Archives For Cancer is Awesome

MicheliCover_FINALHey Friends,

Yes, that’s right the blog is about to enter the shameless self-promotion stage my first real (not e-book) book Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo. It releases from Fortress Press just 24 days from today. To promote it I’ve got some speaking gigs, preaching spots, and print and podcast interviews lined up and hope to add more. I’ll put out more information about those later.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share the press release from my gracious and fantastic publicist, Kelly Hughes.

Yep, I’ve now got the same publicist as Pope Francis.

Weird, but it’s a sign the book doesn’t suck.

Shameless self-promotion aside, I am excited because I believe in the book which, really, means I believe cancer touches just about everyone, if tangentially, sooner or later and I believe just as strongly that everyone could benefit from some theology made to order for when shit gets real.

So, please, tell others about the book. Leave a review on Amazon when it comes out (the reviews help others find it in Google searches), and order some to give out to friends and family who might be helped by it.

But if they’re the tight-sphinctered churchy type, warn them first that it contains some naughty words.

Here’s the official Press Release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Public Relations DeChant-Hughes & Associates Inc.

Pastor Keeps the Faith, and Keeps It Funny, in Face of Stage-Serious Cancer

It’s universally acknowledged that cancer sucks. Mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive type, is especially sucky. It almost always affects only men in their old age—not 37 year olds like Jason Micheli, a pastor, husband, and father. “I like to think I’m unique in all things, and it turns out I am, in the case of diseases,” he says. But here’s what Micheli wants you to know if you or someone you love has cancer: “Cancer is funny, too. No, wait, it really is. Any ailment that results in pubic hair wigs being actual products in the marketplace simply is funny.”

This type of bone cancer is so deadly that his doctors didn’t classify it with the normal four stages, they call it “stage-serious.” As he struggled with despair and faced his mortality, he resolved that cancer would not kill his spirit, faith, or sense of humor. Bracing, irreverent humor animates his new book, Cancer Is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo (Fortress Press, $24.99 hardcover, December 1, 2016), “a no-bullshit take on what it’s like to journey through stage-serious cancer and struggle with the God who may or may not be doing this to you,” Micheli says. “I hope this book will help you or someone you love laugh through the crucible of cancer.”

“After eight cycles of nine chemo drugs, I believe laughter is still the best medicine,” he says. “Laughter is the surest sign you’re not alone, because joy is the most unmistakable indication of God’s presence.”

A sense of humor—Micheli’s is dark, ironic, and leavened with a charming silliness—is especially helpful during chemo treatments, he found: “Being deadly serious here of all places is the surest way to feel seriously dead already.”

The laughter that Micheli encourages is not to be confused with happiness. “I have stage serious cancer, I’d be crop circles crazy if I were happy about it. Instead it’s laughter that feels like joy, that traces the line between disaster and the farce that we call life, feeling free—genuinely free— to be myself with others and before God.”

Micheli is used to people assuming that clergy are “officious and tight-sphinctered”; he notes that “the populace considers Christians to be uniformly unfunny.” But then it’s not so difficult to make them laugh. Except, of course, for the people who give him blank looks, not sure if he’s joking.

A pastor and theologian, Micheli’s reflections are not trite. He writes about being stricken with lethal cancer in the midst of a promising career and raising two young children. He struggles with what he believes. Figuring this out for himself—not to mention explaining it to his congregation and his sons—makes theology now a matter of life and death.

By turns laugh-out-loud funny and heart-wrenching, Micheli’s story shows how to stay human in dehumanizing situations—how to keep living in the face of death. He reflects on:

  • The absurdity of chemo: “The only way for doctors to save your life, just as Jesus warned, is to bring you as close as possible to losing your life without actually killing you —though I doubt that poison derived from mustard gas was what he had in mind.” He notes the warning label on one chemo drug: “May Cause Leukemia.”
  • Questioning faith: “Do you believe any of this? That those who trust in Jesus even though they die yet shall they live? The question had never even occurred to me until my own death became something less than what my trade calls ‘speculative theology.’”
  • Indignities of cancer and chemo: From the “tumor baby” he carries, a 10 x10 inch tumor he dubs “Larry” that is “about the size of a Stephen King novel” to “needing help to pee into the plastic jug because you don’t have the ab muscles to do even that for yourself.”
  • God and “our” cancer: “I didn’t need a God who shared my pain, because it was our cancer—my wife Ali’s and mine. I desperately wanted a God whose own life can show me a way to live in and through it.”
  • The Christian fear of fear: “Other Christians treat fear like it’s more cancerous than cancer. I was afraid because I loved. I feared what cancer would do to my sons, to their happiness and joy and innocence and faith.”
  • Being a pastor with cancer: “I feared what cancer would do to my congregation’s faith when they saw one of their pastors handed a huge crap-flavored lollipop.”
  • When cancer comes in handy: “Cancer is not without its uses. It’s like having an ace in the hole you can play whenever it suits you without ever leaving the card on the table.”
  • Suffering: “Only now that I was suffering more than I ever had in my life did I learn how Christians do not have an answer for suffering or evil.”
  • Battle metaphors: “The language of fighting doesn’t really work for cancer. The ‘it’ in ‘Fight it, Jason’ was Jason. The ‘it’ was me —indelibly me. The cancerous cells were mine, only doing something differently and far more efficiently than my healthy ones.”“Cancer doesn’t make you wonder, ‘Why me, God?’ Only a dick would get caught up with that kind of question,” Micheli says. “No, cancer throws you in the scrum and makes you ask, ‘Why them, God? Why us, God? Why this world?’” Still, by the sixth round of chemo, he had to keep reminding himself that it was not God doing this to him.

    After eight excruciating rounds of chemo, Micheli’s tumors were gone. Doctors don’t talk about remission with mantel cell lymphoma—he could still have mantle cell percolating in his bone marrow—but it’s as good news as he could have hoped for. “I don’t know what the future will bring. I don’t know if this story is over,” he writes. “In whatever life my family and I have left are more marvels than we can count.”

     

 

 

Letter to Seminary Me

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2015 — 4 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgSeptember 10, 2015

Dear Jason,

The leaves are beginning to yellow and the morning air starting to cool, which means you still have years to go. You’re only a few weeks into your seminary experience and already- trust me, I know- you’re overwhelmed.

By feelings of inadequacy. Suspicions fed by the fact that all of your classmates appear to hail from either Texas or Wheaton (sometimes both, in succession) and, thus, were called by God to the ordained ministry when they were still carrying their Hardy Boys lunch boxes with them to the second grade.

And you- I won’t tell anyone- you’re still not sure if you’re called.

In fact, the word itself, ‘called,’ secretly embarrasses you, smacking as it does of certainty and solid conviction.

I won’t lie, Jason, and tell you you’re more than adequate for the ministry. You’re not, truth be told and the intervening years between you and me will only bear that out in sometimes painful ways. In the years to come that sense of inadequacy will revisit you every time you catch the congregation’s reflection in the rounded edge of the brass communion cup or whenever you realize how fleeting and short-lived are sermons. Ministry will strike you often as ill-fitting as your oatmeal colored robe which weekly will make you feel like an imposter, play-acting at someone with more faith and virtue than you.

The truth is, however, you’re more adequate for ministry than you are for Teach for America, law school, or working on a dude ranch out west- endeavors for which you’ll be submitting applications before your first semester of seminary comes to a close. No seriously you will, convinced as you are that ministry is a terrible mistake, either God’s or your’s.

I may not know you as well as I think I do (you’ll soon discover that’s painfully true of almost all clergy), but I do know you better than any other creature so I know you’re going to be less eager to hear this than I am to confess it: you’re not perfect. And here’s the deeper cut: you’re not nearly as smart as you think.

You’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them.

It’s the furthest thing from your radar now, given that in a few weeks you’ll be checking to see if your LSAT scores remain viable, but in a few months time the bishop, who will be up shit creek without any other options, will ask you to pastor a small but actual church.

Doubtless you’ve already heard the cliche about seminary, about how seminary doesn’t prepare you for ministry. It’s true in the spirit in which the critique is made. Seminary equips you to parse pistis Christou and to unpack bold-faced but dusty terms like perichoresis, yet seminary is surprisingly mum about the practical, nuts and bolts of herding a church and, more vexing, church people to the next step in their life.

Allow me.

Perhaps you can learn from and avoid the gaffes I’ve made. 

For example, if kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insist on filling those ridiculous little communion cups themselves, then suggest they need to do so at the altar instead of far away in the sacristy. Their shakey hands carrying stacks of tiny cups from such a distance all but guarantees that some of the wine- I mean, grape juice- will spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the trays containing the cups.

When you preside at the table the next morning and solemnly attempt to lift the lid from the blood or our savior you will, for a chilling second or four, lift high both the cross-topped lid and 5 brass trays of thimble sized chalices until the collective weight of the messiah’s blood breaks the sugary seal, spilling red off-brand Welch’s all over the embroidered white altar cloth and making it appear as though you’d just repeated a once-for-all sacrifice and desanguinated Christ on that very table.

Speaking of the sacrament-

When you allow your congregation to don bathrobes and perform a Holy Thursday drama ‘for the community’ (i.e., their wives and grandchildren) against your instincts (it is a bad idea) then at the very least insure that the bread if not unleavened is not from the crunchy, dreadlocked, organic bakery adjacent to your church. For when Jesus, the soon-to-be-fatally-betrayed Passover, takes that bread and delivers his lines and breaks the bread, the somber mood of self-sacrifice easily will be ruined by the ping, ping, ping BB sound of 15 varieties of seeds, nuts and flax falling from the honey lacquered crust onto the silver tray.

You’re going to make mistakes.

When you get to be my age, Jason, you’ll realize that some of your missteps aren’t so much mistakes as things just look different with a longer view of them.

Give it a dozen years and you’ll see how an even bigger cliche than the one about seminary not preparing students for ministry is the cliched anti-institutionalism that determines so much of your cynical posture towards the big-C Church.

By the time you’re my age the curtain will have been pulled back and you’ll be forced to admit that the big-C Church is led by people no different than you and who may be even more well-meaning than you. Of course, don’t tell anyone I told you. The last thing the big-C Church needs is more accommodating company men who mistake the organization for the mission.

Even some of what seminary does teach you, it does so only partially.

Seminary will prepare you to offer words other than ‘it’s going to okay’ the first time you encounter a sobbing mother holding her third grade boy in his hospital bed as the reassuring beeps on his monitors grow ever longer.

Seminary will teach you even how to reflect on why ‘it’s going to be okay’ is a profoundly unChristian lie to tell, but seminary won’t prepare you for how overpowering will be the temptation to offer some such lie that will at least comfort you.

If even this warning isn’t enough to avoid the lie when the moment comes to you, then brace yourself for the slap that mother rightly will deliver across your scared, shit-eating grin. Really, maybe its best if you don’t avoid what I could not, such humbling I suspect is necessary if you’re to depend upon what you insist your parishioners give in their own lives: grace, a mercy and kindness that’s in no way deserved.

Don’t worry. Not all your gaffes will be so heavy.

For instance, when the psych test required by the ordination process raises a so-called ‘red flag’ by implying that you ‘may have difficulty working with women’ its probably best if you not reply to the ordination committee that you ‘get along great with chicks and can work fine with the dames so long as you don’t have to beat them off with a stick.’ 

And when you see the equal parts horror and disgust register across their collective gasp, don’t try to make it better by opining that ‘a self-serious lack of sense of humor could also be a red flag…’

I’m giving you pearls here, Jason.

And when you’re inspired to write a blog post one day (you’ll learn what a blog is) about the audacity of the doctrine of the incarnation entitled ‘Jesus Farts,’ don’t.

Even if the offense taken and the pious outrage feigned registers all the way up to the bishop and only goes to prove your point that docetism is a heresy alive and well in American Christendom, the juice is not worth the squeeze.

And when an exiting worshipper smiles and, for the first time in your ministry, tells you ‘Your sermon was great…you remind me of Joel Osteen…I just love him’ I’d suggest you just smile and thank her.

Just like Joel O would do.

As ridiculous as the comparison is (I hope), it won’t be the only time you’ll receive such feedback and, take it from me, most people don’t know how to react when you respond with ‘Joel Osteen is a crypto-pagan, heretical snake oil salesman only the worship of America could produce.’ 

Live and learn, Jason, but don’t kid yourself about the big mistakes.

They’re not seminary’s fault.

The truth is you’ll become a pastor not long after you became a Christian. You’ll still be working out your faith even as people look to you for answers and, more ridiculously, pay you to sound like you know what the hell you’re saying.

As a result, in the beginning at least, you’ll put on the role of pastor like an ill-fitting costume and play at someone you think you’re expected to be rather than be yourself.

You’ll search for a pulpit voice to go with that robe and underneath both you’ll stash away your authenticity. You’ll avoid expressing your actual thoughts and opinions. You’ll bite your tongue on the words, four lettered and all, that come quickest to you. You’ll hide the scars that could be lessons to teach others. Because, you’ll presume, that’s what pastors do.

Pastors put on Christ and, in putting him on, they cover up their true selves.

Only after you’ve spent enough time in one place, where of course the real you eventually will seep out, will you realize how people (even- especially- church people) seem to prefer the real you. Prefer pastors being real.

I’m not sure the world needs more pastors, no matter what the demographics say, but I am convinced the world does not need more inauthentic ones. I’ve learned that the hard way. Perhaps you won’t need to now.

Another result of your ordination following so soon after your confirmation is that it’s only after you’ve lived for a dozen years or so as a Christian that you’ll begin to have the appropriate patience for others who’ve done the same or longer. Only then will you cease being so judgmental and uncompromising about the faith (you are), for you will have learned that if Christianity could be lived in this world fully and without compromise or corner-cutting then we wouldn’t need Christ.

In that due time you’ll realize that when Christ commands you to love your enemies he’s not primarily speaking of those abstract enemies on the far side of the world whom you’ll only ever encounter on the pages of the Washington Post.

I think he’s meaning someone like the parishioner who will write complaints about you to the bishop and pass around petitions against for the bishop but who nevertheless will put one hand in the other and reach out to receive the host from your hand. The former form of enemy love requires only finger-wagging moralism and maybe a political ideology that’s already comfortable for you. The latter, to your chagrin,  requires discipleship.

Cross-bearing.

But in time you’ll discover a willingness to carry it because you’ll accept that, as Stanley Hauerwas says:

‘…the church is constituted by ordinary people. By ordinary I simply mean people who [attempt to] keep their promises. They are ordinary people keeping ordinary promises, and it is just such people who make the church the church.’

It wouldn’t be my plan for the salvation of the world, but it’s apparently God’s plan and it requires patience, on his end and ours.

Knowing you as well as I do, Jason, I’d say patience isn’t a bad catch all bit of advice for you as I have it on good authority (your future wife) that you can be a know-it-all jackass.

One of the effects of your smarty pants bearing, of believing you always have the right answer and thinking you know how best to express it, is that in the years to come you’ll be impatient with those unlike you. And in ministry you’ll often grouse about how so few church people can articulate what they believe about God and where God’s work (aka: the Holy Spirit) intersects with their own lives.

Let’s be honest, Jason, the last place you’d ever want to work is a church where people are aggressively articulate about their faith, where they hyperventilate ‘Fatherweejus’ prayers and volunteer how ‘the Lord laid it on my heart…’

And, regardless, eventually you’ll wonder if maybe all this time you’ve mistaken people’s reticence about their faith for a lack of thoughtfulness or conviction. Maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe all those people you judged to be inarticulate already knew something you will only learn once you learn you have cancer. Maybe, as Peter DeVries writes:

‘…only the superficial and the slipshod have ready answers’ when it comes to suffering and God and his evidently incomplete work in the world.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘WTF? Did he just drop the C-word on me and then move on, without comment, to a cryptic quote from an obscure book I’ve never read?!’ 

I did, sorry.

But you will. Read it. After you learn you have it.

You’ll read just about every cancer book you can find. You’ll pore over them like you’ve just made an unexpected career change from ministry to cancer because as soon as you hear you’re stage serious sick and just after your oncologist tells you for the first time ‘There’s no cure…the best we can hope for is a long remission’ it will seem as though you’ve been given a job you’re completely unqualified and unprepared to perform.

Actually, there’s no ‘as thoughs.’ That’s exactly how it feels.

I know. As Rob complains to his Mom in High Fidelity: ‘That’s some cold shit.’ Sorry to bear bad news to you, but I think it’s better if you hear it from me first than from the kindly, clumsy doctor who first broke the news to me in stuttering, half-step sentences that set off weeks of panic attacks in me.

Breathe.

And then try not to worry too much about it. You’ve got plenty of time before then. Besides the doctors all tell me there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent your particular brand of cancer; trust me, I must’ve asked them a hundred times by now. So don’t go raiding the vitamin aisle or eating organic.

It’s just one of those things. Explain it how you will: a defect ground down deep in the DNA, the will of God, bad luck or bad karma, shit happens. Either way, the game of life has dealt you a piss poor card, but yours can still be a winning hand.

Silver lining-

When the sword does fall and the C-word jumbles all the puzzle pieces that comprise life as you will know it, you will meet that day with few meaningful regrets. If not now then later that will strike you as gravy.

More so than the stab of regret, what cancer will inject into your life is perspective, as fresh as it is swift.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the ablest critic of Christianity, charged that we view God through the eyes of our tribe, our culture and tradition, and our personal wants and needs; so that, God becomes the personal projection of our id in the sky, believing what we believe, blessing those causes we support, cursing those we curse, abiding the contours of our independently achieved ideology.

Karl Barth, who by next semester will become one of your Mt Rushmore theologians, found Feuerbach’s critique sound. Sinful as we are, when Christians speak of God, Barth concurred, we’re most often speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.

Like Barth, Feuerbach’s criticism will strike you immediately as revealing more truth about Christianity than Christians would like to confess.

There is much self-love (to say nothing of self-justification) disguised beneath much of our love of God talk.

Feuerbach is right to charge that much of our theology is actually anthropology, and Barth is right to thunder that in remaking God according to our image we forsake the true God who loves in freedom, whose power is weakness, and who cannot be found but must find us.

They’re both right so far as it goes, yet lately I wonder if there’s weakness latent in both their indictments.

I wonder if a more positive construal of Feuerbach’s critique could be to say that our personal experience gives us a vantage onto God to which we wouldn’t be privy otherwise. A view that others from their perch maybe cannot see.

Rather than fashioning God in our image, I wonder if you could argue instead that each of us sees a piece of God from our patch of the world he’s created and from the front seat of the life he’s unfolding for us.

Cancer, in other words, gives me a perspective on my faith I didn’t have prior to it.

Rather than remaking God in my likeness (though I’m with Barth- I do that plenty), I think my experience these past 8 months, 7 nadirs and 40 odd days of chemo-poison allow me to see something of God I could not have seen before.

Something you cannot see yet, Jason.

Without intending it, in the years to come, you will shortchange the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, emphasizing in its place the prophetic, social justice work that landed Jesus there.

If you’re honest (you won’t be) your selective focus will owe in part to the fact that you don’t think the world or the Church needs another preacher preaching ad tedium on the blood of the cross, and, less defensible, your emphasis will owe to the most loathsome sort of tribalism. You won’t want to be counted among those kinds of preachers. Those kinds of Christians.

The be-all of discipleship isn’t inviting Christ in to your heart. Its end-all isn’t your personal salvation. The means to get there, discipleship or heaven, isn’t by contemplating the suffering of Christ…you will preach in some form nearly every Sunday.

Discipleship, you will press and not let up, is about doing the things that Jesus did in the way that Jesus did them: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, lifting up the lowly and forgiving the enemy, dispensing grace and speaking the truth to power and using words (only) when necessary.

Discipleship, you will preach and teach, requires rolled-up sleeves and dirty hands, for following Jesus is all about stooped-over foot washing. And you’ll emphasize this definition of discipleship not just in your preaching but in how you allot your time, how you design programs for the church and how you conceive of its mission.

Now that I feel a shell of myself, with thinned out blood and an off balance brain and verities I once took for granted gone, I can see how incomplete and partial has been my take on the faith.

In admitting I’ve shortchanged the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I’m not suggesting that Christ’s cross is a symbol for the ineffable mystery of suffering. I don’t believe there’s anything inexplicable at all about the cross.

It is simple. He lived a fully human life, the life God desires of each of us, and we- the world, the Principalities and Powers, humanity, you and me- killed him for it. There’s no mystery there, or, at least, not the mystery we like to ponder before the cross while quieting exonerating ourselves from it.

Here’s what I mean when I say that I’ve shortchanged Christ’s suffering and here’s what I can see from the chemo chair:

How do the ill participate in the ministry of Christ?

Or the dying?

Because if we take seriously the fact that we’re baptized into Christ’s suffering and death- not just deputized to continue his earthly (healthy) ministry- then those 3 hours on the cross are every bit as integral to discipleship as the compassionate, prophetic ministry that landed him there.

Only now, with stage-serious cancer, do I recognize how for over a dozen years I’ve circumscribed discipleship in such a way that excludes people like the person I presently am.

When it comes to you, Jason, this question will hit with the equal and opposite force of that aforementioned mother’s slap:

How do the sick participate in Christ’s ministry?

Never say Jesus lacks a sense of humor- even if his followers frequently do- because I think the answer for how we think of discipleship lies in your least favorite chunk of scripture: 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”

In the years to come, you will spend considerable time attempting to dissuade brides and grooms from using this passage in their wedding ceremonies, especially the ‘love is patient…’ pericope which concludes it. You’ll point out how Paul’s not speaking to individuals in 1 Corinthinans and especially not to love stuck couples about to be married. Paul’s addressing the gathered community, the church, the Body of Christ.

When it comes headstrong brides and indifferent grooms, 9 times out of 10 your persuasive efforts will prove futile.

But as much time as you will expend steering people away from this passage, you will spend surprisingly little time reflecting on it, which I can now see is a shame. Because if each of us are parts of Christ’s Body only, individual, discrete parts- a hand here, an ear there, an eye- then it stands to reason that we’re called to, responsible for, just a part of Christ’s ministry, imitating that part of Jesus’ life our situation in life allows.

Let someone else speak Truth to Power.

Someone else can roll up their sleeves and clothe the naked.

I’ve freaking got cancer.

I don’t have the energy to feed the hungry.

And, frankly, I don’t have the peace of mind right now to be a peacemaker.

But if Paul’s right, then me facing my illness and suffering with my imperfect approximation of Jesus’ ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit’ is every bit an authentic expression of discipleship as serving at a homeless shelter or extending grace to a prodigal.

Instead of saying we’re only responsible for a part of Christ’s ministry, perhaps its better to put it this way: God doesn’t need us to live Jesus’ life; Jesus already lived the life God gave him. We’re called to live this life, our particular life, the life God’s given us, as Jesus might live it if he were us.

The question is not: how can I be just like Jesus given the particularities and pressures of my life?

The question is: who would you be if Jesus were you, with all the particularities and pressures of your life?

Who would you be if your life (with cancer and fear, pain and panic attacks) was the life God gave Jesus to live?

In time, Jason, you’ll discover how that’s as relevant a question for pastors as it is for every one else.

Blessings,

Jason

   rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x68311111.jpg13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

People speak of the dying experiencing their lives flashing before them. I suppose that’s something, albeit slower, of what it’s like with cancer- the ‘hell of prolonged farewell‘ that it can be.

And it’s funny the memories that cancer calls to mind, such as the ones I have of a man named Wayne.

One summer Sunday morning, about 6 1/2 years ago, I sat down in a plastic lawn chair in the courtyard of the bungalows where a service team from my church were staying in Guatemala. I had a bowl of cereal in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

It was just the beginning of our week. Most of the service team had already eaten and had left to explore the lake at the edge of town and to snap pictures of the volcanoes that surrounded it.

For a moment or two, I ate alone.

Until another plastic lawn chair scraped across the concrete and a tall, lanky, balding man sat down next to me. He was wearing navy cargo pants and a bright yellow t-shirt that said ‘Fredricksburg UMC’ on the chest.

I recognized him immediately, but I could tell by the look on his face that the recognition wasn’t mutual.

He held his hand out and said matter-of-factly: ‘Wayne.’

‘Jason,’ I replied and shook his hand.

There were several other mission teams there that week and Wayne asked me which church I was a part of.

‘Is your pastor here with you this week?’ he asked.

‘Yep,’ I said nonchalantly and crunched some cereal.

After a pregnant pause or three, I said ‘Actually, I’m the pastor.’

He looked up from his cereal bowl and paused for a moment to see if I was being serious.

‘I wouldn’t think a pastor could get away with a shirt like that,’ Wayne observed.

He was referring to the black, triathalon t-shirt my wife gave me. It has pictures of a runner, a swimmer and a biker on it and below the images is the caption: ‘Threesome anyone?’

‘Shit, they’d be surprised if I didn’t wear shirts like this.’

‘So I guess they wouldn’t be shocked by your language then either?’

‘Not for a while now,’ I said, ‘though my bishop’s a different story.’

‘And does your congregation know you wear an earring when you go on mission trips?’ he asked me.

‘I wear it all the time,’ I said.

‘Really?’ he replied and again looked up from his cereal bowl to see if I was being serious.

‘You’d be surprised. It’s my sandals that irritate my congregation the most. I wear them all the time.’

He smiled and, with a napkin, dabbed at the milk in the corners of his mouth.

‘Are you really a pastor?’ he asked one last time.

I could tell he still didn’t recognize me so I said: ‘I was here last summer when you were here.’

He pointed a long, thin finger at me and snapped- like he’d just experienced an ‘Aha’ moment. And then he rubbed his chin as though he were trying to place me. But really I think he was just remembering the previous summer.

That past July

Wayne’s church and the service team from mine- we’d met in a tiny Guatemalan village called Alaska, so-called because the mountain altitude makes the community cloudy and cold. Both of our churches had gone there that day to participate in a reforestation project and to celebrate the construction of a new school.

Wayne had cancer that summer.

I remember hearing how he’d collapsed and spit up blood during the week while building a wood stove for a Mayan family. I remember overhearing him say in a defeated voice that he’d been coming to Guatemala for fifteen years to build stoves and how he expected that summer to be his last.

A Mayan priest had been invited to the village that day to perform a ritual blessing for the new school, but because of Wayne the priest instead performed an indigenous healing ceremony.

Wayne’s church and ours sat in a circle with a fire in the middle. Wayne sat with his shoulders slumped over. Wayne’s wife sat next to him and with a blue bandana, stoically wiped the tears from behind her sunglasses. The priest prayed a long, elaborate prayer with ‘Wayne’ being the only word distinguishable beneath the hard-sounding, Klingon-like Mayan dialect.

After the prayer, the priest dipped a bouquet of flowers in to the smoke and brushed Wayne’s body with it, up and down, front and back. He anointed Wayne’s neck and temples with oil. And then the priest placed his hands on Wayne’s chest and back and whispered another long prayer into his ear.

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When the priest finished, the emotion swelling in the group was such the entire circle sang the doxology to Wayne. Sang it as a blessing. And, one-by-one, we hugged and promised to pray for him.

     ‘Have faith,’ I remember telling him, approximately 7 1/2 years before I was diagnosed with cancer myself.

A year later, that summer Sunday morning, sitting there at breakfast, Wayne was about the last person I expected to see.

‘How are you?’ I asked him.

No matter what I’d told him before no part of me expected him to live. So I was surprised when he said: ‘I’m fine. The cancer’s gone. I’m cured.’

It’s hard to say anything to that without it sounding cliche or contrived so for a while I just smiled awkwardly at him, the same way I do when the salesgirl at Victoria’s Secret catches my eyes lingering over the posters on the wall a bit too long.

But then I asked him: ‘Has it strengthened your faith?’ A pastorly type question I wagered.

Wayne put his elbows on the table and he looked at me like he had a secret and he said:

‘Well, that all depends on how you define faith.’

I pushed my cereal bowl to the center of the table, and I gestured to Wayne in a tell me more sort of way. He rested his chin on his hand and he said, confidingly:

‘I used to think faith was just a personal thing. You know- just between me and my God.’

Then he smiled as though he were embarrassed by what he’d said.

‘When you think your life’s just about over,’ Wayne whispered, ‘you realize: faith is about more than just you and God. Its bigger than you. It’s not just in here or in here.’

And he pointed to his head and his heart.

‘It’s here,’ he said and he circled his fingers all around.

‘It’s about changing the world,’ he said in a case-closed tone of voice.

‘I guess I never thought about it like that before,’ I said.

And he squinted his eyes at me and asked: ‘You’re not just yanking my chain? You’re really a pastor?’

Wayne came to mind a few months after that morning while I was writing a sermon on Hebrews 11.1-16, a passage in which the author, whom scholars refer to as ‘the Preacher,’ preaches:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for.’ 

     As with any sermon, if you read between the lines you can learn what’s going on in the preacher’s congregation. And when it comes to this preacher’s congregation, it’s obvious. They’re tired.

They’re tired of the endless challenges of serving their neighbor. They’re tired of the monotony of worship. They’re tired of the routine of church life.

They’ve heard every bible story and learned every prayer and the Good News- it’s not so new anymore.

This preacher’s congregation-

they’ve had faith for so long they’ve forgotten what faith is.

So the preacher of Hebrews attempts to reignite them, to call them back. And the preacher pulls out all the stops to do so.

The preacher preaches about how Jesus is superior to every angel in heaven. The preacher preaches about how Jesus is the only one who is blameless when it comes to sin, the only one who can approach God Almighty and plead our case.

The preacher preaches about how Christ is our great high priest, the One who mediates a covenant of forgiveness, a covenant that is new and perfect and forever, a covenant sealed with the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice that is final and once-for-all because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

It’s a kitchen sink, swing for the fences, altar call kind of sermon.

But then-

Just when the congregation starts to nod their heads and murmur ‘Amen,’ just before the preacher works his way to the crescendo- he stops. And he lets all the momentum leak out of his sermon.

The preacher stops. He looks out at his congregation. And with all deliberate plainness he says:

‘Before I preach another word, I want to make sure we all know what faith is.’ 

     And probably some there in the congregation yawned, thinking they don’t need to be reminded of what faith is. And I bet there were others there in the pews that morning who looked at their watches and wondered why the preacher was wasting time on this.

After all, it’s obvious what faith is. Right?

Faith is believing in what you can’t see. It’s being confident of what you can’t prove. It’s like trust. It’s like obedience. It’s personal. It’s a relationship. It’s in here, as Wayne told me he’d once thought.

Before cancer.

But for this preacher, those usual definitions they don’t quite measure up:

‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for…’

     The preacher preaches.

Except- that’s not quite it, I made a point to point out in my own preaching that day. What we hear in the passage and what the preacher’s congregation first heard aren’t the same thing. Something’s lost in the translation from Greek to English:

     ‘Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for…’ 

     That’s what the preacher preaches. The trouble is biblical translators think that word carries too much philosophical baggage to give it to you straight up. So they translate it as ‘assurance.’

Hypostasis.

It’s the same word we recite in the creeds when we affirm how Jesus the Son and God the Father- even though they’re different and distinct- somehow, mysteriously, share in the very same life, the very same work, the very same mission. Faith is like that- that’s what the preacher’s getting at.

Hypostasis. It means literally ‘very being.’

     In other words, ‘faith is the very being- one and the same- of what we hope for.’

Or a better way of putting it- ‘faith is the reality of what we hope for.’  An even clearer way of putting it would be- Faith brings into the here and now what God has promised for tomorrow.

To make the preacher’s point really plain- Faith makes our future hope real in the now.

Our hope for things on earth to be as they are in heaven, our hope for the empty to be filled and the lowly lifted up, our hope for mourning and crying and pain to be no more.

     Faith makes our hope real.

So of course it’s can’t just be in here or in here. It’s about changing the world, as Wayne told me. And I’ve been preaching that kind of faith 52 Sundays a year ever since.

     Except, I wonder now if maybe that’s not quite it either. 

The poet Kazim Ali advises that when you write or speak about something for a living you need to walk away from it for a time or you cease to know anything about it.

I think there’s wisdom in that advice. It’s been nearly 6 months since I ‘walked away’ from preaching and now I find myself recalling Wayne, whose point I once reiterated in sermon after sermon, and wanting to push back a bit.

Maybe it’s because Wayne was ‘cured’ when I spoke with him that morning over breakfast and, even if the months of treatment in front of me still go well, I never will be.

Maybe it’s because the teenage boy in the room next to me today, who has leukemia and the alienesque translucent skin to prove it, spit up blood all over the bathroom.

Which made me think of Wayne spitting up blood.

Which made me think of that boy in the room next to me.

Or maybe it’s that I have cancer now and, dammit, I’m entitled to my own take on things.

It’s probably all three, why I want to resist Wayne’s now, push back on his insistence that faith is about changing the world.

Frankly, there’s just too much changing that needs to be done.

While she flushed the lines of chest catheter today, I asked my nurse if she enjoyed her job. I was just making chit-chat, but I’m sure on some level we were both thinking of the boy in the next room.

‘I went into nursing to help people,’ she said, ‘You know, to make a difference, change the world.’ And she raised her eyebrows like you do at an old high school photo of yourself you barely rescue (or want to).

‘I enjoy it, yeah, but after so many patients, especially ones with what turns out to be a terminal illness (and she glanced at me and blushed), it’s easy to think you’re not really changing anything. There’s always the next one, so much need.’

‘Compassion fatigue, I guess’ she said and smiled.

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Strangely, her words reminded me not of Wayne, not at first. but of the ending to a book we’ve all read, Charlotte’s Web. Like I said, cancer conjures curious memories. We’ve all read the book but, I think, forgotten the melancholy ending:

“Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash.

Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all.”

Anyone in the often grim trade of ministry or anyone in oncology can tell you: deaths like Charlotte’s, lonely deaths where the world goes on at best oblivious and at worst indifferent, they happen all the time.

And that’s just 1 statistic with which you can scratch the surface. You can throw in war, poverty, sex-trafficing- what Paul calls the ‘Principalities and Powers’ against which we must contend.

Of course, that’s the rub. Elsewhere Paul also claims those selfsame Principalities and Powers have been defeated. On the cross.

     What my nurse hit upon by expressing her feelings of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s suffering and need is what theologians mean by describing the ‘already/not yet’ character of Christ’s saving work.

That is-

Christ’s victory over the powers of this dark world has been achieved already; his work upon the cross is perfect, complete and once-for-all.

But the effects of his victory, Christ’s reign and his Kingdom, the evacuation of suffering and alienation, the elimination of Sin and Death, still are not yet realized upon the world. Innocents die of collateral damage. Kids die of cancer. The poor suffer our affluence. Prisoners suffer our indifference. Minorities suffer our blind and casual callousness.

In a nutshell, already/not yet translates to:

The world is not the way it’s supposed to be if- especially freaking if- A) God exists and B) God is sovereign and C) God as the Incarnate Christ already defeated the Principalities and Powers.

Believe me, take the cancer ward as just one possible exhibit A. It can get hard to believe in the already when you’re surrounded by, thrust into, so much of the not yet. So much so you start to worry- any sane or moral person would, I think- that your faith in the ‘already’ isn’t really a form of cognitive dissonance. Not pie in the sky as much as willful shutting of the eyes to all the shit below the skies.

 Now, with cancer myself, I find myself begging to differ with Wayne:

Christian faith is not about rolling up our sleeves and changing the world, chipping away at the ‘not yet’ one compassionate act at a time.

It can’t be because ever since the alleged ‘already’ at the first Easter about 2 thousand years of ‘not yet’ have accrued and, much like the sin that begat the cross in the first place, that’s a debt we cannot possibly pay.

To insist that faith in the Risen Jesus is about changing the world not only suggests that we can ourselves what Jesus still has not done himself (for whatever reasons), it surely also inflicts the kind of fatigued sense of futility my nurse expressed to me, as though Christians are called not to baptize but to burnout.

So if Christian faith isn’t about changing the world, then what’s the why behind our compassionate actions?

What’s the why behind bothering to build wood-stoves in Guatemala? Behind serving the poor? Behind caring for the sick and the suffering?

People often ask me these days if cancer has gotten me to rethink any of my theology.

Here it is:

Christian faith- our compassionate acts of faithful service- are not about changing the world.

They’re about protesting it.

Protesting the ‘not yet’ way of the God’s world.

Portrait Karl Barth

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I first cut my teeth, writes that whenever we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘for God’s name to be hallowed and God’s Kingdom to come we cannot come to terms and be satisfied with the status quo.’ 

We are, Barth says, by our prayerful action to ‘revolt and fight against the disorder which inwardly and outwardly controls and penetrates and disrupts all human relations and interconnections.’ 

Or, as it’s put more concisely in a quote attributed to Barth: ‘To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising agains the disorder of the world.’ 

 So we pray, we serve, we roll up our sleeves and care in order to protest- to point out- that the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, far far from it (screams the boy’s blood in the bathroom next to me), and although we cannot change the world ourselves we pursue these modest acts of faith as a witness, a summons, to the only One who can.

Of course, if Christian faith is more about protesting the world than changing it, then it should become obvious that our biggest protest is to against God, who still has not yet made good on the already of his Easter promise.

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

Elijah’s Sons

Jason Micheli —  June 17, 2015 — 1 Comment

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x6831111.jpgFather’s Day

Gabriel

I discovered this photo the other night, scrolling through the computer and finding others like it that, having been snapped, disappeared into the cloud. Unseen by me. Or, the scab always tells the truth: I was too busy to notice.

I cried big, eyelash-less tears when I double-clicked on it and watched us maximize the screen together. I didn’t realize Mommy had taken the picture, or possibly it was X who stole into the bedroom and snuck it, hoping to catch one or both of us drooling in our sleep.

According to the date on the computer, one of them snapped it on a Sunday this winter, but there’s no time stamped with the date. I don’t know if this image captures an early AM after you crawled into bed with us on late Saturday night or if this is you having joined me for a post-worship afternoon nap. So it’s a mystery. The winter light through the shades, the ratty undershirt, our exhausted faces. You could bet either way.

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This picture, Gabriel, was taken a couple of weeks before that night the doctor called me when you, X and I were in the car, pulling into the driveway from swim practice. He asked- you overheard- if I was driving. ‘No,’ I lied. Then he asked if I was sitting down. ‘Yes,’ I said. Then I told you two to run along inside, and then I came in maybe 30-40 minutes later, having called your Mom and your Grandma and your Godfather, Dennis. And then you asked why I’d been crying and, afraid of not getting the words out or what they’d even sound like if I did, I then just rubbed your hair and hugged you.

Then I told you I loved you.

‘I love you more- too bad, so sad, you lose’ you said, scampering, innocent and unblemished to the shower.

The harder work of explaining cancer to you fell to your Mom. It always does.

Looking at this picture now, and not knowing the time of the day, I can’t help but wonder about it. Are we both really asleep with you on top of me? Or, is one of us (or both of us) just pretending? My guess is we’re both faking it and both know it, neither of us giving in, which is another way of saying we’re savoring the moment, stretching it out until it twists into a smile. My guess, that a picture can’t capture, is that you’re bearing down on my belly with your full dead body weight, waiting for me to gasp like the old man you accuse me of being. Maybe you went a sneaker route and are now, poker-faced with ostensible sleep- squeaking little farts onto me. That would, after all, explain the slight smile pursed at the corner of your supposedly snoring mouth.

I’m just now seeing this picture; I don’t recall the morning or the afternoon, but we’ve shared enough like them that I can wager a guess how the rest of this moment went down. You grabbed my belly or my ‘disgusting hairy armpits’ and tickle attacked me. And I rolled over- maybe flipped you over WWE style- and we roughhoused until you got hurt or overstimulated or I got red-faced and winded and Mommy started wondering aloud why she’s stuck living with so many boys in the house.

I cried when I first saw this photo, a God’s eye image of us as innocent, happy and- dare your Preacher Dad say it- #blessed. Even though I just saw this photo the other night, I don’t think I would’ve seen it before.

Not like I do now.

Mary Karr (you should read her someday) writes:

‘What hurts so bad about youth isn’t the actual butt whippings the world delivers.

It’s the hopes playacting like certainties.’

I know you don’t think I am, Gabriel, but my oncologist keeps assuring me that I’m young (‘and healthy!’). Both youth and health, I’ve learned are relative terms when it comes to stage-serious cancer, but I’m at least not so old that the truth of Mary Karr says stings because hope charading as certainty is what I see in the picture, unexamined confidence that we have all the time in the world with each other.

And maybe we do- God, I hope we do- but I can’t pretend to be certain anymore. Even you know that now, I think, in your way.

We’re in a different place now than we were when Mommy or X snapped that photo of us, unawares in more ways than one. You’ve gone with me to the cancer center and visited me in the cancer ward. You’ve seen the old people and the people who look like me and the kids who look like you there, all sick. The same day I discovered this picture you got angry with me, Gabriel, righteously angry, while I made dinner. I’d gotten sent to the hospital that morning for blood transfusions and I’d missed your class play I’d promised to attend. Facetime didn’t cut it.

‘I’m mad that you weren’t there. You PROMISED. I hate cancer. I hate that cancer has you. I hate that God makes cancer. I just wish there was no cancer.’

It’s not just you though, G. Just a couple of weeks ago, I cried a guilty twinge of tears when I heard your brother say:

‘My real birthday present this September will be Daddy being all done with cancer.’

The innocent, unqualified optimism that I can’t possibly promise to deliver upon made my heart go slack.

These last 4 months I’ve done a lot of ill-advised late night Googling about expected life spans with MCL and average remission rates and median times to first relapse and what’s so overwhelmingly tone deaf in all the literature is how none of the facts and figures stop to consider how your Mom and I have the two of you in our (wing) span. These years are ours not mine alone.

There’s a word that comes to mind, Gabriel, when I look at this picture. You ready for it? It’s called THEOPHANY. You don’t know the word but you enough of your Bible to know what it means.

THEOPHANY = ‘A public presentation of God’s immediacy’ is how my fancy Bible dictionary puts it.

Theophany- you know the stories G.

As in, the LIGHT that strikes the apostle Paul blind on the road to Damascus. As in the VOICE that tears open the sky at Jesus’ baptism and declares ‘This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.’

Theophany. It’s God making himself known, in the now.

Like:

When God appears to Abraham and promises Abraham a future and a home and more children than the stars, God appears to Abraham as FIRE. Theophany.

And when the People of Israel cross over the Red Sea, the Lord appears to them as SMOKE and CLOUD and FIRE and finally in an EARTHQUAKE. And when it’s all over, the People of Israel are left promising: ‘We will do whatever the Lord says.’ 

And then there’s the story of Elijah. It’s in your Lego Bible.

But when it comes to Elijah, God is not so reliably typecast. When it comes to Elijah, God’s not there- not in the WIND, not in the FIRE, not in the EARTHQUAKE. With Elijah, there’s nothing. Just silence.

Elijah’s come to Mt Horeb, the place where Moses says to God, with bit lip and barely suppressed anger: ‘I want to see you. Show me…show me your glory.’ 

Elijah’s facing his biggest disappointment, his lowest point. Just when he should be celebrating, he has the rug of his faith pulled out from underneath him and he lands hard on his doubt and his hard questions.

For the first time Elijah can’t hear God all that clearly, and for the first time this prophet doesn’t know if God hears him. God’s gone silent on him. So, where does he go? He goes to the one place he can think of where he can ask God directly:

Why?

Why is this happening to me?

Why me and not them? Why me when I’m the one who’s been faithful?

Why have you let me down, God?

I thought if I served you, you’d watch out for me.

Isn’t that what relationship means?

Elijah goes to the place where God has spoken before, to the place where God has appeared as FIRE and WIND and SMOKE and CLOUD and EARTHQUAKE. He goes to the place where God gave Israel direction and certainty, to the place where God gave Moses comfort and guidance.

Elijah goes to Sinai in search of that word- theophany. You see, Elijah wants God to come in FIRE and WIND and TREMBLING. He wants God’s VOICE to tear open the sky and speak in a BOOM that sweeps all of his doubts and questions away. Just like Moses did, Elijah wants to put his foot down on Mt Sinai and demand: ‘I want to see you.‘ But what he gets is SILENCE.

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I’ve preached sermons on that story at least 6 times that I know, Gabriel, and every time I’ve always emphasized the the silence, stressed that God’s presence is found in the small, grace-filled diorama moments of our lives not in the thunder and boom of events in the larger world. And every time I would end the sermons with predictable lines like:

Just because you can’t see him clearly at this point in your life, it doesn’t mean he’s not there.

Just because he doesn’t feel as close to you as he did at a former time, it doesn’t mean he’s not with you.

Just because your doubt feels firmer than your faith ever felt iIt doesn’t mean he’s not with you. It doesn’t mean he’s not at work. It doesn’t mean he’s not speaking.

Just because you’d like nothing more than a mountaintop theophany in your life, it doesn’t mean God isn’t at work quietly and invisibly in your life.

Mostly, I think I’ve preached this way because I’m a product of Mainline Protestantism where we’re not sure if God actually works in the world anymore, but we’re definitely sure we don’t want to be mistaken for those other Christians who see God at work on the green screen of the weatherman’s map.

Looking at this picture of you, though, and thinking of that word THEOPHANY I’m now convinced it’s wrong to privilege one angle over the over because God is most assuredly in the fire and the wind and the earthquake as well the silence.

Lest God’s not God.

At the risk of sounding heretical (and, honestly, I’ve got bigger worries these days), a clearer way of putting this is that I think the narrator of Elijah’s story is wrong, no matter his/her dramatic aim.

God IS in the fire and the wind and the tremble.

After all, as God self-reveals to Moses: ‘I am He who Is.’

God, in other words, is the Source of Existence itself in that everything which exists owes its existence to God. God, please remember this in high school and college Gabriel, is the name we give to the question ‘How come________?’ God is our answer to the most important question of all: ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’

Of course, that doesn’t mean God is the direct cause behind every boom and bolt and quake, anymore than every diagnosis, but as Creator, continuously holding all things in creation in existence, God IS IN them.

What Paul says of God and us holds true of all created things: ‘God’s the one in whom we live and move and have our being.’

Or, as my teacher taught me:

‘God is the infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.’

In all things: fire, wind, dewdrops, silence, cells. Everything = THEOPHANY.

So if God is in all things, necessarily, including where Elijah’s narrator repeatedly stresses God ain’t, then what are we to make of the silence about which the narrator makes so much?

Despite committing rather elementary mistakes in the doctrine of God, what does the narrator of Elijah’s story want us to see by stressing that God is in that still small voice?

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Humor me. See if you can wrap your head around this-

Richard Taylor, a philosopher, once invited readers to imagine a man (or a boy) hiking in the woods where he came upon, out of the blue, a translucent sphere. Obviously, Taylor points out, the man would be shocked by the strangeness of the object and he’d wonder just how it should happen to be there floating in the middle of the forest.

More to the point, the hiker would never be able to swallow the notion that it just happened to be there, without cause or any possibility of further explanation. Such a suggestion would strike him as silly. But, Taylor argues- and this is money- what the hiker has failed to notice is how he might ask that same question, just as well, to any other object in the woods, say a rock or a tree or a spiderweb or a little boy as much as this strange sphere.

He fails to do so:

‘Only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. We’d be curious about a sphere suddenly floating in the forest; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place.’

Taylor says you can imagine that sphere stretched out to the size of the universe or shrunken to a grain of sand, as everlasting or fleeting. and it doesn’t change the wonder:

‘It’s the sheer unexpected thereness of the thing, devoid of any transparent rational for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature but of its very existence.’

What’s all that mean, Gabriel?

It means every little detail and moment of our lives is a marvel no less than that sphere in the forest. It means every part of our lives together is a wonder  of which we could ask ‘Why this instead of nothing?’ It means everything around us is not necessary at all, not ‘natural’ unto itself and, as such, it’s charged, all of it, with the immediacy of God. It’s all graced. Back to that word again: its all THEOPHANY.

We just seldom stop to think/notice/marvel/wonder/praise that everything from the boom and bolt to your morning breath against my neck is as odd, and so a gift, as that philosopher’s sphere.

Looking at this picture, Gabriel, what’s so obvious to me now was missed by just as wide a mark back then, double-true for all the other moments we could have snapshots of but don’t. Funny how we take more pictures these days but give less praise, but that starts to sound like preaching and I’m on medical leave.

Here’s what I can say, G.

Only after the fright and upheaval, the pain and the uncertainty…of cancer do I see what was so clearly there. Is here.

I see it clearly enough it makes me wonder if Elijah ever had sons of his own.

My guess is he’d have had a hard time getting a date, but here’s what I think I missed about Elijah’s story all those other times. Or, at least here’s what I wonder. I wonder if Elijah would’ve heard God in the silence- in the still, small voice- had it not been for all the tumult that preceded it.

Maybe it’s not the case that God’s not in the fire and the boom but in the silent moments, as I’ve always preached.

Maybe the boom and the bust, the fire and the fear, calibrates our eyes to what’s there all around us. All the time.

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Christian Wiman writes that

‘Love is the living heart of dread.’

He’s got cancer too so he understands what others who just countenance optimism and perseverance miss. When love’s concerned, hope and dread aren’t that far removed from one another.

Dread is exactly what I feel sometimes and even when I look at this picture too, thinking of all the percentages and odds you can Google late at night.

Except thinking of that philosopher’s sphere and remembering that word, theophany, makes me realize that whatever we have to come- you, your brother, your Mom and I- are more marvels than we can count.

But that shouldn’t keep us from trying.

Healing

Jason Micheli —  June 3, 2015 — 1 Comment

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

You can download it in iTunes here.

 

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111.jpgPentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think I’m exaggerating?

Draw me close to You/Never let me go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

corporations churches are people too, my friends.

Refrain:

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

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

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

(Refrain)

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

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

Or ingested drugs.

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

I couldn’t stop myself.

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

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

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

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

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

It is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With my heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to be cool and detached.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was me.

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

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

I’m just an ordinary Christian. Like them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s just this past week.

I mean-

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

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

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

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

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

But it has to be that way.

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

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

By what it becomes in us.

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

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