For twenty years, Michael Spencer, Chaplain Mike and a number of other writers described and discussed the post-evangelical life, seeking a Jesus-shaped spirituality, and inviting all and sundry to have important conversations in the Great Hall.
The conversation at this site has come to an end, but you can still access past conversations at The Internet Monk Archives (https://imonk.blog/). For awhile, we will still be working on that site to make sure that it is complete and that all active links work, but as of today, the vast majority of material from Internet Monk has been transferred and is available.
A New Conversation We Recommend
Some of our writers are embarking on a new conversation, toward which I would like to direct you. Pastor Daniel Jepsen has started Mystery and Meaning (mysteryandmeaning.org) and invites all of you to visit there and join the discussion there. Plus, he’ll be serving a weekly SATURDAY BRUNCH!!!
Keeping in touch…
Some of you have asked for a way of keeping in touch. I know Pastor Dan’s new blog will have that feature, so I encourage you to go there. But I will also be happy to put together an email list for Internet Monk readers who would like to communicate with one another. If you’d like to be part of this, send me permission to put you on this roster along with your name and email address by Sunday, January 10, I will compile a list and send it out.
Note from CM: This will be the last discussion post on Internet Monk. I will post one more administrative post tomorrow, with information and links about the new archive site and other sites of interest that I will encourage Internet Monk readers to check out. I will also have information about an email list so that readers of the blog can keep in touch with one another in days to come.
• • •
This was Michael’s final post on Internet Monk: Feb. 10, 2010.
A brief word from Michael
The ultimate apologetic is to a dying man.
That is what all those “Where is God?” statements in the Psalms are all about. They are, at least partially, invitations to Christians to speak up for the dying.
All the affirmations to God as creator and designer are fine, but it is as the God of the dying that the Christian has a testimony to give that absolutely no one else can give.
We need to remember that each day dying people are waiting for the word of death and RESURRECTION.
The are a lot of different kinds of Good News, but there is little good news in “My argument scored more points than you argument.” But the news that “Christ is risen!” really is Good News for one kind of person: The person who is dying.
If Christianity is not a dying word to dying men, it is not the message of the Bible that gives hope now.
What is your apologetic? Make it the full and complete announcement of the Life Giving news about Jesus.
• • •
• • •
This is adapted from one of my earliest posts on IM: November 2009.
My precious Internet Monk friends,
In the classic work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan pictures his travelers arriving at the “Delectable Mountains,” where shepherds tend their sheep. These mountains have gardens, orchards, vineyards, and fountains of water from which the pilgrims drink and wash themselves. While not the final destination, the Delectable Mountains are described as Immanuel’s Land, standing within sight of his City, a place of relief for pilgrims who are weary and faint on the way.
Joy must not be reserved for the end of the journey. We must also find vistas “within sight of the City,” where we can get some respite from our toilsome trek, where we can anticipate the celebration to come and rest for the journey’s final leg.
Internet Monk has been such an inn on the journey for me, and I’m thankful so many others have joined me here over the years. Here at IM, many have found an oasis in the wilderness, a place of respite and recovery from bad religion and other stresses of life on a long and winding road.
I have learned something of my own propensity for wanting to give up when the journey gets long and hard. My energy wanes. I get discouraged and angry, feeling defeated and hopeless. I withdraw into a cocoon of self-pity. At times I self-medicate with food, naps, alcohol, or time-wasting mindless diversions. The simplest task sometimes appears as if it will require a gargantuan feat of strength. The darkness can get deep, the road long, prospects for arriving at the destination dim.
At such times I need a glimpse of the City. An inn at the side the road. A warm welcome, a hot meal, a pleasant conversation, a friend’s embrace. A few moments of “gaudete.” A song to lift the heart. An encouraging word. A scenic overlook that puts this small patch of difficult trail in perspective.
Thank God for this community that Michael Spencer started and handed off to me in 2010. Thank God for each of you, my fellow pilgrims, who have stayed, who have left and returned, who have popped in occasionally, and who have contributed to the ongoing conversation about what it means to live a fully human life shaped by Jesus.
Inevitably, however, it is time to move on, to embark on the next leg of the journey, to move ever closer to the Celestial City. It is not easy to arise, to say farewell to this hospitable place, to open the door and step onto the path once more. But this we must do.
The Apostle Paul packed a few words to help us on the next stage of our pilgrimage:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
In the midst of all the imperatives in this text, you’ll find a sweet center of promise — “The Lord is near.” There is a word to keep us going to the end.
So, on this bittersweet day, join me in taking a few moments to rejoice. Be gentle with yourself and others. Cast your worries on the Lord. Say a word of thanks when you pray. Receive his gift of peace. Above all, recognize that no journey is taken alone. Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.
Breathe. Take a quick look back and give thanks. And then, let us move forward in the peace of God that guards our lives in Christ.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
Note from CM: This is my final full post on Internet Monk. I decided to devote it to what really matters. I’ve been happy to share my journey with you and to learn about the paths on which God has led so many of you. But in the end, it’s not just about my journey or yours. At the heart, it’s about the journey Jesus took for the life of the world.
Tomorrow, I’ll combine a final personal word with one from Michael Spencer’s writings. For today, let’s dig down to the roots of what Internet Monk and my life and ministry is all about: the good news of Jesus. Here is, as Paul might say, “my gospel.” This is my manifesto.
• • •
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of a messenger who proclaims peace, who brings good news, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God rules!”
• Isaiah 52.7 CEB
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
• Julian of Norwich
The good news of Jesus is the message that brings life to the world, now and forever. Today, allow me to outline my understanding of what this good news entails.
The good news of Jesus is an announcement, a proclamation of something real that has happened, something which changes the world forever.
The good news did not simply introduce a new religious option into history. It is not an advertisement for a product that one might want to consider purchasing. As Tom Wright says, the good news does not offer a new religious path, urge a new kind of morality, or present a new philosophical system. It is, rather, the announcement that a long anticipated event has taken place. It is public proclamation of the audacious claim that in Jesus, God has done something that has changed the world and its course completely.
Wright illustrates the difference: “It isn’t difficult to see how this worked. When Roman heralds came into a city like Thessalonica announcing that a new emperor had been enthroned, they didn’t mean, ‘Here is a new sort of imperial experience, and you might like to see if it suits you.’ They meant, ‘Tiberius (or Claudius, or Nero, or whoever) is the Lord of the World. You are the lucky recipients of this good news; [and now] he demands your loyalty, your allegiance…’”
That’s the good news of Jesus. God’s King has come and he is Lord of all.
The good news about Jesus is announced in the light of two background stories and settings.
The first is the story of Israel. Jesus is the culmination of Israel’s story as told in the Jewish Bible. That story was written down in the wake of the Babylonian Exile and was designed to give the Jewish people a future hope.
The Jewish Bible presents it like this: God’s plan, as Bruce Waltke says, is for God’s people to dwell in God’s land with God’s words guiding them under the rule of God’s king, in order to bring God’s blessing to all the world. The actual story as it developed, long and complex for sure, takes the following general shape in various cycles throughout the First Testament:
God chooses and blesses his people in the good land prepared for them.
God gives them the vocation of being a light to the whole world.
They fail to fulfill that vocation.
They go into exile.
God delivers and reestablishes them in the land.
This pattern begins with Adam, who represents Israel’s first covenant human, her first king. God tasked him with subduing evil and opening the way for all humankind to the Tree of Life. But Adam and Eve failed and God sent them out of the garden into exile.
At the end of the patriarchal era, the children of Israel find themselves in exile once more, this time in Egypt. God, through his chosen leader Moses, delivers them, calls them to be a “kingdom of priests” to all nations, gives them his laws, and leads them to the Promised Land.
Eventually, the nation is ruled by kings, epitomized by David. However, by and large, the kings fail to lead Israel to be a light to the nations and the kingdom splits, with the northern tribes eventually destroyed by Assyria and the southern kingdom of Judah taken captive by Babylon.
It was in that setting that the prophets spoke, promising an end to exile, a return of Israel to her land, and the coming of a Davidic king (messiah) who would establish God’s rule of justice and shalom throughout the entire world.
The Gospels identify these promises with Jesus’ coming: first, when John announced, “The kingdom of heaven is near,” and then when Jesus came, embodying and proclaiming the good news of that kingdom. Jesus, the new Adam, the new Moses, the son of David, the true Israel, did what they could not do and became the light of the world.
The good news of Jesus must be understood in the context of Israel’s story.
The second is the rule of Rome. The New Testament also positions the good news of Jesus as God’s alternative to the claims of the Roman empire.
For example, Luke’s story of the nativity is replete with allusions to Caesar. In those days, Augustus was proclaimed as the savior of the world, whose rule brought good news of peace to all people. However, as Raymond E. Brown wrote, “The birthday that marked the true beginning of a new time took place not in Rome but in Bethlehem, and a counterclaim to man-made inscriptions was the heraldic cry of the angel of the Lord: ‘I announce to you the good news of a great joy which will be for the whole people: To you this day there is born in the city of David a Savior who is Messiah and Lord.’”
The rest of the New Testament echoes this as Paul traverses the Roman empire preaching that Jesus is Lord and that all things in heaven and on earth will one day bow to him. The NT concludes with the book of Revelation, which identifies Rome with Babylon, bringing together the stories of both testaments. These are the two great empires that typify the powers of sin, evil, and death holding the world in bondage. Revelation foretells the ultimate downfall of these powers as heaven comes to earth and a new creation is established, in which God dwells with his people in shalom.
The good news of Jesus is, therefore, to be understood as the coming of God’s rule contra the great powers of this world that advance the dominion of sin, evil, and death, as represented by Babylon and Rome. The good news of Jesus is the announcement that Israel’s promised Messiah has come to inaugurate God’s rule instead, to end human exile under the hostile powers, to overthrow those powers, and to establish God’s shalom in all the earth.
On Earth as in Heaven
The good news is not about how people can go to heaven when they die and leave this life. It is about how God’s rule has come to this world in Jesus, defeating death and bringing the promise of resurrection life and shalom to all creation.
The good news is not about how people can avoid going to hell when they die to be punished by God for their sins forever. Rather, the good news is that God’s judgment has already been pronounced on the powers of sin, evil, and death that enslave people, a verdict that sets them free from bondage to live in a new creation forever.
The good news announces that this judgment took place when Jesus died on the cross and rose again in triumph. Yes, there will be a future divine reckoning when God will judge people on the basis of their works. But the good news is that this judgment will not be retributive nor eternal, but purgative and restorative. Mercy will triumph over judgment. There will be an apokatastasis, a restoration of all things in Christ.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Cor 15:22)
Making known to us the mystery of his will…to recapitulate all things in the Anointed, the things in the heavens and the things on earth… (Eph 1:9-10, DBH)
The good news is about what God has done in Jesus. It is not about what humans do or must do. When we announce the good news, we call people to trust what Jesus has done and reorient their lives to the new reality that God has established. This is faith.
Those who trust Jesus begin to taste newness of life. They become signs of God’s rule when they live lives of sacrificial love to help their fellow humans flourish, as Jesus did. The vocation God blessed humankind with at creation (Gen. 1:28) is restored. Each one may participate in the Jesus-shaped task of tikkun olam (repairing the world) by living the baptismal life of dying and rising each day, planting seeds of faith, hope, and love for a great harvest in the age to come.
Note from CM: I thought it only right for us to hear from Denise Spencer as we get ready to wrap up Internet Monk. She knew Michael best, and understands more than anyone else his heart for Jesus and the ministries to which God called him. I cherish our friendship over the years and her continuing encouragement and support. The active phase of this blog is ending, but I know that this friendship will go on, and for that I am most grateful.
The Call By Denise Spencer
“…How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14)
Michael was a lifelong church-goer. Not only did he come from a Christian family, but his uncle was the pastor of their church. My perception of Uncle Offutt was of a deeply dedicated Christian, a man of firm principles, a strong presence in the pulpit, and a shepherd who truly loved and tended his flock. In return, the flock held him in very high regard.
I was never sure if the vocabulary associated with men of the cloth came into that church with Uncle Offutt, or if it preceded him. I attended a church in the same town, and our vernacular included words like “minister” and “pastor.” But for Michael’s home church, there was one prevailing title for the clergy — “preacher.” A young man wasn’t called to the ministry; he was “called to preach.” He wasn’t going to be a pastor; he was going to be “a preacher.” Yes, there would be deacons’ meetings and hospital visits and weddings and funerals. But everyone knew the preacher’s main job was to preach.
When Michael made his profession of faith as a teenager, several young men had been called to preach in recent years, and more would follow. It wasn’t long before Michael became one of them. As Uncle Offutt was revered by his congregation, these up-and-coming preachers were also admired. It was a respect Michael felt deeply. Once he described it to me as feeling like a “young prince.” This became the foundation of his self-esteem and, to Michael’s thinking, a tangible reason his parents could be proud of him.
So imagine this preacher-boy’s frustration when God began opening doors for him…in youth ministry. Part-time youth ministry. Full-time youth ministry. Even a position that was part youth ministry and part senior adult ministry. (Now that was interesting!) Michael truly had a gift of preaching, and it made no sense to him that God would so endow him and then keep the carrot dangling just in front of his nose.
At long last, Michael became a pastor. It will probably come as no surprise to you that he liked the Sunday morning sermons much better than he enjoyed those weddings, funerals, hospital visits, and deacons’ meetings. He was hurt if he perceived that people didn’t appreciate his sermons, and felt like a success when the message hit home.
After four years of pastoring, God handed him a made-for-Michael position at Oneida Baptist Institute in Oneida, Kentucky. As Campus Minister, Michael counseled students, taught Bible classes, ran the Baptist Campus Ministry program, and preached in the daily chapel services several times a week. The Lord saw fit to combine Michael’s love for kids and his gift of preaching in a way that almost seemed too good to be true.
But wait. There was more.
2 Timothy 4:2 says, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and teaching” (NKJV). As if the Campus Minister position wasn’t already fulfilling enough, Michael the preacher became the Internet Monk. What a wonderful outlet for his beliefs and ideas. People listened and responded. Through his writing, he worked to convince, rebuke, teach, and exhort people all around the world. Using technology he never would have dreamed of when he walked the aisle as a teenager to answer his call to preaching, Michael and http://www.internetmonk.com fit together like a hand and glove. Whether writing about doctrine, current events or personal experience, he pecked at the keyboard and the words flowed. It was what he was called to do. He was a preacher, after all.
Thank you for being Michael’s congregation. Thank you more than words can ever say to Chaplain Mike for faithfully carrying on this ministry for the past 10 years. Thank you, Jeff Dunn, for all of your help in those early days. Thank you to so many who have written essays, commented in the lively discussions, and contributed in so many various ways.
And thank you, Michael, for proclaiming the Gospel with such energy and passion as you shared your gift with us all. You are remembered, and you will always be loved.
Note from CM: What shall I say of my friend Jeff Dunn?
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.
“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.
Getting To Know Michael Spencer
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.
Note from CM: On this final week of IM, we will be hearing from some good folks who have made contributions of excellence to this blog. We start today with one of my dear friends, Damaris, one of the most gifted and eloquent people I know. Thanks for sharing your wonderful writing with us over the years, Damaris.
The Signpost By Damaris Zehner
I know a teenaged boy who hasn’t gotten out of bed for days. He used to. He used to play football on his high school team, but now football is canceled and he’s been told to stay home. Despite his youth and strength, society has made it very clear it has no need of him. His only value is the negative one of not spreading disease or causing trouble. He might as well stay in bed.
He is emblematic of the larger crisis of meaning that’s been revealed by, though not caused by, the pandemic. As newspapers, governments, and businesses talk about essential workers, it’s become clear that most of us are not “essential.” Few of us work at jobs that lead directly to the well-being of our families and neighbors, except through a paycheck. Most of us have been told, like my teenaged friend, that the only thing we can contribute to the greater good is to stay home and watch Netflix—oh, and shop from local businesses if they’re open, but since they’re not, then make Jeff Bezos a little richer instead.
This is an unusual and dysfunctional response to a crisis. During the Depression, unemployed people worked outdoors to create campgrounds, bridges, shelter houses, and other public goods. During World War Two, my mother was a high school student in Long Island but also a trained plane-spotter posted on the roof of her school, as well as a messenger skilled enough to navigate during black-outs. She received a certificate from the federal government thanking her for her work after the war. My husband’s grandfather, although he was a full-time farmer and had three sons in uniform, was also asked to work the late shift at a factory to support the war effort. People grew gardens, recycled, knitted, and cooked frugally – not just because they were good people and wanted to help, but because they were asked to.
This stands in sharp contrast to the vacuum of leadership and vision we face today. State or federal government could form another WPA and send the football teams out to repair and improve infrastructure. We could be asked to work shifts at PPE factories, or to grow extra food for local distribution to the unemployed, or even to deliver groceries and school supplies to those who are shut in. We could be asked to suit up and work alongside nurses and doctors, doing unskilled work to free them to care for the sick. Why aren’t we?
There are two reasons no one is asking us to help our neighborhoods and country. First, our late-stage capitalism and lack of leadership leave tasks like infrastructure and manufacturing in the hands of industrialists and entrepreneurs who, unless they can see how to make money out of them, ignore them. And second, in the hedonistic, consumeristic society we’ve become, sacrifice is a bad word. It is assumed that no one does anything without an immediate reward. I believe people would sacrifice for others if they were asked. Since they’re not, they do what they are asked: they stay home. And suicide rates rise and teenaged boys lie in bed because they have nothing to live for.
We see the bitter results most clearly now, but this crisis of meaning has been looming for years. Still, there have been bright spots along the way. In the last almost two decades, Internet Monk has been one place where people could come to discuss culture and sacrifice and the ultimate meaning of life. I and many like me have navigated, with the help of Internet Monk, away from the post-evangelical wilderness to a religious community that feels more authentic. We’ve formed relationships of a sort with each other. We have been blessed to be a part of this . . . community? Book club? Online class? Whatever it is, I’ve learned many things from posts and from the comments to my posts. This has been a wonderful thing, and Michael Spencer, Mike Mercer, and everyone else who has contributed over the years can and should feel satisfaction with the impact they’ve had.
Now the site is closing in a few days. What can replace Internet Monk for us? Where should we go next to find meaning in a world that encourages despair?
Not to another blog. I suggest that we bear in mind what we’ve learned here about God, others, and ourselves, turn off the computer, and find something else to do. Something meaningful, that is essential to the well-being of our neighbors and families, that involves physical objects in the physical world, that makes us get sweaty and sore and look forward to dropping off to sleep at the end of the day, instead of doomscrolling or propping ourselves up in front of Netflix. Something that gives us reason to get out of bed in the mornings.
Internet Monk has been an essential signpost in the wilderness, but it hasn’t been the road. The road is in the physical world, not the cyber world. The road is hot, cold, flat, hilly, smooth, or rough. It is frequented by people with bodies, pilgrims seeking meaning and connection – our neighbors, friends, families, and enemies. It is something that has to be walked, not just written about. Yes, signposts are essential: pilgrims have to stop to study the signposts occasionally, but then they pick up their packs and set out again.
I’ve loved much of the blogosphere and grown from my time spent on it, but I don’t think ultimately it is the healthiest thing for us. Like Chaplain Mike, I too will turn my energies elsewhere. I’ll continue to garden and preserve food, make things of cloth and yarn, play with my grandkids, and do whatever music is currently allowed for church. As soon as I can, I’ll be back in the classroom. And I’ll be working on writing a book, something that can exist in the same physical form for years and be held in people’s hands. I’m grateful for the signpost of Internet Monk. Now, with its guidance, I’ll leave it behind and get back to the road.
Note from CM: Folks, for my money, this is the best piece Michael Spencer ever wrote. I come back to it again and again and again…
When I am Weak
Why we must embrace our brokenness and never be good Christians
The voice on the other end of the phone told a story that has become so familiar to me, I could have almost finished it from the third sentence. A respected and admired Christian leader, carrying the secret burden of depression, had finally broken under the crushing load of holding it all together. As prayer networks in our area begin to make calls and send e-mails, the same questions are asked again and again. “How could this happen? How could someone who spoke so confidently of God, someone whose life gave such evidence of Jesus’ presence, come to the point of a complete breakdown? How can someone who has the answers for everyone one moment, have no answers for themselves the next?”
Indeed. Why are we, after all that confident talk of “new life,” “new creation,” “the power of God,” “healing,” “wisdom,” “miracles,” “the power of prayer,” …why are we so weak? Why do so many “good Christian people,” turn out to be just like everyone else? Divorced. Depressed. Broken. Messed up. Full of pain and secrets. Addicted, needy and phony. I thought we were different.
It’s remarkable, considering the tone of so many Christian sermons and messages, that any church has honest people show up at all. I can’t imagine that any religion in the history of humanity has made as many clearly false claims and promises as evangelical Christians in their quest to say that Jesus makes us better people right now. With their constant promises of joy, power, contentment, healing, prosperity, purpose, better relationships, successful parenting and freedom from every kind of oppression and affliction, I wonder why more Christians aren’t either being sued by the rest of humanity for lying or hauled off to a psych ward to be examined for serious delusions.
Evangelicals love a testimony of how screwed up I USED to be. They aren’t interested in how screwed up I am NOW. But the fact is, that we are screwed up. Then. Now. All the time in between and, it’s a safe bet to assume, the rest of the time we’re alive. But we will pay $400 to go hear a “Bible teacher” tell us how we are only a few verses, prayers and cds away from being a lot better. And we will set quietly, or applaud loudly, when the story is retold. I’m really better now. I’m a good Christian. I’m not a mess anymore. I’m different from other people.
What a crock. Please. Call this off. It’s making me sick. I mean that. It’s affecting me. I’m seeing, in my life and the lives of others, a commitment to lying about our condition that is absolutely pathological. Evangelicals call Bill Clinton a big-time liar about sex? Come on. How many nodding “good Christians” have so much garbage sitting in the middle of their lives that the odor makes it impossible to breathe without gagging. How many of us are addicted to food, porn and shopping? How many of us are depressed, angry, unforgiving and just plain mean? How many of us are a walking, talking course on basic hypocrisy, because we just can’t look at ourselves in the mirror and admit what we a collection of brokenness we’ve become WHILE we called ourselves “good Christians” who want to “witness” to others. Gack. I’m choking just writing this.
You people with your Bibles. Look something up for me? Isn’t almost everyone in that book screwed up? I mean, don’t the screwed up people- like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Hosea- outnumber the “good Christians” by about ten to one? And isn’t it true that the more we get to look at a Biblical character close up, the more likely it will be that we’ll see a whole nasty collection of things that Christians say they no longer have to deal with because, praise God! I’m fixed? Not just a few temper tantrums or ordinary lies, but stuff like violence. Sex addictions. Abuse. Racism. Depression. It’s all there, yet we still flop our Bibles open on the pulpit and talk about “Ten Ways To Have Joy That Never Goes Away!” Where is the laugh track?
What was that I heard? “Well….we’re getting better. That’s sanctification. I’ve been delivered!” I suppose some of us are getting better. For instance, my psycho scary temper is better than it used to be. Of course, the reason my temper is better, is that in the process of cleaning up the mess I’ve made of my family with my temper, I’ve discovered about twenty other major character flaws that were growing, unchecked, in my personality. I’ve inventoried the havoc I’ve caused in this short life of mine, and it turns out “temper problem” is way too simple to describe the mess that is me. Sanctification? Yes, I no longer have the arrogant ignorance to believe that I’m always right about everything, and I’m too embarrassed by the general sucktitude of my life to mount an angry fit every time something doesn’t go my way. Getting better? Quite true. I’m getting better at knowing what a wretched wreck I really amount to, and it’s shut me up and sat me down.
I love this passage of scripture. I don’t know why know one believes it, but I love it.
2 Corinthians 4:7-11 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
Let me attempt a slight retelling of the text, more in line with the Christianity of our time.
But we have this treasure in saved, healed, delivered and supernaturally changed vessels, to show that God has given to us, right now, His surpassing power over ever situation. We are no longer afflicted, perplexed, in conflict or defeated. No, we are alive with the power of Jesus, and the resurrection power of Jesus has changed us now…TODAY! In every way!. God wants you to see just what a Jesus-controlled person is all about, so the power of Jesus is on display in the life I am living, and those who don’t have this life, are miserable and dying.
Contextual concerns aside, let’s read Paul’s words as a basic “reality board” to the Christian life.
We’re dying. Life is full of pain and perplexity. We have Christ, and so, in the future, his life will manifest in us in resurrection and glory. In the present, that life manifests in us in this very odd, contradictory experience. We are dying, afflicted, broken, hurting, confused…yet we hold on to Jesus in all these things, and continue to love him and believe in him. The power of God is in us, not in making us above the human, but allowing us to be merely human, yet part of a new creation in Jesus.
What does this mean?
It means your depression isn’t fixed. It means you are still overwieght. It means you still want to look at porn. It means you are still frightened of dying, reluctant to tell the truth and purposely evasive when it comes to responsibility. It means you can lie, cheat, steal, even do terrible things, when you are ‘in the flesh,” which, in one sense, you always are. If you are a Christian, it means you are frequently, maybe constantly miserable, and it means you are involved in a fight for Christ to have more influence in your life than your broken, screwed up, messed up humanity. In fact, the greatest miracle is that with all the miserable messes in your life, you still want to have Jesus as King, because it’s a lot of trouble, folks. It isn’t a picnic.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Here is even more undeniable, unarguable language. Weaknesses are with me for the whole journey. Paul was particularly thinking of persecutions, but how much more does this passage apply to human frailty, brokenness and hurt? How essential is it for us to be broken, if Christ is going to be our strength? When I am weak I am strong. Not, “When I am cured,” or “When I am successful,” or “When I am a good Christian,” but when I am weak. Weakness- the human experience of weakness- is God’s blueprint for exalting and magnifying his Son. When broken people, miserably failing people, continue to belong to, believe in and worship Jesus, God is happy.
Now, the upper gallery is full of people who are getting upset, certain that this essay is one of those pieces where I am in the mood to tell everyone to go sin themselves up, read Capon and forget about sanctification. You should know me better by now.
The problem is a simple one of semantics. Or perhaps a better way to say it is imagination. How do we imagine the life of faith? What does living faith look like? Does it look like the “good Christian,” “whole person,” “victorious life” version of the Christian life?
Faith, alive in our weakness, looks like a war. An impossible war, against a far superior adversary: our own sinful, fallen nature. Faith fights this battle. Piper loves this verse from Romans, and I do, too. But I need to explain why, because it can sound like the “victorious” life is not Jesus’ life in the Gospel, but me “winning at life” or some other nonsense.
Romans 8:13 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put (are putting) to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
The complexity resides right here: Faith is discontentment with what I am, and satisfaction with all God is for me in Jesus. The reason that description works so well for me is that it tells us the mark of saving faith is not just resting passively in the promises of the Gospel (though that is exactly what justification does), but this ongoing war with the reality of my condition. Unless I am reading Romans 8 wrongly, my fight is never finished, because my sinful, messed-up human experience isn’t finished until death and resurrection. That fight- acceptance and battle- is the normal life of the believer. I fight. Jesus will finish the work. I will groan, and do battle, climb the mountain of Holiness with wounds and brokenness and holy battle scars, but I will climb it, since Christ is in me. The Gospel assures victory, but to say I stand in a present victory as I “kill” sin is a serious wrong turn.
What does this fight look like? It is a bloody mess, I’m telling you. There is a lot of failure in it. It is not an easy way to the heavenly city. It is a battle where we are brought down again, and again and again. Brought down by what we are, and what we continually discover ourselves to be. And we only are “victorious” in the victory of Jesus, a victory that is ours by faith, not by sight. In fact, that fight is probably described just as accurately by the closing words of Romans 7 as by the “victorious” words of Romans 8.
Romans 7:23-25 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
I fall down. I get up…and believe. Over and over again. That’s as good as it gets in this world. This life of faith, is a battle full of weakness and brokenness. The only soldiers in this battle are wounded ones. There are moments of total candor- I am a “wretched man” living in a “body” of death. Denying this, spinning this, ignoring this or distorting this reality is nothing but trouble in the true Christian experience. The sin we are killing in Romans 8 is, in a sense, ourselves. Not some demon or serpent external to us. Our battle is with ourselves, and embracing this fact is the compass and foundation of the Gospel’s power in our lives.
(In my opinion, the Wesleyan-Pentecostal-Charismatic-Holiness misreading of this passage is a very serious miscue in healthy Christianity. What lands us in churches where we are turned into the cheering section for personal victory over everything is denying that faith is an ongoing battle that does not end until Jesus ends it. Those who stand up and claim victory may be inviting us to celebrate a true place in their experience at the time, but it isn’t the whole person, the whole story, or all that accurate. They are still a mess. Count on it. This battle- and the victories in it- are fought by very un-victorious Christians.
I will be accused of a serious lack of good news, I’m sure, so listen. At the moment I am winning, Jesus is with me. At the moment I am losing, Jesus is with me and guarantees that I will get up and fight on. At the moment I am confused, wounded and despairing, Jesus is with me. I never, ever lose the brokenness. I fight, and sometimes I prevail, but more and more of my screwed up, messed up life erupts. Each battle has the potential to be the last, but because I belong to one whose resurrection guarantees that I will arrive safely home in a new body and a new creation, I miraculously, amazingly, find myself continuing to believe, continuing to move forward, till Jesus picks us up and takes us home.
Now, let’s come to something very important here. This constant emphasis on the “victorious life” or “good Christian life” is absolutely the anti-Christ when it comes to the Gospel. If I am _________________ (fill in the blank with victorious life terminology) then I am oriented to be grateful for what Jesus did THEN, but I’m needing him less and less in the NOW. I want to make sure he meets me at the gate on the way into heaven, but right now, I’m signing autographs. I’m a good Christian. This imagining of the Christian journey will kill us.
We need our brokenness. We need to admit it and know it is the real, true stuff of our earthly journey in a fallen world. It’s the cross on which Jesus meets us. It is the incarnation he takes up for us. It’s what his hands touch when he holds us. Do you remember this story? It’s often been told, but oh how true it is as a GOSPEL story (not a law story.) It is a Gospel story about Jesus and how I experience him in this “twisted” life.
In his book Mortal Lessons (Touchstone Books, 1987) physician Richard Selzer describes a scene in a hospital room after he had performed surgery on a young woman’s face:
I stand by the bed where the young woman lies . . . her face, postoperative . . . her mouth twisted in palsy . . . clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, one of the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be that way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut this little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to be in a world all their own in the evening lamplight . . . isolated from me . . .private.
Who are they? I ask myself . . . he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously. The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says, “it’s kind of cute.” All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with the divine. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers. . . to show her that their kiss still works.
This is who Jesus has always been. And if you think you are getting to be a great kisser or are looking desirable, I feel sorry for you. He wraps himself around our hurts, our brokenness and our ugly, ever-present sin. Those of you who want to draw big, dark lines between my humanity and my sin, go right ahead, but I’m not joining you. It’s all ME. And I need Jesus so much to love me like I really am: brokenness, memories, wounds, sins, addictions, lies, death, fear….all of it. Take all it, Lord Jesus. If I don’t present this broken, messed up person to Jesus, my faith is dishonest, and my understanding of it will become a way of continuing the ruse and pretense of being “good.”
Now I want to talk about why this is important. We must begin to accept who we are, and bring a halt to the sad and repeated phenomenon of lives that are crumbling into pieces because the only Christian experience they know about is one that is a lie. We are infected with something that isn’t the Gospel, but a version of a religious life; an entirely untruthful version that drives genuine believers into the pit of despair and depression because, contrary to the truth, God is “against” them, rather than for them.
The verse says, “When I am weak, then I am strong- in Jesus.” It does not say “When I am strong, then I am strong, and you’ll know because Jesus will get all the credit.” Let me use two examples, and I hope neither will be offensive to those who might read and feel they recognize the persons described.
Many years ago, I knew a man who was a vibrant and very public Christian witness. He was involved in the “lay renewal” movement in the SBC, which involved a lot of giving testimonies of “what God was doing in your life.” (A phrase I could do without.) He was well-known for being a better speaker than most preachers, and he was an impressive and persuasive lay speaker. His enthusiasm for Christ was convincing.
He was also a well known serial adulterer. Over and over, he strayed from his marriage vows, and scandalized his church and its witness in the community. When confronted, his response was predictable. He would visit the Pentecostals, and return claiming to have been delivered of the “demons of lust” that had caused him to sin. And life would go on. As far as I know, the cycle continued, unabated, for all the time I knew about him.
I understand that the church today needs- desperately- to hear experiential testimonies of the power of the Gospel. I understand that it is not good news to say we are broken and are going to stay that way. I know there will be little enthusiasm for saying sanctification consists, in large measure, in seeing our sin, and acknowledging what it is and how deep and extensive it has marred us. I doubt that the triumphalists will agree with me that the fight of faith is not a victory party, but a bloody war on a battlefield that resembles Omaha Beach more than a Beach party.
But that’s the way it is. I’m right on this one.
I write this piece particularly concerned for pastors. I am moved and distressed that so many of them, most of all, are unable to admit their humanity, and their brokenness. In silence, they carry the secret, then stand in the pulpit and present a Gospel that is true, but a Christian experience that is far from true.
Then, from time to time, they fall. Into adultery, like the pastor of one of our state’s largest churches. A wonderful man, who kept a mistress for years rather than admit a problem millions of us share: faulty, imperfect marriages. Where is he now, I wonder? And where are so many others I’ve known and heard of who fell under the same weight? Their lives are lost to the cause of the Kingdom because they are just like the rest of us?
(I’m not rejecting Biblical standards for leadership. I am suggesting we need a Biblical view of humanity when we read those passages. Otherwise we are going to turn statements like “rules his household well” into a disqualification to every human being on the planet.)
I hear of those who are depressed. Where do they turn for help? How do they admit their hurt? It seems so “unChristian” to admit depression, yet it is a reality for millions and millions of human beings. Porn addiction. Food addiction. Rage addiction. Obsessive needs for control. Chronic lying and dishonesty. How many pastors and Christian leaders live with these human frailties and flaws, and never seek help because they can’t admit what we all know is true about all of us? They speak of salvation, love and Jesus, but inside they feel like the damned.
Multiply this by the hundreds of millions of broken Christians. They are merely human, but their church says they must be more than human to be good Christians. They cannot speak of or even acknowledge their troubled lives. Their marriages are wounded. Their children are hurting. They are filled with fear and the sins of the flesh. They are depressed and addicted, yet they can only approach the church with the lie that all is well, and if it becomes apparent that all is not well, they avoid the church.
I do not blame the church for this situation. It is always human nature to avoid the mirror and prefer the self-portrait. I blame all of us who know better. We know this is not the message of the Gospels, the Bible or of Jesus. But we- every one of us- is afraid to live otherwise. What if someone knew we were not a good Christian? Ah…what if…what if….
I close with a something I have said many times before. The Prodigal son, there on his knees, his father’s touch upon him, was not a “good” or “victorious” Christian. He was broken. A failure. He wasn’t even good at being honest. He wanted religion more than grace. His father baptized him in mercy, and resurrected him in grace. His brokenness was wrapped up in the robe and the embrace of God.
Why do we want to be better than that boy? Why do we make the older brother the goal of Christian experience? Why do we want to add our own addition to the parable, where the prodigal straightens out and becomes a successful youth speaker, writing books and doing youth revivals?
Lutheran writer Herman Sasse, in a meditation on Luther’s last words, “We are beggars. This is true,” puts it perfectly:
Luther asserted the very opposite: “Christ dwells only with sinners.” For the sinner and for the sinner alone is His table set. There we receive His true body and His true blood “for the forgiveness of sins” and this holds true even if forgiveness has already been received in Absolution. That here Scripture is completely on the side of Luther needs no further demonstration. Every page of the New Testament is indeed testimony of the Christ whose proper office it is “to save sinners”, “to seek and to save the lost”. And the entire saving work of Jesus, from the days when He was in Galilee and, to the amazement and alarm of the Pharisees, ate with tax collectors and sinners; to the moment when he, in contradiction with the principles of every rational morality, promised paradise to the thief on the cross, yes, His entire life on earth, from the cradle to the Cross, is one, unique grand demonstration of a wonder beyond all reason: The miracle of divine forgiveness, of the justification of the sinner. “Christ dwells only in sinners.”
Christmas Day 2020 Michael Spencer on Christmas (2005)
It is the grand simplicity of the Good News that God enters the world through an event that, apart from two Gospel accounts, would be unknown. The life of Jesus, from beginning to end, is the life of the poor, the lowly, the unknown and the insignificant. The Christian story is that God has no interest in the great schemes of history, the famous or the icons of celebrity. The Christian story is the condescension of God to the lowest levels, there to be adored by shepherds and the poor.
From this, Christians are to live out the same story. We are not to seek the seats of power, of influence or media attention. The story of numbers — votes, ratings, dollars, books sold — they are not our story. Our story continues among people the world does not notice, doing things the famous and the powerful refuse to do, in ways that confound the values of the present age, in the name of one who became low, even the lowest of the low, for us and for our salvation.
At Christmas, we lay aside the pretentious confidence of the world, and allow the story of Jesus to remake us. We turn aside from our own stories of life without Christ, and freely enter the story of Jesus as those who adore, those who ponder, those who journey, those who give gifts, and those who follow and believe.
See, amid the winter’s snow,
born for us on earth below,
see the tender Lamb appears,
promised from eternal years.
Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies;
He, who throned in height sublime,
sits amid the cherubim!
Sacred Infant, all divine,
what a tender love was Thine;
thus to come from highest bliss
down to such a world as this!
Hail! Thou ever-blessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Author: Edward Caswell
“Winter faith” has been a key component of my spiritual formation. And I will be the first to admit that it’s not “biblical.”
All people are syncretists to some extent with regard to their faith. We have to be. We live in different times than the sacred texts of our faith represent. Historically, faith in Christ has been practiced in a multitude of settings, cultures and historical circumstances between those texts and us.
I unapologetically embrace, for example, my northern hemisphere geography and its climate and seasons as one of the primary aesthetics of my faith. Especially at this time of year. Simply put, I worship Christ in the context of the winter solstice. Christmas, for me, is a winter festival. So many of our Christmas traditions and hymns express this aesthetic that I think most of us in these climes simply take it for granted.
However, I don’t for a moment actually think that Jesus was born “amid the winter snow” as Edward Caswell’s glorious, moving hymn describes it. It was most likely not “in the bleak midwinter” when “frosty winds made moan.” Hundreds of the Christmas traditions that have been passed down to me from the northern European experience have nothing to do with the Palestinian narratives of Jesus’ context and birth.
Honestly, I don’t care.
I believe in the imagination of faith. I believe in the power of metaphor. I believe in the sacramental nature of creation. I believe in the trans-cultural applicability of the gospel. I believe that Jesus is Lord of all things in heaven and on earth.
I don’t believe he is offended at Christmas if I sing “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” or find meaning in the legendary “Cherry Tree Carol.” I don’t think it matters if I put a star over the manger in my crèche or figures of three wise men at the scene. Or if I imagine Christ’s coming as light and warmth in the dark chill of winter. You can sprinkle it all with snow if you like.
It makes my seasonal worship richer if I see symbolism in the holly berry, the fallow landscape, and a silent starlit night scene of peace.
I am not saying that these things represent the meaning of Christmas worship. We have friends of this blog in the southern hemisphere where it is now summertime. If I lived somewhere like that, I would hope I’d be formed by a summer faith, with different metaphors and images illuminating my devotion.
But mine is a winter faith. And this is the night of the holy nativity.
Let’s light and lift our candles in the darkest, longest nights of the year.
Oh yes, and by all means let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
See, amid the winter’s snow, born for us on earth below, see the tender Lamb appears, promised from eternal years.