The Last Straw

Jason Micheli —  August 24, 2015 — 5 Comments

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7.6.15

‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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?

Yes.

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

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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.

Patience.

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.

‘I.

Have.

C.O.

P.D.’

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

Can.

Barely.

Breathe.

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.

 

‘What’s.

Your.

Point?

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.’

 

‘You’re.

Supposed.

To have.

A lump_____________there.

Two.’

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.

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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:

‘Dad?’

‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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?’

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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 (www.tamedcynic.org) 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.

Sincerely, 

Dr _____________________

PS:

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

Sincerely, 

Dr________________

PS:

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.

Sincerely, 

Dr_____________

PS:

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.’

Sincerely, 

Dr. _____________

PS:

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.

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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.

loaves

 

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.

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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.

Because:

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.’

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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?

Absolutely.

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.

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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.’

Hypostasis.

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.

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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?

Absolutely.

Not.

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

The mind of God is eternal.

Timeless.

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.

Or-

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

Gabriel

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.

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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.

Like:

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?

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?’

‘But…’

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.

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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?’

Of the disciples fleeing Jesus’ execution, theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

‘The disciples have not yet understood the radical character of Jesus’ Kingdom that would challenge the violence of the world by refusing to respond to it on the world’s own terms…What they failed to understand was that Jesus is more radical than those who rebel against Rome or other empires using the force of arms. Rome knows how to deal with those who oppose it on its own terms. What Rome and all empires fear are those who refuse its terms of battle.

Jesus has more time than Rome to engage in the world of calling into existence a people who have learned to live trusting in the righteousness of God.’

Faithfulness, Hauetwas argues, is fundamentally about patience, a commitment to work in this world confident that, in Jesus Christ, God has already disclosed to us the way of the world.

My friend, Brian Stolarz, knows about patience; consequently, whether he’d own up to it or not, he knows more than most about faithfulness to God’s righteousness. He also knows, thanks to yours truly, that in scripture righteousness is just another word for justice. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that I count Brian one of those gifts with whom cancer has given me the chance to nurture a deeper friendship; he’s been there for me.

Just as he’s been there for others:

As I’ve blogged about before, Brian spent a decade working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dwayne Brown, from death row in Texas.

Alfred Dewayne Brown had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case.

You can read the previous posts about Brian’s work and watch our dialogue sermon from last summer here here and here.

 

Since the analytics tell me that many of you followed the story on the blog, I’m happy to post that Brian sent me giddy texts yesterday afternoon letting me know his patience had finally paid off. After having his conviction dismissed earlier this year, Texas finally released Alfred to his family last evening.

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And what’s amazing, and fitting to Hauerwas’ observation above, is that Alfred is not angry. Despite the time lost for him and the time sacrificed by Brian, God has given us more time in resurrection to live lives worthy of the Kingdom.

You can read last night’s story about Brown’s release here.

The reporter for the Houston Chronicle, by the way, who helped bring publicity to Alfred’s case by relying on Brian’s work, won a Pulitzer this year.

Here’s a video of Alfred’s release. If you understood Hauerwas’ quote above, then you’ll know it’s an Easter video.

 

Healing

Jason Micheli —  June 3, 2015 — 1 Comment

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111.jpgAfter a 4 month hiatus from the pulpit, I joined Dennis Perry this Sunday for a dialogue sermon on John 5’s story of the healing at Bethsaida.

You can download it in iTunes here.

 

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111.jpgPentecost

My theological muse, Stanley Hauerwas, likes to say that ‘Methodist means mediocre.’ As an example of what might warrant such a woeful aesthetic assessment, one need only thumb through the United Methodist Hymnal.

Though my musical skill stops at appreciating how Ryan (not Bryan) Adams is a songwriter second only to Bob Dylan, even I can point out how many of the ditties on offer in the UMH are cringe-worthy on any number of levels.

For instance, there are the songs that sound, quite simply, crap-in-your-pants frightening to the uninitiated, who could never decipher (much less stomach) their minutiae of biblical allusions. Chief among these, in my estimation, is the communion hymn ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

I remember first hearing this song as a teenager during those initial months when I was forced to attend church against my will. Back then I had no faith and I possessed precious little more of the faith’s story.

Listening to 300 suburbanites sing (with eyes as bright as their polo shirts) about being plunged into a tub of blood, the nascent theologian in me was struck with this crisp, cogent thought: ‘WTF?!’

Not incidentally, I should point out, the author of this Kubrickesque hymn, William Cowper did, at the time of its writing, suffer from, in the euphemism of his day, ‘madness.’ Making all us who persist in singing this ‘praise’ song a little like those vacant-eyed twins in The Shining.

Similar on this score is the hymn ‘O Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,’ a Methodist favorite. Though not as terrifying as ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood’, ‘Fount’ does contain the so-cryptic-as-to-sound-silly verse: ‘…here I raise my Ebenezer…

Despite a 6-figure seminary education which informs me that the object in question is Samuel’s memorial stone between Mizpeh and Shen from 1 Samuel 7, this doesn’t prevent me, whenever I sing ‘Fount,’ from picturing a bearded, square-jawed, performance-enhanced Samson-type bench-pressing an old man who resembles the husband from American Gothic.

His name, I’ve always assumed, certainly must be Ebenezer.

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In addition to the cryptic, there are those songs that just sound plain creepy, such as my personal favorite, #367 ‘He Touched Me.’

If you haven’t heard it, ‘He Touched Me’ is a hymn which contains so many double entendres you’d be justified in glancing down at the bottom of the page to see if it was written by the artist formerly (and once again) known as Prince.

Though it was once covered by a 54-inch waisted Elvis Presley, who was no stranger to innuendo (‘Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’), and though its allegedly about Jesus and Faith, ‘He Touched Me’ actually sounds, any impartial listener must agree, as though its narrating a slumber party at Jim Bob Duggar’s house:

‘Shackled by a heavy burden/’Neath a load of guilt and shame/His hand touched me,

And now I am no longer the same/He touched me, Oh He touched me,

Something happened and now I know…He touched me…’

We might as well wear Cosby sweaters while we sing it.

In this vein (no double entendre intended), ‘He Touched Me’ is a precursor to that genre of songs that are ubiquitous in Contemporary Christian Music.

I like to call them ‘Jesus-In-My-Pants’ songs.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Draw me close to You/Never let me go

I lay it all down again/To hear You say that I’m Your friend

You are my desire no one else will do/’Cause nothing else could take Your place

To feel the warmth of Your embrace/Help me find the way bring me back to You

You’re all I want/You’re all I’ve ever needed/You’re all I want/Help me know You are near

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Mediocre means, one can surmise, kitsch.

In the UMH there are the cryptic and the creepy songs, and then there are the clumsy ones, songs as shallow and obvious as an AM commercial jingle, hymns so literal and earnestly unsubtle you’re half-surprised when Tang and animal crackers aren’t served after you’re done singing them.

The absolute worst among this latter group is #558 ‘We are the Church.’

Though its second verse sounds like the Democratic Party platform with a treble cleft attached, hymn #558 merely makes the same point Mitt Romney made in the 2012 campaign:

corporations churches are people too, my friends.

Refrain:

I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!

All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!

1. The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.

(Refrain)

2. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colours and all ages, too from all times and places.

The first time I was ever asked to sing #558 I was a new Christian and a newer undergraduate at UVA. I was worshipping at a small United Methodist church near campus. When we did a once-through the sing-songy music (to ‘refamiliarize’ ourselves) I glanced around to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stepped into Vacation Bible School.

Or ingested drugs.

When the school-marmy music director offered to demonstrate hand motions we could perform along with our singing, I laughed out loud. Guffawed.

I couldn’t stop myself.

And then I spent the rest of my college tenure worshipping at the Episcopal Church down the street where even if they no longer believed in God at least they did it with style.

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Or, on second thought, maybe he doesn’t say it.

Maybe I said it and forgot I did. Maybe I’m just projecting my own smarty pants posture onto him.

One thing I’m sure of- Stanley Hauerwas likes to say

‘Ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.’

It is.

‘It’s just a bite here and a nibble there,’ Stanley says, ‘and, before you know it, you’re missing a leg.’

Not long after I became a Christian I disliked #558 for its tweenage verse and meter. Not long after I became a clergyman I objected to it on a deeper level; that is, if it’s possible for hymn, which makes the Spice Girls’Wannabe’ seem profound, to yield something like a second naïveté.

As a minister, I recoiled at what I took to be ‘We are the Church’’s romanticized ideals, for there’s nothing quite like ministry to make you wish, every now and then, that the Church was not the people.

There’s nothing like ministry in Jesus’ name to make you wish that the Church was made up of anything but Jesus’ people.

After all, a brick and mortar building was never known to leave anonymous notes about the pastor’s choice of clothes in the offering plate. A steeple has never drafted a complaint to the bishop nor has a stained glass window ever once challenged its pastor to a fistfight in the fellowship hall on Mother’s Day. That really happened.

An organ has yet to call or conduct a church council- a credit which should make you appreciate traditional music. Church mice might be a nuisance, but when it comes to turds they’ve never once forwarded their pastor emails from their favorite batshit crazy right wing organization.

It’s no secret in the United Methodist Church that every 4 years hymnal committees debate the appropriateness of a hymn like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ given its violence-espousing imagery. But, considering how ministry is like being nibbled to death by (feral) ducks, it’s surprising how every quadrennium a song like ‘We are the Church’ escapes the red pen.

I suppose it’s because, like any song, no matter its musical merit, how you hear it depends on where you are. On your stage of life.

Now that I have cancer I can see how I’ve always hated ‘We are the Church’ not because it’s insipid (it still is) but because it’s sincere.

I’ve mocked and hated hymn #558, and others like it, for reasons that have nothing to do with musicology or theology and everything to do with…me.

With my heart.

I’m what you get when you mix together equal parts DNA, life experience and Gen-Y culture. Until now, I’ve pretended to be cool and detached, always ironic- always- and forever feigning self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which are just unofficial adjectives for ‘superiority.’

Me and many others in my generation are like Jane Austen characters.

We’re just keeping up a different pretense: cynicism.

The Church can’t be the people, I’ve never dared take to its logical conclusion, because I don’t need those people, and that would mean I don’t need the Church.  

Chemotherapy, it turns out, eradicates not only your marrow and all attendant health but pretenses too.

When your eyebrows have gotten as thin as the blue-haired lady that sits pulpit side in the 5th pew and when you passed out last night in the kitchen because your blood has no hemoglobin left in it and when there’s a distinct possibility your life expectancy will be short-changed by a couple of Andrew Jackson’s worth of years-

It’s hard to be cool and detached.

There’s nothing, really, to be ironic about.

And there’s no point in pretending to be self-sufficient. You, it’s obvious, ain’t.

Now that cancer has me back to being ‘just’ a Christian and (for a time anyway) no longer a clergyman, I realize how much, when you’re in ministry, you view Christianity like a referee. And referees aren’t paid to blow the whistle in the middle of play and point out what’s going right.

As a pastor, you’re captured, in a good way, by who the Church could be, what the Church could do, but the shadow side of that vision is to notice only who the Church is not, what the Church is not doing. Before long, you have pastors complaining how ‘their people’ (always a fraught construction) don’t pray enough, don’t give enough, or don’t serve enough.

To no exceptional degree, in one direction or the other, that was me, often wearing black or white on a Sunday but, really, acting as though I’d been ordained to wear both. And carry a whistle.

However occasional or, even, warranted, it’s hard for such complaining not to calcify into cynicism.

That was me.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. I’m not saying I’m a different person now, that cancer’s changed me. I can’t say that. I’m only now nearing the halfway point in my treatment, and if I have any complications- which my doctor tells me are more likely than not- then I’m still somewhere shy of the middle.

So I’m not implying I’m a completely different person; I’m only suggesting that, thanks to cancer and if only for a time, I’ve traded in my collar for my parishioners’ shoes.

I’m just an ordinary Christian. Like them.

And, standing in their shoes, I’ve discovered something like admiration for the people that make up the Church. My church.

Only now do I appreciate, for example, how hard it is- how much trust it requires- to answer truthfully and concretely when someone asks you what are your prayer requests.

Something pastors do all the time. Something I always took for granted before. That anyone does supply a prayer request is, I think now, a small miracle. Or, an act of faith of which I’ve been found wanting.

People outside the Church often criticize, with some justification, that the Church is filled with inauthentic chatter, people always talking about things that don’t mean anything. Of course there is a lot of that in the Church but there’s a good deal less of it, I believe, than there is everywhere else in our lives. Now that I have cancer and I’m no longer busy refereeing other people’s Christianity, I realize:

Church people are among the only people who genuinely want an answer- and wait for it- to the question ‘How are you?’

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the church’s ministry rather than its referee, I’m learning that the hardest part in accepting an offer of help, a gesture of support or an act of compassion is accepting it. Accepting that you need it. Accepting that you (I mean, me) need these people. The church.

All of which gets back to my problem with hymn #558, ‘We are the Church,’ and how my problem with it is really my problem.

Grace, in the jargon of the faith, isn’t just a gift you do not deserve.

It’s a gift you didn’t know you needed until you received it.

This is why the Gospel stories are all told from the hindsight of the Resurrection and necessarily so.

You don’t know how broken you are until after God’s made you Easter new. Sin has no meaning until after the Risen Jesus speaks ‘Peace’ on Easter morning.

Grace is a gift you didn’t know you needed until after you received it, and, in that sense, I suspect that what I’ve received these past 4 months (4 effing months!) is a gift my church gives to people all the time.

I just didn’t realize it. Or, appreciate it.

The same church about whom I would sometimes grouse for not praying enough or giving enough or serving enough is the same church (and by church, I think we’ve learned by now, I mean people) that texts me several times a week for prayer requests and leaves food at my door and offers to help with the medical bills and doesn’t bat an eye when I barf in their car and throws my boy around in the pool because my chest port cannot get wet and pretends not to notice (so as not to embarrass me) when I tear up  at a bit of bad news.

And that’s just this past week.

I mean-

One woman in my church has sent me handwritten, snail mail cards every day- every day- since I got sick, and another, just for shits and giggles- and giggles if not shits are in short supply these days- has persisted in posting cat pictures on my Facebook Page. I don’t even like cats.

I’ve been at this church for 10 years and I feel like I’m only now seeing who they’ve been all along.

And who they are, in large part, are better Christians than me.

Every year this time of year, the time between Easter and Pentecost, someone who’s recently taken to reading their bible always expresses surprise to me how much the New Testament’s few Easter stories are characterized by doubt and disbelief.

‘…but some (as in, not just Thomas) doubted…’ Matthew and Luke and John all anticlimactically testify.

But it has to be that way.

The Risen Christ’s wounded hands and feet can never be for the disciples proof of the Resurrection because the disciples themselves are the (only) proof of the Resurrection.

Our faith, the truth of it, is corroborated by its end.

By what it becomes in us.

And I suppose that’s a better problem to have with a hymn like #558 because the people do not just comprise the Church. They themselves are the proof of the Church’s faith by what that faith becomes in them.

They are, warts and all and despite my better judgment, the gospel.

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s a Memorial Day weekend sermon from the vault. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in the sermon.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

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In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill.

For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not– that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

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Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died– making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen– to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again– when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

Against All Odds

Jason Micheli —  May 12, 2015 — 7 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x68311.jpgAgainst All Odds

Third Week in Easter

The waiting room at my oncologists’ office is long and narrow, reminding me of a bus or a sound booth. I prefer the latter, I suspect, because of the small round raspberry-colored CD player that lies on the floor in the room. Minus the color, it’s the same model my youngest son uses to listen to his Awesome Mix Volume I while he plays with his Legos.

The CD player- my oncologist’s not my son’s- is tucked underneath a wicker end table whose glass top itself is buried underneath stacks of ‘Life with Cancer’ brochures and newsletters.

When I’m not imbibing chemo-poison at the stem cell center cross town, I visit this office most every morning for lab work and dressing changes and check-ups. Sometimes my appointments are so early in the am I arrive before the receptionists.

The CD player is always turned on. 

Everyday. 

Always already calibrated to the same DC soft rock station, promising ‘the best mix of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s’, a canard that roughly translates to ‘we play the same 2 dozen songs you heard on the radio when your babysitter drove you to Odyssey of the Mind practice in the 5th grade.’ 

You know the radio rotation I mean: Rod Stewart’s ‘Broken Arrow’ and criminal cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Have I Told You Lately,’ lots of Lionel Ritchie (post-Commodores), UB40’s ‘Red, Red, Wine,’ the obligatory Whitney Houston cut, filled out by anything from Genesis (post-Peter Gabriel) or Phil Collins (pre-Disney).

When you’ve got stage-serious cancer, I guess even ‘Easy like Sunday Morning’ beats Wagner or, say, Tom Waits.

And maybe there’s a certain genius to a ‘best of’ playlist so limited it could all fit onto one of those mix-tape cassettes I was woefully optimistic in giving to a girl in the 6th grade. Because we all- no matter our age, color or creed- know these songs. More so even than age, color or creed these song unite us- trust me, after hearing them every day at the oncologists’ office I know.

Just last week, as Phil Collins sung-spoke his way through his plodding single ‘In the Air Tonight,’ every patient in the oncologists’ waiting room appeared preoccupied with their Washington Posts and their iPads or distracted by the dire straits ahead; that is, until Phil Collins finally got to his ostentatious, ’80’s, synthesized drum solo and six of us seated there, waiting on word of our cancer, spontaneously joined in Phil Collins’ completely gratuitous drum solo, beating on our tablets and paperbacks and binder clipped insurance claims or just making that pursed mouth noise reserved for ’80’s drum effects and fight scenes in Indiana Jones.

Even the medical supply salesman, I spied, was tapping on his large wheeled brief case and not so silently mouthing the words ‘Oh long…’

A few days before that I noticed how I wasn’t the only one in the waiting room singing softly along to Extreme’s cigarette lighter worthy single ‘More Than Words,’ the slow dance song that ended my 8th grade year and began, I liked to think at the time, my manhood. In case you think Extreme was whiter than shopping at West Elm after watching a Pauly Shore movie, I was joined in their power ballad by an older black man who looked not unlike the harried cop Dad in the ’90’s sitcom Family Matters.

Several times a week in the waiting room, Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ comes on the radio (godhelpus) and whenever it does Paul, the real estate novelist (who never had time for a wife), is not the only one talking to Davey (who’s still in the Navy). Everyone’s joining in with their hushed ‘La, la, la, la’s.’

Some songs everyone knows.

Last Thursday, I and a gruff tatted up older man who wore his leather-worked wallet on a chain affixed to his leather-tooled belt (you know, the kind of guy you see at Kings Dominion or dog fights) both caught ourselves singing along to Cyndi Lauper’s candy confection‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’

When we got to the start of the chorus, he looked over at me, awkwardly, and shrugged:

‘Shit, after what this chemo’s done to my testosterone, I’ve got as much right to sing this song as anyone else.’

After 3 months of sitting in this waiting room, the soft-singing and hushed humming and toe-tapping have become so ubiquitous you notice it when no one here is responding at all to the music- or, possibly, responding too much.

Like one day last week when the Boss’ title song from the movie Philadelphia come on the radio, the Tom Hanks film about a losing battle with AIDS.

No one sang.

Though, I’m willing to bet we all knew the words as well as I do.

Tom Hanks might’ve had a different disease, but who’s to say his odds were any worse than ours?

Speaking of odds-

Yesterday I sat thumbing through my Elmore Leonard novel, waiting for the nurse to call my name, when a favorite of mine came on the raspberry radio, another Phil Collins’ song: ‘Against All Odds.’

It’s quite possibly the greatest pop song of all time.

As soon as Phil Collins crooned his initial query ‘How can I just let you walk away?’ I could tell he had the rapt, nostalgic attention of every patient and family member in the waiting room.

And no sooner had Phil Collins gotten to his money line, the line where in the music video it cuts from Phil to Jeff Bridges rolling in the sand with _________, ‘You’re the only one who really knew me at all’ than all of us there that morning for sticks and pricks, blood work and bad news were joining in the refrain: ‘So take a look at me now…’

And we were all still singing, like the English-speaking world’s most subdued flash mob, when we got to the end: ‘…and you coming back to me is against all odds and that’s a __________________________’

See, you know it too.

All of us were singing or humming or whistling:

The 50-something business woman with the cane and the discourteously loud iPhone key strokes.

The 20-something hipster hanging on to his 3 day beard, wearing a crooked Dodgers cap and an overlarge cardigan that hung down to the knees of his skinny jeans.

The 60-something insurance looking type with a dandruffed blazer and a mauve toupee every bit as outdated as the Palm Treo in his hand.

The lesbian couple with the matching Osprey backpacks on their laps.

And me, the Seth Godin lookalike erstwhile clergyman.

All of us, clouds of varying darkness threatening over our heads, were singing about the chance you got to take even if when it’s against all odds.

Thanks to the radio’s best mix of yesterday, today and tomorrow that hasn’t changed since yesteryear there are some songs that everyone just unconsciously knows, songs you can finish on your own after the shower is turned off or the car is parked or the nurse calls you back to take your vital signs.

According to Mark’s Gospel at least, one of the last things Jesus does on the cross is sing:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It’s the first line from the 22nd song. The next line of the psalm sings:

“Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

The Church typically reads Jesus’ cry of forsakenness on Passion Sunday, when many are in worship, and on Good Friday, when no one is, and most often we use Christ singing this snatch of song to proof-text our interpretations of another bit of bible music. Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs.

When mixed into Isaiah’s playlist, Jesus’ cover of Psalm 22 on the cross becomes an instance of God’s turning God’s back on the suffering Christ.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” begins to sound as obvious as a Top 40 single:

God has abandoned Jesus, the vicarious sinner.

Jesus on the cross is alone in the most existential possibility of the word; he’s experiencing something worse than betrayal and torture and crucifixion, the sheer and total separation from God that is rightly due all of us woebegone sinners.

But “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is only the first line of Israel’s 22nd song.

More importantly, Psalm 22 is a song everyone in Israel would’ve known.

As Jews, Jesus’ listeners would’ve had all 150 psalms committed to memory. They would’ve sung many of them a minimum of 3 times a day as part of their daily office. They would’ve had no choice but to know the song that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” like I stubbornly know all the words to Sir Mix A Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back.’

They could’ve sung Psalm 22 right along with Jesus, and maybe those near the cross that Friday did just that in the same hushed tones with which I heard a mom and her bald, 30-something daughter sing along to Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ last Friday.

Some songs everyone knows.

Jesus’ listeners would’ve known the song that begins with feeling forsaken ends- builds towards, is more like it- on a different note entirely.

Faith-filled and confident in God’s vindication.

So which is it?

Is Psalm 22 a Good Friday text, as we’ve most often made it?

Or is it actually an Easter passage, foreshadowing resurrection from the dark side of the cross?

What kind of song is Jesus singing? Does he sound bruised and battered and resigned like Springsteen does in ‘The Streets of Philadelphia?’ or does he sound nonplussed and defiant, against all the odds, like Phil Collins?

Does Jesus, with his last bit of humanity, feel forgotten, forsaken? Or is that first line he sings meant to trigger a song in the collective memory and convey his faith, of feeling graced?

The other day, a couple of days into my latest round of chemo-poison, handing me my most recent blood work, the nurse practitioner sent my already nauseous stomach for a roll:

“…so it could just be a quirk of how your body’s responding to the chemo, or it could mean the cancer’s worsened in your bone marrow…”

I gulped.

Audibly.

And looked up from the printout.

“Of course…there’s no way to know for certain until you have a PET scan later…”

Like a dirty band-aid, cancer just pulls away the veneer from what you knew already in the basement closet of your mind:

Life is incredibly beautiful and terrifically shitty.

Sometimes simultaneously though, more frequently, the two attributes are proximate and subsequent to one another.

Life, cancer reifies, is not unlike St. Luke’s Emmaus episode, a story we read during Eastertide but one, I believe, we could just as properly read on Good Friday.

After all, isn’t the ‘miracle’ of having our eyes opened to Jesus’ presence among us but a reminder that he’s also just as often absent from us?

Is not Christ’s appearance in the breaking of the bread also subsequently (if not simultaneously) his disappearance?

Which means every sacrament, the intrusion of the holy into our world, is precious precisely because it’s also at the same time a kind of exit. It’s both a faith-filled, saturated moment and a forsaking- in the leave-taking sense of the world.

Life is grace and it’s achingly awful all at once or right after the other in no particular order. It’s feeling humbled and straight flush lucky for the covered dishes and cards dropped at your door, but it’s also feeling incredibly alone, scratching your head and wondering, self-pityingly, how people can go on with their lives when something like this is happening to you. It’s feeling good, with halftime in your treatment within sight, and then feeling brained by a bit of- if not bad then- uncertain news.

If every Sunday, as the Church likes to say, is ‘a little Easter,’ celebrating the certainties of the resurrection, then that leaves at least one of six remaining days to be ‘a little Good Friday’ for us.

To feel wronged. Forgotten. To feel the umbilical chord of God’s presence ripped from your belly and wonder when (if?) it’s coming back.

What we might not normally prefer to admit in the pews cancer makes unavoidable: life is like that, if not for you personally then certainly for the preponderance of people.

So that song Jesus sings from the cross- it’s got to be both.

If the cross is ground zero for Jesus taking on our full humanity, the expanse of our mortal experience, then his singing the 22nd song has got to be both, feeling faith-filled and forsaken. It can’t be one or the other, as our preaching typically demands of it, because our lives- the lives enfleshed in his life- are equal parts #blessed and #forsaken.

If life really is the sum of the song Jesus sings on the cross, then faith is not what so many skeptics suppose, particularly when the C-word injects a discordant note.

Faith is NOT a crutch amidst life.

Hardly.

Because if life is a reliable and merciless pendulum between feeling faith-filled and feeling forsaken then to have faith is to feel the absence of it- no, the fleetingness of it- that much more acutely.

To see Christ at work in the world is also not to see him at work in the world.

To NOT see him even more clearly than those who lack the eyes of faith.

Maybe that’s why the ending of the 22nd song goes unsung or unquoted at Mark’s cross, perhaps the faith-filled notes at the end are only genuine, trustworthy, because of the feelings of forsakenness that preceded them.

Maybe the author of the 22nd Psalm wasn’t only a good songwriter like Phil Collins. Maybe he or she was truly, fully, no bullshitting human too.

Just like Jesus.

There’s a song, one of my favorites, by Lyle Lovett called ‘Fat Girl.’ It’s not a pop song; it’s definitely not the kind of song you hear on the radio. It’s too brief and unromantic and bracing:

The fat girl
She always stayed inside and played piano
And she told her mother
The children made her cry
And her mother told her
They don’t mean it
They don’t mean it
They don’t mean it
They don’t mean it

Now the fat girl
She ain’t fat no more
And lord how she plays piano
And she sings loud
And she sings low
And she sings of love
And blind passion
But she don’t mean it
She don’t mean it
She don’t mean it
She don’t mean it

The fat girl, because of what she’s been through, no longer means what she says.

I guess that’s my biggest fear (aside from, you know, a painful and premature death) in all this: to get to the point where I no longer mean what I sing preach.

Or pray.

Or practice.

The only way to avoid it, I think, is to avoid the pop pieties we prefer and instead stick to the kind of music Jesus himself sings.

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I’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

9. What do we mean by saying Jesus was ‘truly human?’

We do not mean that Jesus was as fully human as you or me.

Jesus, as the God-Man, has no human existence apart from his divine existence and our humanity is not like that at all.

While it’s often proclaimed in sermons on Christmas and about the Cross that Jesus being ‘truly human’ means he’s as human as you or me, to suppose that Jesus is every bit as human as you or me might be correct in terms of the biological bits- if you’re a man- but, beyond biology, such a suggestion bends backwards the entire trajectory of Christian salvation.

 

The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be tortured and crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus be human, truly and authentically human.

The grammar of Christian salvation is not that Jesus, the truly human one, is just like us, who are sinners through and through; the grammar of salvation is that, through Jesus, the truly human one, and by the power of Spirit and Sacraments, we might become as human as him.

We are not his aspiration.

He is ours.

To be fully, truly human- this is the command Jesus perceived to have been placed upon him by the Father. The fact that to be fully human meets with rejection, betrayal, torture and crucifixion is not something God the Father planned but is a consequence of the world as we’ve constructed it.

To be fully human is to love and to love, in the world as we’ve made it, is to suffer.

So then, to say that Jesus is ‘fully human’ is to confess that Jesus is the first human after a long list of begats in which God’s original intent for humanity came to fruition.

To live a fully human life, as Jesus does, is to embody the greatest commandment: to love self, neighbors and God without qualificaiton or fear.

From the very beginning this was the intent for humans made in the image of 3-Personned God, who just is Love and Friendship.

To profess that Jesus is fully human then is not to argue that he was really like us.

To profess that Jesus is fully human is to express the hope that we can become as human as him.

Nepal-Earthquake-7One of the books I felt drawn to rereading after I learned I had cancer was David Bentley Hart’s little book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? It’s a life-changing kind of book by a former teacher whose work continues to shape me.

I thought of Hart’s book again this week when I read my friend Tony Jones‘ recent post ‘Where is God in the Earthquake?’The post is drawn from Tony’s new book, Did God Kill Jesus?, which you should check out buy.

While I resist the same religiously motivated explanations for tragedies to which Tony objects, I also resist the explanation- because that’s what it is- he advocated; namely, that rather than causing disasters and tragedies God suffers them along with us.

By contrast, David Bentley Hart, in The Doors of the Sea, recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders:

If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? 

Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Or “It’s okay, God is mourning too” which is only a more sensitive-sounding but equally deficient explanation precisely because it still attempts an explanation.

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy to talk like that to the father (though my experience tells me Hart would be surprised how many people in fact would say something like it).

This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

Silence is the best thing to (not) say when there’s nothing to say.

Hart goes on to reflect on The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God. Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry.

Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.

What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering.

He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.

Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering.

He admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun.

He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

So, Ivan doesn’t so much disbelieve God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan. He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes.

When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan. I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.

The irony, I suspect, is that Ivan’s siding with suffering of the little ones is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that Ivan’s compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true, Hart says then, isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

While I empathize with Tony’s revulsion at those who preach a God whose morality bears no resemblance to our own and who is the direct cause behind every natural disaster and tragedy that befalls us, I agree with Hart:

To preach instead a companionable, changing God who suffers with us (and is changed by that suffering) is to give meaning to suffering and evil.

Worse, it’s really nothing more than a variation of the more loathsome sovereignty of God explanations, for a God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.

As Hart writes:

“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”

“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”

“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

So…

Where was God in the Earthquake?

Not behind the earthquake, no.

Not in the earthquake.

Not suffering with those who suffered and suffer the earthquake.

But certainly with.

God, Hart writes, was and is:

“In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.”

“And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death…”

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