I’m frustrated right now. I’m angry, I’m confused and I’ve cried more in the past couple of days than I have in a long while. Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, died a few days ago after a four month fight with cancer. Four months. That’s all he got. That’s all we got.

In a lot of ways, I don’t really know what to write. He seemed to be on the verge of everything he was created to do. We twentysomething limping Christians had found our spiritual father and before we could actually sit in a circle around him to hear his stories — he was taken from us. His first — and only — book, Mere Churchianity, is due out in September, five months after he died. I just can’t help feeling there was so much more that we needed to hear. So much more he needed to say. His name was just getting out there; people were just starting to take real notice. Things were changing! This ship looked as if it might just be able to turn, with Michael at the helm. And then to repeat the oft-repeated refrain that goes through my mind as I’m thinking about this: and then he was gone.

It’s moments like these that I really just don’t get it. I love the beauty of the story that is this weird and crazy upside-down-looking process of redemption. But what do we say in those times that the most “God-glorifying” thing seems so damn clear and it never happens. I really thought, that of all people, Spencer might be one of those individuals that got to taste a miracle. He clung to the fumes of faith he had, trusting that no matter how much he didn’t get it, God is there. God is good. God knows. I thought that surely this man would be blessed for his dogged faithfulness and his faithful fight.

Believe me, I know all the “right” answers here. “We’re just too close to the situation to fully understand it right now.” “God did bless Michael for his faithfulness — by bringing him home.” “We’ll see him in glory.” “God works all things…” Look, I get it. But sometimes we need Psalm 88 times in life, where there is no bow on top at the end. There are times where there’s no “But God is good” that suddenly makes everything “alright”. Everything is not alright. This world is not alright. Babies don’t have clean drinking water. Women are raped. People die of cured diseases. And some of the most Godly men that will ever have walked the earth die before they should.

I want to say Michael ran his race well. But part of me feels like it never actually began. But the few steps he took, changed my life.

This was a little email exchange I had with him last year. I wrote:

Hey Michael. You don’t know me. My name is Paul Burkhart. I’m an avid reader of the blog, but not so much an avid commenter so you’ve probably never heard of me (although you may have seen me retweet some of your stuff on Twitter). Anyway, I don’t know how much encouragement I can give as an arrogant, prideful, 23-year old who too often swings the club of his certainty of uncertainty, but here’s my try.

I am able to relate so well to your most recent article “Hold the Light for Me“. I’m currently in a church transition for some of those reasons, moving to a church where my seemingly “heterodox” at best (“heresy” at worst) ideas and wrestlings and thoughts can reside in a bit more peace. I can tell you that the churches and the people exist that share your vision of wrestling and struggling where we cling to the essentials of the faith while living the rest of life in accordance to our free convictions of conscience in other areas.

I didn’t really have a plan for this email before I wrote it. I just really felt led to write you. I have fairly recently watched my belief in traditional articulations of inerrancy crumble, my belief in Darwinian evolution strengthen, my thoughts on inspiration become increasingly broad, my opinion of women in the church grow increasingly egalitarian, so on and so forth. And I must admit I’ve seen in myself some bitterness. Don’t worry, this isn’t the “I’ve seen this in you, Michael, and you need to stop being so angry” email. I haven’t. But I have seen a growing sense of hurt and pain. I guess all I wanted to do was drop this note and ask you: how are you doing? I started crying tonight as I read your post, feeling the isolation you must feel (the isolation I have felt at my current church, where in a sermon I can’t tell the story of my first beer, nor say that I don’t think that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes). My heart goes out to you, Michael.

I saw you at the Advance conference, but had no idea what I would say that wouldn’t make me come across as “that guy”. I suppose if I saw you now I know what I’d say. I’d thank you for your writing, firstly. You have no idea how encouraging it is to hear of a man in his fifties wrestling with these same things as I am. Really, the only other people I hear talking about these things are the same twentysomethings that duke it out in the comments section of your blog and mine. You have been such an encouragement, and that encouragement has given me increased trust and faith that Jesus is in fact building his own Church and a renewed sense that I can rest in that. He is growing us in knowledge and wisdom to unite us all in the Head which is Christ. This Church is a story, and it will be an epic one, to say the least. Secondly, I would let you know that I am/will be praying for you. We all need each other in this, and I hope that in that strange mystery of the communion of saints, I can somehow bless you as you have me.

So, how are you, really? What can I be praying for? Are there any major needs of yours? your wife?

I know these questions may be sort of weird, and sorry if it all comes across as far too personal. It’s just the only way this arrogant, immature, 23-year old who wants to take over the world knows how to try and serve you as a fellow brother and sojourner. I hope this finds you well.

–paul

Michael wrote:

“…my belief in traditional articulations of inerrancy crumble, my belief in Darwinian evolution strengthen, my thoughts on inspiration become increasingly broad, my opinion of women in the church grow increasingly egalitarian, so on and so forth.”

Ah yes, young Skywalker. Been there. Done that.

If you think that little lament yesterday was anything, you must be a new reader. When my wife announced her switch to the RCC (and the end of much of my future ministry as a result) I basically turned into a Christian atheist for about 6 months.

Some people live the Christian life in the mode of happy clappy. Others live it in lamentation. Disturbance. Some of those write it out to process it. That’s me.

It’s my way of talking to God and its my way of signaling to others in the wilderness that they aren’t alone. It’s my way of tweaking the noses of the gatekeepers of institutional Christian agendas and their dehumanizing version of the faith.

It’s not significant, but I strive for it to be real. In even that, I fall short.

You can pray I have faith to rest in Jesus and that I will bear whatever is the cost of my assignment in ministry with more grace. That I will love my wife and all those in my life. That I will find hope in the fellowship that I can have and not despair of what I can’t.

peace

ms

Peace to you as well, my friend and brother.

 
About The Author

Paul Burkhart

0 Responses to Gone Too Soon: An Email Exchange with Michael Spencer

  1. Paul, you’re not the only one to cry over Michael’s death. I never actually “met” Michael in person, but I felt a closeness that was deeper than many of my flesh and blood relationships. He had a rawness that just rang true. I see that in what you’ve written too. Michael helped connect many fellow travelers on this strange journey we call faith. I agree that Michael left us far too early, but God did use him very powerfully in the short time he had. It’s up to us to continue that journey. Blessings to you and thank you for sharing the correspondence you had with Michael.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Paul.

    My own “relationship” with the iMonk was almost eerie. We (were) nearly the same age. I first started reading him when I started seminary at Westminster, a time when both he and I were Piper fan boys and Reformed theology newbie groupies. Over the time of my seminary career, he and I hit the same questions about the same time, and both came to the conclusion that the orthodox power brokers were largely emperors without clothes. His writings were of immeasurable help and comfort to me through those dark and confusing days.

    It was even more weird then that he and I were diagnosed with cancer in the same month, although it was quickly apparent that his was far more serious a case. I was “lucky” to have rectal cancer that was caught soon enough to be treatable. I was in the hospital recovering from surgery when he died.

    Like you, I can’t believe he’s gone. Can’t believe that the man who was such a model to us both…that we’ll never see those precious words again.

  3. […] he was still living, I wrote on this site about how he influenced and affected me. I also wrote this piece for Patrol Magazine after he died (I still remember the tears blurring my vision as I typed that […]

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