Monday, January 11, 2021

Requiem for a Monk

For me, 2005 was a year of many transitions and beginnings. I had just started in my first settled pastorate in northeast Ohio in late November and subsequently ordained in January. 

Those first few months of ministry quickly showed me that the sort of church that I expected to serve didn't exist. It was a time of incredible disillusionment and adjustment, and I was not only discovering the reality of the changing culture in which I'd be called to serve but also my own sense of vocation in the midst of it.

These beginnings coincided with the birth of this blog. As with other things in my life at that time, I wasn't sure of what I would make of this space. I figured it'd be some life updates and some reflections on theology and church, and then maybe eventually I'd get bored and drop it. In those first months, I began to process more and more of my experiences in ministry - writing about them helped me make sense of them.

Just as critical to my processing on this blog was finding and reading other blogs. In those days, blogs were much more prominent, and so it was easy to find fellow travelers on the ministry journey. It helped me know I wasn't alone in figuring out issues related to church and ministry, and it also helped me better understand what made for a quality blog. 

One of those early discoveries was a blog named Internet Monk, written by the late Michael Spencer. Michael was a teacher and chaplain in a private school in Kentucky who wrote extensively about his experiences there. He identified as Southern Baptist, but was ecumenical in outlook and relationship. Some of his harshest critiques were for his own tradition, and one of his larger projects was to push back against evangelicalism's more judgmental, vapid, and capitalistic qualities.

Michael frequently advocated for what he called a "Jesus-shaped spirituality." He argued against making self-preservation and cultural insulation the main goal of the church, instead pointing out that faithfulness to Jesus as found in the Gospels, wherever that would take us, should be at the heart of what the church should be about. He eventually argued his case in further depth in his book Mere Churchianity.

On April 5, 2010, Michael died after a cancer diagnosis. After hearing the news, I wrote:

I was quickly drawn to the discussions there about "post-evangelicalism," the notion of identifying with a particular Christian system, but also critiquing or rejecting much of its unnecessary elements. He greatly resisted the "herd mentality" that tends to plague every Christian movement to some degree, his being evangelicalism.

As I continued to read, I was struck by discussions of spiritual disciplines and the liturgical calendar, of an appreciation of a wide breadth of Christian practices and ideas. The author, Michael Spencer, self-identified as a Southern Baptist, but rejected his tradition's rejection of those practices, along with lifting up many other Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and mainline practices as enriching rather than hindering a life of faith and discipleship.

Along with this post-evangelical emphasis was commentary on Joel Osteen, struggles with depression and the reality of mental illness, and the Cincinnati Reds. He shared thoughts about his job as a chaplain and teacher at a private Christian school. He'd share moments of pain and joy in his family's life. He'd review books and music. Thanks to his writing, I discovered Thomas Merton, Shane Claiborne, and the emerging church. I truly must call his blog influential in my own life and ministry.

That last line is still true even 10 years after the fact. Michael has had a lasting influence in how I've written here and in my books. And Merton remains a spiritual giant in my faith journey.

The blog Internet Monk endured, as a team led by "Chaplain Mike" Mercer continued writing about issues related to faith, church, liturgy, doubt, deconstruction, and life in general. They strove to capture that same spirit of "Jesus-shaped spirituality" that Michael established, and the community there endured.

I confess that my own reading of the blog dropped off over the years since Michael's death. This is not a commentary on the quality of the writing. It's more missing a distinct voice that had passed from this world and wouldn't return. I still visited, though not as frequently.

On January 1st, Internet Monk ended its run as an active online space. Like perhaps others, I suppose I took it for granted that the blog would always just be there in some form. But all things eventually come to an end, and Chaplain Mike and the others are moving on.

Just as I grieved Michael's passing over a decade ago, so too do I now pause to give thanks for the blog that bore his name for so long. I am grateful for the ways it shaped me as a minister, writer, disciple, and human being. It's less important for an entity to endure than it is for people who have been inspired by it to continue carrying that inspiration with them, and practicing it as best they can.

That's where those who loved Michael and Internet Monk are now. May his memory continue to be a blessing, and his vision of "Jesus-shaped spirituality" continue to come to pass.