Archives For Cancer

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.

micheliadj

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 — 5 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 fucking 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.

12744280_1713461858909999_5768302360489547677_nI was the guest at the most recent Pub Theology gathering. Since its Lent, the topic I was given was Faith and Suffering. I apologize for how much I say ‘um.’ The poem I shared during the event is included below.

 

“A Prayer That Will Be Answered”

Lord let me suffer much

and then die

Let me walk through silence

and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue

let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green

so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it

and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly

as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane

bumped by a bumblebee’s head

– by Anna Kamienska

Spitting in Sin’s Face

Jason Micheli —  February 15, 2016 — 6 Comments

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     This past weekend was my official return to Aldersgate after a year on medical leave. Returning meant more to my family and me than we could have anticipated, and we’re grateful for the warm welcome the congregation showed us.

     Kevin Spacey, as Keyser Soze, says the greatest trick the devil played was convincing us he doesn’t exist. I think the greatest trick Sin plays on us is convincing us that it still has power over us. Here’s my sermon from the first Sunday in Lent, in which I attempted to underscore our liberation from Sin by first laughing at the power of Death and then spitting on Sin. The text, as if there could be another, was Paul’s baptismal passage in Romans 6.1-11.

     ‘Whoever has died with Christ [through baptism] is free from sin.‘      

Speaking of death-

A year ago this week, I woke up from abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive cancer with long odds for a happy ending.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.

When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. You can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting. When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.

And you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.

I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.

Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this room is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon, like each and every one of you took out a line of credit at FTD.

I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream you all send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like American Pharaoh exploded all over it.

And back in the narthex, for one last prank on the 8:30 service, Hedy sets up a toilet and, next to it, a roll of appropriately mournful black toilet paper. So in my daydream there’s flowers up here and a toilet back there and in here the pews are packed.

Its standing room only in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Cindy Crawford.

In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.

As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the organ Liz plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.

Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar table, He Who Must Not Be Named kneels before my casket and quietly confesses his many sins against me and begs me not to haunt him like Jacob to Ebenezer.

Then, he’s followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.

They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’

In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the bishop slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late and second-guessing his decision to show solidarity with me by wearing a bandana and booty shorts.

But as he squeezes into a spot in the back corner, Stephen Hawking assures the bishop in his Speak-N-Spell voice that the booty shorts look quite nice with his clergy collar.

After the opening hymn, Andreas plays my favorite Old Testament song, ‘Female Bears are Eating My Friends.’ As he strums somberly with his eyes closed members of the Journeys Band notice that for the occasion of my funeral Andreas has bought a brand new pair of dutch boy clogs. Plus, he’s wearing his very best Cosby sweater.

When Andreas finishes, Dennis gets up to preach. And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.

But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Hedy and Hedy stands up in the pulpit and, first, she reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’

And then she looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’

After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, the choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.

The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’

Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the choir veers off key because Ernest Johnson’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it. So the choir’s singing their heart out even if they’re singing off key and, while they sing, Scarlett Johansson leans over to Dennis to ask why Terri Phillips is wearing a Cinderella costume.

‘It’s what Jason would’ve wanted,’ Dennis whispers to Scarlett and Penelope Cruz just as the choir belts out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’

After the applause dies down, Ali chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me. She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.

‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’

With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.

As God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved Jason in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.

And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to Wesley Hall where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture. Of me.

——————

But I digress.

My point is- For a long time, I thought I was going to die.

When I realized I wasn’t going to die, when I got my bone marrow results back a few weeks ago, and I realized the inevitable wasn’t yet, I was so freaking grateful.

Bowled over with gratitude. To God.

I felt so thankful that I promised a vow to God. I swore an oath to God. For the gift of my life, I would offer the gift of my faithfulness. It’s true. I stared at myself in the mirror at my oncologist’s mens room right after I received my results.

I splashed water on my face to make sure I wasn’t daydreaming. I stared at myself in the mirror and I swore, from here on out, I would be a perfect Christian.

No more snark or sarcasm. No more dark cynicism. No more cussing or anger. No more can’t be bothered apathy or little white lies.

 God had rescued me from death so I promised to the mens room mirror: ‘I will never sin again.’

And I meant it. I was doing a pretty job with it until I walked out of the bathroom and over to the elevator. The elevator at my doctor’s office, no matter the time of day, it’s like the DMV was outsourced to supervise the Final Solution. It’s a constipated, huddling mass of people frantic with their self-importance.

So I waited and waited, as the elevator would come and close, come and close, each time too crowded for me. But I was a good Christian. I kept my vow. I was patient. I did not think any dark thoughts in my heart. I did not sin.

So I was doing pretty good, and my turn was next. I was right there at the front of the line.

But as soon as the elevator doors opened, this old guy with wispy white hair and an oxygen mask, out of nowhere, wedged a walker in between me and the elevator doors and, like he was Patrick Ewing, he threw a varicosed elbow at me and pushed me out of the way to wait longer for another elevator.

Patrick Ewing looked at me as the elevator doors closed between us. And he smirked!

And if anyone had been able to read my mind in that moment I would’ve been whistled for a flagrant foul.

On my way home from the doctor, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee. I was standing at the counter about to pay. Next to me, in front of the other register, a homeless man poured coins out of an empty Cheetos bag and, coming up short, he looked over at me and asked if I had any money.

Without thinking about it, without meaning to, just reflexively (which says a lot about me), I said: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

My words were still hanging thick in the air when I looked down at my wallet in my hand, which had a wad of wrinkled 5’s and 10’s sticking out of it like a bouquet of dirty green flowers.

Not only had I lied, not only had I refused charity, Jesus says whatever you do to the poor you’ve done it to him so 20 minutes after my I’ll-never-sin-again-oath to God, I’d managed to lie to and stiff Jesus. Not to mention swearing false oaths is one of the 10 Commandments so that was a sin too.

And leaving Starbucks, I accidentally cut a guy off in traffic. It was an accident, not a sin.

But then when he rolled his window down to offer his opinion of me (at the traffic light), and when he offered his opinion of my mother (at the next light), and when he described everything he thought I deserved to do to myself (at the light after that), did I turn the rhetorical cheek? Did I forgive his trespass against me? Did I forgive him 70 x 7 times? Did I offer to walk a mile in his jerk shoes?

No, I said goodbye to him with a sarcastic smile and a one-fingered wave.

When I got home, I watched a clip of Joel Osteen, America’s favorite preacher, that one of you was kind enough to share with me on Facebook. I listened as Joel Osteen talked about how he doesn’t like to preach about the cross or other ‘depressing things.’ He prefers to keep it positive and uplifting.

Jesus says if you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery. By that same moral logic, if you’ve thought about killing someone, knocking in their toilet lid teeth, punching them in their vacant, Botox eyes, pulling out their mousse-hardened hair and turning their syrupy smile upside down- if you’ve thought about it, you’ve committed murder, Jesus implies. Guilty.

After I broke that commandment, I made the mistake of going to the Soviet Safeway just down Ft. Hunt.

I was in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 15 Items or Less Line.

I was in line behind this blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 15 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm.

No, I didn’t complain.

I didn’t gripe that I had places to go and people to see. And I didn’t complain when she pulled out a stack of wrinkled, mostly expired coupons to try to haggle the price down.

No, I kept my vow. I was Jesusy good.

But then when it came time to pay, the old lady reached in to a purse the size of El Salvador and after searching in it for…oh, I don’t know…forever…what did she pull out?

That’s right: a checkbook.

It was big and fat and had like 8 rubber bands wrapped around it and old deposit slips sticking out everywhere.

And after she then searched for her ‘favorite pen’ she filled the check out like she was signing a Syrian Peace Treaty and then she carefully tore the check out of the checkbook and then she marked the transaction down in her checkbook register with crossword puzzle care and then- finally- she handed the check to the teenager working the cash register, the teenager who had clearly never seen nor processed a check in his life.

‘Oh my Lord! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!’ I didn’t say to myself.

If the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, and so the opposite of all that produce must be sin, right?

God rescued me from death, and still my new life of sinless perfection was shorter lived than Lincoln Chaffee’s presidential campaign.

—————-

     ‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?’ 

     Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 6.

I know our teachers all lied to us and told us there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there is and this is one. The answer is not only obvious it’s ubiquitous. How can we go on sinning? Uh, very easily, Paul. I can do it without even trying.

‘How can we go on sinning?’! The better question is how can we not go on sinning? It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?‘ It’s a rhetorical question. Paul obviously thinks its not only possible but expected for those who’ve been buried in baptism to live free of sin.

According to Paul here, roughly 93% of my waking life should be impossible. I’ve been baptized. I’ve died to sin- Paul means that literally not figuratively- so my sinful life should be impossible. Your sinful life should be impossible.

Maybe you’re different, to me it’s Christ’s life that feels impossible.

But if Christ died to sin and we with him then why? Why do we so often and so easily sin?

So what gives?

What’s the disconnect between what Paul assumes to be true and what we assume to be obvious?

Who’s wrong?

Are we wrong? Is sin really easier to shake than everything in our lived experience leads us to suppose?

Or is Paul wrong? Have we not really died with Christ, died to sin, so that we can live free of it?

But if Paul’s wrong, then that means the Gospel’s wrong too. Christ, good dude though he was, did not set his people free by overcoming the pharaoh of Sin. And we who have been plunged under with him in baptism have not died with him so we have no share in him.

How can we go on sinning?

How can we not go on sinning?

The assumption are not compatible. So who’s wrong? Paul? Or you and me? What’s the disconnect?

     It’s almost as though when we talk about Sin, Paul and you and me, we’re talking about two different things.

—————

     In the ancient Church, baptism would be performed almost exclusively on Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus is as dead as you will one day be, when, as the Church says, Jesus is our Passover, passing over from Death to Life.

The baptismal ritual wasn’t a sentimental one with babies and lacey heirlooms. Instead it was imagined and staged like a funeral. In the middle of the Easter vigil, after the Exodus story was read, the worshippers would move outside to the baptistry.

Often those to be baptized were carried in caskets.

When they reached the flowing water, before they stripped naked to shed symbolically their old self and before they were plunged into the water just as the sea drown the chains of Pharaoh’s army, those to be baptized would face West, the direction where the light of the sun sets and the darkness rises.

They would face West and they would renounce Sin.  They would declare their independence from it.

And then, they would spit.

They would spit in Sin’s face. They would spit on Sin. They would draw up all the disgust and anger, all the self-loathing and pain, they could muster in their mouths and then they would spit in Sin’s face.

Here’s the thing-

You can’t spit in the face of a behavior.

You can only spit in the face of a person.

And really, it only has righteous power if you spit in the face of a person who thinks they control you. In the face of a Master.

—————

     When it comes to Sin, Paul and you and me, we don’t mean the same thing.

We think of sin as behavior. We think of sin as something we commit, like lying or cheating on your husband or lusting in your heart to do grave bodily harm to Joel Osteen.

We think of sin as behavior, but Paul thinks of Sin as a Power.

You can think of it as Darkness with a capital D. You can call it Satan if you like. If you’re a nerd, you can compare it to Sauron’s ring of power.

But to understand Paul you have to understand that he understands Sin not as our behavior but as a Power outside of us, as a Pharaoh, as a Master, whose will it is to have dominion over us, to bind us.

Our little ‘s’ sins are just signs and symptoms of our enslavement to the power of Sin with a capital S.

So for Paul, sin isn’t about our behavior. Sin is about our status, which Master do we believe we belong to?

For Paul, sin isn’t about what we do or don’t do. It isn’t about who we are on the inside or behind closed doors. Sin is about where we are.

Do we believe we’ve made an exodus in Jesus Christ? Or not? Do we believe we’ve passed over from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God?

We think of sin as things we do that disobey God’s will and provoke God’s anger.

But not Paul.

Paul doesn’t think of sin as disobeying God’s will for you.

Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

     Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

That’s how Paul can ask a rhetorical question like ‘How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’

It’s ridiculous to him that we would go on living under sin because we’ve been set free from the Power of Sin.

Sin’s let God’s People go. That Master no longer has any dominion over us or claim to us. That’s not who we belong to anymore. And Paul’s not being metaphoric.

     Paul believes emphatically that when we are joined in baptism by faith to Christ’s death something objective happens.

    We are moved, transferred, from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God, and it’s a 1-way, once for all, no going back, nothing you do can undo it, kind of journey.

As we say with bread and wine, Christ has set us free from slavery to Sin.

That’s why Paul’s question is rhetorical, and rightly so. Why would you live your life as though the Power of Sin had any claim on you? That’s like obeying a Master who no longer owns you, submitting to a Ruler who’s already been deposed, fearing an Enemy that’s already been defeated.

Why would you want your life to be a prison when you’ve passed over with Christ from Egypt to freedom?

Paul doesn’t mean that baptism is a magical inoculation that makes it impossible for us to sin. He means to it’s impossible for us to see ourselves as slaves to it, to our sins.  We’ve been set free. That doesn’t mean we’re free of sins. It means we’re free from Sin. We’re free to choose a different story for ourselves. We’re free to turn from our sin, and we’re free to turn away the sins of the world. We’re not powerless against the sins in our lives nor are we excused to be passive about the sins in the world.

We’re free.

—————

     Okay, but that just leaves a big, fat question on the table: How?

How do you do it? If we’re free from Sin, how do we live free of sins?

Chances are, you didn’t hock many loogies at your baptism, and even though you can’t be rebaptized, it’s never too late to take a page from the wisdom of the past and spit in Sin’s face. Renounce it.

Look in the mirror even and pretend its Sin with a capital S staring back at you and spit in its face. Announce your rebellion.

Maybe you were abused. Stare that sin down and spit in its face and announce to it: ‘I don’t belong to you.’

And how about that anger you can’t keep from spilling out onto the people you love- look it in the eyes and spit in its face and tell it what my kids tell me: ‘You’re not the boss of me.’

The prejudice you try to justify, the spending that fills a hole no one can see, the resentment and regret that’s crippled your marriage, the callousness that’s grown up over your wounds- give it all the dead-eye stare.

Spit in its face and say to it: ‘You have no claim on me.You’re not my Master.

I don’t even live in Egypt anymore.’

Spit in its face. Stare down your shame, and declare your disobedience. Say to your shame and self-loathing:

You may call me a slut

You may call me an addict, a freak, a loser, a disappointment

You may tell me I’m a failure, I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m old, I’m whatever

But just as God declares of Jesus at his baptism so God declares of me because I’m in him and he’s in me and so I’m a beloved child of God and with God’s only Son I’ve passed over from captivity.

The only chains on me are the ones I put on myself.

Stare Sin down. Spit in its face. Laugh at it.

And say to it: Why would I obey you? I’ve been set free.

—————

      This time last year I thought I was going to die.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought the good news was that I wasn’t going to die. And I’m not saying I’m not happy about it…but in this place, the good news is that with water and promises by people like you I’ve already died.

With and in Christ.

So I don’t need to make any promises, take any vows, or swear any oaths to become a completely different person.

No, I only need to learn how to become who I already am.

Free.

 

 

 

 

It’s exactly a year ago the GI doctor called me the night after my CT scan and asked if I was sitting down.

I missed Ash Wednesday last year.

The year before immediately after the Ash Wednesday Service I ran to Safeway to procure a few (non-meat) products for the first dinner of our Lenten fast.

I was standing in line in the small, Soviet-esque Safeway near my house, about 4 people back. I could hear the bagger and the teller whispering words like ‘what’s’ and ‘going on’ and ‘holiday’ and ‘apocalypse’ and ‘probably’ and ‘something’ and ‘in’ and ‘Revelation.’

They were staring at the black, greasy cross on my forehead.

When I got to the checkout, one of them asked me furtively:

‘So, uh, is it like a holiday or something? Or did you go to a funeral?’

Thinking that would certainly be a memorable (and probably psyche-destroying) funeral, where we grind up the dearly departed and wipe him on our collective craniums, I replied:

‘It’s Ash Wednesday.’

‘Oh, right!’

Long pause.

‘What’s Ash Wednesday?’

And I replied with exactly what I’d told the congregation 30 minutes earlier: ‘Ash Wednesday is the day we remember that life is a gift from God by remembering our mortality.’

Longer pause.

‘I don’t get it.’

I kind of just smiled and swiped my debit card not wanting to venture too much more into this conversation and not because there were a dozen people waiting behind me impatiently with their lunch meat, TP and Crystal Light.

I didn’t want to say much more because, in all honesty, I still hadn’t processed or recovered from the night’s service.

Less than hour before, I had traced an ugly black cross on a child in my son’s class and said: ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

Words that become jarring when spoken on to a 10 year old’s forehead.

And after her, several people back in line, I traced the same bruise-like cross on the forehead of someone whom I’ve grown to love over the past 8 years. Knowing that if I stay in this congregation for a while longer I’ll likely perform this person’s funeral, I said to this friend: ‘‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

I fought back the sudden urge to cry.

And after that friend came another soon after, someone with whom I’ve shared many a laugh on mission teams in Guatemala. On him, I traced a brooding black cross and said: ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

There were others like that.

Like the parishioner whose battle with cancer I was privy to. When I marked him with the cross and said ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return’ the words rung with a painful truth.

Or the parent worried that their child will one day make good on threats to return themselves to the dust prematurely.

And then there was a handful of complete and total strangers. People who came in off the street because they saw the service announced on the sign out front. To these strangers, I drew an executioner’s tool on their forehead and basically said: ‘Remember, eventually you’re going to die.’

More so than any other holy day in the church year, Ash Wednesday affects me.

On Ash Wednesday it’s as though every one gathered in the pews becomes a walking, talking, breathing (for now) illustration of the day’s meaning:

life is a fragile, tightrope experience, sometimes precious and sometimes terrifyingly awful and, good or bad, it will one day end.

In so many ways, we’re finite. We’re grass, says the Poet. Just a part of the world God made. Worse than grass, says the Ash Wednesday, we’re like dirt.

But were it not so, our lives would cease to be gifts.

I didn’t preach a sermon that Ash Wednesday. A year later, last winter, I learned how I hadn’t need to preach one.

I was, somewhere deep in my percolating marrow, already embodying the day’s message.

Podcast with Todd Littleton

Jason Micheli —  February 1, 2016 — 1 Comment

patheologicalbannerappendTodd Littleton is a thoughtful pastor and blogger in Oklahoma who was kind of enough to invite for a conversation on his podcast recently. I look forward to building our e-relationship into the future.

I certainly don’t deserve them but Todd writes:

From the time I heard Jason Micheli‘s voice on a podcast I determined I needed to hear what he had to say or read what he had to write. Discovering his blog felt like reading Anne Lamott.Traveling Mercies served for me to be one of the gutsy honest books that one rarely ever read growing up in an extremely conservative Christian enclave. We did not know to call it a subculture back then.

Jason writes with a wit and honesty that opens you up and then stings you. Rarely does a pastor gain the privilege to write, much less speak that way. Received like a sucker punch I read Jason’s news that he was battling Mantle Cell Lymphoma. His recent check-up revealed he was cancer free. The point from then to now is littered with gut wrenching pain without the loss of his penetrating insight.

Todd blogs at the Edge of the Inside, and I’d encourage you subscribe. Here’s the original post he has about the podcast, with the original audio link.

You can listen to it here below:

 

Tattoo You

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

‘My name’s Hawk’ he said, offering me his meaty orange and scarlet painted hand, flames I think, whose red tongues lapped seamlessly into the illustration running up his arm.

My hand disappeared into his and I thought to myself: Of course your name’s Hawk

Shorter than me, he looked like a squat version of one half of the Road Warriors, the Mad Max inspired WWF tag team I idolized as a kid. Maybe Hawk was a fanboy too because that clothes-lining, from the top rope, road warrior was also named Hawk. Road_Warrior_Hawk

’Is that Hawk? Or Mr. Hawk?’ I asked…like a tool. He did me the courtesy of faking a chuckle before opening the waist high ‘Staff Only’ gate and ushering back into his studio.

Once I realized a few months ago that my stage-serious cancer wasn’t going to kill me, at least not for now, I passed the infusion and transfusion time sketching a sort of bucket list, a concept nearly ruined for me in 2007 by that dentures dud of a movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, a ‘film’ which proved not everything is made awesome simply by the presence of Morgan Freeman. It’s hard to sail around the world on a pastor’s salary and I’ve already read all the Dostoyevsky I ever want to read so I settled upon less ambitious but no less important items for my Cancer Didn’t Kill Me Yet Bucket List, such as

#3: Spend More Time with Friends

#7: Take My Job Less Seriously and

#2: Try to be Less of an A-hole to My Wife. 

#6 on the list was something I’d always had in the back of my mind but had never gotten around to doing, getting a tattoo. Not only did the scare of the past year compel me, any tattoo I did get, I discerned, should in some fashion testify to the struggle we’d experienced and to any epiphanies with which we’d emerged on the other end of our nightmare.

Jacob, in Genesis, laid an altar to remember (and maybe warn away others) the place where God had struggled with him. Lacking any ebeneezers, I went to a tattoo parlor instead. So it was that I sat a few afternoons ago in Hawk’s brightly animated studio, my arm draped over a vinyl cushion, sucking on lollipops to stave off the sugar crash he’d warned me the needle would provoke. It’s a surprisingly intimate moment, having someone inscribe what might be a terrible mistake into your flesh. Like sex, it’s sweaty and you can’t take it back and, like sex, I felt it would’ve been even more awkward in the absence of pillow talk. Or, in this case, banter.

No doubt I’m judging, but I assumed the Republican Primary or America’s refugee policy to lie outside his conversational wheelhouse, so I asked Hawk:

‘What’s the strangest tattoo you ever did for someone?’

‘Please don’t tell me it was a dolphin leaping through a clovered trinity or a Chinese script character that actually translates to ‘Kick Me’ I joked. But his countenance fell. He looked bothered. Disturbed even. He turned the ink gun off and laid it down. Staring at the floor, he looked as though all that was missing was a fire around which he could tell this horror story. He was quiet for several moments before shaking his head and said: ‘Dude, this one time…this guy had me ink this giant butterfly on his entire back.’

This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. ‘Well, that’s not quite Flannery O’Connor’ I laughed, ‘but that doesn’t sound too strange.’

‘No, dude, that’s not it. You see, the body of the butterfly…’ he looked back at the fake wood floor, ‘the body of the butterfly was a…giant _________.’

Since I’ve only recently petitioned the United Methodist powers-that-be to be reinstated off of medical leave, let’s just say the word Hawk shared with me rhymes with ‘Loner.’

‘Seriously?’ I asked him.

‘Yeah dude, and where the feet on the butterfly are supposed to go he wanted me to put a pair of _________. ‘

‘Of course. It would look ridiculous without them’ I deadpanned. He started to grab his ink gun but put it down again when I asked him: ‘Did you ask him? What was the story behind that tattoo?’

‘Naw dude. I figured it was best I didn’t know.’

‘Probably a good call.’ He started again on my arm. I watched him, looking down at the upside down A he had started to outline.

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‘This is the Alpha and Omega, right?’ he asked over the whirr of the gun and the Dead Weather playing over the Bose.

He must’ve read my ‘How’d you know that?’ expression because he added, ‘We get a lot of Christians in here.’

‘I imagine so’ I said. ‘I guess crosses have more staying power than the Tasmanian Devil or Calvin and Hobbes.’ He did me another favor by laughing.

‘These here, then, this means the Beginning and the End, right?’ he pointed to the other letters in the corner of the cross. I nodded, unwrapping another lollipop.

‘Then this,’ and with the needle he outlined the crow in which the cross and letters were all contained, ‘must be Peter denying Jesus? The cock crowing three times?’ ‘Why does it look like it’s falling?’ he asked, sounding genuinely curious now.

‘Because while Peter’s denying Jesus, Jesus is falling down, carrying his cross.’ I explained.

‘Carrying it…for Peter’s sake, huh?’ Hawk closed the gospel loop.

‘Yeah. In a way,’ I said, ‘you can think of it as the ultimate tramp stamp.’

‘The three?’ he asked, ‘the Trinity?’

‘No, but that works too. Stations of the Cross, the third one.’

‘Why’d you decide to get a tattoo?’ he asked.

‘I’ve always wanted one,’ I said, grimacing at how cliche that sounded ‘and then cancer nearly killed me this year.’

‘How’d you settle on this image?’ he asked, wiping the blood that was dripping down from my cross.

I sucked the lollipop spit back into my mouth. It was my turn to look at the floor.

‘There’s nothing like cancer and your own looming death to point out just how imperfect and unfaithful- scared and sinful- you are’ I confessed.

‘When you’re afraid you’ve already done most of the living you’re going to do and all the important decisions you’ll make in your life have already been made, you take account. And no matter how many times you count, you fear you don’t measure up.’

He’d stopped the ink gun again and was considering me, like I would at someone in my office who’d revealed more than they knew.

‘Anyway,’ I mumbled through the lollipop I’d returned to my mouth, ‘this past year I’ve sought refuge in the fact that, in Jesus, God takes all those experiences and emotions of ours into himself’ I said, unintentionally saving the most important point for last.

‘God doesn’t cause our pain and suffering.

God doesn’t shun us because of our shortcomings.

God makes them his own.’

And, as though an affirmation, he stretched out the two solitary syllables: ‘Dude.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I think maybe I wanted the tattoo because I’ve had to remind myself of it a lot this year.’

He nodded like he understood or sympathized. ‘So…’ Hawk struggled to summarize, ’this basically means s#$% happens but, in Jesus, God shares in it with us.’

I nodded. ‘I thought an image like this would make a better tattoo than, say, a quote like yours.’

He chuckled. ‘You go to church?’ he asked me. ‘You don’t look the type.’

‘Just about every Sunday’ I said.