December 12, 2019

Monday with Michael Spencer: Chronicle of the Journey

Note from CM: Internet Monk has always been about the journey. Michael Spencer led the way by sharing his with us. Back in 2008, around the time I began reading and listening to his podcasts, Michael had the opportunity to take a sabbatical. This sabbatical gave him opportunity to chronicle the path he had taken, especially in the recent midlife years he had been going through, and the surprises and struggles those years brought.

• • •

In April of 06, I felt God instructing me to resign from the church I was serving. It was the church our family called home for a decade. I’d served them for 12 years. I had no idea that it was the end of almost any sense of spiritual “home” at all, and the beginning of a season of much change.

In May of that year, my son left home for college. In June, my daughter married. A few weeks later she would move to another state and temporarily quit college. (She’s graduating OSU in a few days, and I am very, very proud. But at the time, it was tough.)

In July of 06, my mother, who was living with us, came to the breakfast table and started speaking in a confused manner. Fourteen hours later, she was dead.

In September, I turned 50. The empty nest and the second half of life threw the party. I wouldn’t book them if I were you. Those guys are not much fun.

In these months, I was also trying to begin a home worship fellowship with some hope that, within 2-3 years, it might become the early version of a church. I was trying to preserve what my family had loved about worship in our little Presbyterian church and what I was discovering in the emerging tradition.

Despite many good aspects of that effort, it failed and in the summer of 07, I brought it to a tearful and embarrassing end. Two “church” losses in a year was devastating to my sense of having a spiritual home, and I still haven’t recovered.

In the meantime, God and my wife got together and decided that what I really needed was for her to start down the road to joining the Roman Catholic church. Everything my wife knew about Catholicism she’d learned from me, and she had almost no experience with the Roman Catholic church until Lent of 07. God’s directives to her at that time, however, were so clear that she knew she had to follow them despite the obvious consequences on various levels of our relationship and my ministry.

She told me the news, Pandora’s Box was opened and the Harpies took the keys to my life for the next few months.

Today, she’s somewhere in the RCIA journey and recently thanked me for my “support,” because she has been happier this past year than ever in recent memory. I had to laugh, because my “support” came from an experience somewhere between the rack and a 6 month root canal without anesthesia.

I was literally bombed out of my previous understanding of “the way things are supposed to be in a minister’s life.” It was like living through repeated showings of an imploding stadium, and I was the stadium.

Fortunately, God was determined to keep me in the wrestling ring until I yelled “Bless me.” I don’t have to tell you how that turned out, do I? I can now say “Bless me” in several Biblical languages.

I’ve still got an occasional bit of fight left in me, but the new version of my faith is considerably lighter, more Jesus shaped and – you’re going to love this- quite Shack/Greg Boyd influenced. (Oh calm down. I don’t believe everything Greg Boyd believes, but the last few weeks his preaching has been wonderful in its ministry to my confused heart.)

Oh. Did I mention that God and I are talking a LOT more these days, and I’m learning to recognize the voice of Jesus separate from my own head and the soundtrack of all the religious garbage that’s filled my head and heart for decades?

God provided a sabbatical so that I could have 8 weeks to work on the process of getting down to Jesus basics and knowing who I was in the new terrain of my existence. I appreciate it, because I needed (and need) it.

Simultaneously with all of these events, strange things began to happen to me at my job. Exceedingly strange. For instance, I was criticized for writing in my moleskine during sermons and for going to the restroom. All who live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

Nothing you’d find interesting, but plenty to make me wake up every day and wonder if someone is filming a reality show about me, with the premise of changing all my certainties when I’m asleep and then watching the confused reaction. If you see Season One on DVD, I’d like to purchase a copy. Maybe I can laugh at the commercials.

Oh, I thought I needed a friend, so I bought a dog. The dog hates me.

When I talk to Jesus about all this recent history, he says things like “It’s all mercy,” and “The only response is to be a servant,” and “What are you here for?” and “Who are the people who simply suffer and pray? Ever thought about them?” and my favorite “Just let me take care of _______________.”

The genuine Jesus, if you can actually get the station, can really be annoying to your natural survival instincts of blame, self-pity and anger.

You see, I’ve been trained my whole life to think like a pietistic Calvinist. There had to be a REASON for all of this. There has to be a LESSON. I get to ask WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO LEARN? So picture me spending all kinds of mental energy trying to find what was the great lesson at the core of all of this that, when I learned it, would make it all go away.

Riiiiight.

And when I ask what all this means and what I am supposed to learn, Jesus just asks questions back, or says things like “Why don’t you go down that road and see what happens. You’ll never know if you just pout.” Or “Just obey me tomorrow and we’ll find out.”

There doesn’t seem to be some resounding THEME or amazing LESSON. As Greg Boyd says, from my point of view, it just all seems to be hitting the fan. God BRINGS good out of it, but if I want to say that he caused it all (which I still do for lack of any other way to express faith and confusion simultaneously) with some CERTAIN LESSON in mind, I don’t get very far. Like he said, “Go down the road, and you’ll see what’s there.” Kind of God’s version of “When we get there, you’ll know.”

I’m a fifty one year old guy whose days leading churches in his denomination are probably over, whose wife got burned out in the non-existent “spirituality” of 30+ years of Baptist church life and ministry, who has been at his current job long enough for some people to wish he wasn’t, who has been stationed out on the frontier where there are no churches to shop, who spent so many years thinking so many things in his head were scriptural, reformed and right that it really hurts to have to admit he was wrong, wrong and wrong. In that order.

I’m just a guy with a life, and life is full of failure and loss. I wanted MINISTRY to be the ongoing reward. I wanted USEFULNESS to be my satisfaction. I wanted to be SIGNIFICANT. I wanted the contract to be in place and the insurance to protect me because I was the guy with the Bible. Well, that didn’t go very well, did it?

God thought it was time for all that nonsense to stop, and for the lifelong addiction I’d developed to my church as my universe, my wife as unquestioning supporter and my theology as my version of the inerrant Word of God to end. He made an appointment to pull the teeth, and I was not consulted in advance.

Ordinary life, extraordinary events and stuff that just don’t make no sense all combine to rearrange the furniture of my world. Every time I head for a comfortable seat, God sells it. Every time I look for the comfort food, the fridge is empty. Every time I get out my copy of “Things You KNOW Are True,” the dog has eaten it.

My faith continues. Jesus now fills the picture in a way he didn’t before. I realize I have a lot to learn from simple people who never get into pulpits and who aren’t supposed to know everything in the Bible like I supposedly do. My love for my wife and our Christian marriage continues, and there is much good that was not there before. I returned to church today, alone- something that in my anger I said I wouldn’t do. I was reminded that here I won’t ever be turned away from the table. I prayed for the five who were baptized. I was reminded that the faith goes far beyond me, my time, my preferences and my lifetime. I looked, and there were the people of God, and I was one of them. They asked me to lead in prayer, and the words were more careful than before.

I was grateful. I talked to Jesus and he told me it is all going to be all right, that I’m free to walk the new path as I can, and he will not leave me or forsake me. I felt sorry for my sin, and happy to know my Savior loves me.

Life goes on. Losses, gains, light, shadow, confusion, laughter, tears, God, Jesus, Denise, me.

When I look up from the road, I notice that the lights in the distance are closer and the noise behind me is not as loud.

Good journey friends. See you on up the road.

Comments

  1. Burro (Mule) says

    I’m learning to recognize the voice of Jesus separate from my own head and the soundtrack of all the religious garbage that’s filled my head and heart for decades?

  2. A reason. A lesson. Something to learn. The common theme is an adjustment some way or another to the intellect. It seems that when these torturous moments of big loss or grand failure are going on in life it has little or nothing to do with the head and rational thinking but everything to do with the stuff that has no words. Empathy. Compassion. Forgiveness. Love. Those are the things that are slowly born out of the fires and we do mostly realize it after the fact.

  3. Rick Ro. says

    I wish Michael was still around to share more moments of his journey like this one.

    • You’re not alone in that. Michael had a way of sharing himself that is so scarce in the rest of the world as to be almost nonexistent. If he found lessons in his experiences, he shared them in absolutely true ways, resistance, puzzlement, anguish, and all.

  4. Rick Ro. says

    –> “I’ve still got an occasional bit of fight left in me, but the new version of my faith is considerably lighter, more Jesus shaped and – you’re going to love this- quite Shack/Greg Boyd influenced.”

    Two things:
    1) Re:More Jesus shaped. That comment makes me wonder if this was the first time Michael used that term. CM, any way of tracking down when Michael began using the term “Jesus-shaped” in his blog?

    2) Re:The Shack. Funny aside by Michael, and to his point I found the theology in The Shack pretty compelling; it was the WRITING that sucked.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Never read The Shack, but I find Radio Free Babylon’s Coffee with Jesus can give similar results.