Before Michael Spencer died, he anointed Jeff to administer the blog and asked me to be the lead writer. We were to be partners. Getting to know Jeff, his infectious enthusiasm, his love for baseball and good music and good humor, his long experience in the “Evangelical Christian-Industrial Complex” that gave him a keen insider’s view of the culture and its true nature, and his honesty about his own need for grace, I knew I had found a gem of a partner.
And, oh yes, the man can write.
One of our great laughs together was when Michael’s book Mere Churchianity (that Jeff got published for him) was released on the same day as the “Big Butter Jesus” statue up the road in Monroe, OH was struck by lightning. Karma indeed.
I also had the privilege of visiting Jeff’s home in Tulsa and hanging out with him during a season in which he was struggling with a deep depression. His wilderness journey led Jeff to Catholicism, which has proven to be an incalculable boon to his faith, and I had the privilege of worshiping with his congregation that weekend.
Oh yes, and lest I forget, I owe the opportunities I have had to be a published author to him. I’ll never forget that gift.
Jeff is currently enduring his final season, daily seeking the faith, hope, and love that come from Jesus as he copes with ALS.
My friend, all will be well and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Thank you.
• • •
Two Unforgettable Characters
By Jeff Dunn
Bernis Duke passed away one week ago today. He was 91.
“That’s sad, especially for his family,” you might be thinking. “But who was Bernis Duke? I don’t recognize the name.” If this thought is in your mind, don’t feel ashamed. I texted a number of friends who knew Bernis Duke, had talked with him many times, and may even have taken a class that Duke taught. Still they asked, “Who is Bernis Duke?” It was only when I said “Coach Duke” did their memory kick in.
“Oh!” they said. “Coach Duke. Of course I knew him. I remember one time …” Then they would go into a story they remembered about beloved Coach Duke. Duke was the tennis coach at Oral Roberts University for 33 years—1967-1999. When he retired, he was the sixth winningest collegiate tennis coach in the nation. For 28 straight years he had a winning record. 1969 was a real standout for the four-year-old college: Duke’s team went undefeated. Not bad for a coach who had never played competitive tennis himself. And the opposition he faced in the early years were mostly Top Ten programs whose players went on the play professionally.
Duke knew nothing about recruiting, and had no budget for it anyway. One day he walked into the campus bookstore and saw some postcards with pictures of ORU on them. Duke bought out the rack of postcards, got out his directory of the top-ranked players around the world, and started to write to them.
“How would you like a scholarship to play Division 1 tennis at one of the newest and unique schools in America?” Players started pouring in. One young man apologized for being late. “I’m sorry, coach,” he said, “but I had to stop in New York to play in the U.S. Open.”
Two other players came from Czechoslovakia. A month after they arrived on campus, Coach Duke got a letter from a general in their homeland demanding that these two students must return to Czechoslovakia immediately to serve their time in the military. But Duke knew they would not hear the Gospel in that—at the time—communist country. The entrance to the university has a semi-circle of poles bearing the flags of all of the countries represented by students at ORU. And, of course, there was a Czech flag among them. So Duke got the two players and a camera. He positioned them so, in the picture, you could see both the students and their flag. He then composed a letter something like this.
“Dear Comrade General,
Your two students here at our college have set up an outpost for your wonderful country. They are here representing Czechoslovakia, the only Czech citizens in the City of Tulsa. If they leave, then there will be no one left to share with our city the wonders of your great nation.”
The students stayed.
Do You Know Bernis Duke or Coach Duke?
Another story about Coach Duke. My good friend Vic, who is from Puerto Rico, saw Duke at a homecoming well after Vic and I had graduated. Vic, who took a tennis class from Duke, went up to greet him.
“Buenos Dias,” said Vic.
“No,” replied the coach. “Bernis Duke.”
I could fill a book with stories about Coach Bernis Duke. As a matter of fact, we talked quite seriously of me writing a book on his life. Then he got distracted and we never got around to doing it. But I guarantee that no one who spent at least five minutes with the man could ever forget him. Now you won’t either. And it’s not because of statistics or winning percentages or anything like that. You know Bernis Duke by the stories I just told you. And I’ve held two of the best until now.
In 1981, my newlywed wife and I were living in apartments not far from ORU. My wife, Kathy, was pregnant with our first child and got to craving mashed potatoes and gravy. At 11:30. 11:30 p.m. There was a supermarket just across the parking lot from our apartment, but they closed at midnight. So, I splashed some water on my face, pulled on my clothes, and set out to see if the deli had any mashed potatoes and gravy left. They did. I bought them. As I was heading across the parking lot back to our apartment, here comes Coach Duke right behind me. He was pushing a shopping cart filled to the top and then some with gallons of milk.
“Thirsty, Coach?” I asked.
“No, Dunn.” (He never remembered first names. Or maybe he just didn’t care. Whatever.) “The manager of this store calls me whenever he has a lot of milk about to go out of date. At midnight of that date, he has to throw them in the trash. He lets me load them up, as many as I can fit in a cart, and sells them to me for a quarter a gallon. I’m taking these jugs to the Women’s Crisis Center. They can use all they can get.”
He got up and dressed near midnight, spent his own money to buy the milk, and then drove them to women in need. I don’t think anyone else ever knew he did this except his wife, me, and—of course—the women who got the nutrition they so badly needed. He wasn’t doing this for recognition or honor. He did it because it needed to be done.
One last story. I used to go to Duke’s house to buy salesman samples of rackets or shoes at about a dime on the dollar. (He used this money to do things like buy milk for women in need.) So, one day I’m there to get a new racket when he told me he had just come back from his home state of Arkansas.
“Were you visiting family, Coach?”
“No, not this time.” Then he told me why he went there. Two weeks previous, Duke had gone to see his family. On his way to Evening Shade, Arkansas (where he was born and his family still lived), He passed by a garage sale. He got out and was looking around. The only other person in the garage was a young girl, about eight or nine. Duke asked if her mom was home, and the young girl answered, “No, sir. She’s at work.” Then Duke noticed some girls’ dresses hanging behind him. “Did your mother make these?” he asked. “Yes, sir. She makes dresses and does mending so we can have money to buy groceries and such like. Every once in a while, Mama lets me buy a Clark Bar.”
Duke went on his way to Evening Shade and then back home to Tulsa. But that little girl and her story wouldn’t leave him. So one day he went to a fabric store and told the clerk that he want some material for a woman who made girls’ dresses. But he knew nothing about sewing, so he asked her to pick out something nice. The woman brought over five bolts of material. Coach Duke said “Great!” and bought them all. All five bolts.
He then drove back to where he met the little girl at the garage sale. There was no sale going on that day, but there was a car in the driveway, so Duke drove up, parked, walked up the sidewalk and knocked on the door. A middle-age woman answered.
“Good morning, ma’am,” said Duke. “I was here not too long ago, and a cute little girl said you sometimes make dresses for others so you can put some groceries on your table. I was wondering if these could help.”
The woman broke down and cried. No one but Coach, the woman, and I know that story.
And now that you know these stories, you know Coach Duke.
I became acquainted with Michael Spencer when I was a literary agent for the law firm of Winters and King in Tulsa. Mike King is a trial lawyer (and a very good one), while Tom Winters loves contracts and mergers and deals. He represented a lot of evangelical churches and ministries, the best fishing hole for authors in the 90s and 2000s. Tom and I go back to 1976, both from Ohio, both Buckeyes fans, both with a deeply (and righteously) dislike for the University of Michigan. Tom hired me in 2007 to head up his clients who were—or wanted to be—published authors. Here is the role of a literary agent. (I was going to polish this up and not be so crude, but let’s all just be honest here.) A literary agent is a pimp. We find some girl—let’s call her a “manuscript”—and try to pair her up with someone needing her, um, services. We’ll call this someone a “publisher.” And me, as the pimp, collects 15 percent of what the girl/manuscript gets. So an agent pushed hard for a very high advance—money given up front, “borrowed” from any royalties earned.
Now, since we are all being honest adults here—and I know this will come as a shock to you—but there are some, a few, well, actually, most Christian authors like money. Lots of money. And they like to share it with others. It’s a form of entertainment called “pride.”
“How much did you get for an advance on your next book? Really? I got almost double that!” Yes, these conversations really do happen. I’ve had authors tell me that if I can’t get them X dollars as an advance, don’t bother calling me back. I had a Christian musician—no, make that two Christian musicians—tell me they wanted $50,000 in advance or they wouldn’t even bother writing a book. I was in the conference room at the main church for one of the biggest-named “pastor-like” person say if he couldn’t get at least a three-book deal with a one-million-dollar advance, then I was wasting his time. All of these conversations were real. They made me want to puke. There is a reason I am no longer an agent. I felt I was doing the devil’s work with a WWJD bracelet pasted on.
In 2008, I was trying to find some writers who actually wanted to call the reader to a true, unshakable relationship with the living and loving Christ. Oh, and if they knew how to write, that would be butter on the toast. At that time, online blogs were really big. So, I began researching Christian blogs. I came across one called Internet Monk. And the first post I read was the Coming Evangelical Collapse. Who was the author of this? Michael Spencer? Who was he? I didn’t know, but I figured it was worth a phone call to try to get to know him. I made an initial call to set a time for a “meet-and-greet” call.
The night before that phone call, I printed off a bunch of Michael’s posts and read them. The one that got me was Our Problem With Grace. That brought me to tears. I wept for what I had lost in my relationship with the Lord, and cried even more when it seemed impossible to regain it. When I called Michael the next day, I told him he cost me a night’s sleep. He paused, then said he had been talking to other agents, but he wanted to go with me because Our Problem With Grace was his favorite post he had written.
I asked him, “If you could only write one book in your lifetime, what would it be?” He answered immediately. “I’d write about people whose religious life is shaped by the church they attend rather than by Jesus.”
“Write that book, and I’ll find you a publisher.” Since Michael had never written a book, I had to put makeup on what he had written—the Internet Monk blog. I did some research and saw that there were 1.4 million blogs online, and Internet Monk was in the top 1000 readership-wise. I also saw Michael had close to three-quarters of a million unique readers visit his site at least once the previous year. Those were BIG numbers, and it was not hard to get him a contract. Waterbrook offered the best package: cover design, marketing, and put my favorite editor at Waterbrook on the job.
Oh, and they offered the best advance: $50,000.
When I got home that night, I called Michael to give him the news. There was silence on the other end. Oh great, I thought, here’s another proud and arrogant author who is going to say I should have got him $100,000. I was getting ready to have my ear chewed by someone who thought he was Guttenberg’s gift to humankind when I heard a sniffle. Then I heard sobs. I asked Michael, “Is there something wrong? Is that not enough?”
Then Michael said, “I can’t believe they want to give me $50,000 for my book. All I was hoping for was enough to buy a pair of pants.”
And Now You Know
And now you know the real Michael Spencer. He never wrote a single word for money. He didn’t pour his heart into this blog because he thought it would make him famous. He didn’t want to do any marketing. He just wanted to write and stay hidden behind the curtain. He wanted to help you—and you and you and you—to draw closer to Jesus, not through your church, but in spite of your church. And he wanted to help you laugh along the way. If he thought of how people would think of him after he died, he didn’t share it with me. But I think I know what he would say.
“I want to be remembered as someone who loved his wife and children, who taught and counseled well at my school, and who wrote something even just one person would read.”
Michael, well done. You accomplished all of this and so much more. You changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians, who either worked hard to change their church, or left that church in search of a community of believers who wanted to follow Jesus with all of their might. You did all of that and so much more.
I’ll be seeing you soon.