But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 1 Cor. 15:20
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul addresses the church on an issue where there seems to have been some doubt – resurrection of the dead. I noticed, especially in this passage, Paul’s reference to Christians who have died as having fallen asleep (he does this in other passages in Corinthians as well as the letters to the Thessalonians). He does not shy away from the word death or from talking about death, in fact, part of what stuck out to me is that this passage contains so much repetition and focus of both terms. In John 11 we read how Jesus told his disciples that their friend Lazarus had fallen asleep and that He was going to wake him up. When they misunderstand him, he tells them that Lazarus has died.
When great men die, the world mourns… briefly. When great men sleep, the world mourns… but has been transformed. I will probably not forget how publicly the world mourned for Princess Diana, nor how Mother Theresa’s passing was overshadowed by it. And yet Mother Theresa is still quoted, referenced, and held up as a symbol of loving, humble, sacrificial service in written and oral communication. Our lives have been impacted by these men and women of the Christian faith because they have taught, mentored, shaped, challenged, and provoked us to live more fully in and for Christ. Often we have personal relationships and friendships with these people, but sometimes God uses a humble servant to touch many lives from a distance.
And so it is the case now that a dear brother in Christ, Micheal Spencer (a.k.a. iMonk) is tired and close to sleep. Through his writings and his own walk he has impacted the lives of many toward maturity in Christ. Below some of our writers (past and present) share in memory, reflection, recognition, and in celebration of how this great man connected with them. Due to the cancer and the loss of work, the Spencer family could use financial assistance if you would like to help. Go here and you will see a note from Michael and Denise with a PayPal link for donating. They do ask that you e-mail Denise if you would like to give.
About 12.5 years ago, God called home singer/songwriter Rich Mullins. Burned into my mind for eternity are the first four words of Danl Blackwood’s email notifying us of Rich’s passing : The unthinkable has happened. I still get a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach when I hear a hammer dulcimer (an instrument indelibly associated with Rich in many folks’ minds — I personally know of three people who took up the instrument because of him).
Six months after his passing, I sat in a church for a Caedmon’s Call concert, ready to endure two opening acts that I had never heard of, so that we could hurry up and get to the band that we had all come to hear.
The first act was some guy named Andrew Peterson. I liked his music OK at the time. (In retrospect, I probably would have liked it a lot, had I not been predisposed to being a bit ticked that he was delaying Caedmon’s Call from hitting the stage.)
The third song in his set was called “Three Days Before Autumn”. He had written it as a tribute to Rich and as a memory of the whirlwind of emotions that he went through when he found out about Rich’s passing. You can read the lyrics here. It’s a painfully raw song, and I lost it about three lines in. Not a bit misty-eyed, not a few quiet tears, but convulsions of weeping.
I thought I was over Rich’s death. As a friend of mine says, “You know what ‘thought’ done.”
I don’t remember anything else about Andrew’s set, nor anything of the set done by Bebo Norman (the second opening act). When I got home, I looked Andrew up on the web. In those days, he was wholly independent, having never been signed, so some of his music was freely available on his site. I probably listened to “Three Days” about 50 times over the next few days. You may think that maudlin (and maybe you’re right); I found it very cathartic.
I came to realize that, much like Rich had been able to put words to what I was unable to express about God, Andrew had been able to put words to what I was unable to express about Rich.
So why bring this all up now? It’s nowhere near the anniversary of Rich’s passing. Heck, it’s not even too close to Andrew’s birthday. But I’m getting a profound sense of déjà vu.
The opening lines of Andrew’s song say:
Three days before autumn
A cold winter came
Blew in a telephone call when my friend went away
And I swear I heard thunder at the sound of his name
He never even knew me at all, but I loved him the same
It struck me as startling, yet accurate, that Andrew referred to Rich as his “friend” despite the fact that Rich “never even knew [Andrew] at all” and that Andrew “loved him the same”. This is certainly how I felt about Rich, and I’m sure that Andrew and I aren’t the only two people who feel this way.
Now that same feeling (as well as many others expressed in the song) is back with a vengeance, but for someone else. Michael Spencer, dubbed “The Internet Monk” (or “iMonk”, for short) was blogging long before all the cool kids started doing it. And not piddly little “Look at this cute video I found on YouTube” junk — but deep, heavy stuff that often reflected Michael’s own struggles and shortcomings as he tried to live out his faith in Christ as best as he could. If Michael was any more transparent, he’d be invisible.
I’ll be honest — I don’t always read his site as faithfully as perhaps I ought. Sometimes it’s sheer laziness, but sometimes it’s the fear that if I read something that Michael is struggling with, then I’m responsible to deal with it, too. And to be honest, if I had to face down one tenth of what Michael has had to wrestle with, I think I would have bagged this whole Christianity thing a long time ago. But Michael isn’t like that. Even as he recognized severe problems in much of modern-day evangelicalism, he hung on to his faith. Francis Schaeffer may have written a book entitled “How Should We Then Live?”, but Michael is the personification of that question.
Sometimes I have to wonder if what he’s dealing with now “ain’t nothing but a ham sandwich” (as Pancho Juarez is fond of saying) compared to the many issues that he’s written about in the past.
Several months ago, Michael was diagnosed with cancer. He has more recently stopped writing at his site, though a friend has taken over, contributing his own material and recycling some of Michael’s many “greatest hits”. Michael’s wife, Denise, has kept us apprised of his status. Two weeks ago, she told us that the doctor had said that the cancer was too advanced and aggressive to expect a remission from ever occurring, and that he expected the current course of treatment to only give Michael another 6-12 months to live. (I strongly encourage you to read that whole post, as Denise writes about Michael’s faith through this ordeal. It’s encouraging and challenging.)
On Tuesday, Denise told us that that treatment was not helping at all, but actually hurting. So it was discontinued, and Michael is now under hospice care. Denise’s prayer requests have shifted to prayers “for minimal pain and for a peaceful passing”.
As Andrew wrote about Rich, so I feel about Michael. I count him as a friend, even though he “[barely] knows me at all” (I’ve commented several times on his blog, we’ve exchanged a few emails, and I even once was given a derisive nickname by another blogger while in Michael’s defense — a nickname that I wear proudly). And “I love him the same”.
While I’ve learned many things from this guy from a little town in eastern Kentucky, the over-arching theme of what I take from his life and his writings is tenacity. Even in the midst of a lot of insanity swirling around him, Michael holds on to Jesus.
He’ll see Him face to face soon; our loss will be his great gain. Vaya con Dios, my friend.
I have to admit that I’m a little bit in shock right now. I just got done reading this announcement by Denise Spencer. It is an update on the health of Michael Spencer, who is known as Imonk.
I never met Michael. In fact I only talked to him personally once in an interview I did with him. I remember a few different things about that interview, but what really sticks out was that he warned me that he couldn’t be as witty and entertaining as Brant Hansen, who I had interviewed the week before. Of course, few if any of us can be. That struck me as odd because Michael is undeniably gifted. The idea that he would be intimidated by the performance of someone else on a stage as small as the one I offered was an absurd one, it was a bit like Alex Rodriguez being worried he wasn’t a very good pitcher (somehow the baseball metaphor seems an apt one). The other thing I remember about that interview was realizing how greatly Michael had been gifted by God. I preach once a week. I pour my heart into it, and I am very competent, maybe even approaching excellent at times. However, in order to do that I have to devote 15 hours to crafting a sermon. Michael told me in that interview he sometimes preached as many as 4 in a week. I’d have to work 60 hours to do that, and he maintained a full work load at a ministry in addition to that.
We didn’t talk writing at all in that interview. But I was always amazed at the sheer volume of his writing. He would update Internet Monk several times a week, sometimes with very in-depth writing. I update maybe twice a month. And these days its not terribly in-depth. I’ve started four different novels. I love the concepts behind each of the four of them. None have more than a chapter or two finished. Michael has only officially written a single book that has yet to be released, but I recall how quickly he was knocking out chapters as he kept us updated on the progress of his highly anticipated book.
The man was flat out gifted. Yet, still concerned that he couldn’t entertain as well as others. And its exactly that sort of honest self-reflection that I came to admire and love about him. Because he wasn’t as entertaining as Brant. He wasn’t as good an interview as Brant. And that sort of honest self-assessment was reflected in the body of his work in which he was willing to expose his short comings to the entire world if it meant communicating the gospel in an effective way.
As I read back over what I’ve written I realize that I’ve written about myself a lot. Odd, considering this is supposed to be about Michael. But that’s the kind of person that Michael is. I can’t write about him without writing about myself because the authentically confessional style of writing that Michael was known for draws out the personal journey of each reader into the experience of Micheal’s communication.
I’ll be the first to admit that when I first began reading the Imonk, I didn’t like a lot of what I read. If you dig through my blog’s archives I guarantee you that you’ll find uncharitable, angry, and just plain mean posts about Michael. I don’t have the heart to deliberately delete what I was writing at the time, but I don’t like them now. Its probably why he never (rightly) acknowledged my emails asking entrance to the Boars Head Tavern. As time went on I found myself not so much agreeing with the specific point of his writing, but agreeing with the way he was writing. I won’t pretend that Michael’s writing was the driving force behind the growth I’ve experienced, but his writing significantly affected me. In a lot of ways it was a bellwether to where my journey was taking me. The rejection of consumerism and the culture war especially strongly affected the way I would come to think of my faith. He, in conjunction with other mature and intelligent Christians helped to steer me away from these particularly destructive mentalities to the gospel. And for that I’m forever grateful.
The one thing however, that Michael did without question that impacted his readers more than any other was transparently living and teaching the gospel. The emotions he wrote about were real. The issues he was struggling with were real. The apologies he issued were real. And the gospel he articulated so well is real. In a lot of ways you can’t separate the real struggles, and real emotions from the real gospel. Few people are willing to open themselves up to the kind of scrutiny that Michael was. And as a result few were as effective at communicating the gospel as he was.
You’ve probably realized by now that this might be a eulogy. A few weeks ago his wife, Denise, let the world at large know that Michael was struggling with cancer. It looked bad, the doctors gave him 6-12 months. Today she let us know that the treatments had been ineffective and that they had discontinued medical treatment and had contacted hospice. I had always assumed that some day some lucky publisher would give Michael an opportunity, and that opportunity would grow into a second career as he became well known. Now, it looks like that won’t happen as Denise Spencer has asked for prayers for healing to shift to prayers for a quick passing.
I know this is probably a eulogy, but I hope its a prayer answered, as when Michael Spencer passes, the church and myself will have lost something valuable.
I have been a reader of the Internet Monk since I first discovered the wide world of blogging. I am a fan. It’s that simple. I have never met him. I have never spoken to him face to face. And the highlight of my friendship with him was when he once left a comment on a rather curious Facebook status update I had posted. That’s it. Even the few times I posted at his blog as a commenter, I was easily ignored because I was small fish in a big pond, a lightweight fighting heavyweights, and, mostly, because I never said anything that would contradict the Monk. That is, I typically agreed with everything he wrote. I wasn’t controversial. (Well, maybe a couple of times.)
What I love the most about the internet is that is makes the world small(er). I have the blessing of knowing people I would never have known if the internet didn’t exist. What I love about blogging is Michael Spencer. He is honest. He gave honor where honor was due. ( ) And he wasn’t afraid of two of my favorite authors and Christians, Eugene Peterson and Thomas Merton.
And you know what? He dealt with the journey. It was a journey for him, I suspect, where each day brought something new to his mind and comforted his heart in some new way or challenged his assumptions in another way or tweaked his understanding of Jesus and made him start all over again. He explored some of this at one of his lesser known sites, Jesus Shaped Spirituality. He’s kept learning, and we are still growing because of it. It is no small thing to suffer as he did. It is no small thing to do so publicly as he did. It’s no small thing to trust Jesus with all of it and to embrace what he so long taught us to embrace. I will miss Michael Spencer, but I’m not sorry. He is blessed, even as he has been a blessing.
“It takes heroic charity and humility to let others sustain us when we are absolutely incapable of sustaining ourselves. We cannot suffer well unless we see Christ everywhere–both in suffering and in the charity of those who come to the aid of our affliction.”–Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, 93-94
The continual process of change – “growing” – has always been a painful one for me, since I find so many of my moorings in the past, and when some of those ties are cut, the uncertainty of change creates an uncomfortable feeling of drift without direction.
One of the few items I remember from my high school English Lit class was a poem by Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. A brief snippet:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And so has it been for me throughout my life, when faced with friends and acquaintances who have left, or are leaving – ever since a classmate of mine, Matt, was killed by a drunk driver back in high school … while I was taking English Lit. I skip right over Kubler-Ross’ stage one (denial) and jump right to anger. Whether it was Matt, or my grandparents, or Rich Mullins or my favorite high school teacher, gunned down in the act of playing “Good Samaritan”, my anger at Adam and the mortality he cursed us all with is deep and wide.
And so it was when I learned that our brother in Christ, fellow blogger iMonk, Michael Spencer, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and more recently, that the treatments were not working, and that he would be moving to hospice care.
When I first started reading blogs, particularly Christian blogs, iMonk was one of the first I’d ever read. At first take, his name seemed awfully “Catholic” (particularly to one who would have agreed with the Ken Silvas of the world just a short time previous to this), but his wit and insight into the conundrums of living out belief kept me coming back. It wasn’t that I always agreed with him – I didn’t. And sometimes, he talked about subjects and held opinions that baffled me – on subjects of theology that I didn’t even know were ever debated.
After John at VerumSerum talked me through how to start a blog, iMonk was one of the first links I listed in my blogroll – and he has been on the blogroll on this site (and its various earlier forms) since the very beginning. On my own site, I had/have two blogroll lists – one for folks that I generally agree with, and another for ones that I really like, but still “proceed with caution”… iMonk landed on the second list (along with others I’d probably now move to the first one, but haven’t, just to remind myself that I have changed and survived the change) – he still sounded suspiciously Catholic to me (which is really ironic, since he’s from the Southern Baptist tradition).
As time has passed, I have grown to appreciate Michael’s insight more than I did originally, and our podcast interview with him was one of my favorites – the story of the school and community he worked at and how it operated. His radically different lifestyle and outlook on life was (and is) very challenging to me. His view of the kingdom, how it is lived out, and about American materialism has always given me pause – and still makes me uncomfortable when I look at how I live.
His voice will be sorely missed, and I would ask that we all say a prayer for Michael and his family, and that you consider a donation to them if you can afford it, and are led to do so.
And as for anger? I still rage at the changes that we are forced to live with – particularly those like Michael’s. I don’t think I will ever fully be over with that in this life, but even so, I want to remember how this iMonk lived and what he passionately believed. I want to remember this far more than the sorrow and anger at his leaving us.
We will miss him here and now, but we have the hope of meeting him, through the Lord and Savior we share, again in the world to come.