Monday with Michael Spencer: Dumb up, brother!

September Country Evening (2018)

Monday with Michael Spencer
Dumb up, brother!

I live in a part of the county where ignorance of every sort is widespread. The dropout rate is almost 30%. Running any kind of school here is a battle. And most of the ministers and Christians in this area are untaught, or at the most, self-taught. Comparatively speaking, pastoral ignorance of various kinds is common.

My friend Walter is a local pastor. He’s never attended Bible school, much less college. He’s not much of a reader. He’s too busy in his bi-vocational ministry just trying to make ends meet and do what his job, family and church need of him to be a scholar. Some of Walter’s sermons are difficult for me to listen to. They are delivered in mountain style and they are, frankly, hard to understand. Mostly, Walter takes a well known character or story and applies some principle from the scripture to the day to day experiences of his congregation.

Mountain people face many difficulties. These include poverty, drugs in the community, unsafe living conditions, lack of economic opportunities, undependable medical care, crime and so on. A mountain pastor is always facing a congregation who, for the most part, are there because if God doesn’t come through, life is going to fall apart. Walter’s people believe that he can point them to God’s power and presence. They believe the encouragement of the Lord comes through the “man of God.” They are generally not there to experience a “Christian classroom” with pastor as professor.

Of course, those who are more educated in the doctrines of the Christian faith will tell me that there is much wrong with Walter’s ministry. He needs to know many, many things and preach them faithfully. His congregation will be strengthened by doctrinal soundness in way they won’t be through Biblical stories and their lessons. His ignorance ought to be repaired and his ministry improved. I’ll not argue with that, but I will tell you another Walter story.

One thing I didn’t tell you is that two years ago, I was in the hospital with my dying mom, and I needed a pastor. At the time, I didn’t have one. I guess I could have called any number of the ministers that I know. Actually, having been the minister in the hospital before, I was fairly certain of what would happen, and while I wouldn’t have been ungrateful, it wasn’t that important to me.

Walter happened to be in the hospital that day, visiting members of his congregation and the wider community, as was his habit. He found me, my wife and my dying mom in the ER.

Walter stayed with me all day. He found a doctor who would let my mother stay in our hospital and pass there, instead of flying her to Lexington. He helped me talk to the doctors about the course of treatment mom and I had agreed on. He prayed for me. He was a pastor to me. He was Christ to me.

Never once did Walter attempt a theological justification of the ways of God. He never got out the Bible. He was the Bible for me that day. He put flesh and blood on God and hung out with me. He thought for me when I couldn’t think clearly. He knew my heart and he helped me listen to my heart at a very confusing moment. He treated me with love and dignity that brought joy into one of the worst days of my life.

Walter showed me that day that if you are going to measure life by how it’s lived, and not by how people talk about what they believe, he knows a lot more about God than I do. He’s not read anywhere close to the books that I’ve read and he doesn’t have my vocabulary or degrees. He has the the book that matters, and its author, in him. Compared to Walter’s embodiment of Jesus, I’m stupid.

Those of you planning to write and tell me the other side of the coin can save your ink.

I know the other side of the coin. What I’m going to say to anyone listening is that I see little evidence that great learning or correct doctrine produces Christ-like people. It may, and it certainly has a part to play that can’t be eliminated. God has used books in my life to make me more like Him. But a lot of those books have been theologically ignorant and incorrect by the standards of the doctrinally correct and intelligent.

I’ve spent years listening to claims and counter claims about how various theologies, doctrines and denominations can get you the real Jesus if you’ll learn there bit or or join their team. Based on the resulting lives I’ve seen — starting with my own — I’d say we’re all full of “dung” on that one. Christ-possessed individuals exist across the spectrum of denominations, education and sophistication. In fact, I’m starting to suspect God puts his fingerprints all over more people from the wrong side of the tracks than on “our” side just to throw us off. He must enjoy hearing me say someone who does or doesn’t believe theology/doctrine “X” can’t manifest the deep imprint of the fingerprints of Jesus. (Heaven’s Comedy Channel must include hours of stupid things I’ve said.)

Jesus says that God loves to take a Walter and show me real spirituality. He loves for me to realize that I can make an “A” on a theology paper and be useless in a hospital or in the lives of real people. He loves for me to hearing the banging, clanking, crashing uselessness of much of what I’ve valued, and then discover the treasure in what I’ve called trash.

Walter has a life full of Jesus. How did Walter get so full of Jesus? By wanting him there and keeping the doors and windows open for Jesus. Not by learning the outline, the answers and the PowerPoint version and stopping there. My version of Jesus often looks a lot like an essay question I’d write. Walter’s Jesus — his rough, unpolished and ignorant version of Jesus — is the real deal, at least when it counts.

Remember that Jesus was a teacher, but he never dismissed class. Life was his classroom, because he refused to isolate truth into compartments. He had no intention of producing a disciple who was an expert in theology but useless in a hospital ER. He had no plan to allow the specializations we use to excuse ourselves from what it really means to be a Christian. “Carrying the Cross” and “Washing Feet” weren’t talks. They were life.

And if you’re smart enough to improve on that, you’re too smart.

Dumb up, brother.

32 thoughts on “Monday with Michael Spencer: Dumb up, brother!

  1. My mother-in-law is in hospice care at home (in Dummerston, Chaplain Mike), and I wish my husband and his sister had someone like Walter nearby. My husband is grieving twice because his mother will not discuss spiritual things.

    I love reading what Michael Spencer wrote. It’s like he’s still here.


  2. there ARE people who are evangelicals who do care, but I think they are being ‘silent’, which says something even more about the brutalization itself where if you speak up, then look out!

    people are afraid


  3. I think Walter was someone of whom the early Church fathers would have approved, as Walter’s behavior has SO much in common with this advice from those early days:

    ““”“For he who endeavours to amend the faults of human weakness ought to bear this very weakness on his own shoulders, let it weigh upon himself, not cast it off.
    For we read that the Shepherd in the Gospel (Luke 15:5) carried the weary sheep, and did not cast it off.

    And Solomon says: “Be not overmuch righteous;” (Ecclesiastes 7:17) for restraint should temper righteousness.
    For how shall he offer himself to you for healing whom you despise, who thinks that he will be an object of contempt, not of compassion, to his physician?

    Therefore had the Lord Jesus compassion upon us in order to call us to Himself, not frighten us away. He came in meekness, He came in humility, and so He said:
    “Come unto Me, all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 11:28)
    So, then, the Lord Jesus refreshes, and does not shut out nor cast off, and fitly chose such disciples as should be interpreters of the Lord’s will, as should gather together and not drive away the people of God.

    Whence it is clear that they are not to be counted among the disciples of Christ, who think that harsh and proud opinions should be followed rather than such as are gentle and meek;
    persons who, while they themselves seek God’s mercy, deny it to others . . .”

    St. Ambrose (340-379 A.D.),
    a Father and a Doctor of the Church


  4. The fact this post has turned into an argument over whether or not Walter was a fundamentalist is just the kind of thing that would’ve made Michael cringe. Let it go, guys.


  5. For the sake of clarity, I can change the word fundamentalist to religious fanatic. Christian religious fanatics routinely denigrate and assassinate the character of renowned virtuous non-Christians, like Gandhi, because they can’t abide the idea that someone who doesn’t profess their beliefs could be more virtuous than them.


  6. A wonderful post. Thank you, Chaplain Mike, for reprinting these fine writings, and for continuing this blog with your own insights.


  7. –> “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

    Then there’s this (emphasis mine)…

    “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; AGAINST SUCH THINGS THERE IS NO LAW.”


  8. Obviously not, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to just be there for Michael Spencer. He would’ve been running his theological mouth, and proof-texting his words with Bible verses, instead.


  9. Hang on! What about all those Evangelical hunger strikes and sit in protests in response to the marginalization and brutality visited upon minorities in the United States? … oh, wait. Sorry, nevermind.


  10. For those of you who hate proof texts, I submit the following:

    Matthew 18:3 – Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

    Walter is as one of those little children.

    1 Corinthians 1:21 – For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

    Walter is one of the most foolish of preachers.

    Thank you, Walter.

    And most especially, thank you, Michael Spencer


  11. When my wife is sick or dying, give me Walter. When my child goes through a hard divorce, give me Walter. When I’ve lost my faith and I can’t find the way, give me Walter. You can keep all your theology and Bible verses, just give me Walter.


  12. They look for the worst in those of other religions or beliefs to compare with the best in themselves, even when their best is pathetically paltry in comparison to a great figure like Gandhi.


  13. The strategy of fundamentalists like them is to attempt to discredit the virtues of the non-Christian virtuous. I remember the character assassination their ilk performed on the historical figure of Gandhi after the popular film about him was released. It was disgraceful, just the opposite of what should be expected, and what the world expects, of Jesus followers. Yet they do it again and again.


  14. Christ-possessed individuals exist across the spectrum of denominations, education and sophistication. In fact, I’m starting to suspect God puts his fingerprints all over more people from the wrong side of the tracks than on “our” side just to throw us off.

    They exist in other religions, too, and among the non-religious.


  15. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind: this is the first and greatest commandment. The second alone is equal to it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


  16. This is one of the best speak to my heart articles/sermons I have ever encountered. What an honest and compelling story that somehow gives me comfort and hope. Thanks for sharing this , part of a good legacy.


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