January 24, 2021

Such strange grace

spencer mercer

April 5 will mark six years since Michael Spencer’s death. We will be devoting next week to some of his most memorable writings, writings that helped many of us survive wilderness journeys akin to his own.

Today, I had lunch with a friend who I was encouraging to write for us. She has had a fascinating (and frightening) journey and I can’t wait until you get a chance to read about it. When she asked me what Internet Monk was about, my answer kept coming back to that word “journey.” I described for her the basic outlines of Michael’s journey until the day when cancer took him from our midst. And I explained how my own journey intersected with Michael’s.

To the best of my recollection, I began reading and commenting on Internet Monk in 2008. Then, in September of 2009 Gail and I had the opportunity to spend a week at a cabin in northern Tennessee, graciously provided by a couple who had renovated several properties and made them available, at no cost, for people in ministry who needed respite. While there, we had made arrangements to meet Michael and Denise for dinner. We spent a day at Cumberland Falls and then followed the winding road over to London, Kentucky, where they met us at an Applebee’s. I distinctly remember Michael ordering a Sam Adams after I had asked for a Diet Coke out of deference to his teaching position at a Baptist school. I guess London was beyond the range of their radar.

We had a wonderful time of getting to know each other. This was after the time when Denise had made her decision to join the Catholic church, and I recall that it was a bit uncomfortable for them to talk about that. In reply, I shared about how we had been attending an ELCA Lutheran church and were being refreshed by the liturgy, but in truth we were still struggling in many ways as well, in the aftermath of my leaving pastoral ministry a few years earlier. At that time, Michael was also completing his book about the struggles he and so many of us have had with church, the book that would have the title Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality. In it he wrote:

As I have come to discover that Jesus’ Kingdom is far more diverse and interesting movement than I realized when I was growing up in narrow fundamentalism, I’ve come to understand that what Jesus is doing in the world is exactly what his parables described: the smallest of seeds growing into a great tree.

Many of us will meet one another on this journey. We may share the same story or the same pain, or we may be so different that we keep looking, again and again, to recognize the family resemblance. It is my hope that the time we have spent together will encourage you to keep pursuing Jesus, no matter where you are in your journey. Don’t neglect the search for authentic, Jesus-shaped spirituality.

We were people on journeys, whose paths had somehow crossed at this roadside restaurant in eastern Kentucky. We didn’t share quite the same story, but we shared much of the same pain about the wilderness called “American evangelicalism” and the “churchianity” it so frequently promotes. Like Rick and Louis in Casablanca, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship — a partnership of rogues and misfits.

A month or so later I called Michael. He had seemed down and troubled about some serious illnesses that were afflicting some key people at the school. He was particularly upset about how many in the Christian community didn’t seem to have a clue about how to face suffering, ambiguity, unanswered questions, and death. I affirmed his responses, which were realistic, sensitive, and grounded in a more thorough absorption of the human honesty of scripture. He asked me to write my first post for IM about pastoral care for the dying.

It wasn’t long before he himself would be tested severely.

Later that fall, Michael sensed that his own health was poor and it turned out he had colon cancer. We visited the Spencers in Lexington at the hospital and prayed with them. Michael asked me to write on days when he couldn’t and those days became more frequent until early in 2010, when he could write no more. He eventually was admitted to hospice care and died at home on April 5, 2010. I visited one last time as he lay in bed and that’s when he asked me to keep the site going, along with Jeff Dunn who had helped him with his book.

The next time we went to Oneida was for Michael’s memorial service.

As I was talking to my friend today about writing for Internet Monk, I became overwhelmed again with the sense that this opportunity has come to me through such strange grace. Never in any of my dreams did I think of writing daily for a blog like IM. How sad I am that it had to come through the loss of someone as gifted and insightful as Michael Spencer. Nevertheless, I am proud that we can attempt to continue his legacy, keep his words alive, and forge ahead on the journey we once walked together.

And what can I say of all the readers and commenters who have stopped by to join the conversation? Simply, thank you.

The journey goes on. So many things have changed in the past six years, but we’re still here, happy to break bread with any who might stop by.

And every day I’m reminded: It’s a wilderness out there. Sometimes it’s damn hard to get your bearings. But whenever you get a glimpse of Jesus, that’s the way to go.


  1. Christiane says

    ” . . . “Stand at the crossroads
    and look;
    ask for the ancient paths,
    ask where the good way is,
    and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls.”
    (from Jeremiah 6:16)

    stand, look, ask, walk, find . . .

    so when I see ” But whenever you get a glimpse of Jesus, that’s the way to go”;
    then I know to head towards the light

    thanks, Chaplain MIKE, for the good word

  2. Thanks for keeping this up. I discovered this blog only a year ago and it has been an oasis in the wilderness for me. Much love.

  3. So many projects like this don’t survive the passing of their creators. We should all be very thankful that IMonk has continued on…

  4. So glad I found this place, although I do not remember how or when, and so glad it has continued! It’s rare that I come here and don’t have my thoughts provoked.

  5. this continues to be a special place for me, a place of healing and insight.,, blessings

  6. Steve Newell says

    My favorite series that Micheal wrote was on the “Evangelical Liturgy” in August and September 2009.


  7. This place has grown me, encouraged me, given me rest and infuriated me. Thank you for keeping the Imonk site running. It is my water fountain in the mall of the church.

  8. This is one place where I can actually speak my mind about my spiritual journey. In my church and 12-step groups, I hesitate, not because I fear being ostracised, but, as Psalm 73 puts it, “If I said ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have been untrue to the generation of thy children.” Here at IM is a wonderful place where Michael and then you, Chaplain Mike, have made open for all of us who are still wondering and wandering. Thank you.

  9. I distinctly remember Michael ordering a Sam Adams after I had asked for a Diet Coke out of deference to his teaching position at a Baptist school. I guess London was beyond the range of their radar.

    I remember that old fear!

  10. This place has shown me that it’s OK to be human while also being a Christian. The honesty in the writings here are a refreshment from the “my sh*t doesn’t stink and neither should yours” attitude that pervades Christian culture. This place has taught me it’s all about Jesus and His work for us. Thank you Michael Spencer and Chaplain Mike.

  11. I just want to thank everyone for their prayers, and let you know that my wife’s surgery went extremely well, exactly as planned with no complications, despite her various health issues. Although we have to wait two weeks for results from the in depth biopsy, the less extensive one they did while she was still open on the operating room table showed no metastasis, and there’s every reason to believe that the procedure extracted all malignant cells. She has a road to recovery ahead, but it looks like a fairly clear one at this point. I thank God for the skillful young surgeon, for the latest state-of-the-art robotic surgery that was used, and for all of you, and others, who held her, held us, in your prayers. Thank you.

  12. Thank you for carrying on the task that Michael took upon himself and that has benefited so many, including me. I started reading IM while Michael was still writing and it has been incredibly helpful to me as I continue to wander in this wilderness, holding on to faith but never quite sure where or if I belong. Just knowing I have fellow travelers has been hugely comforting.

    Thanks for continuing to make this a safe place to speak and listen with honesty.

  13. Yes, thank you Mike for doing a true work of service for many a soul. As you well know, it’s not always seamless, not always without contention and not always pleasant. I suppose if it was always easy it would smack of phoniness. Real life just ain’t that way. It’s not vanilla and it’s not homogenized. This is a true spiritual clearing house of ideas that sharpens the convictions of those that take part (and those that lurk). Sometimes a confirmation or a comfort and sometimes a challenge but always a sign post toward an honest relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s what matters and that’s why I come here.

  14. Radagast says

    Been here a long time but don’t comment much anymore. I appreciate all those who contribute to this site and I am envious of all your ability (including commenters) to present concise, understandable articles and responses. I don’t always agree, but this place is another vehicle to help me grow.

    I actually have a number of folks that work on my team that work and reside in London so when I finally go for a site visit this month I will consider myself on hallowed ground….

  15. I probably would have thrown any faith I have left away if I hadn’t found this site. In Michael Spencer I found a voice that was saying the same things I was thinking. That meant a lot to me. I miss him. Am also grateful for CM keeping things going. Don’t comment as much as I would like to, but this is a home for me when no where else seems like home.

  16. Mike, I know how very much it relieved Michael to know he could trust you (and Jeff) with carrying on this site. I can never express my gratitude for all you’ve done. I know Michael is pleased! I also can’t thank you and Gail enough for your friendship. Peace and love to you both.

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