Still on medical leave, I’m not back to work yet, but you wouldn’t know it from my Inbox. My post from last week on the refugee crisis provoked a number of protestations that I was playing politics.I could reiterate that welcoming refugees isn’t a political position for Christians. It’s a commandment given to Moses. It’s one of the hallmarks of the Jubilee that Mary sings about in her Magnificat. And it’s one Jesus doubles down on in his preaching.

I know the social media soundbites would have us fear these refugees aren’t really displaced people but terrorists bent on harming us.

Of course, that doesn’t really settle the issue for Christians because:

A) The most common exhortation in scripture is that we are not to be fearful

B) We’re to love and pray for our enemies too.

Damn, there’s no out for us.

Rather than argue the point, perhaps its best to extend an invitation. Instead of insisting that our borders be closed and our states refuse any refugees, Christians should partner with other Christians in and around the Middle East who are attempting to care for refugees.

Rather than clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook, retweeting red-meat or trolling on a blog and thinking you’ve fulfilled your baptismal obligation, why not kick over some cash, as my family will this Advent, by giving to International Orthodox Christian Charities.

What better way to worship the Holy Family who were refugees than by caring for another refugee family who are, through God taking flesh, holy?

Here’s what Adam Hamilton recently wrote on the subject. Hamilton, founder of the largest United Methodist congregation in the U.S., is a reliably moderate voice on issues facing the church and the world. He’s neither liberal nor political and his congregation is in one of the most conservative parts of the nation. Incidentally, the video above was produced by Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio.

‘When God came to this earth, he came as a child fleeing the horrors of tyranny, living as a refugee for the first years of his life.

Years later when Jesus would describe the Last Judgment to his disciples he spoke of the final judgment being a moment when the Son of Man would separate the nations of the earth as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  The sheep would be welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, and the goats sent away.  Jesus said the difference between the sheep and the goats was that the people who were sheep in this parable were those who helped people in their hour of need.  The people who were goats turned them away.  Who did they help or turn away?  It was the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, and the stranger.  Stranger in Jesus’ parable signifies the foreigner.  I think Jesus included this last category because he himself had been a refugee in Egypt.

In the parable it appears that the goats thought of themselves as religious.  They were therefore surprised when, at the last judgment, there were turned away.  So, why did the goats turn away those who were in need? I think it was because they were afraid and they allowed their fear to override their compassion and humanity.  And the sheep?  They found the courage to overcoming their fears and to act with compassion and love.

We’re right to insist on proper screening of refugees (on this I don’t know enough about the current processes for screening to know if it is adequate or not). If the current practices are inadequate, let’s improve them. But our fears cannot lead us to completely close off our hearts to children, families, seniors who need our help and have nowhere to go.

The Syrian crisis is complex.  Doing our best to ensure security is important.  But we must also find a way to help people fleeing from harm to find refuge.

If you’re not receiving refugees in your state, how can you or your church help those who are?’


12243486_10207332160440258_4824375795530545494_nI preached this weekend for the first time in almost a year – since I found out I had Mantle Cell. The warmth of the congregation was overwhelming, including a mortifying standing applause, which more than adequately masked over what was a so-so sermon. My text was Paul’s closing to his letter to the Philippians, 4.10-23. 

You can listen to it here below as well as in iTunes here. Better yet, download the free blog app here and you’ll get it automatically.

Philippians 4.10-23


So….this feels…weird.

It’s been 10 months since I last preached here.

When it was announced that I’d be here preaching this weekend, a member of the 8:30 service emailed me to remind me to wear my robe so, actually, it feels like old times.

Whether it feels weird or like old times, Dennis wanted me here this weekend because he thought a guy with cancer could emotionally manipulate you into giving more money on commitment Sunday.

But I tried telling him- there’s no way even guy with a rare, incurable cancer could get more cash out of the 9:45 crowd. You should get a puppy. Or an orphan. I said.

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

Actually, when you think about it, this is a most appropriate day for me to be here, given our scripture text today. After all, Paul writes to the Philippian Church after he’s been locked away under house arrest, not with cancer but with a charge of sedition.

And while he’s been away Paul has grown concerned that, after all his hard work, his congregation has fallen under the influence of a false teacher.

A teacher who may have had a warm, FM voice and a thick, white Kenny Rogers mane and the theological acuity of Joel Osteen but a preacher who’d led them astray nonetheless.

Paul fears.

So it’s fitting I’m here today because, when it comes to Philippians, Paul and I have some things in common.

Paul never came back to the Philippians. After he wrote this letter, it was curtains on Paul, but it looks like I will be back, sometime after Christmas. After 10 months and exactly 64 days of chemo and 2 dozen blood transfusions, my latest PET scan was all clear.

I was so excited that I posted a picture of my PET scan online before I realized the picture also showed the positronic outline of my man-parts.


Naturally, I received a few complaints about the appropriateness of such a picture- that’s fair, I thought. What struck me as unfair, though, below the belt, was one message I got registering surprise that my man-parts were so ‘ample.’

By the way, if any of you see the bishop, tell him I’m still waiting for his apology.

I have one more bone marrow test coming up in December, and I’ll have to do a day of chemo every couple of months for the rest of my life. I’ll never be ‘cured’ and Mantle Cell doesn’t go into remission like other cancers so it’s not a Miracle, but it’s the best news we could have gotten, and it looks like I’ll be back after Christmas.

Today, though, is as good a day as any for me to come back. Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty- plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-ass insurance claims.

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in today’s text I’ve got so much to thank my church for.

The Philippians fed Paul.

The money they sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry, or you didn’t and you did.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, you all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with  us. You’ve helped us my medical bills and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car. And Dennis Perry became not my colleague but my pastor. He was with us the night I learned I had cancer, he prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for me all during my treatment.

     You all have done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is-

I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.

One thing cancer taught me: when you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way too.  And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back, and you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that this has happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and (dammit) you responded by giving us so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay you?

I physically can’t write that many thank you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want any of you barfing in my car. I even tried repaying one of you by driving you to your vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything you’ve given? Balance the scales?

I could spend another 10 years at Aldersgate and it wouldn’t do it. I could work so hard for you that you’d just need to look in my eyes and, in the words of the immortal Bryan Adams, you’d see that everything I do, I do it for you.

But, I’d owe you still.

I can’t ever repay everything you’ve done for us.

And what you’ve done for us isn’t even the most important thing you’ve done.


Unlike Paul-

     This past year, I’ve not been able to say ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.’

When you have cancer, everyone- EVERY SINGLE PERSON-  tells you ‘to kick cancer’s ass.’ But it works the other way around. It kicks yours.

The last few months I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt ’thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.’

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith, and Paul’s ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’- it sounded to me like an empty cliche, like naive optimism, like hollow cheerleading for Team Happiness.

I may have a few things in common lately with Paul and the Philippians but not with the ‘I can endure all things through Christ…’ part.


Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about you: ‘I can endure all things through you who strengthens me’ 

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel ‘I am the Light of the World,’ looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them ‘You are the Light of the World.’

And when we profess ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future but he’s here and now. There is no Christ ‘up there’ because he’s here. Now.

And Paul in another, earlier letter tells the church that they are the Body of the Christ and then, in this letter, Paul tells the church ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And when Jesus commissions his disciples after Easter, he doesn’t say I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the age. No, he says: ‘I will be with you always unto the end of the age.’

You see-

Just as God, in the incarnation, chooses not to be God apart from Jesus, God-with-us; Jesus, after the resurrection, chooses not to be Christ apart from us, his Church.

There is no Christ, in other words, who is not mediated by and through and in his Gathered People, the Church.

So maybe-

Maybe when Paul says ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he doesn’t mean ‘I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…’ Maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…’  And maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…’

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.

About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can Ali. And so would Gabriel and Alexander.

     We can endure all things because you’ve been with us.

You’re with us.

More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.


When you think about it, in scripture, ‘with’ just might be the most important word. In scripture, ‘with’ is much more important than ‘for.’ *

‘In the beginning,’ says scripture, ‘the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God.and without him not one thing came into being.’

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So at the very end of the bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.’

According to the bible, ‘with’ is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for the all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again- Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: ‘It was kind of you,’ he says, ‘to share in my distress.’

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry. In my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer- our cancer- yours too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress. Paul says.

The money and the ministry, they’re just the means by which the Philippians shared in Paul’s suffering. They’re the way they were with him.

And that’s all they are here. The money you give, the ministry you do- they’re just the means by which we share in the distress of people like me and, by extension, share in the distress of our community and the pain in our world.

It’s the crappiest small church cliche of all time, but what Paul and I are ultimately thankful for is that our two churches are like family. They’re with us. I offer it you in the name of that other family- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


* I owe this section on the importance of ‘with’ in scripture to Samuel Wells‘ new book, A Nazareth Manifesto.


imrs.phpThe theologian Robert Jenson complains:

‘The institution we call the church has been and usually still is one of the chief bulwarks we erect to defend our status quo against the threat of God.’

‘But,’ Jenson happily notes, ‘it is the oddity of the church that the communication- namely, the word of God, by which it lives fights against the stasis to which the church, like all communities and nations tend.’ 

As if to provide Jenson with anecdotal illustration of his critique, since this weekend’s terrorist attack in Paris a gaggle of governors and ostensible presidential candidates have volunteered to disqualify any refugees from being welcomed into our borders. Never mind that America could barely field a football team with the paltry number of refugees we’ve allowed up to this point.

That most of these politicos self-identify as conservative Christians and, in particular, cater to conservative Christians lead me to wonder these past few days exactly what bible they’re reading.

And then it dawned on me. Duh!

These governors been reading the Christmas story:

13 Now after the magi had departed, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee as refugees to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for the despot in your own land, Herod, is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’

14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and they sought refuge in Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod where, considering the violence in their homeland, they were viewed with suspicion, as dangerous and potential threats, and, though they were fleeing the very terror of which they were accused, were turned away in the name of security. This was would have been to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When the despot Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent soldiers and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. Tragic, to be sure, but since it took place faraway in a land far different from theirs most Egyptians could ignore the story, their consciences untroubled by having done nothing. ‘Those people’ are simply violent.

17 Then was would have been fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, but the Egyptians, by refusing to obey their obligations to their neighbors resisted the work of God in their midst. But God reconsidered, seeing things from the perspective of Egypt, and declared: ‘I see your point. What good is fidelity if you’re not alive to enjoy it?’

With Advent upon us and, with it, this text of terror, it would behoove Christians to recall that the God who commanded his People to care for the poor and the refugee among them (Exodus 23) became, in Jesus Christ, both poor and a refugee.

Of course, the rub is with that modifier ‘his People’ because those of us who count ourselves among God’s People have other obligations upon us than what the constitution permits and goals other than the pursuit of material happiness.

Sure, I’m no different than any of those red meat eating governors. Like Bobby Jindal, I’d prefer to feel secure in my community and, because I’m a sinner, aside from token expressions of concern, I’d rather remain safely distant from the problems and pain of the world. But, as Robert Jenson notes, I cannot because of the bible I read.

Perhaps it’s so obvious it doesn’t require comment, but the real tension exposed by the refugee question is the extent to which, for many of us, we’ve made being an ‘American’ equivalent to being a ‘Christian.’ If we’ve not made them equivalent, then the refugee crisis also reveals how, really, the former is more important to us than the latter. When push comes to shove, its the logic of country, not the gospel, that determines our speech and actions. In the name of security and ‘realism’ we excuse views contrary to the commandments. We do not declare that, because Christ is Risen, God will ultimately beat all our swords into ploughshares; therefore, we can take risks and welcome the stranger among us.

Not only are ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ not equivalent identities, they are, on more occasions than we care to countenance, conflictual identities.

While Americans have no primary task other than, each, the pursuit of our individual autonomy, the primary task of the baptized, as Stanley Hauerwas writes, is ‘to stand within the [violent] world witnessing to a peaceable Kingdom which reflects the right understanding of that very world.’ Even more important to our task as Christians is to remember that the peace to which we witness ‘is not something to be achieved by our power. Rather peace is a gift of God that comes only by our being a community formed around a crucified savior.’ 

Many Christians will object, as many of our presidential candidates do, that in the quote end quote real world we cannot afford the luxury of heeding the demands of our baptisms. Such objectors, however, forget, as only the comfortable can, that:

There is no morality that does not require others, including ourselves, to suffer for our convictions.

Christians who happen to live in America, then, seem to face an impossible dilemma between a posture of hospitality towards the stranger who may also be an enemy and a political crisis that seems to have no simple remedy beyond the nativist one. Fortunately, scripture does not ever command Christians to accomplish anything, for, if Jesus is Risen, it’s not up to us to make the world come out right. So the choice for Christians is not between doing nothing or attempting to do everything. The choice is the one put to the first disciples: ‘Follow me.’

And in following, in our ordinary attitudes and deeds and within our communities of faith, we trust that the world of violence might have its imagination freed for a Kingdom that, if Jesus is Risen, is in fact the ‘real world.’

Just as the kingdom of Egypt welcomed the holy family who were strangers among them, we witness to the Kingdom of God by welcoming strangers as if they were the holy family.

Or, I suppose, we could just complain about coffee cups on social media.

12039337_10207483077297320_6129263937925447291_nThe good news first:

If Cancerman-Jason had walked into to Clergyman-Jason’s office sometime during the past 8 weeks, then this moderately-above-adequate pastoral counselor would have concluded that I suffered from depression. Not having enough remove on myself to diagnose well, I can at least confirm I felt exhausted: physically, mentally and spiritually spent from the rigors of chemo on the one hand and living with uncertainty on the other.

And my faith during this time?

Over 2 months ago, in one of my last posted essays, I wrote:

“Christianity is riddled with paradoxes- the eternal made flesh, the virgin bearing a son, the dead not- so it seems appropriate that it was just a matter of time before I found myself living one such paradox.

Ever since I held myself, naked, in a hotel bathroom, sizing up an apparent lump in my junk, I’ve never been angrier in my life. I’ve never felt more depressed and scared, jilted or forsaken- nor have I ever felt such self-loathing too (what’s that about, I wonder?).

At the same time though and, I hazard the guess, consequent to it, my faith, such as it is, has never so closely matched the faith I find displayed in scripture as it does right now. More and more, in my complaints I recognize myself in the bible’s psalms. My anger is more in tune with their music than the dull, accommodating, permission-seeking faith I held before my rage.”

Since then, the aforementioned anger, which marked my faith, festered into absence. By ‘absence,’ I don’t mean I found myself no longer believing in God or assenting to  any of the particulars to which I was ordained. The absence I’ve felt is one of feeling. I’ve continued to believe in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as importantly, I’ve continued to believe in the story named by the Trinity.

I’ve believed my faith no less than before, but, much less than before, I just haven’t felt my faith. The saints before us might say that I was ‘in the wilderness.’

Spiritually speaking.

Like a lot of Protestants, I was under the impression ‘justification by faith’ really meant, as Robert Jenson says, that I had to save myself by the quality of my sincerity. And, for a while now, I’ve worried my lack of feeling God was a problem, signaling a privation in me, which, I subconsciously concluded, threatened the salvation of me.

I haven’t felt it. And I fretted that absence handicapped me as a first-string Christian, compromised me as a leader of (all but Episcopalian) Christians and, even, disqualified me as a blogger among Christians.

But then, chalk it up to a brain fart or the work of the Spirit, it hit me how persisting with God, even when you don’t feel God, is the exact definition of faith. Following God based on your rational beliefs alone is actually more faithful– that is, it requires a greater leap of trust- than relying on your feelings and sensory apprehension of God. A real act of faith isn’t so much responding to what you feel of God; it’s following God not  because you want to follow him or feel his presence or hear his call but because others, whom you trust, believe him to be worth following, feel his presence and hear his call.

Blind faith, then, is trusting the testimony of others to be true (i.e, ‘God is good/All the time!’) even when you do not yourself ‘feel’ it to be true.

Not feeling God, I’ve continued going through the motions, praying and the like, because I trust people like you, who testify in ordinary ways that in such practices God can be found. Trusting the testimony of others, when you can’t feel their claims for yourself, is perhaps the most basic definition of faith.

This little insight has proved to be my oasis in the spiritual desert.

After all, if God could always and reliably be ‘felt’ then faith wouldn’t require any faith.

That’s the good news.

Here’s the one-eye-open, fingers-still-crossed, not-yet-full-throated celebratory good news:

Yesterday I learned the results from my PET scan this week show that after 9 months of intensive chemo my body is free of any malignancies.

Fuck yeah!

Its good news too, and honestly, after this past year, it’s almost hard to believe it. We’re all still trying to adjust to good news not bad news.

However, it’s also true that Mantle Cell Lymphoma is still in my bone marrow and, very likely, always will be. MCL is a little like HIV back when Magic announced he had it. I’ll always have MCL but, with a little luck, medical science will keep pace enough to keep me alive.

The PET scan was just test #1.

On 12/1 I’ll have a biopsy of my bone marrow to gauge the level of MCL activity in my marrow. The hope is that it will be low enough so that I can forgo a step cell transplant (and more awful months of chemo) and simply keep it at bay with 1 day of chemo every couple of months for the coming years.

Oh, and just because I think it’s hilarious, here’s a snapshot from my PET scan. They tell you not to wear metal and not to eat sugar before your PET scan. They don’t tell you your dong will show up in the scan.




Saturday is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life and what, increasingly over the years, I’ve become convinced is one of the most important questions:


‘Can we pray to the saints?’


It’s a good question, a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

Those, I think, are better ways of putting the question.

Of course there’s the standard Protestant tropes about how praying to anyone but Jesus Christ is…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

And there’s the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.



 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Baptist or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them. And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.


At funerals, the Book of Worship guides officiants to draping a white pall over the casket while proclaiming:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism __________ put on Christ, so now is __________ in Christ and clothed with glory.

 Then facing the gathered, the pastor holds out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

 And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor lays her hands on the casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave __________ to us, now we give _________ back to you.

Receive __________ into the arms of your mercy.

Receive __________ into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven. And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world. They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in my congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne and Peg, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.


It’s an important question because it’s one I think about every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’


Jason Micheli —  September 25, 2015 — 4 Comments

12039337_10207483077297320_6129263937925447291_nOne of my pet peeves is people who can only grouse about their ailments. We’ve all got people like that in our lives, right?

Ever since I learned I had mantle cell, I’ve feared becoming just such a person, narrowing my world down to every ache and pain, up and down, of my disease.

To avoid unleashing the self-obsessed whiner I know lingers inside the worst me, I chose from the beginning not to set up a Caring Bridge site. The downside of not doing so, however, is that 3,000 word theological reflections on cancer aren’t a very helpful means to provide you with what many of you routinely request: updates.

So here goes:

Chemo: 3 Days to Go

As I write this from my chair in the stem cell center, I’ve got 3 days left of my R-HyperCVAD treatment. I finish Sunday with a final injection!

I can’t exaggerate how I couldn’t have made it this far without the tangible help and spiritual support of so many of you from here in my community to blog readers literally around the world.

For our boys, Ali and I have tried hard to keep living our lives as normal as possible these long months. To the extent that’s been possible it’s been possible, in large extent, because of you.

What’s Next?

Now that chemo is nearing my rearview, I will enter a ‘recovery phase’ of about 6-8 weeks. Once my bone marrow, blood counts and immune system have healed from the months of chemo-poison, I will have scans done on me to assess the success and extent of the treatment.

Based on the scans’ results, I have 3 possible next steps.

If the mantle cell is still active in my marrow, I may require a stem cell transplant, harvested from my own marrow. This would be a more intense version of the treatment I’ve already undergone, put me out of commission for another couple of months but may extend the length of my remission.

If the mantle cell is still active in my marrow but the doctor judges my system too weak presently to move ahead with a transplant, then I could wait for a period of 3-6 months to rebound and then undergo the stem cell transplant.

If the scans do not detect any mantle cell active in my marrow, then (because I will always small levels of undetectable mantle cell in my blood) I will begin ‘maintenance chemo,’ meaning I will receive a 1 day infusion of Rituximab every 3 months for as long as my doctor deems it necessary or until the MCL rears its head again.

Obviously mine and me are praying for #3 as it will deliver us back to our normal lives quicker than the alternatives. The big prayer picture is that Mantle Cell isn’t something of which I’ll be cured. The hope is for a long remission and if/when a relapse occurs that there will be more treatment options available to us.

Join Me in Light the Night: October 17


Some friends, more thoughtful than I and led by Jennifer Price, have organized to participate in the Light the Night Walk in DC on October 17.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light The Night Walk exists to find cures and ensure access to the best available treatments for all blood cancer patients. Your participation makes a difference.

I will be joining them and I’d love to connect with you there.

You can sign up to participate or support the effort here:

Book Deal with Fortress Press


I’ve agreed to write a book for Fortress Press’ Theology for the People series. Their request: ‘a funny, theological memoir of living with cancer.’ In other words, the kind of book you’re not embarrassed to give a friend or loved one.

I’ll be working on the book while I recuperate this fall and winter, trying to make the kind of lemonade from lemons that makes you wish there were no lemons.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback about what you think the book should include, what notes I’ve gotten right here on the blog and what you think I could flesh out in greater clarity.

You can check out Fortress Press here.

Letter to Seminary Me

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2015 — 4 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgSeptember 10, 2015

Dear Jason,

The leaves are beginning to yellow and the morning air starting to cool, which means you still have years to go. You’re only a few weeks into your seminary experience and already- trust me, I know- you’re overwhelmed.

By feelings of inadequacy. Suspicions fed by the fact that all of your classmates appear to hail from either Texas or Wheaton (sometimes both, in succession) and, thus, were called by God to the ordained ministry when they were still carrying their Hardy Boys lunch boxes with them to the second grade.

And you- I won’t tell anyone- you’re still not sure if you’re called.

In fact, the word itself, ‘called,’ secretly embarrasses you, smacking as it does of certainty and solid conviction.

I won’t lie, Jason, and tell you you’re more than adequate for the ministry. You’re not, truth be told and the intervening years between you and me will only bear that out in sometimes painful ways. In the years to come that sense of inadequacy will revisit you every time you catch the congregation’s reflection in the rounded edge of the brass communion cup or whenever you realize how fleeting and short-lived are sermons. Ministry will strike you often as ill-fitting as your oatmeal colored robe which weekly will make you feel like an imposter, play-acting at someone with more faith and virtue than you.

The truth is, however, you’re more adequate for ministry than you are for Teach for America, law school, or working on a dude ranch out west- endeavors for which you’ll be submitting applications before your first semester of seminary comes to a close. No seriously you will, convinced as you are that ministry is a terrible mistake, either God’s or your’s.

I may not know you as well as I think I do (you’ll soon discover that’s painfully true of almost all clergy), but I do know you better than any other creature so I know you’re going to be less eager to hear this than I am to confess it: you’re not perfect. And here’s the deeper cut: you’re not nearly as smart as you think.

You’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them.

It’s the furthest thing from your radar now, given that in a few weeks you’ll be checking to see if your LSAT scores remain viable, but in a few months time the bishop, who will be up shit creek without any other options, will ask you to pastor a small but actual church.

Doubtless you’ve already heard the cliche about seminary, about how seminary doesn’t prepare you for ministry. It’s true in the spirit in which the critique is made. Seminary equips you to parse pistis Christou and to unpack bold-faced but dusty terms like perichoresis, yet seminary is surprisingly mum about the practical, nuts and bolts of herding a church and, more vexing, church people to the next step in their life.

Allow me.

Perhaps you can learn from and avoid the gaffes I’ve made. 

For example, if kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insist on filling those ridiculous little communion cups themselves, then suggest they need to do so at the altar instead of far away in the sacristy. Their shakey hands carrying stacks of tiny cups from such a distance all but guarantees that some of the wine- I mean, grape juice- will spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the trays containing the cups.

When you preside at the table the next morning and solemnly attempt to lift the lid from the blood or our savior you will, for a chilling second or four, lift high both the cross-topped lid and 5 brass trays of thimble sized chalices until the collective weight of the messiah’s blood breaks the sugary seal, spilling red off-brand Welch’s all over the embroidered white altar cloth and making it appear as though you’d just repeated a once-for-all sacrifice and desanguinated Christ on that very table.

Speaking of the sacrament-

When you allow your congregation to don bathrobes and perform a Holy Thursday drama ‘for the community’ (i.e., their wives and grandchildren) against your instincts (it is a bad idea) then at the very least insure that the bread if not unleavened is not from the crunchy, dreadlocked, organic bakery adjacent to your church. For when Jesus, the soon-to-be-fatally-betrayed Passover, takes that bread and delivers his lines and breaks the bread, the somber mood of self-sacrifice easily will be ruined by the ping, ping, ping BB sound of 15 varieties of seeds, nuts and flax falling from the honey lacquered crust onto the silver tray.

You’re going to make mistakes.

When you get to be my age, Jason, you’ll realize that some of your missteps aren’t so much mistakes as things just look different with a longer view of them.

Give it a dozen years and you’ll see how an even bigger cliche than the one about seminary not preparing students for ministry is the cliched anti-institutionalism that determines so much of your cynical posture towards the big-C Church.

By the time you’re my age the curtain will have been pulled back and you’ll be forced to admit that the big-C Church is led by people no different than you and who may be even more well-meaning than you. Of course, don’t tell anyone I told you. The last thing the big-C Church needs is more accommodating company men who mistake the organization for the mission.

Even some of what seminary does teach you, it does so only partially.

Seminary will prepare you to offer words other than ‘it’s going to okay’ the first time you encounter a sobbing mother holding her third grade boy in his hospital bed as the reassuring beeps on his monitors grow ever longer.

Seminary will teach you even how to reflect on why ‘it’s going to be okay’ is a profoundly unChristian lie to tell, but seminary won’t prepare you for how overpowering will be the temptation to offer some such lie that will at least comfort you.

If even this warning isn’t enough to avoid the lie when the moment comes to you, then brace yourself for the slap that mother rightly will deliver across your scared, shit-eating grin. Really, maybe its best if you don’t avoid what I could not, such humbling I suspect is necessary if you’re to depend upon what you insist your parishioners give in their own lives: grace, a mercy and kindness that’s in no way deserved.

Don’t worry. Not all your gaffes will be so heavy.

For instance, when the psych test required by the ordination process raises a so-called ‘red flag’ by implying that you ‘may have difficulty working with women’ its probably best if you not reply to the ordination committee that you ‘get along great with chicks and can work fine with the dames so long as you don’t have to beat them off with a stick.’ 

And when you see the equal parts horror and disgust register across their collective gasp, don’t try to make it better by opining that ‘a self-serious lack of sense of humor could also be a red flag…’

I’m giving you pearls here, Jason.

And when you’re inspired to write a blog post one day (you’ll learn what a blog is) about the audacity of the doctrine of the incarnation entitled ‘Jesus Farts,’ don’t.

Even if the offense taken and the pious outrage feigned registers all the way up to the bishop and only goes to prove your point that docetism is a heresy alive and well in American Christendom, the juice is not worth the squeeze.

And when an exiting worshipper smiles and, for the first time in your ministry, tells you ‘Your sermon was great…you remind me of Joel Osteen…I just love him’ I’d suggest you just smile and thank her.

Just like Joel O would do.

As ridiculous as the comparison is (I hope), it won’t be the only time you’ll receive such feedback and, take it from me, most people don’t know how to react when you respond with ‘Joel Osteen is a crypto-pagan, heretical snake oil salesman only the worship of America could produce.’ 

Live and learn, Jason, but don’t kid yourself about the big mistakes.

They’re not seminary’s fault.

The truth is you’ll become a pastor not long after you became a Christian. You’ll still be working out your faith even as people look to you for answers and, more ridiculously, pay you to sound like you know what the hell you’re saying.

As a result, in the beginning at least, you’ll put on the role of pastor like an ill-fitting costume and play at someone you think you’re expected to be rather than be yourself.

You’ll search for a pulpit voice to go with that robe and underneath both you’ll stash away your authenticity. You’ll avoid expressing your actual thoughts and opinions. You’ll bite your tongue on the words, four lettered and all, that come quickest to you. You’ll hide the scars that could be lessons to teach others. Because, you’ll presume, that’s what pastors do.

Pastors put on Christ and, in putting him on, they cover up their true selves.

Only after you’ve spent enough time in one place, where of course the real you eventually will seep out, will you realize how people (even- especially- church people) seem to prefer the real you. Prefer pastors being real.

I’m not sure the world needs more pastors, no matter what the demographics say, but I am convinced the world does not need more inauthentic ones. I’ve learned that the hard way. Perhaps you won’t need to now.

Another result of your ordination following so soon after your confirmation is that it’s only after you’ve lived for a dozen years or so as a Christian that you’ll begin to have the appropriate patience for others who’ve done the same or longer. Only then will you cease being so judgmental and uncompromising about the faith (you are), for you will have learned that if Christianity could be lived in this world fully and without compromise or corner-cutting then we wouldn’t need Christ.

In that due time you’ll realize that when Christ commands you to love your enemies he’s not primarily speaking of those abstract enemies on the far side of the world whom you’ll only ever encounter on the pages of the Washington Post.

I think he’s meaning someone like the parishioner who will write complaints about you to the bishop and pass around petitions against for the bishop but who nevertheless will put one hand in the other and reach out to receive the host from your hand. The former form of enemy love requires only finger-wagging moralism and maybe a political ideology that’s already comfortable for you. The latter, to your chagrin,  requires discipleship.


But in time you’ll discover a willingness to carry it because you’ll accept that, as Stanley Hauerwas says:

‘…the church is constituted by ordinary people. By ordinary I simply mean people who [attempt to] keep their promises. They are ordinary people keeping ordinary promises, and it is just such people who make the church the church.’

It wouldn’t be my plan for the salvation of the world, but it’s apparently God’s plan and it requires patience, on his end and ours.

Knowing you as well as I do, Jason, I’d say patience isn’t a bad catch all bit of advice for you as I have it on good authority (your future wife) that you can be a know-it-all jackass.

One of the effects of your smarty pants bearing, of believing you always have the right answer and thinking you know how best to express it, is that in the years to come you’ll be impatient with those unlike you. And in ministry you’ll often grouse about how so few church people can articulate what they believe about God and where God’s work (aka: the Holy Spirit) intersects with their own lives.

Let’s be honest, Jason, the last place you’d ever want to work is a church where people are aggressively articulate about their faith, where they hyperventilate ‘Fatherweejus’ prayers and volunteer how ‘the Lord laid it on my heart…’

And, regardless, eventually you’ll wonder if maybe all this time you’ve mistaken people’s reticence about their faith for a lack of thoughtfulness or conviction. Maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe all those people you judged to be inarticulate already knew something you will only learn once you learn you have cancer. Maybe, as Peter DeVries writes:

‘…only the superficial and the slipshod have ready answers’ when it comes to suffering and God and his evidently incomplete work in the world.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘WTF? Did he just drop the C-word on me and then move on, without comment, to a cryptic quote from an obscure book I’ve never read?!’ 

I did, sorry.

But you will. Read it. After you learn you have it.

You’ll read just about every cancer book you can find. You’ll pore over them like you’ve just made an unexpected career change from ministry to cancer because as soon as you hear you’re stage serious sick and just after your oncologist tells you for the first time ‘There’s no cure…the best we can hope for is a long remission’ it will seem as though you’ve been given a job you’re completely unqualified and unprepared to perform.

Actually, there’s no ‘as thoughs.’ That’s exactly how it feels.

I know. As Rob complains to his Mom in High Fidelity: ‘That’s some cold shit.’ Sorry to bear bad news to you, but I think it’s better if you hear it from me first than from the kindly, clumsy doctor who first broke the news to me in stuttering, half-step sentences that set off weeks of panic attacks in me.


And then try not to worry too much about it. You’ve got plenty of time before then. Besides the doctors all tell me there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent your particular brand of cancer; trust me, I must’ve asked them a hundred times by now. So don’t go raiding the vitamin aisle or eating organic.

It’s just one of those things. Explain it how you will: a defect ground down deep in the DNA, the will of God, bad luck or bad karma, shit happens. Either way, the game of life has dealt you a piss poor card, but yours can still be a winning hand.

Silver lining-

When the sword does fall and the C-word jumbles all the puzzle pieces that comprise life as you will know it, you will meet that day with few meaningful regrets. If not now then later that will strike you as gravy.

More so than the stab of regret, what cancer will inject into your life is perspective, as fresh as it is swift.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the ablest critic of Christianity, charged that we view God through the eyes of our tribe, our culture and tradition, and our personal wants and needs; so that, God becomes the personal projection of our id in the sky, believing what we believe, blessing those causes we support, cursing those we curse, abiding the contours of our independently achieved ideology.

Karl Barth, who by next semester will become one of your Mt Rushmore theologians, found Feuerbach’s critique sound. Sinful as we are, when Christians speak of God, Barth concurred, we’re most often speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.

Like Barth, Feuerbach’s criticism will strike you immediately as revealing more truth about Christianity than Christians would like to confess.

There is much self-love (to say nothing of self-justification) disguised beneath much of our love of God talk.

Feuerbach is right to charge that much of our theology is actually anthropology, and Barth is right to thunder that in remaking God according to our image we forsake the true God who loves in freedom, whose power is weakness, and who cannot be found but must find us.

They’re both right so far as it goes, yet lately I wonder if there’s weakness latent in both their indictments.

I wonder if a more positive construal of Feuerbach’s critique could be to say that our personal experience gives us a vantage onto God to which we wouldn’t be privy otherwise. A view that others from their perch maybe cannot see.

Rather than fashioning God in our image, I wonder if you could argue instead that each of us sees a piece of God from our patch of the world he’s created and from the front seat of the life he’s unfolding for us.

Cancer, in other words, gives me a perspective on my faith I didn’t have prior to it.

Rather than remaking God in my likeness (though I’m with Barth- I do that plenty), I think my experience these past 8 months, 7 nadirs and 40 odd days of chemo-poison allow me to see something of God I could not have seen before.

Something you cannot see yet, Jason.

Without intending it, in the years to come, you will shortchange the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, emphasizing in its place the prophetic, social justice work that landed Jesus there.

If you’re honest (you won’t be) your selective focus will owe in part to the fact that you don’t think the world or the Church needs another preacher preaching ad tedium on the blood of the cross, and, less defensible, your emphasis will owe to the most loathsome sort of tribalism. You won’t want to be counted among those kinds of preachers. Those kinds of Christians.

The be-all of discipleship isn’t inviting Christ in to your heart. Its end-all isn’t your personal salvation. The means to get there, discipleship or heaven, isn’t by contemplating the suffering of Christ…you will preach in some form nearly every Sunday.

Discipleship, you will press and not let up, is about doing the things that Jesus did in the way that Jesus did them: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, lifting up the lowly and forgiving the enemy, dispensing grace and speaking the truth to power and using words (only) when necessary.

Discipleship, you will preach and teach, requires rolled-up sleeves and dirty hands, for following Jesus is all about stooped-over foot washing. And you’ll emphasize this definition of discipleship not just in your preaching but in how you allot your time, how you design programs for the church and how you conceive of its mission.

Now that I feel a shell of myself, with thinned out blood and an off balance brain and verities I once took for granted gone, I can see how incomplete and partial has been my take on the faith.

In admitting I’ve shortchanged the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I’m not suggesting that Christ’s cross is a symbol for the ineffable mystery of suffering. I don’t believe there’s anything inexplicable at all about the cross.

It is simple. He lived a fully human life, the life God desires of each of us, and we- the world, the Principalities and Powers, humanity, you and me- killed him for it. There’s no mystery there, or, at least, not the mystery we like to ponder before the cross while quieting exonerating ourselves from it.

Here’s what I mean when I say that I’ve shortchanged Christ’s suffering and here’s what I can see from the chemo chair:

How do the ill participate in the ministry of Christ?

Or the dying?

Because if we take seriously the fact that we’re baptized into Christ’s suffering and death- not just deputized to continue his earthly (healthy) ministry- then those 3 hours on the cross are every bit as integral to discipleship as the compassionate, prophetic ministry that landed him there.

Only now, with stage-serious cancer, do I recognize how for over a dozen years I’ve circumscribed discipleship in such a way that excludes people like the person I presently am.

When it comes to you, Jason, this question will hit with the equal and opposite force of that aforementioned mother’s slap:

How do the sick participate in Christ’s ministry?

Never say Jesus lacks a sense of humor- even if his followers frequently do- because I think the answer for how we think of discipleship lies in your least favorite chunk of scripture: 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”

In the years to come, you will spend considerable time attempting to dissuade brides and grooms from using this passage in their wedding ceremonies, especially the ‘love is patient…’ pericope which concludes it. You’ll point out how Paul’s not speaking to individuals in 1 Corinthinans and especially not to love stuck couples about to be married. Paul’s addressing the gathered community, the church, the Body of Christ.

When it comes headstrong brides and indifferent grooms, 9 times out of 10 your persuasive efforts will prove futile.

But as much time as you will expend steering people away from this passage, you will spend surprisingly little time reflecting on it, which I can now see is a shame. Because if each of us are parts of Christ’s Body only, individual, discrete parts- a hand here, an ear there, an eye- then it stands to reason that we’re called to, responsible for, just a part of Christ’s ministry, imitating that part of Jesus’ life our situation in life allows.

Let someone else speak Truth to Power.

Someone else can roll up their sleeves and clothe the naked.

I’ve freaking got cancer.

I don’t have the energy to feed the hungry.

And, frankly, I don’t have the peace of mind right now to be a peacemaker.

But if Paul’s right, then me facing my illness and suffering with my imperfect approximation of Jesus’ ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit’ is every bit an authentic expression of discipleship as serving at a homeless shelter or extending grace to a prodigal.

Instead of saying we’re only responsible for a part of Christ’s ministry, perhaps its better to put it this way: God doesn’t need us to live Jesus’ life; Jesus already lived the life God gave him. We’re called to live this life, our particular life, the life God’s given us, as Jesus might live it if he were us.

The question is not: how can I be just like Jesus given the particularities and pressures of my life?

The question is: who would you be if Jesus were you, with all the particularities and pressures of your life?

Who would you be if your life (with cancer and fear, pain and panic attacks) was the life God gave Jesus to live?

In time, Jason, you’ll discover how that’s as relevant a question for pastors as it is for every one else.



The Last Straw

Jason Micheli —  August 24, 2015 — 4 Comments



‘You don’t complain very much,’ she repeated it because I hadn’t answered the first time.

She was smoothing the cuffs of pants where she’d been feeling for swelling, my ankles being the primary spot my organs, exhausted from the chemo-poison, send my body’s fluid to hide.

Pretending not to know, I asked what she meant. She instructed me to lay down on the exam table and reiterated with a bit more generalizing.

‘You don’t ever complain.’ 

I managed a sheepish look while she inspected my belly scar and then felt me up for swollen lymph nodes.

She stated it with such practiced neutrality the subtext was unmistakable. It wasn’t an observation; it was an indictment, a judgment: ‘You don’t share enough.’ The sometimes pastoral counselor in me didn’t struggle to interpret.

You don’t complain = You’re not handling this well.

She told me to sit up and then she checked my neck and head and armpits for lumps. After she finished I stared blankly out the window at the overpass construction 10 stories below and wondered, briefly, which vantage point, them looking up at me or me down upon them, proved a better reminder about our collective relative insignificance.

As I did the nurse practitioner ran down my list of side effects. ‘How’s your light-headedness today? Your appetite? What about the numbness in your hands? Mouth sores, hemorrhoids, nausea? How are you bowels functioning? Any fevers?’ 

‘Fine. Okay. Better than before…’ I rattled off my answers like an understudy who’s realized he’ll never get to star. Preoccupied. Passionless.

She checked my eyes, I noticed, in order to catch my gaze. To make eye contact and make one more stab.

‘No complaints at all?’ she asked, clearly prepared to disbelieve my answer.

But I didn’t give one, at least not out loud. ‘Little do you know,’ I thought.

Since I’d last seen her, it felt as though I’d ripped off days and diary pages doing nothing but complaining.

Just a week before I’d sat in the transplant center during my most recent round of treatment, bodysurfing a white cap of nausea and fielding a phone call from the insurance company handling my disability leave.

This was the third or fourth such call since I’d gone on medical leave and, as on those previous occasions, I tried biting my tongue as I answered the case officer’s questions about my treatment, what was behind me and what was still before me- questions, I noted each and every time, that seemed to require an unreasonable degree of justification on my part, as if Cytarabine were a Latinate alias for a Club Med to which I’d absconded on their dime.

I swallowed a shot of chemical-tasting vomit in order to get through his question only to learn that, having finished, he had a demographic survey I was required to complete, a labyrinth of oxymoronic questions that ended, I jest not, by asking if I, Cancer Case Micheli, was right-handed or left-handed. And whether my children were right-handed or left-handed.

‘They’re both ambidextrous’ I said, choking back my gag reflex.


That same day, after I hung with the case officer, my nurse carried in a brown, plastic bag of chemo. She held it in my lap like it was a splotchy wet newborn and asked me to confirm the name and date of birth on it as mine.

I moved my lips and nodded my head and then noticed, for the first time, how underneath the patient information and the volume measurements and the polysyllabic ingredients the brown bag carried this caution:

‘Warning: Chemotherapy Drug May Cause Leukemia’

‘Dumb nuts,’ I said in disbelief.

And with the nurse I laughed until I cried at what I called ‘irony;’ that is, until she left the room and then I just cried.

The truth of the matter was exactly the opposite of my nurse practitioner’ assumptions. I’d been doing nothing but complaining.


A day after discovering I might beat stage-serious cancer only to contract leukemia, I spent a 2 hour infusion on the phone with my insurance company, who, in a twist of logic only Heimlich Himmler could appreciate, had informed me that though my oncologists were considered ‘in-network’  and thus covered by my medical policy, my doctors’ equipment supplier was deemed ‘out-of-network’ and thus not. Covered.

Another way of putting it: My treatment is covered so long as I cover it. 

‘Wait, wait, wait…’ I flinched back a wave of queasiness and said to the infuriatingly calm and euphemistically titled ‘Customer Service Representative.’

‘You’re telling me I’m responsible for the type of equipment my oncologist uses?’

‘Yes,’ she said with less emotion than Joshua in War Games.

‘So, it’s like a B.Y.O.S policy’ I grumbled into the phone.

‘I’m sorry…?’ she asked and for a second I wondered if it was actually an automated system I’d called.

‘B.Y.O.S. – Bring your own syringe. Or, maybe B.Y.O.C.P. – Bring your own chemo pump. Thank God I don’t have prostrate cancer. Come to think of it, maybe I should just mix up my own chemo in my bathtub like I do my gin and bring it with me to the doctor. For that matter why do I really even need an oncologist, right? You can homeschool calculus why not medicine? I could just treat myself. That would be a lot cheaper for both of us, right?’

‘Sir…’ her voice had managed to adopt some actual human-style feeling in it now.

‘I mean- that’s like saying I should be responsible for bringing my own rubber to a hooker.’

‘Sir, that’s not what I was suggesting and, umm, wouldn’t you want to provide your own prophylactic for safety’s sake anyway?’

‘What? I don’t know. I guess. Look, my point was I’m getting screwed either way’ I complained before she put me on hold where another equally uninvested voice told me pleasantly that my call- if not my health- was being monitored for ‘quality assurance.’

‘F@#$ you’ I replied sweetly to the nobody who wasn’t listening on the other end and who, a few minutes later, dropped my call.


I could say that I didn’t complain in the nurse practitioner’s office because it was the one place I hadn’t been complaining of late, but the truth is, my nurse practitioner being about my age and her not being man of my gender, my biggest complaint was just too awkward to share with her.

The previous weekend we took the boys up to NYC, crossing our fingers I’d feel good enough to give them at least a small dose of a normal summer.

On Saturday, after spending the morning sailing toy boats in Central Park, we returned to our hotel room overlooking the Birdland Jazz Club on 44th Street.

At first I chalked it up to all the walking we’d done the day before. My groin hurt. Ached.

‘I need to rest for a bit’ I told the boys even though I’d stood along the pond and felt myself through my linen pockets and knew.

Back in the bathroom I dropped my pants and my boxers and confirmed with my fingers what I’d felt in the park.

A lump.

In what has to be the last place a guy would choose. It was nearly as big as the two that were supposed to be there.

I held it, not really believing, for I don’t know how long. And then I stared at the length of me in the mirror and saw that I was blushing- shame-faced- like you do when you’re caught gawking at someone else’s body, which is exactly how my body felt. Feels.

I knew it was coming so I turned on the shower hard and flicked on the overhead fan and- wait for it- I started to cry, the kind where it sounds like you’ve been swimming for pennies in the diving well and you’ve just popped up for air after managing to find 3.

I don’t know how many minutes later, my eyes cold from the drying tears, I said sternly under my breath:

‘God dammit, God.’

‘Damn you, God.’

That was only the beginning. Ministry has few job perks associated with it. Exemption from this extra indignity didn’t seem too much to ask.

‘This is the last straw- after everything else, this?! A lump in my dangle parts?! What are you doing or NOT doing?’ I asked like a cuckolded lover.

The shower stayed on until the water ran cold.


‘No complaints at all?’ she asked again, forcing my eyes into hers.

But because I’m a coward by nature I balked.

‘Who wants to listen to someone else complain about their problems?’

‘Aren’t you a priest? I mean, is that exactly what you do?’

‘Most of them know better’ I said, revealing not their feelings but my own.

‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? 

How long will you hide your face from me? 

How long must I bear pain in my soul, 

and have sorrow in my heart all day long? 

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?’

– Psalm 13

Here’s another thing I know because it comes with the job:

The ‘faith’ displayed by the bible bears little resemblance to the faith displayed by those who read it.

Throughout their exodus and forever after in the promised land the People of Israel do not relax in an Elysian Field with their Maker and Deliverer. Instead they perpetually wander in and out of belief, in a way that puts me to mind of the permeability of the stages of grief, and as they do so their affection for the Almighty abides a similarly fickle trajectory.

Ruth tells her remarkable story without bothering to make any mention of God. Job shakes his fist at the heavens and serves papers on God. David blames his son’s death on God’s tit-for-tat justice and is still too grieved to realize the rage that’s due him.

It’s in their very identity.

The name by which God calls his People into being, Israel, means, as the stranger by the Jabbok declares: ‘You have struggled with God and won,’ which is but a churchier way of saying ‘You had a bone to pick with God and you prevailed.’

And so often Israel does, have a bone to pick with him.

And so often they do, pick it.

Israel’s father, Isaac, was named for the time his mother, Sarah, responded to a from-the-lips promise of God with a full-on, bullshit belly laugh, which in my current humor I can see as an emotionally healthier response than either blind faith or bare despair.

Speaking of despair, the Book of Psalms seldom sounds like anything the hymns in the pew rack or the praises on Christian radio sing. An even more jarring divergence from Israel’s songs are the Hallmark cards (Sympathy Division) I’ve received since my diagnosis, extolling their ‘All things work together for good…’ comforting, comfortable pieties and, in my opinion, quoting just enough of God’s word to risk libel.

The largest chunk of the 150 psalms do not paint pastoral scenes or spin pick-me-up bromides but are instead of the bone picking variety. Laments, the liturgists call them.

The sentiment by which Jesus leaves this world (‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?!’) marks most of Israel’s experience in the world. For every safe, buoying affirmation (‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…’) in the Book of Psalms there are 2-3 cringe-worthy complaints.

Since we purpose-driven moderns have transmuted so much of the mystery of faith down to its utility (3 Biblical Steps to Success in the Work Place), it’s not surprising how more often than not our language of faith- our songs, our prayers, our cross-stitched and retweeted pieties- is meant to reassure us that, like State Farm, God is there.

Our lives are in control, we assure ourselves, because (we affirm and profess and invoke and pray and petition, sing, sign and benedict) God is in control.

We can let go because we can let God.

Not only did God bleed for me, God sweats the small stuff for me too. He’s my pilot or my co-pilot depending upon your denominational persuasion.

Israel’s language of faith, on the other hand, most often spills this far more disorienting confession:

Our lives are exactly how they feel.

Out of control.

Because- follow the dot, dot, dot of Israel’s faith-logic- God is not in control.

Or, at least God is not in control in the way on which we’d counted.

For Israel the result of such recognition runs the roller coaster from anger to despair to betrayal. Laments. Complaints. Prayers that sound more like divorce decrees than love letters. Of course, it’s not all bad news. A God at whom you’re royally PO’d is not yet a god in whom you disbelieve.


Christianity is riddled with paradoxes- the eternal made flesh, the virgin bearing a son, the dead not- so it seems appropriate that it was just a matter of time before I found myself living one such paradox.

Ever since I held myself, naked, in that hotel bathroom I’ve never been angrier in my life. I’ve never felt more depressed and scared, jilted or forsaken- nor have I ever felt such self-loathing too (what’s that about, I wonder?).

At the same time though and, I hazard the guess, consequent to it, my faith, such as it is, has never so closely matched the faith I find displayed in scripture as it does right now.

More and more, in my complaints I recognize myself in the bible’s psalms. My anger is more in tune with their music than the dull, accommodating, permission-seeking faith I held before my rage.

Now, if you tried to feed me some platitude about how this is one of the goods God is bringing out of ill (Genesis 50.20), that God is using cancer to deepen my faith, then, chances are, I’d punch you in the teeth.

Still, it’s a happening worth pondering. I am after all, as the nurse practitioner pointed out a ‘priest,’ and our skills beyond such pondering are precious few.

So here’s a go:

If so much of the bible’s faith takes the form of complaint then do we, who rarely address God plainly from the bowels of our pain, preferring instead the niceties of praise and petition, commit something like unbelief?

Confessionals notwithstanding- or maybe confessionals in particular- Church can be the one place where we’re the least forthcoming with our actual feelings, but reading the psalms I wonder: Is protecting God from the indiscretions of our hearts and tongues a graver indiscretion? Have we all colluded in implying that an ungriping attitude is a corollary to amazing grace?

Rarely are we so bald as to accuse God of what the bible routinely accuses God: infidelity.

And now that I’m pondering, I’m curious if our reticence is itself a kind of infidelity. Thinking our holy obligation is to give God the glory do we, in fact, rob God of glory, hugging tightly to ourself the first draft of our testimony and offering up instead sanitized, sterilized, red-penned spiritualized jargon that intersects only tangentially with our real lives, because- we think- God’s not up to the challenge of our pain or unholy emotions.

Whereas the Book of Psalms is rife with dirty words and blistered emotions and impolite petitions, we most often operate as though the opposite of the familiar prayer is the case:

God is the One from whom every secret may be hidden and, more so than anyone else, before whom no heart should be fully known.

The difference begs the question, doesn’t it? Which is the greater slander? Submitting to God everything of yourself, even your dirty words and ungracious anger, or submitting to God someone other than yourself?

Did Job discover, I wonder, that those of us who refuse to curse God and die, for piety’s sake, are, in some sense, maybe the most important sense, already dead.

Desiccated at least.

Not only does our buttoned-up language with God hide our true selves from God, it masks the real God too. We effectively put words into God’s mouth when we so selectively emphasize those few happy providential verses (‘All things work together for good for those who love God…’ ) to the near exclusion of the preponderance of psalms that testify that shit happens and that God is an absentee Almighty.

Hiding our pain and anger from God, we often promise more than the bible itself does, and I’m a preacher, remember, which makes me guiltier than most.

Before I arrive at the end I should offer something like a thesis statement, posit an assertion that’s come to me having read the psalms lately with eyes that have never really dried:

You only get a bible like ours when you do not feel the need to get God off the hook.

God’s People could’ve cobbled together a far different canon. If they had, probably, it would sell better.

You don’t get a bible like ours when you think you need to protect God from our nakedest emotions and most blistering of words. If you think God must be exonerated from our suffering or stood up for in the face of attack and indictments, you do not end up with a bible like ours.

Of course, priest that I am, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the irony that the psalms’ laments that God is MIA from our shit-happening lives are directed, nevertheless, to God.

It’s not so much that the psalms contend unequivocally that God is not in control of our lives but rather the psalms are reticent to say how God (if he is) is in control and, by placing them with in the canon, God’s People train us to be so uncertain.

It’s a reluctance, I believe, that requires something closer to faith than dogmatism. Faith; that is, wait and see trust.

Or, as Peter DeVries puts it, himself no stranger to lament having lost his daughter to leukemia: ‘The only alternative to the muzzle of a shotgun is the foot of the cross.’ 

I think what he means is that Jesus, before we kill him, gives us not a cross-stitched cliche or a mantra to memorize about God being in control or everything happening for a reason or everything working out for good or how God won’t give you more than you can handle. No, he gives us bread and wine.

His body and blood, broken and poured out. God forsaken by God.

Tangible reminders that whatever else we have to lament, come what may, our pain is forever joined to his.


Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

15. Do Only Christians Sin?


To describe oneself a sinner is not a lowest common denominator available to all irrespective of faith claims but it is an accomplishment made possible only through proclamation, baptism and discipleship.

Of course, this is not to argue that only Christians err, lie, commit violence or forsake the good for trivial goods. But sin, meaning as it does the rejection of God’s love and goodness as revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, is a vocabulary term available only to those who speak Christian.

Sin is not synonymous with the general human condition nor is it empirically verifiable apart from revelation. One must learn to know oneself as a sinner, and to know oneself as a sinner first requires knowing oneself as a forgiven sinner.

Only those who’ve experienced the embrace of the Father who declares ‘…we had to celebrate for what was lost has been found…’ can know the distance of the far country whence they came.

Just as no one can know God apart from God’s self-revelation, we cannot know ourselves as standing apart from God apart from the revelation of God in Christ.

In the same manner that cross and incarnation are only intelligible in light of the resurrection, the brokenness of sin only becomes comprehensible in light of the reconciliation made possible by Easter, in which Christ makes all things new.

The assurance of pardon then necessarily precedes, spiritually if not liturgically, the confession of sin.

‘…Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.’ – Luke 15.23-24

What I Need to Hear

Jason Micheli —  August 6, 2015 — 4 Comments


If NASA’s recent photos of Pluto caused you to feel optimistic about the human capacity for advancement, then you need only wait for the elevator at my oncologist’s office complex to be reminded we are a species who only recently ate each other at Jamestown and, even more recently, elected Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate.

My doctor’s medical complex belongs to that school of architecture known as ‘Eastern Bloc’ and it seems to have been designed with as much haste and forethought. Aside from a few cock-teasing spaces outside, all the parking is underground. Thanks to the pre-Obamacare boom days of price-gouging healthcare the complex outgrew its design long ago such that now it resembles a Lower Eastside tenement building stuffed with beige medical equipment instead of rotting mattresses.

On the entrance wall, the number on the fire marshall’s sign announcing the building’s max capacity has been whited out and now reads ‘Whatever’ in blood red crayon.

In a facility so crowded and busy, parking spots are as rare as erections during chemotherapy. Hours before their appointments, cars of the elderly and the ailing stalk the underground lot like hookers looking for a coked-up John. Indeed it can take so long to find an empty parking spot that it’s not uncommon to spot senior citizens, leaning against their walkers and siphoning gas from a parked car into their stalled-out Buick LeSabres.

After the euphoria of a found parking space settles, patients at the medical complex must tackle their next gauntlet.

The elevator.

To imagine what it’s like waiting for the elevator in this building, first imagine the DMV.

Crossed with a TSA line where every passenger is 10 minutes late for their flight.

Now, put it in a closet.

Not only is the basement hallway outside the elevator small and filled with people frantic with their self-importance, the 2 exits, one at either end of the hallway, make it impossible to establish a coherent line of waiting people much less demarcate a front of the line. And because the elevator travels slower than a covered wagon over the Oregon Trail, each time the elevator goes up it’s no time at all before a sizable horde of watch-glancing patients are demonstrating anything but.


Every time, before the elevator has reached the first floor another over-capacity crowd has arrived. Waiting.

The constipated pace of the elevator, the constantly arriving crowds of the infirm and impatient, the dual entrance impossibility of establishing who’s been waiting longest- altogether these factors foster an atmosphere that can only be described by way of reference to Black Friday or Lord of the Flies.

In that 6×15 foot petrie dish outside the basement elevator:

The blind are butted in front of or ‘helpfully’ pointed back in the direction of the parking lot whence they came.

Expectant mothers are body checked by heavyset mustached men late for their sleep apnea appointments.

Recent immigrants from all 7 continents ‘forget’ every stitch and syllable of their English as they feign incomprehension and walk through the people in front of them like that subway rider in Ghost.

I’ve seen parents scribble their phone number on their toddler’s forehead before abandoning them for a final spot on the elevator.

Likewise, I’ve stared at my shoes awkwardly while a spouse hops onto the elevator and leaves their partner behind with an anticlimactic ‘This is what it’s come to’ shrug of the shoulders.

Without a doubt, the worst offenders are the old people.

And, by that, I mean their behavior has convinced me maybe Soylent Green isn’t such a rash idea after all. Waiting for the elevator, they act as though their gray (or blue) hair gives them an automatic EZ pass to the front of the line. As if monopolizing the electoral system and bankrupting social security weren’t sufficient AARP perks.

And those are the polite ones.

Most old folks don’t hesitate to throw a varicosed elbow if it’ll help them wedge their way past those around them. I’ve seen countless others wield their walkers, oxygen tanks and even spare pair of Depends as weapons, beating off rightful elevator riders like they were back alley muggers.

Just the other day, waiting for the elevator for my appointment the following afternoon, I had to referee  when a 70 year old woman with a Philly accent stiff-armed a pregnant woman on crutches as soon as the elevator doors cracked open.

Just imagine the cast of Cocoon suddenly being handed scripts for The Hunger Games and you have some idea of what it’s like to wait for the elevator at my oncologist’s office complex.

Were the oxygen in my blood (and in my head) not cripplingly low I’d take the stairs to the 10th floor. But I can’t. So every time I’m faced with the Sisyphean task of riding the elevator to the doctor’s office.

Because there’s no discernible front of the line and no butcher to hand out numbered tickets to order us, what has emerged instead is an impromptu triage system where each hopeful elevator rider is ranked in urgency according to the perceived hierarchy of needs and ailments.

For example, someone going in for a followup to their joint replacement procedure ranks ahead of a middle-aged man going for a GI scope; however, both of them take a backseat to a mother-to-be in her third trimester with 8 floors up to go.

Of course, if that mother-to-be is only in her first trimester then, it goes without saying, she can hoof it up the stairs.

So can someone seeing an optometrist, as pretty much everyone in the elevator triage ranks ahead of them; that is, unless that someone is A) Blind or B) suffers dementia or C) is a wheelchair bound agoraphobe.

This impromptu triage system has introduced a note of civility to the basement hallway where before there was only the makings of an exploitative Pay Per View melee, and while no written rules or policies of our triage system are anywhere posted, an understanding as settled in among us regulars.

We’ve established, for example, that chest X-rays rate ahead of regular ones. Someone with TB gets on the elevator ahead of someone with high BP, but, because we’re all in a hurry, that someone with TB does not ride the elevator alone. Appointments with urologists and proctologists, on the other hand, are judged an even draw to be settled by rock, paper, scissors- provided the anally-impaired patient doesn’t also suffer from hand-crippling arthritis, in which case he or she should probably get to move ahead in line anyway.

The system works.

Hemorrhoids and genital warts might be uncomfortable nuisances out in the world but in our elevator triage system they’re like Charlie’s golden ticket, moving the sufferer ahead in line, past the shin splints, ear aches and common colds. In perhaps this system’s only hint of social Darwinism, the morbidly obese (because of the floor space they require) are consistently consigned to the back of the line where, with the UPS deliveryman and the medical supply salesmen, they sometimes have to wait 5 hours before being granted a spot on the elevator. I like to think this is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that not only do terminal cases get an automatic spot on the elevator, we let them push the buttons.

Needless to say, in this elevator triage system, having a rare, incurable cancer turns out to be a perk.

On most days I don’t need to wear my immune-deficient face mask or even say the C-word. Like I’m so much water around rock, my bald head, sunken eyes and bare brows are enough to move me to the front of the line.

Having Mantle Cell Lymphoma is like holding a hand with a suicide king in it. As soon as the doors ding open my malady trumps most others and, just like that, the ordinary everyday ill are left behind, watching me ascend, like the Risen Christ, to the floors above them.

The only hitch in my MCL-derived VIP status is when I run up against someone who’s been dealt shittier cards than me.

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

The other day I was holding my son Gabriel’s hand waiting the elevator to deliver me to another of my daily appointments. When the doors dinged, I stepped forward without even thinking or looking around so accustomed had I grown to to my ‘least enviable’ superlative.

Immediately I got stuck in the doorway, shoulder-to-shoulder with 2 other patients and with Gabriel left crunched between our competing thighs. We all wore the same quizzical expression, dumbfounded someone would judge themselves more miserable than us. Behind us were the usual variety of patients stuck on the bottom rung of our triage system, watching to see how this impasse would play out.





An elderly woman a with weather-haggard face and wiry hair huffed in between oxygen tank assisted gasps.

What an act. I wish I had COPD, I thought to myself. If only I could be so lucky. What I wouldn’t give to [be as old as you and] have COPD.

‘So,’ I said, ‘I have MCL. It’s incurable and I’m not yet 40.’


‘Well I have lung cancer,’ wheezed the man wedged into my right. He looked to be in his 50’s and wore a double-breasted suit along with his look of world-weary resignation.






I should.

Go first.’

The woman angling at my left said…breathlessly. Were it not for the tubes going into her nostrils you’d think she was auditioning to play a Tennessee Williams character.


‘Me neither,’ said the wheezy man as he squeezed a leg past Gabriel.

I wish I was only short of breath. How simple would life be if I was geezer with lung cancer, the asshole in my head said. 

‘I’m dizzy all the time, I said. The chemo’s killed all the oxygen in my blood. I feel like I’m going to pass out at any moment.’


‘I’ve got that problem too,’ the man wheezed.


‘Me too,’ the old bitty didn’t say but nodded.


‘I’ve got young kids and cancer,’ I said like it as my final answer to Regis Philbin before mustering enough pity for a Save the Children commercial and glancing down at Gabriel.





I’ve got________________8 grandkids.’


‘Seve________n,’ the double-breasted man with the combover pleaded.

And just like that we’d stalemated into silence. Gabriel tugged forward on my hand while everyone else stared at us feeling unqualified to arbitrate.

‘I, uh…’ I cleared my throat and stared into the numbers above the elevator.

‘The day before yesterday…I, uh, found a lump in my nutsack.’




To have.

A lump_____________there.


The old lady gasped like a bellows.

But even if she didn’t, I heard it in my voice, the kind of matter-of-factness that’s only possible with the truth. I found a lump where there shouldn’t be a third.

‘For God’s sake, let the man pass,’ a man behind us shouted.

About me.

Now, if I’ve spun the lines above with hyperbole, this is the straight, naked truth: 

After the others filled in the space around me, after they let me push the buttons and after the doors closed and we rose like the inverse of Jesus on Easter, the thought overwhelmed me: I wish I was down there.

With some other ailment that meant I was still waiting in line.


Later, Gabriel and I were sitting in the waiting room when a heavyset woman with heather-colored bangs and a younger man, who was tall and thick, came out pushing a man I took to be her husband, his father.

The chemo glow I see in the mirror I recognized on him. He was hunched over like a soothsayer and his storm-colored eyes were ringed red. He’d been crying; his family still was, over something they’d been told back in the exam room I guessed.

His wife stopped directly in front of us to blow her nose and while she did her husband glanced at us but with a faraway look and then he nodded at me like we were driving past each other on the same small road and then, suddenly and quickly, he laughed.

Giggled almost. And then his son pushed him away towards the exit.

If it wasn’t because of the eerie laugh, then Gabriel caught more than I realized because he clutched my arm like he does in a storm when he’s trying to squeeze his way underneath my umbrella.

After the exit closed behind them, Gabriel asked me in his inside voice:


‘Yeah Gabriel.’

‘Dad, why do you have cancer?’

I responded, unspoken, with a question of my own:

Why is God doing this to me?

I’d been living with the C-word for 7 months and, call it professional pride, this was the first time I’d allowed myself to ask that question.

Sitting there next to Gabriel, who clung to my hairless arm, I finally asked it, finally permitted myself to step over into whatever official stage of grief signified by such a question- though it was still safely rendered (and kept at a remove) in the third person. The second person (Why are you, God, doing this to me?) still felt too hot to touch.

I’d never asked it myself before, but I have plenty of experience listening to that question. It comes with the job, hearing others ask that question, often followed by me reframing it.


The first time I heard that question asked anywhere but in a Lifetime movie, I’d been a seminary student for 2 semesters, and I’d been a solo pastor for 3 months when a member of my tiny little congregation outside Princeton, New Jersey went home one Sunday after the 10:00 worship service, climbed downstairs to his basement, spread out the plastic tarp that was still dirty from a long ago family camping trip, unlocked the deer rifle with which he’d once taught his son to hunt in the Pine Barrens, sat down in a wrought iron lawn chair, and killed himself.

His name was Glenn.

He came to church with his daughter-in-law. Sometimes her husband, his son, came with them. He was named Glenn too. They always sat in the very middle of the sanctuary near the center aisle.

At the end of every service I would stand outside on the steps of the church porch. He would make his way through the line and would shake my hand and say ‘Nice sermon…the organ sounds out of tune though’ and then he would walk off down the sidewalk and drive away in his red PT Cruiser.

Every Sunday it was like that until the Sunday he drove home and decided to take the key hidden in a kitchen coffee can and unlock his gun cabinet.

Later that afternoon, his daughter-in-law called me at my apartment. And when she told me what he had done, I couldn’t help myself. Without thinking how it might sound, I just asked her: ‘Why? Why would he do that?’

She was crying too hard to get the words out, but I heard one: cancer.  An answer though wasn’t really what I was asking for.

What I wanted was something more like absolution. Because listening to her sob in to the phone, I felt stabbed by guilt: guilt that I never took the time to get beyond: Nice sermon…the organ sounds out of tune. I was just a ‘part-time’ pastor. I had books to read and papers to write and classes to attend and he never fit into my schedule.

She caught her breath long enough to ask me if I would come over to Glenn’s house.

I said yes. It wasn’t until I hung up the phone that I realized: I’d never even been to a funeral before.

After a drive in my car that I quite honestly hoped would never end, I met them at Glenn’s house. Neighbors standing in the street stared at me as I got out of the car and walked up to the house. When Glenn’s daughter-in-law answered the door, I hugged her there on the front porch- not because I knew that was the right thing to do, not because I was overwhelmed with empathy or even because I’m a natural hugger- I was just terrified to say anything.

She led me down the hall to Glenn’s kitchen where we all sat down while she started to rummage through the refrigerator to make sandwiches no one would eat. Even if we couldn’t articulate it, we all sensed that eating would’ve violated something sacred.

Sitting in Glenn’s kitchen I noticed the appointments and To-Do’s written on a Philadelphia Phillies calendar next to the black rotary phone on the wall. A shopping list was scotch-taped on his fridge door next to faded 3×5 photos and postcards. He needed eggs and creamer.

I sat there with my hands on the pink formica tabletop acutely aware that my 10 ‘Master of Divinity’ courses felt like something I had mail ordered from the back of a Marvel comic and had in no way prepared to do anything for them.

Since the To Do list on Glenn’s fridge door made it appear that he’d had other plans, his daughter-in-law reached for another explanation.

‘Why would God do this to us?’

We sat in the quiet that was my lack of a response for a long time. Thank God we did too. It was only later in my ministry, after I’d been with several other grieving families, that I understood how all the usual cliches we wield against death were off limits that afternoon.


The next time, that I remember anyway, someone asked me that question I was sitting shot gun in battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.

We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.

Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Which, of course, is but another way of asking: ‘Why is God doing this to me?’

The question came from a guy named David.

David was good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.

Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.

David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.

Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.

At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.

He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.

I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.

We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.

Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album. He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died. He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer. He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night. And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping.

It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.

David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.

Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.

He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.

Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.

He was quiet for a few minutes, and I knew it was coming. The question.


Not long after my drive with David, I was working double duty nearby as a hospital chaplain at UVA, where one of my responsibilities was to accompany shocked and freshly grieved strangers to meet the bodies of their loved ones. I didn’t need hindsight to know it was a task for which I was wholly inadequate.

One winter night, in the middle of an overnight shift, I was paged to go and meet a mother who’d arrived to see her daughter.

She was waiting at the security desk when I found her- on occasions like that they’re easy to spot. She didn’t look any older than my mom.

Her mascara had already streaked down her cheeks and dried in the lines of her face. Her hair was matted from where her pillow had been just hours before. I noticed she hadn’t put any socks on and she’d put her sweater on backwards.

When I walked up to her, she had her arms crossed- like she was cold or like she was holding herself. ‘I don’t know what she was doing out this time of night’ she kept whispering to herself.

A resident doctor, a med student no older than me, accompanied us. She’d been the one who’d attended her daughter when the rescue squad brought her in from the accident.

The three of us walked soberly to a tiny, antiseptic room. A nurse or an orderly pulled a little chain string to draw the paper curtain open, and when the mother saw her daughter she immediately lost her footing.

And then she lost her breath.

Then after a long, stretched-out moment, somewhere between an inhale and an exhale, she let out a bone-racking sob.

I had my arm around her to comfort her and keep her from falling, but I didn’t say anything. I’ve always been wary of anyone who knows what to say in comfortless moments.

The med student, though, was clearly unnerved by the rawness of the mother’s grief and by the absence of any words.

She kept looking at me, urging me with her eyes to say something. I ignored her, and the mother kept sobbing just as loudly as she’d begun.

But maybe I should’ve said something, because when I refused the doctor put her hand on the mother’s shoulder and looked over at the teenage girl lying on the metal bed with flecks of dried blood not all the way wiped from her hair and forehead and said: ‘That’s alright. She’s not here. She’s slipped away. That’s just a shell…’

I’d known instantly it was the wrong thing to say, that it rang tinny and false and was completely inadequate for the moment.

Nonetheless, it surprised me when she pushed the doctor away and slapped her hard across the face and cried: ‘It’s not alright. That’s my daughter. She’s not just anything. She’s Beth.’

Chastened, the doctor said I’m sorry and slunk away.

I stayed with her a long while after that, my arm around her, listening as she stroked her daughter’s hand and hair and softly recounted memories.

In all that time, she hadn’t really acknowledged my presence until she turned and looked at the badge on my chest that read ‘Chaplain’ and asked me: ‘Why…why would God do this to her?’


About a year before I learned I had cancer I met with a woman in my church who’d just found out she had it.

She’d lost her husband a few months earlier after a long illness. Their daughter was no older than my oldest. Only weeks after she buried her husband and consoled their daughter, she learned she had a serious form of cancer.

Eventually our conversation boiled down to that 1 question:

Why is God doing this to me?

Those are just the memories that stick in my mind and in my craw. I’ve listened to some semblance of that question more times than I can recall. And over the years I think I’ve acquitted myself well listening to people ask that question through tears or clenched teeth, mirroring their emotions, affirming their feelings and perspective, neither needing to protect God from their anger nor taking their anger so seriously that I turned God into a prick, all the while testifying through my compassion for them that God is NOT doing this to them.

I’ve even learned over the years that you don’t need to be a believer to ask that question. When there is no apparent or satisfying cause to the suffering that’s befallen you, believer or not, it’s just a matter of time before you aim your ire at the First Cause. Where else but there does the buck eventually, eternally stop?

I don’t know how to parse it down for Gabriel, but there is no reason, other than the obscure molecular one, that I have stage-serious cancer. So despite being practiced at exonerating God in the workplace, I can’t help but wonder lately why God’s doing this to me.

After all, His Word says that He’s the One in whom my mutinous cells live and move and have their being.

I mean, sure, I know God’s not really doing this to me (I think), and I’ve got the diploma and the tomes to prove it but ever since I allowed myself to ask that question, I can’t stop wondering.

I think that’s what I never appreciated before, all those times listening to others ask that question.

I never realized how once you ask that question of God, since God’s not quick to answer it or allay your concerns, it just lodges there in your soul and nags away at you.

With no reason I have MCL, every passing day I grasp for one, yearning even for a bad reason such that now I can’t look at my lab results or scan reports without scrolling down a mental list of my sins, searching for a reason, wondering if God is doing this to me because I did X to Y all those years ago.

Gabriel’s question prompted a question to which I’ve listened more times than I can remember and lately now I’m listening to myself ask it.

So what follows is for me.

Maybe you’re lucky and you don’t need to hear this. If so, you can stop reading now.

But I need to hear it, hear what I’ve told others when the shoe was safely on the other foot.

God’s not doing this to you.

God’s not against you.

When Jesus gives his disciples a prayer to pray, he first warns them:

‘Do not be like the pagans when you pray…’

The pagans believed that god- the gods- changed. The pagans believed god’s mood towards us could swing from one fickle extreme to its opposite, that god could be offended or outraged or flattered by us, that sometimes god could be for us but other times god could be against us.

And so the pagans of Jesus’ day, they would pray ridiculously long prayers, rattling off every divine name, invoking every possible attribute of god, heaping on as much praise and adoration as they could muster.

In order to please and placate god.

To manipulate god. To get god to be for them and not against them.

The pagans believed that if they were good and prayed properly then god would reward them, but if they were bad and failed to offer an acceptable worship then god would punish them.

The god the pagans prayed to was: an auditor always tallying our ledger to bestow blame or blessing based on what we deserve, an accuser always watching us and weighing our deeds to condemn us for punishment or recommend us for reward.

The pagans had a lot of names for who they prayed to: Mars, Jupiter…

But scripture has one name for the kind of person the pagans prayed to: שָׂטָן, ha-satan. What we call Satan. In the Old Testament, satan doesn’t have 2 horns, a tail and a pitchfork. In the Old Testament, satan isn’t the Prince of Darkness or the personification of evil. In the Old Testament, satan is our accuser- that’s all the word means. Satan is one who casts blame upon us, who finds fault in us, who indicts us for what we deserve.

Jesus doesn’t want us to turn God into a kind of satan. Jesus doesn’t want us to mistake God for an accuser, to confuse God for one who casts blame and doles out what’s deserved.

Jesus wants us to know:

The god you think is doing this to you isn’t God.

God’s not like that. My Father isn’t like that, Jesus warns. Our Father isn’t like that. Don’t be like the pagans.

God doesn’t change. And so God never changes his mind about us. About you, Jason.

Or about you, ____________ (fill in the blank if you’re still reading).

God’s love does not depend on what we do or what we’re like. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints. As far as God’s love is concerned, our sin makes absolutely no difference to God. Our sin can’t change God because God doesn’t change.

God sends rain upon the just and the unjust. God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve. God forgives even when we know exactly what we do.

God is an old lady who’ll turn her house upside-down for something that no one else would find valuable, a shepherd who never gives up the search for the single sheep, a Father- Jesus’ Father, Our Father- who never stops looking down the road and is always ready to say ‘we have no choice but to celebrate.’

No matter what it may look like in your life right now, Jason, God is for us. You.

Always. Nothing can change that. Because God doesn’t change.

Notes from My Doctor

Jason Micheli —  July 27, 2015 — 7 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x68311111.jpgSince my diagnosis in the winter, I’ve spent these past months frequently posting reflections about my disease, my treatment and my doctors.

It’s only fair, I reasoned, to offer my caregivers a voice. Here then, with his permission, are some recent notes from my oncologist, taken from a recent email thread between us.

Dear Rev. Micheli,

Having received your recent email requesting further literature regarding stem cell transplants, I clicked on the link to your blog ( displayed beneath your signature line. I must have missed it in your previous correspondence. Once I clicked over, I discovered your cancer posts from the past six months. You can appreciate, I imagine, how a blog about your cancer is also, viewed from another light, a blog about your caregivers.

In particular, I wish to take umbrage with your post ‘Pastors Make Bad Patients’ dated 3/10/2015. While I’m certainly not going to argue with your central thesis, I do contest your suggestion that healthcare workers have no sense of humor.

Look at it from our side.

Your treatment, for instance, is many months long and you’re here almost daily, yet nearly every day when the nurse tech grabs your index finger in order to place the pulse-reading oximeter on it, you pass gas. A gag I previously thought was known only to my late Uncle Jerry.

Now that I’ve read your comments about ‘sharting’ in your post ‘Eternity’s the Wrong Number’ dated 2/27/15, I think such a joke is as imprudent as it is immature.

S_________, the nurse tech, who saw you 4 times this week, enduring your finger-pull fart joke each time, would like you to know she already takes care of 2 juvenile boys at home and does not care to babysit another one at work.

Quite simply, it’s not professional. You’d never make fart jokes as part of your ministry or preaching career would you? Certainly not, I think.

I hope you’ll see that it’s not the case that we lack a sense of humor; rather you need to view your behavior from our perspective.

For example, it’s true chemotherapy dervies from Nazi era mustard gas; however, your habit of singing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles’ while receiving your infusions unsettles many of our patients. Not to mention, the nurses tell me that some of our obese patients think you’re insulting them when you sing ‘Uber Alles.’ I’m not sure why, but that doesn’t change their feelings.

Speaking of unsettling patients, I ask that you no longer blow in to the tubes of your chest port and pretend you’re inflating an airplane life preserver. Perhaps it was funny the first time, but you’ve noticed, I assume, how many of our patients are elderly. Yesterday you upset quite a few of them who failed to realize that they were not, in fact, on an airplane and were in only minimal danger of crash-landing.

My office manager reports it will cost several hundred dollars to repair the damage incurred when those confused seniors clawed and pushed each other out of the way, vainly searching out parachutes and oxygen masks, before- bravely, I must admit- hurling themselves over the counter and through the nurses’ station beveled glass window.

They’re not called the Greatest Generation for nothing.

I think this proves that some ocassions and places are not suitable for humor, cancer being one obvious example. Oncology is serious, sometimes melancholy, work, much like ministry I’d wager.

As you yourself must know, being an expert with scripture, the gospels do not ever note that Jesus laughed.

Not once. Not at anything.

I also recall from the Sunday School of my youth how St. Paul in several places admonishes the faithful against silliness, joking and laughter.

You need only walk into any church on a Sunday morning to find Christians earnestly  abiding these very scriptural precedents. It’s in this sense that I encourage you ‘to practice your faith’ in our offices.


Dr _____________________


I consulted with my colleagues, per your request, and while we do not enjoy Ellen either we have chosen not to show Breaking Bad on the infusion center telesvison screens. We agree Breaking Bad offers an instructive portrait of a patient with cancer, but we feel the content might otherwise be in poor taste.

We’ve also decided, per your earlier query, not to show Joel Osteen either in the infusion center. Apparently, some patients took offense at what they sensed was your mock sincerity whenever you asked the nurses to ‘turn the channel to Pontius Osteen.’



Dear Rev. Micheli,

Your blog has become quite popular around the offices.

Dr A____________ recently read your post titled ‘Chemo Sissy’ dated 2/24/2015 in which you describe him as ‘Serbian scary’ and comment that it’s ‘easy to picture him wearing a drab, olive uniform, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and standing behind one-way glass while a lieutenant conducts an ‘interrogation.’

Dr A__________ would like me to point out that, contrary to your characterization, he hails from Milwaukee by way of Mumbai and that he is not a veteran of the Bosnian-Serbian conflic- though he does think Owen Wilson’s work in Behind Enemy Lines is criminally underrated.

Thank you for bringing that term, Docetism, to my attention. Despite all of my schooling, I confess it was new to me, and I admit that if the the Christian creed teaches that God became fully human in Jesus then it follows logically that Jesus laughed and most likely ‘farted, stank and picked his nose’ as you so eruditely put it.

I will concede that it’s true Jesus must’ve laughed and possibly even that St Paul, as you phrased it, ‘…had a hyssop stuck up his a@#.’ Nonetheless, it’s also true that not every ocassion is one for joking.

Think of Mark Twain’s maxim:

Comedy = Tragedy + Time

Most of our patients do not have enough time removed from cancer to laugh at it. Indeed many fear, as you know yourself, that they don’t have the time left they’d always thought they did.

And, without time, it’s hard to laugh.

I didn’t study as much philosophy as you in school but I do recall how Aristotle says that someone who laughs at the wrong thing reveals not a bad sense of humor but a bad character.

I’m not implying you have bad character, I’m merely suggesting that Aristotle is helpful in pointing out how there are right times and wrong times for attempts at humor.

For example:

When you unbutton your shirt to give our nuses access to your chest catheter, it’s probably not a good idea to sway your hips seductively and go ‘Da, da, da, da, dummmmm….’ 

Not only does this give our staff the wrong impression, we’ve since received several complaint calls from elderly women who were disappointed, ‘after being misled,’ to be informed that they would not receive a special screening of Magic Mike during their chemo infusions.

Along those same lines, it’s true we put lollipops in the bowls at the front desk just as it’s true I recommended you wear a straw fedora in the summer after you lost your hair; nevertheless, I would recommend you no longer say ‘Who loves you, baby?’ to the nursing staff.

Kojack has been off the air since 1978 and Tully Sevalas died 22 years ago, and I fear your innocent celluloid allusion could be misconstrued. I would not want sexual harassment claims to pile up alongside your medical insurance claims.

Almost forgot-

I mentioned your blog and our exchange to J________, one of our receptionists. She attends one of those megachurches where the music sounds like Richard Marx and the pastors all look like extras from Portlandia. She asked me to pass along this quote to you:

“Tears bind us to God not laughter.”

John Chrysostum, 373 AD




Nurse K_______ requests you stop asking if every bag of your chemo ‘contains bits of real panther in it.’

It does not.



Dear Rev. Micheli,

To answer your question, yes, itching is to be expected after receiving multiple blood transfusions- especially when one palms the prophylactic Benadryl rather than ingest it so as to continue playing Star Wars Angry Birds unburdened by drowsiness, as the nurse tells me she saw you do yesterday.

Thank you for sharing your, ahem, abundance of opinions on John Chyrsostum with me in your last email. At your request I’ll pass along to J_______ at the front desk that John Chrysostum ‘was a loathesome anti-Semite’ though, considering the genre of church she’s chosen, such news is unlikely to prove an obstacle.

To answer your other question, no, I cannot give you ‘the digits’ of those elderly patients who confused you for Channing Tatum nor do I have a clue as to whether they have any daughters about your age.

However, I do empathize with you when you say that laughter reminds you you’re still alive. While I don’t have the experience to know whether or not you’re correct in saying ‘Christians tend to take themselves more seriously than God,’ I believe I do understand what you mean when you say that being deadly serious lately makes you feel like you’re already ‘(seriously)’ dead.

I must admit I prefer the quote you forwarded from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

(‘Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.’)

to the John Chrysostum quotation, and I will concede that if God is best characterized by joy and if suffering leads people closer to God, then suffering should lead also to laughter. I won’t go as far as you, however, and concur that ‘de Chardin’s logic proves Twain was a dumb@#$’

I’d never heard of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin before. I had to look him up on Wikipedia! You’re definitely a learned man. Incidentally, it’s been 6 months since we started treating you. I think you can now stop bringing your framed Princeton diploma with you to your appointments, transfusions, infusions, and blood draws. It may violate appendix 3.2a of the Hippocratic Oath but my colleagues and I have decided that we’re willing to cede that you’re the smartest person in the room.

Even the smartest people, it seems, make mistakes. Just to clarify for you, that’s a lower case ‘d’ prescribed on your chemo schedule for Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

It’s not a lowercase ’s.’ The prescription is for ‘dex.’

It’s short for dexamethasone.

You’re right, it is difficult to read when we write it by hand and then Xerox it.

Please apologize to your wife for any misunderstanding and inform her that I would never prescribe such a thing without first consulting her.




Two answers for your postscripted questions about your penis: Yes, it’s completely normal. And, about 4-8 weeks.



Dear Rev. Micheli,

While cancer, not religion, is my area of expertise, I daresay you’re correct when you suggest that Christians too often fetishize suffering, thinking all suffering must offer a teachable moment simply because Jesus suffered.

The quote you forwarded from Simone Weil provides, I think, a helpful corrective. I think she’s right.

Before one can have a spiritually significant experience of suffering one must have a prior (spiritually significant) experience of joy.

I’m out of my depth here, but isn’t this what the gospels mean to convey by telling their narratives from the point of view not of the cross but of the resurrection?

I’d never heard of the ‘Disappearing Dove’ trick you say was once popular among comic magicians yet I bet it was funny when the handkerchief (after being ‘released’)  just lay there on the ground, not moving, not flying away, not disappearing. Not a dove at all.

Your point’s well taken- sometimes what makes something funny, painfully funny, isn’t the punchline that’s provided but what’s missing- the absence of something we’ve grown to count on and expect.

And certainly I can understand, Jason, that so much of what you’re experiencing now is just this sort of absence: an absence of health and maybe hope, the missing reflection in the mirror, the now absent plans replaced by a future I’m sure feels as certain as a handkerchief ready to fly.

I have enough experience to know as well that, usually, those who find such absence funny are the ones feel most what’s missing.

In other words, if its possible for cancer to be funny, then its because of what  called the ‘comedy of absence.’


Dr. _____________


Speaking of absence, one of the elderly patients who hurled themselves through the nurses’ station glass, before the office crash-landed, asked me to pass this joke along to you:

Q: ‘What’s the best part of Alzheimers?’

A: ‘You get to hide your own Easter eggs.’




Five Plus Two

Jason Micheli —  July 22, 2015 — 5 Comments

This weekend’s lectionary gospel text is John 6, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. In light of the text, I thought I’d dust off this (very) old sermon:

At the beginning of the summer, I spent time in Cambodia with a friend, Mark Gunggoll, our mission chair, visiting our church’s mission projects and partners.

Our translator for the week was a young man named Puthi though, whether by mistake or by Freudian slip, Mark kept calling him ‘Booty’ instead.

Puthi translated for me; wherever we went: to churches and mission sites and meetings. He translated for me when I prayed, read scripture, celebrated communion or preached. He did a good job, and whenever I would introduce Mark to people as a professional clown or a pole dancer, Puthi would translate perfectly and with a straight face. As I said, he was a good translator.

Puthi’s a teacher at a Methodist-run mechanics school. He teaches the trade to boys who might otherwise never find work. Puthi’s only a recent graduate of the program and not much older than his students.

One afternoon towards the end of our time there, Puthi was driving Mark and me through the crowded streets of Phnom Penh. And his phone rang. He took the call and then spoke in hushed Khmer while he maneuvered around the thousands of pedestrians and motorcycles in the city streets. I couldn’t understand the language being spoken but I could tell all the same that it sounded urgent.

The call lasted a few minutes after which Puthi closed his phone and, without comment, focused on the road. Mark asked him: ‘Is everything okay?’

‘Yeah…’ he said and then crinkled his eyebrows. He was trying to find the right words, the proper translation. And when he found the right words he told us that his wife, who cooked rice and fish in the market, had called to tell him that she’d lost her job.

He didn’t need to tell us- we already knew- that they couldn’t make it on his pay alone.

Puthi didn’t say anything through three or four intersections.

‘What will you do now?’ I finally asked him.

‘I don’t know’ he said, and he looked up into the rearview mirror at me. And he smiled. It struck me that Puthi didn’t look worried or concerned at all, that ‘what am I going to do?’ hadn’t even occurred to him, that if anyone there in the car was afraid it was Mark and me.

To be honest, seeing his face there in the rearview mirror, I thought he looked naive.

‘He’s just a boy’ I thought.



It’s the only miracle in all four Gospels- the feeding of the multitude. The numbers vary a bit: the feeding of the multitude, the feeding of the five thousand. Matthew and Mark include a second account of four thousand fed. Add in the women and children who would not have been counted according to first century prejudice and, well, it was a lot of people.

All four Gospels describe this scene up on the mountain with Jesus, the disciples and a crowd Jesus just can’t shake.

In all four Gospels the menu is the same: bread and fish. Five and two.

And they all have this action that sounds like communion: Jesus took the loaves, blessed them and gave it to them.

Each Gospel portrays the crowds as all full and satisfied and every gospel includes the leftovers: 12 baskets. 5 loaves + 2 fish + 5,000 plus hungry people. 12 baskets leftover.

But only John- tells of Jesus asking that leading question. “Where shall we ever buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus knew there was no where to run to the store. Jesus must have seen the boy clutching at his parents’ legs with his sack full of bread and fish.

Only John tells of that boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.

In a crowd of 5,000 plus, he’s easy to miss, the boy with the sack lunch. In fact, most scholars writing about John 6 don’t even mention him. And, trust me, scholars have something to say about every other detail in the story.

The five loaves? That’s shorthand for Israel because of the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law that begin the bible.

And the two fish- any guesses? The two fish- say scholars- stand for the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine.

How about the twelve baskets? That’s easy. They symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. So, in other words, this miracle is really a demonstration of how only Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully Man, embodies the scriptures and only he can satisfy Israel’s calling.

The scholarly attention to detail doesn’t stop at what the numbers mean.

For example, scholars can’t help but notice how the story begins with a reference to the sea and a mountaintop and Passover. This is John’s way of saying- they say- that Jesus is greater than Moses and all the prophets and just as Moses led his people to freedom through the sea so too will Jesus deliver his people.

Commentators even take note of the type of bread with which Jesus feeds the multitude: barley. Barley, according to commentators, ripened earlier than wheat, making it cheap and readily available. In other words, it was bread for the poor. It was bread of the poor. That this is the bread Jesus feeds the crowds says everything about what sort of Messiah he’s determined to be- who he identities with and who he’s come to fill with Good News.

When biblical commentators turn to John 6, they leave no interpretive stone unturned. No detail is extraneous. Everything means something.

Except the boy. No one bothers to mention the boy. Not one of the biblical scholars bother to notice the boy standing there near Andrew, the boy with his five and his two.



Puthi’s small-framed and he looked every bit like a boy behind the wheel of the pickup.

After navigating the chaotic city streets, Puthi pulled into a bank parking lot. The bank, which looked new and clean and upscale, appeared misplaced amidst the crumbling buildings, make-shift alley shelters and barefoot children that surrounded it.

Mark went inside to use the ATM. I told Puthi that Mark needed the cash to pay off his Cambodian informants, and Puthi nodded his head, straight-faced, and said ‘Ah.’

I got out of the truck to cool off and stretch my legs. I leaned against the front, passenger window and talked with Puthi.

He pointed to the decrepit building to the right of the bank and he told me that what went on inside there was exactly what I would’ve guessed.

‘Life is hard here’ he said. And I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about himself or just the city in general.

‘Will you and your wife be able to get by without her job?’ I asked him.

And he laughed and said ‘No.’ And then he looked down at his lap and he smiled a childlike smile- like something had just occurred to him.

I cocked my head and looked at him, clearly puzzled.

‘I don’t have much,’ he said, ‘I’m just grateful God can use what I do have.’

He’d translated for me all week: prayers, scripture, sermons. But that was as close to a Word from the Lord as I had heard that whole time.



John in his Gospel tends to include details.

At the wedding at Cana, the water jugs that were about to become casks of wine? John says there were 6 of them, and they each held 20-30 gallons.

John likes details.

When Jesus was about to summon Lazarus from the tomb. His sister Martha told Jesus: ‘He’s been dead for days. He’s going to stink.’

And when the Risen Christ was cooking breakfast for the disciples who were fishing early one morning. John records that they were about 100 yards off shore. And the catch of fish that morning that strained the nets? 153, John writes.

John likes details.

So when the little boy provides the food that Jesus uses to feed the multitudes, we ought to at least notice him. We ought to see him standing there with his five and his two.

The fact is-

You can puzzle all you want about the symbolism behind the 12 and the 5 and the 2. But that boy- that’s us in the story. He’s you and me.


It doesn’t matter if your bank account is almost empty or if you feel spiritually bankrupt.

It doesn’t matter if you’re out of work or just out of energy.

It doesn’t matter if you have too many other worries in front of you or if all your good years are behind you.

It doesn’t matter how many questions you have or how much faith you don’t have.

It doesn’t matter if all you can see in your life is what’s missing from it.

It doesn’t matter if all you have is 5 and 2.

It doesn’t matter.

Because Jesus can take what we have to offer and multiply it.

That boy is us. He’s you and me.

Because- as half-baked as it sounds- Jesus takes what we have to offer, our smallest acts of mercy and compassion, and he multiplies it to further the Kingdom of God.

Because even our most awkward attempts at devotion can be magnified by the grace of God.

Because all of us- we’re ordained at our baptism to the priesthood of all believers. Every last one of us has both the joy and the responsibility, the privilege and the burden of sharing in the ministry of Jesus.

And whatever you have to offer is enough.

Even if it’s little more than 5 and 2.


I had to retell this story for the children at Vacation Bible School back in June. I used brownies instead of barley loaves.

And after I finished the story one of the kids said to me: ‘It’s hard to believe Jesus could feed all those people with just five brownies and 2 fish.’

I just smiled and nodded, and I said:

‘Kid, it’s harder to believe Jesus can take what I have and make a miracle out of it.’


That’s Puthi in the middle. And that’s me on the left, sweating like a child molester as ‘Cambodia’ is actually Khmer for ‘Hot as Hell.’


Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

13. Do You Have to Believe in Original Sin to be a Christian?

Of course.

We can’t intelligibly consider ourselves Christian and not believe in original sin.

Of course, by calling it ‘original sin’ we do not refer to the origin of humanity- as though we believed Adam was a real, historical person or as though we failed to realize that mythology was the methodology of the first authors of scripture.

Instead by calling it original sin we name the sin in which we are all implicated, by which we are impaired from our very beginnings as creatures and from which we could not hope to be immune even were we raised by angels.

In other words, the term original sin characterizes the sinfulness we have by virtue of being persons in the world.

From the start.

Making sin not so much something we do but, firstly, something we are all in.

Original sin, then, points not to something chronological or biological but existenstial; that is, the human condition within which we come into being but also the precondition for our individual sinful acts and choices and they damage they incur.

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

– Romans 3.10

14. Do We Believe in a Literal, Historical Date for Original Sin?


Christians call it Good Friday.

For if ‘sin’ refers to our deprivation of the divine life through our rejection of God’s love and goodness then- obviously- the occasion sin on which original was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus.

Good Friday marks the occasion of original sin not in the sense that sin did not exist prior to the incarnation but in the sense that sin had no meaning before it.

The crucifixion of Jesus finally gave meaning to what we mean by the word ‘sin.’ The crucifixion of Christ is not just another of humanity revealing its inhumanity; the cruficixion is humanity making the most ultimate sort of rejection and, in doing so, rejecting itself.

“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

– Ephesians 4.18

   rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x68311111.jpg13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

People speak of the dying experiencing their lives flashing before them. I suppose that’s something, albeit slower, of what it’s like with cancer- the ‘hell of prolonged farewell‘ that it can be.

And it’s funny the memories that cancer calls to mind, such as the ones I have of a man named Wayne.

One summer Sunday morning, about 6 1/2 years ago, I sat down in a plastic lawn chair in the courtyard of the bungalows where a service team from my church were staying in Guatemala. I had a bowl of cereal in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

It was just the beginning of our week. Most of the service team had already eaten and had left to explore the lake at the edge of town and to snap pictures of the volcanoes that surrounded it.

For a moment or two, I ate alone.

Until another plastic lawn chair scraped across the concrete and a tall, lanky, balding man sat down next to me. He was wearing navy cargo pants and a bright yellow t-shirt that said ‘Fredricksburg UMC’ on the chest.

I recognized him immediately, but I could tell by the look on his face that the recognition wasn’t mutual.

He held his hand out and said matter-of-factly: ‘Wayne.’

‘Jason,’ I replied and shook his hand.

There were several other mission teams there that week and Wayne asked me which church I was a part of.

‘Is your pastor here with you this week?’ he asked.

‘Yep,’ I said nonchalantly and crunched some cereal.

After a pregnant pause or three, I said ‘Actually, I’m the pastor.’

He looked up from his cereal bowl and paused for a moment to see if I was being serious.

‘I wouldn’t think a pastor could get away with a shirt like that,’ Wayne observed.

He was referring to the black, triathalon t-shirt my wife gave me. It has pictures of a runner, a swimmer and a biker on it and below the images is the caption: ‘Threesome anyone?’

‘Shit, they’d be surprised if I didn’t wear shirts like this.’

‘So I guess they wouldn’t be shocked by your language then either?’

‘Not for a while now,’ I said, ‘though my bishop’s a different story.’

‘And does your congregation know you wear an earring when you go on mission trips?’ he asked me.

‘I wear it all the time,’ I said.

‘Really?’ he replied and again looked up from his cereal bowl to see if I was being serious.

‘You’d be surprised. It’s my sandals that irritate my congregation the most. I wear them all the time.’

He smiled and, with a napkin, dabbed at the milk in the corners of his mouth.

‘Are you really a pastor?’ he asked one last time.

I could tell he still didn’t recognize me so I said: ‘I was here last summer when you were here.’

He pointed a long, thin finger at me and snapped- like he’d just experienced an ‘Aha’ moment. And then he rubbed his chin as though he were trying to place me. But really I think he was just remembering the previous summer.

That past July

Wayne’s church and the service team from mine- we’d met in a tiny Guatemalan village called Alaska, so-called because the mountain altitude makes the community cloudy and cold. Both of our churches had gone there that day to participate in a reforestation project and to celebrate the construction of a new school.

Wayne had cancer that summer.

I remember hearing how he’d collapsed and spit up blood during the week while building a wood stove for a Mayan family. I remember overhearing him say in a defeated voice that he’d been coming to Guatemala for fifteen years to build stoves and how he expected that summer to be his last.

A Mayan priest had been invited to the village that day to perform a ritual blessing for the new school, but because of Wayne the priest instead performed an indigenous healing ceremony.

Wayne’s church and ours sat in a circle with a fire in the middle. Wayne sat with his shoulders slumped over. Wayne’s wife sat next to him and with a blue bandana, stoically wiped the tears from behind her sunglasses. The priest prayed a long, elaborate prayer with ‘Wayne’ being the only word distinguishable beneath the hard-sounding, Klingon-like Mayan dialect.

After the prayer, the priest dipped a bouquet of flowers in to the smoke and brushed Wayne’s body with it, up and down, front and back. He anointed Wayne’s neck and temples with oil. And then the priest placed his hands on Wayne’s chest and back and whispered another long prayer into his ear.


When the priest finished, the emotion swelling in the group was such the entire circle sang the doxology to Wayne. Sang it as a blessing. And, one-by-one, we hugged and promised to pray for him.

     ‘Have faith,’ I remember telling him, approximately 7 1/2 years before I was diagnosed with cancer myself.

A year later, that summer Sunday morning, sitting there at breakfast, Wayne was about the last person I expected to see.

‘How are you?’ I asked him.

No matter what I’d told him before no part of me expected him to live. So I was surprised when he said: ‘I’m fine. The cancer’s gone. I’m cured.’

It’s hard to say anything to that without it sounding cliche or contrived so for a while I just smiled awkwardly at him, the same way I do when the salesgirl at Victoria’s Secret catches my eyes lingering over the posters on the wall a bit too long.

But then I asked him: ‘Has it strengthened your faith?’ A pastorly type question I wagered.

Wayne put his elbows on the table and he looked at me like he had a secret and he said:

‘Well, that all depends on how you define faith.’

I pushed my cereal bowl to the center of the table, and I gestured to Wayne in a tell me more sort of way. He rested his chin on his hand and he said, confidingly:

‘I used to think faith was just a personal thing. You know- just between me and my God.’

Then he smiled as though he were embarrassed by what he’d said.

‘When you think your life’s just about over,’ Wayne whispered, ‘you realize: faith is about more than just you and God. Its bigger than you. It’s not just in here or in here.’

And he pointed to his head and his heart.

‘It’s here,’ he said and he circled his fingers all around.

‘It’s about changing the world,’ he said in a case-closed tone of voice.

‘I guess I never thought about it like that before,’ I said.

And he squinted his eyes at me and asked: ‘You’re not just yanking my chain? You’re really a pastor?’

Wayne came to mind a few months after that morning while I was writing a sermon on Hebrews 11.1-16, a passage in which the author, whom scholars refer to as ‘the Preacher,’ preaches:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for.’ 

     As with any sermon, if you read between the lines you can learn what’s going on in the preacher’s congregation. And when it comes to this preacher’s congregation, it’s obvious. They’re tired.

They’re tired of the endless challenges of serving their neighbor. They’re tired of the monotony of worship. They’re tired of the routine of church life.

They’ve heard every bible story and learned every prayer and the Good News- it’s not so new anymore.

This preacher’s congregation-

they’ve had faith for so long they’ve forgotten what faith is.

So the preacher of Hebrews attempts to reignite them, to call them back. And the preacher pulls out all the stops to do so.

The preacher preaches about how Jesus is superior to every angel in heaven. The preacher preaches about how Jesus is the only one who is blameless when it comes to sin, the only one who can approach God Almighty and plead our case.

The preacher preaches about how Christ is our great high priest, the One who mediates a covenant of forgiveness, a covenant that is new and perfect and forever, a covenant sealed with the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice that is final and once-for-all because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

It’s a kitchen sink, swing for the fences, altar call kind of sermon.

But then-

Just when the congregation starts to nod their heads and murmur ‘Amen,’ just before the preacher works his way to the crescendo- he stops. And he lets all the momentum leak out of his sermon.

The preacher stops. He looks out at his congregation. And with all deliberate plainness he says:

‘Before I preach another word, I want to make sure we all know what faith is.’ 

     And probably some there in the congregation yawned, thinking they don’t need to be reminded of what faith is. And I bet there were others there in the pews that morning who looked at their watches and wondered why the preacher was wasting time on this.

After all, it’s obvious what faith is. Right?

Faith is believing in what you can’t see. It’s being confident of what you can’t prove. It’s like trust. It’s like obedience. It’s personal. It’s a relationship. It’s in here, as Wayne told me he’d once thought.

Before cancer.

But for this preacher, those usual definitions they don’t quite measure up:

‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for…’

     The preacher preaches.

Except- that’s not quite it, I made a point to point out in my own preaching that day. What we hear in the passage and what the preacher’s congregation first heard aren’t the same thing. Something’s lost in the translation from Greek to English:

     ‘Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for…’ 

     That’s what the preacher preaches. The trouble is biblical translators think that word carries too much philosophical baggage to give it to you straight up. So they translate it as ‘assurance.’


It’s the same word we recite in the creeds when we affirm how Jesus the Son and God the Father- even though they’re different and distinct- somehow, mysteriously, share in the very same life, the very same work, the very same mission. Faith is like that- that’s what the preacher’s getting at.

Hypostasis. It means literally ‘very being.’

     In other words, ‘faith is the very being- one and the same- of what we hope for.’

Or a better way of putting it- ‘faith is the reality of what we hope for.’  An even clearer way of putting it would be- Faith brings into the here and now what God has promised for tomorrow.

To make the preacher’s point really plain- Faith makes our future hope real in the now.

Our hope for things on earth to be as they are in heaven, our hope for the empty to be filled and the lowly lifted up, our hope for mourning and crying and pain to be no more.

     Faith makes our hope real.

So of course it’s can’t just be in here or in here. It’s about changing the world, as Wayne told me. And I’ve been preaching that kind of faith 52 Sundays a year ever since.

     Except, I wonder now if maybe that’s not quite it either. 

The poet Kazim Ali advises that when you write or speak about something for a living you need to walk away from it for a time or you cease to know anything about it.

I think there’s wisdom in that advice. It’s been nearly 6 months since I ‘walked away’ from preaching and now I find myself recalling Wayne, whose point I once reiterated in sermon after sermon, and wanting to push back a bit.

Maybe it’s because Wayne was ‘cured’ when I spoke with him that morning over breakfast and, even if the months of treatment in front of me still go well, I never will be.

Maybe it’s because the teenage boy in the room next to me today, who has leukemia and the alienesque translucent skin to prove it, spit up blood all over the bathroom.

Which made me think of Wayne spitting up blood.

Which made me think of that boy in the room next to me.

Or maybe it’s that I have cancer now and, dammit, I’m entitled to my own take on things.

It’s probably all three, why I want to resist Wayne’s now, push back on his insistence that faith is about changing the world.

Frankly, there’s just too much changing that needs to be done.

While she flushed the lines of chest catheter today, I asked my nurse if she enjoyed her job. I was just making chit-chat, but I’m sure on some level we were both thinking of the boy in the next room.

‘I went into nursing to help people,’ she said, ‘You know, to make a difference, change the world.’ And she raised her eyebrows like you do at an old high school photo of yourself you barely rescue (or want to).

‘I enjoy it, yeah, but after so many patients, especially ones with what turns out to be a terminal illness (and she glanced at me and blushed), it’s easy to think you’re not really changing anything. There’s always the next one, so much need.’

‘Compassion fatigue, I guess’ she said and smiled.


Strangely, her words reminded me not of Wayne, not at first. but of the ending to a book we’ve all read, Charlotte’s Web. Like I said, cancer conjures curious memories. We’ve all read the book but, I think, forgotten the melancholy ending:

“Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash.

Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all.”

Anyone in the often grim trade of ministry or anyone in oncology can tell you: deaths like Charlotte’s, lonely deaths where the world goes on at best oblivious and at worst indifferent, they happen all the time.

And that’s just 1 statistic with which you can scratch the surface. You can throw in war, poverty, sex-trafficing- what Paul calls the ‘Principalities and Powers’ against which we must contend.

Of course, that’s the rub. Elsewhere Paul also claims those selfsame Principalities and Powers have been defeated. On the cross.

     What my nurse hit upon by expressing her feelings of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s suffering and need is what theologians mean by describing the ‘already/not yet’ character of Christ’s saving work.

That is-

Christ’s victory over the powers of this dark world has been achieved already; his work upon the cross is perfect, complete and once-for-all.

But the effects of his victory, Christ’s reign and his Kingdom, the evacuation of suffering and alienation, the elimination of Sin and Death, still are not yet realized upon the world. Innocents die of collateral damage. Kids die of cancer. The poor suffer our affluence. Prisoners suffer our indifference. Minorities suffer our blind and casual callousness.

In a nutshell, already/not yet translates to:

The world is not the way it’s supposed to be if- especially freaking if- A) God exists and B) God is sovereign and C) God as the Incarnate Christ already defeated the Principalities and Powers.

Believe me, take the cancer ward as just one possible exhibit A. It can get hard to believe in the already when you’re surrounded by, thrust into, so much of the not yet. So much so you start to worry- any sane or moral person would, I think- that your faith in the ‘already’ isn’t really a form of cognitive dissonance. Not pie in the sky as much as willful shutting of the eyes to all the shit below the skies.

 Now, with cancer myself, I find myself begging to differ with Wayne:

Christian faith is not about rolling up our sleeves and changing the world, chipping away at the ‘not yet’ one compassionate act at a time.

It can’t be because ever since the alleged ‘already’ at the first Easter about 2 thousand years of ‘not yet’ have accrued and, much like the sin that begat the cross in the first place, that’s a debt we cannot possibly pay.

To insist that faith in the Risen Jesus is about changing the world not only suggests that we can ourselves what Jesus still has not done himself (for whatever reasons), it surely also inflicts the kind of fatigued sense of futility my nurse expressed to me, as though Christians are called not to baptize but to burnout.

So if Christian faith isn’t about changing the world, then what’s the why behind our compassionate actions?

What’s the why behind bothering to build wood-stoves in Guatemala? Behind serving the poor? Behind caring for the sick and the suffering?

People often ask me these days if cancer has gotten me to rethink any of my theology.

Here it is:

Christian faith- our compassionate acts of faithful service- are not about changing the world.

They’re about protesting it.

Protesting the ‘not yet’ way of the God’s world.

Portrait Karl Barth

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I first cut my teeth, writes that whenever we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘for God’s name to be hallowed and God’s Kingdom to come we cannot come to terms and be satisfied with the status quo.’ 

We are, Barth says, by our prayerful action to ‘revolt and fight against the disorder which inwardly and outwardly controls and penetrates and disrupts all human relations and interconnections.’ 

Or, as it’s put more concisely in a quote attributed to Barth: ‘To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising agains the disorder of the world.’ 

 So we pray, we serve, we roll up our sleeves and care in order to protest- to point out- that the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, far far from it (screams the boy’s blood in the bathroom next to me), and although we cannot change the world ourselves we pursue these modest acts of faith as a witness, a summons, to the only One who can.

Of course, if Christian faith is more about protesting the world than changing it, then it should become obvious that our biggest protest is to against God, who still has not yet made good on the already of his Easter promise.

     Only a God whose power is suffering love could appreciate the irony: faith that looks to any outsider like doubt or, sometimes even- maybe at our best times, despair.

Freedom is Free

Jason Micheli —  July 2, 2015 — Leave a comment

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

12. If we believe in predestination, does this mean we have no free will?

Of course.

Remember, Jesus Christ is the Predestined One and obviously Christ is not not free. Indeed Jesus is the only fully free human being so liberated as to free others from their captivities and deliver them into the divine freedom we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We’re free in that we share in Christ’s freedom by our baptism and through our faith.

That freedom is freedom in Christ and, like Christ, is freedom for others reminds us that how normally think of the word ‘free’ (to have a will independent of any other agent) involes a false, idolatrous notion of God, for it pictures a god who inhabits the universe, existing alongside creatures, sometimes interfering with their lives and other times no, leaving them alone to be ‘free.’

Yet everything that exists exists- at every moment of its existence- because of the creative act of God.

Nothing that is can be except because of God

including our free spontaneous choices.

God is the Source of our free actions; therefore, there is no such thing as a human action independent of God. Our free acts are also, part and parcel, God’s creative acts. This does not constrain us; it is by them that we are ourselves.

Free will then cannot mean our acting apart from or independent of God acting upon us. Rather, like Christ, freedom menas fully cooperating with the action of God.

Freedom is embracing grace, the free gift of God.

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

11. Do we believe in predestination, that everything’s been fixed by God beforehand?

Do we believe in predestination? Yes.

Do we believe everything’s been fixed by God beforehand?



The word ‘predestination’ is shorthand for the plan of salvation, revealed through Christ, in the mind of God.

The mind of God is eternal.


Nothing in God exists before or after or even synchronos with anything- nothing in God can come before anything else- it all belongs to a single thing: the timeless life of God.

Thus it’s quite silly to think ‘predestination’ means that you wrecked your car, for example, because 30 or 30,000 years ago God determined that you would wreck your car on such and such a day.

Predestination, like everything else with the life of God, has no date at all.

Predestination then does not refer to God fixing the vicissitudes of our lives beforehand because the ‘beforehand’ makes no sense if you understand the word ‘God.’

Christ alone is the Predestined One.

Not you or me.

Predestination instead refers to the predestination of Christ, which is but another way of professing that the life, teaching and sacrifice of Christ are not Jesus’ doing alone but God’s; that is, the life, words and witness of the human Jesus are in fact the self-revelation of the eternal, timeless God.

Predestination professes that the story of Jesus is actually a divine drama, and, divine, it is eternal, timeless, remedying our story of sin even as our concepts of ‘before,’ ‘after’ and even ‘simultaneous’ cannot possibly relate to it or explain it in cause-effect chronological fashion.

So then:

If ‘salvation’ names our being incorporated into this divine drama, then our ‘predestination’ means not that the events and actions of our lives have been determined beforehand but that our lives of faith are a part of God’s self-revealing in Christ.

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” – Romans 8.29

No One Chooses Evil

Jason Micheli —  June 26, 2015 — 2 Comments

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

11. What Do We Mean by the Word ‘Sin?’

To sin is not to will something bad or wicked, as many believe.

To sin is not to choose evil. Evil is a privation, a no-thing.

No one chooses evil; choosing evil is impossible. It cannot be done.

Just as evil is a no-thing, sin is best understood as a ‘not-doing.’

As icons of the invisible of God, our greatest good is friendship with God. Sin is a rejection of our creaturehood. Sin is a failure to choose happiness, opting instead for something we think will make us happy.

When we sin, we choose a lesser good over the greatest good of friendship with God; therefore, sin is not sin because of anything we positively choose: pleasure, power, or wealth.

Sin is sin because of what we fail to choose, what we forsake for trivial goods. Sin is sin because we have chosen not to live up to our full humanity as creatures made in the image of God.

Sin is a not-doing.

To confess that you have sinned is to admit what you have not done, what you have freely chosen not to do- not, for example, loving your neighbor as yourself and choosing wealth and comfort for yourself instead.

Because sin is a ‘not-doing,’ it is the only thing with which God has nothing to do.

Sin (and Hell for that matter) because they are failures of full humanity are the only two things in creation which are uniquely and exclusively the work of human choosing with which God has nothing to do whatsoever.

Sin alone is the product of individual initiative.

‘I have come so that they may have life and have it abundantly.’ – John 10.10

Why Did Jesus Come?

Jason Micheli —  June 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the tag for the previous posts here and on the sidebar to the right.

III. The Son

10. Why did Jesus come?  

There’s no need to ask me.

Ask his cousin, John: Jesus comes in order to bear away our proclivity to point the finger and scapegoat one another, the sin that is at the very foundation of the world; so that, we can be at-one with God and each other.

Ask his mother, Mary: Jesus comes to bring the Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, in which the lowly are lifted up, the powerful brought down from their boardrooms, the proud scattered in the presumptions of their heart, the rich sent empty away and the poor have gospel brought to them.

Ask his father, Joseph: Jesus comes to be a light to the nations, the 2nd Abraham through whose family, called church, the whole world might be blessed.

Ask Matthew: Jesus comes so that his birth, from nothing, would inaugerate a New Creation of which his resurrection- Sin and Death having done their worst- is vindication.

Ask John, his Beloved Disciple: Jesus comes to give flesh to the invisible image of God, showing us the authentically human, abundant life God desires for each of us. But, he comes to take us beyond mere creature hood too, bearing us in his flesh, through his Spirit into the life called Trinity; so that, God can love us not as creatures but as God loves God.

Ask his disciples: Jesus comes to be our Passover, liberating us through his broken body and poured out blood from the Powers which bind us, into a life of freedom for love and service.

Ask the Pharisees: Jesus comes claiming to be the Son of Man, forgiving sinners (refusing to condemn them) while judging the nations and those who serve them as their true lord.

Ask Pontius Pilate: Jesus comes to witness, even unto a cross, to the ‘truth’ that God alone rules the Earth.


Ask him yourself: He comes to invite us to turn away from the ways we reject our creature hood (which we call ‘sin’) and to turn towards a life of grace and gratitude (which he calls ‘the Kingdom of God’).

He does not come– notice, in order to suffer a monster’s torture meant for another, to assuage our guilt or to placate an anrgy deity. Nor does he come to bless our political causes in this life, secure our passage to the next one or reinforce maxims we can surmise apart from him, i.e. that ‘All you need is love.’

“Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of God is near.” -Matthew 3.2

Elijah’s Sons

Jason Micheli —  June 17, 2015 — 1 Comment

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x6831111.jpgFather’s Day


I discovered this photo the other night, scrolling through the computer and finding others like it that, having been snapped, disappeared into the cloud. Unseen by me. Or, the scab always tells the truth: I was too busy to notice.

I cried big, eyelash-less tears when I double-clicked on it and watched us maximize the screen together. I didn’t realize Mommy had taken the picture, or possibly it was X who stole into the bedroom and snuck it, hoping to catch one or both of us drooling in our sleep.

According to the date on the computer, one of them snapped it on a Sunday this winter, but there’s no time stamped with the date. I don’t know if this image captures an early AM after you crawled into bed with us on late Saturday night or if this is you having joined me for a post-worship afternoon nap. So it’s a mystery. The winter light through the shades, the ratty undershirt, our exhausted faces. You could bet either way.


This picture, Gabriel, was taken a couple of weeks before that night the doctor called me when you, X and I were in the car, pulling into the driveway from swim practice. He asked- you overheard- if I was driving. ‘No,’ I lied. Then he asked if I was sitting down. ‘Yes,’ I said. Then I told you two to run along inside, and then I came in maybe 30-40 minutes later, having called your Mom and your Grandma and your Godfather, Dennis. And then you asked why I’d been crying and, afraid of not getting the words out or what they’d even sound like if I did, I then just rubbed your hair and hugged you.

Then I told you I loved you.

‘I love you more- too bad, so sad, you lose’ you said, scampering, innocent and unblemished to the shower.

The harder work of explaining cancer to you fell to your Mom. It always does.

Looking at this picture now, and not knowing the time of the day, I can’t help but wonder about it. Are we both really asleep with you on top of me? Or, is one of us (or both of us) just pretending? My guess is we’re both faking it and both know it, neither of us giving in, which is another way of saying we’re savoring the moment, stretching it out until it twists into a smile. My guess, that a picture can’t capture, is that you’re bearing down on my belly with your full dead body weight, waiting for me to gasp like the old man you accuse me of being. Maybe you went a sneaker route and are now, poker-faced with ostensible sleep- squeaking little farts onto me. That would, after all, explain the slight smile pursed at the corner of your supposedly snoring mouth.

I’m just now seeing this picture; I don’t recall the morning or the afternoon, but we’ve shared enough like them that I can wager a guess how the rest of this moment went down. You grabbed my belly or my ‘disgusting hairy armpits’ and tickle attacked me. And I rolled over- maybe flipped you over WWE style- and we roughhoused until you got hurt or overstimulated or I got red-faced and winded and Mommy started wondering aloud why she’s stuck living with so many boys in the house.

I cried when I first saw this photo, a God’s eye image of us as innocent, happy and- dare your Preacher Dad say it- #blessed. Even though I just saw this photo the other night, I don’t think I would’ve seen it before.

Not like I do now.

Mary Karr (you should read her someday) writes:

‘What hurts so bad about youth isn’t the actual butt whippings the world delivers.

It’s the hopes playacting like certainties.’

I know you don’t think I am, Gabriel, but my oncologist keeps assuring me that I’m young (‘and healthy!’). Both youth and health, I’ve learned are relative terms when it comes to stage-serious cancer, but I’m at least not so old that the truth of Mary Karr says stings because hope charading as certainty is what I see in the picture, unexamined confidence that we have all the time in the world with each other.

And maybe we do- God, I hope we do- but I can’t pretend to be certain anymore. Even you know that now, I think, in your way.

We’re in a different place now than we were when Mommy or X snapped that photo of us, unawares in more ways than one. You’ve gone with me to the cancer center and visited me in the cancer ward. You’ve seen the old people and the people who look like me and the kids who look like you there, all sick. The same day I discovered this picture you got angry with me, Gabriel, righteously angry, while I made dinner. I’d gotten sent to the hospital that morning for blood transfusions and I’d missed your class play I’d promised to attend. Facetime didn’t cut it.

‘I’m mad that you weren’t there. You PROMISED. I hate cancer. I hate that cancer has you. I hate that God makes cancer. I just wish there was no cancer.’

It’s not just you though, G. Just a couple of weeks ago, I cried a guilty twinge of tears when I heard your brother say:

‘My real birthday present this September will be Daddy being all done with cancer.’

The innocent, unqualified optimism that I can’t possibly promise to deliver upon made my heart go slack.

These last 4 months I’ve done a lot of ill-advised late night Googling about expected life spans with MCL and average remission rates and median times to first relapse and what’s so overwhelmingly tone deaf in all the literature is how none of the facts and figures stop to consider how your Mom and I have the two of you in our (wing) span. These years are ours not mine alone.

There’s a word that comes to mind, Gabriel, when I look at this picture. You ready for it? It’s called THEOPHANY. You don’t know the word but you enough of your Bible to know what it means.

THEOPHANY = ‘A public presentation of God’s immediacy’ is how my fancy Bible dictionary puts it.

Theophany- you know the stories G.

As in, the LIGHT that strikes the apostle Paul blind on the road to Damascus. As in the VOICE that tears open the sky at Jesus’ baptism and declares ‘This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.’

Theophany. It’s God making himself known, in the now.


When God appears to Abraham and promises Abraham a future and a home and more children than the stars, God appears to Abraham as FIRE. Theophany.

And when the People of Israel cross over the Red Sea, the Lord appears to them as SMOKE and CLOUD and FIRE and finally in an EARTHQUAKE. And when it’s all over, the People of Israel are left promising: ‘We will do whatever the Lord says.’ 

And then there’s the story of Elijah. It’s in your Lego Bible.

But when it comes to Elijah, God is not so reliably typecast. When it comes to Elijah, God’s not there- not in the WIND, not in the FIRE, not in the EARTHQUAKE. With Elijah, there’s nothing. Just silence.

Elijah’s come to Mt Horeb, the place where Moses says to God, with bit lip and barely suppressed anger: ‘I want to see you. Show me…show me your glory.’ 

Elijah’s facing his biggest disappointment, his lowest point. Just when he should be celebrating, he has the rug of his faith pulled out from underneath him and he lands hard on his doubt and his hard questions.

For the first time Elijah can’t hear God all that clearly, and for the first time this prophet doesn’t know if God hears him. God’s gone silent on him. So, where does he go? He goes to the one place he can think of where he can ask God directly:


Why is this happening to me?

Why me and not them? Why me when I’m the one who’s been faithful?

Why have you let me down, God?

I thought if I served you, you’d watch out for me.

Isn’t that what relationship means?

Elijah goes to the place where God has spoken before, to the place where God has appeared as FIRE and WIND and SMOKE and CLOUD and EARTHQUAKE. He goes to the place where God gave Israel direction and certainty, to the place where God gave Moses comfort and guidance.

Elijah goes to Sinai in search of that word- theophany. You see, Elijah wants God to come in FIRE and WIND and TREMBLING. He wants God’s VOICE to tear open the sky and speak in a BOOM that sweeps all of his doubts and questions away. Just like Moses did, Elijah wants to put his foot down on Mt Sinai and demand: ‘I want to see you.‘ But what he gets is SILENCE.


I’ve preached sermons on that story at least 6 times that I know, Gabriel, and every time I’ve always emphasized the the silence, stressed that God’s presence is found in the small, grace-filled diorama moments of our lives not in the thunder and boom of events in the larger world. And every time I would end the sermons with predictable lines like:

Just because you can’t see him clearly at this point in your life, it doesn’t mean he’s not there.

Just because he doesn’t feel as close to you as he did at a former time, it doesn’t mean he’s not with you.

Just because your doubt feels firmer than your faith ever felt iIt doesn’t mean he’s not with you. It doesn’t mean he’s not at work. It doesn’t mean he’s not speaking.

Just because you’d like nothing more than a mountaintop theophany in your life, it doesn’t mean God isn’t at work quietly and invisibly in your life.

Mostly, I think I’ve preached this way because I’m a product of Mainline Protestantism where we’re not sure if God actually works in the world anymore, but we’re definitely sure we don’t want to be mistaken for those other Christians who see God at work on the green screen of the weatherman’s map.

Looking at this picture of you, though, and thinking of that word THEOPHANY I’m now convinced it’s wrong to privilege one angle over the over because God is most assuredly in the fire and the wind and the earthquake as well the silence.

Lest God’s not God.

At the risk of sounding heretical (and, honestly, I’ve got bigger worries these days), a clearer way of putting this is that I think the narrator of Elijah’s story is wrong, no matter his/her dramatic aim.

God IS in the fire and the wind and the tremble.

After all, as God self-reveals to Moses: ‘I am He who Is.’

God, in other words, is the Source of Existence itself in that everything which exists owes its existence to God. God, please remember this in high school and college Gabriel, is the name we give to the question ‘How come________?’ God is our answer to the most important question of all: ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’

Of course, that doesn’t mean God is the direct cause behind every boom and bolt and quake, anymore than every diagnosis, but as Creator, continuously holding all things in creation in existence, God IS IN them.

What Paul says of God and us holds true of all created things: ‘God’s the one in whom we live and move and have our being.’

Or, as my teacher taught me:

‘God is the infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.’

In all things: fire, wind, dewdrops, silence, cells. Everything = THEOPHANY.

So if God is in all things, necessarily, including where Elijah’s narrator repeatedly stresses God ain’t, then what are we to make of the silence about which the narrator makes so much?

Despite committing rather elementary mistakes in the doctrine of God, what does the narrator of Elijah’s story want us to see by stressing that God is in that still small voice?


Humor me. See if you can wrap your head around this-

Richard Taylor, a philosopher, once invited readers to imagine a man (or a boy) hiking in the woods where he came upon, out of the blue, a translucent sphere. Obviously, Taylor points out, the man would be shocked by the strangeness of the object and he’d wonder just how it should happen to be there floating in the middle of the forest.

More to the point, the hiker would never be able to swallow the notion that it just happened to be there, without cause or any possibility of further explanation. Such a suggestion would strike him as silly. But, Taylor argues- and this is money- what the hiker has failed to notice is how he might ask that same question, just as well, to any other object in the woods, say a rock or a tree or a spiderweb or a little boy as much as this strange sphere.

He fails to do so:

‘Only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. We’d be curious about a sphere suddenly floating in the forest; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place.’

Taylor says you can imagine that sphere stretched out to the size of the universe or shrunken to a grain of sand, as everlasting or fleeting. and it doesn’t change the wonder:

‘It’s the sheer unexpected thereness of the thing, devoid of any transparent rational for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature but of its very existence.’

What’s all that mean, Gabriel?

It means every little detail and moment of our lives is a marvel no less than that sphere in the forest. It means every part of our lives together is a wonder  of which we could ask ‘Why this instead of nothing?’ It means everything around us is not necessary at all, not ‘natural’ unto itself and, as such, it’s charged, all of it, with the immediacy of God. It’s all graced. Back to that word again: its all THEOPHANY.

We just seldom stop to think/notice/marvel/wonder/praise that everything from the boom and bolt to your morning breath against my neck is as odd, and so a gift, as that philosopher’s sphere.

Looking at this picture, Gabriel, what’s so obvious to me now was missed by just as wide a mark back then, double-true for all the other moments we could have snapshots of but don’t. Funny how we take more pictures these days but give less praise, but that starts to sound like preaching and I’m on medical leave.

Here’s what I can say, G.

Only after the fright and upheaval, the pain and the uncertainty…of cancer do I see what was so clearly there. Is here.

I see it clearly enough it makes me wonder if Elijah ever had sons of his own.

My guess is he’d have had a hard time getting a date, but here’s what I think I missed about Elijah’s story all those other times. Or, at least here’s what I wonder. I wonder if Elijah would’ve heard God in the silence- in the still, small voice- had it not been for all the tumult that preceded it.

Maybe it’s not the case that God’s not in the fire and the boom but in the silent moments, as I’ve always preached.

Maybe the boom and the bust, the fire and the fear, calibrates our eyes to what’s there all around us. All the time.


Christian Wiman writes that

‘Love is the living heart of dread.’

He’s got cancer too so he understands what others who just countenance optimism and perseverance miss. When love’s concerned, hope and dread aren’t that far removed from one another.

Dread is exactly what I feel sometimes and even when I look at this picture too, thinking of all the percentages and odds you can Google late at night.

Except thinking of that philosopher’s sphere and remembering that word, theophany, makes me realize that whatever we have to come- you, your brother, your Mom and I- are more marvels than we can count.

But that shouldn’t keep us from trying.


When you have cancer, you quickly realize how the problem with chemotherapy is that everyone thinks chemotherapy is chemotherapy, that it’s the cancer equivalent to Centrum Silver, a catch-all for every once-sized cancer customer.

Whenever someone asks me ‘How’s the chemo going?’ I picture them picturing me with my chest catheter hooked up to a skull and cross-boned bag labeled, generically, ‘Cancer Drug.’ Or maybe, I picture, they just picture me swallowing it with a shot of water.

The truth is there are as many chemotherapy treatments as there are cancers and differing intensities and durations of those treatments for all the urgencies presented by those cancers. As my oncologist put it to me last week, in the face of latest wave of side effects:

‘Some chemo’s not much worse than Thanksgiving with your mother-in-law while other chemo, like yours for example, is designed to kick your fucking ass.’

Bewitched by the fact that I’m a man of the cloth, I sometimes wonder if it gives my doctor a titillating, confessional thrill to speak with me as though he’s working on my carburetor instead of my bone marrow.

Regardless of his motivation, he’s dead-on about the ass-kicking.

My particular chemo, R Hyper-CVAD, is a cocktail of poisons with Dr. Moreau-like names such as Cyclophosphamide, Vincristine, Doxorubicin, Dexamethasone, Methotrexate, Cytarabine and Rituximab. (You know they’re bad when the handouts tell you to double flush after pissing.)

My chemo is given to me for a week at a time in 8 alternating cycles every 21 days- those days get longer if my body’s recovery gets slower, which, increasingly, it has. Developed at the MD Anderson Clinic for quote ‘use in treatment of serious and aggressive forms of hematological malignancy…and reserved for young, fit patients because of its intensity’ my chemo protocol has already, in 4 short months, recast my self-image from Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider to Rick Moranis’ Louis Tully in Ghostbusters.

Each time the drugs extinguish my white blood cells, making me ice cream for the most innocent of germs. They deplete my red cells, the oxygen and protein in them, and thin my blood to a dangerous viscosity, leaving me with cuts that won’t heal, tissue that tears into sores, a racing heart I can feel in my teeth and a near constant state of dizziness. The effects are cumulative too so, with each round, they get worse and, each time, my recovery is like a rubber band with just a little less snap than before.


I’m at my nadir now.

I use that term, nadir, not because I’m a Scrabble-playing douchebag but because everyone from the doctors on down to the nursing techs use it to describe my lowest low, the point following each round of treatment at which, to use my doctor’s professional jargon, my ass is its most thoroughly kicked- usually about a dozen days after the start of chemo.

The English major in me likes that word ‘nadir’ to capture not just my blood chemistry but my feelings: pushed down a pendulum that’s not swinging back.

I’ve experienced 4 nadirs now and, it’s no comparison, I’m at my nadir of nadirs. The lowest of all my lows thus far. Last night, shivering with fever and curled up into a fetal position atop the bed, I wondered to Ali if I’d be able, physically, to make it to the end of my chemo, to come up from another 4 nadirs.

‘This is the first time…I don’t know if I can do this…’ I whispered.

I wasn’t looking for encouragement or empathy. I genuinely don’t know.

Everything I said above about my chemo’s side effects has been true this go round, ditto that bit about accumulating pain.

The poisons having plunged my blood counts to zero, my gums feel like they’ve been treated by a plastic surgeon who dabbles in dentistry on the weekends.

My tongue is swollen and covered in sores such that I can’t swallow or speak much more than a mumble. The sores rundown my esophagus so that when I do manage to eat something it triggers this stuck-in-the-throat choking sensation. My gums, tongue, throat- they’re all infected, which in turn has provoked a chronic, week-long 100 degree fever against which my 0.01 white blood count proves no match.

To add misery to insult and injury, the chemical runs induced by the start of chemo have turned to constipation. Wicked constipation. Like my colon is a character in the Cask of Amontillado.

I’m 15 pounds heavier than I was a week ago. I’m carrying around roughly 21 meals worth of food, plus snacks, and I feel like someone stuck a 3 Buck Chuck plastic cork up my small intestine and then quick-creted my ass crack for good measure.

It hurts.

Because my body’s so vulnerable during my nadir, the dumb ass, stoic bravado that comes naturally to me won’t cut it now. I’ve got to be forthcoming about my symptoms because, thanks to my orphaned immune system, I’m not going to get better on my own.

Whenever my temperature creeps across the 100 degree line, I’m supposed to suck it up and notify the on-call oncologist because a common cold could be enough to extradite me back to the hospital.

I called him the other morning and told him about my unabated fever and my infected gums and- why not, while I’ve got him on the phone- the geologic layers of food frozen in my intestines.

‘I’m telling you…it feels like I’m going to deliver a man-child. You could carbon date some of the food that’s stuck in me.’

He responded with MD-worthy ‘Hmms’ to each of my complaints, and when he sensed I’d finished my rant, he asked me the question I’ve since learned is to healthcare what the question ‘What’s in your wallet?’ is to Capitol One’s predatory usury:

‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’

Doctors, nurses, phlebotomists, et al ask that same question more than baby bird asked ‘Are you my mother?’

Before I even knew I had cancer, the CAT scan tech, noticing my discomfort while lying on the table, asked me: ‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’ Likewise the GI doctor who sent me for that CAT scan which would upend my life: ‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain in your tummy?’ He said tummy.

It was the first question that greeted when I awoke from bowel surgery and, in the days following, it was the question against which my recuperation was measured. I’ve since been asked it at every doctor visit, every blood draw, every chemo infusion and every platelet transfusion. The physicians assistant on the cancer advice line asks it. The nurse on the cancer ward charts it on the dry erase board right underneath my emergency contact information.

The other morning the on-call oncologist asked me it too.

‘…I can’t even remember the last time it’s been so long…I feel like I’m in an anus-themed version of Alien, except it’s a much, MUCH slower movie this time.’

‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’ he asked me.

And I fell into the same trap I always do.

I started philosophizing.

‘Well that all depends,’ I said as if stating the obvious.

‘It depends?’ he asked. I could detect the irritation blistering in his voice, for all I knew he was clutching his Galaxy on the 10th Fairway.

‘Yeah, it all depends. I mean, sure I feel like I’m about to deliver Shaquille O’Neal’s breech love child- 4 weeks LATE- but it all depends on what you consider a 10. Compared to, say, the pain of dying in the holocaust I’m probably only a…’

I weighed it.

‘…a 3.’

He sighed, like I’d called the on-call psychiatrist on accident.

‘How high did you say your fever was?’

Yesterday morning I was describing how my gums feel like they went to the prom last night with Carrie as the nurse typed my symptoms into an excel column labeled, I noticed, ‘Complaints.’

When I finished, she spun around on her stool and with a blank, impassive expression she asked me that question.

’10 being the most painful?’ I asked, just to be sure.

She nodded.

‘It’s hard to say’ and I exhaled like class (or therapy) was finally beginning.

‘Hard to say?’ she repeated back to me, double-checking her English.

‘Yeah, it’s hard to say. It all hangs on what you consider a 10, right?’

She just stared at me.

‘I mean, of course, my gums feel like someone carved them up to serve with fava beans and a nice Chianti, but compared to the pain of the world? It’s gotta rate pretty low, right?’

‘No?’ she guessed. She wasn’t following me.

‘Have you seen the movie Sophie’s Choice?’ I asked, hoping even a cliched tearjerker could make my point for me. She shook her head. No.

‘Well, Meryl Streep plays this Polish Jew during WWII and at the end of the movie you realize the Nazis at Auschwitz forced Sophie to choose between her two children, choose which one would live and which one would die in the ovens.’

The nurse covered her mouth.

‘That’s…horrible’ she whispered as the tiniest dew of a teardrop appeared in the corner of her eye.

‘I know- that’s my point. It’s horrible. Like, on an historic level. Can you even imagine? Something like that kind of pain has to be a 10 right? So compared to that what kind of unweened weenie would I have to be to rank my gum pain an 8, just 2 shy of Sophie’s choice?’


She shook her head and blinked, as if she were only now emerging from a narcotic slumber.

‘But…it doesn’t matter because you not know what Sophie’s choice feels like yourself.’

‘That’s just it,’ I countered, ‘you don’t know what this feels like.’ I pointed to my gums. ‘So what good does me assigning an arbitrary number to it do?’

‘I’ll put a 5 down.’

And she spun back around on her stool and began clacking on the keyboard. ‘The doctor will be in shortly’ she said. Godhelphim, she didn’t need to say.

When you become a chronic patient, you soon discover how so much of modern medicine is premised on pain management and how it’s all based on a numeracy that’s about as objective as a Jackson Pollack.

‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’ everyone asks.

But the scale isn’t scaled.

Compared to what? What scale are we talking about? Are these global or historic or personal proportions we’re weighing? Or, am I simply supposed to sort out today’s gripes like a game a layer cake? Maybe my gums feel like Laurence Olivier is standing over me with a drill asking ‘Is it safe?’ but compared to having ebola or those earthquake victims in Nepal I’d be a pretty petty bastard to rank it higher than 5. And don’t even get me started on where the crucifixion should go.

It seems to me before you ask me to plot my pain on a scale of 1-10 we should at least agree to certain benchmarks. Losing a child, let’s say, is a consensus 10. Losing a spouse, meanwhile, could be a 9 or a 2, depending on the quality of the marriage. Childbirth, men are always being reminded, is (even in the best of circumstances) an 8 while being hit in the nuts should never fare lower than a 3. A soft tap to the nuts- the worst, as every guy knows- is always a 4. We could save 6 for IRS audits and cavity searches, which are really just the same thing and who would argue with paper cuts for #1?

Pain, without some mutually agreed upon rubric, is all relative.


Your 10 might be the knife wounds you sustained while protecting a damsel from a mugging but, for a nancy like me, walking uphill on a hot day might be sufficient to score a 7. It’s all relative. It’s all relative to me, too, to my pain. Rating the sores on my swollen tongue a 5 doesn’t really tell you much if you don’t already know that, on my pain scale, 10 is reserved for the night I sat in the driveway and called Ali at work to tell her the doctor thought it might be cancer.

Actually, no, 10 is listening to her cry after I told her that night.

A 9 might be watching the last of my man hair wash down the shower drain yesterday morning.

When you’re having a heart attack you’re asked if it feels like an elephant is standing on your chest. A very specific, concrete image with some heft to it. But as you recuperate from that heart attack you’ll be asked to track your pain according to a number system that feels as arbitrary as those folded-paper fortune tellers my kids make at school.

Choose your favorite color. Pick an animal. What’s your # today?

Approaching 5 months of cancer under my belt, I can’t help thinking that, rather than a smoke-and-mirrors number system, what the practice of oncology could use is a few English majors. Forget the 5’s and 6’s that don’t communicate and rely instead upon simile and metaphor, allusion or anthropomorphism, to convey your pain. I’m confident, for example, that onomatopoeia would be a lot more useful to describe my diaherra than the number 3, and stream of consciousness not only has a noble literary lineage it’s exactly how my anemia feels.

Literary devices- that’s what oncology should use.

They’re the stuff of stories. And stories, no matter what my lab work says, is what we’re really made of.

‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’ everyone asks as though pain is on the periodic table of common human experience.

But that’s the problem: there’s no such thing as common human experience.

There are no universally accessible perspectives. Everything IS relative. If there’s one thing incarnation teaches us, it’s that.

God, after all, didn’t become human. God became Jesus. God didn’t take on generic flesh. God took on Mary’s flesh, and, with it, all the stories in every knot on her family tree. God didn’t become anyone; God became a very particular Jewish carpenter from the Ozarks of Israel.

Incarnation- that’s why the numbers don’t work.

The scale can’t be scaled. It can’t be circumscribed or universalized. Just as God cannot take on flesh without also taking on a very distinctive story, what makes us human- fully human- is not the general but the narrow, not the 2’s and 4’s but the flesh and blood details: ‘Doc, it feels as bad as the time I stuck a bat in a beehive as a boy and got stung all over me.’

Each of us is as particular as the God who became the particular Jew named Jesus.

Jesus does not incarnate a one-size-fits-everyone ‘humanity’ common to us all. Rather, each of our humanities, our experiences and stories- somehow they all have a share in his unique experience and story.

The scale can’t be scaled.

What links us together, in other words, isn’t some shared, common story called ‘the human experience.’

What links us together are the distinctive, particular ways we apply his unique story to our own.

That’s why ‘discipleship’ is a category even broader than ‘chemotherapy’ and as diverse as ‘human creatures.’ There’s no one way to do it, discipleship. The doing it is what unites us.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately not just because at every turn I’m asked to plot my pain along an unempirical number line. I think about it because over the past 4 months it’s gradually dawned on me that I’m now attempting to apply a different part of Jesus’ story to my own: his death.

What I mean is-

Cancer has been an occasion for me to remember that when we’re baptized, we’re baptized not just for Christ’s (eternal) life but into Christ’s death:

‘…so that dying and being raised with Christ we may share in his final victory…’ 

The manner in which we’re sick, then, the way we handle our suffering, how we die, all the unique particulars of chemo’s ass-kicking- all of of it are ways we live out, live up to, our baptism

Even the way in which I handle this Around-the-World-in-Eighty-Days-travel-freeze.

I updated the nurse, a different one this time, about it this morning.

‘It feels like hoarders have been squatting in my colon since Let It Bleed.’

‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’ she asked me.

‘That all depends,’ I reclined fo , ‘have you seen Schindler’s List?’