not likely to happen. Thank you. I will be reading more.

    • Welcome, Desert Father. You should know here at the beginning that Chaplain Mike, the current leader of the site, inherited the mantle from its founder, Michael Spencer, who died several years ago. CM is Lutheran; MS was Baptist. MS had a wife named Denise; CM doesn’t. Don’t worry – you’ll sort it all out eventually. Again, welcome!

      • Thanks “been there, done that” for the warm welcome. I had some of that figured out…but obviously not all of it. I did know that MS passed away a while back and, indeed, I have his book “Mere Churchianity”. Thanks again for the welcome and clarification.

  2. A community to understand us is most important in order to help identify and repair our potholes. Without a safe place to grow we will forever be a mustard seed in a desert.

    “In the honest acceptance of others, perhaps we can learn to accept ourselves with grace, contentment and compassion.”

    Just another example of why Jesus teaches us to be a servant to all. By first accepting others, they can accept us and we can finally learn to accept ourselves.

  3. When I listen to Christians speak – especially pastors and other leaders – I hear a lot of anger. I wonder where it comes from. I hear anger from Christians over things they say they believe deeply about love, truth and justice, but what comes out from so many is confusion and bitterness, but they don’t realize this is happening. They are unable to see that they are living out of fear and irrationality.

    Sounds like a concise summation of the comments section on most websites I read (and sadly, more than a few of my own contributions therein).

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I already copy-and-pasted this paragraph to my notebook. 🙂 This is so incredibly on-point.

      I’ve dialed in my connectivity to the “Christian” world to just a few people and ‘portals’. That is the only way to survive.

      > Sounds like a concise summation of the comments section on most websites

      Ugh, yeah. It continues to amaze me the differential between the comments here on IM, every single day, and pretty much the entire rest of the interwebz. Can there be a guardian angel for a website?

      • Christiane says

        I think that angel’s name must be ‘Michael’ 🙂

        People here honor Michael Spencer’s honesty and spirit and are very grateful for the work he did in bringing the Imonk community into being; and we are very grateful for its continuance under the auspices of Chaplain Mike and those who help him. This post has been and continues to be a blessing for those who come here.

        • –> “I think that angel’s name must be ‘Michael’”


          • Christiane says

            couldn’t resist 🙂

            not trying to make anyone cringe . . . but when you look at the Michael Spencer imonk icon, the monk DOES have a halo, so Michael had a sense of humor . . . one more good thing to remember

    • With an occasional bright spot, most comment sections of most websites, Christian or not, are so discouraging as to bring on despair for the human race. This is the only place I know where you could put the names of all the commenters in a hat and if I had to draw two or three to spend an hour with, I would look forward to that hour no matter with who. With other sites it would likely be an ordeal. Call in radio too. If I had to spend an hour with someone picked at random from the nearest church or the nearest bar, my choice, it would be a hard decision, but I think my chances would be better going with the bar.

  4. This makes a lot of sense.

  5. They are unable to see that they are living out of fear and irrationality.

    And when it’s pointed out to you, you feel like the world’s biggest pimple on the world’s biggest ass. Now, how to climb out of this cave… that’s the million-dollar question.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Fear and Irrationality that are called Righteousness and Biblical.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      First step to climb out of the Evangangelical Cave Of Fear is to turn of the spigot – change the channel, turn off the TV, go outside and find other people. Goodness, I know so many people stuck NEAR the entrance of that Cave, but unwilling to finally step out into the day. I am very glad I was not born into Evangelicalism; I think that made it much easier to leave; I had only forgotten there is a world full of beautiful, surprising, and interesting people. Some of my friends and co-workers have never known that – it must be an illusion of people, at best silently complicit, in some dark conspiracy [the Christian term I often hear is “sheeple’].

      • Christiane says

        is that ‘fear’ evangelicals feel because of the strain of fundamentalism that has bred so many strange doctrines (all supposedly ‘biblical’ of course) ?

        I expect that a people who were so ‘sure’ they were ‘saved’ would be at peace with themselves, among themselves, and with others . . . but it ain’t so, is it? If anything, we see a lot of fear and anger openly displayed and it is a sad witness to what can happen to folks who unfortunately get stuck on themselves as the righteous ones who know all the answers and who are never wrong

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          folks who unfortunately get stuck on themselves as the righteous ones who know all the answers and who are never wrong

          Like the Communists of the past century, Righteous Ones who KNOW All the Answers and who are Never Wrong.

          Ask the mass graves in GULAG or Cambodia’s Killing Fields about the Righteous who are Never Wrong.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      But FEAR and IRRATIONALITY are what keeps those butts in the pews.

      — paraphrase of Dune

  6. “In that hole, was my fragile concept of vocation and marriage.”
    I was also a psych major in college and one of the things I was taught, and learned, is that the film that holds society together in particular but also our personal confidence in our persona is a strikingly thin veneer. Faith in Christ is a daily experience. Even with our daily renewal we are fragile pots in his hand without room for bravado. One major crises reveals the truth in an instant.

  7. Question: is the photo from Carter Caves KY? Thx.

  8. Quite applicable. This reminds me of Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark”, this post has faint echoes of it with references to potholes and living in fear. I think Michael would have gotten along with Taylor.

  9. Without by God’s grace finding this website (just prior to Michael’s death), I do not know where I would be today. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again…he and others here were actually saying what I’d been thinking but I could not find a safe place or safe person to express any of it.
    I was finally able to walk away from evangelicalism and, no one knows what to do or say to me! They all have to be ‘right’ and ‘biblical’ and I used to be that way….and the freedom found in NOT living that way is truly a life of grace given to me…and now I am able to have grace for others.
    I’ve spent the last two years healing my psyche and my soul…it’s super hard work–but the only word I have to describe it is: freedom. Freedom from the past, freedom, from being right, freedom from being judgemental, and freedom to love others as Jesus did (well, I’m not perfect, just trying to speak truth in love, and extend the grace needed in the moment to that person.)
    Again, thank you Michael Spencer, Chaplain Mike, contributors, and fellow-posters….thank you.

  10. Hi,

    I’m a bit confused. Great post, but if Michael wrote this, when did he write it? The date on the article is today’s date and the listed author is Chaplain Mike. Maybe should include the date that Michael originally posted it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      This gets asked occasionally. The date of the posts are always ‘today’; the date of the original posting is not included in the repost. There was a coherent reason given for not having a back-link… but I cannot remember what it was. Trust the IM PTBs, they always have a good reason.

    • Wayne, sorry for the confusion. I forgot to click the correct “author” name when posting. Occasionally I do post the date of Michael’s pieces, but when we started doing them each week I began posting excerpts rather than full essays, and I wanted them to stand on their own so we could hear his points afresh.

      This one came from January, 2009. You can always read older posts in the Archives.

  11. The beauty of Michael’s writing: look how often he uses “I” and “my” and “we” and “our” and “us.” He was continually looking at himself in the mirror and throwing himself under the bus. He didn’t just say, “Look at how bad people are” but “Look how bad I am and we are.”

  12. When I heard this song on my local Left-of-the-Dial station, it brought back memories, and made me smile. Smiling is good for dropping anger and fear, even if only for a little while: