The Problem with Prayer

Jason Micheli —  March 25, 2015 — 9 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683.jpgDay 14

Along the course of ministry you overhear tidbits of wisdom that, like stones against the wind and the sea, with the passage of time acquire the sheen of something like the absolute.

The Truth.

One such folk koan came to me by way of Fred Holly some 14 years ago.

Fred was an elderly parishioner at the tiny New Jersey church where I served part-time as pastor. It was the sort of church where the term ‘elderly parishioner’ was woefully redundant.

A curmudgeonly sort, Fred let it be known often that he only attended worship out of the habit enforced by his wife; nevermind, that the late Mrs. Holly had left the Earth around the same time Fred’s beloved Tricky Dick had left the White House.

Since then Fred had been unfailing in complaining about his Sunday obligation.

Similarly Fred was vocal in his assessment that my ‘only attribute worth a damn’ was my ‘sexy dame of a wife.’

In the first spring of my ministry I visited Fred in the ICU of a Bucks County Hospital. The day before he’d had a bypass done on more of a heart than I’d believed he’d possessed.

His hair was mussed and greasy. His eyes looked small and round- mole like- without their glasses. His gown hung down off his beefy shoulders like a cotton evening dress.

When I walked in he was sitting up in bed, a large teddy bear in his lap. Whenever he breathed or coughed, he clutched the teddy bear against the incision that ran from his groin to his collar. And every time he’d grimace, red-faced and veined- the agony in his expression in inverse proportion to the blank, serene visage of the bear.

After one painful coughing fit that ended, Fred seemed amused, with a long, thunderous yawp of a fart, Fred wiped the sweat from his forehead and said:

‘Jesus, God damn, Rev. I’ll tell you what:

Get all your prayin’ in when you’re healthy. It’s just too damn hard to pray when you’re busted up and sick.’

And right then and there it struck me as true and sound in the way of other sayings like ‘Never eat yellow snow’ or ‘Don’t play leapfrog with a unicorn’ or ‘Sharing your medical info is always more embarrassing when its shared with a moderately attractive nurse practitioner of your approximate age.’ 

‘Get all your prayin’ in when you’re healthy. It’s just too damn hard to pray when you’re busted up and sick.’

It had the ring of a proverb even though I’ve not heard it elsewhere and have not returned to it since.

Not until lately.

Conventional wisdom and all, you might just as easily expect it to be the opposite, but Fred is right: praying is hard when you’re busted up and sick.

During my first A Cycle of chemo-poison, after one of my several ‘walks’ with the earnest Licensed Clinical Social Worker, my slippered feet found their way to the hospital chapel. Having listened to the LCSW spout new-agey and not a little patronizing about mindfulness and Zen meditation, contrarian-me determined to do some old school, Holy Roman, hegemonic praying.

I knew the hospital had a chapel because I’d seen it- on a constant, 24 hour live camera stream on the hospital’s uppermost television channel, just after the porny Latin Soap Opera station.

It was like the National Zoo’s panda cam without the pandas; every time I flipped past it to get to Wolf Blitzer or PTI or 19 Kids and Counting, the chapel was always empty.

So I wasn’t surprised when I opened the chapel door, drug my drug pole in behind me, and found the little sanctuary empty. Like such spaces in airports and colleges and funeral homes everywhere, the chapel was so enthusiastically ecumenical as to be bland. It felt more like a little nook at a Courtyard Marriott.

Nonetheless, I sat down in the front row, my chemo my only companion, and attempted to pray in the manner of the saints and martyrs before me.

Later that evening, when the young Muslim woman from Food Services brought me my chicken soup and Ensure, her eyes brightened and, smiling, she said:

‘I saw you on the TV! In the chapel! A patient down the hall turned the channel when I picked up his lunch tray earlier today.’

‘You saw me?’

She nodded and smiled and then added:

‘Poor thing, you must be exhausted.’

I must’ve looked confused.

‘The Muslim way is better,’ she explained, ‘it’s harder to fall asleep when you’re on your  knees.’

The little fact of stage-serious cancer notwithstanding- and I realize this is a bit like Larry Flynt confessing he’s just not that into women- the X-Rated truth of the matter is that I’ve never been very good at prayer.

In the same way that for a time in college I could participate in a conversation in French class about the meaninglessness of existence, Le Jazz, or American imperialism, I know how to pray. But prayer has never been anything like my first language.

Being a duly ordained Reverend (as in: ‘one to be revered’), I can pray. I can do it in a performative, professional manner, but in the same way I can summon something resembling etiquette for a formal dinner even this is not my natural or most comfortable posture. Honestly, even with the little self-awareness I possess, I know that I’m vain enough, despite being introverted, to lap up the approval and/or adoration of an audience; consequently, I’ve always maintained a healthy skepticism regarding public prayer. Both my own and others’.

But the bottom line is-

Healthy or very much not healthy (as the case now is), I’m a piss poor pray-er.

I get restless.

I get bored and, bored, I get distracted

If only God had an email address or a Twitter account or a regular coffee shop where he hung out because closed eyes and bowed head seldom works for me.

Really? ‘Quiet time’ sounds to me exactly like it sounds to my 9 year old: punishment. Or, at least, something to be endured.

Even worse than the boredom that makes you feel incompetent at prayer is the sudden rushing awareness of how superficial is most of your prayer- that leaves you feeling inauthentic.

Incomplete, as a human being.

And then there are those days- more frequent than most pastors will admit- when you’re convinced you’re mistaken about about God, about Christ, about everything else in the creed. On those days prayer especially can feel like 100 Proof Superstition, making you feel the fool.

Given my own dissatisfying experience with prayer, now that I’m sick and/or dying when people tell me they’re praying for me (which everyone does…and I’m grateful) I feel guilty- guilty that my cancer has laid this extra burden upon them that will only lead to them feeling restless or bored or distracted or superstitious and, thus, foolish.

My track record with and previous affections for prayer in no way cancel out the verities I heard in that Bucks County ICU. What was hard and unnatural for me before is damn near impossible since cancer staged a hostile takeover of my body, my blood and my family’s life.

Fred Holly’s teddy bear maxim is as true as Kenny Rogers’ about the relative importance of knowing when to hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em.

I’ve walked away from more than a few prayers these past days and weeks because Fred is (surely he’s a was by now) dead-on:

When you’re busted up in body, mind and soul and sick enough you count it lucky you took out that life insurance policy when you did, praying is damn hard.

For my last CAT Scan, to see if I had any tumors in my upper body like the ones latched on to me all over my lower body (I do), I tried to pray the Lord’s Prayer as I grimaced against my stomach incision, raised my arms over my head and lay still as the camera spun around my chest.

I couldn’t remember all the words.

Temptation.

Trespass.

Daily bread and deliverance.

I kept getting the phrasing in the wrong order.

I’ve led the Lord’s Prayer at least 1,000 times on Sundays alone but, without the backing chorus of a congregation behind me, my rhythm was off.

I’ve tried many times since then to recite it, mostly in the gray hours when the night sweats or the urgent need to piss out the poisons, have left me wide away.

I always screw it up.

Likewise Psalm 23, another prayer that in my former life I knew by heart.

Speaking of the psalms, now that I have cancer and can’t pray worth a damn, I’m amazed that King David, what with his turbulent TMZ life and all, was able to compose as many prayers as he did.

David may be the exception that proves Fred’s rule.

Before my first CAT Scan, done at my GI doctor’s orders, I didn’t pray at all; I hadn’t thought there was a need to pray. I didn’t think there was anything, save a gallstone or two, wrong with me, certainly not the C-word.

I prayed DURING that first CAT Scan however. 

The radiology tech had given me an injection of contrast which, as a side-effect, would give me a warm, wet sensation all over my body, none of which- AND THIS IS KEY- he told me beforehand.

So lying there, unsuspecting under a sheet, my pants pulled down around my ankles, an awareness suddenly and mercilessly washed over me:

‘Oh. My. God. I just shit my pants.’

In the same way there are no atheists in fox holes, this realization immediately gave way to supplication:

‘Please God, let it not be bad. Please God, let me get out here without too many people noticing- especially not the hot receptionist at the front desk.’

It was some kind of prayer to be sure.

Later that night when the GI doctor, who’d just read the results of the scan, called me and threw phrases at me like ‘Are you sitting down?’ and ‘…need to get you into surgery quickly’ and, the doozy, ‘I’ve set up an appointment for you in the morning with an oncologist…’ I was too scared to pray.

Jesus, facing death in the Garden in John’s Gospel, prays for pages upon pages upon pages. I suppose that’s the difference between being God incarnate and just being carnate.

Studying the Hebrew Bible, I learned the ‘proper’ form to prayer, beginning with a robust address to God, some name that hits at the highlights of his resume, and then moving on to praise God for his gracious acts in salvation history and then- and only then- beseeching God to do likewise for you today.

It’s a lesson I’ve reinforced with confirmation classes, organizing prayers like study notes, with the acronym P-T-A:

Praise

Thank

And only then: Ask.

Such niceties are just that, nice. But they’re all but impossible when you feel yourself salivating fear in the corners of your jaw or when you’re just bone-marrow tired.

Fred Holly is/was right.

And it’s not so much that God is absent that makes the praying hard.

Its that the pain and the fear and the fatigue are seemingly more present to you than God.

Most of my prayers now more closely resemble my adolescent, pre-Christian prayers:

Please let me get an A on this quiz.

Please may the Reds beat the A’s in the series.

Please makes these zits go away before the 8th grade dance.

My prayers now are just 1-sentence smoke signals:

Please let me keep the eyebrows and the pubes.

Please let me make it to the toilet in time.

Please let me keep a brave face in front of the boys.

Please keep my voice from cracking when I ask the doctor for my prognosis.

Please keep this from bankrupting us.

Please, if there’s a Hell, send every last insurance company there.

Please, if there’s not a Hell, create one and send every last insurance company there.

And, most recently:

Please don’t have the decently attractive nurse practitioner who’s about my age ask to see my hemorrhoids (an awesome chemo side-effect).

Lately, the closest I can muster anything near an actual prayer is for others.

Like the one I muttered under my breath for the old guy in the waiting room at the oncologist’s office. He wore a herringbone blazer, a pocket square and a boutonniere, and he was there, I overheard, by mistake.

The doctor had decided to discontinue his treatment.

The old man apparently didn’t get the message until he got it a few seats away from me.

And I managed a prayer for the kid with leukemia who rode the elevator up with me yesterday, both us to receive our Neulasta injections. His age (13? 16? 21?) was impossible to determine with no hair, facial or otherwise, to date him.

I know you likely expect a clergyman to confess that cancer, with its attendant aches and terrors, has deepened my prayer life.

Carrying my cross.

Belly of the whale.

Dark night of my soul.

Et cetera.

Nope.

In fact, the prayer I keep coming back to, the prayer I can say in sync with the pain and get through despite the cottony chemo-brain, is that silly prayer I learned as a small child:

‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’

Fred Holly had a genuine hula girl inked on his forearm. He stockpiled for Y2K a year late and one Sunday in Advent he mistook my reading of Mary’s Magnificat for an original sermon. Fred met the final scripture verse for the day with an applause that echoed across the mostly empty pews and said out loud ‘Now that was a good sermon.’

Fred wasn’t what you’d call an intellectual guy; nonetheless, Fred’s bear-embracing maxim yields still deeper truths.

The real problem with prayer when you’re busted up and sick isn’t that you’re busted up and sick.

Being busted up makes the sheer act of prayer hard, sure, but the real problem with prayer when you’re stage-serious sick is a/the theological problem.

Cancer as voracious as it is rare brings to the fore questions so obvious and so omnipresent that we often don’t even see them:

What’s the Point of Prayer?

What’s Prayer Do?

Or, Does It Do Anything?

For What Should We Pray?

To put it more bluntly:

Isn’t it ridiculous to think of God up there in heaven to whom we can plead and who, if we’re lucky or faithful enough, will hear our prayers and provide us with help?

Isn’t it silly (and maybe even idolatrous) to think that through our supplications we can do something to God, incline God a particular way, ignite one of God’s passions, or persuade God into doing something God might otherwise not do?

Of course, I take it as self-evident that the answer to those last two questions is ‘Yes.’

 

I do so not because I have cancer but because I’m a Christian and, like the very first Christians, I believe that God is immutable.

God does not change.

For something to change, after all, there must be some potential in it which is not yet realized. But ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ so in God, obviously, there is no absence of anything, for God is not a being but Being itself.

God does not change (to be more loving, for example) because in God already is the perfection of love itself. Perfect Love is already eternally actual in God; therefore, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and- good news- there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.

To say that God does not change is also to say- it should be noted- that God is not affected.

Especially not by us.

To be changed is to be affected by another outside you. But God does not change because, in God- unlike in creatures- there is no potentiality only actuality. The perfection of all emotions (Love) is already always present, eternally, in God.

God subsists in all things that exist and holds all things in existence at every moment of their existence. God cannot be affected by anything outside God because there is nothing that is outside God.

Alright, but admittedly this all begs the question, a question that becomes more urgent when cancer casts a shadow over your long-term calendar:

If God is immutable, if God doesn’t change, if God by definition can’t change, then what exactly is prayer?

Isn’t prayer the spiritually-sanctioned means by which we attempt to manipulate god to do what we want, ask, or desire?

You see, the real problem with prayer- especially when you’re stage-serious sick- is a theological problem.

If God is immutable, then what does it mean to pray for God to work healing in my life now? What does it mean to pray (as so many put it and so many do for me now) for a miracle? Doesn’t such a prayer imply that God is now, and certainly was prior to cancer’s intrusion upon my life, distant or apart from me?

But I don’t believe God created long ago and is now hands-off unless beckoned or beseeched; I believe God is immutable and that necessarily entails believing that God, who is outside creation, subsists in all things in creation.

If God is immutable, what does it mean to pray for God to be with me through this inscrutable chapter of our lives? Isn’t God already with me? For that matter, if holds all things in existence at every moment of their existence, if God is, as Paul says, the One in whom we live and move and have our being then would there even be a ‘me’ if God was already with me?

And what would it mean to pray for God to forgive my sins, as so many negotiate when they look up to see the Damocles sword of disease hanging over them? If God is immutable, then God quite literally doesn’t give a damn about my sins. We’re the ones who damn.

Since God is immutable, I don’t believe that the Creator could be affected by a creature like me (or my sin) such that he’d be moved against me, to punish me with something like cancer, yet, conversely, what does that mean for all those prayers of all those many wonderful people now asking God to be affected in the other direction, to be moved for me?

That God does not change is, I believe, the only ground upon which Christians can claim with John that ‘God is love,’ which is but John’s way of securing our ability to say that ‘God is like (and always has been) Jesus.’

But if God is indeed unchanging and unchangeable exactly what am I doing- what’s going on- when I sit here sick and busted up and (attempt to) pray?

After stating the obvious (none of us knows how to pray), St. Paul writes that whenever we pray, no matter what it might look like, it’s not actually we who are praying. Rather the Holy Spirit prays in us and through us.

Prayer isn’t something we do.

It’s something God does- better yet, it’s something God shares with God.

And us.

When we pray to God, we’re prayed in by God.

Instead of a practice we perform for results we’ve predetermined, prayer is a kind of parable of the Trinity. All prayer is but an echo of the Son praying to the Father through the Spirit. Rather than hooking God into our internal conversation, prayer catches us up into the eternal conversation Christians call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

God is the impetus behind our prayers as much (even more?) as the object of them.  The very wants and desires we pray, runs Paul’s argument, are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present Triune God.

What’s this mean when you’re sick and busted-up and trying your damnedest to pray?

Thomas Aquinas doubles-down on Paul’s point when he writes:

‘We should not say ‘in accordance with my prayer, God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that ‘God wills it to be a fine day, in accordance with my prayer.’

God wills our prayers as much as God wills the fine day.

What does that mean?

It means, says Aquinas, that God wills it to be a fine day through my prayer; in other words, that it should be more than just a fine day. God wills through me that that particular fine day should be something more, a sacrament of God’s love.

Let me put Aquinas’ point a bit more personally:

‘We should not say ‘in accordance with my prayer, God wills that I should be healed of my cancer’ we should say that ‘God wills that I should be healed of my cancer, in accordance with my prayer.’

That’s no guarantee I’ll be healed.

It’s a guarantee that my desire to be healed, as well as the desire of all those praying for me, isn’t our desire alone or even originally. It’s one shared by- initiated by- the God who prays in us.

Which means maybe that ‘Now I Lay Me’ prayer I learned as a little child is actually the best prayer of all.

I’ve always considered it excessively grim, morbid even, and emblematic of everything I deplore about so much of Christianity: it’s soul-focused and death-obsessed and heaven-directed.

Yet-

If all prayer is rooted in and catches us up into the Father’s love of the Son through the Spirit, then what could be better than to pray that we might be one day incorporated (‘…my soul to take…’) into that love?

Especially when you remember that it’s not really our prayer at all.

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683.jpgDay 10

Like the time I accidentally saw my Italian great-grandma, who possessed a steel-worker’s mustache, naked, as much as I’d rather not, I can still recall one late morning when I was lifeguarding at my neighborhood pool.

At a quarter to some hour, teenage-me blew my whistle long and low to clear the pool for break. Climbing down off my stand, I noticed a girl, maybe 10 years old, bouncing and splashing around in the middle of the pool, evidently without any urgency or intention of exiting.

A relatively new Christian, I decided to be patient and kind just like I’d read St. Paul suggest in my NIV Study Bible, but after  testing the PH level of the water, I noticed that the little girl was still bouncing around the pool nowhere near a ladder or the steps.

Feeling the Jesus already irritated out of me, I marched the circumference of the deck to the point nearest her and then slowly, with no little drama, placed two exasperated hands on the waistband of my red lifeguard suit.

‘Hey, you, little girl. I’m talkin’ to you’ I said with clipped Travis Bickle affect. ‘I said: CLEAR THE POOL. It’s break time.’

‘I know’ she responded as though the fact that she knew was the most obvious thing in the world.

‘You know, huh? Well then…’ I said, my lifeguard voice now a far cry from 1 Corinthians 13, ‘why are you still in the pool? What are you? Blind or something?’

‘Yes,’ she said simply. ‘I am blind.’

I’m a big believer in odds, and the odds of this happening to me just didn’t seem possible.

‘What?’ I said.

‘I am blind’ she said again without contempt.

Ugh. Gut punch.

‘Shit’ screamed the red I could feel rapidly spreading across my face and through my eyes.

Her lack of malice made me feel all the more awful, so much so I said nothing.

Just to populate the scene for you:

Sitting within earshot of this exchange were 5 Stiffler’s Moms from church tanning themselves in too tiny two pieces, their Liz Claiborne sunglasses now perched on top of their foreheads so they could stare at me and, I assumed in a second, report back to the congregation.

Even then I’d correctly intuited that insensitivity to disability is a graver transgression in the United Methodist Church than any out and out heresy such as, say, not believing in Jesus.

Meanwhile, no more than 12 inches behind me, 6 of my closest friends sat around an umbrellaed picnic table. One of those six I hoped soon to make my girlfriend, a wager I now assumed was about as likely as, well, asking a random girl if she was blind and hitting on ‘Yes’ in reply.

I’d have rather had my swimsuit go slack and suddenly fall around my ankles, exposing my johnson and nether hair for all to see. Even now my cheeks (the other ones) get flushed whenever I think back to noisy gong Jason asking that little girl blind girl if she was blind or something.

What would that other something be, I wonder?

Eventually, in a tone of voice shamed low, I guided her to the ladder where she said ‘Thank you’ and I did not- I should confess- say ‘I’m sorry.’ It was an eternity that last not much more than a few minutes. Still it was one of those awkward-in-the-bowels, nothing can ever undo it moments where everyone within earshot wishes they could hide or die or flux capacitor it back an hour.

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Now-

Picture me as that blind girl, and you have some idea of what it’s like when people find out that I have cancer.

While I’ve remained fairly sequestered since I learned I have a rare blood cancer, I’ve still suffered plenty of those uncomfortable, shit-on-your-shoes moments.

The awkward, cringe-inducing moments usually begin thusly:

‘How are you?’

‘Uh…okay…fine…I’m fine.’

‘Really? You look…thinner? Have you lost weight?’

‘Umm…yeah…maybe a bit…well…the thing is…I have cancer.’

The pregnant pause that follows as reliably as the Earth revolves around the Sun usually gives birth to one or more cliches lying dormant at the mind’s ready:

‘You’re young and healthy. You’ll beat it” better than 3/4 of everybody assures me. Whether they’re attempting to convince me or themselves varies to the person.

‘Healthy except for the tumors squatting all over my body’ I always reply, sometimes silently.

Some respond to the pregnant pause by delivering up, either as an article of faith or something gleaned from 1st or 2nd or usually 3rd hand experience: ‘Well, I believe in the power of prayer.’

Many try to turn the foreboding cloud of cancer inside out by pointing vaguely to the silver lining of ‘advances in medicine and science.’

Some intend either the former, faith, or the latter, science, when they promise me in palliative tones that ‘miracles DO happen’ as though the prognosis I’d prefer to hear is how my full recovery is about likely as feeding an entire hospital with just 6 pieces of Wonder Bread and 2 filets of poorly breaded Tilapia.

I can tell from their faces and from what they toss back at me:

Hitting people unawares with the C-word is like learning that you’ve just been making sarcastic blindness cracks at a little blind girl.

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Nearly everyone stammers and then moves to tell me which Dr. Oz imprimatured books I should read or which cancer-fighting foods I should purchase at Whole Foods for $5 grand a pound.

Those less burdened by propriety or self-conscience immediately ask how often I’m throwing up or, I kid you not, ‘getting it up.’ Still others suggest cancer-themed movies I should watch like Michael Keaton’s forgotten film My Life or Bette Midler’s wish-we-could-forget-it Beaches.

Just yesterday a door-to-door salesmen from Capitol Meats, upon hearing I had cancer (Yes, I was playing the cancer card to avoid buying a gross of ground beef), said: ‘Damn, man…fuck that sucks.’

And then he added: ‘You should watch that movie…what’s it called…’ and then he started to snap his fingers to jog his memory, ‘Ordinary People…yeah, that’s a damn good movie.’

‘It is a good one’ I said, ‘but I’m pretty sure it’s not a cancer movie.’

‘Nah, man,’ the meat man maintained, ‘dude definitely dies of cancer in it.’

Okay, so not every conversation goes down like the blind girl in the pool, but once I’ve blind-sided people with the C-word and they recover enough to respond with the typical cliches, recommendations or curiosities, they then usually ask me:

‘What kind?

‘Of cancer?

And once I tell them Lymphoma, Mantle Cell Lymphoma, unless I’m speaking to a doctor or a nurse, that marks the end of their oncological knowledge; so, inevitably they steer the conversation to the biographical.

‘My _____________ (mother/father/aunt/uncle/coworker/neighbor/cousin…) had lymphoma’ they’ll say as though we’re discussing fellow frat brothers from faraway chapters.

‘Really?’ I’ll feign interest, ‘How did_____________ do with their treatment?’

‘Oh…umm…he/she did…’ and then 9/10 times their voice will trail off in such a way you’re led to only one conclusion.

‘That’s just awesome’ I’ll think to myself.

Before you accuse me of hyperbole:

The Friday before my surgery, the Friday after the night I learned cancer was the most likely culprit behind my troubles, my mom and I sat at the indoor pool watching my boys at swim practice when she breaks our own kind of pregnant pause:

‘You know…my uncle (as in, my Grandma’s flesh and blood brother) had lymphoma too.’

‘What? Really?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know that; I guess I should have checked the cancer box under ‘Family History’ along with ‘Heart Disease’ and ‘Mental Illness.’

‘What happened to him?’ I asked after she didn’t laugh.

‘Oh’ she said, brainstorming how to change the subject. ‘Umm…uhh…errr…yeah, he died.’

‘Great, just great’ I said.

She went on: ‘But he lived a long time…at least until his mid-40’s.’

And then I thought: ‘Mid-40’s?! Mid-40’s!? Geez, mom, that’s some cold shit.’

It’s no hyperbole.

When I spoke to the suit in the United Methodist Pension Office about my medical leave, he told me in a way that defied his bean-counting countenance:

‘I’m sorry to hear about your…uh…situation. I had a college roommate who died of lymphoma.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that’ I said, suddenly wondering who was supposed to be comforting whom.

‘Yeah, he was such a great guy’ and just then I thought our connection had gone before I realized he was sniffling into the phone. Just before he started weeping.

Likewise did it go with the insurance rep who called to audit my care plan. My lymphoma, though a rarer breed, apparently put her mind to her own mother’s losing bid against blood cancer. You see, not only does the C word provoke people into unwittingly portending my death, it’s also (I’m also) a grim reminder to them of painful mournings of their own.

In other words, now that I have cancer, I rip the scabs off of people’s wounds.

For those without family or friends felled by blood cancer, a surprising number of people, upon hearing my news, turn for reference to America’s family of choice; i.e, celebrities.

‘Oh, did you know Jackie Onassis died of lymphoma?’ the checkout guy told me yesterday.

‘Really? Before I was worried but now that I know Jackie O died of it I think…what’s the big deal?’ I thought to myself before stretching a fake smile across my face and nodding solemnly.

‘I mean, thank God I have blood cancer and not some peasant disease like COPD’ I kept thinking to myself as I punched my debit number into the screen.

Seriously, Jackie O is what the lifeguard checkout guy hit me with when I blind-sided him with the C-word. I can only imagine how many times people with testicular cancer have to hear about Lance Armstrong or how often lepers with dementia have to hear about Senator Ted Cruz.

Like James Greer in Wonder Boys memorizing celebrity suicides, thanks to the offhand comments with which people meet the C-word, I now know that Charles Lindberg, Gene Autry and Joey Ramone of the Ramones all died of the very affliction now doing its damnedest to kill me.

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There’s something about the word CANCER that throws a wrench into most people’s mental gears.

For example:

Just yesterday when I told that same Capitol Meats salesman that I was no longer working, that I was going on disability (because, yes, I was playing the cancer card to get rid of him and his sales pitch) he immediately responded by telling me:

‘Yeah, one of my cousins on my Mama’s side is retarded. He’s real sweet though. You can hardly tell he’s a retard.’

I just nodded along and smiled, which probably only confirmed for him that I too was as disabled as his sweet cousin- which, fortunately, in his mind probably disqualified me from making such a hefty purchase of boneless steaks and pork chops.

There’s something about the C-word that messes with people’s heads. Some people see CANCER as a 2 syllabled body bag, one that’s already zipped up to around my chest port. To their minds, the C-word gives off an air of the inexorable that permits them to confess secrets they’d never reveal otherwise. You know the stuff normally reserved for eulogies:

‘You were my first crush.’

‘I never told you what your friendship meant to me.’

‘I thought you were a real dick in high school but I’m sending you positive energy now.’

‘I thought you were the worst preacher I’d ever heard for about 4 years but now I think you’re awesome.’

One person, upon hearing the news via the social media grapevine, sent me a copy of that poem, ‘Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep,’ verses not only which I loathe but have only ever heard intoned- against my better judgment- at FUNERALS.

Of all the various and sundry responses the news of my stage serious cancer has elicited, by far the most common responses are:

‘Fight it.’

‘It’s time to do battle.’

‘Kick cancer’s ass.’

From their shoes, I think it’s exactly the right thing to say. It sure as shit beats telling me that Bob Ross died of lymphoma (too).

After all, ‘kick cancer’s ass’ isn’t burdened with any pray-it-away piety or false promises, and it puts the onus on me while positioning the speaker as being behind me, in my corner, rooting for me in the fight of/for my life.

‘Yeah, kick cancer’s ass’ I sometimes nod my head in response.

But here’s the real difficulty:

The ‘it’ in ‘Fight it, Jason’ is Jason.

The ‘it’ is me.

The cancerous cells are mine, only doing something differently (and far more efficiently) than my healthy ones. The chromosomes inverting themselves way down deep in my marrow, which is what gives me Mantle Cell Lymphoma- those are my chromosomes. They’re as much me as my eyes or my fingerprints or the corner of my lips that produces my smile. The tumors riddling my insides- they’re attached to my spleen and my stomach and my lungs and God knows what else, and it’s my lymphatic system that so conveniently delivers those tumorous cells to the rest of my body and possibly my brain (one of the unique perks of Mantle Cell).

What I only realize now that I have cancer is that a PET scan is very different than a battle map. There is no enemy massing outside on the borders of the Republic of Jason’s Body. The masses are in me, a part of me even. Even if I could shrink myself down like Martin Short in Inner Space to go fight ‘it’ in my GI system, I’d just as quickly discover that ‘it’ is also very much me.

Which means, of course, that the only way to kick cancer’s ass is to kick my own.

Normally this time of year, I’m giving up meat or booze or Facebook, but this Lent, though I’ve not chosen it, I’m doing something even more Christ-like, in a way. I’m forsaking myself.

Don’t applaud me. It’s out of necessity not any piety. It’s just the way chemo works.

The only way to kill the cancer in me is to let the doctors get as damn close as they can to killing me.

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I’m learning that there’s an inherent passivity to cancer no matter how proactive and intentional I might want to be against it.

For much of the balance of 2015 I’m literally a prisoner of my own body. On a cellular level my body echoes St. Paul: ‘For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.’

This is precisely why poor bastards with cancer like me so desperately need others- especially doctors and nurses- because no sane person, no matter how sick or scared, would ever willingly do this to themselves. This regimen of chemo-poison.

I appreciate the sentiment behind ‘Kick cancer’s ass’ but already I’ve learned:

The language of fighting doesn’t really work for cancer.

It’s too active; in fact, I don’t believe the active voice really works at all for cancer.

I don’t believe the active voice works for cancer in the same way the active voice doesn’t work for God.

I remember one homiletics class when I was in seminary. This belligerently confident, hyper-evangelical classmate preached his sample sermon before the class. His sermon was frenetic. He clearly thought he was the superior preacher to all of us and, admittedly, his delivery was effective.

However, our professor, Dr Kay, looked restless and irritated through the entirety of the 20 minute sermon. Once the student finished Dr Kay breathed out his exasperation and declared to the preacher:

‘Do you realize not one of your sentences had God as their subject?’

Contrary to all the Strunk and White rules, when it comes to our speech about God the passive voice is most often the best, for it alone conveys the necessity of our trust and dependence upon God.

The active voice makes it sounds like we actually have our shit together.

And just need God to show up sometimes.

But the passive voice better than the active confesses ‘You can do, God, what we cannot.’

The passive voice admits more clearly that when it comes to things that matter, like sin and marriage and parenthood and friendship and truth-telling and compassion and cancer, most often-

my enemy is myself.

The passive voice better points out that in much of life, but particularly with cancer, the path forward looks not like active ass-kicking at all but instead something in between resignation and resistance because that’s the space where God goes.

All of which is to say, as much as I’d like to ‘fight it’ or ‘kick cancer’s ass’ my only real hope is that God will be in me, setting things right, just as scripture promises God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

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Speaking of Christ, by far the best response the news of my cancer has prompted was a JPEG of that charlatan preacher Joel Osteen along with the header ‘Imagine this is cancer when you’re kicking it’s ass.’

The JPEG response still trades on the fight metaphor and about the last thing I want to imagine is Joel Osteen inside me. I doubt his teeth would even fit inside my (now) 28 inch waist and his hair gel would likely spike my cholesterol.

I’ve scored many a point from the pulpit and I’m responsible for much clickbait at Joel O’s expense. No, this isn’t going to be an ‘I was all wrong’ epiphany but an ‘I was so right all along’ double-down.

What I mean is-

You only need to have cancer for about a day before you realize how impoverished is Joel Osteen’s power- of- positive- thinking active voice faith, his genie-in-a lamp-god who will reliably answer any prayer you’re bold enough to proffer.

One of the things you learn when you have cancer, along with how to read your latest lab work, is that only the crucified God, who has shared your fear and suffering and made your pain his own, only the crucified God can help.

 

This past weekend my muse visited my congregation as our guest preacher.

Thomas Lynch, readers of the blog will already know, is a poet and writer who also happens to be an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His prose has inspired my own, his writing on the funeral trade has informed how I conduct them as a clergyman and his hopeful gallows humor has given me cheer these initial weeks in my struggle with cancer.

Here’s his sermon from the Saturday evening service. It’s worth your time. If you subscribe to the blog by email, you may need to click over for the sermon.

The Seamus Heaney poem Lynch references is ‘Miracle’ based on Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in -

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltableand raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

(HUMAN CHAIN, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010, FSG)

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683.jpgDay 7

I knew I should’ve clicked ‘Mr’ instead of ‘Rev’ under preferred prefix. I’d still be stuck here with a cancer as rare as a unicorn, but my week would’ve at least gone a bit better.

With a few more laughs.

Yesterday, while I was sitting in my boxer-briefs, my gown twisted up around my waist, watching 19 Kids and Counting and eating my Cinnamon Toast Crunch, a Filipino woman knocked on my door on Unit #21 and then proceeded to wheel a large Zamboni-like machine into my hospital room.

‘I’m here to take chest X-Rays of you’ she said with more cheeriness than either the hour (7AM) or the wing (oncology) required.

She did it all right there, pushing chairs and tables out of the way, positioning the machine directly in front of me, placing a block of wood behind my back for posture’s sake and a heavy flack jacket on my lap for safety’s.

Just before she started to snap pictures of my tumored chest, I said- with apparently more dead-pan than I’d intended:

‘Hold on a minute…is that machine going to give me…cancer?’

And she looked up at me, blinking blankly, as totally serious and humorless as she assumed me to be and said:

‘No.’

Not even an ironic smile as she wheeled her manilla hot dog stand away.

If you need empirical proof that the agnostics among us consider Christians to be uniformly unfunny, then a few days in the hospital should net you all the data you need. The presumptions that would hold for you go doubly true for me, as a ‘leader’ of the tribe called Christian.

I wish I’d snuck into Unit #21, seeking out chemo-poison the way Nicodemus sought out Jesus, by keeping my vocation- indeed my faith- a secret. As I do at my wife’s law firm parties, I should’ve simply lied a la George Costanza and told people that I’m a marine biologist, only the hospital seemed to be the one place where my woeful ignorance regarding science would readily become apparent.

So I didn’t lie.

Dammit.

As a result, every employee here at the hospital knows I’m a Christian; worse, they know I’m a ‘priest’ and, as a result, they assume I’m serious- deadly earnest (perpetually thinking about Jesus)- all the time. No jest, nothing short of a knock-knock joke could break through the lugubrious stereotype they have for oddities like me and convey that in this particular instance (say…as I feign concern about cancer risks whilst receiving chemo on the oncology ward) I’m just screwing with you.

As a pastor for going on 14 years, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals.

I even worked as a chaplain at one for a time.

None of that time as a pastor among patients prepared me for how hard it is to be a pastor who is a patient.

Seven days into my first of what will be many hospital bids, I’ve discovered with the reliability of something like scientific law that pastors make bad patients.

It’s at least as right as Murphy’s: Pastors Makes Bad Patients.

Like many laws, the conditions which exemplify it are many but chief among them is the widespread, apparently settled consensus that Christians in general and clergy in particular are about as funny as Stage IV-V-ish Cancer.

The gallows humor, sarcastic banter and shit happens philosophizing that would otherwise make my days here more tolerable evaporates when everyone thinks your M.O. as an R.E.V. is to be serious 100% of the time you’re not making a joke about covered-dish dinners.

Last night, after bringing me my 19th unrequested can of chocolate-flavored Ensure, all of which remain unopened in my room, I told the woman from Dining Services:

‘Look, here, why don’t you take this. There’s actually a prohibition in Leviticus against mixing meatloaf with Ensure and fruit cocktail.’

Blink. Blink.

(Leaping to action)

‘Of course, I apologize, Father.’

‘Wait…what?!’ I started to unwind my BS before deciding I’d end up making things worse.

Thus it’s gone all week.

‘How are you feeling today?’

‘Other than the rare, incurable cancer I feel awesome today.’

‘Great!’

 

‘On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the max, what would you say your pain is this morning?’

(This just after the chemo had given me convulsions that ripped open my stomach incision like it was a Hot Pocket)

‘Oh, I’m great. Definitely a 0 this morning’

‘That’s fantastic!’

To spend a week here is not unlike having been raised by sarcastic wolves and suddenly asked to pass for normal in civilization.

To the nurse drawing my blood one evening while I flipped channels on the TV:

‘Just how big would you say Nancy Grace’s nostrils are? As big as racquetballs?’

Blink. Blink.

Straight face.

‘Maybe 5cm. Not nearly as big as a racquetball.’

Life turns out not to be very much fun when everyone assumes you’re no fun.

The verity of that maxim becomes exponentially more clear in the prison of the mind that insurance companies call hospitalization.

Receiving my most recent chemo infusion, the nurse prepped me with the caution that I should ‘refrain from both driving and sexual intercourse until the drugs have completely left your system.’

Seriously.

Just like that, a fat one right over the plate.

‘I guess that rules out having sex while I’m driving home then.’

Blink. Blink.

Straight face.

‘Yes. It does.’

Not even a double-take to see if I was being a wise ass.

‘I guess I’ll tell my wife she needs to make new plans’ I mumbled to no reaction.

As a pastor it’s not easy being a patient if for no other reason than that everyone assumes you’re more spiritual and less human than Jesus Christ himself.

My second night here I asked my night shift nurse for some concrete, Do’s and Don’ts advice about getting through my chemotherapy. She looked at me without pause and with something like a frown said:

‘Pray.’

Not only was this not the sort of advice I wanted, the effect it had was to make me feel like my diagnosis was even more damned than I feared- as in, all someone in my shoes CAN DO is pray.

And it was all because she knows- and she knows I know she knows- that I’m a pastor. If I were a short order cook or an insurance adjustor or a thong model, she probably would’ve said ‘Exercise 30 minutes a day’ or ‘Make sure you wash your vegetables.’

But instead I got scat like ‘Pray.’

 

Which, on the face of it, is curious since prayer is what everyone here assumes I’m doing every waking moment anyways. Only a few hours ago, I fell asleep reading in the armchair and, sure enough, the nurse tech who’d come to check my vitals immediately apologized for interrupting my ‘prayer time.’

‘I wasn’t praying, that’s alright.’

Blink. Blink.

And then she smiled…like she didn’t believe me, like I’m such a model Christian I’m too humble even to admit to praying.

‘No seriously’ I said ‘I don’t usually drool on myself when I’m praying. Well, actually that’s not true…’

Bottom line takeaway:

It’s hard to relate to people when they assume you’re less human than Jesus Christ, which is to say more perfectly human than they could ever hope for themselves.

You hear about how doctors and nurses make bad patients, and I’ve always taken the reason to be procedural. Nurses know, as in the right way, how the IV bags should be hung or the blood should be drawn. Doctors can read their lab results as well as their own doctor and they know as well as them the alternate diagnoses and treatments available. Nurses and doctors make bad patients in the way my father-in-law makes a back seat driver or sports fans make for obnoxious Monday morning quarterbacks. Their knowledge and techniques of their trade make them bad patients.

I’ve always assumed.

After a week as a patient, though, I’m not so sure anymore.

I wonder if instead doctors and nurses make for bad patients for exactly the same attribute they share with a pastor like me: memory.

I’ve been a pastor for nearly 14 years, and I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals. Specifically, I’ve been a pastor at this church for 10 years and, in those 10 years, I’ve spent a lot of time in this very hospital.

I can remember which babies were born in which rooms here.

I can recall what I half-watched on the TV with which families as we waited for word in the ER and the OR.

I can point down the hallways to the rooms for the suicides, the ‘gestures’ and the overdoses.

And, for the present argument, I can remember many of the folks with whom I prayed here who never made it home again, or did so only briefly as a sojourn on their way to a more eternal home.

After 10 years I can only recall a fraction of them. Still, the number is sufficiently high to make this place for me a haunted house, filled not with ghosts or specters but with emptiness.

So many rooms and spaces here at this hospital are just holes where people used to be.

Without exaggerating, I could close my eyes and turn right out of my room and turn right again out of my wing and right again to find the room where the mother I knew lost both her legs to diabetes only a short while before she lost her life. I can’t tell you the exact room number, but I could take you there, the place where, for weeks, a husband to his wife of more decades than I’ve lived read from the Psalms as she died of cancer.

I could drag my IV pole over to the ICU and show you the bed where an every Sunday worshipper (‘11:15, pulpit side, middle’) I swear I’d never seen before never got up from again. And from there my slippered feet could take you to the PICU where, not too long ago, I spent the day with a couple nervously standing vigil by their boy’s bedside. Their son, confirmed by me years ago, is only a few sizes and grades ahead of my eldest.

It was near that boy’s room that the Licensed Clinical Social Worker on our ‘walk’ yesterday told me that I seemed ‘dark’ to him.

It was near there, where that nearly died, that I thought in response: ‘No shit. What’s the matter with you? Don’t you work here?’

As a pastor I’m a bad patient because this place is for me what I’m sure it is for a lot of doctors and nurses too:

a tiled and antiseptic reminder, smelling vaguely of steamed vegetables and soiled linens, that life so infuriatingly fragile.

Contingent, I said in an earlier post, a fancy theological word meaning ‘crapshoot’ or ‘random’ to the point where, at times, the deepest faith in God can seem like insanity.

Doctors and nurses and pastors- we are all, they say, in the ‘caring professions,’ which is just a jargoned euphemism to avoid admitting that Death is a big part of what we do.

Until now, I’ve been like a nurse who comes home wearing scrubs with someone else’s blood stains on them. It gets close, but it’s still not me or mine.

But now, after 10 years of being a pastor here- in this hospital- I’m a patient here, and I’m finding that I’m not very good at the latter entirely because of my experience with the former.

Fact is, I can’t look at my oncologist’s data-driven poker face as he gazes at my most recent lab work without thinking of how I’ve prayed with patients in half of the rooms on this oncology unit, a memory which for whatever reason makes me feel like my odds run commensurate with the rooms I’ve covered: 50/50.

When I ask him why my swollen lymph nodes haven’t ‘totally disappeared’ as promised they would by this point in my treatment, I don’t even really listen to the answer because I’m off, thinking of all those families I’ve sat with as a pastor and listened as doctors promised a ‘full recovery’ that never came- and, in all likelihood, never was going to come. We just didn’t have ears to hear.

As a patient I keep getting told that optimism and a positive frame of mind are constitutive of the healing process, but in more names than I can remember I know, as a pastor, that seldom do either have anything to do with a cure.

God may be good and gracious, but I’ve spent enough time here in this hospital as a pastor to know that life is seldom fair or forgiving.

To patients.

And now I’m one.

Now I’m no different than anyone else, no different (and this is the real gist of it, isn’t it?) than all those patients I’ve visited as a pastor, many of whom, if not most, have since died.

It’s amazing, counterintuitive even, how daily proximity to death and all of its antecedents can actually give you a sense of invulnerability to it. If it’s cliche to say that the young think they’re invincible, then it’s double-true for young pastors. I comfort and I counsel and I commit to the ground, dust to dust. In the midst of life, we’re all ashes in waiting, I say.

I witness to the resurrection and I behold great mysteries and I bury the dead until that day they put on imperishability. I serve the suffering, but I do not suffer.

Except-

Now I’m the one with friends and loved ones willing to do anything, even cut a hole in the roof, if it’ll get Jesus to improve my prospects.

Now I’m the diseased one on the mat.

And to be as honest as I’ve ever been about anything: I fucking hate the view.

It’s funny, when you’re a pastor you think about passages like that one in Mark 2 where Jesus asks the begrudgers ‘Which is easier to say? Your sins are forgiven or get up, take your mat, and walk?’ and you imagine that it’s a loaded question.

Clearly, we’re meant to see, forgiveness is the harder miracle to broker. Healers were a dime a dozen throughout the ‘burbs and backwoods of 1st century Israel. There was nothing special about healings in Jesus’ day and so there is nothing unique about Jesus who performs them. Many healed, but only Jesus offers forgiveness.

And therein lies the predictable preacher’s lesson for the day: more precious than any doctor’s ‘all clear’ should be the assurance from our loved ones, from enemies or ex’s past or from God in the person of our priest that things, relationally speaking, are all clear, that our sins are forgiven, wrongs blotted out, and resentments set aside.

Now that I’m a patient, however, I wonder if my preacher’s reading of Mark 2 isn’t too cute by half. Because now that I’m a patient, with a rare cancer whose odds of survival make me look not much luckier than that poor bastard on the mat, it no longer strikes me as a loaded question. Not at all.

Sure, in the seven days I’ve lain here nauseated and depressed and hurting, I’ve given plenty of thought to the relationships I’ve let fray (that’s you, ________) and the wounds I’ve let fester (that’s you, _________) and the time I’ve not made (that’s you _____ and __________ and ________________) for what appear, given my new foreground, no good reasons at all. Sure forgiveness is important and, yes, I believe Jesus offers it.

But you know what?

You know what Jason-on-the-Mat knows that Pastor Jason didn’t, standing in the pulpit?

Healing’s important too, damn important.

Heresy or not, it’s no less a miracle than forgiveness.

‘Which is easier to say? Your sins are forgiven or get up, take your mat, and walk?’

What I didn’t realize before as a pastor: it’s not a loaded question.

It turns out both are hard to say, harder still to pull off, and neither is possible apart from the grace of God in Christ.

And grace, as every pastor knows, is by definition undeserved and, thus, its unpredictable. No matter what my doctor says.

And knowing that, as a pastor, makes me a piss poor patient.

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Day 5

People assume cancer is a bad thing.

People presume just because I have a rare, incurable, quite possibly terminal lymphoma that will require searing treatment and scores of cash; a disease that will take a harrowing emotional toll on me and mine while- best case scenario- reducing me to a gaunt, hairless, infertile, (‘probably not’) impotent shadow of my former healthy, virile self, that it’s all downside.

But you know what they say about making an ass out of you and mption. Fools.

As it turns out, cancer is not without its uses.

It’s true.

Cancer’s like having an ace in the hole you can play whenever it suits you without ever having to leave the card on the table.

For example, driving to my oncologist’s office the morning before my chemo began my wife and I found ourselves running late.

‘Just speed.’ I said calmly from the passenger seat ‘You’ll make up the time.’

‘On this road?’ she replied like I had prophylactic chemo brain, ‘There are speed traps everywhere. We’ll get pulled over for sure.’

‘Maybe,’ I accepted, ‘but then all you have to say is ‘I’m sorry, Officer, we’re late for my husband’s chemotherapy appointment. He has (daub the eye)…cancer.’ Even the most tight-sphinctered cop wouldn’t give you a ticket.’

The cancer-house-always-wins odds washed over her. She glanced at me, her eyes glinting like Steve McQueen’s to Ali MacGraw in The Getaway.

‘Punch it, baby’ I said.

When life hands you a belly full of tumorous lemons, make lemonade.

The week I spent at home post-surgery, pre-chemo one late afternoon a pimpled idealist with a $5 t-shirt and a plastic lanyard came knocking at my front door, canvassing for some urgent political cause. Having pimped out my principles for such work myself back in college, I’m normally an easy mark for a sympathetic signature and a harmless chunk of change.

This time, though, I didn’t even have to resort to my typical ‘I was just making dinner’ excusing salvo.

No. Channeling my genuine and recent sense of bewilderment, I muttered: ‘I’m sorry…I just found out… I have cancer…’

When I said it- and, truthfully, I don’t even know why I said it (‘I’m an asshole’ might be one obvious answer)- I wasn’t expecting it to slink me free of her utopian overtures.

But sure enough, just like that, she was forcibly removing her clipboard from my hands as though its germs might infect neutropenic me. Grabbing her ballpoint pen and bold-faced brochure back from me, she affected a preschool teacher’s countenance and said:

‘You don’t need to worry about this right now, and you CERTAINLY don’t need to be giving away money.’

For a second, I thought she was going to hug me.

She looked like she was going to cry and, more importantly, I did not look $25 lighter for it.

See, who said cancer is a bad thing?

My second day of chemo I sat reading in bed, trying to ignore the wave of nausea creeping up my throat, when my cellphone interrupted the beeps and buzzing from my IV pole.

It was someone from the Honda dealership trying to persuade me with the slick logic of a payday loan to SAVE MONEY by trading in my nearly paid for car with a new completely unpaid for one. I’d met this salesperson several times before and, each time, he left me feeling like I needed a shower. If I’d been splurting blood from the jugular such that it was spraying Cormac McCarthy-style all over the ceiling, I would’ve bet a down payment that he’d pressure me into an extended warranty before applying pressure to my sputtering wound.

I guess I was wrong.

‘I’m sorry’ I said a few seconds into his cellphone schtick, ‘I’m actually in the hospital right now with cancer.’

The conversation was over as quickly as it had begun.

And, bonus, he sent me a card.

Cancer’s not all downside.

The C Word got me out of the change fees with Porter Airlines for a trip I had planned to take with my wife this spring but now cannot take ‘…because…(deep melancholy sigh) I have…cancer.’

‘Merci,’ I said to the customer service lady in Quebec City.

And yesterday when I called the Billing Department for my son’s viola, which we apparently rent from Mercedes Benz, I apologized for the missed payment.

‘It just slipped my mind’ I explained cloudily ‘after I started chemotherapy…which I’m taking…because…I have…cancer.’

See, cancer’s not all bad.

To those with the (hairless) balls to grab the tumor by the reins, cancer’s like the cellular equivalent of that long, steadicam tracking shot in Goodfellas. 

Sure, like the mob, cancer puts your life at risk but at least it makes you a made guy, opening doors with barely 4 syllables’ worth of effort. And, even better, it closes down unwanted conversations faster than saying ‘I’m a pastor’ or ‘Would you mind if I talked to you about Jesus?’

Cancer’s not all bad.

Just last night, having visited me in the oncology unit, my wife leaned over my hospital bed to kiss me goodbye.

She put her hand on my cheek, tender and soft, and I put mine on her waist. Her hand remained there on my cheek, as true and chaste as a Jane Austen heroine.

Meanwhile, mine- left and right- wandered gently upward, just enough to cop a feel of her…ahem.

‘How many times in 20 years have I told you not to do that?!’ she chastised me.

Me, adopting a confused look, like I was trying to do the sum of all those times previous in my head:

‘But honey…I have cancer.’

It almost worked.

Cancer’s not all weeping and gnashing of IV ports.

Today I learned they’re going to release me in a couple of days with a prescription for a medication for vaginal yeast infections and herpes. Cancer may have riddled my body with tumors too many to count, but it’s also handed me humor gold like herpes and vagina pills.

It’s two days away, but I’ve got my parting shot to Joyce, my favorite nurse:

‘Herpes?!

No wonder I was sleeping so fitfully! What were you nurses doing with me/to me while I was unconscious?!’

Already I can see her dark Kenyan skin blushing.

Cancer, as bad as it is, has its benefits.

I know it sounds crass, but it’s true: being able to say ‘I have cancer’ has its uses.

People think faith is like that.

Useful.

Especially when the shit hits the biopsy.

Even unbelievers assume that faith is useful for calming your nerves, helping you to cope with the fears and anxieties that come when the CAT scan shows objectively that the Grim Reaper’s taking long, hard sniff all over you.

Just yesterday my Easternly-bent Licensed Clinical Social Worker at the hospital, presented ‘Buddhist mediation techniques’ (just saying ‘prayer’ would’ve somehow sounded too superstitious I suppose) to this priest as a potentially positive ‘healing tool.’

And tools, we all know, are designed to be nothing if not useful.

People presume that faith is useful too in pondering the big, COSMIC questions that accompany terminal diagnoses. Faith is useful, so the canard goes, in justifying the goodness/presence/reality/reliability of God’s ways when the world appears otherwise cold to ambivalent. Faith is useful in defending God’s Benevolence amidst the malevolence wracking your life.

Faith, in other words, is useful not just for alleviating anxiety; it’s useful for supplying answers to mysteries too dark to leave without rebuttal.

Maybe that’s the way faith works for some people; in fact, I’m absolutely certain that’s how faith works for many people.

But not me.

For me, faith isn’t like that.

Faith doesn’t provide a shot of optimism or a push of positive-thinking, for faith in the Cross and Resurrection isn’t optimism; it’s against-all-odds, in-the-face-of-all-just-merit hope.

Faith isn’t like all the steroid chasers to my chemo-poisons, convincing me I ‘can kick cancer’s ass’ because I’ve the Big Guy in my corner for the bout of my life.

Faith is not useful.

Cancer may have its practical benefits, but I’m not so sure faith does- at least, not in the way we typically imagine benefits.

My faith has NOT alleviated my anxieties. It hasn’t helped me sleep easier at night and it sure as Hell has not silenced the abacus in the back of my brain always- always, doing the math and wondering if the odds will ever be in my favor.

And my faith doesn’t provide any easy answers or assurances. It’s certainly not a coping mechanism.

What I mean is-

Everyone, and I do mean everyone, it’s staggering, assumes that a rare, aggressive cancer diagnosis will beget the ‘Why me, God?’ question a la Job, which, by the way, in four short weeks I’ve realized is a terrifically craptastic book of the bible.

Cancer doesn’t make you ask Job’s question any more than faith arms you with his answers.

What cancer does- it thrusts you into a community of people you didn’t know existed, people who are hurting every bit as if not more than you.

For example, there’s a girl on my oncology unit. She’s 23 and a 2 week olds’s mother. She learned she has cancer- has it bad- during her delivery. I’ve listened to her cry every night when they come to bring me my night meds.

The nurse I spoke to at my hematologist’s office, just before starting chemo, she said I was one of 30 people she was scheduled to see that day alone. People of all shapes and sizes and situations.

And ages.

Cancer doesn’t make you wonder ‘Why me, God?’ Only a dick would get caught up with that kind of question.

No, cancer throws in you the scrum and makes you ask ‘Why them, God?’

Why us, God?

Why this world? Which is the only possible world if the world is indeed the perfection expression of God’s infinite Goodness.

Why this world where a lion fulfilling its lioness leads to the lamb being slaughtered and where a few efficient tumorous cells fulfilling their design leads to cancer?

You see, that’s the problem with the Book of Job. The cast is too small, the point of view too limited. Job never so much as goes to the doctor’s office.

Cancer doesn’t lead you to ask ‘Why me, God?’

Cancer leads you to wonder why God can’t seem to enter or act in our world without casting shadows.

So faith isn’t ‘useful’ for me.

For me, faith is more like that story in Mark 8 where Jesus needs a do-over before healing a blind man. After Jesus’ try, the man says ‘I see people…but they look like trees walking.’

Faith is like that for me; it’s to have been touched by Christ only to have the world appear more bewildering than when you were blind (and happily so, it turns out).

Like that story, at least for me, faith gets you wondering why God doesn’t seem to have gotten everything right the first go round. I’m sure it works that way for plenty of cognitively dissonant people out there, but for me faith is not ‘useful’ amidst my suffering. Faith amidst my suffering instead puts me in mind of others’ suffering. Faith reminds me that Christ’s suffering isn’t isolated or even unique but somehow summarized in it and encompassed by it is the suffering of all those others who were crucified on the same day as him.

Faith isn’t useful; it compels even now, somehow, to be useful to others in their suffering.

Faith doesn’t alleviate my anxieties- not one iota- but it does bring me up close to the anxieties of others where, maybe, someday, I can prove useful.

Faith isn’t useful, especially not in the sense my Licensed Clinical Social Worker encouraged.

Christian faith, and by that I mean cross-shaped faith, doesn’t cultivate a positive, productive attitude.

Christian faith produces hatred.

It provokes perfect hatred towards the meaningless of all suffering, the absolute needlessness of sin and the sheer unnatural emptiness of Death, which the first Christian evangel outs as our ‘last enemy.’

So while cancer has proved useful in giving me a lifetime of jokes about my vagina, faith doesn’t work for me in a similarly productive fashion. What faith gives me is more like a posture, knowing that in the suffering and dying of the faces I see in the oncologist’s office and here on Unit 21 I do NOT see the face of God. I see instead God’s Enemy against which my faith has enlisted my meager help.

That’s not exactly ‘useful’ in the way cancer’s useful for a good dirty beaver joke. But it is, I suppose, the Gospel.

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Chemo Day #3

Thomas Lynch was the first writer able both to tease and to dash my dreams of becoming one, all in the space of five pages.

In what would seem a writerly conceit, he’s also the nation’s most famous undertaker. In the little town of Milford, just north of Detroit, Thomas Lynch buries his friends and neighbors for a living.

He writes in his spare time.

I invited ‘Tom’ (if I couldn’t match him at least I could befriend him) to speak at my church many months ago.

I should’ve realized back then that soliciting an undertaker’s presence into your midst- albeit one who has a sideline in poetry- seldom portends happy news.

Now, Tom’s two weeks out, his flight and his room are booked, his agenda is set and I’ve just had a tumor the size of a trade paperback excised from my insides- oh, and I’m waylaid in an oncology ward with a rare and incurable cancer, ingesting a cocktail of poisons to help the grim news go down.

So both my dashed dreams and my dire diagnosis I blame on the undertaker.

But, as Tom himself points out, my luck isn’t all that exceptional. The numbers- as in, THE NUMBER- are against me.

In his book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch writes:

Brenda Fitzsimons, The Irish Times

The most satisfied of my customers say: I hope to never see you again. I wear black most of the time, to keep folks in mind of the fact I’m not selling Buicks.

I’m the only undertaker in this town. I have a corner on the market. The market, such as it is, is figured on what is called the crude death rate- the number of deaths every year out of every thousand persons.

Here is how it works.

Imagine a large room into which you coax one thousand people. You slam the doors in January, leaving them plenty of food and drink, color TVs and magazines. Your sample should have an age distribution heavy on baby boomers and their children- 1.2 children per boomer. Every seventh adult is an old-timer. You get the idea.

The group will include fifteen lawyers, one faith healer, three dozen real estate agents, a video technician, several licensed counselors and a Tupperware distributor. The rest will be between jobs, middle managers, ne’er-do-wells or retired. Now for the magic part- come late December when you throw open the doors, only 991.6, give or take, will shuffle out upright. Two hundred and sixty will now be selling Tupperware.

The other 8.4 will have become the crude death rate. 

Here’s another stat.

Of the 8.4 corpses, two-thirds will have been old-timers, five percent will be children, and the rest (slightly less than 2.5 corpses) will be boomers- realtors and attorneys likely.

What’s more, three will have died of cerebral, vascular or coronary difficulties, two of cancer, one each of vehicular mayhem, diabetes and domestic violence. The spare change will be by act of God or suicide- most likely the faith healer.

The figure most often and most conspicuously missing from the insurance charts and the demographics is the figure I call:

The Big One.

The Big One refers to the number of people out of every hundred born who will die.

Over the long haul, The Big One hovers right around…well, dead nuts on 100%.

If this figure were on the charts they’d call it death expectancy and no one would buy futures of any kind. But The Big One is a useful number and it has its lessons. Maybe it will make you want to figure out what to do with your life. Maybe it will make you hysterical with fear.

As a clergyman with a sizeable chunk of my workaday year given over to beholding mysteries with a benediction and a fistful of dirt, I recognize the attention-getting power of a horizontal body.

Indeed, I daresay, one horizontal body that’s no longer moving is more compelling than two bodies that are moving horizontally together.

Like Thomas Lynch, I know firsthand many times over that there’s nothing quite like the presence of a dead guy to fix one’s mind on figuring out lowest common denominators; namely, between you and the universe. Or God.

My trade as much as Tom’s depends upon that number: the Big One, and for as long as I’ve been a pastor I’ve operated on the assumption that the Big One, 100% Death Expectancy, 0% Survival, is the only number that really matters in the grand scheme.

The Big One, I’ve always thought, is the only number that matters for taking accounts, auditing actual value and putting life in its proper perspective.

But I’m not a pastor anymore.

At least, not right now I’m not. Nor will I be for some time to come. I’m a patient, and after one surprise surgery, followed by a scary pant-pissing diagnosis and now facing a long chemo protocol that makes me blanch and odds I’d rather not weigh…

Lately, I’m convinced that the Big One is not the only number that matters.

Not by a long shot.

In fact, the last couple of days numbers seem to be the only thing I can wrap my head around.

Maybe it’s because I’m staring at Day #4 of something like 150 (if all goes well, says the doc) to come.

Or maybe it’s because I’m feeling flat-lined fatigued, tapped-out tired from my third 24 hour drip of yet another ‘medicine’ that ends with the suffix -toxin.

It could be because I’m strapped to this IV pole, tethered by the port and tubes in my chest, and plugged into the wall like a plastic, beeping prisoner.

And I’ve worked in a prison- I know of what I speak; prison is freaking boring.

The truth is it’s just been a couple of days and I’m already exhausted, a scorecard that makes me swallow hard at the road ahead. I’m fed up with waiting to throw up. I’m tired of waiting for when the meds will give me the runs and I’m tired of wondering whether I’ll be able to unplug all my shit and make it to the toilet in time when they do. And I’m seriously done with the way the brown bagged potion on my pole makes my piss the color of blood.

And burn.

Not to be too graphic.

My point is- I’m weary and, wearied, words are starting to prove elusive for me, making it easier for me to mark the time and transcribe the moments not in words but in numbers.

Numbers like:

43- the number of cancer-related television commercials I counted yesterday during dinner.

38 – the number of those commercials which aired on CNN

24 – the approximate number of hours per day that the Crocodile Hunter: Steve Irwin is on television.

2006 – the year the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, died.

7- the number of times the charge nurse has balled me out for refusing to wear the hospital-issue, rubberized, geriatric socks.

3 – the number of times the cancer-themed, Joseph Gordon Levitt/Seth Rogen bromance, 50/50, has aired during my hospitalization.

6 – the number of times my nurse, Joyce, has walked in and caught me watching #19 Children on TLC this week.

Too Many to Count – the number of tumors in my chest and abdomen regions according to my CAT Scans

5 – the number of IV bags being routed through the 2 tubes ported in my chest cavity.

180 – the number of seconds it takes me to unplug all those bags before I can begin to drag myself to the bathroom.

14 – the number of times I need to get up to go to the bathroom every night.

48 – the number of minutes I spent crying, full-on tears, during lunch today while watching Charlie Rose interview a panel of New York oncologists.

26- the number of minutes I made it into Episode 1 of Season 1 of Breaking Bad before realizing the premise hinged on a father and husband with terminal cancer, balling like a strung-out meth-head and turning it off.

4 – the number of times during our ‘walk’ today that the soft-spoken Licensed Clinical Social Worker observed that I seemed ‘cynical.’

3 – the number of patients I could overhear weeping last night long past midnight.

2 – the number I overheard the night before crying out in what sounded like agony while they threw up from their chemo.

14 – the number of times my doctor has asked if I have diarrhea.

8 – the number of times I’ve had it.

2- the number of times my mom surreptitiously washed my sharted on shorts to spare me shame.

23.6 – the amount my White Blood Count has dropped since Friday.

2 – the number of panic attacks that have awakened me in the middle of the night this week.

19 – the number of cans of Ensure, sent by the dietician, sitting unopened in my room.

14 – the number of years Ali and I will have been married this coming August.

40 – the percentage of my total years (37) that I’ve been in love with her and she (fingers-crossed) with me.

75 – the percentage of time I’ve not lived up to her expectations.

100 – the percentage of time she’s exceeded my own.

52 – the rough estimate of years, based on average life expectancy, I anticipated to have left with her.

12 – the age my oldest son is now, the age I was when my parents split, an age I know can make a lifetime’s difference.

41 – the percentage of my boys’ lives I’ll ‘miss’ this year while in treatment.

Forever – the amount of future time I assumed I had with them.

35 – the best guess number of times this week I’ve prayed a desperate, lame ‘Please, make it go away, God’ prayer.

0 – the number of times God has replied thus far.

With my brain cobwebbed on chemo and fitful sleep, I’ve found it easier to mark the time with numbers.

And, sitting here in my bed, sifting through all these numbers and searching out lowest common denominators, I’ve discovered:

Tom’s Big One isn’t the number that matters most to me in the grand scheme.

Not anymore.

I don’t really give a damn about my 100% Death Expectancy anymore because there’s a few other numbers that have gripped my attention, especially this one:

7: the median number of years for Mantle Cell Lymphoma until a relapse occurs.

But that’s hardly the only number. There’s:

44: the age my wife and I’ll be then.

16: the age my youngest, Gabriel, will be when I cross that number.

4: the number of years Ali and I will be just shy of our 25th Anniversary

60: the decade to which my life expectancy is shortened if my MCL requires bone marrow transplants.

Yesterday afternoon a pious-eyed chaplaincy student from the seminary just down the road wandered into my room. Having designated my religion as ‘Christian’ at patient registration last Friday, she had arrived to offer me pastoral care. I’ve been in her shoes before so I tried to be on my best behavior; I didn’t even mention that I was, had been a pastor. When it came time for her to take her leave, she extended the invitation for the obligatory prayer.

And thankfully she spared me any ‘Fatherweejus’ tripe but dammit if her prayer wasn’t all about me and the Big One, about FREAKING ETERNAL SALVATION and me trusting myself to it.

She said ‘Amen’ and I said ‘Thank You’ even though I was thinking ‘I’d like to punch you in the teeth.’ Because I don’t care about eternity right now.

I’m not afraid to die.

I don’t need a miracle or a cure, the latest elixir or a magic potion or the Jesus Prayer.

I don’t need forever.

I just want more time. That’s all.

Eternity is not a number I care about because I’ve got numbers like 7 and 60 that are now my Big Ones.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this nearly a month long nightmare (and if that sounds too stoic and brave, just go back to the top and reread)

It’s how quickly you can make peace with the likelihood you’ll die far sooner than you expected

It’s how quickly you can make peace with the fact that it’s likely this (and not peaceful old age or angina) that will kill you

It’s how quickly you can make peace with it, IF (a big fucking IF) you can just see your kids grow up, that’s all.

You can make peace with it if you can just enjoy your wife’s company for another factor (or two) of seven.

Eternity is the wrong damn number because it’s not so hard to make peace with death if you can just have a little bit more time.

So that’s what I’ve started to pray for, more time.

Hopefully it’s not too much to ask for; after all, when you think about it, time- literally, all the time in the world- is the exact gift God gives us at Easter.

Day #1: Chemo Sissy

Jason Micheli —  February 23, 2015 — 18 Comments

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517 First Sunday in Lent

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Whether the Statue of Liberty’s salutation has ever accurately reflected America’s attitude towards the stranger is debatable; however, as a description of the insides of an oncologist’s waiting room it’s a damn-on dead ringer. Previously accustomed only to the PG blandness of my general practitioner’s office or my children’s trippy, panda-themed pediatrician’s office, I was wholly unprepared for:

  1. The sheer size of the oncologist’s waiting room- so large I half expected to hear a fuzzy intercom announce bus departures from the other side of thick, yellowed plexiglass.
  2. How thick and tangible was the sense of hopelessness that hung in the air.
  3. The diversity embodied by that palpable despair. Sitting along the walls were couples the approximate age of Ali and me, old white-haired geezers, folks in their 50’s, healthy-looking women, obese men, alienesque pale, balding and rail-thin chemo patients and fucking kids.

Man, the fucking kids. I counted 7 of them. School-aged kids during the school day.

Weighting Room seemed a better spelling given the gravity I could feel in my feet as I soon as I stepped inside.

The wall scheme, as if avoiding false promises, was mauve. No color. No toys or play structures for the children.

And, a medical office first for me, no magazines. Not a one.

Their collective absence stood out like an indictment or a more bracing diagnosis than even the doctor could muster.

‘You’re not getting away anywhere with the time you’ve got left’ screamed the bare space where Conde Nast might’ve lay in a different waiting room.

The bare space on the end table next to my chair taunted me: ‘Who are you kidding? You don’t need 25 Sex Tips from Cosmopolitan. Those days are gone- you’re a goner.’

Speaking of sex, my final oncological consult on Friday just before I was to begin my aggressive chemo protocol (read: dire) was not the occasion I had expected to have a conversation about my swimmers.

Sure enough no sooner was I weighed and vital signed than my oncologist knocked on the door, entered the exam room and with the subtlety of someone who is either a life-long bachelor or a non-English major immediately began by asking me:

‘So, you two have children, yes?’

‘Uh, yeah, we have two. Two boys.’

‘I see,’ he said, ‘and do you plan to have more?’

Looking blankly at each other- ‘I dunno. I mean we’ve talked about the possibility, maybe but…’

‘Because if you do want to have more children, you’ll have to make a donation this morning before you start treatment.’

‘Uh, a donation?’

‘Yes, a sperm donation’ he said as though itemizing my taxes.

I don’t know why…I’ve been married to Ali for almost 14 years and we dated since we were 15 years old, but I still found this an intensely awkward conversation to be having in front of her…not to mention the nurse sitting at the computer.

And, as I’m wont to do in embarrassing situations, I resorted to deflective, juvenile humor albeit a classic Woody Allen line from Annie Hall:

‘Look, doc,’ I said, ‘I’ve got nothing against masturbation; its sex with someone with I love.’

The nurse at the computer, the nurse who happened to be wearing a 14.5 inch bleeding Christ crucifix around her neck looked at me with disgust and at Ali with someone like pity.

‘Anyway doc,’ I said, ‘you should’ve brought this up before you let the surgeon cut a giant incision across my waist because (even if you’ve got Cindy Crawford dressed in a nurse’s costume in the next room- I thought to myself) things are still as dormant down there as Omaha on a Saturday night, if you know what I mean.’

Whether he did or didn’t know what I meant he didn’t say, adding only this turd of a caveat:

‘Your protocol probably won’t render you impotent but it will leave you infertile.’

‘Probably?’ I gulped.

I suppose sex and death have been inextricably linked since Genesis 1. I suppose it was ever thus; nonetheless, just as I wasn’t expecting to begin my final oncological consult with talk of ejaculatory donations, the transition out of that subject was even more jarring.

There was another knock at the door, and my other oncologist entered the room. His first name is Ivan and his last name ends in -vich. The closet approximation I can get to the rest of his surname is to say it leaves no consonant behind. Indeed if there are still WMD’s to be found, they’re probably hidden in Dr. Ivan’s labyrinthine last name.

Dr. Ivan is tall and thin and Serbian scary, the land from which he hails. His thin round glasses look party issue. His hair is mussed in the way of someone committed to the cause.

And Dr. Ivan’s accent is such 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.’

In short, he’s everything a scared shitless, cancer-stricken bastard like me could want in an oncologist on the front line.

Describing the next 150 days or so of my regimen, Dr. Ivan opted for martial vocabulary and large St. Crispin’s Day type hand gestures.

‘My first drug,’ he said with a smack of his hands, ‘would OBLITERATE the bulky tumors all over my body.’

‘The other drugs would DEVASTATE THE ENEMY CELLS MULTIPLYING IN BLOOD’ he whispered like it was a sneak attack on unsuspecting Kosovars and then, rising off his stool, promised the cumulative effect would be to FORCE MY BONE MARROW INTO COMPLETE SURRENDER.’

If Dr. Ivan seems like the kind of medical professional you’d come across in the pages of an X-Men comic book, he merely stands in and continues a long line in the study of oncology.

After all, the practice of chemotherapy itself owes its origins to the use of mustard gas in World War I.

True story.

Not only was mustard gas a nasty little way to debilitate your enemy, it was also discovered to be an effective suppressor of blood production. Skip ahead to WWII, after a German air raid on the Italian village of Bari several hundred people were inadvertently exposed to mustard gas the Allies had been storing there to be used on the Germans. Oh happy fault- the survivors were all found to have abnormally low white blood counts. Thus is the beginning of another chapter in the supposedly value-neutral discipline of medical science.

All of which is just to say I can’t be accused of hyperbole when I say I’m now a duly admitted patient at a medical hospital (modernity’s last true cathedral) where doctors and nurses can legally assault me with German-derivated chemical weapons.

The trench warfare history of chemo-‘therapy’ such as it is, I shouldn’t have been surprised at how my first dosage went down.

After pre-scans of my body and pre-hydrations and pre-medications on Friday evening,  around 1:30 AM I was started on my first 6 hour IV drip of Rituxan, a poison normally considered safe only for MCL patients who are ‘young and fit.’

‘Young and fit’ minus the, you know, Stage 4 cancer all over my body.

Not knowing what to anticipate, I lay there in bed, clutching the sheets in the quiet. Nothing.

I was fine. I couldn’t feel or notice a thing.

By 2 AM I’m smiling in the dark. At myself. Thinking Paul Simon’s got it all wrong. The darkness isn’t silent; it’s filled with sound of my awesomeness.

Who are these sissies, I wondered, who complained about how hard chemo was on the body?

I’m like the Charles Bronson of chemo, I (literally) thought to myself.

I’m like Jewels from the lymphoma outtakes of Pulp Fiction. I’m a mushroom cloud laying motherfucker.

I’m like the Taken 1,2 and 3 Liam Neeson of chemo-‘weaponry;’ I have a very particular set of skills and kicking cancer’s ass is it.

I seriously thought to myself.

And then- BAM.

At 3AM, 90 minutes in

With no warning at all, 0-60 in 1 second flat

My whole body started to convulse, violently, head to toe, shaking my bed and every machine attached to it, splitting open my stomach incision and making my insides feel like they were now my outsides.

It was like an epileptic seizure, but one that started not in my brain but in this dry-ice cold deep down inside my bone marrow.

It’s 3AM, chemo battle #1, and what does Liam Neeson do?

That’s right, he shouts- not really shouts because the words won’t really come out of his quaking mouth- gurgles for his mommy, who’s snoring on the pull-out bed in his room.

My mom fetched the nurse who, upon entering, blithely responded with: ‘Oh yes, that’s one of the reactions to the Rituxan’ as she started layering a dozen warmed blankets on me to zero effect.

And I was thinking: ‘Reaction? This isn’t like hives from bad Cabernet or a rash from a bug bite.’

Except actually I wasn’t thinking. At all. I couldn’t think past the pain the convulsions had erupted all over me. I couldn’t have made heads or tails of a Two and a Half Men episode or a Sarah Palin speech so bone-wracking was the pain. It was blinding, consuming. A first for me.

It lasted about an hour.

And if you had offered me in any of those sixty minutes any thing to make it stop, to take it away, to turn back time- to any of my worst pre-cancer moments- then damn the torpedoes I would’ve taken you up on it.

No.

That’s not true.

I love my life. I cherish my wife. And I’m gunning to see my little guys grow up.

I would’ve stuck it out for them no matter what you offered me.

But-

Brass tacks confession time:

If you told me the next 150 days would be exactly like that hour and if you could promise me to make it all go away, then I wouldn’t say yes because of the reasons immediately cited above.

I wouldn’t say yes…I don’t think.

But I’d be tempted. And that means I could say yes.

Whenever we picture Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we usually imagine it unsubtle comic book lines and hues, with a bad guy readily identifiable as ‘Satan’ and 3 temptations to which Jesus readily gives the correct answers as though he’s been raised by a Galilean Tiger Mom.

The Synoptic Evangelists tell the story with such Hollywood haste the net effect is to turn Jesus of Nazareth into Doogie Howser, a spiritual prodigy who doesn’t struggle or grasp or scratch his head over the best way forward. But not only is such convictional clarity NOT TEMPTATION, it dilutes Jesus into someone less than fully human. It makes Jesus not as human as you or me.

I know the Gospels say Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert and I believe it.

I just think those temptations came to Jesus in exactly the same sorts of unseen, uncertain, ambiguous- human- ways they come to us.

I mean, it’s a no brainer if you’re posed questions by a guy with horns and a pitchfork. The right answers are obvious, that’s not temptation.

Which is to say, I take it as an article of faith that it was a real, live possibility for Jesus to have answered otherwise when the tempter proffered his questions in the desert. Just take another look, the brevity of the stories aside, Jesus spends 40 days tackling just 3 queries. That’s a baker’s dozen days per temptation. There’s more to the story than the story.

We tend to think of faith as something unchanging, immoveable, we can turn to when times get tough or tempting. ‘He is our Rock’ the praise song repeats ad nauseum. Faith is our North Star, our inner compass, our firm foundation.

But I don’t think so, not so much anymore.

I think Jesus, if he’s at least as human as you or me, then one of the things he takes on in the incarnation is the uncertainty of life. The sheer contingency of life, not knowing what will drop with the next shoe, what crappy news is a day away or what will be the best way to deal with it.

If Jesus is truly incarnate then his humanity is shot through with the very contingency that so often makes our lives seem like a crapshoot.

And that means faith isn’t like a rock or a firm, immoveable foundation.

It means faith is change.

Faith is change because it’s faith lived alongside the life God gives you.

Faith is change because it’s dependent upon the (contingent) life in which it is lived.

And in the same way that love and marriage and children and a career changes you- and thus your faith- so can does pain and dread and fear and despair and temptation change you.

And thus your faith.

For what makes temptation in the face of faith real is the real possibility of losing the faith you had.

Of failing.

If there’s a silver lining in this (and I’m into looking for silver linings these days) it’s that faith is strongest where the possibility of losing it is greatest.

And if that makes me a less impressive Christian, I at least like to think it might make me a more trustworthy pastor.

One day down.

149 or so more to go.

Not that I’m counting but that’s nearly 4x longer than Jesus was stuck in his own wilderness.

IMG_2554

(Jason, pre-hair loss)

My Cancer Playlist

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2015 — 29 Comments

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Ash Wednesday: 2/18/15

The day before I left the hospital, per my oncologist’s orders, I had a dual lumen port installed in my chest, just opposite my heart. It’s a device, an accessory if you will, into which the poison will flow when I return in two days for my first bout of chemotherapy.

An orderly named Nathaniel wheeled me down from my room to a unit whose name I missed in the wincing, DUI-like jingle-jangle that was Nathaniel hitting every bump, corner, laundry bin and stray wheel chair along the way.

In his defense, he was distracted.

Nathaniel was Ethiopian, which I could tell from his complexion and his accent. He was, he told me freely and for no apparent reason, an Orthodox Christian, which led to my ill-advised confession to being a man of the cloth.

As soon as Nathaniel found out I was a ‘priest’ (which happened just as we passed my nurse’s station), he ceased looking at the route ahead of the $35,000 bed to which I was chained by way of compression socks and IV needle and instead he zeroed his attention on my ‘sense of peace here in the hospital.’

Is how he put it.

‘It must be wonderful,’ he rhapsodized, ‘feeling the Holy Spirit overshadow you.’

Is this guy serious? I thought to myself. Or is it the morphine?

But what I said was:

‘I don’t know Nathaniel. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she wound up an unwed, teenage mother. I’m not so sure I need any overshadowing on top of the- you know- scary, stage-serious blood cancer.’

But Nathaniel wasn’t listening to me. At all. He was too excited about having a genuine Christian talisman in his presence, albeit one- according to the nurses- with strong vital signs and alive for at least a little while longer.

‘With the Holy Spirit, I imagine you feel no pain, no pain at all’ Nathaniel said beatifically, just as he bumped the side of my bed against the elevator door, sending what felt like a 9.0 fart engulfed in flames through my recently incised insides.

Once delivered to my pre-op bay, I waited while several nurses stopped by my bed to reassure me how I would ‘experience no pain’ while they sunk what looked like a diaphragm with purple spermatozoa into my chest and attached it my jugular.

‘You’re not going to knock me out?’ I asked in disbelief.

‘We’ll administer a mild sedative. You won’t feel a thing’ the last nurse promised.

‘Really? How many of them do you have in your chest?’ I asked.

Huffing at the pain- in- the- ass-impossibility that was patient 5421, she walked away only to return a few minutes later to explain how if my chest port ever got infected then it would be A) excruciatingly painful, B) ‘compromise my treatment’ and C) ‘quite possibly kill’ immune-deficient me.

‘Kick ass’ I said like Maverick about to take-off.

They wheeled me into a room that had a basementy, 12 Monkeys feel to it where the nurse pitilessly instructed me to climb onto the operating table, which in my sutured, doped-up state was like asking John Goodman to scale a pommel horse.

Holding my bowels with my left hand and trying to cover my bare behind with my right, I attempted a ‘maneuver’ that felt (and probably looked) like a full-body dry heave.

I wound up splayed down over my knees on top of my face with my hairy, recently sponged-bathed butt sticking up in the air.

Seeing my futility, they picked me up and moved me the way lifeguarding students handle accident dummies.

They laid me out on the table, wrapped a sort of inflatable mattress around my circumference and positioned my head across my left shoulder- so I couldn’t be a witness to the carnage to come, I suspected. Informing me they’d just administered a mild sedative, someone, who I couldn’t see but who smelled of Axe Body Spray took to shaving my chest.

‘Sigh’ I sighed.

I’d already had one shave job that week.

‘Say,’ I said, ‘If I gave you $50 cash would you just go ahead and give me a full body wax?’

‘Not during working hours’ Axe Body Spray replied creepily. When he finished his hasty man-scaping, a bracing sensation struck me.

‘Is that…? rubbing alcohol?’ I asked, feeling the liquid ignite all over me- especially around my nipples-before dripping down my sides.

‘Yes’ he said ‘

‘Lovely’ I said, ‘For a second there I forgot about the bone-crunching pain in my gut.’

Like I said, I’d already gotten one half-assed shave job before my intestinal surgery.

Thanks to Axe Body Spray, from my Twig and Berries to my Adam’s Apple, the only hair on my upper body now resides on top of my shoulders.

And my hands.

Seriously, my top half now looks like the love child of Justin Bieber and Samwise Gamgee; actually, given my weight loss, I look more like the bastard child produced by a Kiera Knightley affair with a short-order cook from a Greek Diner.

Like I said, lovely.

Not to worry though. While doing some online cancer research, I inadvertently discovered that they actually make pubic hair wigs for chemo patients.

No joke, they’re called ‘merkins,’ made from real or artificial hair, and come in snap-on and velcro varieties. But that- after I throw up in my mouth- is an essay for another day.

As the drowsiness set on me, the nurse asked: ‘What kind of music do you like?’

‘Oh, just about anything’ I lied to avoid conversation.

‘Bluegrass?’ she asked.

‘Actually, yeah, I like bluegrass a lot’ I responded.

‘Hmm, not me,’ she said before turning it to what I could tell was one of those sackless, soft pop stations that purport to play ‘the best songs from the ’80’s.’

Sure enough, Tears for Fears were just finishing up wanting to rule the world when the Belinda Carlisle song ‘Heaven on Earth’ kicked on.

Just as I was going lights out to the world, I considered that if Belinda’s right, if heaven is a place on earth, then (in addition to Cleveland and Walt Disney World) it’s anywhere but here. Near me.

I woke up without realizing I’d been asleep. ‘Everything okay?’ I asked, not even sure if they’d begun.

‘Sure,’ the nurse said, ‘you didn’t move at all, except when you bounced your hips a little to ‘Raspberry Beret.’

I blinked my eyes awake and felt the dull ache in my baby bottom chest, just opposite my heart. I turned my head and saw the wires with input heads on the end dangling down my torso.

Hickman_line_catheter_with_2_lumens

When I showed the chest port to my boys later that evening, they both immediately compared it to Tony Stark’s arc reactor. It’s not a bad analogy. The arc reactor, after all, not only powers Tony Stark’s Ironman suit but it keeps Tony’s body from slowly poisoning itself.

It’s a sound analogy, but really the chest port resembles auxiliary audio cables coming out of my breast.

The effect of which is to make me look like a piece of stereo equipment.

As though if you stuck an antennae up my bum in the AM and plugged me into a speaker, I could play All Things Considered for you. Or, I keep thinking, music.

If you plugged me in to your car stereo or your surround sound system, what music would MP3 me play?

What soundtrack for the movie Jason has Cancer is recorded there just across from my heart?

I imagine the cuts from my pre-diagnosis days would include something like REM’s ‘Shining, Happy People’ or maybe something from Astral Weeks and Miles’ Birth of the Cool album. You know, the kind of music you’d sample for the theme ‘blissful ignorance’ and postured cool.

When I expressed my first fart after surgery, the sign they’d put Humpty’s insides back together again, I probably would’ve played ‘I’m So Excited.’ And when I dropped my first post-op deuce a couple of days ago, MP3 me probably would’ve blasted Handel’s Hallelujah chorus or maybe Elton’s ‘Rocket Man’ or, since we’re talking crap, anything by Coldplay.

The night Ali climbed into the hospital bed with me, damning my leaky bile tube and laying right on top of it, and wiped the night sweat off of me and held me until the nurse made her get out, the night we learned I had Mantle Cell Lymphoma.

It’s cheesy but if you’d plugged me in that night I would’ve played Phil Collins’ power ballad ‘Against All Odds.’

Over and over.

With me as Jeff Bridges in the music video, and cancer as James Woods, and Ali as whoeverthatactressis.

Ever since the evening my GI doc called after my CAT Scan and asked if I was sitting down, there have been plenty of singles like Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ and Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ rattling around inside me. Except, when I’m with my kids. No matter how shitty I might feel or how depressed I get, the soundtrack for when my boys enter the room would probably be the Shins or the Decembrists, something fun and airy and lackadaisical enough to hint at the possibility of happy endings.

And since I belong to a church, one of my tracks is surely Joe Cocker’s cover of the Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help from My Friends.’

Most of the time, though, if you plugged me in and never pressed pause, I bet the music I’d play would include plenty of tracks from the Cure or Morrissey or the National, you know, the kind of music that makes you want to pull the shades and drink by yourself all day, munching on rat poison while you watch a Full House marathon- mostly because I fear- FEAR- that if you plugged my breast into your Bose, you’d discover that I come with a hidden, bonus track. One that wasn’t listed when you bought the album but has been there the whole time nonetheless and can’t be deleted.

Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’

If you plugged me in and never pressed pause, I fear you’d eventually end on a cut like Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’

The funny thing about fear when you’re a Christian (especially a pastor) is how other Christians treat fear like its anathema.

Verboten. More cancerous than cancer, like its a tumor that threatens the Body of Christ.

To be afraid, to pay attention to the prognosis, to weigh the odds and fear where you’ll end- all of of it, many unwittingly imply, is the opposite of faith.

After all, if you trust God then you shouldn’t fear what tomorrow will bring. Let go and let God. Give it over to the Lord. Trust Jesus. Everything happens for a reason. He never gives you more than you can handle. Have faith that all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

Whatever happens, He has a plan. Have faith, not fear.

Christians get it honest, I suppose, this fear vs. faith way of thinking.

‘Don’t be afraid’ is perhaps the most common refrain in the testaments. Yahweh, his angel Gabriel, Jesus himself are constantly telling people not to fear.

And the other night in the hospital when I couldn’t sleep and was flipping channels on the TV, a bouffant preacher hawking a bible study curriculum on the Trinity Broadcasting Network reminded me how the New Testament letter from John says that fear is the opposite of faith and that perfect love (for the Lord) casts out all fear.

From where I sit in the cancer chair, that’s horse shit, even if it is in the bible.

And, I’m not even sure it’s true.

I mean, sure, it’s true if what John means is that love, as in Love; as in Jesus, casts out all fear. It’s true if what John’s really after is that faith, as in Jesus’ Faith, is the opposite of (our) fear. And maybe it’s true if what John has in mind is action, causation; that is, provoking faith and love in someone is the opposite of provoking fear in someone.

Sure.

But otherwise, the notion, hawked by that TV preacher and so many other well-meaning Christians, that the presence of fear equals the absence of love is total rubbish.

If there’s one thing stage serious cancer does, it’s inject an ample dose of clarity into your life.

Here’s what my dosage has revealed: I’m afraid because I love.

I’m not afraid for myself, for what the treatment or the cancer will do to me. I’m not afraid of the pain or discomfort. I figure if I can live for a month with a 10×10 inch tumor obstructing my poop chute, I can handle chemo and bone marrow transplants.

I’m not afraid for me. I’m afraid because I love.

I fear what this cancer will do to my boys, to their happiness and joy and innocence and faith.

And while we’re on the subject of faith, I fear what it will do to my congregation’s faith to see one of their pastor’s handed such a huge crap-flavored lollipop. Speaking of church, I’m afraid of the stress this places on my colleagues, who got left holding the bag with literally a day’s notice. I’m afraid if when I return to work, it’ll be as a shell of my former (without peer) self.

I’m afraid of the burden and grief this will bring my friends and family; I actually visualize seeing it in their eyes.

I’m afraid of the toll this will take on my wife, having to attend to the ‘…in sickness and in health…’ part of her vows earlier than expected. I fear losing not our marriage or our family but the one- the freaking perfect one- we’ve built and enjoyed with our kids. In the back of my mind, I even fear practicalities like what this will cost, and therefore what will it cost us in terms of the dreams and goals we previously harbored.

I’m riddled with fear and for St. John or a hair-sprayed TV preacher or well-meaning well-wishers to suggest that means I lack faith or love seems to me completely tone deaf.

If I didn’t have so much and so many I love, I wouldn’t give a damn and I could take this shit sandwich stoically. But because I do, there’s no way around it. I’m afraid. And if that somehow puts me at odds with Jesus, well then I guess we’ll have to sort it out when I meet him, which I hope is later rather than sooner.

If you plugged MP3 me into a surround sound, you know what track you wouldn’t hear playing from somewhere just west of my heart?

You’d never hear Neil Young’s single ‘Hey, Hey, My, My.’

You’d never hear it because of that line from the chorus, where Neil sings:

‘Its better to burn out/than to fade away…’

My wife won’t have it. She’s determined we’ll grow old and gray and fade away together; in the meantime, I’ll have to ignore the Johns and the TV preachers and just trust that if the people in my life are worth Jesus redeeming then they’re worth my fears too.

50 Shades of Humiliation

Jason Micheli —  February 17, 2015 — 25 Comments

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‘I’m going to inject you here in your arm where the fat is,’ she said.

‘But there’s no fat there,’ I dead-panned, ‘that’s all Grade A muscle.’

She frowned. ‘Here…in your arm…is fat.’

‘No,’ I feigned incredulity, ‘that’s all muscle, from my body-building days. You’ll probably break the tip of your syringe.’

‘No, everyone has fat here,’ this time pointing to her own bony tricep, ‘it’s the best place for the injection.’

Earlier in pre-op, after removing every stitch of my clothes, even my wedding band, and putting on a gown decorated with Pink Floyd-meets-Dress Barn geometric designs, she had told me her name, Chau, meant ‘pearls,’ which I found ironic considering how I was throwing them at her to no affect or appreciation.

‘Hi, my name is Chau,’ she’d said, ‘Is there anything I can get you?’

‘Yeah, you don’t happen to have a cure for cancer on you do you?’

She paused like she was running down the cafeteria’s menu in her mind.

‘No,’ she said with what I’d call a poker- face if it didn’t happen to be her only face.

‘I guess I’m fine then.’

My wife had already come back and we’d cried and hugged and kissed and said the sorts of things that husbands and wives say to each other when they’re scared shitless over what will follow when- not if- the other shoe drops.

And before they took me back to the operating room, they let my mom come back to say goodbye too. The team of surgical nurses waited by the curtain wearing tan scrubs and plastic butcher’s visors in front of their faces.

‘Exactly how much of my blood are you expecting to spray around the room?’ I thought, panicky, when I first saw them.

They waited while my mom kissed me on the cheek and whispered into my ear ‘I wish this was all happening to me and not you.’

‘Me too’ I replied and waited a beat or two before smiling.

I turned to Chau, who was unplugging my IV from the wall, and dead-pan again said:

‘Chau, my mom’s a nurse and, well, it’s sort of a family tradition, if it’s okay with you, she’d like to be the one to put my catheter in.’

‘But she’s not washed up’ Chau said.

By the grace of God they put me to sleep before they inserted the catheter so I remain blissfully ignorant of whatever Medieval torture such a procedure requires.

Removal of the catheter, on the other hand, not so much.

A day (or two?) after my intestinal surgery I felt like my spleen would fall out through my sutured belly button if I as much as farted, but somehow I hurt more ‘down there.’

You know where.

I’m sure it was psychosomatic, my mind attributing greater pain to that part of me that I, as a member of the male species, assign greater biological and spiritual significance.

Sometime in the thick, languid hours after surgery a nurse technician named Jacqueline entered my room with an entourage of 3 and announced that she was there to remove my catheter.

‘Aren’t you going to…like…put me to sleep first?’ I asked, feeling suddenly lucid. ‘Or anesthetize me?’

She waved her hand at me with a smile like I was her rascally kindergartener. ‘Don’t be a baby. You won’t feel a thing.’

‘Won’t feel a thing? You’re going to pull a however long tube out of my Magic Johnson. How is it not going to hurt?’

‘With the meds you’re on?’ she frowned skeptically, ‘Tell me, can you feel anything down there now?’

‘Yes’ I lied.

She crossed her arms and cast a glance at the 3 women behind her.

‘Really? So can you feel that you’re peeing right now as we speak?’

‘I am?’ I asked, pulling up the covers for a peek.

‘Honey, you’re telling me that you just had a 10×10 inch tumor taken out of your intestine and you’re more worried about your penis?’

‘Yes,’ I said flatly, thinking how the self-evidence of such a distinction should be just that, self-evident. After all, cancer just effects your whole body. But we were talking about the object by whose measurements all men measure their manhood.

‘My intestine doesn’t govern 97% of my waking and sleeping thoughts’ I said.

She sighed like whatshername on The View and snapped on a pair rubber gloves. Nodding her head to the Greek chorus behind her, she said:

‘They’re interns. Do you mind if they watch and assist me?’

What was I supposed to say?

Obviously ‘no’ is the right answer, but, considering how I was lassoed to the bed by ridiculous-looking compression socks, could barely move from the chainsawed gash in my gut and was tethered to the wall behind me by the stomach tube extruding from my left nostril, I figured it was better at least to act like I was in control.

‘Sure,’ I said, ‘Maybe you should lower the lights and put some music on first.’

All four of them rolled their eyes.

The narrator in one of John Irving’s novels observes that the most emasculating position for any man to be caught is with his t-shirt on and nothing else. I used to think that sounded exactly right; that is, until Jacqueline pulled down my blankets and sheets to my ankles and then pulled my gown up past my weeping incision and swollen belly to around my nipples.

The rather zealous pre-op shave job they’d done on me, combined with the preschool colored socks with rubber tread on my feet, somehow made me look even more pathetic.

‘Gee, it’s cold in here’ I said as a sort of sheepish disclaimer.

One of Jacqueline’s students, per her instructions, took my lifeless Johnson in her latex hand and the catheter tube in the other. Then Jacqueline came around behind her and put her hands on top of the intern’s so as to demonstrate the proper positioning and technique, as though we were on a putting green somewhere and Jacqueline was the club pro using not a putter or a 5 iron for her lesson but my baloney pony.

‘What do you for a living?’ Jacqueline asked as her intern found the right spots.

‘Uh, I’m a…uh…a minister’ I said.

‘Praise Jesus!’ nurse Jacqueline exclaimed with a sincerity that seemed to match her volume. And just then she started to slowly pull what felt somewhere inside me like a 30 foot length of raggedy 20 pound saltwater fishing line from my bait and tackle.

Now, I’d be lying if I claimed that the image of 4 women gathered around my naked, chiseled body praising Jesus as they beheld my manhood was a scene that had never once played in the cinema of my teenage mind, but, as far as fantasies go, this wasn’t it.  When you’re a guy, the last thing you want is for your piece to be held in a woman’s hand as limp and lifeless as roadkill. And you definitely don’t fantasize that said woman will wear an absolutely vacant expression on her face.

As she neared the catheter’s end, Jacqueline warned me:

‘You’ll probably go pee-pee on yourself when this comes all the way out.’

Seriously, she said ‘pee-pee.’

And as if my multiple injuries needed the extra insult, I promptly did just that. Pee-peed all over myself and somehow ‘pee-pee’ seemed exactly the right word for how silly and emasculated I felt.

Another of her interns tossed me an adult-sized baby wipe.

‘Clean yourself off’ she said in a way that made feel like I was supposed to get up and leave money on the IV stand. Actually, no. That’s bullshit.

No, it just made me feel…humiliated.

And such were the hours and days after catheter day.

It’s only been 12 days since the night my doctor called me while I carpooled the swim team home and, while the boys talked about girls in the rear seat, suggested that I sit down to hear what he had to say.

Two weeks though is long enough for me to have learned that humiliation is one of the ways stage-serious cancer manifests itself.

Needing help to pee into the plastic jug because you don’t have the ab muscles to do even that for yourself.

Needing help to change your gown at 3AM because- fun fact- night sweats are one of the symptoms of the cancer that’s now coursing through your blood.

Needing the surgical resident to pretend she doesn’t notice the crack in your voice and the tears well up around your eyes as she asks how you’re doing.

As surely as a cold begets a runny nose, this cancer has brought humiliation in to a life where ironic pretense and playing it cool had been the norm.

Like the third or fourth night in the hospital when the nurse, who was about to check my vital signs in the middle of the night, was standing there in the dark just as I woke up suddenly, crying and breathless from the first of what are already many panic attacks.

She wiped the sweat from my forehead. Tucked me in and, shushing me, said ‘It’s going to be alright.’

Like I was a child.

In the past few days I’ve heard from lots of people and many of them have asked me what it’s like, having this giant steaming pile of crap land in the middle of my life. And honestly the first word that comes to mind is humiliating.

Here’s one question I wonder lately that I never wondered before:

Does Christ participate in our suffering and humiliation?

Or do we participate in Christ’s suffering and humiliation?

Christians can go either way on the answer.

If the answer is the former then that means- thanks to the incarnation- there is no permutation of our humanity in which Christ has not been made present. Whatever we go through, the theological line continues, we can go through it knowing our pain is not unknown to God.

God, like Bubba Clinton, feels our pain.

There’s nothing wrong with that answer I suppose, but for me, at least lately, I think the good news is found in the latter. We participate in Christ’s suffering and humiliation by our own.

Here’s what I mean by good news:

Just like the bumper sticker, a lot of people treat Jesus as though he’s the answer to the problems and questions of existence: How can I be saved? Why do bad things happen to good people? etc.

But if we participate in Christ’s humiliation and suffering through our own, then that means:

Jesus isn’t an answer to the problems and questions of existence.

Jesus is a means of existing amidst life’s problems and questions.

Can you feel the distinction? Because I can. Ever since that night I had to swallow my pride and ask the nurse to help change me, I can feel the distinction.

Feeling humiliated on an almost hourly basis now, I don’t need or want a God who can feel my pain. I need, desperately want, a God whose own life can show me a way  to live in and through it.

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Dear friends, HEWHOMUSTNOTBENAMED and random visitors,

As you may already know, I’m going on my 10th year at Aldersgate Church and in all that time I’ve taken 1 paternity leave, several long potty breaks and, count them, 0 vacations.

Working with a man like Dennis Perry, a man whose name will go down in history with names like Michael Scott, Gomer Pyle and Roscoe Peco Train, I simply couldn’t afford to take time off of work. I cared too much about you all to allow you to suffer long under Dennis tired, broken body, diminished mental faculties and antiquated job skills.

I couldn’t even get away and let Dennis ‘phone it in’ at work because even then, I knew, the phone in question would be a rotary phone.

Just think, there’d you be, waiting as long for Dennis to complete a thought as it takes to dial a number with a 9 and a 0 in the area code. People of Aldersgate, I just couldn’t do that to you. I love you too much.

Fortunately for you all, Hedy’s arrival on staff has made me as irrelevant, ineffectual and archaic-seeming as Dennis has proven these past many years, which is lucky for me because, now, like Bilbo Baggins, I’m going to be away for a while.

If you skipped church last Sunday, are not on social media or were just trapped under something heavy this week then you might not have heard already that I have the ‘C’ word.

No, no that ‘C’ word. Don’t be so vulgar. This is church.

No, I have that other ‘C’ word.

Cancer.

The irony in all this is the first thing that hit me too: this past year Aldersgate has had a healthy, in-shape pastor and his name was Dennis Perry. I’m never exercising again.

To make a long story short, I’ve suffered abdominal pains since the early fall, pains I chalked up to too much coffee in my stomach, too much fat in my diet or too many church people in my schedule.

That most of you didn’t even know I was suffering such pains, I attribute to a virility that makes Lee Marvin look like Judy Garland.

Last Thursday I had a CAT scan of my abdomen, which showed that my pain was caused by an intussusception, a rare condition (for adults) where my small intestine had inverted and was ‘telescoping’ in on itself. Ali and I met with a surgeon on Friday morning who explained the surgery and warned us as well that she was concerned about what could be causing the intussusception.

The surgeon had hoped she could do the procedure laparoscopically, but when I woke up on Monday evening, feeling like someone had gone at my gut with an electric Thanksgiving knife and a battery acid chaser, I suspected it had been a bigger surgery.

In fact, they removed about 3 inches of my intestine to correct the inversion, and they also removed from my small intestine a 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, whom I’ve since taken to calling- affectionately- ‘Larry.’

Let that sink in: 10 by 10 inches. I can now say I understand what women go through in child birth, which I think should make me even more appealing to the ladies (if such a feat is even possible).

A 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, unlike a real baby, however is not an occasion for cigars and balloons.

The pathologist took initial slides of the tumor immediately after surgery and on Tuesday the oncologist told Ali and me that, even without the exact biopsy results, he knew:

I had a lymphoma that fell somewhere among 5 rare cancers of the blood.

You can imagine how we took that news. I went to the doctor last week thinking I had a gall stone or an ulcer. The idea that my body, which has always been a source of pride in me and arousal in women- the idea that my body was now trying to kill me was a complete shock to us. The idea that if I do nothing at all I’ll swiftly be dead was an even bigger shock.

We cried.

A lot.

I made lots of apologies for all the ways I’ve been a crappy husband because I assumed we had all the time in the world.

Finally, we dried our eyes and told our boys, Gabriel and Alexander, that Daddy has cancer, which is what was making his tummy sick, that I’m still sick and that the doctors are going to work to make me better but it’s going to take a long time and I’ll be sicker in the meantime.

Today is Friday. We met with the oncologist last evening. It turns out:

I have Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a rare, non-Hodgkins form of B cell lymphoma that typically only organ music-loving people the age of the 8:30 service get. Its spread through the GI System and bone marrow.

 

I like to think I’m unique in all things and it turns out I am in diseases as well.

Because it’s a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I’ll be fighting it likewise. I will begin 4 two-part phases of aggressive chemotherapy this coming Friday- not much of a break I know.

Each phase will last approximately a month. The lymphoma has spread to the rest of my system so I’ll definitely be hospitalized again for the first phase as the oncologist wants to monitor my kidneys. Hopefully, hospitalization won’t be necessary for the succeeding treatments. At the end of the 4 phase treatment, it’s likely I will need to undergo bone marrow transplants as well.

All in all, I think its safe to say 2015 will be an exceptionally crappy year for the Micheli household. The Nats better freaking make it out of the first round because I’m not going to have much else going for me this year.

In case you were wondering, I won’t be around much for the next 6 months.

I hope you continue to be around for us though. I’m not normally given to sappy, sentimental nonsense, but I can’t tell you how fortunate we feel to be going through this in a church and a community we’ve come to know so well. Already so many of you have been key to getting us through the dark nights we’ve had. We’re going to need you and we’re not the type to ask so don’t wait for us to ask. Just continue to do what you’ve been doing.

ImamPastorI like to yank Dennis’ chain but without him I’d probably still be in the corner crying and sucking my thumb.

I couldn’t have made it through this week without Dennis and I won’t make it through the weeks ahead without him, so cut him some slack. And even though you know I won’t be preaching for quite a while and you know he’s likely to bore you to tears, please show up at church anyway.

It might not surprise you, but my biggest fear- the thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night with panic attacks- has been about my boys. I don’t want to put them through this and I certainly don’t want them to lose me or the family they know. You can help on their end too. When you see them, please don’t ask about me or my cancer.

Please just treat them like normal kids because a normal life for them is my biggest goal in all of this.

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I miss you all. I really do, and I wish I could be there today to say all this to you. And don’t sweat the God thing, people. Please. I never believed before that God does mean-ass stuff like this to people so I’m not hung up on God doing it to me. I don’t believe there’s any mysterious ‘reason’ other than the chromosomal one that cancer- however rare- is happening to me, and I don’t believe there’s a bigger plan behind all of this other than the same plan God has for all of us: to love and glorify him through Christ. I’ve just got to figure out how to do that given my new circumstances.

Finally, don’t pity me.

Cancer’s not all that bad.

For example, just as I was drifting off before surgery I heard one of the surgical staff say aloud: ‘We’re definitely going to need a bigger tube for the catheter…’

See, some dreams do come true. Even amidst nightmares.

- The End. 

PS:  I hope to hell not. 

God is Not Cancer

Jason Micheli —  February 12, 2015 — 23 Comments

Untitled101111For about 6 months now I’ve been working on this Distilled catechism, initially with young people and the questions they ask me in mind. You can peruse the old Questions and Answers by clicking here.

The last couple of days, however, my tranquiliated mind keeps going back to one of the older, original Q/A’s unpacking what the ancient Church called the via negative or apophatic theology.

Monday this week I had unexpected intestinal surgery which has begat other unexpected news; namely that I have a rare form of blood cancer. Turns out I didn’t have ulcers or gall stones after all. Damn.

I like to think I’m unique in all things and, it turns out, I am in diseases too. In just a few short but lingering days, we have had lots of cries and surreal WTF? calls for clarity. We’ve had to tell our boys that ‘Daddy has cancer’ and, even now, we do more of the same (we wait), waiting to find out this evening exactly what type is this blood cancer and at what stage I’ll get thrown in the ring with it.

Doing cancer as a Christian can be hard enough for many folks; doing cancer as a public, professional Christian is something I’m still only beginning to sort out.

Its like someone’s thrown me a gown and I’m still trying to find the arms.

Not only is my faith expected to be a resource for me while cancer tries to kill me, it’s expected my faith vs cancer will be a resource to others too.

And after just 3 exhausting days I can (only) honestly say I don’t know if I can do it- the cancer in a fish bowl thing.

Even still, I’ve started to take stock of where I am at with the bastard formerly known as God and what, of my faith, I must reevaluate or reemphasize.

To that end, I return to Question 13 from the beginning of Distilled. Suffering terrific post-op pain, acute melancholy and ___________ cancer, it’s more important to me than ever before that what I speak of God- or have spoken to me- is true. Or at the very least, not idolatrous nonsense.

I. The Father

13. How should we speak of God? 

With deep humility, realizing that even our best speech is nonsense when applied to God and, as sinners, we’re prone to project our feelings and wills upon God.

We should speak of God always realizing our best words fit God like a baby’s clothes fit on a grown-up. Our language for God is approximate without being at all adequate.

For this reason, the best way to speak of God is to begin by saying what God is not (an approach called the via negativa):

God is not hate, for example. God is not a man with a beard.

Or, God is not cancer.

When we arrive at a negative statement which we know is false (eg, ‘God is not Love’) then we know we’ve hit upon something true of God.

‘Whoever does not love does not know God.’ – 1 John 4.8

lightstock_35237_small_user_2741517A bit ago I reposted an article asking folks what they want in a sermon. I thought this was a very thoughtful response I received from a friend in my congregation. I offer to you here, with his permission, in no self-aggrandizing way:

What do I want in a sermon?

What I want is clearly not what everyone wants, and the fact that we at church have you pastors at the same time for so long is a terrific asset for the congregation.  It allows different styles to be present in the same location.

So, what do I want?

I want someone who literally struggles with the cynic inside my head.

I see tremendous hypocrisy, which includes myself, throughout our society and community – and throughout our faith.  So, I want someone who is able to identify those same things and point them out in a constructive way that reflects our faith.

I want to be challenged intellectually.

But I don’t want to be challenged to the point where I feel utterly stupid and shamed for my lack of wits.  I was unchurched after I left home in 1988 and moved back and forth between my Mom and Dad’s houses when things were going very badly at my Mom’s home with her second husband.  I started looking for churches again when I was stationed in Germany, after I spoke with a Jewish Rabbi, in 2004.  I attended some traditional and nontraditional services.  Some felt hokey and some felt familiar, “nice,” but maybe boring.

I don’t go to church to hear that I should love everyone.

I know that I should love everyone.

I want to hear how I should love someone who I otherwise would pass by.  I want to hear that Jesus is more likely to be the grumpy half-crazy homeless guy that I’d see on the way to work downtown than anyone else that’s in my daily life.

I want to be challenged, and sometimes that means offended.

I want that.

That’s tempered with not wanting a shock-jock turned preacher – or a preacher that is so full of himself or herself that any semblance of approachability and humility have transmogrified into this puritanical, holier-than-thou, give all your money to the church, “holy man” who is the knoweth and the beginningeth and endeth of all things Jesus.

I don’t want a fire breathing, Bible-thumping preacher man, who tells me that the only folks who get saved are those that are baptized in this church or that one.

I want a sermon to help bridge the gaps.

Between the Christian factions – or to at least help us understand what makes a Methodist sermon different than a Catholic or Non-Denominational one.  That desire goes back to learning bits and pieces about our faith – but through current happenings.  It doesn’t have to be about ISIS, but it can.  It doesn’t have to be about politics, but it can.

When we bought our home, we bought it to be closer to our church and to a particular school.  We want to stay and we want to be part of this community.  I want to be continually challenged.  If I’m not, I tend to wander and stray.

At the risk of your reaching critical mass (get it, “mass”…) of mental acuity and sheer mathematical arithmetical genius, I had only found a small handful of clergy that I could relate to (I guess that’s not just until I found Aldersgate, as it is still the case.

I could tell you a story through these three clergy – one Rabbi, one Catholic, and one Evangelical Preacher… I found bits to identify with each and something to take away.  It’s raised questions that I’ve asked and questions that I haven’t.

I still ended up in the Methodist tradition that I was baptized into back in the Chicago area.  Maybe because of tradition, but maybe also because I’ve found someone like you all.  We are happy here and what we are getting is exactly what we want.

Hopefully that’s helpful.

Thanks for asking.

– JF

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517I know all the words by heart such that even now they’re at the edge of my lips ready to take the jump.

It’s not an accomplishment; it’s the trade. .

Well over 100 times now I’ve stood in the center of a sanctuary or in the middle of a funeral home chapel or at the head of an open grave on the fake plastic grass under an uneven tent or even a few times in a ‘sitting’ room and in front of all number and manner of mourners I’ve recited verses as inextricably linked with my character as ’…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ belong to the chorus of Henry V. 

     My lines, if not bald-faced lies or pious candy, signify a great deal more than nothing: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

Sitting here in my kitchen, staring at the baby blue folder folder whose top sheet is labeled ‘Preparing for Your Surgery,’ with my surgeon’s frank Army countenance (‘We won’t know what we’re facing until after your surgery’) ringing on repeat in my head- and my wife’s, it suddenly occurs to me that in all those 100 plus times I’ve never once stood by the dead and looked out at the living and proffered a follow-up question:

Do you believe this?

Do you believe (any of) this? That Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That those who trust in him (even though they die) yet shall they live? Are these just lines? Do you believe it? Really?

I’ve never thought to ask because, for one practical reason, the United Methodist Book of Worship doesn’t instruct me to ask it. For another very intuitional reason, it would seem boorish.

Funerals, after all, are usually emotionally bare (as in, vulnerable not sparse) ocassions with a higher likliehood of truth-telling breaking out compared to the rest of the working week. And if the Pew Surveys and Gallop Polls are to be reckoned accurate, then the priest or pastor who dares to ask ‘Do you believe this?’ should be ready for roughly half the grieving gathered to answer ‘No.’

No, we don’t.

Believe much of any of this.

Indeed I’d wager that the number of those responding in the negative would increase the closer you crept to the front pews, especially on those ocassions where the caskets are shorter or the left behind’s hair less grey, those ocassions where circumstances still seem to demand the wearing of black or where the shoulders are stooped not from age but grief.

I bet, if I asked, I’d hear more no’s up close near the front. And so I’ve never asked the question because neither my ecclesiastical script nor good manners suggest I do so. Jesus does though, in John 11, after speaking the lines whence this funerary quote gets lifted.

The dead Lazarus’ sister, Martha, gives the Gospel’s best example of tearing Jesus a new asshole: ‘If you’d only come when I called, Jesus, my brother would still be alive.’

Jesus responds with a resurrection rejoinder that ends where I begin whenever death enters in: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

And then Jesus, unlike me, follows up with the question: ‘Do you believe this?’

     Maybe, like Jesus, I should ask it too, propriety and piety be damned: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because, obivously, it’s a question meant for the living. Jesus isn’t asking what Lazarus believed. Four days dead, serene and sealed in the tomb, nobody cares anymore what Lazarus believed. Not God. Definitely not Lazarus.

No, Jesus is asking Martha what she believes.

When Jesus tells Martha about the power of the Resurrection, what Martha doesn’t get is that Jesus isn’t talking about a power available to us only after we die. He’s not talking about a one day down the road or even on the last day.

He’s talking about a power available in the present, today, in the here and now.

Because if you believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed Death then Resurrection doesn’t just make heaven possible, it makes a bold life possible too.

Because if you believe that Death is not the last word, then we have the power to live fully and faithfully.

And we don’t have to try to live forever.

Here’s what I’ve learned after those 100 plus ocassions delivering my lines for other people:

     When you’re staring at a euphemistically hued folder from your surgeon and when the -c- word has made a grim if hopefully premature intrusion in to your not-yet-graying-life and when wildly melodramatic Lifetime movie-type voices chatter in the back of your head, you don’t much give a damn about forever.

      Longer is all you want. Longer will do. Longer with….

And here’s what you notice:

Martha’s ‘Yes, I believe’ doesn’t guarrantee a happy ending for her brother.

The size of Jesus’ tears outside Lazarus’ grave suggest even Jesus was a little shocked the dead guy walked out newly alive, but, even after all the trouble, Lazarus will die again, of old age and natural causes, or post-op infection perhaps or maybe of a broken heart.

Martha says ‘Yes, I believe’ and no doubt she does, but, seen from Jesus’ POV, she doesn’t grasp at all what it means to believe.

She and Jesus are speaking past each other. He’s talking about his very Being; she’s talking about the Last Day. Even our strongest beliefs barely scratch the surface of what’s True.

In case those first two observations strike you as dissatisfying, here’s the last thing you notice staring at a baby blue folder embossed with the caduceus and your name in hasty yellow marker.

 A God who works by Resurrection is, by definition, a God of surprises- light from darkness and all that- and a God of surprises is, by definition not a genie in a magic lamp.

     The antonym of Resurrection isn’t Death; it’s Predictable.

Perhaps then that’s the best reason not to add to my familiar script and pose that question to mourners: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because even when the answer is in the affirmative, even where the faith is as strong if uncomprehending as Martha’s, ‘Yes’ is still a complicated answer. Now that the shoe gown is on the other foot body, I regret any of the times in those 100 plus that I might’ve implied anything other.

 

10298920_755385354493797_5903881420284807_nTo my surprise, the fall out from Chris Christie’s recent exuberantly bootlicking comments about vaccinations has stuck in my craw. Never a science guy, issues of public health do not normally get my blood flowing nor am I even riled by the staggering incongruity between the current measles (note: not ebola) epidemic and Christie’s claptrap.

No, what’s vexed me, even before I came across the FB pic above, is the repeated insinuation by some many that abstention from vaccination is justifiable on the grounds that vaccinations cause autism. Never mind that this is a bogeyman belief has about as much science behind as creationism, such ‘justification’ in no small way implies that the spread of deadly, agonizing, possibly pandemic diseases is to be preferred to children with cognitive disabilities.

For a number of years my girlfriend now wife worked with children with autism so perhaps I’m especially sensitive, but I don’t think so.

I don’t think so though. I am, after all, a Christian.

You’d never know it from the Red/Blue, Left/Right soundbites we trade over issues like abortion, but the Christian ethic is distinct. Christians do not simply take positions, weigh means and ends, or obey moral prohibitions.

Christians are called to make visible an alternative reality we term in our tribal jargon ‘The Kingdom.’

Christians are to embody something that is otherwise invisible to the Chris Christies and __________________ (insert bloviating liberal’s name) of the world.

What too often gets mirco-focused as Christianity’s opposition to abortion is only the negative side to a more positive, comprehensive and theological ethic: the community’s openness to new life and welcome of all life as gift .

Christianity’s welcome of children is a way that the Christian community makes visible our belief in God’s faithfulness.

No matter how the Republican platform reads, it’s not simply that Christian are required to obey moral prohibitions- scripture contains no explicit prohibition on abortion. Rather, the Christian community is one that is always open and ready to the possibility of new life, not simply because abortion is wrong but because our openness and willingness to accept all life as gift makes visible the invisible, ongoing power of the Resurrection.

Christians have no illusions about how difficult much of life can be. Such illusions are an impossibility if Christians are truly engaged on behalf of the marginalized and forgotten. Nonetheless, Christians persists in welcoming- all- children because such openness becomes our sign of hope that the God of Easter is a God who refuses to abandon creation to its present darkness.

Indeed our openness to all forms of life owes to our recognition that:

The God who took flesh in Jesus is a God who most often reveals himself to us through the stranger.

And to us ‘normal’ people, there is often no stranger person than the person with autism.

Contrary to the hysteria, then, Christians do not see persons with autism as people to be pitied. As much as the Samaritan or Christ himself, they are strangers bearing the grace of God.

Christians believe they bear the gifts of God because it’s most precisely with those we cannot control, anticipate or manipulate that we best learn how to love. People with autism and other disabilities bear gifts exactly because they force us to learn how to love on terms other than our own. In this way, our love, even more so than our welcoming posture, becomes a sign of God’s fidelity.

As Stanley Hauerwas states with great beauty: rp_faith4.jpg

“Children, the weak, the ill, the dispossessed provide a particularly intense occasion for such love, as they are beings we cannot control. We must love them for what they are rather than what we want or wish them to be, and as a result we discover that we are capable of love…the different between the non-Christian and the Christian is only that what is a possibility for the non-Christian is a duty for the Christian.”

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

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.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

8. Is It Necessary to Believe Jesus is God?

Yes, of course.

You didn’t expect ‘not really’ did you?

Yes, it’s necessary to believe Jesus is God because following Jesus is first and foremost about trusting Jesus. Christianity is not simply or solely about trusting the belief that Jesus’ death purchases your (after) life; Christianity entails trusting Jesus.

Following Jesus requires trusting what Jesus said and what Jesus did, taking the Word’s word for it. And Jesus consistently referred to himself as the Son of Man- 83 times in fact, a fact upon which all 4 evangelists agree.

The only title Jesus ever applied to himself, the Son of Man was first foreshadowed by the prophet Daniel, who received a vision of a Human One sitting upon the throne of God and to whom is given dominion over all the Earth. As any Jew knows, the only one who can sit upon the divine throne is the Divine, the only one who can have dominion over creation is the Creator; therefore, the Son of Man is and was a divine appellation that Jesus chooses, from a multiplicity of possibilities, for himself.

So to suggest that Jesus is not divine is to dismiss what Jesus says of himself nearly 100 times.

Rather than trusting Jesus’ word, it’s to call him a liar.  Even worse, to dismiss Jesus’ divinity but to worship him still is to commit the most grievous of sins: worshipping another but God.

Following Jesus involves trusting what Jesus said not just about himself but what Jesus said about the broken world, the Kingdom of God and our place in them.

If Jesus is not God, for example, then we have no basis on which to suppose that what Jesus says about nonviolent, gracious, cross-bearing love in any way coincides with the grain of God’s universe- indeed we have every basis to surmise it does not.

The only reason for us to give our lives to someone whose counterintuitive way the way of the world corroborates not at all is the belief that this paradoxical, pathetic way is in fact the will of God.

‘Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”’

– Mark 2.11

GRAVEWhen Jesus shows up late to visit his sick friend, Lazarus had already been dead for four days.

The dead friend’s sister, Martha, runs up to the too late Jesus and with not a little reproach in her voice she says: ‘If you’d only come when I called my brother would still be alive.’

Apparently unmoved by her indignation, Jesus opts for what sounds like compassionless bible speak:

‘Your brother will rise again.’

Martha rebukes him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’

     Read: ‘I know Lazarus will rise at the last day, but that’s no use to us now!’

And Jesus says to her: ‘I am the resurrection and the life….Do you believe this?’

Martha says: ‘Yes, I believe you’re the Messiah, the Son of God.’

But that doesn’t really answer the question Jesus asked her, does it? Jesus isn’t asking her about his identity, about who he is; Jesus is asking her about his power, about what he can do.

‘Do you believe this? he asks.

She says yes. She says she believes.

But when Jesus approaches Lazarus’ tomb, when Jesus motions for some of the mourners in the crowd to move the stone away from the mouth of the cave, Martha protests.

She tries to stop Jesus: ‘He’s been dead four days. His body has already started to rot. Think of the smell. There’s nothing you can do now.’

     Before the verities of the cold, sealed tomb, her ‘Yes, I believe’ quickly becomes ‘No, don’t do that.’

It’s not that she didn’t believe in Jesus.

She confesses him to be the Messiah. She has faith that he’s the Son of God. She believes he had the power to heal Lazarus when he was ill.

It’s not that she didn’t believe in Jesus.

It’s that she believes in Death more.

And, take it from me, odds are, so do you.

Like an undertaker, I get to witness sometimes dismal, sometimes holy and beautiful moments.

I could describe in more detail than you’d want what Death smells like. I can tell you what the skin and hands and muscles of a dead body feel like in my hands. I know what it sounds like, raspy and rattling, when Death is but a few hours away.

I’ve sat and held a woman’s hand while she delivered her stillborn baby. I’ve seen white-haired lovers hold each other and kiss one last time. I’ve been there when school-aged children have said goodbye to their dad, and I’ve held a mother upright while grim-faced hospital staff pull away the curtain for her to identity her son’s body. I’ve sat all night in the ER holding the hand of a dead stranger waiting for his family from out of town to arrive, and I’ve done my best imitation of a Catholic priest and performed last rites in a prison clinic.

By my count, I’ve traced the sign of the cross on the foreheads of 8 babies. I’ve thrown earth on the caskets of 4 children. I’ve responded to 3 suicides and I’ve buried somewhere well north 100 strangers, congregants and friends.

Some of you reading this know scripture better than me. Some of you no doubt can pray more artfully than me. I’m willing to bet many of you are better teachers or servants or stewards or leaders than me.

But when it comes to Death and Dying, by sheer volume of experience, I know more than most of you.

I may not don a white lab coat but I’m the expert, and since not one of you is getting out of this life alive, you should listen up.

More often than I’d wish, I’ve been there to see someone’s dying breath wasted on anger. I’ve planned more funerals than I’d like for people who left all their documents and finances in order but who left their personal lives a mess.

I’ve done graveside burials where the only person in attendance was the cemetery custodian because the deceased had alienated everyone else in their lives.

But this is what you need to hear:

I’ve stood vigil at far too many bedsides and I’ve celebrated far too many funerals for people- good people- who spent every moment of their last days and every ounce of their remaining strength trying to stay alive instead of dying well- people who, in their desperate fear to stave off Death, missed their chance to say: I love you, I forgive you, I’m sorry for the time I…

I’ve been with too many families who worried more about trying every possible medical option than they did about having that one last conversation, worried more about doing every thing they could to keep their loved one alive than making sure they got the chance to say: I never you told you but this is what you mean to me…

I’ve seen too many people give more thought and attention to Living Wills and Advanced Directives and Pre-Planned Funerals than they do to resolving the loose ends in their relationships.

     It’s not that we don’t believe in Jesus.

     It’s that, when it matters, we act as though we believe in Death more.

Which I’m telling you- listen to me- is sheer folly. Because the stubborn if generally denied facts are these: not one of us is getting out of this life alive. The stat on that is damn near 100% reliable with no margin for error.

So, to my mind, since you have a 0% percent chance of beating Death, the soundest medical decision you could ever make is putting your trust in the only One who did and patterning your death after his life, to stop treating his death as your ticket to another life and instead find in his life the resources to die well.

SONY DSCAnd you and me too…

This Sunday we continued our sermon series on Richard Stearns’ book Unfinished. My intern, Jimmy Owsley, preached the sermon on Acts 9.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

So our reading today is from Acts, the 5th book of the New Testament. Acts is the follow-up to the Gospel of Luke–it’s the Gospel-writer’s retelling of the story of the beginnings of the Christian church. Our reading, from Acts Chapter 9, is a piece of the author’s introduction to the Apostle Paul (known at the time of this story as Saul). The other part of the introduction happens in Chapters 7 and 8, where we see him oversee the death of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.

At this time according to the author, Saul is said to be actively “trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women,” and imprisoning them for their beliefs.

Saul, a Pharisee, is threatened by this new religious movement within Judaism.

And he is trying to coerce Jesus’ followers in submission through violence.

Basically, Saul is a first-century terrorist.

As some of you know, this Saul, who later comes to be known as Paul, becomes the hero of the Book of Acts, taking the good news of Christ’s new kingdom to far reaches of the Roman Empire. He also becomes the writer of much of our New Testament, giving us theological lenses for understanding the life and work of Jesus. While I would disagree, some historians say Paul has had an even greater effect on the Christian church than Jesus himself.

As for these passages about Saul’s conversion, scholars more knowledgeable than me say that in them Luke is setting up a portrayal of Saul/Paul as the ideal Christian convert. And this isn’t just because Saul is a high-ranking Jewish religio-crat, whose textbook conversion could woo Jewish inquirers into a deeper Christian faith. Although that may be part of it.

Deeper than that though is the fact that Saul’s conversion exemplifies a particular theology of conversion which would come to be one of the central facets to the Christian faith. The story goes like this:

First of all, Saul is a sinner. “The chief of sinners,” as he would later describe himself. He’s done everything wrong. He’s on the wrong page, playing for the wrong team. He is an enthusiastic participant in a system of violence which stands directly and explicitly opposed to the way of Jesus Christ.

And so it is that while Saul is on his way to terrorize Jewish followers of Jesus in the city of Damascus, Jesus himself appears in a flash of light and speaks to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This personal face-to-face encounter with Jesus blinds Saul completely and shatters his will to continue what e was doing.

Then Saul acts in obedience to Jesus. He continues on his way to Damascus, where, instead of inflicting terror, he fasts and prays in visual darkness for 3 days. That is, until the scared and reluctant disciple Ananias shows up.

Now, Ananias has also seen Jesus recently, as we learned in the reading this morning. And he acts obediently, too, despite his qualms about Saul’s shady reputation. Jesus has told him:

“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”

Thus Saul the terrorist, the least likely to be a disciple of Christ, is a chosen instrument of God’s will.

The inflictor of suffering upon those who follow the way of Jesus will now live a life enduring suffering in Jesus’ name.

When Ananias arrives, he touches Saul and prays over him. Saul is changed in that interaction and he is filled with the Holy Spirit. Then Ananias introduces Saul to the rest of the disciples at Damascus, among whom Saul lives and learns how to be a disciple. Community is central to Saul’s transformation.

From there, he departs eagerly to do the work the Kingdom of God. He begins utilizing his God-given skills of preaching and teaching for his new Kingdom, proclaiming the grace he received throughout the Empire.

So what does this have to do with us? If Luke is telling us that Saul/Paul is the model convert, what does that mean for you and me?

Well,

  1. Saul is a sinner through and through. Just as each of us is a sinner in need of repentance. Before his encounter with Jesus, he is working completely against the kingdom of God. In some way we all have done and continue to do this. Repentance is an ongoing process.
  2. Although Saul has misused his capabilities, Jesus recognizes in him both the wrongs that he has done and the gifts that God has given him. Jesus comes to Saul personally, just as he does with each of us here this morning.
  3. Jesus calls Saul his “chosen instrument,” a phrase that applies as much to Saul as it does to each of us is. It is in his the midst of his evil intentions that Christ comes to him, sheds light on his wrongdoings, and offers peace.
  4. Next, the personal encounter with Jesus demolishes Saul’s previous worldview and sense of purpose. It realigns his life, as it should ours.
  5. Saul acts in obedience to the One he has encountered, and becomes a disciple of Jesus through the community of faith in Damascus. In order to live as disciples, we must be discipled by someone. We are all called to be in active community with other disciples.
  6. Finally, his transformation doesn’t stop there. And this is the point of the book study Unfinished that we are going through as a church. Through his conversion and discipleship, Saul jumps into a new mission. Rich Stearns describes conversion as change of allegiance–Saul leaves his old allegiances behind and becomes a member of a new Kingdom. He has joined “a new army.”

If we follow this model of discipleship, you and I are called also to be part of a new Kingdom and a new army, whether we thought we were a part of an old one or not.

Our faith in Jesus doesn’t end with his forgiveness or our community, as necessary as those are.

The fulness of Saul’s faith comes when he begins to act on it–to live it out. Saul was given gifts of leadership, eloquence, and a brilliant mind. Maybe those gifts lie in you too–or maybe you are gifted at teaching, or have the mind of an engineer, or a keen sense for justice. Maybe you are gifted at what you do for a career, and maybe your gifts point elsewhere.

But as you and I discover the skills and capabilities we have been given, and as we continue to encounter Jesus in our daily life, we will learn more and more about how we can put those gifts to work for his kingdom.

Now, I have two caveats here:

  1. One is that you don’t have to take off and leave everything you know to fulfill God’s purpose in your life. Saul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him. And after that encounter he didn’t decide not to go to Damascus. Rather he did something different when he got there.
  2. The second is that we are called to act on our gifts not as an obligation or something we have to do. Although there will be suffering along the way, using our God-given gifts for the purposes of his kingdom is something that we get to do which gives us meaning and fulfilment.

Like Saul, each of us is a chosen instrument. You have a gift and a calling and a role to play in this story.

You have potential, I have potential, and terrorists like Saul have potential. And there might not be any terrorists here. At least I hope not, unless some of you were the ones who hacked Jason’s blog a week and a half ago. But no matter who we are or what we have done, we are all chosen instruments in the grand vision of God’s kingdom.

And I know that’ll make some of you feel all warm and fuzzy–like kids in my kindergarten class when Mrs. Yani told us we were each special in our own way. To which the cynics of us respond– “if everyone is special, is anyone REALLY special?”

The point is not that we as disciples of Christ are chosen by God above or before anyone else. In fact, some of us are the least likely disciples. The point is that we are each chosen by God for a unique, particular purpose in God’s grand mission of redeeming the world.

Saul encountered Jesus in a flash of light on the road to Damascus. This Sunday morning we encounter him in bread and wine and in one another. Let us each hear what he has to say and discern how he would use us for his mission in the world.

Which is the idea I want to leave you with today. It’s a particular understanding of salvation, which is that:

We are all saved for a purpose.

And as Rich Stearns says, that purpose lies Unfinished.

 

lightstock_35237_small_user_2741517David Lose, author of Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern World, asks the question in this post. 

He begins with truth-telling:

‘for the better part of the last five years I’ve been losing confidence in preaching. This isn’t a commentary on the preaching I’ve been hearing, I should be clear, as I’ve been quite fortunate to worship in several congregations with engaging preachers. Rather, it’s preaching in general in which I’ve lost confidence, my own preaching included.’

Lose goes on to note how the form and shape of most preaching appears increasingly out of touch:

In a culture that is increasingly participatory, our preaching is still primarily a monologue. In a culture passionate about discovering meaning and crafting identity, our preaching too often draws conclusions for our hearers rather than inviting them into the questions themselves.

Second, as I look around our congregations, I see any number of people largely disconnected from the preaching, appreciating a touching story, perhaps, but rarely drawing from the sermon something they will continue to think about during the rest of the week.

His concerns are sound ones, I think, making his questions good ones to pose to you:

Is preaching still a worthwhile exercise or is it antiquated?

What do you want from a sermon?

I’d be interested in hearing your feedback.

10917296_10205661027787221_3674691722071054151_nA Eucharistic Meditation ~ 

Dear $@#holes,

It’s me, Jason- Tamed Cynic. You know, the Christian whose blog you hacked.

What’s that? You don’t remember me? There were thousands of other random, anonymous victims just like me?

Oh, I see.

I guess that’s a valid excuse. Of course- and this is just a word to the wise- it’s a not a compelling excuse, morally speaking. It’s like Ray Rice explaining that he’s hit so many women, he can’t really recall the one in the elevator. See my point?

But you still don’t remember me?

Fine, never mind. Let’s just indulge my narcissism for a moment and pretend you do.

Now that we’re speaking one-on-one, maybe I should begin where you began and take you to task for your big, bold header you left on my hacked homepage:

‘Muslims are Not Terrorists.’

I get it. I even agree with you, Muslims aren’t terrorists. Terrorists are terrorists, and some of them happen to be Muslim and some of them (more than we care to remember) are Christian and most of them are motivated by something else entirely (politics, economics etc).

So I agree with you, but it’s like Marshall McLuan said way back at the time of the Shah and SNL: ‘The medium is the message.’ 

Following McLuan then, the fact that the medium in this case is a cyber terrorist hacked website belies the message you want to lead with in your headline.

You could post ‘Mom’s Chocolate Chip Cookies are the Best’ in that header but your creepy, comic sans-meets-Osama-hacker-font still would make us wonder if maybe Mom was a baby-eating witch who lived in a hovel deep in the Black Forest.

You see, you want your message to be that ‘Muslims are Not Terrorists,’ fine, but your hack-attack medium makes it inescapably obvious that at least one Muslim IS a terrorist.

You.

You’re lucky I’m a Christian, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist.

I’d love to torment you with the irony of you declaring that Muslims are not terrorists whilst cyber-terrorizing me, but then it wouldn’t really be fair to ridicule you when the fundamentalists of my own tribe don’t do irony well either. After all, Christ’s non-violent cross was painted on chainmail and swords long before Mohammad came on the scene.

While we’re at it there’s the other little irony that the instigating sermon in this case wasn’t critical of Islam at all.

Indeed you hacked me for a sermon that wound its way to telling Christians that they needed to love people like you.

Well played, Mr Islamic Cyber Idiot.

When it comes to those Christians who question the veracity of your headline that ‘Muslims are Not Terrorists,’ your I-didn’t-read-all-the-way-to-the-end, irony-laden screw-up speaks volumes more to them (to indict you) than anything I said to them (to love you).

Way to take a semi-decent, conscience-afflicting sermon and let all my listeners feel like they were justified for suspecting it was just a load of horse s@#$.

‘Because,’ they’re all thinking now (thanks to you), ‘we can’t love terrorists.’

Speaking of which- and I ask since this is your area of expertise, what’s a few notches down from terror? I mean, the feelings you induced in me weren’t exactly terror, yet it was more than inconvenience. While it’s true the craptastic havoc you wreaked on my blog was a giant pain the @#$, it was (a bit) more than a bother you made feel.

For starters, you scared my mom a little more gray, and (thanks to you, again) now I’ve got to text her every night, like a cub scout away at camp, that we’re all okay and not, say, bound and gagged inTurkey.

Your shenanigans provoked feelings in others too.

I can’t tell you how many finger-wagging notes I got messaged to me scolding:

‘This is what you get for letting them worship at your church.’

You see, thanks to you, a whole bunch of otherwise open-minded Christians think its defensible to assume that the old guy at Starbucks or the lady who drives the neighborhood ice cream truck are probably party to an Islamic terrorist network.

Hearing this, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist, should irritate you at least as much as it irritated me. But irritation is not what you made me feel either.

After all, my kids’ faces and names are buried there, in bits and bytes, in my blog. So is my wife’s. And, a bit further down, as you no doubt already know, is our address. Where our credit card number is to be found as well.

I’m not trying to play the martyr, that’s your forte. It’s not like I ever felt my life was in danger, and I’m definitely not suggesting I’m on the front line of freedom. We’re talking about a freaking blog, let’s not forget, I’m not on the front line of anything. Still, you made me- anonymous me- feel…vulnerable.

Yes, I think that’s the right word.

Vulnerable.

I can’t help but think, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist, the feeling you made me feel is exactly what so many of my neighbors and friends and congregants feel all the time. Vulnerable.  And when you’re feeling vulnerable, convinced that yours is an exceptional situation, I can tell you it’s not long before the rationalizing kicks-in, reasoning your way away from Jesus:

Surely we can’t forgive that person… It would be irresponsible to forgive that sin…

Jesus doesn’t really expect us to turn the cheek in this situation…

What am I supposed to do, just give them my children’s cheeks too?

Loving this enemy is no strategy to make them no longer an enemy, it will only get you killed…

Jesus must be talking about life in the Kingdom not in this world…

Our enemies sure won’t abide by any of these commandments…

Those were the thoughts running through my head in the hours and days after your ‘attack,’ Mr. Islamic Cyber Terrorist. They’re all thoughts similar to the ones a good many of my friends and congregants hold, and, truth be told, I used the word ‘rationalizing’ above for a reason.

They’re all incredibly reasonable rebuttals.

They make a lot sense; in fact, truth be told, they make a hell of a lot more sense than Jesus.

And that wouldn’t be a problem if Jesus was politely removed elsewhere, a figment of history or an absentee lord. We could raise our reasonable, real-world rebuttals to his teaching and then get about dealing with the likes of you. Conscience cleared.

The problem is Jesus has this annoying tendency to show up.

That’s what makes him different from your prophet.

You might not know this, Mr Islamic Terrorist, but the night before he dies Jesus sits his twelve disciples down and he says: here’s bread, here’s wine. Eat. Drink. Do this.

Do this and I’ll be with you.

Admittedly, this is irrational and it can’t be explained and it can’t argued with.

And maybe that’s the point.

Maybe it has to be that way because people like me are always going to have to deal with people like you.

Maybe Jesus knew that without bread and wine, we would forever think and argue and rationalize the claims he makes on us as a way of keeping him from us.

Maybe Jesus knew we’re no different than those two disciples on the way to Emmaus, who’d heard all the stories, who knew all the beliefs, who could recite the Easter Gospel and yet had no intention of doing a damn thing about it, who were quite content to say ‘isn’t that interesting’ and not have it change their way in the world.

Maybe Jesus knew that without bread and wine we’d always find a reason to reason our way away from him.

So then, maybe Jesus gives us- Christians, I mean- bread and wine not so we can get close to him as we- Christians, I mean- so often imagine.

Maybe Jesus gives us bread and wine because it’s the only way he can get close to us.

And therein lies my problem, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist. You see, I know how I feel about you. I know what I’d opt to do to you had I not made the mistake of giving my life to Jesus, and I can come up with several dozen cogent reasons why you and your ilk warrant an asterisk at the bottom of the sermon on the mount.

My problem is that I can mount my own reasonable arguments against you, but I can’t argue away what Jesus says about you (worth dying for). I can’t avoid how Jesus would regard you (with grace, for you not what you do) or deny what he’d tell me to do about you (love and mercy).

And, like I said, this wouldn’t be a problem if Jesus had conveniently absconded to the great by and by, but tomorrow is Sunday, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist.

Tomorrow I’ll set the table with bread and wine. We’ll all ask Jesus to come join us at the table. And if there’s one thing the Gospels make clear: Jesus never refuses a dinner invitation.

Tomorrow, Jesus is going to show up, real and present. It’ll be the same the Sunday next and the Sunday after that ad infinitum, or at least to the eschaton.

I can come up with all kinds of good reasons why you should be the exception to Jesus’ teaching, and I’d be happy to list them for you someday, but what in the world am I supposed to say to Jesus tomorrow morning when he shows up in bread and wine?

How can I tell Jesus to his face that he’s wrong about you?

How can I tell Jesus that you don’t deserve grace or mercy for your sins when he’s sitting right there at my table?

Talk about an awkward dinner conversation.

Like a lot of dinner parties I’ve been to, to be stuck with the host often means you’re stuck with the other guests too; likewise- and you can be damn sure I never saw this coming- when I gave my life to Jesus, I also in some odd way gave it to you even though I’ve no reason to expect you to treat it well. I guess that counts as another irony.

Anyway that’s my problem, Mr. Islamic Cyber Terrorist. I don’t want to love you; I don’t think you’re lovable.

I don’t even know what it means, practically speaking, to love you.

But tomorrow morning I’m having breakfast with Jesus and I know, if it were up to him, he’d save a seat for you.

So maybe GI JOE was right all along: knowing is half the battle.

Maybe whatever it means to love you starts right there, with bread and wine, and knowing that whenever we invite Jesus to dinner he invites the likes of you.

Maybe the first step in no longer seeing you as an enemy, the first step towards regarding you as a friend, is seeing you as a fellow undeserving guest.

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

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.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

7. What Do We Mean By Incarnation?

We mean that God the Logos, without taking off divinity, puts on humanity in Jesus.

What we do not mean by the incarnation is the nativity. We do not mean that incarnation can ever be shorthand for Christmas, as though God taking flesh and redeeming humanity could be isolated to only one discrete moment in the Son’s life.

The incarnation does not name a single moment in Jesus’ life as the footwashing, crucifixion or the resurrection do.

Quite the contrary, the incarnation names everything from the Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary to Jesus commending the same Spirit back to God upon the cross. The incarnation is not an event distinct on the timeline of Jesus’ life from the cross.

Rather Jesus’ faithfulness unto the cross is but one manifestation of what it means for the Word to be incarnate.

The incarnation is the given behind all that Jesus says and does.

Likewise, incarnation means humanity is not perfected simply as a consequence of the Word assuming flesh.  The incarnation does not heal humanity of temptation until the Word is tempted in the wilderness. The incarnation does not redeem humanity of its fear until Jesus experiences it in the garden of Gethsemene. The incarnation does not rescue humanity from its violence until the Son carries a cross instead of picking up a sword, and humanity is not freed from death until he suffers and overcomes it.

The cross, then, is not in distinction from the incarnation; it is a product of it.

“Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” – 1 John 4.1-3