A couple of years ago now, my wife, Ali, my mother, and I were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the mauve exam room where my oncologist had just handed me the results of my latest PET scan.
I’d finished my 8th round of chemo 7 weeks earlier, about a year after getting a call from a GI doctor who started by asking me if I was sitting down.
I’d been getting these double-over stomach pains for months.
The following day I was waking up from emergency abdominal surgery to my wife kissing my forehead and telling me they’d taken an 11×11 inch tumor from my intestine and that I had a rare, incurable cancer called Mantle Cell.
Just like Catniss Everdeen, the odds weren’t ever in my favor, and I thought I was going to die.
I’d staggered across chemo’s finish line like a runner who hadn’t practiced on enough hills.
“So…other than my… what am I looking at?” I asked with bated breath, holding my most recent PET scan in my hand.
“You’re as clear as a “bell”, my friend,” the doctor said, punctuating the news with a warm, knowing smile. “All the tumors you’d had all over you are completely gone.”
The chemo had killed off the cancer in my body, but we all knew I still had Mantle Cell percolating in my bone marrow, which, in the absence of the chemo treatment, would soon-to-eventually return lumps and masses throughout my lymph system.
“What the scan doesn’t show,” the doctor said, scooting the little round stool closer to us, “is the level of activity of Mantle Cell in your marrow. We’ll need to do a bone marrow biopsy for that.”
The reality that the cloud of cancer would never be completely removed from my body or our lives reasserted itself and hung over us. We nodded.
“Knowing the level of activity in your marrow will help us to gauge how we approach your maintenance chemo over the coming years.”
“We’ll do it here in the exam room. We’ll drill down into the center of your hip bone and extract a couple of vials of marrow.”
“Come again?” I asked.
“Did you say drill?!”
“Yes, drill” he said, oblivious.
“And am I, like, awake during this drilling?”
“Yes, but you needn’t worry. You’ll feel only a quick, momentary discomfort.”
I nodded, calming down.
“Well, I do plan on giving you a prescription for oxycontin to take before you come in that morning.”
“Oxycontin? I thought you said it would be only a momentary discomfort?”
He didn’t reply.
‘Can I just go back to dying?’
He slowly drew a smile across his face and then threw his head back in what seemed with hindsight, less hearty and more a diabolical laugh.
I returned a week later for the bone marrow biopsy.
I held out my arm for the lab nurse to draw my blood work. “I almost didn’t recognize you,” she said, sliding the needle into me seamlessly, “for most people, after chemo, their hair grows back thick…”
The nurse drew the needle out.
“It looks like I’ll be back with you for your biopsy today.”
“Awesome,” I said and then shared with her how the oncologist had described it as a momentary discomfort only then to prescribe a dangerous opiate normally associated with right wing radio hosts and gin-slinging country club wives.
She smiled like a preschool teacher.
“You took it though, right?” looking at me, suddenly sober.
“I didn’t even fill the prescription.” I said, “I forgot.”
“This should be…memorable,” she said, putting a cotton swab and tape over the puncture in my arm.
“For you or for me?” I asked.
“Both,” she was back to smiling.
“What’s it feel like?”
She was putting labels on my vials of blood. “Some people scream.”
“Some? What about the others?”
“They usually pass out.”
“But what does it feel like? There’s no nerves inside the bone there so it can’t hurt, right?”
She was, I could tell, thinking about something, remembering.
She chuckled to herself softly, glanced over into the lab to see if her supervisor was listening and then said: “This one guy- he said it felt like a Harry Potter Dementor sucking his soul out of his rear end.”
I’m not sure why but that struck me as probably the most terrifying thing she could’ve said.
Laying down on my stomach in my birthday suit, I squeezed the corners of the mattress. He pressed his large left hand on my back, in between my shoulder blades, pushing down on me, and grabbed a screw-shaped needle big enough to throw light off the corner of my eye.
“You’re going to feel a little bit of pressure,” he said euphemistically as he started to twist the needle down into my bone.
“You’ve got strong bones.” He grunted.
“That’s probably because I breast fed until I was 12.”
I heard the nurse giggle. He did too.
He wiped his forehead with his sleeve.
He was covered in sweat too.
The nurse squirted some water into his mouth like he was a boxer in the late rounds.
“Okay, are you ready?” he asked.
Just then it felt like a cord was being pulled deep inside me, from my heel all the way up my spine. My legs both kicked involuntarily, like I was a corpse with a last bit of life in me.
“Good,” he said, “now only 2 maybe 3 more times.”
When he finished, I stood up from the exam table, too tired even to pull my pants up. “You were right about that Harry Potter thing,” I said to the nurse breathlessly.
I was so sweaty that pieces of butcher paper were stuck all over my arms and face, like I’d just had the worst shaving accident in history.
The doctor patted me on the shoulder. “You’ve been through the fire, Jason. You’ve been through the fire.”
“Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” I joked.
“Well, let’s hope there’s no lion’s den in store for you,” he said, patting me on the back.
My oncologist— it’s not his fault.
He doesn’t know the Bible all that well. He grew up a Methodist.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego— they’re not thrown into a lion’s den.
They’re made to suffer an oven.
A fire from which we get the word, holocaust.
What made the Babylonians unique among ancient oppressors is that, upon invading and conquering neighbor nations, they did not simply kill the best and brightest of their neighbors.
They exiled their enemy’s best and brightest back to Babylon and forced them to become Babylonians.
They gave them new names and new gods.
They made them pagans.
And, so Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego— they’re Jewish exiles, conscripted into the civil service under Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan King of Babylon.
They’re Jews, but the names with which they’re named by Babylon pay homage to Babylon’s pagan gods.
Shadrach (his Hebrew name had been Hananiah) is named for the pagan god of the moon.
Meschach (his Hebrew name had been Mishael) is named for the pagan god, Aku.
And Abednego (his Hebrew name had been Azariah) is named for the pagan god of wisdom.
You see— for Jews, for whom the first and most urgent commandment is “You shall have no other gods but the one, true God,” to bear the name of a false god is a grave sin indeed.
To carry the name of a pagan god is to expect that the true God has forsaken you.
Or, worse, it’s to expect that whatever suffering comes to you has been sent by the God you forsook.
In the story, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are denounced for refusing to submit to the gods of Babylon and, by implication, for refusing to submit to the authority of Nebuchadnezzar.
So Nebuchadnezzar orders the three exiles gagged, bound, and cast into a fiery furnace but not before the king instructs his men to crank the oven up to seven times its normal heat, and seven— you should note the surprising clue— is the biblical number for perfection or completeness and, thus, it’s a number that foreshadows the presence of God.
The furnace gets so hot that the heat obliterates the guards who come close enough to the fire to toss the prisoners inside but not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
According to Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar and his courtiers can see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, walking around, unbound and unburned.
What’s more surprising, the bystanders report seeing a fourth person there in the fire.
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and who exactly?
“The fourth has the appearance of a son of God,” the counselor reports to Nebuchadnezzar.
The story in Daniel ends with a typical Old Testament flourish when King Nebuchadnezzar, having brought Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fire, unsinged, throws off his former affections and declares: “…there is no other god like this Son of God!”
In other words:
There is no other god who meets us in the fire.
There is no other god who meets us in the crucible of suffering.
Here’s the thing— pay attention now:
Despite what so much of our God-talk implies, God is not the passive, inactive, fixed-point center of the universe to whom it’s your job, through prayer and piety, to grow closer.
Jesus Christ is not just a God who suffers for us, for our sins.
Jesus Christ is a God who suffers with us, with sinners like us— that’s what it means, as the Gospel promises us, for Jesus to be a friend of sinners.
God doesn’t just take on our suffering in Jesus Christ.
God joins us in our suffering in the Holy Spirit.
It’s not on you to grow closer to God.
God is already closer to you than you are to yourself.
No matter what you’re going through in you life, God is completely active and present in it.
That we don’t always perceive God’s presence in our troubles and suffering has less to do with God— even less with the strength of our faith— and more to do with where we think God is allowed to act in our lives.
We lay down all these laws about where God’s allowed to act in our lives. God can be present in our worship, we think, or God can work through Bible study or prayer.
We can find God, we think, in spiritual disciplines or in acts of service.
But in our desperation? In our doubts? In our anxiety or addiction? In our suffering?
Surely God’s absent in our suffering, we assume.
That we think God can only work in our lives through proper, pious channels but shows how we persist in construing Christianity as a religion of Law.
But, it’s a religion of the opposite.
It’s a religion of grace.
It’s ironic how we don’t expect to discover God in our suffering anymore than Peter and the disciples expected to discover a suffering God.
While I’ve not been burned or singed by flames, I do have the belly scars and the needle marks and the monthly nausea and the weekly panic attacks and the medical bills to prove to you that I am in the fire.
Here’s what Jason the Patient learned about the fire that Jason the Pastor didn’t appreciate.
Just as learning I had Mantle Cell meant mourning the loss of the life I had and the loss of the future I’d envisioned, so too— paradoxically— finding out that I hadn’t died (just yet) meant mourning the loss of the life I’d found living with cancer.
This surprised me.
As much as I wanted the nightmare called cancer to be over, I found a part of me grieving the news that I would (sort of) get my old life back. I found myself grieving the life I’d learned to enjoy with cancer.
What I had happened upon, without knowing it, is what the Protestant Reformers, starting with Martin Luther, termed a theology of the cross.
Bear with me now.
A theology of the cross is not the same as a theology about the cross.
A theology about the cross says “While we were yet sinners, Christ on his cross died for us.”
A theology of the cross says “My life was in ruins of my own making.
My marriage was blown apart. My job was lost. My self-image was shattered by shame. My diagnosis trashed all my hopes and dreams. I thought God had forsaken me. I thought God must be punishing me.
But God met me there in the crucible of my pain. God met me there in the crucible of my shame. God met me there in the crucifixion that was my suffering.
A theology about the cross says “This is how God in Jesus Christ saves you from your sin.”
A theology of the cross says “This is where the God who has saved you in Jesus Christ meets you.”
This is where God meets you in your own life.
In your suffering.
In your sin!
In your shame and your pain.
A theology about the cross says “Christ and him crucified has taken away the handwriting that was against you.”
A theoloy of the cross says “Jesus Christ joined me in my darkest moment when all I could do was stare at the handwriting on the wall.”
The God who condescended to meet us in the crucified Jesus never chooses any other means to meet us than condescension into our suffering.
That’s how Paul today can declare to the Philippians “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Paul’s behind bars when he writes to the Philippians.
Paul thinks he’s about to be executed.
Paul can say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” because the Christ who strengthens him is with him there in the fiery furnace.
Christ has joined him in his suffering.
The cross is not what lies at the end of Jesus’ journey.
For every one of us, the way to Jesus Christ goes through a cross.
The cross is not simply the message we proclaim.
The cross is the means God uses to get to us.
As sure as I’m standing here today, I met Jesus Christ in the crucible of cancer.
Or rather, Jesus Christ met me there.
And I’m not special.
Neither are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
This is how the Living God works.
He meets us in the fire.
As my friend Chad Bird, writes: “The glory of God is camouflaged by humility and suffering, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite.”
Bird just puts more politely what Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation where Luther said that Jesus Christ meets us so far down in the muck and mire of our lives that his skin smokes hot; that is, God condescends to meet us not as a needless accessory in the pristine and happy parts of our lives but in the steaming piles of you-know-what in our lives.
Blank happens we say, but a theology of the cross says wherever it happens, God happens, too.
When I first got the diagnosis of something for which I’ll never be in remission, I reminded my parishioners over and over again that “God is not behind this. God is not behind my cancer.”
The paradox of the theology of the cross, however, is that though God is not behind my cancer, God is behind my cancer.
That is, God is not behind my cancer in terms of culpability, but God is behind my cancer in terms of condescension, wearing my suffering like a mask or a wedding veil, real enough to bring Nebuchenezzar to his knees and declare, “There is no other god like this!”
I’d never foist my diagnosis an another, yet, at the same time, I’ve found God hidden behind it, present in what others might perceive His absence.
You see, how preachers like me so often speak of the cross is insufficient.
In the suffering Christ, God does more than identify with those who suffer, the poor and the oppressed. By his suffering, God in Christ does more than give us an example in order to exhort us into rolling up our sleeves and serving those who suffer.
No, God is to be found in our suffering.
While we so often wonder where God is in our suffering, St. Paul indicts as “enemies of the cross” anyone who insist that God isn’t in suffering.
Where we assume God’s absence amidst suffering, Paul implies that not to know Christ is not to know that in your suffering, God is hidden, present, and there with us.
Suffering isn’t a sign that God’s asleep at the wheel.
Suffering is the vehicle in which God drives you to his grace.
“Where is God in my suffering?”
It can be the worst question to ask because it implies God’s not present in our suffering.
But then again, “Where is God in my suffering?” can also be the very best question if you’re looking for where God is in your suffering.
Because’s he’s there.
Because the Son of God who joins Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace is the same God who meets you in your own suffering.
In his memoir Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer tells of a young woman, a new wife, from whose face he removed a tumor, cutting a nerve in her cheek in the process and leaving her face smiling in a twisted palsy.
Her young husband stood by the bed as she awoke and appraised her new self, “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
The surgeon nods and her husband smiles, “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”
Selzer goes one to testify to the epiphany he witnesses:
“Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. And all at once, I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze and back away slowly. One is not bold in an encounter with God.”
The doctor and the husband— they’d become theologians of the cross.