(The memorial service for my friend Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, took place this afternoon in Oneida, KY. I was asked to post the eulogy that I shared as part of that service.)
I have literally known Michael Spencer for my entire life. He is one of a handful of people I cannot remember not knowing. We attended Hall St Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY and were pastored by our uncle W.O. Spencer. We were in the youth group together; he was part of an older group of guys that I looked up to. We sang in a little ensemble in the early days of what became contemporary Christian music. I remember when within a year, 4 or 5 of older guys made it clear they had surrendered to gospel ministry—Scott, Holly, Mike. (I’ve known Michael so long I never called him that; he was always Mike to me)
So we were certainly life-long friends. But before that were related in the oddest way. Michael was my mother’s half-brother. Though we were only 3 years apart in age, his father, Sim, was my grandfather. Tucked into that is a dark and difficult chapter of our family’s history. And if I could tell you the whole story, you would know that our mere friendship was amazing. The fact that we became more like brothers is a miracle of the grace of Jesus.
The grace of Jesus is, to use Jesse Stuart’s wonderful phrase, “the thread that runs so true” through Michael’s life. When we talked a few weeks ago and Michael asked me to spend a few moments talking about his ministry, it was the first thing that came to my mind. Grace- the undeserving mercy of God shown to broken sinful people, the centerpoint of Jesus’ gospel- is the thing Michael came to value as most precious of all, the defining center of everything he was and did. Grace in Jesus was his north star and the theme of his story in ways he knew and in ways he was still discovering. He was not the least bit interested in our talking about what a great guy Michael was, but in spotlighting what a great Jesus he knew and how precious the gospel of His grace.
I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Eph. 3:2-3, 7-12
assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly…. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
For 53 years and 4 decades of ministry, God’s grace in Jesus flowed through a vessel named Michael, in a variety of places. Michael’s ministry began at home—with Denise, Noel (and her husband Ryan) and Clay (and his wife Taylor). How he loved you, longed for your best and blessing, and stayed through all the seasons of family life —the struggles & pain, joys and laughter. Home was his strong and safe place. But even there, he desperately clung to Jesus for help in being the husband and father he longed to be for you.
I think you can see Michael’s public ministry in five phases, beginning with preaching in churches/ youth groups with months of discovering his calling at age 15. Phase 2 was local church youth ministry in several churches in KY. In different settings –small city, urban, a county seat First Baptist Church– Michael found a way to connect with his kids & urge them to move beyond the easy, safe “church kid” life. Phase 3 was serving as pastor at Bullitt Lick Baptist Church in Shepherdsville, KY—a mixture of pastoral pain and joys that shaped the rest of his life. Phase 4 was the nearly 18 years he served at Oneida Baptist Institute as campus minister and teacher of English (including his beloved Shakespeare) & Bible, and a hundred other ways. That also included a couple of stints as stated interim pastor at Manchester Presbyterian Church. Overlapping that was Phase 5 of his ministry as The Internet Monk and proprietor of the Boar’s Head Tavern, where from this little corner of Clay County, Michael literally had a global impact through writing, podcasts, interviews, thousands of conversations and hundreds of friends.
Always, in all places and phases, there was teaching and preaching the Bible. Michael loved and was deeply saturated in God’s Word. He delighted in it as an expression of God’s mind and heart for life and all that matters. He believed it deeply. He studied it faithfully and worked hard at understanding for himself. But the fruit of that study came in the overflow—in thousands of lessons, sermons or essays where he helped God’s Word become clear for teenagers, adults, small groups, 3 guys with open Bibles and a cup of coffee, or some people on-line he had never even seen. In the Oneida years, he averaged preaching no less than 5 times a week—and all were new messages, because Michael kept nothing and did not preach retreads.
So, Michael was a speaker, a teacher, a preacher, a writer. He summed that up by simply calling himself a communicator. That’s a good word because of its root: communion. Michael delighted to share deep connections with God in Christ and with people. Wherever he was, he formed community, embraced community, pursued community. It has been astonishing to see the depth of that on-line communion. Why did community develop around him? Michael simply loved people—family and strangers, men and women, rural folk from Appalachia and urban dwellers, young teenagers and retirees, Builders-boomers-Busters & Millennials, gay and straight, intellectuals and the simplest thinkers, Christians of all brands and atheists, church people and church drop-outs, cutting edge and traditionalists, contemporary worshippers and hymns-only worshippers, people he knew personally and those he knew as a screen name on the web. Michael’s ministry of grace was about Jesus and about people—opening his arms to extend them the welcome of Jesus. One person wrote: “I’ve been occasionally amazed by some of the people Michael was willing to invite to hang out with him.” Sounds like a certain carpenter he was following.
And so, when people connected with Michael across these years of ministry, in all those places, what was the result? Who did they encounter through the speaking, writing, conversations? They encountered Michael…
+ the encourager. He had an uncanny way of knowing when to applaud and cheer people on their way. My ministry was forever changed when he invited me to preach for him and he gave me three pre-Desiring God Piper message cassette tapes & Packer’s Knowing God, inscribed: “Read this book once a year and you’ll never lack for a God-centered gospel”. Other writers and pastors experienced the same thing at key moments in their ministries. On the other end of the spectrum, no telling how many hundreds of angry souls burned by religion and the church ran into Michael—and rediscovered a tender Jesus who still loved them in their prodigal running, and were reminded that the gospel was still good news even when His people forgot it or messed it up.
+ the theologian: He reminded us that doctrine was worth digging through and applying to real life because it helps us know & live the gospel.
+ the thinker: Michael had a remarkably nimble mind, a rare intellect that could process complex arguments and , yet come to own his own unique and firmly held convictions that invited you to do your own thinking through the lens of the gospel.
+ the worshipper: He delighted in God’s glory and believed that the weekly worship of a gathered faith-family is a crucial part of shaping souls—and requires that we intentionally engage both mind and the heart in gospel-saturated celebration.
+ the evangelist: The evangelism (which Michael regularly practiced) was not insisting the far-from-God people assent to a recitation of Bible facts, walk an aisle, repeat a prayer, but helping people encounter the full wonder of a God-centered gospel of grace in Christ.
+ the mystic: Lessons learned from his own spiritual mentor, the contemporary monk Thomas. Merton, convinced Michael that gospel living and influence arises from a deep well of disciplined prayer and meditation on God’s Word.
+ the missionary: Michael lived with a burning passion to see the gospel get to the nations, and was deeply aware of his responsibility to make the gospel come alive for international students from Africa and China who had somehow made their way to the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
+ the baton-passer: For the most part, Michael worked with teenagers for his entire ministry. He called himself a youth specialist and worked hard across the years to understand their world, challenges, pains, questions – so he could make the gospel clear to them.
+ the writer: Few people write with the combination of poignant perspective, wisdom, intellectual rigor and humor that Michael was able to manage. There was incisive clarity and moments of breathtaking insight into the gospel’s implications that just the right combination of words birthing sentences that emerged in paragraphs and essays that made Jesus come more alive. I’m not the only one who had an Aldersgate moment while reading Michael’s words—a heart strangely warmed to the reality of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. (I’m also not the only one who loves to write who read Michael, and swore he would never write again! :)) And he wrote with such an astonishing output, producing hundreds of pages that he was uniquely God-gifted to do and that will remind the church of the power of God’s grace for years to come.
+ the prophet: Michael had a lover’s quarrel with the local church. He saw so clearly the urgent beauty of the calling on Jesus’ family to live and proclaim the gospel and the destructive horror when the church ignored, compromised or cluttered it. And he spoke what he saw. One person expressed gratitude for “the iMonk, nailing his thoughts to the door of the Internet.” It was always there, but culminated in the Coming Evangelical Collapse articles and the book Mere Churchianity (releasing from Waterbrook in June, 2010). These are pleas for Jesus’ church to lean into the hard work of living His gospel in our time, for the sake of God’s glory and the eternal destiny of people’s souls. That will be a part of Michael’s lasting legacy we have yet to see.
Look at all of that and you get gospel, gospel and more gospel. Jesus, Jesus and more Jesus. But we have still to touch the core of Michael’s ministry. Someone once described Mother Teresa’s life as “doing something beautiful for God”. Can I borrow that? Michael lived an honest life for Jesus. Or maybe better– an honest life with Jesus. Michael’s life was his ministry. He let us in on the dynamic of what it means to live with Jesus at the center. I call it honesty. You might call it being confessional or transparent or open or real. If you encountered Michael, you got to see exactly where he was on the journey with Jesus.
There are a lot of people who do that. But what 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!” Another wrote, “as someone who set a new benchmark for honesty, iMonk is deeply embedded in the soundtrack of church history in this crazy new millennium.”
How could he do that—and why was it so powerful? The grace of Jesus had set Michael free. He knew he was an undeserving recipient of extravagant mercy, and also that “real grace is simply inexplicable, inappropriate, out of the box, out of bounds, offensive, excessive, too much, given to the wrong people and all those things.” By grace, Michael knew that Jesus accepted him and loved no matter what. He had come to know that there really was no condemnation for those in Jesus and when you’re free, darkness loses its bite. When you’re accepted and free, you don’t worry about pleasing people or currying favor or protecting yourself. You simply live, comfortable in your own skin, desperately clinging to Jesus. His honesty changed people because it pointed them to Jesus
The thing about wrestling Jacob was that he emerged limping on the other side. Limping, but still moving forward. Michael showed us that side of grace, too. He possessed an unrelenting curiosity that never tired of exploring the frontiers of God and soul and church and life. Sometimes, the questions he raised made us uncomfortable or angry, but it was part of the journey and the growing. So, he limped and moved forward. He grew weary of battles over worship styles and language and who’s right and who’s winning and Baptist family quarrels, but he kept limping forward. Michael laughed holy laughter at the foolishness of some things that go on in the name of Jesus, but he never grew cynical and kept limping forward. Somehow, there was still joy under the surface and a simple child-like faith that trusted Jesus, a faith that Denise tells us only grew sweetly stronger the weaker his body grew, as he limped towards death.
I last saw Michael a few days before he stopped speaking. Through tears, the last thing he said was “Jesus is all that matters…gospel and grace is all that matters.” Grace led him this far and grace led Michael Home. It makes me sad—and at moments a little angry– that Michael is gone so soon. But like Jesus (Jn.17:4), Michael glorified God on earth by accomplishing the work God gave him to do. You glorify God by spotlighting Jesus and His grace. Michael said, “If you are going to think about God, go to Jesus and start there, stay there and end there.” So, he did.
And his ministry is not over. In John 12:24-26, Jesus said,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
Michael gave his life away in serving Jesus during 53 years on earth. He followed Jesus and stayed near Jesus with every breath. Though he has died, his life and ministry will bear fruit in lives and in the church for generations and for eternity. The Father honors him. So do we. We thank God for the honest life and Jesus-shaped ministry of Michael Spencer.
When Michael limped to the gate last Monday evening, I think Jesus met him and smiled said, “Welcome Home, Michael. Well done, My good and faithful servant. My dear I-Monk; enter the joy of your Master…we have a place at the table reserved for you”. And there he sits this afternoon, more alive than ever, at the table enjoying heaven’s banquet and the best of heaven’s eternal wine with the saints, Brother Thomas, my mom (his sister), his mom Dorothy, his Dad (my grandfather) Sim, and Jesus—basking in His forever grace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.