November 30, 2020

Another Look: Now in Another Wilderness

It is thus, if there is any rule, that we ought to die--neither as victim nor as fanatic, but as the seafarer who can greet with an equal eye the deep that he is entering, and the shore that he must leave." — E. M. Forster

[Originally posted April 6, 2010, the day after Michael died]

By Chaplain Mike

I had been wandering in the post-evangelical wilderness for a long time. But I never knew what to call it until I began reading Michael Spencer. And I never knew a genuinely safe place to talk about it until I entered the discussions on Internet Monk. Then I knew I had found a guide, and a group of fellow-wanderers.

The site’s popularity testifies to an undeniable fact: I am not alone. There are multitudes of us out here in exile, weary and dry-mouthed, panting for streams from which to slake our thirst.

  • Longing for grace.
  • Longing for some thoughtfulness and common sense instead of the gnostic fanaticism that tries to pass itself off as vibrant faith.
  • Longing for a faith that is not simply another attempt to avoid, escape, or transform our humanity into something else.
  • Longing for real good news of a real Savior for real people.
  • Longing for a Jesus-shaped spirituality.

Michael’s blog was the first site on which I ever commented. I had found a kindred spirit. His posts and the comments he gave in response to those who entered the discussion revealed a no-nonsense lover of Jesus, tired of religion as usual, willing to point out “spiritual” craziness, never too proud to admit his own weaknesses, intolerant of intolerance, especially from those called to love even their enemies.

Oh yeah, and he loved baseball too. “What’s not to like about this guy?” I thought.

I drive a lot for my work, and Michael’s podcast became a regular passenger in my car. His homely accent, humor, and self-deprecating manner belied the depth of his wisdom. No one did better play-by-play on the evangelical circus. Listening to him, I nodded and laughed my way into insight.

Gail and I took a vacation in September last year to northern Tennessee. I got in touch with Michael and asked if we could meet Denise and him for dinner. We had a great time getting to know each other, hearing about the progress of his book project (he was so excited!), Denise’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, Michael’s own struggles with feeling at home in church, and the ministry of OBI, where he taught and ministered to students. A memorable evening for us.

Some time later, Michael asked me to do an interview on pastoral care for the dying. It was an honor to be asked to share this with him and the iMonk audience. This led to a couple of instances when I had a chance to minister to Michael personally as he dealt with some situations involving the death of friends. I was moved by some of the things he wrote about the unhelpful ways Christians deal with illness, pain, and death, and sensed some spiritual discouragement in what he was saying. So I called and we talked about it. I hope I encouraged him.

These conversations continued when Michael himself became ill. Almost from when he first began feeling bad, it seemed he knew something was seriously wrong. It wasn’t long before it was difficult for him to write, so he asked if I would fill in for him until he could resume. I did so gladly.

When Michael was admitted to the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington, Gail and I made a day trip down to see him. We had a good visit in his room, but Michael was sleepy and left most of the talking to Denise. At that point, the doctors still hadn’t pinpointed the main site of his cancer and none of us knew what he was facing.

And then commenced the path for the Spencers that I as a hospice chaplain have become all too familiar with: diagnosis, radiation and chemotherapy, a new life built around trips back and forth to doctors, hospitals, and clinics, coping with side effects, keeping family and friends up to date, dealing with visitors and inquirers, answering the same questions over and over again, hoping against hope. And then the day you learn the treatments aren’t working. Crossing the line from looking for a cure to accepting comfort. Until the final breath.

I drove down to see Michael, Denise, and the family a couple of weeks ago. Michael had just been admitted to hospice. He was still sleeping in his own bed. I was pleasantly surprised at how he looked and that he was able to talk with me about some matters related to Internet Monk and other things that were on his heart. I also enjoyed visiting with Denise, as well as the children and their spouses. In the midst of such a trying situation, I sensed God’s peace upholding and sustaining them.

I’ve been keeping in touch with Denise regularly since my visit, checking on Michael’s condition and how the family was doing. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1), and it seemed to me that God was there, helping, each time I phoned.

As they were going through this, what a tremendous outpouring from cyber-friends too! Rarely did a day go by with someone asking about how Michael was doing, expressing appreciation for his ministry, asking if anything could be done to support him or the family. Michael Buckley held his art auction. Alan Creech had his rosary sale. Many, many folks simply sent checks or hit the “donate” button to assist with medical expenses. I’m sure there is a multitude of kind acts and generosity I know nothing about.

And then Denise called Monday evening and told us Michael had taken his last breath.

To be honest, I don’t know what to say about that.

Vocationally, I deal with death all the time. I comfort those who mourn. I lead grief support groups and teach others what happens when we lose a loved one. But it’s all a fog to me at the moment. Today, I am one of the grieving.

This is what I hear you saying as you write in the wake of Michael’s death. We are astounded that we could feel so close to a “friend” few of us have even met. In our contemporary world of internet “connections” we somehow found a genuine bond with an authentic human voice that had our best interests at heart and tried to give us Jesus. No matter that we only met him in cyber-space or heard his voice on a podcast. His death leaves a void and we fear that it can’t be filled again. At this moment, we don’t know what we feel, or where to turn.

Another kind of wilderness.

O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.
(Psalm 63:1, NLT)


  1. God Bless You, Chaplain Mike.

  2. â– Longing for grace.
    â– Longing for some thoughtfulness and common sense instead of the gnostic fanaticism that tries to pass itself off as vibrant faith.
    â– Longing for a faith that is not simply another attempt to avoid, escape, or transform our humanity into something else.
    â– Longing for real good news of a real Savior for real people.
    â– Longing for a Jesus-shaped spirituality.

    So much of this rings true!! Perhaps if I encountered this it would have prevented me from losing faith in God. Who knows…maybe finding a community in person where the above is mentioned will bring back to faith and away from agnosticism. When my faith was slipping I still attended church yet I became more and more aware of the act. My job helepd me teach this. So did my sin. And how the church responded revealed so much more ot how toxic and harmful it is.

    Now Chaplain Mike…you are not alone. I was not alone. Maybe admitting this problem is the frist part of growth. The real question is how do you treat or respond to a church in denial?

  3. Chaplain Mike…

    Thanks for your inspiring posts, thoughtfulness, grace and love. I really enjoy hanging around here!! 😀 Here’s to a 2011 at the IM!!

  4. “a Jesus-shaped spirituality”

    That is something we have rarely found in churches. They seem to have other agendas, such as raising money to cover property and salary expenses, especially in these times of declining interest in churches. The Jesus we have found there seems to be a different Jesus than the one we encounter in the pages of the New Testament. Perhaps this has something to do with the declining interest.

  5. Chaplain Mike:

    What do you mean by gnostic fanaticism?

    • Gnosticism refers to many diverse religious heresies in the early church in which a worshipper sought direct encounter with the divine through knowing divine secrets (the Greek work “gnosis” means knowledge). Though the movements varied widely, gnosticism was typically dualistic and showed a disdain for the material world which either led to strict moralism to conquer the flesh or a libertine attitude that said since the physical world is just an illusion, we can do anything we want.

      Gnosticism has affected Christianity all throughout church history, but i think it is even more prevalent today with our emphasis on a direct, personal relationship with Jesus apart from the means of grace (Word and sacraments), the various kinds of enthusiasm that we see that stress emotionalism rather than serious study and theology, and an escapist mentality which says “this world is not my home,” and discounts the importance of life in this world in favor of a future heaven.

      See Michael Horton’s article:

  6. Denise Spencer says

    Thank you, Mike & Gail, for all of your love and support to our family then, now and every day in between.

    The past couple of days I’ve been thinking about how 2011 will be a year that never knew Michael. I pray that he will always live on in the lives of so many people he touched, and I’m grateful to you, Jeff and everyone here at Internet Monk for continuing his legacy.

    May God bless you in this new year.

  7. i bought “Mere Churchianity today and I can’t wait to start reading it. I had read the publisher’s excerpt and knew imediately that it was something I needed to read. Thank you for keeping the IM work alive in both your writing and Michael’s work as well. I look forward to seeing what 2011 brings all of us.

  8. Does anyone know any sites/blogs that are similar to internetmonk, but deal with christianity in the UK?
    The analysis and discussion of evangelicalism in the US is fascinating, and it would be great to read something similar about christianity here in england

  9. Peace Be With You Friends, Briefly…
    As a seeker fresh and new to iMonk unhumbly I offer my condolances for your GREAT loss of this dear brother Michael.
    It is my sincere hope to join iMonk and continue to listen and learn.
    on the journey,
    H. Francis O’Hara