Archives For Cancer

Cancer is Funny comes out in paperback this week. Get a copy!

Here’s a fun piece I wrote during the bad old days. I eventually reworked it for the book’s introduction. It’s funnier here:

 

Since my diagnosis in the winter, I’ve spent these past months frequently posting reflections about my disease, my treatment and my doctors. 

It’s only fair, I reasoned, to offer my caregivers a voice. Here then, with his permission, are some recent notes from my oncologist, taken from a recent email thread between us. 

Dear Rev. Micheli, 

Having received your recent email requesting further literature regarding stem cell transplants, I clicked on the link to your blog (www.tamedcynic.org) displayed beneath your signature line. I must have missed it in your previous correspondence. Once I clicked over, I discovered your cancer posts from the past six months. You can appreciate, I imagine, how a blog about your cancer is also, viewed from another light, a blog about your caregivers. 

In particular, I wish to take umbrage with your post ‘Pastors Make Bad Patients’ dated 3/10/2015. While I’m certainly not going to argue with your central thesis, I do contest your suggestion that healthcare workers have no sense of humor. 

Look at it from our side. 

Your treatment, for instance, is many months long and you’re here almost daily, yet nearly every day. when the nurse tech grabs your index finger in order to place the pulse-reading oximeter on it, you pass gas. A gag I previously thought was known only to my late Uncle Jerry. 

Now that I’ve read your comments about ‘sharting’ in your post ‘Eternity’s the Wrong Number’ dated 2/27/15, I think such a joke is as unwise as it is immature. 

S_________, the nurse tech, who saw you 4 times this week, enduring your finger-pull fart joke each time, would like you to know she already takes care of 2 juvenile boys at home and does not care to babysit another one at work. 

Quite simply, it’s not professional. You’d never make fart jokes as part of your ministry or preaching career would you? Certainly not, I think. 

I hope you’ll see that it’s not the case that we lack a sense of humor; rather you need to view your behavior from our perspective. 

For example, it’s true chemotherapy dervies from Nazi era mustard gas; however, your habit of singing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles’ while receiving your infusions unsettles many of our patients. Not to mention, the nurses tell me that some of our obese patients think you’re insulting them when you sing ‘Uber Alles.’ 

Speaking of unsettling patients, I ask that you no longer blow in to the tubes of your chest port and pretend you’re inflating an airplane life preserver. Perhaps it was funny the first time, but you’ve noticed, I assume, how many of our patients are elderly and yesterday you upset quite a few of them who failed to realize that they were not, in fact, on an airplane and were in only minimal danger of crash-landing. 

My office manager reports it will cost several hundred dollars to repair the damage incurred when those confused seniors clawed and pushed each other out of the way, vainly searching out parachutes and oxygen masks, before- bravely, I must admit- hurling themselves over the counter and through the nurses’ station beveled glass window. 

They’re not called the Greatest Generation for nothing. 

I think this proves that some ocassions and places are not suitable for humor, cancer being one obvious example. Oncology is serious, sometimes melancholy, work, much like ministry I’d wager. 

As you yourself must know, being an expert with scripture, the gospels do not ever note that Jesus laughed. Not once. Not at anything. 

I also recall from the Sunday School of my youth how St. Paul in several places admonishes the faithful against silliness, joking and laughter. 

You need only walk into any church on a Sunday morning to find Christians earnestly  abiding these very scriptural precedents. It’s in this sense that I encourage you ‘to practice your faith’ in our offices. 

Sincerely, 

Dr _____________________

PS: 

I consulted with my colleagues, per your request, and while we do not enjoy Ellen either we have chosen not to show Breaking Bad on the infusion center telesvison screens. We agree Breaking Bad offers an instructive portrait of a patient with cancer, but we feel the content might otherwise be in poor taste. 

We’ve also decided, per your earlier query, not to show Joel Osteen either in the infusion center. Apparently, some patients took offense at what they sensed was your mock sincerity whenever you asked the nurses to ‘turn the channel to Pontius Osteen.’

Dear Rev. Micheli, 

Your blog has become quite popular around the offices. 

Dr A____________ recently read your post titled ‘Chemo Sissy’ dated 2/24/2015 in which you describe him as ‘Serbian scary’ and comment that it’s ‘easy to picture him wearing a drab, olive uniform, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and standing behind one-way glass while a lieutenant conducts an ‘interrogation.’ 

Dr A__________ would like me to point out that, contrary to your characterization, he hails from Milwaukee by way of Mumbai and that he is not a veteran of the Bosnian-Serbian conflic- though he does think Owen Wilson’s work in Behind Enemy Lines is criminally underrated. 

Thank you for bringing that term, Docetism, to my attention. Despite all of my schooling, I confess it was new to me, and I admit that if the the Christian creed teaches that God became fully human in Jesus then it follows logically that Jesus laughed and most likely ‘farted, stank and picked his nose’ as you so eruditely put it. 

I will concede that it’s true Jesus must’ve laughed and possibly even that St Paul, as you phrased it, ‘…had a hyssop stuck up his a@#.’ Nonetheless, it’s also true that not every ocassion is one for joking. 

Think of Mark Twain’s maxim: 

Comedy = Tragedy + Time 

Most of our patients do not have enough time removed from cancer to laugh at it. Indeed many fear, as you know yourself, that they don’t have the time left they’d always thought they did. 

And, without time, it’s hard to laugh. 

I didn’t study as much philosophy as you in school but I do recall how Aristotle says that someone who laughs at the wrong thing reveals not a bad sense of humor but a bad character. 

I’m not implying you have bad character, I’m merely suggesting that Aristotle is helpful in pointing out how there are right times and wrong times for attempts at humor. 

For example: 

When you unbutton your shirt to give our nuses access to your chest catheter, it’s probably not a good idea to sway your hips seductively and go ‘Da, da, da, da, dummmmm….’ 

Not only does this give our staff the wrong impression, we’ve since received several complaint calls from elderly women who were disappointed, ‘after being misled,’ to be informed that they would not receive a special screening of Magic Mike during their chemo infusions. 

Along those same lines, it’s true we put lollipops in the bowls at the front desk just as it’s true I recommended you wear a straw fedora in the summer after you lost your hair; nevertheless, I would recommend you no longer say ‘Who loves you, baby?’ to the nursing staff. 

Kojack has been off the air since 1978 and Tully Sevalas died 22 years ago, and I fear your innocent celluloid allusion could be misconstrued. I would not want sexual harassment claims to pile up alongside your medical insurance claims. 

Almost forgot- 

I mentioned your blog and our exchange to J________, one of our receptionists. She attends one of those megachurches where the music sounds like Richard Marx and the pastors all look like extras from Portlandia. She asked me to pass along this quote to you: 

“Tears bind us to God not laughter.” – John Chrysostum, 373 AD

Sincerely, 

Dr________________

PS: 

Nurse K_______ requests you stop asking if every bag of your chemo ‘contains bits of real panther in it.’ 

It does not. 

Dear Rev. Micheli, 

To answer your question, yes, itching is to be expected after receiving multiple blood transfusions- especially when one palms the prophylactic Benadryl rather than ingest it so as to continue playing Star Wars Angry Birds unburdened by drowsiness, as the nurse tells me she saw you do yesterday. 

Thank you for sharing your, ahem, abundance of opinions on John Chyrsostum with me in your last email. At your request I’ll pass along to J_______ at the front desk that John Chrysostum ‘was a loathesome anti-Semite’ though, considering the genre of church she’s chosen, such news is unlikely to prove an obstacle. 

To answer your other question, no, I cannot give you ‘the digits’ of those elderly patients who confused you for Channing Tatum nor do I have a clue as to whether they have any daughters about your age. However, I do empathize with you when you say that laughter reminds you you’re still alive. While I don’t have the experience to know whether or not you’re correct in saying ‘that Christians tend to take themselves more seriously than God,’ I believe I do understand what you mean when you say that being deadly serious lately makes you feel like you’re already ‘(seriously)’ dead.

I must admit I prefer the quote you forwarded from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (‘Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.’) to the John Chrysostum quotation, and I will concede that if God is best characterized by joy and if suffering leads people closer to God, then suffering should lead also to laughter. I won’t go as far as you, however, and concur that ‘de Chardin’s logic proves Twain was a dumb@#$’ 

I’d never heard of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin before. I had to look him up on Wikipedia! You’re definitely a learned man. Incidentally, it’s been 6 months since we started treating you. I think you can now stop bringing your framed Princeton diploma with you to your appointments, transfusions, infusions, and blood draws. It may violate appendix 3.2a of the Hippocratic Oath but my colleagues and I have decided that we’re willing to cede that you’re the smartest person in the room. 

Even the smartest people, it seems, make mistakes. Just to clarify for you, that’s a lower case ‘d’ prescribed on your chemo schedule for Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. 

It’s not a lowercase ’s.’ It says ‘dex.’ 

It’s short for dexamethasone. 

You’re right, it is difficult to read when we write it by hand and then Xerox it. Please apologize to your wife for any misunderstanding and inform her that I would never prescribe such a thing without first consulting her. 

Sincerely, 

Dr_____________

PS: 

To answer your postscripted question about your penis. Yes, it’s completely normal and about 4-8 weeks. 

Dear Rev. Micheli, 

While cancer, not religion, is my area expertise, I daresay you’re correct when you suggest that Christians too often fetishize suffering, thinking all suffering must offer a teachable moment simply because Jesus suffered. 

The quote you forwarded from Simone Weil provides, I think, a helpful corrective. I think she’s right that before one can have a spiritually significant experience of suffering one must have a prior (spiritually significant) experience of joy. 

I’m out of my depth here, but isn’t this what the gospels mean to convey by telling their narratives from the point of view not of the cross but of the resurrection? 

I’d never heard of the ‘Disappearing Dove’ trick you say was once popular among comic magicians though I bet it was funny when the handerchief (after being ‘released’)  just lay there on the ground, not moving, not flying away, not disappearing. Not a dove at all. 

Your point’s well taken- sometimes what makes something funny, painfully funny, isn’t the punchline that’s provided but what’s missing- the absence of something we’ve grown to count on and expect. 

And certainly I can understand, Jason, that so much of what you’re experiencing now is just this sort of absence: an absence of health and maybe hope, the missing reflection in the mirror, the now absent plans replaced by a future I’m sure feels as certain as a handkerchief ready to fly. 

I have enough experience to know as well that, usually, those who find such absence funny are the ones feel most what’s missing. In other words, if it’s possible for cancer to be funny, then its because of you called the ‘comedy of absence.’ 

Sincerely, 

Dr. _____________

PS: 

Speaking of absence, one of the elderly patients who hurled thrust themselves through the nurses’ station glass, thinking the office was headed towards a crash-landing,  asked me to pass this joke along to you: 

‘What’s the best part of Alzheimers?’ 

‘You get to hide your own Easter eggs.’ 

It’s been two years since Cancer is Funny came out. It’s been a humbling experience to hear all the positive feedback. I’ve received countless photos from people of their loved ones reading it in a hospital bed or chemo chair. Ministry is one of those elusive things where it can be hard oftentimes to gauge whether your work has had any real or lasting impact. Having this book out in the world has been encouraging.

And apparently it doesn’t suck enough that they’re releasing it in paperback!

With a new yet somehow equally offensive cover.

It comes next week, 2/1.

Do me a solid and order a copy (or 500) for someone!

You can get it here.

Sacramental Scars

Jason Micheli —  February 5, 2018 — Leave a comment


I guest preached at Plantation UMC in Ft Lauderdale this Sunday. The theme given to me was ‘Dreaming of Healing’ and I chose Genesis 32 and Galatians 6 as my texts.

I like Jacob.

I like Jacob even though its not clear from the biblical witness I’m supposed to like Jacob.

In a culture that prizes the eldest son, Jacob isn’t.

In a religion whose exemplar, Abram, leaves everything behind to follow by faith when God calls, Jacob doesn’t.

I like Jacob, but in a tradition where names mean everything, convey everything, foreshadow everything, its not clear from the name ‘Jacob’ that we’re meant to root for this character.

When he was yet unborn, Jacob, who wrestles God in the dark along the riverbank, for nine months wrestled his twin brother in the dark waters of his mother’s womb. And when she gives birth to them, Esau first, the youngest comes out clutching at the leg of the eldest.

As if to say, ‘Me first.’

So Rebekah names him ‘Jacob.’

Which in 2018 is a little like naming your kid ‘Donald.’

In Hebrew ‘Jacob’ means: heel-grabber, hustler, over-reacher, supplanter, scoundrel, trickster, liar, cheat.

In a religion where names signify and portend everything, it’s not clear that I’m meant to but, nevertheless, I like Jacob.

It’s true scripture gives us plenty of reasons to dislike Jacob.

More than twenty years before they meet face-to-face on the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob took advantage of his brother.

One afternoon Esau had returned from the fields, dizzy and in a cold sweat from hunger. Jacob pulled some fresh bread from the oven and ladled some lentil soup from the stove.

When Esau asked for it, Jacob demanded his elder brother’s birthright in return.

As Jacob knew it would, Esau’s birthright seemed an intangible thing compared to hunger. Esau accepted the terms of his brother’s extortion.

And even if Esau knew not what he’d just done, Jacob certainly did.

But I still like Jacob.

It’s true that his birthright isn’t the only thing Jacob poaches from his brother.

It’s true that when their father, Isaac, was weighed down by age and his eyes were cobwebbed by years, when Isaac was dying and wanted to bless his eldest son- a blessing to be the most powerful of all, a blessing that couldn’t be taken back – the old man lay in his goat-skin tent waiting for his eldest son to appear.

After a while he heard someone enter and say ‘My father.’ And the old man, his eyes darkened by blindness, asked: ‘Who are you my son?’

The boy boldly lied and said that he was Esau. And when the old man reached forward to the touch the face he could not see, the boy lied a second time.

And when the boy leaned over to kiss the old man and the old man sniffed the scent of Esau’s clothes, just as Jacob knew he would, Isaac blessed him.

Jacob lied to his father to steal from his brother the birthright that he coveted.

If you’re counting at home, that’s 3 of the 10 commandments, broken in one fail swoop.

Still, I’ve got my own reasons. I like Jacob.

It’s true that soon after Esau’s rage made Jacob a runaway, God spoke to him in a dream- gave him a vision of a ladder traveled by angels- it’s true that when Jacob awoke from the dream and marked the spot with an altar stone and prayed to God, Jacob didn’t pray for forgiveness.

He didn’t confess his sin.

He didn’t express any remorse or give any hint of a troubled conscience.

Instead Jacob prayed with fingers crossed and one eye opened, a prayer that was really more of a deal:

‘If you stand by me God, if you protect me on this journey, God, if you keep me in food and clothing, and bring me back in one piece to my house and land, then you will be my God.’

Yet, it’s hard for me not to like Jacob.

I know it’s true that when he had nowhere else to go, his mother’s brother, Laban, took Jacob in and gave him food and shelter and work and, eventually, wives and a family.

I know it’s true that after over 14 years of Laban’s hospitality Jacob became a rich man- but not rich enough to satisfy Jacob who returned Laban’s good deeds by cheating his father-in-law out his wealth.

I know it’s true that God, in his compassion, gave children to Leah because Leah’s husband Jacob gave her neither a thought nor a care.

If you’re still counting at home, that’s another couple of commandments broken (which still gives him a winning percentage better than the Miami Marlins are likely to have this season.)

Jacob’s a liar, a cheat, and a thief.

Jacob’s got a wandering eye and a fickle heart.

Jacob’s got shallow scruples and fleet feet.

Jacob’s always ready to run away from his problems.

Jacob’s not a bible hero.

He’s a heel.

Still, I can’t help it. I like Jacob.

You might not.

You might not like Jacob.

You might not be like Jacob.

Maybe you’re batting perfect when it comes to the commandments.

Congrats.

Maybe you’ve never lied to your mother or your father or your husband or your wife.

Maybe you’ve never watched idly by as a sibling or a friend or a neighbor wanders out of your life and in to trouble and then beyond your reach.

Maybe you’ve never betrayed someone you should’ve honored and obeyed.

Maybe you’ve never returned a good deed with a petty one, or turned to God only when you needed him. Maybe.

Maybe your family’s never suffered such bad blood that it threatens to hemorrhage or maybe you’ve never let the wounds of a broken relationship fester through years upon years.

Maybe you’ve never withheld forgiveness because clenching that forgiveness in your fist was the only control you possessed.

At every point, from his mother’s womb to Jabbok’s river, Jacob has worried about Jacob. Jacob has only ever cared about Jacob. Jacob has looked after no one else but Jacob.

Maybe you’re not like that. Maybe you’ve never been like that.

Good for you. Gold star to you.

Go ahead and turn your brown nose up at Jacob.

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Just because I like him doesn’t mean you must.

Not everyone can relate to Jacob.

Not everybody can identify with someone who suspects his sins are eventually going to sneak up on him from the shadows of his past.

Check the text- Jacob sends his wife and his kids and his possessions packing before a stranger jumps him in the dark and fights dirty until dawn.

Jacob ships them off across the Jabbok and then he just waits in the dark for a shadowy struggle he apparently anticipated but had no actual reason to expect.

In other words, the stranger in the shadows doesn’t surprise Jacob because Jacob was expecting that, sooner or later, the other shoe would drop, the bottom would fall out, and his ill-gotten gain would get him.

Maybe you can’t identify with someone like Jacob.

Maybe your rap sheet is clean. Maybe your conscience is clear.

Maybe your you-know-what really doesn’t stink and so whenever the you-know-what hits the fan it never occurs to you that you had it coming.

Maybe you’ve never clutched the covers at night convinced: “This is happening to me for a reason. God’s doing this to me because of what I’ve done (or left undone).”

Maybe you’ve never wondered that this sickness or struggle is because of that sin.

Maybe you’ve never harbored the suspicion that the darkness that’s enveloped you is what you deserve.

Lucky you if you can’t relate to Jacob.

Lucky you.

Lord knows I can.

I can.

But that’s not why I like Jacob.

No, I like Jacob-

Because after 2 years of living with incurable cancer, after 8 rounds of stage-serious chemo, after a dozen more rounds of maintenance chemo, after 1 surgery and thousands of needle pricks and transfusions and panic attacks and wondering if my wife wonders if wedding me was worth it…

Jacob might be the one person who would never dream of sending someone like me a card that said:

“God never gives you more than you can handle.”

Someone like Jacob would never cross-stitch a cliche like that onto oven mitts and leave them with a casserole at my front door.

I like Jacob because Jacob, whom God leaves lame and limping and bruised below the belt, knows that the good news is NOT “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

Jacob has the scars to prove it- the only good news is that God meets us in the very midst of that which we cannot handle.

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I spent last Tuesday at the infusion center near Alexandria Hospital receiving my latest monthly maintenance chemo to keep the cancer at bay.

An average of 4 days a week for a year and twice a month ever since, I’ve been to the infusion center so often my iPhone recognizes the “Cancer Specialists” WIFI network.

Before my chemo infusion, my oncologist felt me up for lumps and red flags.

Like he’d done at my previous two visits, the doctor flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and, with a sharpie, sketched out the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer.

Despite the title of my book, cancer didn’t feel very funny staring at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got left. Until.

When the doctor was done feeling me up, my nurse came to poke around for a vein big enough to handle the chemo. It sounds wimpy but you get to the point where you’re just tired of being sick and stuck all the time with needles.

On one of the two TV’s in the lab every commercial break- I’m not exaggerating- featured an advertisement from Lexington Plastic Surgeons, who, according to the voiceover pitchman, have more offices around the country than Skynet.

“Do you think I’d look good if I got a Brazilian Butt Lift?” I asked my nurse as she clamped the needle down into my arm.

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

“Um…maybe?” she replied, “You’re not really my type, butt lift or no butt lift.”

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show.

Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

“Do you think it strange that in between recipes for people food Rachel Ray is also selling dog food? I mean, are those transferable skills?” I asked my nurse.

She laughed as she hung my bag of pre-meds. She had short buzzed hair that she’d dyed turquoise that matched the gem stud in her nostril and complemented the purple cat-eye glasses on her nose.

Looking at the tattoo on my arm, she told me that her girlfriend was a tattoo artist.

“We’re thinking of getting married, my girlfriend and me,” she said, “You’re a priest, right? You probably think we’re sinners?”

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

“If you’re going to ask me these sorts of questions, I think you should return my copay.”

But she just sat on the wheeled stool next to me, waiting on me.

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

And then added: “But no more than me.”

She looked confused, like what I’d said wasn’t as bad as she’d feared and not as good as she’d hoped.

“Look,” I said, “Christians have a simple formula:

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

Another commercial from Skynet came on the television, this one for breast augmentation and eyebrow lifts and wrinkle removing along with a lie about defying time and aging.

“It’s kind of a waste of their ad budget to have their commercials played in here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious and unavoidable here that nobody is getting out life alive but that’s exactly what they’re promising.”

She handed me a little plastic cup of pills (meds to minimize the tremors the chemo causes) and she said:

“Can I ask you, since you brought it up, if you died- or, when you die- do you know where you’ll go?”

“What are you?” I asked, “Some sort of undercover lesbian evangelist?”

She smiled just a little.

“No, I’ve just never been that religious and I don’t know how you know, you know, that you’ll go to heaven or be with God or whatever.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re really certain?” she asked me. She was studying me, the way she did at the end of infusions to make sure I was okay to drive home.

She was studying me. So I said it: “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure? How can you have that much faith?”

I shrugged my shoulders and I said: “I dunno.”

Seriously, I said: “I dunno.”

I mean, I’m no Hedy Collver but I am a duly ordained reverend.

A question like that about faith and heaven and eternal life should be my bible bread and butter but the best I could do was shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I did better on her follow up. Another where question.

She smoothed out my crinkled chemo tube and she asked me: “Do you ever wonder where God is…considering…your situation?”

Now it was my turn to stare and study her.

“You see a lot of people lose their faith in a place like this. I guess it can be hard to believe there’s a God somewhere in the universe when there’s places like this in it too.”

“Your problem,” I said, “is in thinking that God is somewhere other than right here in a place like this.”

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I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     Martin Luther said that, from Adam onwards, you and I are addicted to the ‘glory story.’

That is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way.

It’s the glory story that produces cliches like “God never gives you more than you can handle” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s the glory story that provokes questions like “Where is God in the midst of my suffering?”

The glory story prompts those kinds of questions and cliches because it gets the direction of the Gospel story backwards. The Gospel story, the story of the Cross, is not the story of our journey up to God but God’s journey down to us.

The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension not our ascension. And the story of the Cross isn’t a story that starts with Jesus. Rather the God who comes to us in the crucified Christ is the God who has always condescended.

The God who snuck up on us in Jesus is the God who crept up on Jacob in the shadows. The God who jumped Jacob in the darkness of his guilt and sin is the same God who comes down and finds us in our own struggles.

And so I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     We need Jacob to inoculate us against the glory story and all the unhelpful questions and cliches it begets.

We need Jacob to remember that:

If we are to find strength from God it starts with searching for him in our weakness.

If we hope to find wholeness from God it begins by seeking him out in our woundedness.

If we dream of finding healing from God we first must look for God not up in glory but down into the pit of our nightmare.

Without Jacob, when we cry out to God for help and healing we’re liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction. Up into glory rather than down in to the darkness and out into the shadows that surround us.

So I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     Because it’s not just that the power of God is revealed in the weakness of Jesus Christ,

It’s that the grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ- the healing grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ- can only be received in a weakness like Jacob’s.

Only in our weakness and woundedness do we realize our true helplessness and only in helplessness can we discover the healing power of his blessing- that’s not just the Jacob story that’s the Gospel.

That’s what we mean when we say that you are saved by faith alone; we mean that you alone- by your lonesome- do not have the strength to save yourself.

You are as helpless as Jacob, hobbled over with his hip out of joint.

That’s why the bread is broken and why you come to the table with the open, empty hands of a beggar.

Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give.

“Your problem is in thinking that God is somewhere other than right here in a place like this.”

But I could tell from the squint behind her purple glasses that I hadn’t done much better than “I dunno.”

She didn’t follow me.

“Look,” I said, “since you’re the lesbian evangelist nurse, this might come in handy the next time you see someone on the ledge of faith. Tell them: ‘God didn’t give you cancer, but if God is to be found anywhere it’s in your experience of cancer.’”

And even as I said it, I realized I was saying it as much for me as for anyone.

That I was the one she might one day spot on the ledge of faith.

You see-

I don’t just like Jacob.

I don’t just think we need Jacob.

I need Jacob.

And I need the hope that comes with that new name God gives to him as the dark turns to dawn, the hope that if, in faith, I meet him on the field on which he chooses to reveal himself, my suffering and shame and weakness, then my scars too can become sacraments, not just wounds by places where the wounded hands of a Savior have graced me.

I need Jacob.

I need the promise that one day that “You have struggled with God and prevailed…” can be my name too.

That I can be called Israel.

 

 

Here’s my sermon from Galatians 3 for this weekend.

I spent this Tuesday at the infusion center near Alexandria Hospital receiving my latest monthly maintenance chemo to keep the cancer at bay.

Now if you’ll feel really bad if you fall asleep during my sermon.

An average of 4 days a week for a year and twice a month ever since, I’ve been to the infusion center so often my iPhone recognizes the “Cancer Specialists” WIFI network. On Tuesday my nurse poked around for a vein big enough to handle the chemo. It sounds wimpy but you get to the point where you’re just tired of being sick and stuck all the time with needles.

On one of the two TV’s in the lab every commercial break- I’m not exaggerating- featured an advertisement from Lexington Plastic Surgeons, who, according to the voiceover pitchman, have more offices around the country than Skynet.

“Do you think I’d look good if I got a Brazilian Butt Lift?” I asked my nurse as she clamped the needle down into my arm.

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

“Um…maybe?” she replied, “You’re not really my type, butt lift or no butt lift.”

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show. Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

“Do you think it strange that in between recipes for people food Rachel Ray is also selling dog food? I mean, are those transferable skills?” I asked my nurse.

She laughed as she hung my bag of pre-meds. She had short buzzed hair that she’d dyed turquoise that matched the gem stud in her nostril and complemented the purple cat-eye glasses on her nose.

Looking at the tattoo on my arm, she told me that her girlfriend was a tattoo artist.

“We’re thinking of getting married, my girlfriend and me,” she said, “You’re a priest, right? You probably think we’re sinners?”

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

“If you’re going to ask me these sorts of questions, I think you should return my copay.”

But she just sat on the wheeled stool next to me, waiting on me.

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

And then added: “But no more than me.”

She looked confused, like what I’d said wasn’t as bad as she’d feared and not as good as she’d hoped.

“Look,” I said, “Christians have a simple formula:

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

Another commercial from Skynet came on the television, this one for breast augmentation and eyebrow lifts and wrinkle removing along with a lie about defying time and aging.

“It’s kind of a waste of their ad budget to have their commercials played in here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious and unavoidable here that nobody is getting out life alive but that’s exactly what Skynet is promising.”

“Skynet?”

“Nevermind.”

She handed me a little plastic cup of pills (meds to minimize the tremors the chemo causes) and she said:

“Can I ask you, since you brought it up, if you died- or, when you die- do you know where you’ll go?”

“What are you?” I asked, “Some sort of undercover lesbian evangelist?”

She smiled just a little.

“No, I’ve just never been that religious and I don’t know how you know, you know, that you’ll go to heaven or be with God or whatever.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re really certain?” she asked me. She was studying me, the way she did at the end of infusions to make sure I was okay to drive home.

She was studying me. So I said it: “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure? How can you have that much faith?”

I shrugged my shoulders and I said: “I dunno.”

———————-

     Seriously, your duly ordained reverend shrugged his shoulders and said: “I dunno.” No wonder Young Life rejected me as a leader in college. A question like that should be my bible bread and butter.

You people pay me a salary and benefits- too much, Lew says- but someone asks me point blank about faith and heaven and eternal life and the best I can do is shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I was so inarticulate with her you’d think it would take a miracle for me to give her the Gospel.

———————-

     The Apostle Paul says that God has spoken to us in two different words, Law and Gospel, that’s what he’s getting at in the end of our reading today.

And in another of his epistles, Paul urges believers to learn how to rightly divide the Word between Law and Gospel.

And here in today’s text in Galatians 3 we see one of the reasons why it’s so important for us to distinguish between the Law and the Gospel.

The Law does not bring the Holy Spirit:

“Answer me one question: did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the Law or by believing the Gospel?”

      It’s not just that what you do for God does nothing for you and your standing before God; it’s that the Holy Spirit does not come to you through what you do for God.

The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of charity or compassion. The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of piety or hospitality. The Holy Spirit does not come through your spirituality.

Or your service to the poor. Or your standing up for social justice.

Obeying the Law does not bring the Holy Spirit. Following the Sermon on the Mount does not bring the Holy Spirit. Imitating Jesus does not bring the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit comes to us not by what we do. The Holy Spirit only comes to us by trusting the promise that all has been done. By Christ. That’s Paul’s point here in Galatians, that in exchanging the Gospel for the Law they’ve exorcised the Spirit:

“When God gives you the Spirit…is it because you keep the Law, or is it because you believe the Gospel?”

Those who were best at discipleship and bible study and prayer nailed God to a tree.

If that doesn’t reveal the Law’s inability to make you righteous and justified then the gift of the Holy Spirit should be a convincing Exhibit B.

That’s what Paul is arguing at top of chapter 3:

“It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified…Did you receive the Holy Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by faith in the Gospel you heard?”

The Holy Spirit was present in thunder and fire and wind at the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

But after that first Pentecost on Mt. Sinai, the Holy Spirit did not come to anyone through following the Law.

Not to Moses or the Prophets. Not to John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit did not come even to Paul back when he was Saul and following the Law so fully as to be blameless before it.

The Holy Spirit did not come to anyone doing the Law. The Holy Spirit only came to those who trusted the Gospel.

When Peter preached the Gospel at the second Pentecost and the crowds received it by faith, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. When Phillip was explaining the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch, the Holy Spirit came to him and baptized him, this most untouchable of outsiders. While Peter was sharing the Gospel with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, the Holy Spirit came over him, the enemy. And the Galatians- they received not only the Gospel from Paul but the Holy Spirit too, Gentiles all of them.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through the Gospel not the Law.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through trusting in what Christ has done for us not in our own doing for Christ.

Through faith not works- not, even, your work of worship.

We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as this mysterious, mystical, subjective spirit inside of us, and, as a consequence, people like us- people who tend not to raise their hands during hymns or dance in the aisles or speak in tongues- tend not to speak about the Holy Spirit.

Because we don’t look or act or worship like charismatics, we all quietly conspire to assume that we must not be spirit-filled.

You can take it from the reverend: that’s nonsense.

Mysterious and mystical and subjective- emotional: nothing could be further from how St. Paul and even Jesus talk about the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is not primarily something we experience subjectively inside of us because the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to mediate something that is objective, outside of us, something that is historical before it is emotional: Jesus Christ.

     The Holy Spirit comes with the Gospel not the Law because the Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ promised in the Gospel.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just any spirit but the Spirit of the Crucified Christ.

The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence in our world of the absent Christ.

How Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit is how Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room:

“The Holy Spirit will convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father;  about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

According to Jesus explicitly and echoed by St. Paul, the Holy Spirit, as the presence of the absent Christ, mediates the work of Christ to us and the Holy Spirit does so in 3 ways.

1. The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

2. The Holy Spirit mediates the priestly work of Christ.

3. The Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ as King.

I thought I’d preach another 3-point sermon just to show off how I can keep my New Year’s resolutions longer than you.

So my first point…

———————-

    The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

Or, as Jesus puts it in the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, therefore, is not experiential but ethical. It’s not the role of the Holy Spirit to give you a transcendent personal experience; the golden calf gave God’s People a transcendent personal experience.

     Ignore your Pentecostal in-laws.

     Your emotions are not reliable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity in your life.

     But your contrition is.

Because Jesus says it’s the Holy Spirit’s work to teach you about yourself.

It’s the Spirit’s work to show you, prophetically, the truth about you and the world to which, at best, you’re a guilty bystander.

The Holy Spirit’s purpose is not like Kevin Bacon’s in Footloose.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions and get you to dance and sing with abandon. King David did that in front of the ark and that story ends as badly as it did for Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work to break down your lies and your self-justifications.

To cut you, as the Spirit did at Pentecost, to the heart.

This is why Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, as in, the Attorney. The Holy Spirit prosecutes Christ’s case against our greedy, eye-for-an-eye world of white-washed tombs. And the Holy Spirit does so by cutting us and speaking the accusation of the Law into our broken hearts.

I know for you baby-boomers who have an overly optimistic self-estimation (even after the Clinton administration) that any talk of sin turns you off, but the Holy Spirit’s work to convict us of the s-word isn’t bad news.

So often when we become aware of our sin we suppose that God must be angry with us or far off from us.

No. Your awareness of your sin is all the evidence you need that God is nearer to you than you are to yourself.

For self-deceivers like us- if you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you don’t measure up, that you need to be forgiven, that’s an achievement. You’ve outdone even the President Trump.

To know you need forgiven- that’s proof the Holy Spirit is at work in you.

For self-justifiers like us- if you can read the newspaper and name racism as sin, sexism as sin, nationalism as sin, in a culture of fake fake news that’s an accomplishment.

Not everyone can do that- that’s proof of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ working on you.

————————-

     But the Holy Spirit doesn’t just convict us of our sin, the Holy Spirit comforts us as well, which brings me to my second point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the priestly work of Christ.

Jesus in the Upper Room calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, the Comforter, but Jesus doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is like Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, there for you to call whenever you’re feeling sad and lonely.

Jesus doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is a hug from heaven anytime you need one.

Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter in the sense that, after convicting us of our sin, the Holy Spirit mediates to us the comfort accomplished by Christ our Great High Priest.

That is, the Holy Spirit assures us of Christ as the forgiveness of our sins and the source of all our righteousness.

Contrary to how Christians often (mis)speak, the Holy Spirit is not in you. Your conscience is in you. And the Holy Spirit, who is outside of you, speaks into you. Into your conscience.

As Martin Luther said, the Holy Spirit mediates Christ’s priestly work to us by being a Preacher, that if Christ and his Cross are the pledge of the Father’s love for you, then the Holy Spirit is the Preacher of that promise.

And like any preacher of the Church, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim, and the Holy Spirit preaches that particular promise by attaching to particular things: to the Word, to Water, to Wine and Bread.

And, heads up, this particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call BS on counterfeit preachers like Joel Osteen, who speaks of the Spirit through his toothy vacant smile but even while speaking of the Spirit neglects to speak of our sinfulness.

Joel O (baby-boomer) says sin is a downer.

And instead of Christ’s righteousness, Joel O invokes the Holy Spirit so that we can accrue our own righteousness, of which prosperity is the sign.

The particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call foul on the TV preachers. Ditto the Jerry Falwells and the Franklin Grahams and the Al Sharptons. The Holy Spirit might be an accuser of our politics. But the Holy Spirit is not a Preacher of our politics.

Like me, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim to you:

Cross and Resurrection

Grace

The Gospel:

The forgiveness of your sins

The gift of Christ’s righteousness reckoned as your own

Despite how trendy it is to say today, the Holy Spirit does not speak a new word. The Spirit is still speaking, but the Spirit speaks the same word, over and over, in new and different ways. The One by whom the Word was made flesh is now the Preacher of the Gospel Word to our flesh.

———————-

     And St. Paul says that Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, frees us from captivity under the Law to be his subjects under grace, which brings me to my final point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the work of Christ as King.

As Jesus says of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room, the Spirit “will prove the ruler of this world wrong for the ruler of this world has been condemned.” 

He’s talking about Satan, whom St. Paul calls the Power of Sin, who- in case you haven’t read the newspapers or checked Twitter lately- doesn’t appear to have been deposed.

Because our world in no way looks like anyone has defeated the Power of Sin, the Holy Spirit gives us faith.

When Protestant Christians speak of the solas, faith alone and scripture alone, this is what we mean. We mean that only by faith alone can we possibly believe the Good News isn’t fake news. Because everywhere our eyes would have us believe the opposite.

———————-

     When St. Paul writes about the curse of Christ’s cross and our redemption, he uses the aorist tense; that is, his cross and our redemption are concurrent.

They happen at the same time.

Likewise, when Paul speaks of the Galatians receiving the Gospel in faith and their receiving the Holy Spirit, he uses the aorist again.

They’re concurrent.

———————-

     The Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith.

They’re concurrent, which means our faith in the Gospel is not our doing. Our faith is not another work of the Law because our faith is not our work. It’s not an accomplishment.

Which gets back to my undercover lesbian evangelist nurse-

Maybe my pathetic dribbler of an answer to her question was accidentally more biblical and Yoda-like than I intended. Because if the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith, then “I dunno” isn’t a half-bad answer for me or for you.

Whether your faith is the size of a mountain or a mustard seed, it doesn’t much matter because you didn’t muster it up.

It’s all miracle.

Look, I used to hate questions like the one my nurse asked me Tuesday: “If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

Like every good liberal Mainline Christian, I used to scoff at questions like that from born-agains and street preachers.

I used to dismiss those questions as terrible reductions of Christianity. And they are reductionistic, sure.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got the medical bills to prove that eternity’s no longer abstraction for me, but, while the question is a reduction of the Gospel, it’s also true that if you can’t answer the question simply and straight-up then you don’t understand the Gospel.

It’s another simple formula:

     Your sins are forgiven.

Christ’s righteousness is your own.

Ergo, as far as eternity goes, you already have everything necessary.

     How much faith or how little faith you have in that matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith:

Jesus Christ.

And whatever sized faith you have to receive this news you’re sitting on a miracle. It’s not your doing. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So if that undercover lesbian evangelist nurse ever asks you that same question, like Peter Venkman advises in Ghostbusters: For God’s sake, say yes.

Say yes:

With water the Holy Spirit drowned me in Christ’s death for my sins.

And with water the Holy Spirit raised me up to give me Christ’s righteousness for my heaven.

And even now the Holy Spirit gives me the miracle of faith to trust what my eyes cannot on their own believe.

Say yes.

Whether you say it sure of yourself or in spite of yourself, that you can say it at all is a miracle.

Grateful

Jason Micheli —  November 15, 2017 — 1 Comment

Since it’s nearly Thanksgiving, here’s a piece on gratitude I wrote for the United Methodist Church’s Rethink Church website. You know you’re old and have become a company man when the denomination asks you to write for them. 

Two years ago, I woke up from emergency abdominal surgery, which removed a tumor the size of a “Harry Potter” hardback from my innards The doctor told me I had a rare, aggressive and ultimately incurable cancer. After a year of intense, butt-kicking chemo, I’m back as a workaday pastor.

And I’m so freaking grateful for it.

I resonate lately with St. Paul and his letter to the Church at Philippi. Maybe I do so because I know that after he wrote his letter, it was curtains on Paul.

Nonetheless, Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty (plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-butt insurance claims).

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in Philippians, I’ve got so much for which I am grateful.

To my church

I know, when life sucks it’s novel or “gutsy” to gripe about institutional religion. That feels to me like it’s either too easy a complaint to be true or too depressing to bear if it is true.

The Philippians fed Paul. He was in a Roman prison when he wrote to them. The money the Philippians sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry or you didn’t and you went hungry.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, my parish has done so much for my family and me. They fed us and prayed for us and with us. They helped with medical bills and sat with me in the hospital. They were there to catch me when I passed out in the chemo room. And they didn’t bat an eye when I puked in their cars.

My colleague, the Rev. Dennis Perry, was with us the night I learned I had cancer. He prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for us all during my treatments and he’s held my hand through the new normal.

My church has done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is: I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score.

One thing cancer has taught me: When you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way, too. And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back. And you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that bad things have happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and the Church responded by giving me so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay all this?

I physically can’t write that many thank-you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want anyone else barfing in my car.

I tried repaying one of my benefactors by driving him to his vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything I have been given? Balance the scales?

I can’t ever repay everything that’s been done for me.

And what has been done for me isn’t even the most important thing that’s been done.

Unlike Paul, in this crucible of incurable cancer, I’ve not been able to say (as Paul humble-brags in Philippians), “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

When you have cancer, everyone — EVERY SINGLE PERSON —  tells you “to kick cancer’s ass.” But it works the other way around. Cancer kicks yours. The last months and years, I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt “thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith And Paul’s “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me” sounded to me like an empty cliché.

I may have a few things in common with Paul and the Philippians but not with the “I can endure all things through Christ…” part.

Unless. . .

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about Christ’s Body, the Church: “I can endure all things through you who strengthens me.”

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel, “I am the Light of the World,” looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them, “You are the Light of the World.”

And when we profess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future, but he’s here and now. There is no Christ “up there,” because he’s here. Now.

 I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH HIM WHO STRENGTHENS ME. [PHILIPPIANS 4:13]

So maybe. . .

Maybe when Paul says, “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he doesn’t mean, “I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…”

Maybe he doesn’t mean, “I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…” And maybe he doesn’t mean, “I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…”

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you, the Church. About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can my wife. And so would my sons.

We can endure all things because the Church has been with us. More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

As Sam Wells observes, “with” just might be the most important word. In Scripture, “with” is much more important than “for.”

“In the beginning,” says Scripture, “the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God and without him not one thing came into being.”

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So, at the very end of the Bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.”

According to the Bible, “with” is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life, action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again. Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: “It was kind of you,” he says, “to share in my distress.”

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in my wife’s worry, Church. In my boys’ fears and anxiety, Church. It was kind of you to make my cancer — our cancer — yours, too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress.

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

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

What do we do in these moments?

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve been a pastor for 16 years.

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

Even destructive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the scary thing for us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lament.
Rage.
At God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Todd’s interview of me:

 

Here’s my Good Friday sermon from tonight, using the lectionary text from Hebrews 10.11-25

     On Ash Wednesday, I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo.

During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor that day- a new one as my own doctor was on the DL for cancer of his own- flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer.

Cancer didn’t feel very funny staring at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got left. Until.

Leaving my oncologist’s office, I drove to Fairfax Hospital to visit a parishioner here at Aldersgate named Jonathon.

Jonathon’s a bit younger than me with a boy a bit younger than my youngest. He got cancer a bit before I did. He’d thought he was in the clear. No.

The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left, our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill-in-the-blank sort, that he could complete so that one day his boy will know who his dad was.

I sat next to the bed. I know from both from my training as a pastor and my experience as a patient, my job was neither to fix his feelings of forsakenness nor to protect God from them. My job, I knew, as both a Christian and a clergyman, wasn’t to do anything for him, but, simply, to be with him.

I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we both were prostrate before the cross. I was present to him.

We were interrupted again when the hospital chaplain knocked softly and entered. He was dressed like an old school undertaker and was, he said without explanation or invitation, offering ashes.

Because it was the easiest response, we both of us nodded our heads to receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross.

With my own death drawn on a picture on the back of a box of latex gloves and his own death imminent, we leaned our foreheads into the chaplain’s bony thumb.

“Remember,” he whispered (as though we could forget), “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if every blip and beeping in the the ICU itself wasn’t already screaming the truth: none of us is getting out of life alive.

———————-

    You’re not, FYI, getting out of life alive.

When you give up the ghost, your soul isn’t going to fly away to the great by-and-by.

Your body isn’t going to become just a shell while your spirit whisks away down a bright tunnel filled with warm light.

People will stand by your grave and weep, as they should, because you are not a thousand winds that blow. You are not the diamond glints on snow.

You are there. Planted in the ground. Earth to earth. Dust to dust.

Ashes awaiting God’s final resurrection.

None of us is getting out life alive.

Someday, maybe soon maybe later, your breath will become air.

And you will be as dead as Jesus is tonight, every bit as dead as Jesus is tomorrow and tomorrow night.

If Jesus doesn’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday then neither do we. We are baptized, after all, not into a club called church. We’re baptized into death, his death.

Death is not natural. It is the enemy of God, says scripture; however, death is as ubiquitous as it is inexorable.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

And we don’t like to talk about it much anymore in churches like ours with tax brackets like yours but, before the final resurrection, you will be called before the mercy seat of Almighty God, what the Book of Common Prayer calls “…the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all our hearts shall be disclosed.” 

That line about “the dreadful day of judgment” comes from the wedding liturgy, right before the vows so that the bride and groom know the stakes before they promise not to destroy each others’ lives.

Because all of us, married or not- we are a people who actively every day do damage to the people in our lives and every day by our apathy do damage to people we never see except in the news.

We’re sinners.

And as we are, just the way we are, to stand before the Lord would be a terror not a joy. We forget- that’s why the Israelites charged Moses to go up Mt. Sinai to go before the Lord. They didn’t want to do so themselves.

That isn’t to say God is awful or angry; it’s to recognize that very often we are both, awful and angry, and if God is a refining fire then to stand before the Lord just as we are, the way we are, the sum of so many of our sins- to stand before God who is a refining fire means that there is much of us- much about us- that will get burned away by the holiness of God.

———————-

     Speaking of fire, no doubt talk of judgment sounds brimstone harsh to you.

Of course it does. You have been conditioned by a culture that has made that word ‘judgment’ the worst of pejoratives: judgmental. And if its the worst that can be said of us, it’s the last that should be said of God.

We think.

God, our culture has conditioned us to think, is like Billy Joel.

God accepts you just the way you are, which is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.

I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you. Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you.

I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. Since it’s Good Friday, I mean only to point out the basic presupposition of Jesus’ Bible.

This:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.

The gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. We aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. We have to be rendered acceptable. We have to be made acceptable, again and again.

That’s the thread that stiches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death.

———————-

     Thus does the Book of Leviticus begin with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.” 

The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.

God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.” 

For him. On his behalf. In his place.

The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.

 God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.

Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.

But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.

Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.

After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.

———————-

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.

It’s easy for us to dismiss this God behind the tent door as aloof and unapproachable.

It’s easy for us to miss that it’s God who gives his People the instructions for all these sacrifices; that is, God himself gives his People the means for the ongoing restoration of their relationship with him.

In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are.

God gives his perpetually wayward People the means to stand before him unburdened and unafraid. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.

As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 7).

—————————

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single answer to the question “How does the death of Christ save us?”

The Gospels, after all, exposit Jesus’ crucifixion but they never explain it.

The creeds require us to profess that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, but the creeds do not ask us to agree on what that death accomplished or how.

Through the centuries the Church has offered possible answers.

On the Cross, God in Christ defeats the Power of Sin and Death. On the Cross, God in Christ transforms our hearts by demonstrating the love in his own. On the Cross, Jesus suffers the punishment owed to us, setting us free from our debt of sin by paying it in our place.

And so on.

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single explanation for Christ’s death.

Except, that’s not exactly true.

The Church did decide to include in the New Testament canon the Book of Hebrews. Not only is it one of the longest books in the New Testament, it is the only book in the New Testament devoted entirely to describing the meaning of Jesus’ death.

And it does so exclusively by framing Jesus’ death in continuity with the sacrificial system of Jesus’ Bible.

But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Not one.

By contrast, the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin. All.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

For all.

For unwitting sin and for willful sin.

A sacrifice not just for God’s People but for all people.

———————-

     Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, isn’t a victim of our wrath. He isn’t a ransom paid to the Devil. He isn’t the punished in your place or the debt that ameliorates God’s offended honor.

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, is our Great High Priest.

He’s our Great High Priest not through lineage like those other high priests but “through the power of his indestructible life.” 

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, bears the stamp of God’s own nature. He’s the heir of all things and through him all things were made.

But-

But he was made like us in every respect. This priest was made like his people in every way.

Just as we are tempted and weak, he was tempted and weak. Just was we hunger and thirst and fear and feel forsaken, so too did he hunger and thirst, fear and feel forsaken. He suffered just as we suffer. And, he died just as we die.

 Just as none of us is getting out of life alive, neither did he.

His death, in other words, isn’t the death we had coming to us.

His death was a death that comes to us all.

His death isn’t a penal punishment but the product of his having been made like us in every respect.

He died the way he did because of the way he lived, but he died because he lived, because he was made like us in every respect.

And because he has been made like us in every respect, not only do we have a Great High Priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness we have a priest who when he enters the presence of God he does not go alone.

Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.

But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.

He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too.

And there this Great High Priest offers not a ransom or a debt.

    This Great High Priest offers a gift.

    Not a calf or a goat or grain but a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.

    A gift that can’t be reciprocated it can only redound to others.

His own life. His own unblemished life.

We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross, to make atonement.

For us.

A gift exceeding all cost such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again.

——————————-

     Jonathon died this evening.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

But none of us need fear. None of us need to fear death, fear that day when the secrets of our hearts will be disclosed.

We need not fear because, after he gifts himself as a perfect once for all sacrifice, this Great High Priest never leaves the Father, because he draws near and stays near, because he sits down at the right hand of the Father permanently, says the Book of Hebrews, he intercedes for us.

Perpetually.

He intercedes for us. Perpetually. He prays for us. Without ceasing.

He confesses for us.

Perpetually.

So that-

Although we know we are not acceptable before the Lord just as we are, we need not fear.

We need not fear that God will make us more than we are.

We need not fear that the secrets of all our hearts one day will be disclosed and God will render us into something other than what we are now.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we can trust.

We can trust that when we die and our breath becomes air and the dust of our bones returns to the dust we will experience the refining fire of God’s holiness.

We will.

But we will not experience it as the wrathful heat of hell.

We will experience it as the warm light of God’s love.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we will all become as the Burning Bush, ablaze with God’s refining fire.

But not consumed by it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book tour pimping continues apace.

Recently, I was on NPR’s Things Not Seen with David Dault. Check out the interview here.

Also, I was on the Christian Humanist Podcast. Check that one out here.

I’ll be at the Virginia Festival of the Book this weekend in Charlottesville and preaching at Wesley Memorial UMC there on Sunday am. Be there.

 

 

Here’s Alex Joyner’s review of my book in the Englewood Review of Books:

Most of what Jason Micheli has to tell you about cancer, you don’t want to know.  The title of his new book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, may hint at optimistic self-help with some humorous anecdotes laced throughout, but cancer is not ‘ha-ha’ funny.  Micheli is glad to tell you, in harrowing detail, that “cancer f@#$ing sucks.” (ix)  This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.  Yeah, there’s a lot here you don’t want to know, but it’s a story told by one of the most honest and profane pastors you’ll ever meet and along the way he spins out the heart of a battle-tested theology that is clear-eyed, unsentimental, and fully alive.  Plus, too, he’s funny.

I can only imagine the debates that Micheli, a United Methodist pastor in northern Virginia, had with his editors in getting this book to press.  Despite the striking cover art (a smiley face sporting chemo hair on a bright red background), the prospect of selling a book about cancer, especially one that refuses to sugar-coat anything, must have been daunting.  Micheli’s edgy writing style certainly swims in the zeitgeist of his 30-something generation, but then again, most of them are not facing the rare, aggressive cancer that Micheli faced, (mantle cell lymphoma – a type that usually affects much older men).  A tale like this has to be carried along on the vitality and voice of its author and we certainly get to meet such a voice in this book.

A few years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich used her own journey through cancer as a lens for her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.  Ehrenreich shares Micheli’s disdain for the Hallmark language and easy positivity we throw at cancer.  She wrote, “Breast cancer…did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift’, was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

Micheli chafes at this force, too, but he has a different vocabulary for understanding it—one that is shaped by his own theological journey with the likes of Karl Barth, David Bentley Hart, and Stanley Hauerwas.  Through it all, he is placing his own suffering within a thorough-going Christological framework.  In doing this he pushes back against the notions that God is only visibly present when cancer is being combatted and defeated.  “As Stanley Hauerwas points out, the assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power… implicit in this assumption is another one: because humans were made in God’s image, power primarily defines us as well.… Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”(162)

In a better world, these insights should be the thing that brings people to this book.  Micheli uncorks some great laugh lines.  (One of my favorites: “Whenever we picture Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we usually imagine it in unsubtle comic book lines and hues, with a bad guy readily identifiable as ‘Satan’ and three temptations to which Jesus readily gives the correct answers as though he’s been raised by a Galilean Tiger Mom.”(65)) But it is the way that his theological formation illuminates his suffering (and vice-versa) that give this book enduring value.  When he says, “They then both bent me in impossible positions as though I were a yoga instructor or Anthony Weiner on the phone”(7), I think/hope that the Weiner reference will be incomprehensible a few years down the road.  But when he writes, “Cancer doesn’t lead you to ask, ‘Why me, God?’ Cancer leads you to wonder why God, whom we call Light, can’t seem to enter or act in our world without casting shadows”(88), well, then I think we’re on to something that will last.

The humanity of Micheli’s writing also shines through here.  He is the father of two young children and his relationship with them and his wife is handled with a good, light touch.  The poignant moments, and there are many, are not cheap.

Some readers, especially those who are used to the tame and tidy spirituality of much popular Christian writing, will be surprised by Micheli’s unvarnished profanity and his willingness to bare his carnal thoughts in these pages along with his poisoned, prodded body.  I’ll admit that I flinched for him at points, wondering if he needed to be that confessional.  But good memoirists know that a concern for appearances is deadly to the form.

Micheli is a spiritual heir to Mary Karr, whose The Liar’s Club is the seminal memoir of this era.  In Karr’s The Art of  Memoir, she talks about the hard work that memoirists must do in order to maintain an authentic voice.  “For most, knowing the truth matters more than how they come off telling it.”  And this means digging down beneath the pretty.

Micheli has a poetic gear, and it comes through in this book.  But he values the rawness he has experienced.  His rationale for sharing it comes late in the book and it, like all of the book, is grounded in his theology: “Thinking our holy obligation is to give God the glory, do we, in fact, rob God of glory, hugging tightly to the first draft of our testimony and offering up instead sanitized, sterilized, red-penned spiritualized jargon that intersects only tangentially with our real lives, because–-we think–-God’s not up to the challenge of our pain or unholy emotions?” (192)

This is a searing book.  The cumulative effect of reading it through is, perhaps, like rounds of chemo, drawing us deeper into the pain.  But we do get a glimpse of the joy Micheli holds onto.  Not ‘ha ha’ joy.  But life for sure.  It’s a journey worth taking with him.

——–
Alex Joyner is an author and United Methodist pastor on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  He is the author, most recently, of A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine [Englewood Review, 2014]. He blogs at AlexJoyner.com.

My publicist recently asked me to write a reply to Jeffrey Weiss’ editorial in USA Today about planning his ‘no thanks’ to cancer treatment. You can find his article here.
Prayer “Works” (But Not in the Way So Many Suppose)
Mr. Weiss,
Likely, you expect a clergyman to critique your appraisal of the Book of Job and to encourage you, as the TSA agent who recently squinted at the disparity between the pre-cancer face on my ID and the one in the flesh before her, that “prayer works.” 
“I’ll pray for you to be healed” she whispered as she circled and checked things on my boarding pass. 
With a terminal cancer of my own- mine’s in my marrow, as voracious as it is rare- I actually think you’re exactly right to point out how the Book of Job reveals the theological problem at the heart of how we so often speak of prayer. God, as the Book Job insists, is incomprehensible. As God says to Job, everything that is did not have to be, a reminder woven into the opening line of scripture “In the beginning…” We are, Job learns, contingent creatures. Our knowledge can never bridge the gap between us and our Creator. If this is true, you’re exactly right to caution against the way we speak of prayer working.
To put it more bluntly: Isn’t it ridiculous (and maybe even idolatrous) to think that through our supplications we can persuade God into doing something God might otherwise not do? You might be surprised to hear, Mr Weiss, that I take it as self-evident that the answer to that question is ‘Yes.’
 
The God of Job isn’t a god we can manipulate by spiritually-sanctioned means to do what we want. Too often when people tell me they’ll pray for me, the implication left unsaid is that God is otherwise not already with me or at work in me and that if I’m not healed then somehow their prayers didn’t work. Such an understanding of prayer is incompatible with the God of the Book of Job, a God who is at every moment the reason there is something instead of nothing. 
Not only do I agree with you, Mr. Weiss, I think St. Paul would too. 
After stating the obvious (none of us knows how to pray), St. Paul writes to the Romans that whenever we pray, no matter what it might look like, it’s not actually we who are praying. Rather God, the Spirit, prays in us and through us. 
This is what gets missed by so many of the people who tell me they’re praying for me, but it’s something you missed too. 
Prayer isn’t something we do. It’s something God does.
Instead of a practice we perform for results we’ve predetermined, when we pray to God, we’re prayed in by God. 
God is the impetus behind our prayers as much as the object of them.  The very wants and desires we pray, runs St. Paul’s argument, are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present God. 
What’s this mean when you’re sick with stage-serious cancer and staring down the-house-always-wins odds? 
St. Thomas Aquinas doubles-down on Paul’s point when he writes: “We should not say ‘in accordance with my prayer, God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that ‘God wills it to be a fine day, in accordance with my prayer.’” 
God wills our prayers, says Aquinas, as much as God wills the fine day.
Let me put Aquinas’ point a bit more personally for the both of us: 
We should not say in accordance with the TSA agent’s prayer, God wills that I should be healed of my cancer; we should say that ‘God wills that I should be healed of my cancer, in accordance with her prayer. 
That’s no guarantee I’ll be healed, and if I’m not healed, there’s no explanation behind it of the sort Job’s churchy friends assumed. However, it is a guarantee that my desire to be healed, as well as the desire of all those praying for me, isn’t our desire alone or even originally. It’s a desire shared by- initiated by- the God who prays in us. 
You’re dead on, as contingent creatures we can never the why behind the Creator’s doings. If we could, then God would not be God. 
But to your other suggestion, that God does not care about your friends’ prayers, I disagree. Not only does God care about your friends’ prayers, their prayers derive from and originate in God. Indeed it’s not strong enough to say God cares about your friends’ prayers. Their prayers are, in fact, a sign- a sacrament, as we say in the Church- of God’s love for you. 

 

You can find the article here:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/09/29/submission-guidelines-usatoday-opinion-column-oped-howto-letters-editor/89964600/

You’ve bugged me-

Here’s some of the recent interviews I’ve done for Cancer is Funny.

Mockingcast

The Home-brewed Christianity Culture Cast (scroll to the 32.17 mark)

Get Your Spirit in Shape United Methodist Podcast

The Loft LA

Matt Townsend Show

Coming up, I’ll be on the CXMH Podcast, the John Fugelsang Show on Sirius, Home-Brewed Christianity, and others. Stay tuned (Mom).

 

Have Book, Traveling

Jason Micheli —  January 28, 2017 — 1 Comment


As I like to say, I only pretend to be a narcissist on Sunday mornings.

I truly hate this self-promotional shit, but many of you have asked how things are going with the book and what I’m doing with the book in the months ahead. And, I figure, the last thing you want from me is another thee-political post about The Donald so what the hell.

Hey- I learned that the comedy director Judd Apatow has my book and he freakin’ thinks it’s hilarious.

Update:

I spent the past week out in sunny rainy southern California for a gathering led by the inestimable Tripp Fuller and sponsored by National Geographic’s Story of God and Home-Brewed Christianity. Though, with Teer Hardy, I violated Rule #1 it proved a wonderful experience. I got the chance to meet folks in the flesh, whom I previously only knew virtually, like Todd Littleton, Luke Norseworthy, Eric Hall, Nathan Gilmour, and Sarah Heath. There is much about social media these days that is f@#$ed up, but I sincerely believe there’s Jesus good in it too, proved by the ‘friendships’ I’ve forged with folks like these.

Tripp Fuller interviewed me about my book for the Home-Brewed Christianity Podcast on the first night of the gathering.

Christian and Amy Piatt interviewed me for the Culture Cast Podcast the next day.

I’ll post those interviews when they go live.

Luke Norseworthy interviewed me for his podcast, Newsworthy with Norseworthy, the following day.

You can listen to that interview here.

While in SoCal I did a dialogue sermon and a Q/A at the Loft LA, the most diverse UMC I’ve ever experienced. I’ll post that audio when it becomes available.

In the interim, in case you missed it:

I did an interview with Matt Townshend on Sirius that you can find here.

The Kansas City Star faith writer said my book is “a compelling read with just the right message…” Check it out here.

And Hearts and Minds Books named Cancer is Funny to their Best of 2016 List. Check it out here.

Coming up:

I’ll be doing some more radio show interviews on Sirius XM, including John Fugelsang‘s show “Tell Me Everything.”

The Christian Century and Wash Po will be posting reviews of the book (fingers crossed they say it doesn’t suck).

In March, I’ll be speaking at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville and the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference in Asheville.

And reception to the book has been such that Fortress Press has invited me to write two more books with them in 2017 and 2018. Here’s the press release. In addition, I’ve been invited by Eerdmans Press to contribute a chapter on a book about Preaching Romans.

 

 

Ryan Parker is the author of Cinema as Pulpit and contributes to the Pop Theology website. Here’s his recent review of my book:

That we have all been touched by cancer, if not personally, then relationally, is why Jason Micheli’s new book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, is such an important book. It’s also my first must-read recommendation of 2017.


Thirty-something husband, father, and pastor Micheli was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, mantle cell lymphoma, that is so severe it can’t be “staged” like others. It was a diagnosis that resulted in an instant, intensive, eight-week course of chemotherapy that would wreak havoc on his healthy body and lead him to question everything he thought he knew about God and faith. It also resulted in one of the funniest and more insightful works of theology I’ve read in some time.

Cancer is funny for Micheli, in large part, because he has a seemingly indefatigable sense of humor, which, thankfully for us readers, was consistently lost on his doctors and nurses, adding even more laugh-out-loud moments to his reflections. Even in the most painful and humiliating moments of his treatment, Micheli could crack wise. But this sense of humor is not a mask, as Micheli makes himself emotionally and spiritually vulnerable to his audience, laying bare the ways in which this experience almost broke him. I found myself laughing out loud in one paragraph and reaching for the tissues in the next and challenged by his insights on faith and his theological speculations in each chapter.

Cancer is also funny in the ways ways in which it leads Micheli to re-think theology, faith, and Christian practice. At the heart of the book is a central question: “If so much of the Bible’s faith takes the form of complaint, then do we, who rarely address God plainly from the bowels of our pain, preferring instead the niceties of praise and petition, commit something like unbelief” (192). Micheli forces us to consider the ways in which our faith is often incompatible with the very God we claim to have faith in. He adds, “Since we purpose-driven moderns have transmuted so much of the mystery of faith down to its utility (Three Biblical Steps to Success in the Workplace), it’s not surprising how more often than not, our language of faith—our songs, our prayers, our cross-stitched and retweeted pieties—is meant to reassure us that, like State Farm, God is there” (190). Micheli’s book is, in a way, redeeming. It allows us to see anew all the experiences of anger, frustration, doubt, and loneliness (those times when we don’t or can’t experience the Divine—whatever either of those words mean) as potentially (inherently?) sacred and faith-filled.

At the same time, this experience of doubt should force us into a greater reliance on community, which, Micheli suggests, is at the heart of faith. He writes, “Our faith in the suffering love of God is intelligible, then, not through abstract answers to philosophical questions but only through the love of a community who suffer with us” (163). Micheli is quick to point out the particularities of the human experience and argues that, like cancer, there is no universal experience (or one-size-fits-all faith) to which we can all relate. Of course, this isn’t completely true as suffering is universal. It is so prevalent that, as Micheli points out time and time again, even God experiences it. So, as we either suffer ourselves or align ourselves with those who do, perhaps we participate in the Divine.

I’m tempted to just list all of Micheli’s insights here…all of those moments that made me put the book down and walk around. But, seriously, whether you’re professional clergy, a person of faith, or simply have a pulse, you need to buy the book and read it. In the context of his memories of fear, joy, and suffering, their impact is inimitable and undeniable.

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo (Fortress Press, 226 pgs.) is available here. For those of you in Los Angeles, Jason will be speaking at Westwood United Methodist Church on Sunday, January 22nd, at 10:00 a.m.

Jana Riess of the Religion News Service recently interviewed me about my book. She’s a good reader and a thoughtful interviewer, and she chalks my book up on her Top 10 List for the year.

Here’s the interview. You can find it here too.

It’s probably weird to say that one of your favorite books of the year is the memoir of a young guy battling cancer—what am I, some kind of sadist?—but it’s true. Podcaster Jason Micheli’s memoir Cancer Is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, which hit bookstores a few weeks ago, is on my top ten list for 2016.

It’s not only hilarious and poignant, nailing the old “I laughed, I cried, it became part of me” wish any reader has with a memoir, but it’s also deeply, surprisingly theological. You’ll find no clichés here. 

The author is a pastor who was diagnosed with “stage-serious” cancer at age 37. I caught up with him by phone a couple of weeks ago. — JKR

RNS: First, tell me about the diagnosis and what happened to you.

Micheli: Almost two years ago this Advent, I finally went to a GI doctor after about six months of having uncomfortable abdominal pains that I chalked up to spicy food or other things. It would go away for a while and I’d forget about it. But two Advents ago it just got unbearable. The GI doc sent me for a CAT scan, and I was told I would get the results in about a week. But I got a call that same night, and the doctor asked me if I was sitting down.

That’s when I found out that my intestine was inverted and it was probably caused by a tumor. They rushed me to surgery. It turned out I had a 10” by 10” tumor and that it was caused by possibly one of five rare cancers. I had mantle cell lymphoma, which affects very few people, but typically they’re men in their 60s and 70s.

I began a year of intense chemo. And I finished that up about a year ago this past fall.

RNS: Were you journaling and writing this book while you were having treatment?

Micheli: Yeah, partly because of my role as a pastor. I was in church in the pulpit one Sunday, and then the next Sunday I was gone. I mean I just disappeared from the life of my church with no notice.

They all treated me as though I was already dead. And that had less to do with me, I realized, than it did with unresolved grief they had in their own lives over other people who had cancer. So many people had no idea how to process this emotionally or theologically.

Part of my vocation as a pastor is to live inside this fishbowl, and it didn’t make sense to hide this most significant thing away from them. So I decided to write about this for them as it was happening, and to do it in the way that they would themselves if they weren’t worried about what their pastor would say.

RNS: What do you mean, “worried about what their pastor would say”? What does that look like?

Micheli: I decided to narrate my experiences without stained-glass language. To not feel the need to protect God from my real feelings and questions. To try to take the language of the faith to see if it could lift the luggage.

I was inundated with people giving me books, some of which were “Christian” books filled with clichés and sentimentality. As a pastor I’m savvy enough to know that those books are crap, but someone else might actually be damaged by that demand for constant cheerfulness. I wanted to be as open and frank about I could in the moment, about the experiences of shame that your body can bring you, from impotence and everything that comes with chemotherapy.

But I also wanted to write with humor. Personally, that’s one of the frames of reference I have in my own life. I do theologically believe that if suffering brings you closer to God, then joy is a part of that. Joy and grief mingle together. That happens in the cancer ward too.

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RNS: In the book you raise the classic questions about why people suffer, but you speak strongly against the “God gave me cancer so that . . . [insert your lesson here]” mindset. Even as you sympathize with that desire to understand why.

Micheli: God doesn’t do things like this to you to make you a better pastor, or a better person. I know that. But I still went through a period of “Why is God doing this to me?” even though I didn’t theologically believe that.

I think that the most Christian posture toward suffering is to rage against it, not to try to explain it. But I still went through that period where I wanted to know why God was doing this to me. One of the undertones that I wanted with the title is that suffering can sometimes make being a Christian seem foolish, so the joke’s on Christians for believing.

RNS: In the book you write beautifully about marriage, like that it was only after your diagnosis and not the dozens of weddings you performed that you ever noticed that the “in sickness and in health” vow always leads with the expectation of sickness.

Micheli: To be frank, it was probably the first time in our lives when shit got real. We have two kids, and they’re both adopted, and there have been some challenges. But this was the first time in our marriage that it became clear how grateful I was for this person I married, and that her character was not something I even needed to wonder about.

We’re so scared of death as a culture. But one of the things we’re choosing when we choose a spouse is someone who can help us die well. I certainly don’t want to do that anytime soon, but I know that I married someone I can count on to help me die well.

RNS: One of the things I loved most about the book is how your situation caused you to look at familiar Bible passages in fresh ways. For example, when Jesus is washing Peter’s feet, you notice that it’s not the act itself that freaks Peter out. He only objects to what Jesus says about how the footwashing shares in Jesus’ death. And Peter doesn’t want to die.

Micheli: All theology is contextual, right? All of a sudden, I was dying. Everything looked different from the perspective. It made me aware of how for many of the stories, particularly in the Gospels, we’ve accrued so many layers of interpretation, but there’s a first-order layer that’s human that we miss. With the footwashing story, we tie that into the Atonement, but on a more human level, it’s telling us that Peter doesn’t want to die. And in the Passion, Jesus makes sure his mother is taken care of when he dies. And Jesus makes sure he forgives the people he needs to forgive before he dies.

If the Bible is a template for how we live, the Passion—which is the longest part of the Gospels—should be a template for how we die. Jesus gives us a way to die.

RNS: What are you hoping will happen with the book?

Micheli: I’m hoping that people in my situation, or people who care about someone in a situation like mine, will be helped by it. That’s the first demographic I have in mind. But just as important to me is that it is a book of theology. I want it to help people who either don’t know how that Christian language works or who have questions or doubts about how it works. I hope the book is able to help them see how someone can speak Christian in the midst of suffering.

Someone who blurbed the book said—and I think it’s correct—that if we’re not able to speak our faith in the midst of suffering, it’s basically useless. I wanted to give a shot of confidence or strength to people who are questioning whether we’re just kidding ourselves with this faith language.

r-S93UWAI’ve never pressed the flesh with Todd Littleton but he’s my biggest fan and claims to have a man-crush on me (he apparently has a photo of me in his study). Neither of those may be truth but there’s no doubt I’m grateful for the way God brings friends like Todd into my life, even friends through this un-incarnational means called the internet. As friends should do, I know better what I think and write because Todd tells me what I think and write.

Todd came into my life at the same time cancer intruded into it so it seemed especially appropriate that as my book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, releases soon he would be the first person I talked with about it.

Coming up, I’ll be on the Lectiocast with JR Daniel Kirk to talk about the book and in January Tripp Fuller of Home-Brewed Christianity will interview me as part of HBC’s Theology Beer Camp.

On Friday, 12/2 here in DC two friends in my church have organized a Friar’s Club Roast of yours truly to kick-off the book. Clearly, I’m an easy target so it promises to be a great event. And, it’s off Methodist premises so there’ll be libations available too.

social-media-buytickets

As part of the night, Dr. Tony Jones, author of Did God Kill Jesus? and the one who first encouraged me to start this blog, to launch our podcast, and to write the book, will be here from the Twin Cities to be a featured roaster.

Also on tap, Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, author of Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times and Professor of Religion at Elon University, will be another guest roast master. As will my friend and mentor Dr. Dennis Perry and a host of others. The Roast Master for the night will be my dear friend Brad Todd, a frequent guest on Meet the Press who runs OnMessage Inc and is one of the architects of Trumpocalypse. If you didn’t vote for the Donald this is your chance to roast Brad too!

So, if you’re on my blog list and live in the DC area come on out for a laugh with us. If you’re in my congregation, definitely come. I freaking dedicated the book to you all; it’s the least you can do! 

Details:

Date – Friday, December 2, 2016 at 7:00 PM

Location – Mt. Vernon Country Club

Get your tickets by clicking here

Okay, here’s the interview with Todd. If you’re getting this by email, the link to the audio is here.

 

social-media-buyticketsT-minus 20 days until my book Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo releases.

Two friends in my congregation, friends whom I don’t deserve but for whom I’m exceedingly grateful, have organized a Friar’s Club Roast of yours truly to kick-off the book. Clearly, I’m an easy target so it promises to be a great event. And, it’s off Methodist premises so there’ll be libations available too.

As part of the night, Dr. Tony Jones, author of Did God Kill Jesus? and the one who first encouraged me to start this blog, to launch our podcast, and to write the book, will be here from the Twin Cities to be a featured roaster.

Also on tap, Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, author of Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times and Professor of Religion at Elon University, will be another guest roast master. 

As will my friend and mentor Dr. Dennis Perry and a host of others.

The Roast Master for the night will be my dear friend Brad Todd, a frequent guest on Meet the Press who runs OnMessage Inc and is one of the architects of Trumpocalypse. If you didn’t vote for the Donald this is your chance to roast Brad too!

So, if you’re on my blog list and live in the DC area come on out for a laugh with us. If you’re in my congregation, definitely come. I freaking dedicated the book to you all; it’s the least you can do! 

Details:

Date – Friday, December 2, 2016 at 7:00 PM

Location – Mt. Vernon Country Club

Get your tickets by clicking here

In case you don’t think this will be funny, here’s how my son, X, roasted me at church 3 years ago:

 

 

When I Hate My Job

Jason Micheli —  September 26, 2016 — 6 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgI’d made it as far the Jersey line, headed to Princeton for a week-long con ed course on philanthropy. Just shy of the bridge, ordering coffee at Peets, I received a text about a 12 year old in my son’s school dying (actively so) of the same two syllable word that my son still worries is going to kill me.

His is in the brain.

They don’t say dopio at Peets.

I changed my order to a double expresso and turned around south down Interstate 95. Just yesterday Facebook timeline reminded me it’s been 24 months since I wore my clergy collar and tossed slow straight fastballs to the lineup on my son’s coach-pitch baseball team before I dusted myself off in the 5th inning to lead a prayer vigil at my church for Hannah Graham.

A neighborhood girl.

They found her body a few days after the game.

15 years I’ve pastored and in those years… just as many funerals where the casket measured about 48 inches.

Or less.

I f@#$%^&* hate my job sometimes.

A truer, holier sentence I cannot write, for I take the suffering of children to be profane in the truest sense of the word. It’s a stain on any notion of God’s sovereign goodness and to hate my vocation from such a God, to hate it with the perfect hatred of a prophet like Amos, often seems to me the most righteous of priestly postures.

Sometimes I hate my job.

As often (or, more specifically: on those occasions) I feel just as pissed off at God. I don’t believe God is the reason behind everything. But I DO believe, as the Cause of everything, God is at the very least responsible. Morally, if not directly, responsibly.

If there was such a thing as a believer’s thesaurus, then “Pediatric Oncology” would be a synonym for atheism. Especially when the name of the hospice nurse is written on the dry erase board. J’s bed was decorated with 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of printer paper scrawled with sharpie- written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“God doesn’t make mistakes.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

J wrote them before his hands palsied, because of the brain tumor, and he couldn’t write anymore. His mother told me he stopped being able to speak on Wednesday. Yesterday he lost control of his eyes. Today his breathing grew as shallow as the eyes of his family gathered around his bedside.

I wrote a book called Cancer is Funny that’s due out in a handful of weeks. But I didn’t laugh today. Part of me, initially at least, wanted to take back my 70K plus words about cancer as I held J’s mother’s hand, after wiping the spittle from his mouth and helping to bath him, and traced the cross on his forehead with my other hand. This shit isn’t funny at all, I thought, while consoling and counseling and praying.

Maybe, I wondered, the premise of my book was all wrong.

Or, maybe my premise was my perspective alone. And, of course, it is only my perspective.

Except…

The comedian George Carlin in some long ago album argues that anything can be funny provided that in the story there is something that is grossly out of proportion.

Anything can be funny, Carlin asserts, so long as the narrative incident has something in it that is ridiculous and exaggerated.

J’s bedside today wasn’t ha-ha funny but something seemed out of proportion: God.

Our faith in Him.

Holding J’s mother’s hand in one hand and holding his dying body in my other arm, taking my cues from the Sharpie-scriped faith pictures around me, I prayed about God’s Kingdom and God’s Power and God’s Will-Be-Done, and I thought how our collective faith seemed pathetically disproportionate to the reality before us. Our faith, I thought, seemed at best like a mustard seed against a mountain.

My nose ran onto his blanket as I prayed.

Or, possibly the malproportioned sizing went the opposite direction. Our claims about God’s loving goodness sweep too broad, offensively so, considering the concrete reality of J’s small, shallow breaths.

Maybe, irrespective of my book, that’s what makes cancer funny- not because it causes us to laugh but because it makes us a cause for laughter.

Derisive laughter.

Maybe George Carlin is right.

Maybe all you need for (black) comedy is a giant effing gap between what is and what, in God’s good world, ought to be. Maybe that’s the gross, out of of proportion exaggeration of which Carlin speaks. Maybe this world, where children die and mothers mourn them, as measured against the naive eyes, lofty claims, and stained glass language of our God-speech is the exaggeration that should leave us red-faced and laughed at in this world.

The joke is on us who so often suppose that God is in control, that everything happens for a reason, or that God wills our suffering for some mystery that will be yielded to us in the fullness of time. Believers deserve to be the object of laughter, such laughter it seems to me is the most thoroughly Christian reaction to the lie that Death is anything but the Enemy.

People of faith deserve to be scorned with laughter and ridicule, righteously so. Unless, all the world’s bitter laughter and the pain which it occasions really is born by a God emptied of all power and pretense and poured out in suffering. As Paul all but says in 1 Corinthians 15, the joke is on us if the joke we tell is not true: that in taking on our humanity, Christ suffers in himself the exaggeration, the malproportioned gap, between what is and what ought to be and in dying defeats Death.

Cancer is Funny (?!)

Jason Micheli —  August 3, 2016 — 3 Comments

MicheliCover_FINALApparently, unbeknownst to me, my forthcoming Fortress Press book is available for pre-order on Amazon. Hell, it’s even the #1 New Release in Religious Humor, no big feat considering how humorless we are as a tribe.

Almost a year ago, Fortress approached me to ask if I’d consider writing about my cancer exile and wandering.

Some have questioned the appropriateness of the title. Fair enough. Obviously, it was meant to grab attention.

“How can something so painful and horrific be funny?” I’ve been asked.

Don’t forget, I’m not nor will I ever be ‘cured’ so I get better than most the unfunny bits of cancer.

Still, I believe cancer is funny because God is present in cancer.

John Chrysostom, a fourth-century Christian clergyman, whose oratory netted him the nickname John Goldenmouth, once preached, “Tears bind us to God not laughter.” 

You might expect to find such esteeming of seriousness and suffering in a religion with a cross at the front of every sanctuary and an execution at the heart of its story, but the Gospels frame their narratives not from the perspective of the crucifixion, but from the hindsight of resurrection’s happy surprise. In other words, the laughter of Easter, not the laments of Good Friday, should determine for us how we conceive of God and ourselves as God’s creatures.

Everyone assumes that suffering leads the sufferer to God, and sometimes it does. Suffering can knock down all our other (self-) defenses so that we can finally, wholly, depend upon our maker. But if suffering leads us closer to God, suffering should not leave us mirthless.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and priest from the twentieth century, posited as a sort of first principle:

“Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

The first time I heard my youngest son’s belly laugh, I marveled over how a celibate like Pierre had understood about God what it took fatherhood to teach me.

Everyone assumes suffering leads you closer to God. And no one registers surprise to hear how cancer has led someone to a deeper (i.e., more serious) faith, but people betray something like shock when you suggest to them that cancer can be funny.

If God is Joy, then we can’t rightly be said to have grown closer to God, through suffering or any other means, without a marked increase in joy, and with joy comes laughter.

Mirth and levity that only the good news of grace makes possible.

Despite the finality with which he expressed it, John Chrysostom was only partially correct. Tears, and the suffering that provokes them, can in fact bring us closer to God by leaving us no other options but turning to God.

But tears and suffering cannot fetter us to God.

Only joy can bind us fully to the God who is most infallibly Joy.

Cancer is funny, then, because the suffering occasioned by cancer draws you nearer to God, and the closer you get to God, the louder laughter becomes.

Pre-Order the Book!

The more people who do, the more people will happen upon it by accident. The whole reason I wrote about my cancer in the real, raw language I was feeling was because of the number of people I met still carrying unresolved grief and pain from cancer in their own family. I wrote about my cancer the way a lot of people (non-pastors) speak so that those people might find a way to speak their grief, worry, rage, and laughter.

It’s available on Amazon for pre-order.

Check it out.

Order another copy for someone who might be helped by it.

Here’s the book

If you get this by email, here’s the link to cut and paste:

https://www.amazon.com/Cancer-Funny-Keeping-Faith-Stage-Serious/dp/1506408478/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470192757&sr=1-1&refinements=p_27%3AJason+Micheli

This rant brought to you by the unholy and asinine commentary from the Gospel Coalition video above wherein three hyper-Calvinists exult in the way God ‘ordains tragedy in our lives in order to display his sovereign glory over our lives.’

It’s hard for me to exaggerate how morally loathsome I find this strain in Calvin’s theology and the manner in which it gets amplified by those who claim his tradition. No doubt it can feel a kind of “comfort” to think that the peculiar suffering or tragedy that’s been visited upon you is in some mysterious way the outworking of God’s plan. As someone with incurable cancer I can sympathize better than most with the temptation to take comfort that my particular suffering is not without a divine reason.

Such “comfort” is understandable but consider at what cost my personal comfort is purchased: all the innocent children suffering and dying down through the ages in order to manifest God’s ordained script.

A strict view of divine sovereignty as this may render us a morally intelligible  universe in which we can conceive our part yet it also gives us a morally reprehensible god.

If suffering, tragedy, death, and evil were constitutive of God’s ordained plan then they would be constitute God’s very nature, his essence. I can concede that such a god might exist, but I cannot lie and hold that such a god would be in any way worthy of worship, for he may prove loving on occasion or even ultimately but he would not be Love itself.

With the ancient Church Fathers, I believe God, by definition, is the only necessary Being. God alone is sufficient unto himself. As Trinity, God is already the fullness of love, joy, beauty, and- most important in this case, peace-with-difference. Peace not violence is the most fundamental reality to God and to God’s creation. Thus the violence of suffering wreaked upon creation has no part in or origin from God.

The self-sufficiency of Father, Son, and Spirit is such that creation is completely gratuitous. We add nothing to God. Our faithful adoration does not add any joy to God because God is already and always the fullness of joy. Our sins and wickedness do not add any anger to God because God is already and always the fullness of love. There is no incapacity within him by which we can change God. This may not flatter us, as David Hart quips, but it does glorify God.

Because God is sufficient unto himself and unaffected by anything outside himself, God has no need to employ means contrary to his nature (the violence of suffering visited upon his creation) in order to fulfill the project of his self-realization in history, such as the dunderheaded Calvinist belief that God ordained the Fall in order to display his glory in our Redemption. God is, simply, incapable employing means contrary to his nature.

Instead sin, suffering, evil, and death, as the Church Fathers held, are manifestations of creation’s alienation and rebellion from God. They are privations in God’s creation; they are not products of God’s will. Indeed it’s more accurate to say that we see God willing suffering in our lives and so interpret scripture that way because sin, suffering, evil, and death have blinded us to the true God.

As DBH writes:

“If it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”

Perhaps it appears that this view, which is not at all novel but entirely consistent with the received tradition, gives me nothing to say someone suffering, for example, incurable cancer. “This is happening to you for no reason” can admittedly sound like a cold comfort. But the fact is, the truth is, there is NO reason. To ask ‘What kind of God sanctions _______?’ is to make a foundational error in supposing God is the primary causal agent behind ________.

To believe that God is the primary causal agent behind, say, my incurable cancer is to confuse the Christian belief in Providence with Determinism.

Determinism: God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass in the world, as the proper and necessary means to achieving his ends.

Providence: God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things towards his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operation of grace.

In other words, God does not will suffering and evil but may permit it rather than violate the autonomy of the created world he’s made to love him in freedom just as Father, Son, and Spirit love one another in freedom.

Providence works at the level of primary causality. Providence maintains the belief that God is totally transcendent of creation, within which secondary causes, like cancer, work within the freedom God has bestowed upon the world. Yet, Providence assures that no consequence of our freedom will undermine the accomplishment of the good God intends. Providence is not to believe that every event in this world is the outworking of God’s will or even an occasion for God’s grace.

How odd it is that atheists and strict Calvinists alike should both think that Christians are to draw an absolute one-to-one connection between the will of God and the every moment conditions of life on earth.

The effect of seeing a single divine will working on all created things in every moment and contingency of their created lives (with no room for the operation of the freedom in which God has created them) is to see the world in unChristian terms. That is, the world is nothing other than it appears- the world is, in all its parts and in its sum, the expression of God’s will.

To define ‘sovereignty’ as one-to-one connection between the will of God and every contingency of life collapses the will of God into the world such that there is now no distinction between the two.

In fact, such a collapse of the divine will into the created world makes the world not only unfree and completely arbitrary it makes the world necessary to God. If the world is necessary then God did not make it ex nihilo out of sheer gratuity and thus life is not gift and God, by all reasoning, would not be the Good.

When you confuse Providence and Determinism, the transcendent gets collapsed into the creation. “God” is no longer the name we give to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” God is just the totality of all that is. God is, as DBH asserts, a brute event, sheer will (the point of my post on nominalism).

There is no longer any creation apart from which God stands as transcendentally other.  Indeed because it’s no longer gratuitous, the world is no longer ‘creation’ it’s just the world.

Sovereignty, so construed, becomes indistinguishable from pantheism because God, who is only Will, is inextricable from and constitutive of the natural world.