Archives For Jason Micheli

At Ascension the creed shifts from the perfect tense to the present. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. As in this very moment. A statement intended not as referring to Jesus’ location but his vocation; that is, he’s been given dominion by the Father over the Earth as its rightful Lord and King. Or, as Stanley Hauerwas says, Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.

Ascension Sunday falls on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend. Taylor & Jason discuss how the Ascension and Memorial Day can’t be juxtaposed to one another. This week’s lections include: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47 or Psalm 93, Ephesians 1:15-23, and Luke 24:44-53

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

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It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

The first funeral I ever attended or performed was a suicide. Still a new seminary student, I was so determined to be “helpful” and do whatever the grieving family asked of me I lied. Rather, I aided and abetted their secret and shame. Neither the truth nor, consequently, the Gospel was spoken.

Since I know preaching funerals where the deceased has died by their hand can be hard, I offer this one from this weekend as an example, not a good or perfect one just more honest than that first attempt. I owe Kenneth Tanner a big shout-out for assisting me.

Here it is, using both John 11 and John 20.

     “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said, as I said at the beginning in the Call to Worship.

“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,” Jesus says to the grief-stricken Martha right before he asks her- almost as an afterthought- “Do you believe this?”

“I am the Resurrection and the Life…even though you’ll die yet will you live…do you believe this?” Jesus asks Martha. And Martha, her eyes salty and pink with tears and voice hoarse from rage, replies: ‘Yes, I believe.”

But probably- Let’s be honest, probably she wants to say “No.”

No, I do not believe. No, it’s too hard to believe. No, it’s too easy to believe- it’s foolish and silly to believe in Resurrection and Life. After all, by the time Jesus bothers to show up her brother Lazarus is four days dead.

Dead. And he didn’t have to be. His was an unnecessary death.

When Lazarus first fell ill, Martha had sent word to Jesus: “Your friend whom you love is ill. Do something. Help.”

But for whatever reason, Jesus ignored the warning. He didn’t heed the cry for help as seriously as he should have so that by the time Jesus shows up it’s too late and, by Martha’s estimation, it’s every bit unnecessary. It didn’t need to end the way it did: “Lord, if you had been here,” Martha spits at Jesus, “he wouldn’t be dead.”

In other words: It’s your fault Jesus. It’s your fault Lord.

To Jesus’ question about the Resurrection, Martha says “Yes, I believe” but I’m willing to be she felt like saying “No.”

Scripture calls it the Enemy for a reason. It’s damn hard to believe. In the face of Death.

Especially an unnecessary death.

We don’t know the why or the how of Lazarus’ death. We just know it didn’t have to be. “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus?! Why didn’t you stop it?!” Martha asks and, I’m willing to bet, poked Jesus in the chest or, even, slapped him across the face.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life…Do you believe this?” Jesus asks her, and her mouth says “Yes” but her heart?

————————-

     “Do you believe this?”

Do you? Do you?

All of you- you’re all Martha today.

Some of you’d say “Yes, I believe” but really if you’re honest the answer is no.

For others of you the answer is “No.” You don’t believe. You don’t believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and Life, but, God, you want the answer to be yes. You don’t want Death to have the last word, especially when you were denied the opportunity to have your last words with _________.

And still others of you want to have a Martha-like, PO’d word with Jesus: “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus!?”

The yes on Martha’s lips. The no on her grief heavy heart. The righteous anger in her throat and in her eyes. We’re all somewhere in between on days like today. We’re all Martha.

————————-

     I’ve presided over too many services like this one- and don’t get me started on the kids I’ve buried or the forsakenness I’ve felt- I know what it’s like to feel that the answer is no.

“No, I don’t believe.”

I can’t speak for you, but I can say that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death.

Take those together and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of Jesus Christ.

But you’re here for a funeral. You’re not here for me to convince you the answer is yes. Yes, he’s the Resurrection and the Life of us all.

Except-

In here, on our calendar, it’s still Eastertide, the season of Resurrection, a season that began with the scripture reading you heard this morning from the Gospel of John.

Mary Magdalene, who’s come to the garden tomb to mourn, mistakes the Risen Jesus for the gardener because Resurrection and Life are not in any way her expectation.

She mistakes him for the gardener.

Gardener is the job Adam was given by God to do in Eden, which is to say, this Risen Jesus- he is what we’re meant to be.

He is who we will become. What God does with him God will do with us all. His Resurrection is but the first fruit of a creation-wide, cosmic garden God is sowing.

When she realizes it’s really him, she grabs ahold of him. In her hands she clasps his scarred hands. Notice- his scars are still there. In his hands and his feet and his side. He still bears his scars.

     The life he lived hasn’t vanished; it’s been vindicated.

The Risen Jesus still is the Crucified Jesus. He is who he was.

That Mary mistakes him for the gardener, what Adam was meant to be; that he still bears his scars and his wounds, reveals what Christians mean by that word ‘Resurrection.’

Namely, this world and this life- it matters. It matters to Almighty God.

Any kind of thinking or religion or piety or spirituality, that suggests our ultimate destination is an evacuation from this world has nothing to do with Christianity, nothing to do with Resurrection.

Mary mistakes him for the gardener; therefore, Resurrection means that God has not abandoned the garden that he planted.

God didn’t send the ghost of Jesus back to the world to say, “Don’t worry … after you die you’ll be OK.”

No, God Resurrected Jesus.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ tells us something about what God has planned for the world, what God has planned for us. God plans to restore THIS world.

The Risen Christ still bears the scars life gave him; therefore, Resurrection means that God is not interested in throwing out this world and moving on to something else somewhere else.

If that were the case, why on earth go to the trouble of raising Jesus’ body from the dead? And not just him but God raised him as the first fruit of God raising us all.

God didn’t say, “It’s enough for Jesus to come home to heaven now that he’s died.”

No.
God raised Jesus from the dead.

Therefore, Resurrection means this world that God made matters.

Resurrection means that this world, this life— our hopes, our longings, our pain, our work, our choices, our relationships, our emotions, our bodies—

Literally, everything, it all matters.

Every pitch, every batting practice thrown, every conversation breaking down your swing.

It all matters.

Every game coached. Every reluctant walk along the beach. Every date night in Old Town.

All of it matters.

Every piece of unsolicited volleyball advice. Every vegan chicken sandwich shared. Every trip to Philly or Boston or New Orleans. Every GPS-induced “shit show.” Every ‘I love you’ left unsaid or said in deeds if not words.

All of it. Every bit of it.

All of ________ and every bit of your life with him and what you do with your life now without him.

It all matters.

It all matters to God.

     When we gather on days like today, people often will refer to it as a ‘celebration of life.’

     I hate that language.

I hate it because it doesn’t lift the luggage.

For one, it compels us to be dishonest. It temps us to lie and ignore our feelings of grief and confusion. It forces us to ignore the fact that not every part of our lives is a cause for joy, neither was every part of ________’s life nor the way ended he it. It forces us to pretend that if _____ were here with us he wouldn’t apologize and say he wished that none of you had to be here today.

For another, I hate that ‘celebration of life’ language because it doesn’t go far enough in the celebration.

We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our ability to remember it. No, the Christian hope is different than the ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. 

We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our memory of it. We’re celebrating a life that God is determined to recover, a life that is now present to God and will be future, will live again.

Mary mistakes him for the gardener. He still bears the holes in his hands. Resurrection means God doesn’t scrap creation. God doesn’t throw things out.

     Resurrection means that even if we forsake our life, God does not forsake us.

Resurrection means God will reclaim everything, redeem everything, renew everything, heal everyone.

Belinda Carlisle was right; she just got the tense of her verbs wrong. Heaven will be a place on Earth, a New Earth- a New Creation- and nothing will be lost, nothing will be forgotten, no one will be forsaken, everything broken will be mended.

Every wound will be healed and the scars that remain do so only to remind us that all of it, all of our lives, are gift.

    Resurrection means that in the end God gets what God wants.

     And what God wants is each of every creature that God has made and God has loved and God has called very good- very good, even when we couldn’t always say that about ourselves.

“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. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks.

I realize occasions like today draw all sorts of people from all kinds of places. I can’t make assumptions about you or what you believe.

But Christians are those people trust the ‘Yes’ even when we feel the answer’s ‘No.’

Christians are the people who dare to live beautiful and complicated lives, lives of forgiveness and mercy and inconvenient love, lives that make no sense if the answer to Jesus’ question is not ‘Yes.’

Christians are the people who live as though we will live on—as Jesus lives on—as the unique and unrepeatable persons we have been since the moment of our conception.

Live on—body and soul glorified—as it was with Jesus in the Garden—the first fruits of the Resurrection—able to be touched and held, seen and heard. Again.

Christians are those who believe we are not ghosts in machines that go back to being ghosts, nor are we mere material that becomes “one” again with the rest of creation.

Christianity is not spirituality.

The Christian hope is particular, personal, and unapologetically material.

We are destined for eternal embodied existence, where all the things that made us who we are as one-of-a-kind divine image bearers—laughter, courage, generosity, brilliant thoughts and selfless deeds, skin and bones—will inhabit individual bodies that have something resembling hands and feet and fingerprints and nucleic acids.

All made alive again forever—somehow—redeemed by the humble power of God’s love.

Christians believe that God keeps all the information of us and all the mystery about us, and that the God who created everything from nothing knows how to raise us from Death.

That’s our hope.

That’s what we mean by Jesus being “the Resurrection and the Life.”

     Do you believe this?

     Funny thing is, it doesn’t really matter whether you believe it or not, whether you have faith in it or not, whether ______ believed it or not, because if ‘Resurrection’ is shorthand for anything it’s shorthand for God being faithful to us.

Each of us. Every one of us. All of us.

 

It’s difficult for me to express how grateful (to God) I feel that the inter-webs and something called a podcast would be the means by which I have developed a friendship with Fleming Rutledge. Our regular conversations for Crackers and Grape Juice and correspondence in between have become a surprising and deeply treasured part of my life and vocation.

I caught up with Fleming last week. Here’s the interview. You can also go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com to view the video of the conversation.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

We’re doing a live podcast and pub theology event at Bull Island Brewery in Hampton, Virginia on Thursday, June 15th. If you’re in the area, check it out here.

Clay Mottley will be playing tunes for us and Jeffery Pugh is our special guest.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Before you go, here’s a Crucifixion 101 Interview Fleming did recently with Jonathan Merritt.

RNS: I know churches that feel uncomfortable about discussing the cross in all its bloody violence. Why do you think churches avoid preaching about the cross?

FR: One significant reason, as I explain in my book, is reaction against overemphasis on a particular version of “penal substitution,” which became an idée fixe in some Protestant circles. Other reasons may be cultural, since many mainline Protestant churches have associated the preaching of the cross with supposedly less-educated, right-wing Christians — and also, a bloody corpus on the cross was more typical of Spanish and Latino Roman Catholic imagery. A third factor is American optimism, a preference for what makes us feel good, and an unwillingness to talk about the power of Sin — in spite of the persistence of Sin throughout the world.

RNS: I grew up in a religious context that saw “penal substitution” theory of atonement — that Jesus died for our sins to satisfy God’s wrath — as a non-negotiable doctrine. How does your view compare?

FR: I argue strongly against (1) making this model the “non-negotiable” feature of authentic faith; (2) presenting any feature of the Bible as a “theory,” since the Bible deals largely in images and narrative; (3) the rationalized, schematized nature of the penal substitution model as expounded in 19th century Protestantism; 4) any model that splits the Father from the Son.

I do, however, attempt to present the strongest case possible to show that the theme of substitution — in the words of a great hymn, “the slave has sinned, and the Son has suffered” — is embedded in Scripture and tradition and, if discarded, is a serious impoverishment.

RNS: You also embrace “Christus Victor” as an atonement motif. Can you explain this briefly for those who don’t know, and what are you saying about this that’s fresh and perhaps more convincing?

FR: Christus Victor is not really an atonement motif. Paul Ricoeur points out that the Bible speaks of Sin in two essential ways: (1) as a responsible condition for which atonement must be made; and (2) as an Enemy that must be driven from the field. Sin is therefore both a guilt and a Power.

The biblical motifs of substitution and sacrifice address the first problem, and Christus Victor (incorporating the Passover-Exodus imagery from earliest Christian liturgies) depicts Christ the conqueror of the cosmic Powers of Sin and Death. It’s important to hold both of these pictures simultaneously. Taken together, they are the most complete account of the human predicament that we have. Of course, if you don’t think humanity is in a predicament, this won’t mean much to you.

I try in my book to show as clearly as possible that the Christian message is the most universal geo-political worldview that has ever been offered.

RNS: You think churches should embrace the gruesomeness of the crucifixion. Why?

FR: I wouldn’t put it exactly that way. As I point out in my book, the Evangelists don’t dwell on the gruesomeness. I do think it’s important for people in our sanitized society to know what is involved in this method of executing a person, but the shame, degradation, dehumanization, and, above all, godlessness of crucifixion are what’s most important. Those features, I believe, lie at the heart of what Christ suffered, and I argue that it is crucial (“crucial” derives from Latin crux, cross) for the church to ask why God chose to die in that particular way.

RNS: But don’t you think that the cross can be voyeuristic or manipulative? I think of “Passion of the Christ” and the way it uses violence in a kind of evangelistic shock-and-awe campaign.

FR: I know what you mean. I mention in my book that I used to see this manipulative approach used in youth groups. I don’t agree with this technique. I have taken pains to avoid it.

RNS: Why do you believe that Jesus’ crucifixion is the “center of the gospel?” Why not the incarnation and birth of Jesus? Or the resurrection of Jesus?

FR: In my book I emphasize the essential doctrine of the incarnation, because it proclaims that the man who was crucified is none other than God’s own self, God’s Second Person in human flesh. I also make a point of insisting that the crucifixion and resurrection are a single event, incomprehensible if separated. But the cross is the uniquely non-religious feature of the Christian message, and that gives our faith its ultimate grounding. There is nothing remotely like this shocking dénoument in any other faith. In the final analysis, I find this a convincing argument for the truth of the Christian proclamation.

 

 

 

 

 

Full Disclosure:

I was prepared to dismiss Rod Dreher as a d@#%$# bag both for the hysteria generated by his new book among progressives and for the dust jacket of it, which seemed to me overly obsessed with homosexuality.

It turns out Jesus has a sense of humor.

Rod Dreher turned out to be a wonderfully kind and thoughtful guy. His book turned out to be one that could have easily been written by my muse Stanley Hauerwas. And the dust jacket it turns out wasn’t written by him at all.

Here’s our conversation with Rod Dreher on the Benedict Option, his proposal for how Christians in the West should retreat and recover holiness in the face secularism and nihilism. He also blogs regularly at The American Conservative.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

We’re doing a live podcast and pub theology event at Bull Island Brewery in Hampton, Virginia on Thursday, June 15th. If you’re in the area, check it out here.

Clay Mottley will be playing tunes for us and Jeffery Pugh is our special guest.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Yesterday I spoke to Dad whose 3 year old boy somehow climbed inside his truck in the Texas summer heat and couldn’t get out again. Dad was asleep taking a nap after church. Jacob was supposed to be down for a nap too.

His Dad still speaks of him in the present tense.

First, it broke my heart to hear his grief and guilt held barely at bay by the willful flat tone in his voice. Later, it pissed me off- filled me a mushroom-cloud-laying fury- to hear how the preaching and teaching of his upbringing- supposedly ‘biblical’ theology- did him damage by telling him that his little boy cooking inside his car could be chalked up to divine sovereignty.

“God has a plan” they told him.

“There’s a reason for everything.”

“Bullshit,” I told him, “a world where everything is the direct and immediate unfolding of God’s will is NOT the world as the New Testament sees it.”

For as often as we read it at funerals, we forget: the reason Paul works to reassure in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers and Principalities in the world contending against God and working to separate us from him.

Calvinists of a certain stripe often exult in the ‘mysterious’ ways God ordains tragedy to bring about ‘good,’ humble his creatures, display his sovereignty, and call all to repentance and faith.

Listening to Jacob’s Dad speak of Christians telling him to see in his son’s tragic death the ‘good news’ of God’s sovereign plan reminds me of Aristotle who cautioned, in so many words: If the happy expressions on your face don’t match the godawful sentiments coming out of your mouth, you’re batshit crazy.

Or a moral cretin, Aristotle would say.

Worse, the God conjured by such espousals of ‘sovereignty,’ the God who would will a little boy’s death for any reason, eternal or otherwise, is, quite simply, evil.

Evil is not good just because God is supposedly the One doing it.

Better to say- God cannot do evil exactly because God is good.

The ancient Christians believed that not even God- who is goodness itself- can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will violence, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.

For God to be free and sovereign, then, is NOT for God to do whatever God wills. For God to be free and sovereign is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

Those who claim “God has a reason for______” suppose that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions. God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character. If God wants to will the death of a little boy trapped inside a hot car, then God has the freedom to will Jacob’s death, no matter how inscrutable and unnecessary his death seems to us.

To which I say as I said to Jacob’s Dad: bullshit.

Jacob’s Dad asked for book suggestions. What theologians could he read to find a different God than the god who supposedly willed his family guilt and grief for the shits and giggles some call ‘sovereignty.’

I told Jacob’s Dad about my teacher during my days at UVA, David Bentley Hart.

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

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

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

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

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

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

And if we mustn’t say them to such a father we ought never to say them about God.

Hart admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun that will one day be revealed to us by a Sovereign God in the fullness of time. He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

Like Ivan Karamazov and evidently unlike too many of the Christians Jacob’s Dad encountered along the way, Hart wants no part of the cost at which this God’s Kingdom comes. Hart’s siding with suffering of the innocent is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that his compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:

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

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

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

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

As Hart writes:

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

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

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

In other words,

if there is indeed a reason for everything,

if there is a reason for why Jacob was lost to his Dad and his Mom,

then there is no reason to worship God.

Not because God does not exist

but because he is not worthy of our worship.

I asked Jacob’s Dad what he wanted to hear God say to him when he arrived in heaven. He paused, hedging against the hint of sacrilege, and said “I’m sorry.” Far from sacrilege, it struck me as the most faithful of responses.
Jacob’s Dad, Jason, wrote a book about his loss. You can find it here.
Look for our podcast with him soon.

In this episode we continue our conversation with Brian Zahnd, author of Water to Wine, about the Eastertide lections.

This week’s lections include: Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, and John 14:15-21.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

This weekend Dennis Perry and I shared the sermon, dialoguing on John 20.24-29 about doubt and the shame of the cross, faith as obedience, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Here’s the sermon:

Here’s a review of my book for the Presbyterian Outlook. Disclaimer: the reviewer, Deborah Lewis, is a friend for which I’m exceedingly grateful to have as a colleague.

Parson: The go he made of it

By Deborah Lewis

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo

By Jason Micheli

Fortress Press (Minneapolis), 226 pages

Jason Micheli gets one thing wrong in his book Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo: he is always a pastor. It’s not as if he tries to hide this, but he repeatedly makes the distinction between his life as a pastor before cancer and his “non-pastoral” life as an ordinary person with cancer. The fact that he can’t maintain the artifice of separate pastor and person identities results in a compelling story, underscoring precisely this flimsy distinction.

The word I keep coming back to is “parson,” the somewhat antiquated church lingo used to describe pastors. “Parson” means “person,” as in “person of the church,” a representative of the body of believers. The parson represents the rest of us.

Here’s where Micheli’s distinction both falls flat and makes his larger point. He’s not just any patient with cancer. He’s a pastor who has stood by the hospital beds of countless suffering patients and parishioners. He may be on a medical leave of absence from his daily duties but he’s unable and unwilling to leave behind his role as parson, the representative Christian. The very existence of his book is testament to his primary pastoral role of living life publicly and profession-ally. He never relinquishes this role.

With his status as patient comes the realization that his previous pastoral familiarity with death and suffering hasn’t inoculated him. As a pastor, he operated as if “I serve the suffering but I do not suffer” (p. 83). As a patient, he connects unexpectedly to the man whose friends lower him through the roof to be healed by Jesus (Mark 2: 1-12). Praying for his own healing, Micheli wonders “if my preacher’s reading of such stories wasn’t too cute by half…But you know what Jason the Patient on the mat discovered that Pastor Jason, standing in the pulpit, had not? Healing’s important, too – damn important. And, whether this thought is heresy or not, healing is no less a miracle than forgiveness” (p. 83-4).

It’s exactly this type of deft move that cements Micheli as our parson. He is not interested in making himself look good (as a pastor, husband, patient, or Christian) or in protecting God from our worst fears. His abiding, passionate interest is in following the gospel wherever it leads. If there is good news Christians are meant to share, then it has to be good news in the midst of life with cancer, too. Nothing is off limits. By the time Micheli allows himself to ask “Why is God doing this to me?” and offers, “here’s the go I made of it,” the reader knows she’ll get an unvarnished, real-life, hard-core gospel exploration of what is most often a clichéd and unexamined question, even among Christians (p. 192).

The gift of this book is its all-access glimpse into how a person does this. Any of this. Micheli is our parson, the one standing in for us as a person and a Christian with cancer, showing us what it looks and feels like to be scared to death and fearless at the same time, taking it all seriously but with a sense of humor inspired by God’s own joy.

*

Deborah Lewis is a United Methodist pastor and campus minister who writes at Snow Day (www.deborahlewis.net). Full disclosure: Jason and I were in Clinical Pastoral Education together, which means I have the goods on him, so he’s lucky this book was so damn good. 

Here’s a piece I wrote recently for the United Methodist ‘Rethinking Church’ website. Here’s the original link.

I was in the emergency room, standing behind the paper curtain, holding a mother who wasn’t much older than me as she held her dead little boy, who wasn’t much older than my boys.

What do we do in these moments?

She wasn’t crying so much as gasping like you do when you’ve sunk all the way to the bottom of the deep end of the pool and have just come up for air. She was smoothing her boy’s cowlick with her hand. Every so often she would shush him, perhaps believing that if she could just calm him down then she might convince him to come back.

It was Opening Day. That afternoon my boys and I had played hooky to go to see the Nationals beat the Marlins. I still wore my Curly W Nats hat and had popcorn crumbs in my sweater and mustard stains on my pants. I didn’t look like a pastor or a priest.

The mother got up and went into the hallway to try and get hold of her husband. She left me with her boy — and when the chaplain stepped in to the room and saw the hat on my head and the mustard stains on my clothes and the tears in my eyes, she didn’t think I was a pastor or a priest. She just thought I was part of the boy’s family.

She put her hand on my shoulder and, after a few moments, she said to me: “It’s going to be all right.”

“What the hell did you say?” I asked, stunned.

I’ve been a pastor for 16 years.

And in that time I can’t tell you how many ERs and funeral homes I’ve been in, how many hospital bedsides and gravesides I’ve stood at and heard well-meaning Christians say things they thought were comforting but were actually the opposite.

Even destructive.

I know people in my congregation who’ve been told — by other people in my congregation — that God must’ve given them cancer as punishment or to bring them closer to God.

I know peoplewho’ve been told by well-intentioned Christians that a spouse’s or child’s death must be part of God’s plan.

I know people who’ve written God off entirely because when their life got sucky some Christian tried to console them with talk of “God’s will.”

Most of us don’t know what to say when there’s nothing to say. We don’t know where God is when life sucks or suffering comes, so we say ignorant things or offer empty platitudes.

There’s a long folk tale in the Old Testament in which a character named Job loses every one of his children. He loses his health, his last dime and maybe even his marriage. Worse, he loses it all at once. His life disintegrates faster than a dream.

For days, Job is mute with disbelief. His friends show up — no small gesture — and sit with him in silence.

Until Job finally does speak. Then, his friends discover, they aren’t ready for the pain he voices. They can’t go there.

Anyone who’s been with someone whose grief is raw and immediate, whose despair seems to open onto an abyss, anyone who’s been in that situation knows the temptation to put a lid on it. And very often our speech about God is the way we put a lid on it.

Questions like “Where is God…?” or “Why is God doing this…?” can become the means by which we silence a vulnerability too harrowing to bear.

Sometimes the vulnerability we wish to quiet with questions is our own.

So we resort to clichés. But just like one-size-fits-all clothes, one-size-fits-all platitudes never fit.

For Job’s friends there’s disconnect between what they think they know about God and how Job describes his experience. So they feel the need to correct Job’s experience, to explain and give answers for it. They offer platitudes.

But if love, as Jesus says, is laying down your life for another, then that also means love is a willingness to lay down your assumptions for a friend — to care more about them than your understanding of how God or the world works.

What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

Instead of saying, “God must be teaching you a lesson,” how about saying, “Tell me what you’re going through. There’s nothing you could say that will frighten or offend me. I’m here. I’m listening.”

We don’t need to protect God from our feelings. From the cross Jesus, the Son of God, screams at God, “Why have you forsaken me!?” And God responds to that cross, which we built, with an empty tomb. God doesn’t need protecting, especially not from our candor or feelings of forsakenness.

As much as anything, faith entails the knowledge that you do not need to protect God. We don’t need to protect God because God is not to blame.

Platitudes and reasons suggest God is behind the suffering and the suck in our lives. They suggest a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will. But that is not the world as scripture sees it. As St. Paul describes it, the world is groaning against God’s good intentions for it (Romans 8:22). In the language of scripture, suffering is a symptom of our world’s rebellion against God; it’s not a sign of God’s plan for our lives.

Maybe we conjure a different world, a world of tight causality, because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel. They are.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question “Why?” has no answer. It often does not.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us without warning, for no reason, and from which no good will ever come. They can and they do.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, a reason behind every pitfall in our lives, but think about it: The logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster. Such a god is certainly in charge kind of god, but such a god is not worthy of our worship.

Truth is, God doesn’t use or deploy suffering. God is present with us in suffering. In fact, in Jesus’ cross we witness that God, too, suffers in the brokenness of the world.

So, what do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say, “God has a reason.” Try saying, “There’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.”

The chaplain in the ER lifted her hand from my shoulder when I glared at her and said: “What?”

She blushed and apologized. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say,” she said. But I wasn’t in the mood for sorry. I wiped my eyes and said, “When his mother comes back in here, don’t. Say. Anything.”

At first Job’s friends do the exact right thing. They just sit in silence with their friend and grieve with him. The trouble starts when they open their mouths.

And the scary thing for us?

What’s scary is that at the end of the Book of Job, 38 long chapters later, after Job has cursed the day he was born, cursed God, questioned God’s justice, complained about God’s absence, accused God of abuse and indicted God for being no better than a criminal on trial — at the end of the book, when God finally shows up and speaks, Job isn’t the one God condemns.

It’s Job’s well-meaning, religious friends.

I’ve stood at enough bedsides and gravesides to know that in our attempts to comfort and answer and explain we sometimes make God an anathema, an entity of distrust and spite.

In trying to locate where God is in the midst of the suffering and the suck, we can push people away from him.

For the last two years, I’ve battled my own incurable cancer. I know of what I speak: The only thing worse than suffering with no reason, no explanation, would be to suffer without God, for God is with us in our suffering, just as we are called to be with others in their suffering.

As both pastor and patient, then, my advice: When there’s nothing to say, say nothing. Or, do as the Psalms so often do.

Lament.
Rage.
At God.

If faith entails knowing you do not need to protect God, then faith is also a kind of protest against God, who still has not yet made good on his promise to redeem all of creation.

“Where is God in the midst of this suffering?” is a question best turned around and posed to God, defiantly so. “What’s taking you so long, God?!”

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

With so many talking about Rod Dreher’s bestselling book The Benedict Option, we turned to friend of the podcast, author and professor David Fitch, to talk about “The Fitch Option”or the “Saint Patrick Option.”

Fitch talks to the Benedict Option by way of his fantastic new book Faithful Presence: Seven Discipline That Shape the Church For Mission. The opposite of the Benedict Option, David offers us disciplines that will shape the church for its mission.

Be on the lookout for our own conversation with Rod Dreher about the Benedict Option too.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

We’re doing a live podcast and pub theology event at Bull Island Brewery in Hampton, Virginia on Thursday, June 15th. If you’re in the area, check it out here.

Clay Mottley will be playing tunes for us and Jeffery Pugh is our special guest.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

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It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Savage Love

Jason Micheli —  May 10, 2017 — Leave a comment

My friend Scott Jones wrote the following essay on love, sex, marriage, and why is that infidelity is the only sin that forever defines someone as a failure, the sin for which there is never grace.

Scott is a pastor in the Philly area, a Princeton alum like myself, and a (much better than me) podcaster, hosting Give and Take and New Persuasive Words. Check out the conversation he references below here.

All you need is love, love is all you need.

That is so true on face value that it almost needs no unpacking. Its meaning can also be elusive, even opaque. As with all things, context is king. Where and when we read the above sentence will inevitably shape what we make of it. What I’m making of it today is shaped by a conversation I had last Thursday with Dan Savage.

Dan is a world famous sex columnist. He began his column “Savage Love” decades ago as a kind of joke. He thought it would be hilarious as a gay man to give sex advice to straight people with a tone of suppressed “ewwwwwww-ness” that colors the voice of most straight people (mostly straight guys) when they talk about gay people and gay sex. What started as a lark become an incredible success. He became a sort of celebrity, one who scandalized gays and straights alike. My friend Mark Oppenheimer wrote a book about Savage, one he begins with an interesting observation. We’ve had a lot of gay celebrities in late modern American culture, but Dan Savage was the first to start “out”. Elton John, George Michael, Melissa Ethridge…the list goes on, but they all began their public life in the closet. Even if people suspected they were gay there was a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy before the policy enacted to deal with gays in the military that seemed to govern public life, at least where celebrities were concerned. Everything was handled with a wink and a nod.

A Lutheran minister who wrote a think piece on Savage a few years ago claimed that he saved more marriages than a successful pastor at a prominent church could do in decades of faithful work. The same minister summarizes the secret of Savage’s success as follows:

Underlying all of Savages principles, abbreviations, and maxims is a pragmatism that strives for stable, livable, and reasonably happy relationships in a world where the old constraints that were meant to facilitate these ends are gone. Disclosure is necessary, but not beyond reason. Honesty [is] the best policy and all, he advised a guilty boyfriend, but each of us gets to take at least one big secret to the grave. Stuck with a husband whose porn stash has grown beyond what you thought you were signing up for? Put it behind closed doors and try not to think about it. Who knows how many good relationships have been saved and how many disastrous marriages have been averted by heeding a Savage insistence on disclosing the unmet need, tolerating the within-reason quirk, or forgiving the endurable lapse? In ways that his frequent interlocutors on the Christian right wouldn’t expect, Savage has probably done more to uphold conventional families than many counselors who are unwilling to engage so frankly with modern sexual mores. A successful marriage is basically an endless cycle of wrongs committed, apologies offered, and forgiveness granted, he advised one very uptight spouse, all leavened by the occasional orgasm.

As I read those words and reflected on my conversation with Dan a passage from Paul Zahl’s Grace In Practice remained perched in the forefront of my mind:

“Ministers see no evil, and yet they see everything. This is the reality of imputation. Pastoral care is not “proactive,” a big word in our lives today. Pastoral care observes, yet decides not to see. This is the essence of grace in practice. You look out on a group of people on a Sunday morning and observe bickering mothers and daughters, sullen and resentful sons, sexually ually frustrated men and misunderstood wives. You feel the rising infidelities ities and the hurt feelings and the palpable mourning for mothers and fathers thers who are no longer present. You see all this if you have an eye to original sin and total depravity. Yet you speak the word of imputed righteousness: teousness: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The blanket of condemnation that the discerning eye cannot fail to see is replaced by the “garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:io)…This means that pastoral response is always the response of listening and passive reception. It is not the response of trying to fix things. Every conversation you ever have in ministry is a piercing conversation from the standpoint of the pastoral listener. He or she has heard it all before, many, many times. Yet it has to come out. It has to be heard with full acceptance, even sorry acquiescence. Grace never tries to fix, but trusts God to do this. Grace listens.”

Dan said something early on in the conversation that I am still unpacking. He said that fidelity in the context of monogamy is the only thing that if you fail once at defines you as a failure. You can be a world class tennis player and make a few unforced errors at Wimbledon and you’re still a world class tennis player. You can be the winner of Top Chef and then burn an omelette and your still a chef, and regarded as a good one. In fact we celebrate the failures of someone who has dutifully done their 10,000 hours and become proficient in some skill that we need to make this thing called modern life going. We can even sometimes romanticize failure, but not where infidelity is concerned. Dan is at heart a conservative and a traditionalist and he thinks this glaring inconsistency ruins a lot of salvageable and even salutary relationships, ultimately eroding the quality of our shared public life.

One needn’t agree with everything Dan Savage says about sex or the nature of monogamy to get his point. And I think our celebration of failure often is only when we see it as part of a success story. Past failures get baptized retroactively because they are attached to clearly revealed current success stories. We often praise failures of successful people at the same time derisively scorning the same failures when they confront us attached to stories of people who we’d rather not look at or be around, let alone admire. Perhaps our approach to infidelity actually masks our intolerance for any failure, be it in ourselves or others. If we can just keep this one rule maybe it will be the deeper magic that wipes away the rest of our transgressions. The sensibility of this kind of rationalization is only surpassed by it’s silliness.

Hans Ur Von Balthasar describe the agonizing end ecstatic nature of human love in his masterful little book Love Alone Is Credible:

But though all of this may point the way, it does not accomplish the journey, for there are other equally strong, or stronger, powers that set a limit to love’s movement: the fight for one’s place under the sun; the terrible stifling of the individual by the surrounding relations, the clan, and even by the family; the struggle of natural selection, for which nature itself provides the strength and the arms; the laws of time’s decay: friendships, once thought to be forever, grow cold, people grow apart, views and perspectives and thus hearts too become estranged. Geographic distances create an additional burden, and love must be strong and single-minded in order to withstand it; pledges of love, meant to be eternal, get broken, because the rising wave of eros gave way and another newer love came in between; the beloved’s faults and limitations became unbearable, and perhaps even worsened because the finitude of love seemed to be a contradiction: Why love just one woman when there are thousands that could be loved? Don Juan poses this question as he shakes the cage of finitude, driven by a fundamental intuition no less valid, perhaps, than Faust’s. But if the very meaning of love slips past the don in the surfeit of women, Faust fails to hold onto the eternity he thought he could pin down in the surfeit of “moments”.

Given the fragile, faltering and fallen nature of human love it’s astounding that God chooses marriage as a primary metaphor to tell the sacred story of his journey with his people. A few years ago Ray Ortlund wrote a book called Whoredom: God’s Unfaithful Wife In Biblical Theology. He attempts to bring to the forefront a metaphor which, despite it’s biblical prominence, has gotten short shrift in the church’s preaching and teaching. He concludes the book with the following words:

If we perceive the Rorschach pattern of life as a lonely fight for survival without the consolations of divine succor, so that we barricade ourselves within the apparent safety of the self, we discover too late that the lock on the door operates only from the outside. All we have left is an endless reconfiguring of the autonomous self, and we are incapable of release into the light and freedom of God’s larger conceptual world. But, in the mercy of God, the biblical gospel intrudes its way into our prison as a blessed subversive agent, alerting us that that larger world really is out there and that God is able to break the lock of our self-imposed confinement…

Perhaps our borderline obsessive focus on infidelity as the only sin that merits a permanent scarlet letter thinly veils our own awareness of the infidelities that characterize more of our lives, public and private, than we’d care to admit. But the realization of our own human ineptness and infidelities is always the occasion for God’s invitation to rest in faithfulness that can only be described as divine. God’s love is a savage love, the kind that civilizes and shapes us for an eternal feast, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb that is the City of God.

The danger in celebrating Mother’s Day in worship is that it can lull you into forgetting that singleness is the first form of the Christian life and, therefore, the Church is your primary loyalty.

Obviously, Taylor hates Mother’s Day.

For this latest installment of Strangely Warmed we look at the 5th Sunday of Eastertide readings with Brian Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life Church and author of A Farewell to Mars and Water Into Wine.

This week’s lections include: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5 & 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, and John 14:1-14.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

 

     Here’s my sermon from this Sunday. I guest preached at the Kingstowne Communion for their series on the Apostles Creed. My text was Philippians 2.1-11.

Not long ago, USA Today featured a story about perceptions of God in America, and how a person’s perception of God influences their opinions on issues of the day.

The research can be found in a book by two sociologists at Baylor, the Baptist University in Texas. Their book’s entitled: America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What that Says about Us.

The researchers identify four primary characteristics of God. They are: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical and Distant. Based on surveys, they have come up with percentages of what American people believe about God:

Authoritative 28%:

According to the authors, people who hold this view of God divide the  world  along good and evil and they tend to be people who are worried,  concerned and scared. They respond to a powerful, sovereign God  guiding this country.

Distant 24%:

These are people who identify more with the spiritual and speak of finding  the mysterious, unknowable God in creation or through contemplation or in elegant mathematical theorems.

Critical 21%:

The researchers describe people who perceive a God who keeps a critical  eye on this world but only delivers justice in the next.

Benevolent 22%:

According to the researchers, their God is a “positive influence” who cares for all  people, weeps at all conflicts, and will comfort all.

Benevolent.

Distant.

Critical.

Authoritative.

Along the way, their research nets some curious findings.

For instance, if your parents spanked you when you were a child, then you’re more likely to subscribe to an Authoritative God view. If you’re European, then in all likelihood you have a Distant view of God.

If you’re poor then, odds are, you fall into the Critical view.

My wife only seldom agrees to spank me but presumably if you’re into adult spanking then you subscribe to a Benevolent God view.

United Methodists meanwhile- proving we can’t make up our minds about anything- tend to be evenly distributed among the four characteristic views.

The book is several years old now so I was surprised to discover that the sociologists’ survey is still up and running online.

As people take the survey, the percentages change.

You might be interested to hear that right now the Distant God is now pulling ahead in the polls, as the Authoritative God falls behind, and the Benevolent God gains a few points.

———————

     When I discovered the website not long ago, I decided to take the survey, all twenty questions of it. I was asked to rate whether or not the term “loving” described God very well, somewhat well, undecided, not very well, or not at all.

Other divine attributes in the twenty survey questions were “critical, punishing, severe, wrathful, distant, ever present.”

I was asked if I thought God was angered by human sin and angered by my sin. I was asked if God was concerned with my personal well being and then with the well being of the world.

In order to capture my understanding of and belief in God, maker of heaven and earth in whom we live and move and have our being, according to my watch, the survey took all of two minutes and thirty-five seconds.

Or, roughly 10,078 minutes faster than God managed to create the world.

After I finished, I was told what percentage of people in my demographic shared my view of God (college educated men under the age of none of your damn business).

You may be interested to know, but no doubt not surprised, that the survey says that this pastor maintains a perception of a Benevolent God.

It was only after I answered all the questions, only after I saw my results, only after I saw how I measured up against other respondents….only then did it strike me how the Baylor survey never asked me about Jesus.

The survey asked me to choose if I thought God was Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent, but it never asked me, it was never given as an option, if I thought God was Incarnate- in the flesh, among us, as one of us.

I’m no sociologist.

Presumably,

‘Do you believe that God, though being in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself  taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on the cross…’

Presumably that’s a lousy survey question.

Even still, it struck me that I’d just taken a supposedly thorough survey about my belief in God, and Jesus was not in any of the questions nor was he ever a possible answer.

I even tried to go back and undo, invalidate, my responses but it wouldn’t let me.

The problem with the survey is that, whether I like it or not, God’s not someone I get to pick with just the click of a mouse.

———————-

     I’m a Christian. How I conceive of God isn’t optional. It isn’t up for grabs.

We don’t get to define God according to whatever generalities we’d prefer instead when we confess Jesus Christ is Lord we profess that God has come to us with the most particular of definitions.

The problem with the survey is that I don’t believe God is Authoritative, Distant, Critical or Benevolent.

I believe Jesus is God.

Christians are peculiar. Maybe it takes a survey to point that out.

When we say God, we mean Jesus.

And when we say Jesus, we mean the God who emptied himself, the God who traded divinity for poverty, power for weakness, the God who came down among us and stooped down to serve the lowliest of us.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said that if God had wanted to God could’ve been Sovereign. If God had wanted to God could’ve been All-Powerful or All-Knowing. If God had wanted to God could’ve been Holy or Righteous.

But instead, said Wesley, God chose to be Jesus.

You see- it’s not that God’s power and glory and divinity are somehow disguised behind Jesus‘ human life. It’s not that in Jesus God masquerades as someone he’s not already.

The incarnation isn’t a temporary time-out in which God gets to pretend he’s a different person.

Rather, when we see Jesus in the wilderness saying no to the world’s ways of power, when we see Jesus- the Great High Priest- embracing lepers and eating with sinners, when we see Jesus stoop down to wash our dirty feet, when we see Jesus freely choose death rather than retaliation, when we see Jesus pour himself out, empty himself, humble and humiliate himself we’re seeing as much of God as there is to see.

In the Son we see as much of the Father as there has ever been to see.

Just look at today’s scripture text.

The song Paul quotes here in Philippians 2 is a worship song, older even than the Gospels themselves.

Don’t forget, the believers who first sang that song- they were good synagogue-going Jews; as such, they could worship only God alone.

To worship any one other than God was to break the first and most important of commandments.

But here their song praises Jesus as only God can be praised, lauding him as Lord to whom, the song concludes, has been given the name above every name.

Of course, the name above every name is the name that was too holy for Jews to utter or even write.

The name above every name is the name that was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush.

     The name above every name is the name of God.

     And now that name’s synonymous with Jesus.

———————

     After I completed the Baylor survey, in less than three minutes, a window popped up on the screen to tell me, conclusively, that I had a perception of a Benevolent God.

For me, the survey said, God is a positive influence on people. I suppose that means God is like Anderson Cooper or Donald Trump.

The survey results also explained how my particular perception of God likely impacted my worldview, in other words, how my belief in God played out in my positions on contemporary issues and politics.

But the survey never mentioned anything about a community.

According to the survey I’m just an individual person who has a certain perception of God and that perception influences my opinions on political issues. It never said anything about a community.

I told you it was a terrible survey.

———————

     This past Thursday a couple asked to meet with me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently.

Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced. Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.

When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.

The husband, the dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.” 

Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.

“What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.

And then she told something else entirely. Something surprising.

She told me their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.

“They’re both gay” she said.

“Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”

They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.

“This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.

“But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here.” 

“Of course. Absolutely.” 

I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”

“You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.

“Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners.”

We talked a bit more.

About how this “issue” is playing out now in the larger Church. About how you can know your kids but still they can be a surprising mystery to you too. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.

“You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’d always pictured them getting married here and you performing their wedding.” 

“Their wedding photo might look a little different than you’d imagined it, but I’ll still be in it. I’ll still do it” I said. “But, let’s wait until they’re out of high school.” 

“Isn’t there a rule against you doing it?” the mom asked. “Wouldn’t you get in trouble?”

“There is and I might” I said “but what am I supposed to do? I serve a God who says his Kingdom is like a wedding to which all the wrong kinds of people get invited. He’s the only rule I’ve got to obey.”

They laughed a little, but then he said, with absolute seriousness:

     “I guess we came here because they want to know, and we want them to know, that God still loves them.” 

———————-

     Maybe it was because I’d just filled out that silly survey, but after they left the church office I thought about sort of God it is that could produce the conversation we’d just had.

What sort of God is that?

Authoritative? Distant? Critical? Benevolent?

Or is it Jesus? Is it the God who trades away his divinity so that he might be with us?

Is it the God who takes flesh to welcome outcasts, embrace lepers, and feast with sinners?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had?

Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent or the God who is with-us, while all of us were still sinners with us, with us through the grief and joy and confusion of our lives?

With us such that to be faithful and obedient to this God we must be willing to be with one another no matter what?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had or the kind of community capable of such a conversation?

Benevolent doesn’t even scratch the surface of the God who took flesh, became what we are; so that, what we are- male or female, black or white, gay or straight- we are in him so that all of us must treat every one of us as him, as precious as him.

All of us must treat every one of us as Christ.

     He became what we are.

     What we are- black or white, male or female, gay or straight- is in him.

All of us therefore must regard everyone of us as though we were him.

Distant. Critical. Benevolent. Authoritative.

Tell me what sort of God other than Jesus Christ could produce that posture?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had?

Sure, there’s scripture verses that could’ve taken the conversation in the opposite direction, but we’re Christians.

We believe Jesus, not scripture, is the Word God speaks to us because we believe Jesus is God.

Maybe if our God was Authoritative or Critical or Distant even, maybe then we could throw around scripture words like abomination but we believe Jesus is God.

Jesus is God and, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones. God says to the woman caught in adultery “I do not condemn you” even though scripture condemned her.

God forgives those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks with sinners, and to the thieves by the cross God gives the first two tickets to paradise.

And speaking of the cross, God responds to the crosses we build with Easter. With resurrection.

Only that sort of God could produce the conversation I’d had with those parents.

Even more importantly- only that sort of God could produce the community that produced those parents that produced our conversation.

     Only that sort of God could produce the community that produced those parents that produced those girls who yearned to hear that God loved them.

———————-

     After they left my office, I emailed the Baylor sociologist responsible for the survey:

     Dear Dr. Bader,

I’m a United Methodist pastor in Alexandria, Virginia. Having read about your book and your research in USA Today, I just completed your survey online Since I was unable to cancel or otherwise invalidate my responses I felt I should share a few comments with you.

First, let me take issue with the four views of God that you group responses into. I don’t deny there is a diversity of religious belief in America. It’s just that, as a Christian, I was surprised to find that the God whom I worship isn’t to be found in any of your questions or categories. I believe Jesus of Nazareth is as much of God as there to see.

Authoritative, Distant, Critical, or Benevolent therefore are not sufficient categories to describe the God who empties himself of divinity, takes flesh, lives the life of a servant and turns the other cheek all the way to a cross. Perhaps you think my definition of God is too specific. The trouble is in Jesus of Nazareth God couldn’t have been more specific.

Second, your survey suggests that believing in God is primarily a matter of having a particular worldview that then influences one’s opinions on issues. I can’t speak for other religions, but as a Christian I can say that if Jesus Christ is Lord, then it’s not a matter of opinions.

Before the creed is a profession of our beliefs; it’s a pledge of our allegiance. If Jesus Christ is Lord then faith in him means faithfulness to him.

His life is the pattern to which we must conform our lives.

And “must conform” is the right wording, for if Jesus is Lord, then he’s owed not our belief but our obedience.

And obedience for Christians means imitation. Imitating Christ.

So, you see, Dr. Bader, Jesus expects a lot more from us than having the right positions on issues.

Finally, I just came from a conversation with parents of two teenage girls who just came out of the closet.

And during my conversation with them it occurred to me.

In all of your questions on your survey, you never asked if I believed that God loved me. Postulating a loving God in the abstract isn’t the same thing as believing that God loves me, ME, no matter what.

You never asked that question, and that’s the most important question. For those parents whose fear of God’s rejection I could see in their eyes and for their girls who’ve already been baptized into Jesus Christ- for those girls and for their parents, I thank God that in Jesus Christ the answer is yes.

No doubt the harsh tone of my email will lead you to conclude that I score in the ‘Authoritative God’ category.

Not so, even though my mother did spank me as a child. No, I rate solidly in the ‘Benevolent God’ category. So I hope you will believe it’s in a spirit of benevolence when I say, for lack of a better expression, I think your survey is crap.

Blessings…

Jason Micheli

The Church’s acrimonious impasse on the issue of sexuality is not without victims. The fight has alienated gay Christians from living out their baptisms by out and active participation in congregations, and it has mired the Church in expensive and time-consuming legalities that undermine the scope and effectiveness of its larger mission to make disciples.

Do I even need to f@#$%^& point out the kids I’ve baptized and confirmed over the years in this one congregation who now wonder if the church that baptized and confirmed them loves them enough to let them live out their baptism in this church?!

Another victim of the Church’s unreconciled and possibly unreconcilable domestic dispute is St. Paul. Specifically, Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

We’ve gotten so accustomed to going to Paul’s letter to answer or address individual questions, particularly about the issue of homosexuality, that we ignore the overall development of Paul’s logic in Romans, which, remember, was intended by Paul to be announced to the faithful in a single beginning-to-end reading. We turn to Romans for points of doctrine when, in fact, what Paul is up to in Romans is worship.

For example-

Opponents of the inclusion of gays in ministry frequently turn to Romans 1.18 as Exhibit A to evidence their argument. Romans, unlike Leviticus say, is not compromised by being a fulfilled Old Testament law. Yet, as my former teacher Beverly Gaventa notes:

“…just as shining a spotlight on a stage leaves the rest of the stage in near darkness, putting a huge spotlight on one verse has obscured the rest of the passage. Indeed, directing that spotlight toward this verse distorts even that verse since it tempts readers to think that Paul’s only real concern is with sexual conduct.”

Intense and solitary focus on Romans 1.18 obscures that Paul’s focus is not on sexual conduct but worship.

Not only is sexual conduct but one sin in a list so comprehensive not one of us is excluded- for no one is righteous, not one- it is referenced here by Paul as the product of a more fundamental sin: withholding right worship.

The practices in 1.18 then are not stumbling blocks frustrating us from right worship of God. They’re not stumbling blocks for which we must repent so that we can worship God rightly. Interestingly, Paul NEVER uses the word repentance. Rather, they are practices that result from refusing to worship God; that is, sexual misconduct, greed, gossip, etc. they are practices produced by idolatry.

Paul’s point, the point which our no holds barred arguments over homosexuality has veiled, is that worship is formative.

Right worship of God forms us in the virtues such that repentance of our vices is possible.

Wrong worship forms us in vices and makes repentance an impossibility.

Proper worship of God, therefore, is the only condition for right conduct. So then, following the logic of Paul’s larger argument, those who are concerned about homosexuality and see it as a sin should be the last people working to exclude homosexuals from the worship life of the Church. To alienate them from the Church and push them from it, to follow Paul’s logic, is only to push them into false worship, idolatry, for outside the Church there is no salvation just to the extent that outside the Church, without the Church, we are all every day preyed upon by idolatrous ideologies like nationalism, materialism, individualism.

The very text most often deployed by traditionalists to push gays out the Church is, in fact, the very text that should compel traditionalists to welcome them into the Church and worship with them.

If you think homosexuality is a vice, inherently sinful- and I do not, follow any of the tags on this blog- then worship is the only “cure.”

 

For this episode we deployed podcast regular Kenneth Tanner, along with Chris Green, to interview Robert Jenson.
A student of Karl Barth– there aren’t many more of those left- Jenson is a legend.
Count yourself lucky and color yourself grateful that C&GJ snagged this for your audiological pleasure.
Jenson was described as the greatest living theologian by Stanley Hauerwas, and as “one of the most original and knowledgeable theologians of our time” by Wolfhart Pannenberg.
Jenson’s two volume Systematic Theology is a classic. His latest book, a series of lectures delivered at Princeton University, is Can These Bones Live: A Theology in Outline. Jenson, who recently entered hospice, suffers from MS so you’ll have to exercise some patience and hospitality as he responds to our questions.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

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Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website. If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

“Christians don’t have an explanation for suffering. They have a community of care.”

The internet can be produce actual friends. Relationships online can be both virtual and authentic. I only Todd Littleton this winter but he’s been a friend and mentor over the web for several years now. I had the good fortune to preach at his church this past weekend and to do an event for my book that evening.

Todd’s podcast, Patheological, can be found here.

Here’s Todd’s interview of me:

 

It’s either true or false.

This week we look at the scripture readings for the fourth Sunday in Eastertide, inviting Brian Zahnd back with us for the conversation. Brian is the pastor at Word of Life Church in Missouri and the author of Water to Wine, Beauty Will Save the World, and the forthcoming Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

This week’s lections include: Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

The Risen Substitute

Jason Micheli —  May 1, 2017 — 1 Comment

Here’s my sermon on John 20.19-31 that I preached at my friend Todd Littleton‘s church in Oklahoma City. It was the first time I preached in a Baptist Church, somewhere an angel must’ve gotten his wings.

    “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” 

Uh………………………………………………………………………………….

What’s that about?

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book!?!?!?!?

     Did John’s first draft come back to him marked up with red ink?

Did John have a word limit?

Should our response to scripture reading be: “This is most of the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God”?

Think about it.

John believes he’s telling you the most important thing that’s ever been told- about the most important person who’s ever been and the most important cosmic event that’s ever happened.

Why would John leave anything out?

If the whole point of the Gospels is to convince beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ is Lord…

if the whole point of the Gospels is to prove to us that the world responded to God’s love made flesh by crucifying him but that God vindicated him by raising him from the dead…

if the whole point of the Gospels is to explain to us why he came and why he died and why God raised him from the dead and what that means for us today…Then why would John not include every detail?

Why would John not submit every possible piece of evidence?

If the whole point of the Gospel is to convince us, then shouldn’t John’s Gospel be Stephen King long not Ernest Hemingway brief?

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his discipleswhich are not written in this book.” 

     Of course, the operative phrase there is ‘…in the presence of his first disciples.’ 

Because we weren’t there.

We weren’t there like John was.

We weren’t there like Peter was.

We weren’t there like Matthew or Andrew or Mary Magdalene.

We didn’t get to see with our own eyes the things Jesus did.

We didn’t get to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him with our own ears.

Jesus didn’t wash our feet.

I realize that just because you come to church doesn’t mean you don’t harbor serious doubts about God to say nothing of God raising a crucified, Galilean Jew from from the dead.

I also realize that the Easter season is an occasion when the every-Sunday sort of Christians think they need to hide their doubts.

And usually we hide our doubts by acting as though others shouldn’t have any doubts of their own.

As my muse, Stanley Hauerwas puts it:

“We try to assure ourselves that we really believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained.”

Got that?

He means:

Easter is an occasion for doubt as much as it is an occasion for faith.

So why don’t we just admit it?

This whole believing business would be a lot easier if we weren’t 2,000 plus years removed from his resurrection.

This whole having faith thing would be a lot easier if we had just been there ourselves.

———————-

     But then again-

Thomas was there.

With Jesus.

Every step of the way.

With his own two eyes, Thomas saw Jesus feed 5,000 with just a few loaves and a couple of fish.

When Jesus raised Lazarus, called him out of his tomb, stinking and 3 days dead, Thomas was there.

And Thomas was there to hear for himself when Jesus told Martha, the grief-stricken sister of Lazarus:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live.”

But all the first-hand evidence, all the eyewitness proof, all the personal experience wasn’t enough to convince Thomas.

Because on Easter night, after the women have run from the tomb terrified to tell the disciples that he is risen, the disciples run, terrified, and hide.

They hide behind locked doors and the Risen Christ comes and stands among them- just as he’d predicted he would- and says “Peace be with you.”

But Thomas wasn’t there.

The Gospel doesn’t give even an inkling of where Thomas was.

     It just says “Thomas was not there with them when Jesus came.” 

‘Seeing is believing’ we say, but three years of seeing for himself, of hearing for himself, of being right there with him- it wasn’t enough to convince Thomas that Jesus really was who he claimed he was.

Afterwards when the disciples tell Thomas what had happened, Thomas doesn’t respond by saying: All ten of you saw him? Alright, that’s good enough for me. 

No.

Thomas insists.

The shame of the cross was to great for him to believe God would redeem it.

Resurrect it.

I will not believe unless, he says.

Unless I see his hands and his feet.

Unless I can grab hold of him and touch his wounds.

Unless I can see for myself what Rome did to him.

I need proof. I need facts. I need evidence before I will believe.

————————

     This past fallI I was at the gym exercising this remarkable specimen of a body.

My head was covered in a bandana. I was wearing running shorts and a ratty old t-shirt and sneakers and looked, I thought, unrecognizable from the robed reverend I play up here on Sundays.

I was grunting and sweating and half-watching/half-listening to Luke Cage when a man, not a lot older than me, came up, tapped me on the shoulder and asked: ‘Don’t I know you?’

I told him I didn’t think so.

Maybe it was my voice that placed me.

He told me he’d met me at a funeral service- the funeral my church did a boy named Joshua in October, a little immigrant boy with brain cancer from my boy’s elementary school.

I put the weight in my hand down on the floor, wiped the sweat off on my shirt, and shook his hand.

And I suppose it was the mention of the boy’s name, his memory sneaking up on me like that, but neither one of us spoke for a few moments. We just stood there in the middle of the gym looking past each other, and probably we looked strange to anyone else might be looking at us.

‘I couldn’t do what you do’ he said, shaking his head like an insurance adjustor.

I assumed he meant funerals, couldn’t do funerals, couldn’t do funerals like that boy’s funeral.

‘Couldn’t do what?’ I asked.

‘Believe’ he said, ‘as much as I’d like to have faith I just can’t. I have too many doubts and questions.’

Thinking especially of the boy, I replied: ‘What the hell makes you think I don’t have any doubts?’

‘I guess I’m just someone who needs proof’ he said.

———————-

     The first Easter wasn’t just a day.

The Risen Jesus hung around for 50 days, teaching and appearing to over 500 people.

7 days after the first Easter Day, Jesus appears again in that same locked room as before and Jesus says ‘Peace be with you.’

And this time, this time Thomas is there.

     Jesus offers Thomas his body: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 

     And Thomas reaches out to Jesus’ body.

And Thomas touches Jesus.

And Thomas grabs at the wounds of Jesus.

He grasps Jesus’ wounded feet.

He holds his hands against the holes.

Puts his hand on Jesus’ pierced side to see the proof for himself…

Actually…no.

He doesn’t.

     That’s the thing-

We assume that Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds. Artists have always depicted Thomas reaching out and touching the evidence with his own hands.

Duccio drew it that way.

Caravaggio illustrated it that way.

Peter Paul Rubens painted it that way.

Artists have always shown Thomas sticking his fingers in the proof he requires in order to believe.

And that’s how we paint it in our own imaginations.

Yet, read it again, it’s not there.

The Gospel gives us no indication that Thomas actually touches the wounds in Jesus’ hands.

John never says that Thomas peeked into Jesus’ side. The Bible never says Thomas actually touches him.

No.

That’s got to be important, right?

I mean, the one thing Thomas says he needs in order to believe is the one thing John doesn’t bother to mention. What Thomas insists he needs to see is the one thing John doesn’t give you the reader to see.

Instead John tells us that Jesus offers himself to Thomas and then the next thing we are told is that Thomas confesses: ‘My Lord and my God!” 

     Which- pay attention– is the first time in John’s Gospel that anyone finally and fully and CORRECTLY identifies Jesus as the same Lord who made Heaven and Earth.

“Doubting” Thomas manages to make the climatic confession of faith in the Gospel.

After so many stories about the blind receiving sight and those with sight stubbornly remaining blind to who Jesus is, “Doubting” Thomas is the first person to see that the Jesus before him is the God who made him.

And “Doubting” Thomas makes that confession of faith without the one thing he insists he needs before he can muster up faith.

———————-

     St. Athanasius says that Christ, as our Great High Priest, not only mediates the things of God to man but Christ also mediates the things of man to God.

Including- especially- faith.

We think of faith as something we have, something we do. We think of belief as something we will, mustering it up in us in spite of us, despite our doubts. Believing is our activity, we think. Our act.

But-

If we think of faith as something we do or possess, as an autonomous act within us, we’re not speaking of faith as scripture speaks of it.

In scripture, faith- our faith- is made possible only through the agency of God: “Lord, help my unbelief” the father in Mark’s Gospel must beg Jesus, as we all must beg.

Jesus doesn’t just put on our flesh and live the life we live. He puts on the belief, lives the faith and trust in God we owe God as creatures of God.

     Jesus doesn’t just stand in our place when it comes to our sin.

He stands in our place when it comes to faith too.

     What holds Good Friday and Easter together, what makes cross and resurrection inseparable, is that Jesus never stops being a substitute for us, in our place, on our behalf.

The Risen Christ remains, even here and now, every bit a substitute for us as the Crucified Christ.

Our faith, our belief, is made possible by him.

It’s his work not ours, and like a parent’s hand grasping a little child’s, our faith, such as it is, is enfolded within his perfect faith; so that, in him, enclosed within his faith, our faith is mediated to God the Father.

That’s what the New Testament means by calling Christ ‘the author and the finisher of our faith.” The faith we possess is the work of the Son within us not our own, but the faith by which the Father measures us is the Son’s not our own.

     ———————-

     So often preachers make the point of this passage a kind of permission for us to have our doubts, that its okay we’re all like Doubting Thomas, that “doubt is a part of faith” goes the cliche.

But John would not have you see here simply Gospel approval for your doubts. This is the freaking climax of the Jesus story where someone finally and fully and correctly calls upon Jesus as his Lord and his God.

     “…but its okay to have your doubts too.” 

What kind of crappy whimper of an ending is that?!  That’s not the takeaway John intends Thomas to leave with you. No. John wants you to see Jesus, the Risen Lord.

The same God who created from nothing.

The same God who called Israel- who had been no people- to be his People.

The same God who, Paul says, calls into existence the things that do not exist.

John wants you see the Risen Christ bringing into existence in Thomas, who had insisted unless I can touch his hands and feet for myself, a faith that can confess Christ as Lord and God.

Doubts are okay, sure.

I’ve got plenty of doubts and, I’ll bet, I’ve got more reasons to doubt than you do.

Sure, you’ve got doubts. Big deal. That’s not very interesting.

If faith is Christ’s work in us then doubt is just our natural human disposition, like Adam and Eve wondering in the Garden “Did God really say?”

Thomas’ doubt is not what John would have see.

     What John would have us see:

Is that Thomas’ faith-

It’s the work of the Risen Christ.

     ———————-

     The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith.

Think about it: that puts all the onus on you.

It makes faith just another work. Your work.

It empties the cross of its saving significance and it makes his substitution in your place partial. Imperfect because its incomplete with out your faith.

The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith.

The Good News is that you are saved by faith by grace.

By the gifting of God.

By the agency of God.

By the mediating activity of the Risen Christ.

Who is every bit as present to us now as those 10 disciples hiding behind locked doors.

You are saved by faith through the gracious work of the Risen Christ, who can compel you- against your natural disposition to doubt- to call upon him as your Lord and your God.

Such that whatever has brought you here

Whatever of the Gospel you are able to trust and believe

Whatever Word from the Lord you can hear in this sermon

Whether your faith is as meager as a mustard seed

Or as mighty as a mountainside

Your faith is NOT

YOUR doing.

It is a miracle. Grace. An act of the Risen Christ.

In you and upon you and through you.

And it makes you- even you!

It makes you exactly what Thomas insisted he required.

It makes you proof that he is risen. He is risen indeed.

You.

You’re why John ends his Gospel the way he does.

You’re the reason John doesn’t need to write down everything Jesus did among those disciples.

Because Jesus is neither dead nor disappeared from this world.

He’s alive and still doing work among his disciples.

And for proof you need look no further than your own faith, your own ability to call him your Lord and your God.

 


The Christian Century this week posted their review of my book, Cancer is Funny, and I’m so relieved it’s an enthusiastic one. I’ve read CC since I entered seminary and this review means a lot to me. Plus, I think the reviewer did a good job of reading me.

The reviewer is Deanna A. Thompson who teaches religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is the author of Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Graceand The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World.

This book arrived at my doorstep the day after a friend of mine died of pancreatic cancer—the third friend in six months to die of the disease. What a laugh, that cancer.

My husband winced involuntarily when he caught a glimpse of the title printed in multicolored letters just below a big smiley face emoji with its hair falling out. In our ninth year of communally living with my very own version of stage-serious, incurable cancer, it felt more than a little sacrilegious to have this emoji and thatsentiment adorning my bedside table.

This may help explain why, when I cracked open Cancer Is Funny, I wasn’t smiling.

Less than three pages in, I came to the heading “Cancer F@#$ing Sucks” and considered not hating the book. A few sentences later, the author, a thirtysomething pastor, husband, and father of two young sons, admits, “When I first found out I had stage-serious cancer, I thought my family and I had laughed for the last time.” With that, Jason Micheli starts to gain my trust.

I’m still in the introduction when I meet up with Micheli’s reflections on how in the hell cancer might be funny. Pitching his defense at skeptical readers like myself, he rehearses all the things he doesn’t mean. He’s not referring to the “ha-ha” register we use to avoid telling hard truths, nor to the humor that masks shame or insecurities. “No, when I say cancer is funny,” Micheli writes, “I mean that your pretense falls away, right away with your pubic hair.”

Something—surely not a laugh—catches in my throat.

Micheli then turns to the kind of funny he is talking about. He invokes ancient categories and sages who say that comedy is tragedy combined with the luxury of time. He is keenly aware that for all too many cancer patients, there’s no such thing as the luxury of time. Which means there’s little opportunity to laugh while in the throes of cancer.

Even so, Micheli invites us to consider that when you’re living with stage-serious cancer, time may also condense, and laughter may become possible in ways it wasn’t before: “Who you are and who you’ve been and who you might (not) be are always ever before you, and as crowded as that sounds, it creates room for laughter. For when you don’t know if tomorrow will come, there’s no need to save face for it.”

So laugh he does. And despite my personal vendetta against cancer—or perhaps because of it—I find myself laughing along with him. Out loud. Until tears stream down my smiling face.

The pastor with cancer talks about how his journey requires more of him than he could have expected, including trading in his collar for a pair of parishioner’s shoes. He’s forced into the role of patient, that very sick guy in the hospital in need of visiting, that young man in the prime of life asking existential questions about God’s relationship to a very lousy diagnosis.

Micheli has a remarkable ability to capture the everydayness of life in the “crucible of cancer.” His attention to the tastes (of chemically charged vomit) and the sounds (of the drill going in his backside for a bone marrow biopsy) alongside the emotional upheaval paints the most compelling portrait of life eviscerated by cancer I’ve ever read.

What’s more, Micheli’s is the most vivid accounting I’ve seen of how having cancer impacts a man’s—or, more accurately, this man’s—sense of himself as a man. We’ve gotten to the part of the review where I tell you that Micheli is very practiced at humor involving the male anatomy. He gives readers ample opportunity to appreciate his own estimate of his virility and his in-shape precancer body.

While there may have been more than enough male swagger in these pages for my taste, it sets readers up to feel as gut-punched as Micheli does when, with a knit cap covering his bald head, cheeks flushed with “chemo glow,” and muscles atrophying from four rounds of chemo, he is mistaken for a woman when ordering a pink sangria for his wife at a concert he’s psyched himself up to attend with his family. He’s embarrassed “not only to be mistaken for a woman, but to be taken, as I surely must’ve been, for a homely one. Was I, I wondered in those languid seconds, even masculine-looking enough to pass as a butch woman? And did reflecting on such questions, I pondered, make me vain?

He doesn’t leave it there. We’re right with him as his “anxiety turned to dread” and “dread to panic” as he’s called out for being “neutered” of his former self. Micheli’s wonderment at how none of the getting-through-cancer brochures prepared him for how cancer would “mess with my sense of myself as a man,” exposing a lacuna in resources aimed at helping those of us with cancer grapple with what we’ll lose. But without falling for the “cancer’s worth it because it’s made me a better person” trope, he knows these experiences have changed him; “without feeling embarrassed,” he writes, “I can now cry.”

That Micheli draws readers deeply and firmly into the “parishioner’s shoes” of life with cancer illustrates not just his pastoral heart but also his theology. The heart of the gospel message is not that God became human, he writes, but that God became Jesus. He’s not interested in theologies that counsel comfort because God shared in some generic thing called “human experience,” just as he’s not interested in a generic experience of having cancer. For all of us whose lives are shaped by the conviction that God became incarnate in a first-century Jew, it’s “the distinctive, particular ways we apply his unique story to our own” that link us.

The part of Jesus’ story that Micheli is drawn to amid life with cancer is Jesus’ death. Cancer handed him lots of opportunities to remember that in baptism we are ushered not just into the life of Christ but also into his death. The unique particularities of each of our sufferings with cancer “are ways we live out, live up to, our baptism.”

Life with cancer also heightens Micheli’s conviction that grace isn’t just an undeserved gift, but “a gift you didn’t know you needed until you received it.” Cancer is funny, Micheli insists, in the way it has helped him see what the church actually is: a group of people living into their baptisms, dispensing grace to real people facing their own non-generic crucibles, like their collarless pastor in a parishioner’s shoes.

I Yet Not I

Jason Micheli —  April 28, 2017 — Leave a comment

Peter, for whom words were always a stumbling block, preaches his first sermon in Acts 2 to a crowd of pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for Shavu’ot. Having remembered their deliverance fifty days prior at Passover, on Shavu’ot Jews like Peter gathered again in Jerusalem to remember their receiving of the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai.

That the lectionary assigns this text for the third Sunday of Eastertide and pairs it with the Emmaus road revelation is a telling reminder that more is to be seen here than, as is customarily preached, the arrival of the Holy Spirit (as though the Spirit previously has been a deadbeat member of the Godhead).

Don’t forget-

Luke has already told us the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, alighted upon Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Simeon, compelled Christ’s first sermon, and baptized Jesus in his vicarious repentance.

Never mind the activity of the Holy Spirit throughout the Old Testament.

What Luke would have us see in Acts 2 is not the arrival of a heretofore absent Holy Spirit. The Spirit was never absent neither from Israel nor the disciples. The Holy Spirit was as present and active among the People of Israel before this Shavu’ot as the Holy Spirit is present and active among the People called Church after it.

Too often by relegating Peter’s rookie sermon to Pentecost preachers make the point of this passage Peter’s ability to preach as a product of the Holy Spirit’s arrival and, in doing so, we ignore the actual content of Peter’s preaching: the Risen Christ who is always not only the content of our proclamation but the active agent of our proclamation.

Christians joke that the Holy Spirit is the forgotten member of the Trinity but I actually think it’s Jesus. We teach Jesus’ teachings and we pray to Jesus and we preach his cross and resurrection but we neglect the ongoing agency of the Risen Christ both in the post-Easter scriptures and in our own world.

The story Luke tells in Acts 2 is no different than the story Luke tells of the encounter on the Emmaus road.

They’re both narratives about the Risen Christ making himself known to his disciples.

In the latter, the Risen Christ makes himself known in the breaking of the bread. In the former, the Risen Christ makes himself known in the proclamation of Peter. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus do not perceive Jesus on their own nor do they deduce his presence among them; likewise, Peter does not persuade his listeners to repent and be baptized nor do his listeners draw on their own any conclusions from their hearing.

The Risen Christ makes himself known in Peter’s proclamation and calls them himself to repent and be baptized, adding 3,000 to their number.

Numbers, as Brian Zahnd told me, are always important in the Bible.

The number 3,000 here in Acts 2 is another reminder that not only are we to read this passage in light of the resurrection we’re also to read it in terms of Shavu’ot.

 

The first Shavu’ot, as told in Exodus 32, ended with Moses and the sons of Levi taking up the sword and killing- brother, friend, and neighbor- 3,000 of the Israelites.

Why?

Because while Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah from God- the Torah which begins “Thou shalt have no other gods before me- the Israelites were busy down below making God into, if not their own, a cow’s image. Seeing them worshipping the golden calf, Moses orders the Levites to kill the idolaters.

3,000 were substracted from God’s People that first Shavu’ot.

So when Luke reports that 3,000 were added to the disciples on Shavu’ot, as a result of the proclamation of the Gospel, we’re to see more than the Holy Spirit’s arrival, more even than a crowd compelled by Peter’s preaching to repent.

We’re to see the Risen Christ overcoming- for us, in our place- our natural proclivity to idolatry. 

We typically think of conversion as something we do. Hearing a sermon such as the one Peter delivers in Acts 2, we “make a decision” for Christ, we think.

It’s true the Gospel tells us to repent and believe, to take up our cross and follow, and it’s true that this ‘decision’ is something no one else can do for us. No one else, that is, except Jesus.

If we do not allow Jesus to be a substitute for us even in our repenting and believing then, as Thomas Torrance argues, we make his atoning substitution for us something that is partial and not total, which finally empties the cross of its saving significance.

“Jesus,” says Torrance, “constitutes in himself the very substance of our conversion, so that we must think of him as taking our place even in our acts of repentance and personal decision, for without him all so-called repentance and conversion are empty.”

What holds Good Friday and Easter together, what makes cross and resurrection inseparable, is that Jesus never stops being a substitute for us, in our place, on our behalf.

The Risen Christ remains, even here and now, every bit a substitute for us as the Crucified Christ.

Jesus acts in our place in the whole range of our life lived before God. Says Torrance:

“He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father.”

Those 3,000 added on Shavu’ot are no different than the 3,000 on the first Shavu’ot. By themselves and their own faithfulness, Peter’s audience is every bit as prone to fashion and worship a golden calf.

The only difference is that the 3,000 in Acts are now in Christ. The Risen Christ is their substitute, his repentance and believing and faithfulness standing in for and empowering their own.

In him and through him, they are able to repent and believe and be baptized.

“When we say ‘I believe’ or ‘I have faith’ or ‘I repent’ we must correct ourselves and add ‘not I but Christ in me.’ That is the message of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ on which the Gospel tells me I may rely: that Jesus Christ in me believes in my place and at the same time takes up my poor faltering and stumbling faith into his own invariant faithfulness.”

What see in the Shavu’ot in Acts 2 is God overcoming our idolatry in the first Shavu’ot through the ongoing substitution of the Risen Christ in our place.