Archives For Jason Micheli

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 — 17 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.

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(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 — 24 Comments

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517

‘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.

10350435_10204746594086950_2925906432646049018_n

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

#Blessed

Jason Micheli —  January 26, 2015 — 2 Comments

lightstock_1219_max_user_2741517-2 I continued our Unfinished sermon series this by taking a look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.1-14, specifically ‘Blessed are the poor.’ If there’s a danger in romanticizing the poor, I think there’s an equally grave danger in always seeing them as objects of our blessing.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.

Here it is:

Often when you serve the poor hands-on or go to someplace like Guatemala to work on a mission project, you hear people say things like ‘It really makes you appreciate all your blessings.’

It’s always struck me as an odd turn of phrase, even though I’m guilty of using it myself, and I thought it was an idea worth puzzling over.

     Now, whenever Jesus wanted to look at something upside-down and possibly leave his listeners confused and PO’d, he’d tell a parable.

So…

 

Once upon a time-

In a small mountain village atop the Guatemalan Highlands, in the thin air where coffee grows and cornstalks grow short and the cirrus and cumulus mingle with pines, a church mission team from Anywhere, USA threw their 3 figure North Face luggage onto the roof and climbed into their well-appointed rental van, their white skin chapped and burnt from the nearby sun.

Sitting down in the first comfortable seat they’d had in a week, the baker’s dozen of them wiped their faces of the grime that still lingered after days of cold, quick showers.

They stretched their legs feeling, if not clean, refreshed, wearing the clothes they’d saved for this final day at the bottom of their duffle bags, their dirty work clothes left behind to be discovered like orphans by whichever needy woman cleaned up after them.

As the diesel van pulled away from the village, a cloud of dust and scampering, waving children in its wake, the mood in the van turned reflective. The van shifted into second while the pastor of the group pulled from his bag not his bible or his Barth but his iPhone.

Seeing the half-eaten apple come alive in the (Otterbox-protected) glass screen, secretly the pastor was proud of himself for going so long without it. Jesus in the desert still had 3 weeks on him, the Pastor mused, but surely this must be what the Savior himself felt when he stumbled from the wilderness and took his first bite of bread.

Gary, a hospital administrator, leaned his head back again the cushion and daydreamed about the hot, sandal-less, mouth-wide-open shower he was going to take when he got home, one that would go on for as long as he was willing to pay the city for it.

In the row in front of him, Jessica, a high school senior, spoke of looking forward to sleeping in her bed- a real bed- made warm from the vents in the floor and not a mountain of blankets piled on top of it.

And food, she said, McDonalds. She couldn’t eat any more rice and beans, she confessed, unless of course it was from Chipotle.

Gene, a retired engineer sitting in the passenger seat, asked no one in particular, what they were going to do to take this ‘high’ they’d felt all week into the ‘real’ world.

Meanwhile, the pastor presented to listen as he thought about how he would celebrate this week past on the only altar that really, truly matters: social media.

As if hearing the pastor’s thoughts, Mike, a government contractor, activated his international phone and set about updating his Facebook profile picture, to a shot of him kneeling beside a little village girl who smiled despite having nothing in her life.

Nancy, a middle-aged mom, who’d sort of become the mom of the group for the week, tried to frame their experience, point out the big picture, like a mom would do:

When you see people like this who have absolutely nothing, it makes you realize how blessed you really are.

And everyone in the air-conditioned van nodded at what seemed the Gospel truth of it.

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When they could no longer see the visitors waving goodbye in the window from the back of the van, normal returned as quickly as it had gone for a while. The little children went to go play. The school-aged kids went to school and everyone 14 and older went to work.

A 4 year old boy named Diego stood, along with his 3 friends, near the carpet of tin siding his parents had laid on the grass, on which lay harvested ears of corn drying in the sun.

Diego and his friends stared down, next to the corn, at all the bright, colorful toys their visitors had left behind, toys with strange-sounding names like ‘Frisbee’ and even strange scents that none of their olfactory memories could identify as ‘packaging.’

New packaging.

Diego stared at all the stuff- he’d heard their visitors use that word more than once, stuff- and then he grabbed the hard, plastic ball, about the size of a softball (though he didn’t know what a softball was), a ball his brother had had before him, and he and his friends started to play soccer like they had a million times before in their few years.

Kicking the ball square on his inside left, Diego thought briefly about how blessed he was. Maybe he couldn’t put into words what was running through his 4 year old brain, but all the same he was considering his blessings.

Sure his ball wasn’t a real soccer ball and, yes, it was dimpled and about to break, but Diego couldn’t imagine how poor it would be- sad, really- to have so many toys that you don’t know with which one to play. What would be the fun in that?

Or even worse, Diego thought, how poor would it be to have so many toys you forgot the most obvious thing about toys? That it’s not about with what toy you play; it’s about with whom you play it.

As he watched his pal celebrate a goal, kicked straight through the stacked bags of cement, he felt a twinge of melancholy for those who lacked the blessings he and his friends enjoyed.

 

After their visitors disappeared down the dirt road, Maria, a 5th grade girl, hurried up the gravel slope to the village church that more often doubled as the village school.

As she walked, Maria remembered how one of their visitors, a teenager, had asked her simple Spanish if she liked school. And when she’d given the true and obvious answer (si), the visitor had reacted with genuine surprise and had asked again as though not trusting her own Spanish (si?!)

It seemed she couldn’t imagine Maria enjoying school, but Maria couldn’t imagine how anyone could not love school, especially when they got to go even after they should be working or starting a family.

As a 5th grader, Maria herself only had a few years left of school so she was determined to savor them. She loved learning; it felt to her like creation was more than willing to yield its secrets to those willing to tug and tease them out- like the way the numbers and fractions on their cracked chalk board revealed themselves on her father’s plumb lines and masonry work.

Maria stamped the dust off her feet as she entered the church, feeling sorry for those who lacked. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be without: joy, excitement and curiosity, wonder at God’s world around you.

She sat down in the 5th grade section of pews next to her friend Brenda, who was talking to the girl next to her. Like everyone else that morning, Maria could hear, they were discussing their recent visitors.

Remember when they showed us the pictures on their cameras, Brenda recalled, the  pictures of their houses?

So huge, her friend replied, so many rooms!

And thinking about that, Brenda recalled a bible story she’d heard in this same room, where Jesus says to let your light shine and not hide it under a basket.

     Brenda thought that when you lived in a house so large, it must easy for your light to get lost in all those rooms.

And suddenly she felt sorry for those visitors. Your light is everything, Brenda knew, and without out it you have nothing. Her parents would be proud, she thought, sitting there and feeling grateful for how blessed she was.

lightstock_1219_max_user_2741517-2

 

The church bell rang the start of school and the roosters crowed for those who might’ve missed it and, once they’d quieted, almost like the tick-tock of a minute hand, you could hear the sounds of hoes striking soil all around the mountain fields.

Manuel braced himself in the sheer, sloped field and went to digging in the bean field. The familiar rhythm took possession of him. This is what he did, what he’d been taught to do by the fathers who’d done it before him, and Manuel did it with the stern and subtle grace of someone who knows his purpose and life’s meaning, and, for that, he felt blessed.

This was, after all, the land his fathers both heavenly and earthly had bequeathed him.

It fed the children he was charged to protect, the wife he was vowed to care for and the neighbors he was called to love as much as himself.

Life was exceedingly simple when you took such a long view, Manuel thought and, in thinking, thought of their visitors. Manuel couldn’t imagine what life must be like from where they came. To travel so far, so many miles, to find a sense of meaning or purpose in life?

Perhaps, Manuel wondered, they’re what Jesus refers to in Luke’s sermon on the plain as ‘poor in spirit.’

As the leader of their village church (a priest hadn’t been through in years), Manuel was given to such ponderings, his thoughts in time to his work like a metronome, thoughts like the nagging one he had now about the toilets their visitors had so generously provided.

While he and everyone else in their community were sincerely grateful for the gift, Manuel nonetheless pondered what was worse: to be without sanitation or to be without the everyday knowing that so many in the world were without it?

It struck Manuel as a question with no easy answer, the sort of question he’d drop in a sermon and leave to others to sort out.

Manuel stood up to straighten his back and wipe his brow and look over his work. Their visitors had worked hard and without complaint while they were here. Still, it was clear that they were not used to such work.

He tried to imagine what it would be like, to be without such knowledge, to not know the labor that goes into the food in your belly and the home over your head, to not know the feeling of slumped shoulders and aching backs and muscles burning like paid-out ropes.

If you didn’t know such a sensation, Manuel the churchman pondered, it seems that it would be easy to become callous about those who did labor and maybe even indifferent about those who exploited them.

Thankfully, he thought, returning to work, Manuel didn’t need to worry about such an impoverished spirit afflicting him. No, it was as tangible as the soil in front of him: he was blessed.

 

At sundown that day, as the volunteer team from Anywhere, USA ate McDonald’s and waited for their plane to board, Miguel, a stonemason, returned to his cement block home for dinner.

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His wife, Isabella, was standing by the brick stove where she’d been all day. Now that their visitors were gone they’d be eating simpler fare. Well, not simple, Isabella thought, humble maybe but not simple. Their food was never simple. After all, they’d sweated into their food out there in the fields, at tilling and planting and harvesting and all the in-between times and sweated into it in here over the fire.

She handed Miguel a stack of fresh tortillas and he received them, as he always did, as though they were the host. Manna.

And maybe they were, she thought, knowing herself, just as well as Moses ever did, the fragile line between scarcity and survival.

A little less rain one day, a mudslide another- that was the thin difference between being filled with good things and being empty.

But knowing that ever so slight balance, she thought, was itself a good thing wasn’t it? And not knowing it, that would be a kind of poverty wouldn’t it?

What must it be like, Isabella wondered, her mind drifting reflexively to their visitors, to say grace at the table and not know just how much the food in front of you is exactly what the language of prayer declares it to be: a not so small miracle, a blessing.

A fact that always made her feel blessed.

She and the kids sat down at the table next to Miguel to eat. The volunteers had sat there this week and after dinner each night they’d sit here and sing and break bread and read scripture.

Not knowing English, Miguel couldn’t make out their conversations but he’d listen anyway, feeling curious and even a little sad.

     How would you even hear scripture when you’re them, he wondered, sympathetically, when you’re not the sort of people God wrote it for?

Take Mary’s song, he contemplated, where Mary sings about how Jesus has come to lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, humble the proud and powerful and send the rich away empty.

It’s easy for me to hear that as good news, Miguel regarded, but how does it sound when you’re the proud and the powerful?

It must make a simple story like the Gospel seem confusing and complicating, he decided, suddenly feeling blessed that such a burden was not his to bear.

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That evening before she boarded the plane, Nancy typed an email to her husband on her tablet: I want our kids to come here someday. Maybe then they’ll learn to…

But she lost the wifi signal before she could send it.

As she and the rest of her team got on the first leg of their flight, Manuel and Miguel and some others from the village warmed themselves by a stove’s fire, sipping hot chocolate and reflecting on the week gone by.

It’s inspiring how they always seemed to be smiling and happy despite everything they lack, Manuel’s wife observed.

Everyone nodded in agreement.

Having visitors like that come here, Isabella said, it really makes you appreciate your blessings.

Miguel said si and wiped the cocoa from his lip and then speculated: I think they blessed us as much as we blessed them.

His thought provoked nods all around but Manuel, in his churchman’s tone, said: Don’t be ridiculous.

They couldn’t bless us even if they wanted. Jesus says it plainly in the bible.

We’re the ones with God’s blessing not them.

They don’t have it to give. We do.

Silence followed as they all tried to square the clear facts of scripture with what their experience told them.

I guess what I mean is…Miguel explained and then stopped, still sorting it out…that when you spend time with people like them, who lack so much…it reminds you…that God’s blessing isn’t what he gives. It’s that he’s with us.

Some more nods circled around the fire’s glow.

I hope they still come to visit when our kids are older, Isabella said. If they do, maybe it will teach our kids to appreciate all their blessings.

 

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This post was up on the blog for about 30 seconds before I got hacked by the Islamic Cyber Force Team and other amusingly self-titled Muslim cyber terrorists.

The hack was provoked by a sermon whose text I can’t recover- thanks to the aforementioned cyber terrorists- but you can listen to it here.

I thought I’d repost this reflection while I try to piece the blog back together (pain in the ass).

Thanks to all of you who’ve emailed encouragement, wondering where the posts are and/or projecting upon me all sorts of ‘front line of freedom’ altruism.

For you e-subscribers out there, sorry for the repost. I’m trying to figure out how I can restore the blog without pushing out old content to all of you.

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Dear Son,

It occurred to me recently that, as a preacher’s kid (PK), you hear me give guidance to others more often than I do for you.

As a result, I thought I’d write you this ‘FYI’ even though it may be a bit premature. In the event I’m ever iced by an angry church member you’ll at least have these 2 cents on record.

You’re still at the age when the word ‘selfie’ probably strikes you as a good name for a Marvel villain, and the mere mention of GIRLS makes you blush and wrinkle your nose in contemptuous embarrassment.

This may be premature, but perhaps not. After all, you’ve been learning about ‘the puberty’ at school but, even more so, it seems appropriate because- no matter your age:

Who you will be always begins right now, with who your Mom and me are helping you to become.

That’s a parent’s baptismal promise, to shape you so that your character is grounded in the character of Jesus. God, I hope your Mom does a good job of it.

What it means to have the character of Jesus, who was the perfect image of God, is to regard others as the exact image of God.

That means, son, to see people as holy, as sacraments, and sacraments- as you’ve learned in church- are examples of a whole lot more than what’s visible to the eye.

That means, son, to treat people as (God’s) people. And never as objects.

It means you never see only a person’s physical beauty, or notice only their lack of it- which I also hope you’ll learn is a terribly unbeautiful way to live.

Brass tacks time, son:

If you see a pretty girl, in real life or on Instagram, and from that point on that’s all you can see in them or that’s all you can think of them…that’s YOUR fault son NOT the girl’s fault.

I hold you responsible and I’m damn sure your Mother will too.

Sure, said girl made her choice when she dressed said way.

But you make your choices too.

You can choose to objectify others or you can choose to treat your neighbors as your self.

In truth, if you do grow up to objectify girls, son, it’s our fault too, your Mom and me, for letting you be shaped by a culture that sexualizes everything for a $ and only sounding the alarm years later when we don’t like what its done to you.

But I don’t think that will happen to you.

Some parents excuse their boys’ demeaning girls by demeaning boys, by saying ‘boys will be boys.’

I think I’ll give you more credit, son, which also means I’m giving you responsibility.

You can treat girls as they should be treated.

But let’s be realistic, sometimes you won’t. You’ll have impulses, thoughts, desires…and THAT’S OKAY. It’s natural. It’s part of being human. It’s not any girl’s fault and it’s not yours either. It’s not dirty or bad or unholy.

Jesus (God) was human, don’t forget, so there’s nothing that can run through your head that didn’t run through his. And so there’s nothing you need to be ashamed of.

Now that you’re hitting puberty, son, you’ll realize to what an extent that’s gospel, good news.

While we’re on this track, let me just say that, like other parents, your Mother and I certainly hope you’ll ‘wait’ for that perfect girl (and if it’s not a girl that’s fine too, but that’s advice for another day).

Always remember, though, if you do ‘wait’ you’re no better than anyone else and no worthier of my love. Or God’s.

And if you don’t wait, you and your other whomever is no less beautiful to me. Or God. Parents who suggest anything to the contrary are on some ugly, unGospely footing.

Finally, son, let me ask a favor of you.

If, in the years ahead, you ever mess up or make a mistake, in the real world or the virtual one, please don’t let me get so self-important that I resort to faith-based innuendo to shame you.

Always remember, even I don’t always appear to:

There’s nothing you can do to make me love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make me love you less. I hope that one day you will find someone for whom you can say the same.

Love,

Dad

 

 

 

 

 

Was Jesus Sinful?

Jason Micheli —  January 6, 2015 — Leave a comment

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

5. Was Jesus Sinful?

Yes.

The humanity assumed by the Word was sinful; otherwise, what would be the salvific point of the incarnation if the humanity assumed by the Word was already perfect?

While perhaps the incarnate Word did not commit sin against God or others (would he have been fully human had he done so?), the humanity which the Word assumed suffered the effects of sin.

That is, the incarnate Word was tempted as sinful humanity is tempted. The incarnate Word feared death as humanity, because of sin, fears death. The incarnate Word experienced the conflicts provoked by poverty and political oppression, which are themselves brought about by humanity’s sinfulness.

In this way, then, it’s insufficient for Christians to profess that the Word took flesh.

The Word not only takes on humanity, the Word contends with (sinful) humanity in order to perfect it over the course of his incarnate life.

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself…” 

– 2 Corinthians 5.19

6. Did Jesus Commit Sin?

The theologians say no.

The Canaanite woman would probably say yes

Traditionally, Christian theology precludes such a thought, for theories of the atonement rely upon the conviction that Jesus did not commit sin.

He is without sin, living the authentically human (i.e., sinless) life that humanity in Adam’s wake cannot live for itself. It’s his perfection, in which we all have a share by virtue of the incarnation, that saves us. It’s his blamelessness before God that allows him to suffer sin’s penalty in our guilty stead.

So no- the theological systems assert- Jesus could not have committed sin.

Unfortunately the gospel texts often seem disinterested in buttressing doctrine and answering questions they felt no need to ask.

What scripture presents instead is a picture of Jesus that resists the neat, a priori categories established for him by theologians.

For example, Jesus humiliates a Canaanite woman by calling her a ‘dog,’ a 1st century derogatory term for Israel’s oldest and original enemy. Perhaps it doesn’t qualify as a sin but it definitely marrs our assumptions about Jesus being without blemish.

By refusing to condemn the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ignores the clear Yahweh-given commands in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Exodus and Numbers.

In pursuing his Kingdom mission and constituting a new family as an alternative to his biological one, Jesus, as Mary’s eldest son, forsakes his Torah-mandated responsibility to care for his widowed mother, which violates the 5th commandment.

The Pharisees are correct about Jesus: by presuming to forgive the sins of others, he sinfully claims the role reserved for God alone.

Their indictment against Jesus is true if spuriously motivated: by claiming to be the Son of Man, Jesus commits the ultimate sin- blasphemy. He breaks the first commandment, making of himself an idol above and before the one, true Lord.

While theological systems have no room for a Jesus who committed sin, the scripture texts portray him as doing just that until it lands him on a cross.

Of course, if he is who he claims to be- the Son of Man- then our theological systems, in their need to emphasize his unblemished, atoning humanity, obscure the gospels’ primary claim: that Jesus is Lord.

And if he’s Lord then it’s not clear how the Law-giver can be said to be a Law-breaker. A sinner.

However, if he’s Lord- if God is like Jesus, exactly- then neither is it clear how we can say God demands the suffering and death of a sinless human creature.

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” 

– 1 Peter 1.19

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This Sunday we celebrated Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to pay homage to Jesus. I extended the lectionary text, Matthew 2.1-12, to include verses 13-18, which narrate Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

A couple of Advents ago, I spent the week before Christmas with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community in Guateamala near the mountains called Cantal.

I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home to be with my own.

Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be taking the SATʼs and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.

While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear.

You know, Facebook photo kinds of stuff.

It was a one-room home. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic.

Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.

The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their baby sister- were sitting on the bed.

Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos.

Because that was the only thing they had to eat. Because junk food is cheaper and thatʼs all they could afford.

Above the bed hung a calendar from several years earlier. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture was a scripture verse in Spanish: ʻ…a light shines in the darkness…ʼ

I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.

I looked at them and I saw the baby Jesus hanging there on the wall above them. I bit my lip to keep my eyes from tearing up, and I muttered to myself: ʻChrist is born this?ʼ

Despite what we sang on Christmas Eve, it was not a silent night.

Not really.

Not at all.

At least not according to Matthew.

According to scripture, sometime after the shepherds returned to their flocks and after the magi found a different route home and after Mary and Joseph wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a trough, all the other mothers and fathers of sons in and around Bethlehem lay their babies in their cribs and tuck their toddlers into bed.

And while they sing them a lullaby or tell them a bible story or kiss them goodnight on the forehead, they hear:

The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads

The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down

The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed

The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted

And fathers being shoved aside

And mothers gasping

And babies being taken.

It was not a silent night, that night when Mary, whoʼd already traveled 70 miles on foot the week she delivered him, rouses her baby awake and wraps him against the cold and tells her husband to pack whatever he can.

It was not a silent night-

That night they sneak away across the border with no money to their name

That night the skies, in which the angels had sung ʻGlory to God in the highest heaven,ʼ fill with the cries of mothers and fathers as their sons are silenced forever.

It wasnʼt a silent night.

Which makes it all the more strange that when it comes to the mere mention of the word, ʻChristmasʼ triggers everything that is nostalgic and comforting and sentimental.

Yet in scripture Christmas isnʼt sentimental, not at all.

In scripture- in Matthew’s Gospel, especially- Christmas is all steely-eyed recognition that this world is very often a shockingly horrible world. Where despots plot and evil flourishes and children are victims. Where the poor are powerless and the powerful do whatever they please to the nations they regard as backward and justify after the fact.

Christmas in scripture isnʼt like Christmas at Tysonʼs Corner or Times Square. Itʼs not like an old-fashioned Christmas with a fire warming the hearth and a blanket of snow frosting the window outside.

     Christmas, real Christmas, is light.

     An epiphany.

     Which means it has to be a light shining in the darkness.

And for that to be true requires the recognition that the world is not as God would have it be, that the world is often a dark place.

So itʼs strange how we turn Christmas into a nostalgic dream, into a sentimental escape. Because in the bible Christmas couldnʼt be more gritty and realistic.

Matthewʼs and Lukeʼs Christmas stories could just as easily be reported by protestors on Twitter.

The stuff of hashtags is all there:

Thereʼs a massacre of innocent children and a world too busy to stop and notice.

Thereʼs political intrigue and the maneuverings of an empire in the Middle East.

Thereʼs the Holy Family finding themselves political refugees in an inhospitable world, finding themselves illegal aliens in a foreign land.

Thereʼs no way it was a silent night.

 

And somehow that never really hit home for me until that Advent morning in Guatemala, staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose and wondering why Jesus is born at all, that it finally struck me:

     When I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful.

What I realized that Advent morning, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that if I have a place in this story, my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.

Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.

I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father.

Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news.

Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.

But what I realized that Advent morning is thatʼs not my place in the story.

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire.

Iʼm well-off. I’m rich. I’m powerful.

Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that a majority of the worldʼs people would call a palace. Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day.

That Advent morning at Jason’s house it hit me for the first time that Iʼm not so sure I like my place in the Christmas story.

 

So itʼs strange.

When you think about it, about who we are and where we are in the story. Itʼs strange that so many of us flock to church on Christmas. Itʼs strange that the Christmas story doesnʼt strike us as it did Herod: with fear and agitation.

     I mean you have to give Herod credit.

He wasnʼt stupid- maybe, even, he was smarter than us.

He knew bad news when he heard it.

He knew the ʻgloryʼ the angels sang was confirmation of the threatening song Mary had sung 8 months earlier.

Herod knew that joy coming into Maryʼs world meant an attack on his world. Herod knew that when God takes flesh in Jesus, God also takes sides:

With those on margins.

With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

With all those whose- we have to be reminded- lives matter.

For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news. And they were smart enough to know it.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we drape Christmas with so much cheap sentiment. I wonder if thatʼs why at this time of the year we prefer nostalgia for a world that never was instead of a truthful recognition of the world that is or an honest longing for the world God promised will be.

I wonder if deep down we know Christmas means God may not be on our side. I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we told the story straight up as Matthew tells it, then like Herod we might have a reason to fear.

To fear that his birth, if we take it seriously, will turn everything in our lives upside down. That Advent afternoon, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.

These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich.

These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.

And there I was. From a different world completely.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there.

She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas.

And when she said that, I muttered to myself again: ʻChrist was born for this.ʼ But this time it wasnʼt a question.

Because even though itʼs not the sentimental story we like to hear this time of year, Jesus was born for this. Jesus was born so that someone proud like me would gladly humble himself so that a poor, humble woman like her could be filled with pride. Jesus was born so that someone rich like me would gladly empty his pockets to fill her childrenʼs bellies.

Jesus was born so that someone on the top like me would gladly take some bad news on the chin so that she could be lifted up. Christ was born in the dark; so that, the powerless would know that God was with them in the flesh and the powerful would know that we canʼt save ourselves.

 

She wished me a Merry Christmas, and then she embraced me.

Given who I am and where I am in the story, to anyone else her hugging me mightʼve looked like Mother Mary embracing King Herod.

     There is no kingdom in this world like that other than the Kingdom that belongs to the Prince of Peace.

Thatʼs why heʼs born.

In the dark.