Hope in the Midst of Despair

This has been a season of grief.

On Friday I wrote about many of the reasons why I as grieving related to the pandemic that is sweeping the world.

Today (Sunday) I grieve as I remember that 10 years have passed since Michael Spencer was taken from us way too early.

This coming Friday many of us will be sitting in darkness as the Good Friday story is read to us, and we remember the suffering of our Saviour and Lord.

As I was sitting and thinking as to what I would be writing today about the passing of Michael Spencer 10 years ago, one word came to me: “Hope”.

Michael Spencer offered hope.

For those of us who were wandering in some sort of spiritual wilderness, Michael stood as a beacon. Not the sort that would show us the way out, but a light of comfort that told us that he was right there with us. We were not alone. He understood what we were going through. He could relate to the struggles we had, the fears we had, the frustrations we had.

In other words, he embodied Jesus to us.

In a moving tribute to Michael Spencer, his long time friend David Head wrote:

[W]hat made Michael’s ministry so compellingly powerful was his willingness to share his brokenness, flaws and struggles. He never tried to convince us that he had his act together. He refused to take the easy road of cultivating an on-line image that was heroically certain. He went to the boundaries of safe and predictable faith and stepped over. He was Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord through the dark nights of his soul. He expressed his tears & laments, questions & screams at God, fears and failures, doubts and an ambiguity that left you wondering how faith would possibly survive that moment.

A first encounter with that depth of honesty was scary. It left you feeling like a voyeur, with access to something intimate you weren’t supposed to have. But then something happened. Michael’s courageous honesty about the beautiful messes of his own journey with Jesus gave permission for thousands of us to own our own mess with Jesus. To realize that our brokenness, flaws, struggles, fears, and doubts are a part of the normal Christian journey. Because they are a part of life and you do it—all of it—with Jesus. Reality means you confess before God, friends, family and even our churches, “ I’m a mess…and I’m with Jesus.” One person said “Michael that put words to my own struggles in ways I wished I could but couldn’t. I know I’m not alone in this. His gift is putting himself out there so that we can see and read and shout “Yes! Exactly! Someone understands!”

Many have come and gone from this site over the years. Michael was there for all of them. For the first 10 years of Internet Monk he was there in person. For the last 10 years he continued to encourage by the vast reservoir of the writing and thoughts he left behind.

It struck me, though, that Michael never intended this site to be a destination. His choice of words to describe the site are appropriate: “Journeys in the Post-Evangelical Wilderness”. The wilderness is not a destination. It is something that you endure on your way to a better place. Many have moved on to other, perhaps better places. Some never made it out and are still searching for that elusive place of worship where they will “fit in.” Still others, like Chaplain Mike, Mike the Geologist, Daniel Jepsen, and I have remained behind. Not necessarily because we are trying to find a way out, but because we want to offer hope to others who are looking for light in a dark place.

And ultimately that was was Michael Spencer was all about. A man who offered hope.

On Michael’s passing 10 years ago I wrote:

[F]irst and foremost, Michael was about the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. This was what was closest to his heart, and what drew me to him. His concern was that in all the many things that the church was doing, the gospel was being obscured. This was his greatest concern, and to what he paid the most attention in his writing. He regretted that so many people got the wrong idea from the “Coming Evangelical Collapse”, that more than anything it was a call to action, a call to return to the first love of the good news that God has given us.

In going back to my first thoughts about grief, we see that each of these items has a corresponding hope.

We have hope in knowing that the scourge that is currently crossing the earth will eventually end. Never has there been such a concentrated effort around the world to defeat a human enemy.

While I grieve the passing of Michael Spencer, I take hope in knowing that he continues to impact lives through his writing. Others read what he has written and have hope too.

As for the despair of Good Friday, I will leave it up to Michael Spencer to comment on that from this post he wrote for Easter, 16 years ago.

I’ve always felt that Passion plays of every sort missed out on what must have been going on in the hours after the death of Jesus. We need to meditate on the utter, complete, abject devastation and disappointment the disciples would have been feeling right now.

Modern critics of the Gospels, such as the Jesus seminar gang, make the same mistake. I heard J.D. Crossan say, “When I read (the resurrection accounts), I’m reading hope, not history.”

Hope? What hope? A man who never met a corpse he couldn’t raise, a disease he couldn’t cure, a storm he couldn’t calm, is lying cold and dead. His power vanished before their very eyes and he was crushed like a bug. All the talk of who would sit on his right and who would be the greatest…how absolutely stupid it all would seem now. Can anyone imagine the disciples having the Lord’s Supper today? It’s absurd. Everything was crushed, and there was no hope, only despair.

The assumption that the disciples were standing by the windows waiting to see Jesus is bizarre. The resurrection came blasting out from under a planet-sized boulder of hopelessness.

Perhaps we sometimes forget that Christianity doesn’t teach that despair and doubt are alien to faith. The prelude to Easter faith was the darkest, blackest kind of doubt and unbelief. The songs of Easter are growing out soil that’s devoid of any reason to sing.

The apologists who believe the evidence for the resurrection is compelling need to remember that the greatest argument against the resurrection is the simplist: This just doesn’t happen. Death is final.

We are carrying around in us, and with us, a message of hope that’s laughably ridiuclous. Faith really is comedy. God refuses to play by the rules. He raises Jesus and gives us life in Jesus’ death and resurrection. And we get to give it away, any way we can.

I’m so glad the resurrection hope isn’t theology, but miracle. Absurdity. A divine joke on all of us. There is no depth we can go to- not even the depths of hell and the grave- where we can escape from God’s laughter at our certainty it’s all over. If you want to figure it out, write a theology or pen a convincing apologetic, knock yourself out. God raised Jesus from the dead. He opened a window in your hell and my grave and said, “You’re free to leave. The rules don’t apply anymore.”

I trust you see the beauty in it. Theology, religion, the bland pleasures of the world- none of them can reach into death, despair and the grave and rescue me. I regularly need rescue from such places, and I’m pretty sure the time will come when trusting what God did to Jesus will be ALL I can believe.

So be it. Let the laughter begin in the least likely places.

Michael Spencer was, at his very core, a man of hope in the midst of despair.

As usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

53 thoughts on “Hope in the Midst of Despair

  1. If one has the answers to all the questions – that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble.
    (Pope Francis

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  2. (I think he’s referring to Robert Farrar Capon, author of the much mentioned “Between Noon and Three.”)

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  3. Tom aka Volkmar: Occasional reader here. Please tell me who the initials RFC stand for? Your description of “a veritable powerhouse of challenge” intrigues me…

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  4. Joe Bageant, yes! A liberal from Appalachia who called out liberals for becoming stupid about poor rural folk. Recently I just finished Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball after having read Deer Hunting With Jesus a few years ago. Sometime soon I will read Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir.

    For myself I see in his writing a warning against what we would now call “more woke than thou” which I think could also become a problem in the post-evangelical world as it is now in the secular world. As much as Michael’s words resonate with me God help me from looking down on those who don’t see it my way. Michael did not seem to have such a problem.

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  5. One of the things I hear from your words is “Michael was us.” Although I was not at i-Monk during his time his words from the past resonate with me today speaking what I am often unable to say.

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  6. That is a great way of looking at Nehemiah! I’ve been through a few studies of Nehemiah but none quite like that.

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  7. I was tempted AND swallard the bait. Michael was the voice on the edge that asked a few hard questions about my direction. He and Jeff also introduced me to RFC who was a veritable powerhouse of challenge.

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  8. If I’m remembering correctly, my first exposure to MS was through his “coffee talks”. At first I was a little put off by his perceptible Appalachian accent–though it wasn’t all that strong and having lived in NW Ark most of my life I had learned how to “filter”.

    I’m glad I persisted and soon found iMonk.

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  9. “If faith does not continually expose itself to the possibility of unfaith, it is not faith but a convenience. …This is neither having faith nor questioning, but indifference.”

    (Heidegger)

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  10. Looking up the documentary, I found that “The Wild and Wonderful Whites” was a family name. I was oddly disappointed.

    Turns out I can stream it on Prime for 3 bucks, or free if I use a VPN to watch it off my London BBC box.

    Thank you, Christiane.

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  11. I have mixed feelings about Nehemiah as a leader. Swearing at people, beating them up, and yanking their hair out because you’re upset with them is not exactly a mature leadership style (see Neh 13:25).

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  12. Sen,

    Don’t we all have troubles? Yes, Michael Spencer did. He had a hard childhood, on the edge of poverty with a father who suffered greatly from depression. Michael had something in him that compelled him to seek Jesus – and often experienced deep disappointment along the way. Yet he kept up the struggle, and we are all the better for his fellowship in our own.

    He also had a devoted wife and two fine children (and their spouses), and was able to teach and minister to hundreds of students, which was both frustrating and fulfilling for him, as it is for every teacher. “Troubled” isn’t an adjective I’d use to characterize his life as a whole. Try reading some of the archives from before you were here regularly.

    Dana

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  13. Never really tempted to veer off toward Calvinism, but otherwise you put words to why I came and still keep coming here, Sean. Like so many others who came here experienced, Michael was writing what I was thinking. And I’m grateful too. May Christ grant him the blessings of the Life of the Age to Come.

    Dana

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  14. Thanks for this, Mule.

    In our atomistic society, we so easily forget the meaning of place and context.

    Dana

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  15. Good luck finding it, I think you would find it meaningful. It’s worth watching, yes.

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  16. Michael Spencer, almost single-handedly, saved me from Neo-Calvinism.

    I started reading him alongside Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and the other machismo-dripping YRR manboys.

    Michael gave me eyes to see, while remaining gracious. More gracious about that movement than I am today. The good fruit he produced won out.

    He let me know I could love Jesus and ask really hard questions. Love Jesus and not condemn those who were unlike me in theology to perdition. Love Jesus through doubt, depression, and darkness.

    I’m eternally grateful.

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  17. I came to enjoy Michael’s writings and Internetmonk not so much because I needed it, but because I could see that OTHERS needed it. Though I’ve never really experienced my own need to leave “evangelicalism” and enter the Wilderness, I could see that there were many other damaged Christians who DID need to do those two things. I could see the hope that he offered to those hurt by unhealthy religiosity and bad Christianity, which actually gave ME hope and comfort for my own walk with Jesus.

    Thanks for the good reminder of what this site is all about, Mike Bell!

    “Continuing Michael Spencer’s legacy of Jesus-shaped spirituality.”

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  18. –> “I thank God for becoming human so that He can be with us in pain and sustain hope.”

    I always view Jesus as coming alongside me and saying, “My, that’s a mighty fine pile of mess you’ve got there. Here, let me help.”

    And then he just climbs in with me.

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  19. –> “Similarly, in our faith it’s better to take an honest look at what is broken and bring it out into the open where we can deal with it. Shutting our eyes and pretending everything is okay doesn’t actually make the problem go away, and in the end it will be far more deadly for our souls than if we had the courage to face the infection head-on.”

    Before the shelter-in-place order went into effect here in WA state, I had just begun taking an adult Sunday school class into the book of Nehemiah.

    Nehemiah is an example ALL leaders should follow, especially what he does in chapter 1.

    -People return from Judah/Jerusalem, he asks them how it’s going. (Gather data)
    -He hears the cold, brutal facts: the walls are broken, the gates are burned with fire. (Listen to the data)
    -He weeps, fasts, goes to God in prayer. (Respond to the data; Nehemiah doesn’t stick his head in the ground and pretend there isn’t a problem)
    -He includes himself as part of the problem; he doesn’t point fingers, he doesn’t use excuses–he throws himself under the bus, too. (Don’t blame others for how bad the data looks and how the problem happened, include self as part of the issue)

    I’ll try to mirror this now in my limited roles of leadership.

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  20. Hi Rick,

    My bad, I saw your remark under Christiane, and wrongly assumed you were responding to her, and I couldn’t see anything in her remarks that were provoking. But your comment was not nested under hers, so it was me misreading it.

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  21. “Michael appeared to lead a troubled life.”

    That statement, by itself, just seems to have one purpose: to provoke. What’s the point of it, stated without any supporting evidence or without some further point? That was the reason for my “And” and “But.” If you think he appeared to lead a troubled life… so what? What point are you trying to make? Is it good, is it bad? Do we all lead troubled lives, just no one knows because we’re good at hiding it? Is Michael an anomaly because he appeared to be troubled? Seneca gives us NOTHING about what he thinks, he just tosses a statement out there and lets it sit.

    Hopefully that helps you understand why I wrote my comment.

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  22. paradoxical that in the darkness, we begin to see

    “. . . and I Delight to imagine them seated there;
    There, on the mountain and the sky,
    On all the tragic scene they stare.
    One asks for mournful melodies; Accomplished fingers begin to play.
    Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
    Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.”

    Yeats, ‘Lapis Lazuli’

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  23. BURRO,

    there is an excellent documentary out on ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ if you are interested in Appalachia and the effects of ‘isolation’ and ‘hard times’ on families where the culture seems ‘hopeless’ and the living is hard and shocking and seemingly a blend of self-destruction and such human qualities that are also heart-breakingly vulnerable. . . . you might be interested in seeing that but warning, it is not a film for people that ‘don’t understand’ about how generational poverty and hopelessness can take their toll of the ethos of a whole clan, as it seems to have done on these interesting and very human people. I was alternately horrified and much moved by their plight, and I found some ‘answers’ in a reflection on the ‘effects’ of year after year and generation after generation living in fear of dying in the coal mines suddenly and of hearing that someone you love has suddenly been lost . . . that kind of endless experience seems to have worn down these folks in this clan. Take a look, if you can find it. I was fascinated and much moved when I saw it. They are very wounded, these people, but valiant in their way, and strangely hopeful for the ones in their clan who had passed on that showed love and grace for the needy and the abandoned. It made good Lenten watching for me. The impact was not unlike a crucible.

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  24. “Let the laughter begin in the least likely places.”

    Nice alliteration A phrase that sticks. Is this an IMonkism or a quote from somewhere?

    It calls to my mind Rimbaud’s paradoxical line that the true apocalypse will begin with the laughter of children.

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  25. And? But?

    I don’t see the need for such a statement without something else, unless it was just meant to provoke.

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  26. I saw Michael Spencer as a very human person who had a gift of insight and of wisdom and was able to share this because he also had a way of using language that cut through a lot of the bull and got right down to the point of an issue.

    That honesty of his was refreshing and startling.

    Some may see him as a ‘Jesus-type figure’, but I saw him as a VERY human being who ‘expected’ more from the faith than what an evangelical background had offered him . . . he sensed that there was a larger circle, a wider context, and a ‘story’ that went way back to Eden and all the way forward into uncharted time.

    Forget the cliches and the ‘selling salvation’ and any denomination that attempted to baptize folks by immersing them in waters grown too shallow. . . . . Michael set out for deeper waters to try to find what he ‘knew’ waited there for him. That makes him a real person. Questing. Encountering, and reflecting. Dismissing the nonsense but embracing the mystery.

    Troubled? So should should we all be until we begin to look for what is meaningful.

    That his illness took him away so early seems a great loss to many of us who were always ‘surprised’ by something in what he wrote . . . . words that incarnated his original thoughts in a way that resonated and startled us, like a deja-vu moment of ‘how did he know?’ so we found in him a kindred spirit who voiced our own concerns that had no words yet. ‘Course he is missed’. Poets and great writers are voices for us all who have feeling that have no words.

    There’s a portion of something Emerson wrote that reminds me of how Michael’s writing affected me and apparently so many others, this:
    ” to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the
    time” (‘Self-Reliance’, RW Emerson)

    In reading the originality and freshness of Michael’s writing, something of our own garbled confusion came into focus and his words resonated with our own yearning for more of meaning in our own journeys. Michael said what many of us wanted to say, but had no idea how to express in words, a gift which makes him very, very special to many of us as an original voice in the Church, a man for all seasons, but most certainly needed in our own time
    when so many have come to the ‘end’ of the evangelical line and wanted ‘more’.

    It’s ten years and it’s ‘yesterday’. Where does the time go?

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  27. A part of Michael that gets very little play here is that he was a faithful son of Appalachia. I believe he even wrote about that from time to time, but it doesn’t get mentioned often when we remember Michael.

    Being myself a son of the upper Midwest, Appalachians were intruders, frayers of our well-maintained social fabric. There were no Black people in my White boyhood heaven (yes, that was by design), so Mexicans and Appalachians took their place. Mexicans were dark and inscrutable. Appalachians were white, but they were loud, quarrelsome, promiscuous, and violent. ‘Hillbillies’ we called them, and we shunned them.

    Their religion was far more direct and confrontational than our well-manicured Dutch Protestantism. Their preachers (they didn’t have “pastors”) looked in you in the eye and asked you if you had been ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb’ or if you ‘were saved’. That was uncomfortable for us. There was an uncomfortable family quarrel going on in our small ethnic corner of the country between the Reformed Church in America, which had taken a modernist turn in the early 20th century, and the Christian Reformed Church, which had gone more revivalist. Finn can vouch for what I say. The CRC saw the ‘hillbillies’ and their blood-and-fire hot gospel as natural allies against the apostate RCA, and constantly tried to enlist their help.

    The ‘hillbillies’ wanted nothing to do with either of us. Their attitude was ‘I may be a drinkin’, gamblin’ womanizin’, knife-fightin’ reprobate sunuvabitch, but when I get saved, I’ma gonna get f***in’ saved. No tea-and-scones soup-kitchen gospel for me!’

    And despite Michael learning to talk the dialect of the educated elites, and engaging with some of their concerns, he remained at heart a stubborn mountain boy who loved Jesus, and I loved him for that. So, to all the Appalachians who have made a difference in my life; Fr Stephen Freeman, new Catholic JD Vance, and angry soul Joe Bageant, who I believe passed away about the same time Michael did, thank you and stay salty.

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  28. I updated my comment from “men” to “heroes”.. Not to be politically correct, but to recognize that my heroes of the faith are both male and female.

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  29. “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. . . ”
    (Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts On Faith)

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  30. To draw an example from the current crisis: two weeks ago the US started ramping up testing, and suddenly all our case counts went through the roof – we found out that the problem was several orders of magnitude worse than we thought. That doesn’t mean that testing was a bad idea. Knowing the scope of the crisis and being forced to face it is still better than having no idea how bad it is until thousands of people start dying.

    Similarly, in our faith it’s better to take an honest look at what is broken and bring it out into the open where we can deal with it. Shutting our eyes and pretending everything is okay doesn’t actually make the problem go away, and in the end it will be far more deadly for our souls than if we had the courage to face the infection head-on. If corruption and idolatry is sweeping through the church, it’s better to be “troubled” by it than to let it quietly carry you away from Christ to serve a false god.

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  31. While I was never anonymous on InternetMonk, I sometimes wished that I was. Like Michael Spencer I was always looking over my shoulder for the evangelical correctness people. I had to bite my tongue a few times to not teach contrary to the statement of faith of the church of which I was a member.

    And yes, Michael helped rescue my faith and steer me towards a firm foundation on what he called “Jesus shaped spirituality.”

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  32. Most of the great heroes of faith do. I read recently and I paraphrase. (I wish I could remember the source) that faith is not the absence of doubt, but the belief that persists in spite of doubt.

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  33. You’re so right. He really did stand “as a beacon”. I remember somehow just stumbling across the site and immediately being gripped. Wow, here’s a bunch of people that I can relate to directly with the experience of leaving evangelicalism and being in a spiritual wilderness. The most hopeful part for me in one sense was the anonymity because I could express some of my deepest, off the wall but nonetheless serious, questions and find some give and take. That’s not to say that it was always easy but it was night and day from the sort of space that would have been afforded previously and it has truly helped me to continue to “work out (my) salvation”. This is a dark period we are living through right now and it will get darker before dawn comes. I thank God for becoming human so that He can be with us in pain and sustain hope.

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  34. “Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”

    — Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace

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  35. “Michael Spencer was, at his very core, a man of hope in the midst of despair.”
    Yes, THIS !

    “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)

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