So, like many in the Christian blogosphere, I’ve been a regular reader of Michael Spencer’s Internet Monk and Boar’s Head Tavern blogs for years, my clicking those links with an obsessive-compulsive fury. And although BHT is a group blog, it was inevitably Michael’s contributions that would set the direction of discussion. And that direction was always somewhere to the hinterlands of perilous discourse where many an “orthodox” Christian writer dared not go.
A Baptist who questioned the theological status quo and who was open to wisdom from other traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran— Michael broadened the online discussion beyond the typically boorish and petty blog wars and enabled exhausted Christians to vent their frustrations about not just this or that controversial doctrine but also about how hard life was being a “child of the King.”
Anyone familiar with that trope will know what I mean. If you have spent any time in the evangelical world, you have inevitably been told that, as a child of the King, you are entitled to certain privileges. And those privileges entail getting your needs met. And the key that opens the supply line is faith.
But then you grew up. And life got harder, not easier. And things about which you were so certain became damnably opaque. And frustration over the apparent stupidity of life, with all its dead ends and inversions, like so much junk spiritual DNA, defined not just life in the world but in the church as well. Could the church have been wrong about [fill in the blank] for so long? Why would God allow that? Why would God allow such confusion to reign in the body of Christ? Why so many divisions, why so much contention over such basics like baptism and election and the sacraments and evolution and law vs. gospel and the End Times and on and on? Is this the best a sovereign creator of heaven and earth can do—and one we believed to have revealed himself to us?
In fact, the issues in which we can get bound up can become so overwhelming in number and strength that freedom no longer seems possible, and the only hope for peace is simply to walk away from the Faith and all its disappointments.
But the Web spaces Michael created did not allow you to walk away that easily, simply because he kept you talking. As if dealing with a potential spiritual suicide, Michael kept you talking, talking, talking, and in that talk came a new realization, not so much of concrete answers to discrete questions but of the body of Christ as much more vast than the narrow confines of your church home, and as a place where there were many people just like you struggling with the same doubts and fears and frustrations, so much so that not having easy dogmatic answers suddenly seemed to make its own kind of sense—so long as you continued to cling to the Cross, where God is hidden in suffering and abandonment.
It seemed that Michael’s life work, his new book, Mere Churchianity, in which he fleshes out lessons learned as he traveled the long and winding road of evangelicalism, had barely reached the publisher when he learned he had cancer—and then learned it had metastasized—and then learned that it was most probably something he was not going to beat. He is in his early 50s. And in the latest message from his wife, Denise, it seems he is very close to learning the only answer that matters in the end: Jesus is alive.
I lost both parents in ways that left me asking God, Why did you have to make it so ugly? Weren’t their lives hard enough? My mother died this past New Year’s Eve of metastasized cancer. As I drove to the hospital that morning in a snowstorm, I begged Him to show her an ounce of mercy, as if I were trying to pry gold out of a miser’s clenched fist. Just once. Hear one prayer. Relent. Grant the poor woman some peace. She had had to bury a husband who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in his early 60s. She had buried two younger brothers. She had had to care for both her parents at the end of their lives, pretty much by herself and with slender resources. She had already battled cancer once, endured quadruple-bypass surgery and diabetes, not to mention spinal stenosis, which caused her endless, debilitating pain, the medications for which caused their own awful side effects.
Then, a mere two weeks after retirement, hoping to enjoy, finally, some peace, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer—this just two years after a colonoscopy had shown nothing wrong. And the cancer had already spread to the liver.
I got to the hospital and was told she had been moved to their hospice wing. I sat by her bed in a tiny room in which the only sound was that of machines helping my mother breathe. I remember her asking that when it was her time, she wanted to die at home. I couldn’t make that happen. She also asked not to die alone. That I could do. Less than an hour later, she was gone. I cried like a baby. Gathered up her things. Kissed her goodbye. And went back out into the storm.
As with my father’s death, I’m not really interested in explanations. In fact, if there’s some reason why he had to suffer the way he did, or why my mother, a supernaturally generous and loving person, had to endure so much pain in her life, I don’t want to know. Because in the knowing is that solace that whispers “It’s really OK.” An explanation mitigates the randomness, the capriciousness, the cruelty of the thing. But I don’t want an explanation. I want my parents back.
And so, no, I don’t want to know whether there was a “reason” for it all. I don’t ever want to get to the point where what happened becomes tolerable. I want it forever to be ugly and pointless and cruel. It’s not OK that they died the way they did. It will never be OK.
Which is really the point of the shortest sentence in the entire English Bible, no? “Jesus wept.” Why? Why weep over the grave of Lazarus when you know you have the power to restore him to life? Because death is not OK. Because the grieving that comes with saying goodbye is not OK. It never was.
And so while we can ask a thousand times over why God has to take Michael Spencer, in this way, at this time, when we need a brother just like him to travel with us on this crazy storm-ridden trip east of Eden, expect only silence. In fact, be grateful for it.
Because it’s not OK. But Jesus is alive. And so, by the grace of God, are my parents. And so is Michael. And they always will be.