Archives For Incarnation

Why Did Jesus Come?

Jason Micheli —  June 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the tag for the previous posts here and on the sidebar to the right.

III. The Son

10. Why did Jesus come?  

There’s no need to ask me.

Ask his cousin, John: Jesus comes in order to bear away our proclivity to point the finger and scapegoat one another, the sin that is at the very foundation of the world; so that, we can be at-one with God and each other.

Ask his mother, Mary: Jesus comes to bring the Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, in which the lowly are lifted up, the powerful brought down from their boardrooms, the proud scattered in the presumptions of their heart, the rich sent empty away and the poor have gospel brought to them.

Ask his father, Joseph: Jesus comes to be a light to the nations, the 2nd Abraham through whose family, called church, the whole world might be blessed.

Ask Matthew: Jesus comes so that his birth, from nothing, would inaugerate a New Creation of which his resurrection- Sin and Death having done their worst- is vindication.

Ask John, his Beloved Disciple: Jesus comes to give flesh to the invisible image of God, showing us the authentically human, abundant life God desires for each of us. But, he comes to take us beyond mere creature hood too, bearing us in his flesh, through his Spirit into the life called Trinity; so that, God can love us not as creatures but as God loves God.

Ask his disciples: Jesus comes to be our Passover, liberating us through his broken body and poured out blood from the Powers which bind us, into a life of freedom for love and service.

Ask the Pharisees: Jesus comes claiming to be the Son of Man, forgiving sinners (refusing to condemn them) while judging the nations and those who serve them as their true lord.

Ask Pontius Pilate: Jesus comes to witness, even unto a cross, to the ‘truth’ that God alone rules the Earth.


Ask him yourself: He comes to invite us to turn away from the ways we reject our creature hood (which we call ‘sin’) and to turn towards a life of grace and gratitude (which he calls ‘the Kingdom of God’).

He does not come– notice, in order to suffer a monster’s torture meant for another, to assuage our guilt or to placate an anrgy deity. Nor does he come to bless our political causes in this life, secure our passage to the next one or reinforce maxims we can surmise apart from him, i.e. that ‘All you need is love.’

“Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of God is near.” -Matthew 3.2


When you have cancer, you quickly realize how the problem with chemotherapy is that everyone thinks chemotherapy is chemotherapy, that it’s the cancer equivalent to Centrum Silver, a catch-all for every once-sized cancer customer.

Whenever someone asks me ‘How’s the chemo going?’ I picture them picturing me with my chest catheter hooked up to a skull and cross-boned bag labeled, generically, ‘Cancer Drug.’ Or maybe, I picture, they just picture me swallowing it with a shot of water.

The truth is there are as many chemotherapy treatments as there are cancers and differing intensities and durations of those treatments for all the urgencies presented by those cancers. As my oncologist put it to me last week, in the face of latest wave of side effects:

‘Some chemo’s not much worse than Thanksgiving with your mother-in-law while other chemo, like yours for example, is designed to kick your fucking ass.’

Bewitched by the fact that I’m a man of the cloth, I sometimes wonder if it gives my doctor a titillating, confessional thrill to speak with me as though he’s working on my carburetor instead of my bone marrow.

Regardless of his motivation, he’s dead-on about the ass-kicking.

My particular chemo, R Hyper-CVAD, is a cocktail of poisons with Dr. Moreau-like names such as Cyclophosphamide, Vincristine, Doxorubicin, Dexamethasone, Methotrexate, Cytarabine and Rituximab. (You know they’re bad when the handouts tell you to double flush after pissing.)

My chemo is given to me for a week at a time in 8 alternating cycles every 21 days- those days get longer if my body’s recovery gets slower, which, increasingly, it has. Developed at the MD Anderson Clinic for quote ‘use in treatment of serious and aggressive forms of hematological malignancy…and reserved for young, fit patients because of its intensity’ my chemo protocol has already, in 4 short months, recast my self-image from Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider to Rick Moranis’ Louis Tully in Ghostbusters.

Each time the drugs extinguish my white blood cells, making me ice cream for the most innocent of germs. They deplete my red cells, the oxygen and protein in them, and thin my blood to a dangerous viscosity, leaving me with cuts that won’t heal, tissue that tears into sores, a racing heart I can feel in my teeth and a near constant state of dizziness. The effects are cumulative too so, with each round, they get worse and, each time, my recovery is like a rubber band with just a little less snap than before.


I’m at my nadir now.

I use that term, nadir, not because I’m a Scrabble-playing douchebag but because everyone from the doctors on down to the nursing techs use it to describe my lowest low, the point following each round of treatment at which, to use my doctor’s professional jargon, my ass is its most thoroughly kicked- usually about a dozen days after the start of chemo.

The English major in me likes that word ‘nadir’ to capture not just my blood chemistry but my feelings: pushed down a pendulum that’s not swinging back.

I’ve experienced 4 nadirs now and, it’s no comparison, I’m at my nadir of nadirs. The lowest of all my lows thus far. Last night, shivering with fever and curled up into a fetal position atop the bed, I wondered to Ali if I’d be able, physically, to make it to the end of my chemo, to come up from another 4 nadirs.

‘This is the first time…I don’t know if I can do this…’ I whispered.

I wasn’t looking for encouragement or empathy. I genuinely don’t know.

Everything I said above about my chemo’s side effects has been true this go round, ditto that bit about accumulating pain.

The poisons having plunged my blood counts to zero, my gums feel like they’ve been treated by a plastic surgeon who dabbles in dentistry on the weekends.

My tongue is swollen and covered in sores such that I can’t swallow or speak much more than a mumble. The sores rundown my esophagus so that when I do manage to eat something it triggers this stuck-in-the-throat choking sensation. My gums, tongue, throat- they’re all infected, which in turn has provoked a chronic, week-long 100 degree fever against which my 0.01 white blood count proves no match.

To add misery to insult and injury, the chemical runs induced by the start of chemo have turned to constipation. Wicked constipation. Like my colon is a character in the Cask of Amontillado.

I’m 15 pounds heavier than I was a week ago. I’m carrying around roughly 21 meals worth of food, plus snacks, and I feel like someone stuck a 3 Buck Chuck plastic cork up my small intestine and then quick-creted my ass crack for good measure.

It hurts.

Because my body’s so vulnerable during my nadir, the dumb ass, stoic bravado that comes naturally to me won’t cut it now. I’ve got to be forthcoming about my symptoms because, thanks to my orphaned immune system, I’m not going to get better on my own.

Whenever my temperature creeps across the 100 degree line, I’m supposed to suck it up and notify the on-call oncologist because a common cold could be enough to extradite me back to the hospital.

I called him the other morning and told him about my unabated fever and my infected gums and- why not, while I’ve got him on the phone- the geologic layers of food frozen in my intestines.

‘I’m telling you…it feels like I’m going to deliver a man-child. You could carbon date some of the food that’s stuck in me.’

He responded with MD-worthy ‘Hmms’ to each of my complaints, and when he sensed I’d finished my rant, he asked me the question I’ve since learned is to healthcare what the question ‘What’s in your wallet?’ is to Capitol One’s predatory usury:

‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’

Doctors, nurses, phlebotomists, et al ask that same question more than baby bird asked ‘Are you my mother?’

Before I even knew I had cancer, the CAT scan tech, noticing my discomfort while lying on the table, asked me: ‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’ Likewise the GI doctor who sent me for that CAT scan which would upend my life: ‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain in your tummy?’ He said tummy.

It was the first question that greeted when I awoke from bowel surgery and, in the days following, it was the question against which my recuperation was measured. I’ve since been asked it at every doctor visit, every blood draw, every chemo infusion and every platelet transfusion. The physicians assistant on the cancer advice line asks it. The nurse on the cancer ward charts it on the dry erase board right underneath my emergency contact information.

The other morning the on-call oncologist asked me it too.

‘…I can’t even remember the last time it’s been so long…I feel like I’m in an anus-themed version of Alien, except it’s a much, MUCH slower movie this time.’

‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’ he asked me.

And I fell into the same trap I always do.

I started philosophizing.

‘Well that all depends,’ I said as if stating the obvious.

‘It depends?’ he asked. I could detect the irritation blistering in his voice, for all I knew he was clutching his Galaxy on the 10th Fairway.

‘Yeah, it all depends. I mean, sure I feel like I’m about to deliver Shaquille O’Neal’s breech love child- 4 weeks LATE- but it all depends on what you consider a 10. Compared to, say, the pain of dying in the holocaust I’m probably only a…’

I weighed it.

‘…a 3.’

He sighed, like I’d called the on-call psychiatrist on accident.

‘How high did you say your fever was?’

Yesterday morning I was describing how my gums feel like they went to the prom last night with Carrie as the nurse typed my symptoms into an excel column labeled, I noticed, ‘Complaints.’

When I finished, she spun around on her stool and with a blank, impassive expression she asked me that question.

’10 being the most painful?’ I asked, just to be sure.

She nodded.

‘It’s hard to say’ and I exhaled like class (or therapy) was finally beginning.

‘Hard to say?’ she repeated back to me, double-checking her English.

‘Yeah, it’s hard to say. It all hangs on what you consider a 10, right?’

She just stared at me.

‘I mean, of course, my gums feel like someone carved them up to serve with fava beans and a nice Chianti, but compared to the pain of the world? It’s gotta rate pretty low, right?’

‘No?’ she guessed. She wasn’t following me.

‘Have you seen the movie Sophie’s Choice?’ I asked, hoping even a cliched tearjerker could make my point for me. She shook her head. No.

‘Well, Meryl Streep plays this Polish Jew during WWII and at the end of the movie you realize the Nazis at Auschwitz forced Sophie to choose between her two children, choose which one would live and which one would die in the ovens.’

The nurse covered her mouth.

‘That’s…horrible’ she whispered as the tiniest dew of a teardrop appeared in the corner of her eye.

‘I know- that’s my point. It’s horrible. Like, on an historic level. Can you even imagine? Something like that kind of pain has to be a 10 right? So compared to that what kind of unweened weenie would I have to be to rank my gum pain an 8, just 2 shy of Sophie’s choice?’


She shook her head and blinked, as if she were only now emerging from a narcotic slumber.

‘But…it doesn’t matter because you not know what Sophie’s choice feels like yourself.’

‘That’s just it,’ I countered, ‘you don’t know what this feels like.’ I pointed to my gums. ‘So what good does me assigning an arbitrary number to it do?’

‘I’ll put a 5 down.’

And she spun back around on her stool and began clacking on the keyboard. ‘The doctor will be in shortly’ she said. Godhelphim, she didn’t need to say.

When you become a chronic patient, you soon discover how so much of modern medicine is premised on pain management and how it’s all based on a numeracy that’s about as objective as a Jackson Pollack.

‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’ everyone asks.

But the scale isn’t scaled.

Compared to what? What scale are we talking about? Are these global or historic or personal proportions we’re weighing? Or, am I simply supposed to sort out today’s gripes like a game a layer cake? Maybe my gums feel like Laurence Olivier is standing over me with a drill asking ‘Is it safe?’ but compared to having ebola or those earthquake victims in Nepal I’d be a pretty petty bastard to rank it higher than 5. And don’t even get me started on where the crucifixion should go.

It seems to me before you ask me to plot my pain on a scale of 1-10 we should at least agree to certain benchmarks. Losing a child, let’s say, is a consensus 10. Losing a spouse, meanwhile, could be a 9 or a 2, depending on the quality of the marriage. Childbirth, men are always being reminded, is (even in the best of circumstances) an 8 while being hit in the nuts should never fare lower than a 3. A soft tap to the nuts- the worst, as every guy knows- is always a 4. We could save 6 for IRS audits and cavity searches, which are really just the same thing and who would argue with paper cuts for #1?

Pain, without some mutually agreed upon rubric, is all relative.


Your 10 might be the knife wounds you sustained while protecting a damsel from a mugging but, for a nancy like me, walking uphill on a hot day might be sufficient to score a 7. It’s all relative. It’s all relative to me, too, to my pain. Rating the sores on my swollen tongue a 5 doesn’t really tell you much if you don’t already know that, on my pain scale, 10 is reserved for the night I sat in the driveway and called Ali at work to tell her the doctor thought it might be cancer.

Actually, no, 10 is listening to her cry after I told her that night.

A 9 might be watching the last of my man hair wash down the shower drain yesterday morning.

When you’re having a heart attack you’re asked if it feels like an elephant is standing on your chest. A very specific, concrete image with some heft to it. But as you recuperate from that heart attack you’ll be asked to track your pain according to a number system that feels as arbitrary as those folded-paper fortune tellers my kids make at school.

Choose your favorite color. Pick an animal. What’s your # today?

Approaching 5 months of cancer under my belt, I can’t help thinking that, rather than a smoke-and-mirrors number system, what the practice of oncology could use is a few English majors. Forget the 5’s and 6’s that don’t communicate and rely instead upon simile and metaphor, allusion or anthropomorphism, to convey your pain. I’m confident, for example, that onomatopoeia would be a lot more useful to describe my diaherra than the number 3, and stream of consciousness not only has a noble literary lineage it’s exactly how my anemia feels.

Literary devices- that’s what oncology should use.

They’re the stuff of stories. And stories, no matter what my lab work says, is what we’re really made of.

‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’ everyone asks as though pain is on the periodic table of common human experience.

But that’s the problem: there’s no such thing as common human experience.

There are no universally accessible perspectives. Everything IS relative. If there’s one thing incarnation teaches us, it’s that.

God, after all, didn’t become human. God became Jesus. God didn’t take on generic flesh. God took on Mary’s flesh, and, with it, all the stories in every knot on her family tree. God didn’t become anyone; God became a very particular Jewish carpenter from the Ozarks of Israel.

Incarnation- that’s why the numbers don’t work.

The scale can’t be scaled. It can’t be circumscribed or universalized. Just as God cannot take on flesh without also taking on a very distinctive story, what makes us human- fully human- is not the general but the narrow, not the 2’s and 4’s but the flesh and blood details: ‘Doc, it feels as bad as the time I stuck a bat in a beehive as a boy and got stung all over me.’

Each of us is as particular as the God who became the particular Jew named Jesus.

Jesus does not incarnate a one-size-fits-everyone ‘humanity’ common to us all. Rather, each of our humanities, our experiences and stories- somehow they all have a share in his unique experience and story.

The scale can’t be scaled.

What links us together, in other words, isn’t some shared, common story called ‘the human experience.’

What links us together are the distinctive, particular ways we apply his unique story to our own.

That’s why ‘discipleship’ is a category even broader than ‘chemotherapy’ and as diverse as ‘human creatures.’ There’s no one way to do it, discipleship. The doing it is what unites us.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately not just because at every turn I’m asked to plot my pain along an unempirical number line. I think about it because over the past 4 months it’s gradually dawned on me that I’m now attempting to apply a different part of Jesus’ story to my own: his death.

What I mean is-

Cancer has been an occasion for me to remember that when we’re baptized, we’re baptized not just for Christ’s (eternal) life but into Christ’s death:

‘…so that dying and being raised with Christ we may share in his final victory…’ 

The manner in which we’re sick, then, the way we handle our suffering, how we die, all the unique particulars of chemo’s ass-kicking- all of of it are ways we live out, live up to, our baptism

Even the way in which I handle this Around-the-World-in-Eighty-Days-travel-freeze.

I updated the nurse, a different one this time, about it this morning.

‘It feels like hoarders have been squatting in my colon since Let It Bleed.’

‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?’ she asked me.

‘That all depends,’ I reclined fo , ‘have you seen Schindler’s List?’


I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

9. What do we mean by saying Jesus was ‘truly human?’

We do not mean that Jesus was as fully human as you or me.

Jesus, as the God-Man, has no human existence apart from his divine existence and our humanity is not like that at all.

While it’s often proclaimed in sermons on Christmas and about the Cross that Jesus being ‘truly human’ means he’s as human as you or me, to suppose that Jesus is every bit as human as you or me might be correct in terms of the biological bits- if you’re a man- but, beyond biology, such a suggestion bends backwards the entire trajectory of Christian salvation.


The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be tortured and crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus be human, truly and authentically human.

The grammar of Christian salvation is not that Jesus, the truly human one, is just like us, who are sinners through and through; the grammar of salvation is that, through Jesus, the truly human one, and by the power of Spirit and Sacraments, we might become as human as him.

We are not his aspiration.

He is ours.

To be fully, truly human- this is the command Jesus perceived to have been placed upon him by the Father. The fact that to be fully human meets with rejection, betrayal, torture and crucifixion is not something God the Father planned but is a consequence of the world as we’ve constructed it.

To be fully human is to love and to love, in the world as we’ve made it, is to suffer.

So then, to say that Jesus is ‘fully human’ is to confess that Jesus is the first human after a long list of begats in which God’s original intent for humanity came to fruition.

To live a fully human life, as Jesus does, is to embody the greatest commandment: to love self, neighbors and God without qualificaiton or fear.

From the very beginning this was the intent for humans made in the image of 3-Personned God, who just is Love and Friendship.

To profess that Jesus is fully human then is not to argue that he was really like us.

To profess that Jesus is fully human is to express the hope that we can become as human as him.

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x6831.jpgHoly Thursday

I’m on ‘medical leave’ now that I’m undergoing chemo-poison.

Essentially ‘medical leave’ is insurancese that means I now give my 100% all to doing roughly the amount of work my boss, Dennis Perry, has done the past 10 years (4.5%) while still receiving 70% of my salary whilst another insurance company (the one ‘covering’ my care) spends 80% of its time trying to screw me over.

Though it first sounded like a grift to me, I’ve noticed that cancer lends ‘medical leave’ something like the opposite stigma of welfare and while it doesn’t grant me any stamps to spend at Safeway medical leave does provide me ample time to conform to the very worst conservative stereotypes of welfare recipients.

That’s right, I lay around on my ass and I watch TV.

It’s no small feat when you consider that I don’t have cable. There’s no mindless channel surfing here; it takes work to waste time on my sofa. Like the central port buried in my chest, my Apple TV feeds lazy ass me from just two lines of entertainment possibilities: Netflix and iTunes.

Just to convey how bad it’s gotten for me, yesterday I abdicated 100 minutes of my life to watch the Jason Statham cajun-flavored revenge ‘film’ Homefront. If the name Jason Statham is unfamiliar to you or if you haven’t heard of this B-movie, suffice it to say that the script- all six nonsensical sentences of it- was written by Sylvester Stallone.

Laying on the sofa with chemo-poison flowing from my man-pursed portable pump into my chest in order to save my life, I simultaneously wasted an hour and forty minutes of that life watching Homefront, a movie where Jason Statham does no transporting of any kind.

What’s worse, that was the second time I’d watched Homefront, making for a grand total of 200 minutes of my life. Since it’s Holy Week: that’s longer than Jesus languished on the cross. It’s no trivial sacrifice when you consider the odds are better than even that Mantle Cell has now abridged my life span by a decade or two.

Thanks to medical leave, my house is now like Guy Montag’s. The scrolling screen saver on my Apple TV has become like another work of art in our living room, the digital complement to the tasteful pen and ink above our mantle.

And maybe it’s because mortality now stalks me like a shadow

or maybe it’s because the chemo-cocktails have left my insides a metabolic roller-coaster

or maybe it’s because cancer has coincidentally coincided with some sort of manstrating man-change within me,

whatever the reason, there’s something about the photos in the Apple TV screensaver slideshow that lately render me a weepy, tear-soaked mess.

I mean, there’s the photograph of the solitary polar bear floating submerged in the brisk sea looking, to me at least, despondent (and maybe a bit vexed at all you climate change deniers out there), as though he can’t find a single sheet of arctic ice to rest upon and now he’s given up trying.

And there’s the action shot of the salmon who has furiously swum upstream to spawn, pursuing only the promise that he’ll meet his mate and his maker in that (short) order. Jumping, briefly, out of the water, out of fear or rage or foreplay-who’s to say what is the difference, this unlucky fish lands, dead-center (snap goes the camera), in the mouth of a luckier grizzly bear.

Such is the capriciousness of life, I think every time of late.

And then dab at my eyes.

Following the ill-fated fish, there’s an aerial of what sometimes looks to me like the smooth, sexy navel and torso of an exotic woman. It’s actually a photograph of a scorched, oasis-less desert that you’re as likely to die in as traverse.

In my better moods that strikes me as ironic.

What really gets me though is the Lifetouch-esque photo of a papa gorilla holding out in his hard, leathery hand a delicate, few-petalled, flower. His little boy gorilla sits in front of him smiling and staring, looking equal parts delighted and amazed.

I have no idea if either of them is actually male. I just project that onto the photo, that’s my point. Such is my issue of late.

Ever since stage-serious cancer got me, the father/son gorilla picture gets to me every time. I tear up the way I once did watching the finale of Finding Nemo with my youngest boy- you know, the part where Nemo screams ‘Daddy’ and then hugs his prodigal father with his two little imperfect fins.

The gorilla on the screensaver slideshow gets me in a weepy, fatted-calf kind of mood every time, and every time my wife, Ali, looks at me like: Who are you?

Granted, my observations about the aforementioned desert photo provoke some additional comments from Ali as well but, most of the time, whenever I look at the Apple TV screensaver slideshow- and reach for a tissue- Ali looks at me like:

What have you done with my husband?

She does so because for most of our marriage, as well as the long courtship preceding it, my emotional landscape was not unlike that dry, barren desert that just might be the nude, come-hither midriff of a Bond girl.

At most, my hard-scrabble emotional landscape had a tumbleweed or two blowing by.

But now, I’m different. I’m like a post-menopausal Blanche Dubois, crying in to my silk kimono to keep the tears from falling into the cheesecake Dorothy’s defrosted for me.

I blame it on the C-word that so often now my wife looks at me as though wondering:

Are you the same person I married?

The question comes to every marriage.

Doesn’t it?IMG_2633

I’ve been a pastor for 14 years. I’ve taken hours and hours of counseling classes. I’ve worked with I don’t know how many couples. I’ve got shelves of books on marriage in my office, and one of the points I’ve always impressed upon those about to be married is what I’ve called Jason’s Rule.

Jason’s Rule goes like this:

     You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.

‘Jason’s Rule’ is just a shamelessly cribbed version of Hauerwas’ rule. 

Whether you have a terrific relationship or a terrible one, I always tell couples before their wedding and often in their wedding sermon, Jason’s Rule always holds true.

‘I don’t care if you’ve already lived with the person you’re marrying or if you’ve filled out a hundred e-Harmony compatibility questions, Jason’s Rule always prove true.’

I’ve preached several dozen times.

‘Marriage,’ I tell them, ‘names the process in which you discover who the stranger is that you’ve married (as well as who the stranger is that you call you).’

‘That’s why,’ I’ve written into every wedding sermon I’ve ever preached, ‘only marriage makes you ready for marriage.’

‘That’s why,’ I always warn them before they ever promise anything about sickness and health or riches and poverty or death doing them apart, ‘marriage isn’t just a beautiful leap of faith, it’s a rough and tumble process too. It’s why even the best marriages aren’t easy or painless.’

You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.

It’s a nugget of ostensible wisdom I still think worth doling out to couples, but cancer’s got me reconsidering just how foolproof is ‘Jason’s Rule.’

While I’m sure Ali never imagined the shy, sophisticated, Ivy League, French-film watching gentleman to whom she once said ‘I do’ would one day be teaching her boys to burp the starting lineup for the Nationals or that he would one day be ranking her boys’ farts by both sound and scent or that he would prove genetically incapable of putting the toilet seat down.

Contrary to my own pre-marital dictate, I knew all along exactly who I was marrying.

‘Jason’s Rule’ still holds true in the sense that Ali never foresaw that when I vowed ‘…and with all that I am…’ Mantle Cell Lymphoma would be included before our 14th anniversary.

But even though I didn’t know back then that my chromosomes would one day foment a mutiny within my marrow, I DID know- yes, I absolutely did- that Ali was the type of person who would shush me, gently, and smooth my sweat-matted hair when a panic attack roused me awake.

Before she ever promised to love and comfort me in sickness, I knew that she would change my soiled bed clothes and sheets in the middle of the night. I had no doubt she would climb into my hospital bed with me no matter the nasty bile tube running from my gut out my nose to underneath her head.

Being young and stupid, I had no notion such a day would come but I still knew she was the type of woman who would get down on her knees and scrub every inch of our house for every stray germ that might land neutropenic me back in the hospital. I knew even then that she would never reconsider the fairness of that ‘forsaking all others’ promise while she knocked softly on the bathroom door to ask if I was alright, as the chemo-induced hemorrhoids made the chemo-induced runs a torturous experience only Dick Cheney could minimize.


‘Jason’s Rule’ aside-

I knew when I said ‘I do’ that she would do all of this and more.

One of the things you learn in ministry the average cancer patient (or doctor even) might not know is that stage-serious cancer is the kind of shit that can wreak havoc on a marriage.

That’s why it’s so grave- as in, important, that I knew before either us pledged anything about ‘for better, for worse’ that she was the sort of person for whom this would never be just my cancer.

Ali’s an ‘our’ kind of woman.

And it is very much our disease. There isn’t a truer thing I can write.

In countless texts, emails, Facebook messages, Tweets, hugs at the grocery, and old fashioned snail mail, so many people ask how I’m doing, how I feel, what it’s like for me to have cancer turn my life upside down.

Not nearly as often do people ask about Ali, about how she’s doing, about how she feels, about what it’s like for her to have cancer turn her life upside down and shake a fair amount of what was her life out onto the floor.

And they should because I have a better vantage than anyone and this stage-serious cancer is as hard (if not harder) on her than it is on me.

Ali had to be the one to break the news to me when I first opened my eyes out of surgery:

‘It was a bigger surgery than they thought, honey. They removed a pretty large tumor…it’s…lymphoma…we’re waiting to find out what kind.’

Of course, I was too narced up to remember her telling me any of that but my mom was there and told me just before telling me that Ali did a good job with the hard telling.

Since that first day, it’s only gotten harder.

For her.

She’s the one who has to deal with an obstinate, pain-in-the-ass, and anemic husband who dismisses nose bleeds and knife cuts that refuse to clot as ‘not a big deal.’

She’s the one (not me- I was eating pudding in the hospital) who had to talk it through with our boys about how their Dad has cancer and could be sick for a very long time, fingers crossed the whole time that our youngest, Gabriel, wouldn’t connect remember to connect the C-word to his kindergarten teacher who died.

She’s the one who bears this unfair burden of anxiety about how much time she spends with me in the hospital or at the doctor’s office or at the stem cell center and whether or not it should be more time- which would mean less time at work or at home- because we don’t know how much time we have left.

Ironically, the insurance company seems to remember what so many others neglect to ask, for the bills come with her name on them too. My cancer effects afflicts her too.


The truth is I’ve got it easy.

I spend most of my days going to doctors who weigh me and measure out my blood, who inject me and infuse me and inquire of me. It’s pretty passive even if it’s not carefree. And when I’m home (and not on or near the toilet) all I’ve got to do is lay on my ass with poison running through tubes in my chest and binge-watch Game of Thrones.

Ali has to pick up the slack, put on a brave face for the boys, ask the doctor the questions I’m afraid to broach, be my personal assistant, maid and nurse, worry about germs in our house on a daily basis and wonder how much I’m lying when I tell her ‘I feel fine.’

Lately, I look at myself in the mirror and I just kvetch at what I see: a 5’7 foreskin with glasses.

Ali looks at this hairless, sometimes emaciated, sometimes swollen with fluid version of me and she just worries.

The one with the cancer has got it easy.

I don’t have to be the one married to a spouse who (despite everything I’ve written above) routinely neglects to consider how all this shit makes her feel.

Speaking of shit, I don’t have to be married to someone who now leaves a small mammal’s worth of dead ass hair on the toilet seat. That would effing gross me out and drive me over the edge. But not Ali. Okay, it does gross her out but she takes it in graceful stride.

It’s our cancer.

And there’s no better picture I can draw for how this is so than to tell you that the 24hr poison pump hooked to my chest now rests between us in bed, like our baby, albeit an unwanted one that prevents me from putting my arm around her (when that’s all I want to do) and keeps us, as we’ve always done, from spooning our legs inside each other’s. The distance the poison pump baby creates between us is such that I can’t even feel her breath blow across my chest hair.

Or what’s left of it.

I never knew we’d be in this position, just over a dime into our marriage, but when I said ‘I do’ I just knew, if only intuitively, what Ali would do. And without meaning to sound creepy or more prescient than I am, it’s one of the reasons I married her.

I’m selective about whose wedding I perform. I say no to a lot of couples. I like my weekends too much to say yes to everybody and with so many Christians these days blathering about ‘the sanctity of marriage’ it seems hypocritical to marry any hetero couple who claims to be love.

Still, in 14 years I’ve married a lot of people and since before I was even married myself I’ve been dispensing ‘Jason’s Rule’ to would-be newlyweds. And now that I have we have cancer, I suspect I’ve been wrong all this time.

Now that I have we have cancer, I realize I knew exactly who Ali was, is all along.

‘Jason’s Rule,’ as it turns out, isn’t the warning it sounds like. ‘Jason’s Rule’ isn’t that you don’t know who the person is you’re marrying; it’s a warning that you’re not likely to marry someone as special as I’ve married. ‘Jason’s Rule’ isn’t a warning that you don’t know who you have in marriage; it’s a warning that you’ll probably never have what I have in marriage.

With her.


Today is Holy Thursday, the day when the Church remembers the last Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples. In John’s Gospel there is no Passover meal. John intends for Jesus on the Cross to be the Passover lamb. Instead of a meal, John gives us a scene where Jesus kneels down, dons the posture of a servant, and washes his friends’ feet. Peter and the others initially resist and their reluctance is almost always interpreted in terms of exultation and humiliation.

Peter and the others, it’s assumed, don’t want a King like Jesus deigning to wash their nasty feet. Discipleship then, the sermons- including my own- always go, means stooping down, rolling up our sleeves, swallowing our pride and serving like Christ.

I realize only now that, in the story, what Peter resists isn’t what Jesus does- acting beneath his station and washing their feet.

No, Peter resists what Jesus says- that this footwashing is a sharing in Jesus’ death.

It’s not that Peter doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet.

It’s that Peter doesn’t want to die.

Ever since Ali broke to me the news we both dreaded, I’ve thought a lot about another washing we do in the Church, baptism, and how in the Church we say with water and oil that the baptized are baptized into Christ’s death.

And Christians mean that literally if obliquely.

The manner in which we carry our own crosses, confront dreaded news and adversity and, say, deal with stage-serious disease it’s the way we live into our baptisms by sharing- hopefully later rather than sooner- in Christ’s death.

In addition to ‘Jason’s Rule’ I’ve always liked to point out to would-be newlyweds how the wedding liturgy in the worship book comes after in the sense of logically flowing from the baptism liturgy. Marriage too, with its impossibly huge promises of constancy come what may until death tears us asunder, is but a way we live into and live out our baptisms.

I can’t tell you how many would-be newlyweds have told me they want to get married because they’ve found the person with whom they want to share their life.

But really, if the worship book is any clue, we should be searching for a rarer kind of person- someone with whom we can die. No, even rarer still: someone who can help us to die in a manner worthy of our baptism.

Hopefully later rather than soon.

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683.jpgDay 7

I knew I should’ve clicked ‘Mr’ instead of ‘Rev’ under preferred prefix. I’d still be stuck here with a cancer as rare as a unicorn, but my week would’ve at least gone a bit better.

With a few more laughs.

Yesterday, while I was sitting in my boxer-briefs, my gown twisted up around my waist, watching 19 Kids and Counting and eating my Cinnamon Toast Crunch, a Filipino woman knocked on my door on Unit #21 and then proceeded to wheel a large Zamboni-like machine into my hospital room.

‘I’m here to take chest X-Rays of you’ she said with more cheeriness than either the hour (7AM) or the wing (oncology) required.

She did it all right there, pushing chairs and tables out of the way, positioning the machine directly in front of me, placing a block of wood behind my back for posture’s sake and a heavy flack jacket on my lap for safety’s.

Just before she started to snap pictures of my tumored chest, I said- with apparently more dead-pan than I’d intended:

‘Hold on a minute…is that machine going to give me…cancer?’

And she looked up at me, blinking blankly, as totally serious and humorless as she assumed me to be and said:


Not even an ironic smile as she wheeled her manilla hot dog stand away.

If you need empirical proof that the agnostics among us consider Christians to be uniformly unfunny, then a few days in the hospital should net you all the data you need. The presumptions that would hold for you go doubly true for me, as a ‘leader’ of the tribe called Christian.

I wish I’d snuck into Unit #21, seeking out chemo-poison the way Nicodemus sought out Jesus, by keeping my vocation- indeed my faith- a secret. As I do at my wife’s law firm parties, I should’ve simply lied a la George Costanza and told people that I’m a marine biologist, only the hospital seemed to be the one place where my woeful ignorance regarding science would readily become apparent.

So I didn’t lie.


As a result, every employee here at the hospital knows I’m a Christian; worse, they know I’m a ‘priest’ and, as a result, they assume I’m serious- deadly earnest (perpetually thinking about Jesus)- all the time. No jest, nothing short of a knock-knock joke could break through the lugubrious stereotype they have for oddities like me and convey that in this particular instance (say…as I feign concern about cancer risks whilst receiving chemo on the oncology ward) I’m just screwing with you.

As a pastor for going on 14 years, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals.

I even worked as a chaplain at one for a time.

None of that time as a pastor among patients prepared me for how hard it is to be a pastor who is a patient.

Seven days into my first of what will be many hospital bids, I’ve discovered with the reliability of something like scientific law that pastors make bad patients.

It’s at least as right as Murphy’s: Pastors Makes Bad Patients.

Like many laws, the conditions which exemplify it are many but chief among them is the widespread, apparently settled consensus that Christians in general and clergy in particular are about as funny as Stage IV-V-ish Cancer.

The gallows humor, sarcastic banter and shit happens philosophizing that would otherwise make my days here more tolerable evaporates when everyone thinks your M.O. as an R.E.V. is to be serious 100% of the time you’re not making a joke about covered-dish dinners.

Last night, after bringing me my 19th unrequested can of chocolate-flavored Ensure, all of which remain unopened in my room, I told the woman from Dining Services:

‘Look, here, why don’t you take this. There’s actually a prohibition in Leviticus against mixing meatloaf with Ensure and fruit cocktail.’

Blink. Blink.

(Leaping to action)

‘Of course, I apologize, Father.’

‘Wait…what?!’ I started to unwind my BS before deciding I’d end up making things worse.

Thus it’s gone all week.

‘How are you feeling today?’

‘Other than the rare, incurable cancer I feel awesome today.’



‘On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the max, what would you say your pain is this morning?’

(This just after the chemo had given me convulsions that ripped open my stomach incision like it was a Hot Pocket)

‘Oh, I’m great. Definitely a 0 this morning’

‘That’s fantastic!’

To spend a week here is not unlike having been raised by sarcastic wolves and suddenly asked to pass for normal in civilization.

To the nurse drawing my blood one evening while I flipped channels on the TV:

‘Just how big would you say Nancy Grace’s nostrils are? As big as racquetballs?’

Blink. Blink.

Straight face.

‘Maybe 5cm. Not nearly as big as a racquetball.’

Life turns out not to be very much fun when everyone assumes you’re no fun.

The verity of that maxim becomes exponentially more clear in the prison of the mind that insurance companies call hospitalization.

Receiving my most recent chemo infusion, the nurse prepped me with the caution that I should ‘refrain from both driving and sexual intercourse until the drugs have completely left your system.’


Just like that, a fat one right over the plate.

‘I guess that rules out having sex while I’m driving home then.’

Blink. Blink.

Straight face.

‘Yes. It does.’

Not even a double-take to see if I was being a wise ass.

‘I guess I’ll tell my wife she needs to make new plans’ I mumbled to no reaction.

As a pastor it’s not easy being a patient if for no other reason than that everyone assumes you’re more spiritual and less human than Jesus Christ himself.

My second night here I asked my night shift nurse for some concrete, Do’s and Don’ts advice about getting through my chemotherapy. She looked at me without pause and with something like a frown said:


Not only was this not the sort of advice I wanted, the effect it had was to make me feel like my diagnosis was even more damned than I feared- as in, all someone in my shoes CAN DO is pray.

And it was all because she knows- and she knows I know she knows- that I’m a pastor. If I were a short order cook or an insurance adjustor or a thong model, she probably would’ve said ‘Exercise 30 minutes a day’ or ‘Make sure you wash your vegetables.’

But instead I got scat like ‘Pray.’


Which, on the face of it, is curious since prayer is what everyone here assumes I’m doing every waking moment anyways. Only a few hours ago, I fell asleep reading in the armchair and, sure enough, the nurse tech who’d come to check my vitals immediately apologized for interrupting my ‘prayer time.’

‘I wasn’t praying, that’s alright.’

Blink. Blink.

And then she smiled…like she didn’t believe me, like I’m such a model Christian I’m too humble even to admit to praying.

‘No seriously’ I said ‘I don’t usually drool on myself when I’m praying. Well, actually that’s not true…’

Bottom line takeaway:

It’s hard to relate to people when they assume you’re less human than Jesus Christ, which is to say more perfectly human than they could ever hope for themselves.

You hear about how doctors and nurses make bad patients, and I’ve always taken the reason to be procedural. Nurses know, as in the right way, how the IV bags should be hung or the blood should be drawn. Doctors can read their lab results as well as their own doctor and they know as well as them the alternate diagnoses and treatments available. Nurses and doctors make bad patients in the way my father-in-law makes a back seat driver or sports fans make for obnoxious Monday morning quarterbacks. Their knowledge and techniques of their trade make them bad patients.

I’ve always assumed.

After a week as a patient, though, I’m not so sure anymore.

I wonder if instead doctors and nurses make for bad patients for exactly the same attribute they share with a pastor like me: memory.

I’ve been a pastor for nearly 14 years, and I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals. Specifically, I’ve been a pastor at this church for 10 years and, in those 10 years, I’ve spent a lot of time in this very hospital.

I can remember which babies were born in which rooms here.

I can recall what I half-watched on the TV with which families as we waited for word in the ER and the OR.

I can point down the hallways to the rooms for the suicides, the ‘gestures’ and the overdoses.

And, for the present argument, I can remember many of the folks with whom I prayed here who never made it home again, or did so only briefly as a sojourn on their way to a more eternal home.

After 10 years I can only recall a fraction of them. Still, the number is sufficiently high to make this place for me a haunted house, filled not with ghosts or specters but with emptiness.

So many rooms and spaces here at this hospital are just holes where people used to be.

Without exaggerating, I could close my eyes and turn right out of my room and turn right again out of my wing and right again to find the room where the mother I knew lost both her legs to diabetes only a short while before she lost her life. I can’t tell you the exact room number, but I could take you there, the place where, for weeks, a husband to his wife of more decades than I’ve lived read from the Psalms as she died of cancer.

I could drag my IV pole over to the ICU and show you the bed where an every Sunday worshipper (‘11:15, pulpit side, middle’) I swear I’d never seen before never got up from again. And from there my slippered feet could take you to the PICU where, not too long ago, I spent the day with a couple nervously standing vigil by their boy’s bedside. Their son, confirmed by me years ago, is only a few sizes and grades ahead of my eldest.

It was near that boy’s room that the Licensed Clinical Social Worker on our ‘walk’ yesterday told me that I seemed ‘dark’ to him.

It was near there, where that nearly died, that I thought in response: ‘No shit. What’s the matter with you? Don’t you work here?’

As a pastor I’m a bad patient because this place is for me what I’m sure it is for a lot of doctors and nurses too:

a tiled and antiseptic reminder, smelling vaguely of steamed vegetables and soiled linens, that life so infuriatingly fragile.

Contingent, I said in an earlier post, a fancy theological word meaning ‘crapshoot’ or ‘random’ to the point where, at times, the deepest faith in God can seem like insanity.

Doctors and nurses and pastors- we are all, they say, in the ‘caring professions,’ which is just a jargoned euphemism to avoid admitting that Death is a big part of what we do.

Until now, I’ve been like a nurse who comes home wearing scrubs with someone else’s blood stains on them. It gets close, but it’s still not me or mine.

But now, after 10 years of being a pastor here- in this hospital- I’m a patient here, and I’m finding that I’m not very good at the latter entirely because of my experience with the former.

Fact is, I can’t look at my oncologist’s data-driven poker face as he gazes at my most recent lab work without thinking of how I’ve prayed with patients in half of the rooms on this oncology unit, a memory which for whatever reason makes me feel like my odds run commensurate with the rooms I’ve covered: 50/50.

When I ask him why my swollen lymph nodes haven’t ‘totally disappeared’ as promised they would by this point in my treatment, I don’t even really listen to the answer because I’m off, thinking of all those families I’ve sat with as a pastor and listened as doctors promised a ‘full recovery’ that never came- and, in all likelihood, never was going to come. We just didn’t have ears to hear.

As a patient I keep getting told that optimism and a positive frame of mind are constitutive of the healing process, but in more names than I can remember I know, as a pastor, that seldom do either have anything to do with a cure.

God may be good and gracious, but I’ve spent enough time here in this hospital as a pastor to know that life is seldom fair or forgiving.

To patients.

And now I’m one.

Now I’m no different than anyone else, no different (and this is the real gist of it, isn’t it?) than all those patients I’ve visited as a pastor, many of whom, if not most, have since died.

It’s amazing, counterintuitive even, how daily proximity to death and all of its antecedents can actually give you a sense of invulnerability to it. If it’s cliche to say that the young think they’re invincible, then it’s double-true for young pastors. I comfort and I counsel and I commit to the ground, dust to dust. In the midst of life, we’re all ashes in waiting, I say.

I witness to the resurrection and I behold great mysteries and I bury the dead until that day they put on imperishability. I serve the suffering, but I do not suffer.


Now I’m the one with friends and loved ones willing to do anything, even cut a hole in the roof, if it’ll get Jesus to improve my prospects.

Now I’m the diseased one on the mat.

And to be as honest as I’ve ever been about anything: I fucking hate the view.

It’s funny, when you’re a pastor you think about passages like that one in Mark 2 where Jesus asks the begrudgers ‘Which is easier to say? Your sins are forgiven or get up, take your mat, and walk?’ and you imagine that it’s a loaded question.

Clearly, we’re meant to see, forgiveness is the harder miracle to broker. Healers were a dime a dozen throughout the ‘burbs and backwoods of 1st century Israel. There was nothing special about healings in Jesus’ day and so there is nothing unique about Jesus who performs them. Many healed, but only Jesus offers forgiveness.

And therein lies the predictable preacher’s lesson for the day: more precious than any doctor’s ‘all clear’ should be the assurance from our loved ones, from enemies or ex’s past or from God in the person of our priest that things, relationally speaking, are all clear, that our sins are forgiven, wrongs blotted out, and resentments set aside.

Now that I’m a patient, however, I wonder if my preacher’s reading of Mark 2 isn’t too cute by half. Because now that I’m a patient, with a rare cancer whose odds of survival make me look not much luckier than that poor bastard on the mat, it no longer strikes me as a loaded question. Not at all.

Sure, in the seven days I’ve lain here nauseated and depressed and hurting, I’ve given plenty of thought to the relationships I’ve let fray (that’s you, ________) and the wounds I’ve let fester (that’s you, _________) and the time I’ve not made (that’s you _____ and __________ and ________________) for what appear, given my new foreground, no good reasons at all. Sure forgiveness is important and, yes, I believe Jesus offers it.

But you know what?

You know what Jason-on-the-Mat knows that Pastor Jason didn’t, standing in the pulpit?

Healing’s important too, damn important.

Heresy or not, it’s no less a miracle than forgiveness.

‘Which is easier to say? Your sins are forgiven or get up, take your mat, and walk?’

What I didn’t realize before as a pastor: it’s not a loaded question.

It turns out both are hard to say, harder still to pull off, and neither is possible apart from the grace of God in Christ.

And grace, as every pastor knows, is by definition undeserved and, thus, its unpredictable. No matter what my doctor says.

And knowing that, as a pastor, makes me a piss poor patient.

50 Shades of Humiliation

Jason Micheli —  February 17, 2015 — 25 Comments


‘I’m going to inject you here in your arm where the fat is,’ she said.

‘But there’s no fat there,’ I dead-panned, ‘that’s all Grade A muscle.’

She frowned. ‘Here…in your arm…is fat.’

‘No,’ I feigned incredulity, ‘that’s all muscle, from my body-building days. You’ll probably break the tip of your syringe.’

‘No, everyone has fat here,’ this time pointing to her own bony tricep, ‘it’s the best place for the injection.’

Earlier in pre-op, after removing every stitch of my clothes, even my wedding band, and putting on a gown decorated with Pink Floyd-meets-Dress Barn geometric designs, she had told me her name, Chau, meant ‘pearls,’ which I found ironic considering how I was throwing them at her to no affect or appreciation.

‘Hi, my name is Chau,’ she’d said, ‘Is there anything I can get you?’

‘Yeah, you don’t happen to have a cure for cancer on you do you?’

She paused like she was running down the cafeteria’s menu in her mind.

‘No,’ she said with what I’d call a poker- face if it didn’t happen to be her only face.

‘I guess I’m fine then.’

My wife had already come back and we’d cried and hugged and kissed and said the sorts of things that husbands and wives say to each other when they’re scared shitless over what will follow when- not if- the other shoe drops.

And before they took me back to the operating room, they let my mom come back to say goodbye too. The team of surgical nurses waited by the curtain wearing tan scrubs and plastic butcher’s visors in front of their faces.

‘Exactly how much of my blood are you expecting to spray around the room?’ I thought, panicky, when I first saw them.

They waited while my mom kissed me on the cheek and whispered into my ear ‘I wish this was all happening to me and not you.’

‘Me too’ I replied and waited a beat or two before smiling.

I turned to Chau, who was unplugging my IV from the wall, and dead-pan again said:

‘Chau, my mom’s a nurse and, well, it’s sort of a family tradition, if it’s okay with you, she’d like to be the one to put my catheter in.’

‘But she’s not washed up’ Chau said.

By the grace of God they put me to sleep before they inserted the catheter so I remain blissfully ignorant of whatever Medieval torture such a procedure requires.

Removal of the catheter, on the other hand, not so much.

A day (or two?) after my intestinal surgery I felt like my spleen would fall out through my sutured belly button if I as much as farted, but somehow I hurt more ‘down there.’

You know where.

I’m sure it was psychosomatic, my mind attributing greater pain to that part of me that I, as a member of the male species, assign greater biological and spiritual significance.

Sometime in the thick, languid hours after surgery a nurse technician named Jacqueline entered my room with an entourage of 3 and announced that she was there to remove my catheter.

‘Aren’t you going to…like…put me to sleep first?’ I asked, feeling suddenly lucid. ‘Or anesthetize me?’

She waved her hand at me with a smile like I was her rascally kindergartener. ‘Don’t be a baby. You won’t feel a thing.’

‘Won’t feel a thing? You’re going to pull a however long tube out of my Magic Johnson. How is it not going to hurt?’

‘With the meds you’re on?’ she frowned skeptically, ‘Tell me, can you feel anything down there now?’

‘Yes’ I lied.

She crossed her arms and cast a glance at the 3 women behind her.

‘Really? So can you feel that you’re peeing right now as we speak?’

‘I am?’ I asked, pulling up the covers for a peek.

‘Honey, you’re telling me that you just had a 10×10 inch tumor taken out of your intestine and you’re more worried about your penis?’

‘Yes,’ I said flatly, thinking how the self-evidence of such a distinction should be just that, self-evident. After all, cancer just effects your whole body. But we were talking about the object by whose measurements all men measure their manhood.

‘My intestine doesn’t govern 97% of my waking and sleeping thoughts’ I said.

She sighed like whatshername on The View and snapped on a pair rubber gloves. Nodding her head to the Greek chorus behind her, she said:

‘They’re interns. Do you mind if they watch and assist me?’

What was I supposed to say?

Obviously ‘no’ is the right answer, but, considering how I was lassoed to the bed by ridiculous-looking compression socks, could barely move from the chainsawed gash in my gut and was tethered to the wall behind me by the stomach tube extruding from my left nostril, I figured it was better at least to act like I was in control.

‘Sure,’ I said, ‘Maybe you should lower the lights and put some music on first.’

All four of them rolled their eyes.

The narrator in one of John Irving’s novels observes that the most emasculating position for any man to be caught is with his t-shirt on and nothing else. I used to think that sounded exactly right; that is, until Jacqueline pulled down my blankets and sheets to my ankles and then pulled my gown up past my weeping incision and swollen belly to around my nipples.

The rather zealous pre-op shave job they’d done on me, combined with the preschool colored socks with rubber tread on my feet, somehow made me look even more pathetic.

‘Gee, it’s cold in here’ I said as a sort of sheepish disclaimer.

One of Jacqueline’s students, per her instructions, took my lifeless Johnson in her latex hand and the catheter tube in the other. Then Jacqueline came around behind her and put her hands on top of the intern’s so as to demonstrate the proper positioning and technique, as though we were on a putting green somewhere and Jacqueline was the club pro using not a putter or a 5 iron for her lesson but my baloney pony.

‘What do you for a living?’ Jacqueline asked as her intern found the right spots.

‘Uh, I’m a…uh…a minister’ I said.

‘Praise Jesus!’ nurse Jacqueline exclaimed with a sincerity that seemed to match her volume. And just then she started to slowly pull what felt somewhere inside me like a 30 foot length of raggedy 20 pound saltwater fishing line from my bait and tackle.

Now, I’d be lying if I claimed that the image of 4 women gathered around my naked, chiseled body praising Jesus as they beheld my manhood was a scene that had never once played in the cinema of my teenage mind, but, as far as fantasies go, this wasn’t it.  When you’re a guy, the last thing you want is for your piece to be held in a woman’s hand as limp and lifeless as roadkill. And you definitely don’t fantasize that said woman will wear an absolutely vacant expression on her face.

As she neared the catheter’s end, Jacqueline warned me:

‘You’ll probably go pee-pee on yourself when this comes all the way out.’

Seriously, she said ‘pee-pee.’

And as if my multiple injuries needed the extra insult, I promptly did just that. Pee-peed all over myself and somehow ‘pee-pee’ seemed exactly the right word for how silly and emasculated I felt.

Another of her interns tossed me an adult-sized baby wipe.

‘Clean yourself off’ she said in a way that made feel like I was supposed to get up and leave money on the IV stand. Actually, no. That’s bullshit.

No, it just made me feel…humiliated.

And such were the hours and days after catheter day.

It’s only been 12 days since the night my doctor called me while I carpooled the swim team home and, while the boys talked about girls in the rear seat, suggested that I sit down to hear what he had to say.

Two weeks though is long enough for me to have learned that humiliation is one of the ways stage-serious cancer manifests itself.

Needing help to pee into the plastic jug because you don’t have the ab muscles to do even that for yourself.

Needing help to change your gown at 3AM because- fun fact- night sweats are one of the symptoms of the cancer that’s now coursing through your blood.

Needing the surgical resident to pretend she doesn’t notice the crack in your voice and the tears well up around your eyes as she asks how you’re doing.

As surely as a cold begets a runny nose, this cancer has brought humiliation in to a life where ironic pretense and playing it cool had been the norm.

Like the third or fourth night in the hospital when the nurse, who was about to check my vital signs in the middle of the night, was standing there in the dark just as I woke up suddenly, crying and breathless from the first of what are already many panic attacks.

She wiped the sweat from my forehead. Tucked me in and, shushing me, said ‘It’s going to be alright.’

Like I was a child.

In the past few days I’ve heard from lots of people and many of them have asked me what it’s like, having this giant steaming pile of crap land in the middle of my life. And honestly the first word that comes to mind is humiliating.

Here’s one question I wonder lately that I never wondered before:

Does Christ participate in our suffering and humiliation?

Or do we participate in Christ’s suffering and humiliation?

Christians can go either way on the answer.

If the answer is the former then that means- thanks to the incarnation- there is no permutation of our humanity in which Christ has not been made present. Whatever we go through, the theological line continues, we can go through it knowing our pain is not unknown to God.

God, like Bubba Clinton, feels our pain.

There’s nothing wrong with that answer I suppose, but for me, at least lately, I think the good news is found in the latter. We participate in Christ’s suffering and humiliation by our own.

Here’s what I mean by good news:

Just like the bumper sticker, a lot of people treat Jesus as though he’s the answer to the problems and questions of existence: How can I be saved? Why do bad things happen to good people? etc.

But if we participate in Christ’s humiliation and suffering through our own, then that means:

Jesus isn’t an answer to the problems and questions of existence.

Jesus is a means of existing amidst life’s problems and questions.

Can you feel the distinction? Because I can. Ever since that night I had to swallow my pride and ask the nurse to help change me, I can feel the distinction.

Feeling humiliated on an almost hourly basis now, I don’t need or want a God who can feel my pain. I need, desperately want, a God whose own life can show me a way  to live in and through it.

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

8. Is It Necessary to Believe Jesus is God?

Yes, of course.

You didn’t expect ‘not really’ did you?

Yes, it’s necessary to believe Jesus is God because following Jesus is first and foremost about trusting Jesus. Christianity is not simply or solely about trusting the belief that Jesus’ death purchases your (after) life; Christianity entails trusting Jesus.

Following Jesus requires trusting what Jesus said and what Jesus did, taking the Word’s word for it. And Jesus consistently referred to himself as the Son of Man- 83 times in fact, a fact upon which all 4 evangelists agree.

The only title Jesus ever applied to himself, the Son of Man was first foreshadowed by the prophet Daniel, who received a vision of a Human One sitting upon the throne of God and to whom is given dominion over all the Earth. As any Jew knows, the only one who can sit upon the divine throne is the Divine, the only one who can have dominion over creation is the Creator; therefore, the Son of Man is and was a divine appellation that Jesus chooses, from a multiplicity of possibilities, for himself.

So to suggest that Jesus is not divine is to dismiss what Jesus says of himself nearly 100 times.

Rather than trusting Jesus’ word, it’s to call him a liar.  Even worse, to dismiss Jesus’ divinity but to worship him still is to commit the most grievous of sins: worshipping another but God.

Following Jesus involves trusting what Jesus said not just about himself but what Jesus said about the broken world, the Kingdom of God and our place in them.

If Jesus is not God, for example, then we have no basis on which to suppose that what Jesus says about nonviolent, gracious, cross-bearing love in any way coincides with the grain of God’s universe- indeed we have every basis to surmise it does not.

The only reason for us to give our lives to someone whose counterintuitive way the way of the world corroborates not at all is the belief that this paradoxical, pathetic way is in fact the will of God.

‘Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”’

– Mark 2.11

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

7. What Do We Mean By Incarnation?

We mean that God the Logos, without taking off divinity, puts on humanity in Jesus.

What we do not mean by the incarnation is the nativity. We do not mean that incarnation can ever be shorthand for Christmas, as though God taking flesh and redeeming humanity could be isolated to only one discrete moment in the Son’s life.

The incarnation does not name a single moment in Jesus’ life as the footwashing, crucifixion or the resurrection do.

Quite the contrary, the incarnation names everything from the Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary to Jesus commending the same Spirit back to God upon the cross. The incarnation is not an event distinct on the timeline of Jesus’ life from the cross.

Rather Jesus’ faithfulness unto the cross is but one manifestation of what it means for the Word to be incarnate.

The incarnation is the given behind all that Jesus says and does.

Likewise, incarnation means humanity is not perfected simply as a consequence of the Word assuming flesh.  The incarnation does not heal humanity of temptation until the Word is tempted in the wilderness. The incarnation does not redeem humanity of its fear until Jesus experiences it in the garden of Gethsemene. The incarnation does not rescue humanity from its violence until the Son carries a cross instead of picking up a sword, and humanity is not freed from death until he suffers and overcomes it.

The cross, then, is not in distinction from the incarnation; it is a product of it.

“Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” – 1 John 4.1-3


This post was up on the blog for about 30 seconds before I got hacked by the Islamic Cyber Force Team and other amusingly self-titled Muslim cyber terrorists.

The hack was provoked by a sermon whose text I can’t recover- thanks to the aforementioned cyber terrorists- but you can listen to it here.

I thought I’d repost this reflection while I try to piece the blog back together (pain in the ass).

Thanks to all of you who’ve emailed encouragement, wondering where the posts are and/or projecting upon me all sorts of ‘front line of freedom’ altruism.

For you e-subscribers out there, sorry for the repost. I’m trying to figure out how I can restore the blog without pushing out old content to all of you.


Dear Son,

It occurred to me recently that, as a preacher’s kid (PK), you hear me give guidance to others more often than I do for you.

As a result, I thought I’d write you this ‘FYI’ even though it may be a bit premature. In the event I’m ever iced by an angry church member you’ll at least have these 2 cents on record.

You’re still at the age when the word ‘selfie’ probably strikes you as a good name for a Marvel villain, and the mere mention of GIRLS makes you blush and wrinkle your nose in contemptuous embarrassment.

This may be premature, but perhaps not. After all, you’ve been learning about ‘the puberty’ at school but, even more so, it seems appropriate because- no matter your age:

Who you will be always begins right now, with who your Mom and me are helping you to become.

That’s a parent’s baptismal promise, to shape you so that your character is grounded in the character of Jesus. God, I hope your Mom does a good job of it.

What it means to have the character of Jesus, who was the perfect image of God, is to regard others as the exact image of God.

That means, son, to see people as holy, as sacraments, and sacraments- as you’ve learned in church- are examples of a whole lot more than what’s visible to the eye.

That means, son, to treat people as (God’s) people. And never as objects.

It means you never see only a person’s physical beauty, or notice only their lack of it- which I also hope you’ll learn is a terribly unbeautiful way to live.

Brass tacks time, son:

If you see a pretty girl, in real life or on Instagram, and from that point on that’s all you can see in them or that’s all you can think of them…that’s YOUR fault son NOT the girl’s fault.

I hold you responsible and I’m damn sure your Mother will too.

Sure, said girl made her choice when she dressed said way.

But you make your choices too.

You can choose to objectify others or you can choose to treat your neighbors as your self.

In truth, if you do grow up to objectify girls, son, it’s our fault too, your Mom and me, for letting you be shaped by a culture that sexualizes everything for a $ and only sounding the alarm years later when we don’t like what its done to you.

But I don’t think that will happen to you.

Some parents excuse their boys’ demeaning girls by demeaning boys, by saying ‘boys will be boys.’

I think I’ll give you more credit, son, which also means I’m giving you responsibility.

You can treat girls as they should be treated.

But let’s be realistic, sometimes you won’t. You’ll have impulses, thoughts, desires…and THAT’S OKAY. It’s natural. It’s part of being human. It’s not any girl’s fault and it’s not yours either. It’s not dirty or bad or unholy.

Jesus (God) was human, don’t forget, so there’s nothing that can run through your head that didn’t run through his. And so there’s nothing you need to be ashamed of.

Now that you’re hitting puberty, son, you’ll realize to what an extent that’s gospel, good news.

While we’re on this track, let me just say that, like other parents, your Mother and I certainly hope you’ll ‘wait’ for that perfect girl (and if it’s not a girl that’s fine too, but that’s advice for another day).

Always remember, though, if you do ‘wait’ you’re no better than anyone else and no worthier of my love. Or God’s.

And if you don’t wait, you and your other whomever is no less beautiful to me. Or God. Parents who suggest anything to the contrary are on some ugly, unGospely footing.

Finally, son, let me ask a favor of you.

If, in the years ahead, you ever mess up or make a mistake, in the real world or the virtual one, please don’t let me get so self-important that I resort to faith-based innuendo to shame you.

Always remember, even I don’t always appear to:

There’s nothing you can do to make me love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make me love you less. I hope that one day you will find someone for whom you can say the same.








Was Jesus Sinful?

Jason Micheli —  January 6, 2015 — Leave a comment

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

5. Was Jesus Sinful?


The humanity assumed by the Word was sinful; otherwise, what would be the salvific point of the incarnation if the humanity assumed by the Word was already perfect?

While perhaps the incarnate Word did not commit sin against God or others (would he have been fully human had he done so?), the humanity which the Word assumed suffered the effects of sin.

That is, the incarnate Word was tempted as sinful humanity is tempted. The incarnate Word feared death as humanity, because of sin, fears death. The incarnate Word experienced the conflicts provoked by poverty and political oppression, which are themselves brought about by humanity’s sinfulness.

In this way, then, it’s insufficient for Christians to profess that the Word took flesh.

The Word not only takes on humanity, the Word contends with (sinful) humanity in order to perfect it over the course of his incarnate life.

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself…” 

– 2 Corinthians 5.19

6. Did Jesus Commit Sin?

The theologians say no.

The Canaanite woman would probably say yes

Traditionally, Christian theology precludes such a thought, for theories of the atonement rely upon the conviction that Jesus did not commit sin.

He is without sin, living the authentically human (i.e., sinless) life that humanity in Adam’s wake cannot live for itself. It’s his perfection, in which we all have a share by virtue of the incarnation, that saves us. It’s his blamelessness before God that allows him to suffer sin’s penalty in our guilty stead.

So no- the theological systems assert- Jesus could not have committed sin.

Unfortunately the gospel texts often seem disinterested in buttressing doctrine and answering questions they felt no need to ask.

What scripture presents instead is a picture of Jesus that resists the neat, a priori categories established for him by theologians.

For example, Jesus humiliates a Canaanite woman by calling her a ‘dog,’ a 1st century derogatory term for Israel’s oldest and original enemy. Perhaps it doesn’t qualify as a sin but it definitely marrs our assumptions about Jesus being without blemish.

By refusing to condemn the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ignores the clear Yahweh-given commands in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Exodus and Numbers.

In pursuing his Kingdom mission and constituting a new family as an alternative to his biological one, Jesus, as Mary’s eldest son, forsakes his Torah-mandated responsibility to care for his widowed mother, which violates the 5th commandment.

The Pharisees are correct about Jesus: by presuming to forgive the sins of others, he sinfully claims the role reserved for God alone.

Their indictment against Jesus is true if spuriously motivated: by claiming to be the Son of Man, Jesus commits the ultimate sin- blasphemy. He breaks the first commandment, making of himself an idol above and before the one, true Lord.

While theological systems have no room for a Jesus who committed sin, the scripture texts portray him as doing just that until it lands him on a cross.

Of course, if he is who he claims to be- the Son of Man- then our theological systems, in their need to emphasize his unblemished, atoning humanity, obscure the gospels’ primary claim: that Jesus is Lord.

And if he’s Lord then it’s not clear how the Law-giver can be said to be a Law-breaker. A sinner.

However, if he’s Lord- if God is like Jesus, exactly- then neither is it clear how we can say God demands the suffering and death of a sinless human creature.

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” 

– 1 Peter 1.19

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This Sunday we celebrated Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to pay homage to Jesus. I extended the lectionary text, Matthew 2.1-12, to include verses 13-18, which narrate Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

A couple of Advents ago, I spent the week before Christmas with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community in Guateamala near the mountains called Cantal.

I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home to be with my own.

Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be taking the SATʼs and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.

While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear.

You know, Facebook photo kinds of stuff.

It was a one-room home. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic.

Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.

The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their baby sister- were sitting on the bed.

Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos.

Because that was the only thing they had to eat. Because junk food is cheaper and thatʼs all they could afford.

Above the bed hung a calendar from several years earlier. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture was a scripture verse in Spanish: ʻ…a light shines in the darkness…ʼ

I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.

I looked at them and I saw the baby Jesus hanging there on the wall above them. I bit my lip to keep my eyes from tearing up, and I muttered to myself: ʻChrist is born this?ʼ

Despite what we sang on Christmas Eve, it was not a silent night.

Not really.

Not at all.

At least not according to Matthew.

According to scripture, sometime after the shepherds returned to their flocks and after the magi found a different route home and after Mary and Joseph wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a trough, all the other mothers and fathers of sons in and around Bethlehem lay their babies in their cribs and tuck their toddlers into bed.

And while they sing them a lullaby or tell them a bible story or kiss them goodnight on the forehead, they hear:

The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads

The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down

The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed

The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted

And fathers being shoved aside

And mothers gasping

And babies being taken.

It was not a silent night, that night when Mary, whoʼd already traveled 70 miles on foot the week she delivered him, rouses her baby awake and wraps him against the cold and tells her husband to pack whatever he can.

It was not a silent night-

That night they sneak away across the border with no money to their name

That night the skies, in which the angels had sung ʻGlory to God in the highest heaven,ʼ fill with the cries of mothers and fathers as their sons are silenced forever.

It wasnʼt a silent night.

Which makes it all the more strange that when it comes to the mere mention of the word, ʻChristmasʼ triggers everything that is nostalgic and comforting and sentimental.

Yet in scripture Christmas isnʼt sentimental, not at all.

In scripture- in Matthew’s Gospel, especially- Christmas is all steely-eyed recognition that this world is very often a shockingly horrible world. Where despots plot and evil flourishes and children are victims. Where the poor are powerless and the powerful do whatever they please to the nations they regard as backward and justify after the fact.

Christmas in scripture isnʼt like Christmas at Tysonʼs Corner or Times Square. Itʼs not like an old-fashioned Christmas with a fire warming the hearth and a blanket of snow frosting the window outside.

     Christmas, real Christmas, is light.

     An epiphany.

     Which means it has to be a light shining in the darkness.

And for that to be true requires the recognition that the world is not as God would have it be, that the world is often a dark place.

So itʼs strange how we turn Christmas into a nostalgic dream, into a sentimental escape. Because in the bible Christmas couldnʼt be more gritty and realistic.

Matthewʼs and Lukeʼs Christmas stories could just as easily be reported by protestors on Twitter.

The stuff of hashtags is all there:

Thereʼs a massacre of innocent children and a world too busy to stop and notice.

Thereʼs political intrigue and the maneuverings of an empire in the Middle East.

Thereʼs the Holy Family finding themselves political refugees in an inhospitable world, finding themselves illegal aliens in a foreign land.

Thereʼs no way it was a silent night.


And somehow that never really hit home for me until that Advent morning in Guatemala, staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose and wondering why Jesus is born at all, that it finally struck me:

     When I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful.

What I realized that Advent morning, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that if I have a place in this story, my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.

Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.

I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father.

Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news.

Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.

But what I realized that Advent morning is thatʼs not my place in the story.

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire.

Iʼm well-off. I’m rich. I’m powerful.

Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that a majority of the worldʼs people would call a palace. Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day.

That Advent morning at Jason’s house it hit me for the first time that Iʼm not so sure I like my place in the Christmas story.


So itʼs strange.

When you think about it, about who we are and where we are in the story. Itʼs strange that so many of us flock to church on Christmas. Itʼs strange that the Christmas story doesnʼt strike us as it did Herod: with fear and agitation.

     I mean you have to give Herod credit.

He wasnʼt stupid- maybe, even, he was smarter than us.

He knew bad news when he heard it.

He knew the ʻgloryʼ the angels sang was confirmation of the threatening song Mary had sung 8 months earlier.

Herod knew that joy coming into Maryʼs world meant an attack on his world. Herod knew that when God takes flesh in Jesus, God also takes sides:

With those on margins.

With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

With all those whose- we have to be reminded- lives matter.

For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news. And they were smart enough to know it.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we drape Christmas with so much cheap sentiment. I wonder if thatʼs why at this time of the year we prefer nostalgia for a world that never was instead of a truthful recognition of the world that is or an honest longing for the world God promised will be.

I wonder if deep down we know Christmas means God may not be on our side. I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we told the story straight up as Matthew tells it, then like Herod we might have a reason to fear.

To fear that his birth, if we take it seriously, will turn everything in our lives upside down. That Advent afternoon, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.

These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich.

These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.

And there I was. From a different world completely.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there.

She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas.

And when she said that, I muttered to myself again: ʻChrist was born for this.ʼ But this time it wasnʼt a question.

Because even though itʼs not the sentimental story we like to hear this time of year, Jesus was born for this. Jesus was born so that someone proud like me would gladly humble himself so that a poor, humble woman like her could be filled with pride. Jesus was born so that someone rich like me would gladly empty his pockets to fill her childrenʼs bellies.

Jesus was born so that someone on the top like me would gladly take some bad news on the chin so that she could be lifted up. Christ was born in the dark; so that, the powerless would know that God was with them in the flesh and the powerful would know that we canʼt save ourselves.


She wished me a Merry Christmas, and then she embraced me.

Given who I am and where I am in the story, to anyone else her hugging me mightʼve looked like Mother Mary embracing King Herod.

     There is no kingdom in this world like that other than the Kingdom that belongs to the Prince of Peace.

Thatʼs why heʼs born.

In the dark.

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor and my social media is flooded with churchy headlines and hashtags, but I’ve grown weary of the Christmas ‘tradition’ of bemoaning the commercialization of the season and criticizing others (usually referring to non-Christians) for being so materialistic about Christmas.

I mean, I’ve got my own gripes with Black Friday and Xmas music in late September but is there anything more cliche than surveying the wrapping paper debris on the curb and the pine needles on the floor and lamenting that we’ve missed the meaning of Christmas?

As cliche as such pious hand-wringing is, I’m not so sure it’s truly in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.

Since Trinity is its own ‘economy’ (economy is a Greek NT term for ‘community’ or ‘household’) of constant gift and exchange, then I wonder…

Perhaps the best way for believers in the Trinity to celebrate Christmas is the old fashioned materialist route of giving actual things to those we love.

Specifically, what I think is problematic about decrying the materialism of Xmas is that it implies there’s a deeper ‘spiritual’ truth to Christmas that we’re missing.

But Christians don’t believe in abstract spiritual truths. We believe in Jesus.

And here’s the thing:

The Incarnation- what we celebrate these 12 Days of Christmas- is the most materialistic thing of all.

Christmas is when Christians celebrate that God took human (material) flesh and lived a life just like ours amid all the material stuff of everyday life. He made things (carpenter) and presumably gave some of those things to people. He drank wine, ate bread and fish, and partied with sinners.

To say nothing of the magi who brought the baby Jesus their resolutions to lead lives of justice and compassion…sike….they brought him stuff.

Expensive stuff too.

The incarnation shows us that God is the most materialistic One of all of us because it’s by incarnation that God takes the material stuff of life to get up close and uncomfortably personal to all of us.

Materialism is how God spent the first Christmas so what’s wrong with us having passed Christmas the very same way?

Sure enough, at this point, many of the unimaginative and painfully literal among you will point out the gross overabundance with which many of us mark the season and how little that has to do with a Savior born into poverty.

I don’t argue with that. I’m only suggesting that the Heifer Project (gifts you’ll never see given for people you’ll never know) isn’t necessarily the only or even the best way to celebrate the incarnation.

If Jesus is Emmanuel- God with us- then giving sincere material gifts of love and friendship that highlight or accentuate our withness our connection to someone else just might be the most theologically cogent way of marking his birth.

In other words, instead of cows and chickens maybe the most Christian thing to do this Christmas was to give your wife those earrings you know she’s wanted for a long, long time but hadn’t bought herself or the Playstation your boys have wanted for several years running.

Maybe materialism is exactly what we need to ‘reclaim’ about our understanding of Christmas.

20121204_knots-in-jesus-family-tree_banner_imgAbout 300 came out for our Bluegrass Christmas Eve at the Firehouse this year. Here’s the sermon I preached, taking Jesus’ genealogy that begins Matthew’s Nativity story as my text.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the widget on the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes here.

Merry Christmas!

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

For example, about 10 years ago, the Sunday before Christmas, we staged a Christmas pageant at a little church I once served.

During dress rehearsal that morning, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first- grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano.

The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

(This sermon’s off to a promising start, isn’t it?)

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds- both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men- started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger.

Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son behind the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

It was a little church.


Truth be told, it had neither the numbers nor the talent to mount a production of the Christmas story; nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant.

And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better- and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman- I said yes.


The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel. At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: ‘Sorry, ain’t no room here.”

The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.

Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.

They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings  as though he were wondering how he’d gotten there.

For some reason, the magi were responsible for their own costumes.

Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. Another wise man was dressed like the WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik, and the third wise man wore a maroon Virginia Tech bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, Herod looked more like Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.


When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the bench in the back of the sanctuary where the ushers normally sat and, gazing at the cast and the production design from afar, I briefly wondered to myself why I hadn’t gone to law school.

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

On the cover was the title: ‘The Story of the First Christmas.’ On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me. His name was Mike. He was an imposing, retired cop with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes.

Truth be told, he never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…

His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt. I knew right then what he was getting at or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman- a grown woman who was married to a man more than twice her age.

She’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-

up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business.

Another was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The man playing the role of Zechariah owned a construction company and had been accused of fraud by another member of the congregation.

The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel…he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.

Mike read the cast members’ names under his breath. Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear:

    Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?

     Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

     Do you really think this is appropriate?


There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story- I mean, the Christmas stories aren’t all the same.

For example, St. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels but all Mark says about Christmas is that the coming of Jesus is the beginning of one Kingdom and the end of another.

St John, on the other hand, begins his Christmas story with cryptic philosophy: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

St Luke weaves the most popular nativity story. His is the story you probably know, telling us about the days of Caesar Augustus, about a tax and a census.

Luke’s the one who tells us about angels heard on high and shepherds watching their flocks by night.

But Matthew, by contrast, begins his Christmas story, not with angels or emperors, with an ad from

“An account of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah…Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…”

Matthew gives us sixteen verses of ‘so and so was the father of so and so’ before we ever even hear the angel Gabriel spill the news about the Messiah’s birth. I wanted to read it all tonight but my wife said that would be sermon suicide. Matthew tells the Christmas story not with emperors or angels or shepherds. Matthew doesn’t bother mentioning how the baby’s wrapped in scraps of cloth and laid in feed trough.

Instead what Matthew gives us is a family tree, 42 generations’ worth of boring, snore-fest begats. Begats that go back all the way to the first promise God ever made to bless the world.

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:

Everything about Christmas

Every promise this Christ child offers you

Every word of good news that comes spoken to us in Emmanuel- all of it can be found in his family tree just as easily as you can find it in his stable.

The funny thing about Jesus’ family tree- there are no branches with the cast of characters you’d choose for a Christmas story. Jesus’ family tree is filled with the sorts of people you’d expect to see on TMZ not in a nativity.

If God were to take human flesh you’d expect him to take the flesh of a much different family.

For instance-

There’s Abraham, who tried to cut his son Isaac’s throat. Issac survived to be the father of Jacob, an unscrupulous but entertaining character who won his position in Jesus’ family line by lying and cheating his blind, old father.

Jacob got cheated himself when he ‘got to know’ the wrong girl by mistake and became the father of Judah. Judah made the same mistake with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar.

Tamar had cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

(I mean: Hebress with a heart of gold)

I’m telling you: these aren’t the sort of people you’d invite for Christmas.

There’s a man named Boaz in Jesus’ family tree. Boaz was seduced by a foreigner named Ruth. He woke up in the middle of night and found Ruth climbing in to bed with him. Not that Boaz ought to have been shocked. His mother, Matthew tells us, was Rahab, a ‘working girl’ who betrayed her people.

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David.

David was a power-hungry peeping-tom, who spied on Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop one evening. David arranged for her husband, Uriah, to be murdered. David and Bathsheba went to become the parents of Solomon, the next name in the family tree of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Of course, the family tree ultimately winds its way to Joseph.

Joseph, who, Matthew makes no bones to hide, wasn’t the father of Jesus at all. He was just the fiance of the boy’s mother- Mary, the teenage girl with a child on the way and no ring on her finger.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

Matthew doesn’t tell us about shepherds filled with good news. Matthew doesn’t bother with imperial politics or mangers filled with straw or inns with no vacancy.

     Instead Matthew tells us the Christmas story by first telling us about the messy and the embarrassing and the sordid and the complicated and the disappointing and the unfaithful parts of Jesus’ family.

     And then, having said all that, Matthew tells us this baby is Emmanuel, God- with-us, God-for-us, as one of us, in the flesh.


Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me and then gestured with the rolled up program of names.

As if to say…when it comes to Christmas shouldn’t we at least try to find some people who are a bit more pious, people whose families are a bit less complicated, people whose lives are less messy?

The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary.

She was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads. Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his make- shift throne, looking more like a Harvey Keitel pimp than a King Herod- Mary struggled up to the pulpit.

Her oxygen tank sat next to her in a wheeled cart. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone but from my seat there in the back I was sure she was staring right at her family.

With her blood-thinner-bruised hands she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew.

I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air:

“All this took place…(breath)…to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet…(breath)…they shall name him Emmanuel…(breath)…which means…(breath)…God with us.”

Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me through gritted teeth.

     And sitting in the back, I looked at Mary behind the pulpit and I looked at all the other fragile, compromised people from our church family who were dressed in their costumes and waiting to deliver their part of the Gospel.

     ‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back.

‘No. No, I think it’s perfect.‘

And Mike glared at me, red-faced.

‘There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story’ I said with a smile.


I never stepped foot inside a church until a Christmas Eve service when I was teenager.

Growing up my father was a severe alcoholic. He was in and out of our lives. My parent’s marriage was down and up and down and then it was over. I have an uncle who was in prison every other Christmas.

     And, honestly, every year I just about wreck my own family’s Christmas because I can’t get over- can’t forgive- that baggage.

What I mean to say is-

I know how its easy to suspect that this holiday isn’t really for you.

I know how easy it is to worry you don’t belong, to think that at Christmas you have to dress up and come to a church service and pretend for an hour that  you’re someone else, pretend your family is different than it really is behind closed doors.

I know how easy it is to believe that at Christmas- especially in this place- you have to hide the fact that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have enough faith, that you have too many secrets, that you have too much doubt, that if God knew who you really were, what you had done and what you have left undone, then he wouldn’t be born for you.

I know how easy it is to think that the Christmas story is not your story.

But then, there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

This family tree Matthew gives us- you might think it an odd way to tell the Christmas story.

     I mean there’s no two ways about it- Jesus’ family is messed up.

     But then again, so is mine and, probably, so is yours.

And God- I want you to know it so badly: that’s the gift given tonight in Emmanuel.

And it’s a gift Matthew doesn’t think needs to be wrapped in angels’ songs

or mangers filled with straw. The gift given tonight is that God comes to you and to me just as we are. Not as we wish we could be. Not as we used to be. Not as others think we should be. Not as our parents or our spouses or our children or our neighbors or our bosses think we should be.


There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story and what Matthew has to tell you is that:

Tonight Emmanuel


Comes to us

Just as you are.

We call it grace.

Take if from me, that’s the only gift that can change you.



It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted any money quotes from DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite.

Since Christmas is a time not only for exhausted credit limits and maxed out parents but also a time for sloppy Christian thinking, in which it’s often implied, if not downright said, that God taking flesh in Jesus indicates a change in God’s identity or disposition, I thought I’d post this to mark the holy day.

Of course, were it true that God changes at all or in the incarnation specifically, we’d all be committing idolatry on Christmas.

For a god who changes is, by definition, not God.

Take it from DBH.


“The Church Fathers were anxious to reject any suggestion that God becoming human was an act of divine self-alienation, a transformation into a reality essentially contrary to what God eternally is: for this would mean that God must negate himself as God to become human- which would be to say God did not become human.

Hence, a strict distinction must be drawn between the idea of divine change and that of divine kenosis.

When scripture says, ‘the Logos became flesh,’ the word ‘became’ signifies not any change in God but only the act of self-divesting love whereby God the Son emptied himself of his glory, while preserving his immutable and impassible nature intact.

God did not alter or abandon his nature in any way, but freely appropriated the weakness and poverty of our nature for the work of redemption…

To say God does not change in the incarnation is almost a tautology.

God is not some thing that can be transformed into another thing.

God is the Being of everything, to which all that is always already properly belongs; there is no change of nature needed for the fullness of being to assume- even through self-impoverishment- a being as the dwelling place of mystery.

Moreover, as a human being is nothing at all in itself but the image and likeness of God- the Logos- in the one man who perfectly expresses and lives out what it is to be human, is in no sense an alien act for God. The act by which the form of God appears in the form of a slave is the act which the infinite divine image shows itself in the finite divine image: this then is not a change, but a manifestation, of who God is.

And finally, and most crucially, the very act of kenosis is not a new act for God, because God’s eternal Being is, in some sense, kenosis: the self-outpouring of the Father in the Son in the joy of the Holy Spirit. Thus Christ’s incarnation, far from dissembling his eternal nature, exhibits not only his particular proprium as the Son and the splendor of the Father, but also the nature of the Trinity in its entirety.”

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517Thinking of Christmas Eve, I’ve had Jesus’ family tree on my mind. Here’s a sermon based on the Book of Ruth. In case you don’t know, Ruth’s story finds its way into Jesus’ family tree in Matthew’s Gospel.

I tried to imagine the Holy Family telling her story to the little Jesus as a bedtime story.


‘Your father and I read this story at our wedding,’ the young mother told her little boy. And when the boy asked why, his father told him that it was tradition. ‘It’s a love story,’ he said.

The lights from the menorah on the window sill made the boy’s dark room glow. The light of the candles danced off the colored Hanukah decorations. The smells of holiday food lingered in the house. Mary and Joseph were curled up with their little boy.

He’d taken the old, black family bible from its shelf in his room, and it now rested on his lap just as he sat on his mother’s lap. The bible was the kind with the thick, special paper in the front, the kind with gilt lines to fill in important dates: marriages, births, baptisms and, beneath those, lots of lines to sketch the family tree.

Mary had filled in the family tree before she was even properly married, before she started to show. At the time she’d been confused by a great many things, but she absolutely knew that one day it would be important for her boy to know: where he came from, who is ancestors were, and what kind of person they made him.

And so, every night before his parents’ kiss and lullaby, they would read him a story from the bible, a story about one of those names his mother had written on the front, cream-colored page of Joseph’s family bible.

He would point with his little boy finger at one of the names on the family tree. ‘Tell me a story about that one’ he would say. He was just a boy. He liked the adventure stories the best- the stories with action and danger, stories where God spoke like thunder or moved like fire and wind, stories like those of Abraham and Jacob and, of course, David- the boy who would be king.

But on this night the boy pointed to a different name, one he hadn’t pointed to before. ‘Tell me a story about that one.’

And his mother smiled and looked over at her husband. ‘We read this story at our wedding,’ she said. ‘It’s a love story.’

The boy looked skeptically at his mother as she began…

A long, long time ago, in the days when judges ruled… famine struck the whole land that God had promised his people. The stomachs of God’s people were grumbling and empty. Even in Bethlehem where you were born people went hungry.

There was a man on your father’s side of the family named Elimelech. Elimelech had a family and, like everyone else in the land, his family was starving.

‘What did he do?’ the little boy asked, ‘did God provide bread from heaven like in the story of Moses?’

And his mother said, no, not like that. Elimelech had to look out for his family so one night he and his wife and their two sons packed only what they could carry. In the cover of darkness, they snuck across the border and crossed through the muddy river into a new country, Moab.

Elimelech’s wife was a woman named Naomi. ‘Naomi means ‘sweetness,’ said the boy’s father, ‘but Naomi was anything but sweet.’

The little boy asked why that was and his father told him that no sooner did Elimelech’s family arrive in Moab than Elimelech died and Naomi was left alone with her two sons. A widow’s life is hard his mother explained. Don’t ever forget that.

At first things went well for Naomi. Her sons married two girls from Moab, Orpah and Ruth. They weren’t Jewish girls so their marriages would’ve been forbidden back in Bethlehem, but they were happy.  Naomi’s boys were married happily for ten years. They had food and money and work. After ten years both of Naomi’s boys died. Just like that, no one knows why.

And poor Naomi, she always worried in the back of her mind that they died because God was punishing her for something, perhaps for letting her boys marry unbelievers.

‘But God doesn’t do things like that, does he?’ the boy asked.

No, his mother said, God doesn’t do that and she kissed the top of his head.

But Naomi felt she was being punished. She was left with two daughters-in-law, in a country where she didn’t belong, in a man’s world with no man, no husband, no sons.

‘What does she do?’ the boy asked. Naomi decided to return home, to go back to Bethlehem. ‘All by her self?’ he asked. An uncertain future seemed better to her than what she could expect if she stayed in Moab. So she packed up her things- again just what she needed- along with a photo of her husband and boys, and after her sons were buried, numb with grief, she just started walking… towards home.

‘Is that the story?’ the boy wanted to know.

No, his mother said and looked at the lights in the window. You see, her sons’ wives followed behind her. At first Naomi simply thought they wanted to say goodbye, to wave to her as she disappeared over the horizon. When they got to the outskirts of town, though, Naomi realized they weren’t just seeing her off. Orpah and Ruth, she realized, intended to stay with her, to go with Naomi all the long way back to Israel, back to Bethlehem.

‘Well, did they?’ the boy wanted to know. Not exactly, his mother replied. First Naomi turned around and yelled at them. She yelled at Ruth and Orpah. She told them to turn around, to turn back, to go home to their own families.

They didn’t belong with her. In her country they’d just be foreigners. They wouldn’t be welcome. I’m very grateful for you, Naomi told Ruth and Orpah; I pray that God would give you happiness and husbands. But go.

Ruth and Orpah, they just stood there- stubborn. Naomi yelled at them again, but she was really yelling at God. When Naomi was done cursing, she fell down weeping, crying in the middle of the road with traffic going by.

That was when Orpah decided to do as her mother-in-law asked. She gave her dead husband’s mother a long embrace and picked up her bags and walked back into town.

But Ruth, your great….grandmother, she wouldn’t budge. She wouldn’t leave Naomi to fend for herself. She just planted her feet in the dirt and put her hands on her hips and told Naomi that wherever Naomi went Ruth would be going too, wherever Naomi lived Ruth would be living there too, and the place Naomi died would be where Ruth would die.

Ruth, your great…grandma, she was willing to leave behind her home, family, country, even her religion just to care for someone else.

And God never told Ruth to risk all this. She never had a special word of calling like Abraham, never a vision like Moses, no dream like Jacob.

‘God really speaks to people in their dreams?’ the boy asked.

Yes, he does, said the boy’s father.

Ruth and Naomi walked the long walk to Bethlehem in silence. Naomi didn’t speak a word until she introduced herself to the people they met in Bethlehem, but she didn’t say that her name was Naomi. Call me ‘Mara’ she told people.

‘Why would she change her name?’ the little boy asked. Mara means bitterness; Naomi was convinced that her life was already over.

Remember, a widow’s life is hard. God’s Kingdom should belong to them.

Don’t ever forget that. ‘I won’t,’ the boy promised.

Ruth and Naomi found a place to live in Bethlehem. Nothing fancy, not even nice, but Ruth tried to make the best of it. Naomi though just sat in the dark corner of the apartment and stared blankly through her tears and through the window. Ruth had promised to take care of Naomi and she wasn’t about to quit.

They still had no food so, after they settled, Ruth went out to the fields to scavenge what the harvesters left behind. She didn’t know it at the time, but the fields belonged to a rich man named Boaz. Boaz was family to Naomi.

Every day Ruth left to scavenge for food and every day she came home to Naomi’s bitter quiet. But one day, everything started to change.

One day, the same as any other, Ruth was working the fields, looking for leftovers.

On that day, Boaz came out to look over his property and check on his workers. He said hello and thanked them. Then he saw someone he didn’t recognize bent over at the edge of the field, a woman. He pointed to Ruth out in the distance and he asked his foreman: ‘Who is she?’

And his foreman told him all about Ruth and how much Ruth loved her bitter mother-in-law and how Ruth had risked everything to care for her.

Boaz listened to the foreman’s story, and later that day he walked out to the edge of the field. He said hello to Ruth. Then he did a strange thing.

‘What?’ the boy asked. He urged Ruth to scavenge only in his fields. He promised her that his men would never bother her and that they would even leave extra grain behind for her. Ruth stood in the sun and listened to Boaz tell her all of this.

Now, for the first time since her husband had died, it was Ruth’s turn to cry. She fell down at Boaz’s feet and wept and she told him that she was just a foreigner, that she deserved rejection not kindness.

Boaz just smiled gently and he said softly: ‘May God reward the love you’ve shown Naomi.’

When Ruth returned home that day, she told Naomi everything that happened with Boaz.

For the first time, Naomi pulled her wistful eyes away from the window and she said, almost like she’d been holding her breath for a great long while: ‘Bless you!’

When she said it, Ruth didn’t know whether Naomi was talking to her or to God.

‘Is that it?’ the boy wondered aloud, thinking it not nearly as exciting a story as David and Goliath.

No, his mother said. Nothing else happened to Ruth or Naomi for a while. Then one morning Naomi burst into Ruth’s bedroom and she told her that that day Boaz would be winnowing barley with his workers. Its long work, Naomi explained.

The whole town will be there to help. It’s like a festival. There’ll be food and music and dancing and wine, lots of wine, she said with knowing eyes.

Ruth still looked puzzled so Naomi grabbed her by the shoulders and told Ruth to take off the black clothes she’d been wearing since her husband died. Go take a long shower, Naomi told her. And when you’re done anoint your whole body with perfume and then put on a nice dress. You need to look beautiful in every way.

And when Ruth asked why, Naomi told her what she was to do.

That night, after the day’s work and the evening’s party, Boaz wouldn’t be going home. Instead he’d be sleeping in his barn. You’re to go to him, Naomi told Ruth. Go to him and lie down next to him.

‘What did Ruth say?” asked the boy. ‘Probably something like: let it be with me according to your word,’ his mother answered.

Whatever Ruth said, she did everything Naomi told her. When she snuck into the barn that night, the band was still playing outside and Boaz was already fast asleep in the hay.

Before Ruth lay down in the straw next to Boaz, she tried to take off his shoes for him. She woke him up. I imagine he was surprised, said the boy’s mother.

When Boaz startled awake, he asked Ruth what she was doing there. And Ruth blushed and panicked. Naomi had told her what to do, but not what to say.

‘What did she say?’ the boy asked.

Ruth told him that if he really wanted to care for her, if he really prayed that God would reward her kindness to Naomi, if he really wanted to help her care for Naomi, then he would marry her.

‘She asked him to marry her?’ the boy asked surprised.

Yes, and Boaz said yes. And he let Ruth sleep there next to him that night.

In the morning, before the sun came up or anyone else awoke, Boaz told Ruth to meet him that afternoon at the gateway that led into town. That’s where he would marry her.

And before Ruth left that early morning, Boaz gave her a gift of barley. He helped load the bag of barley onto her back. Your great-grandma Ruth, she always told people that that morning, helping her with the barley, was the first time they ever touched.

Mary could see that her boy was drifting asleep. So they married, she concluded. And they had a boy named Obed. And he became King David’s grandfather, and, without them, you might not be here with us…

Joseph crept up and blew out the lights on the menorah, and Mary tucked her little boy into bed. And with half open eyes, the little boy said that God wasn’t even in that story. God didn’t say anything or do anything or appear to anyone.

And Mary kissed the word made flesh on the forehead and she said that sometimes God’s love is revealed to us in our love for one another.

Sometimes God is in the person right in front of you.

That’s what the story’s about, she said.

And of all the people in the world, only Mary knew just how true that was.

Bad Santa

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2014 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517   This Sunday I closed out our ‘Mystical Christmas’ Advent series by taking a look at St. Nicholas, who received a mystical encounter with the Risen Christ after his ‘You talking’ to me?’ moment at the Council of Nicaea. I used the screen behind me to convey the parenthetical comments you see in the text- my little homage to the finale of Cobert.

You can listen to it here below or in the sidebar to the right. You can download it here.

Speaking of Mary’s Song, we listen to a lot of music in my house. Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan.

(Fan = snob, elitist, smarty-pants)

     And I’m not picky or narrow-focused, I’m a fan of genres of music. Blues, Bluegrass, Bakersfield Country, Indie, Jazz, Clash-era punk- you name it, I’m a fan of it all.

(All = not Pop, Contemporary Christian or Baby-Making Smooth Jazz)

     I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile it practically comes with chest hair- disc jockeying was a natural part-time job.

(Job = unpaid hobby for which no one else answered the want ads)

     I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home.

(Good Home = my apartment)

      Every last album.

(‘Every’ = except Journey and Hall ‘N’ Oates)

     I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. Ali’s and my first kiss was to U2’s ‘With or Without You’

(Cliche, I know).

     Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the praise song ‘Forever Reign’ was playing.

I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and more songs in iCloud than South Dakota has legal residents. I love music, and we’ve raised our boys to love music too.

And, as parents, we didn’t waste our time with lamo kids’ music like Raffi or Baby Einstein or Jack Johnson.

No, the first song Gabriel danced to at 16 months old was Nirvanna’s single ‘Lithium,’ which is ironic since lithium is exactly what I felt I needed after I changed his diaper.

My boys- they love music too.

Gabriel could create a playlist on the iPod before he was potty-trained. Alexander, before he knew his consonants from his vowels, knew all the words to every Ben Folds Five song.

(Even Ben Fold’s cover of Dr. Dre’s ‘B#$%$@! Ain’t S$%^’ = #badparent)

     Gabriel even cried crocodile tears when he discovered that his beloved White Stripes had broken up the year he was born.

They love music.

It may be true that boogers are just one of the many things my boys eat with their hands, but from the age when other kids are stuck singing ‘Farmer in the Dell’ they’ve known to look down their noses at anyone who listens to Billboard topping pop. I call it my curriculum of cool.

(Well, I will now)

     I mean- I can’t teach my boys to change the oil, hang a door or rewire a light switch, but I can team them that no homo sapien worth his thumbs should ever waste their time listening to Taylor Swift and that subscribing to Sirius Radio is the musical equivalent of wearing sweatpants in public.

(Least amount of effort possible)


My boys- they love music.

We love Christmas carols too.

We’ve got 211 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting the 5th of July. There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond’s ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Buble.

No, my boys love music so they know any savior worthy of worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe and Wynton Marsalis.

Our favorite Christmas song- favorite because it drives Ali (my wife, their mommy) crazy, nails-on-chalkboard-crazy- is Bob Dylan’s angelic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’

‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ written in 1934 for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show, is our favorite Christmas song and because it tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her eyes with hints of marital regret, Bob Dylan’s is our favorite version of it.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?

Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas and forcing his kids to listen to something like DC Talk’s Christian Christmas rap ‘Yo, Ho, Ho?’

Shouldn’t a pastor and his kids be arm-in-arm, on the front lines with Bill O’Reilly, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?


But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.


I mean- sure, Santa apparently turns a blind eye to shaming and bullying among his Jim Crow reindeer. Sure the only difference between his North Pole workforce and a coal mine in Matewan, WV is one of height.

(Where else would his coal come from?)

     I mean- sure, Santa rides in a carriage in the 21st century like a colorblind Amish man.

Sure he’s ‘happily married’ (in an Ike and Tina kinda way) to a wife whom he apparently doesn’t allow to leave the house; meanwhile, he trots the globe wearing what, on anyone else, would be considered a porn star costume.

But hey- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves creepily casing your joint all through Advent?

So, no, I don’t have a problem with Santa Claus.

If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground.

(The true miracle of Christmas?)

     And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.

I don’t think its pagan or idolatrous. I don’t think it sets up our children to question everything else once they learn the Claus con.

Nope, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith- biblical faith.

So I’ve never had a problem with Santa Claus.


Until the other day.

The other day we had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo. And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel says- to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about? I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? ‘If,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’

     (Bam. Damn.)

     And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse looked not a little like Satan himself.

Every year we complain about how the carols and the decorations and the advertisements begin around Arbor Day.  We complain about materialism and greed and stuff- how more and more it’s gotten to be about getting more and more.  We complain about ‘Happy Holidays’ and the ‘War on Christmas’ and how Jesus is the reason for what’s become a secular season. We complain about all of it, but the one thing we don’t complain about is the one thing we should rail against.

Because what could be more antithetical to the Christmas Gospel than this whole idea of kids sitting on Santa’s lap or elves sitting on shelves or God sitting in heaven watching us, judging us, deciding what we deserve- before he decides what he’ll give?

‘Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? If we’re good.’ 

Not to get too preachy but the Gospel is that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’ The Christmas Gospel, therefore, is ‘while we were still naughty, God took flesh and gave us the gift of himself.’

The Gospel is that ‘He became sin who no sin; so that, we might become the righteousness of God.’ That’s 2 Corinthians 5 and the Christmas Gospel corollary to it is ‘God became human; so that, we, who are no good through and through, through him might receive the gift of salvation.’

The Gospel is that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’

John 3.16- and you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ has no positive connotations in John at all; therefore, the Christmas Gospel is that God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ.

And then kept giving all the way to a cross.

That’s the Christmas Gospel, and I want my son to know it- to know that God loves him regardless if he’s bad or good or shouts or cries.

I want you to know it too, to know that God loves you whether or not you’re naughty or not so nice. I want you to know that Christmas has nothing to do with how good you are.

And, since you’re all in church today, I want you to know too that you getting this gift from God- it doesn’t mean that you’re good, doesn’t make you good.

For goodness sakes, that’s what we mean by the word ‘grace.’

God doesn’t give us what we deserve and God gives us more than we deserve. That’s the Gospel and it wasn’t until the other day that I realized how that Pavlovian song about a bourbon-bellied fat man wreaks all kinds of naughty on our understanding of Christmas.

And I’m sure ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ is just one example of how our message has gotten all messed up.

So now my Christmas Playlist numbers 206 songs not 211- gone are the covers of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Mavis Staples and Run DMC.

I won’t sing it anymore. Or play it even.

And before you accuse me of being one of those reactive ‘War on Christmas’ clergyman, you know who else wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’

Santa Claus.


That is, the real St. Nicholas. The real St. Nick would never sing that song.

The real St. Nicholas, in case you didn’t know, was a 4th century Christian Bishop. A would-be martyr, St. Nick was exiled and tortured under hostile Roman Emperors, one of whom gouged out Nicholas’ eye, trying to compel him to recant his allegiance to Christ.

But you know how I know the real St. Nick wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’

The real St. Nick was a delegate at the Council of Nicaea in 325 where he helped write the words of the creed we recited this morning. It was at the Council of Nicaea that Nicholas encountered a rival church leader named Arius, who was later denounced as a heretic.

On the council floor, Arius argued passionately that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is not the fullness of God, that Jesus is not God made flesh.

I know the real St. Nick wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ because it only took him a few minutes of listening to Arius pontificate before jolly old Nicholas started to turn red with anger and only a few moments more before he stood up and strode down to the council floor and then, with all those vicars of Christ looking on, he punched Arius in the teeth, as though they were both in a Martin Scorsese film version of their lives.

1467293_563592787054489_335397325_n  It’s a true story. St. Nick round-housed him right to the nose, until Arius had tears in his eyes and blood in his mouth.

And for it, St. Nicholas quickly found himself on the Emperor’s naughty list. He was thrown in prison. He was stripped of his vestments. His beard was shorn, burnt off.

But while he was chained, naked, in a prison cell, Nicholas received a mystical vision. The Risen Jesus appeared to him, smiling upon him, and restored his beard and gave him a bible.

In other words, the real St. Nick lost his cool, cold-cocked a heretic and, after he gets thrown in the clink, he gets a thumbs up from the Risen Christ.

Don’t you see- Santa is the original Bad Santa. But even when St. Nicholas was naughty, Jesus came to him and gave.

Gave him grace and mercy.

And so I know- not even St. Nick would sing that song about St. Nick.

Because Nicholas staked his life on the Gospel claim that the Jesus who said ‘I do not condemn you’ and the Jesus who said ‘I came to seek and save sinners not the righteous’ and the Jesus who said the Kingdom is exactly like a Father’s embrace of a child who’s lost their way in all kind of ways…

That Jesus is nothing less than 100% God.

God in the flesh.


I know St. Nick would not sing that song about St. Nick because Nicholas gave his eye and his beard and his status and was ready to give his life for the Christmas Gospel that when God comes to town in Jesus Christ, the gift he gives he gives to the naughty and to the sinners and to the traitors and to the liars and to the narcissists and to the addicts and to the bigots and to the cowards…just like you and just like me.

(Thank God)

     ‘Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? If we’re good.’ 

     I love music. All kinds.

But ever since the other day I’ve pared down my Holiday Playlist to 206 Christmas Cuts.

Santa Claus may still be coming to town but he’s not doing it on my stereo anymore.

And maybe I’m overreacting, who knows.

Of course, Gabriel suggested that if the song’s message was so contrary to the Christmas Gospel then rather than forbid the song and expunge it from iCloud, I should write my own song- a song to rival ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ that even the real St. Nick would sing.

‘That’s a good idea’ I thought.

But even though I love music, I quickly discovered that writing a catchy jingle-jangle song about a one-eyed celibate with a singed beard and anger management problems, who pimp-slaps a fellow cleric over incarnational theology and gets a slap on the back from the Risen Christ as a reward…that’s a harder song to write than you might think.

Not to mention, it’s hard to find rhymes for the word ‘Christological.’

As much as I might like to write my own song to rival ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ one that proudly proclaims what the real Nick knew so well- that we are, all of us, all naughty and all loved; that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more- as much as I might like to write that song, I can’t.

I’m a music fan not a music writer.

Instead of verse, I’ll have to stick to prose.

I’ll have to figure out a way to communicate that message not in a catchy, 2 minute jingle but in the everyday, humdrum words and actions of my life.





Untitled44One of the deficiencies in arguing that Jesus (only) comes to die for our sin is that it leaves no redemptive room for the life and teaching of Christ.

His birth and life are just prologue.

Only Jesus’ death matters for salvation.

As NT Wright likes to quip, ‘What about all those bits in the middle?’

It comes as no surprise then that for many Christians our lives are only prologue as well, possibly interesting but not essential.

As Brian Zahnd likes to point out, when we deemphasize the life of Jesus we, in effect, demote the Ascended King who’s been given dominion of the nations to ‘Secretary of After Life Affairs.’

In §10-12 of On the Incarnation, Athanasius begins to take up a theme held by his fellow Church Fathers; namely, that salvation begins not on Good Friday but on Christmas Eve, for the eternal, macro goal of creation is theosis, the joining together of the infinite and the finite, of humanity with divinity. But therein lies the problem for Athanasius- not our guilt but our inhumanity.

Because of sin, we’re not sufficiently human to be joined together with life of the Trinity.

We no longer resembles the image of God so joining with God is an impossibility. Our image needs to be repaired.

And this is where Athanasius finds a redemptive purpose for the teaching of Christ that many common takes on the cross neglect- and not just the teaching of Christ; this is how Athanasius views the purpose of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible too.

A lot of times we throw around the phrase “made in the image of God,” as a way to dismiss others without sounding bigoted.

It’s often “we’re all made in the image of God, but…” It’s become the theological equivalent of “I’m not racist, but…”

But…what if we took it seriously?

What if in every human being, in every person we met, we truly believed we saw the ‘image of the Living God?’


It’s easy to saw when looking at children, or Mother Theresa, or Nelson Mandela. But what about Stalin? Or Attila the Hun? Or Sarah Palin?

There are people we see everyday and when we look at them the image that stares back at us could not look anything less like God. Or perhaps its not even the face of someone else – maybe its the face that gazes back from the mirror that shows no sign of God’s likeness.

Athanasius took the phrase “made in the image of God” seriously.

An Egyptian bishop living 300 years after Jesus, Athanasius took seriously the claim – the promise – the declaration that God made humanity in God’s image. Imprinted on each of us is a portrait of the God who declared “Let us make Humanity in our image.”

“Let us make them in the likeness of God.”

And Athanasius knew something about images.

Once when he had run afoul of the emperor he had to flee Alexandria and hide in the tomb of an Egyptian mummy. He would have been surrounded by once beautiful painting – paintings that had faded. Painting that had flaked and cracked. Paintings that were worn away by the elements.

Athanasius imagined that what we see in the prophets – what we see in the life of Israel – what hear from Scripture – was an attempt to repair, to repaint our portraits. Moses and Isaiah, Daniel and Miriam, Jacob and Ezekiel, they all briefly saw God.

They saw what the original subject of the portrait looked like. They caught a glimpse of God’s likeness and returned to their people.

Athanasius-blog-Zachary-FranzenBut its hard to reproduce a painting from memory.

Whatever restoration they attempted was second hand at best.

A vague reflection, a vague memory of the original.

In Jesus – in God made flesh, “God with Us,” the original subject – the likeness of God is made flesh.

In Jesus we can look upon God and can, through him, restore our image.

In the life of Jesus the perfect image of God is manifest – made available to all of us.

When Mary looked at the baby she had carried for 9 months, when Joseph looked at the son he would raise, that he would love and take care of – when they looked at Jesus they saw God’s image for the first time.

In Jesus’ life and faithfulness, in his words and deeds, we discover not only the image of God in which we were created but also the possibility of our own image.


– Thanks to Andrew DiAntonio who contributed to this post

§8-10: Incarnation Quiz

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2014 — 3 Comments

Untitled44Here’s a pop quiz based on the first 10 sections of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.


1. Prior to the Incarnation, God the Word was:

A) Far away from us with God’s back turned against us because we are sinners and God is holy.

B) Nearer to us than we are to ourselves because even prior to the Incarnation the Word imbues all things in creation and holds them in existence.

C) In Heaven.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we typically think of God as remote? 


2. According to St. Athanasius, God the Word took flesh in order to:

A) Suffer God’s wrath in humanity’s stead.

B) To pay the price, suffering sin’s penalty for us.

C) To die our death and, in doing so, exhaust Death of its power over us.

D) To demonstrate God’s holiness by demonstrating the wages of sin upon the cross.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we interpret the cradle and the cross punitively when Genesis 1 speaks of death as sin’s consequence in no such tones?


3. Athanasius identifies the debt paid by the Incarnate One as:

A) God’s honor

B) Sin

C) Fidelity

D) None of the Above

Bonus: Why do we literalize scriptural metaphors like ‘debt’ when the Church Fathers felt free to use them without explaining exactly how they worked. 


4. For Athanasius, the place and purpose of Christ’s teaching in the Incarnation is: 

A) For us to get right with God through right actions.

B) To describe for us the ideal human life which will be possible only in the Kingdom.

C) To show us what we should do because Jesus told us to do it.

D) To reveal the means by which our tarnished humanity may be restored in God’s likeness.

Bonus: Why do so many of our understandings of how Jesus saves us on the cross have little place for the life and teaching of Jesus? 


You don’t really need the answer key do you?

Missing By Nine Miles

Jason Micheli —  December 15, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517This Sunday I continued our Mystical Christmas series by looking at Matthew 2.1-12, the Magi’s journey, through the lens of a journey of my own, both ordinary and not so ordinary.

I got the idea from the ancient Church Father, John Chrysostom, who writes of the passage:

“The star of Bethlehem was not an ordinary star, for no other star has this capacity to guide, not merely to move but to beckon and invite…The star remained after bringing them to the place, in order that the child might also be seen. For there is nothing conspicuous about Christ. The inn was ordinary. The mother was ordinary. The star needed to manifest and illumine the ordinary until they had reached their destination.”

– John Chrysostom 

When I first sat down on the plane, I did what any right-thinking person does.

I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.

A Kenny G musak cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ played- barely audible- over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their stuff above them.

Across the aisle, caddy-corner to me, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out.

His mother had her arm around him and was saying shush but the boy was inconsolable. He stomped his feet and screamed at the top of his lungs: I don’t care how much pumpkin pie Grandma’s made I don’t want to fly.

Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year I won’t keep my mouth shut.

On my right, on the aisle side, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know how much is too much.

Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his Blackberry- seriously a Blackberry. He had a Wall Street Journal as well as a Financial Times folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap.

He had what sounded like some sort of Eastern accent- Boston maybe- and he smelled so strongly of man-perfume that I couldn’t help but wonder if his musk had real bits of panther in it.

He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.

And there I was, the happy holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Bernie Madoff and Miley Cyrus.

While we waited for take-off I thumbed through the Christmas 2014 edition of SkyMall where, among other things, I discovered that the $90.00 Star Wars-themed Chewbacca sleeping bag actually comes in adult sizes.

     Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas?

The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically.


I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air you could see the stars.

The fasten seatbelt sign chimed off and the captain came on and spoke reassuringly over the intercom about every angle and altitude of our journey ahead. Not that you could hear him over the boy who was still wailing and still stomping his feet and who’d started to hyperventilate.

Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow.

Seriously. Eyeshadow.

And the woman behind me- though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal- was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d had to spend with her husband’s mother.

Having had many of these same conversations with my own wife, I didn’t bother to turn around. Even without looking, I knew her husband was looking sheepish and emasculated, and probably gritting his teeth in a ‘serenity now’ kind-of-way.

Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked.

And I thought to myself: Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell.

I’m headed to my in-laws’ house.

He chuckled and said: Good luck.


Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes.

It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a pastor can provoke interminable, unwanted conversations.

And I’ve discovered the hard way that sitting on an airplane in between strangers can be just like that.

     Ironically, though, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking a bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me.

You don’t even have to read it necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space.

Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy and non-religious people won’t say anything for fear you’re Baptist and might evangelize them. And if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, just open it up to the Book of Revelation along with the current issue of Guns and Ammo.

Stops them every time.

That morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my bible out and opened, not to Revelation but to Matthew 2- not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left but also because Advent was ahead and I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance.

Meanwhile the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and then he dug deeply into his leather briefcase and pulled out a stack- at least 12 inches thick- a stack of catalogs: Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma etc.

He pored over them like he was reading an ancient map.

Every now and then he would look up from them, marking a spot on the page with his index finger, and then he would type quickly into his laptop.

I watched him do this several times before I realized what he was doing.

He had Excel opened up on his computer and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift and then a hyperlink to the company’s website.

Every now and then he would click the ‘Sum’ button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2014 Christmas.

I watched him do this a while. Then I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall where I saw that I could get a replica Mockingjay pin, like the one worn by Catniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, for only $80.00.

I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake Mockingjay pin when the guy sitting next to me said: Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that.

I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked Save.

     After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh.

And he said: It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?


I looked over at him. You talking to me? I said as the fingers of my right hand deflty felt over my bible for the Book of Revelation.


You talking to me? I asked.

Yeah, he said.

Are you religious, he asked, and nodded at the bible on my tray.

Yeah, I guess so.

That’s good, he said in an absent sort of voice. I’m not, never have been.

I let his voice of trail off.

A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the bible.

It’s the story of the magi, I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights.

The what?

The wise men, I said.

He said: Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger?

Not exactly, I said. They go to Jerusalem first not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles.

Sounds like they must’ve let their wives drive, he laughed.


I thought that might be the end of it. I was just about to turn to Revelation or pull out Guns and Ammo or pretend I was asleep.

But then he asked me: Why do they go to Jerusalem first?

Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us: educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation.

They went to Jerusalem first because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might.

He smiled a wise smile at me and said: In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts and then getting back to their normal lives.

And I smiled and said: Something like that.



Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The boy across from me was hyperventilating into a vomit bag.

The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment.

And the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading 50 Shades of Grey, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip.

The man next to me sat up and turned towards me.

Can I read it? he asked.

Well, you’ll have to ask her when she wakes up, I said, but I don’t think that’s the kind of book you borrow from someone.

No, not that book, he said.

And he held out his hand for my bible. So I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of chapter two: It’s this part I said.

He took a while with it. He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe.

When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back.

Then he turned it over and gazed at the back cover and then the front cover, gazing at the cheap, beat-up bible like it was a talisman or a treasure.

Then he held the bible out to me and he put his index finger down at the page.

What’s this? he asked me.

He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text:

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.

     That’s from Micah, I said, from the Old Testament.

Can you show me? he asked.

And I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him.

It’s short, I warned, only a few pages long.

I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words.

I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading. I wondered if it might be:

He will teach us his ways so that we might walk in his path. 


He will judge between many peoples. 


Nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore. 


He will gather the lame and assemble the immigrants and all those who grieve. 

or I wondered if it might be

With what shall I come before the Lord?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

(in other words, will the Lord be pleased with all my stuff)

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then he handed it back to me.


A few minutes passed before he closed his laptop and said: That’s quite a gift you know.

The Mockingjay pin? I asked.

No, he said, the wise men.  For the wise men to be able to reorient everything they knew about the way the world worked.

     For them to be able to look at a helpless baby in a poor woman’s arms in a little village, for them to believe he’s the one, the only one, they should honor, for them to believe he’s the one to make Micah’s words come true- for them to able to do that, it’s got to be a gift from God.

     I guess I never thought about it like that, I said, even though, now that he’d said it, I could think of an ancient Church Father who’d written something very similar.

I travel a lot, he said. I don’t get to see my family much. Every year I try to make up for it at Christmas. I search to find just the right gifts, but lately I feel like I’m always looking in the wrong places.

The Good News is so were the magi, I said.




We started our descent. The stars had leeched and disappeared in the sky. The sun was coming up through the windows.

I’d closed my eyes.

I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it, he said.

That’s Luke’s Gospel, I said. Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men.

I guess we’re more like the wise men anyway, he said.

How so?

None of us have angels telling us what to do or making things easier for us. We’ve just got to search, and, when we find what we’re searching for, decide whether or not we’ll let it change us.

You ought to be a minister, I said.

He laughed and said: I don’t think so. Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy?

I laughed and said…pretty much.



As we were getting off the plane, the journey over, I asked him:  Are you going back to DC after the holiday?

No, he said, I’ve made some commitments. I’m going home a different way.

Untitled44These short sections of On the Incarnation brought two different, disparate movies to mind.

The first film is last spring’s Noah starring Russell Crowe (#4 on Jason’s Man Crush List). I watched it with my boys until the scene just after the Flood when things felt like they were about to get a little rapey on the boat and I pressed pause.

Just before that scene, though, after the many waters have come and you can hear the agony of all those creatures great and small dying a terrible death outside the ark, my youngest son, who’s got at least a dozen storybook versions of this same story in his bookcase, said aloud, as though an epiphany:

‘God doesn’t seem very nice.’


No wonder God promises never to do such violence again.


Reading Athanasius’ account of the incarnation, it hit me that the way we often speak of the cradle and the cross would have God break that post-Flood promise.

If Jesus is born in order to suffer the punishment we deserve, as we so often sing and say, then doesn’t God- at least symbolically- renege on his promise never to flood the earth again?

How is God killing all but a few of creation by water substantively different than saying Jesus was tortured the torture all of humanity deserve in God’s eyes?

Is it just a matter of quantity versus quality? Is God off the hook because he only kills Jesus this time?

Or can we surmise that when God forswears flooding he also rejects crosses? Rejects ‘redemptive violence?’

Noah and these thoughts came to mind because in §6 of On the Incarnation I was struck by the different tenor with which Athanasius speaks of the Word’s coming.

Due to the corrupting nature of death, Athanasius writes that the creation made by the Artificer was disappearing; in fact, you could follow Athanasius’ logic and argue that prior to the incarnation ‘humanity’ no longer existed.

But such is what God had said would happen: ‘If you eat of the fruit of the tree…you will surely die…’

Athanasius notes that it would be ‘monstrous’ if God, Goodness itself, turned out to be a liar. Once set in motion, Death spread inexorably, not as a punishment, but more like a disease that infection’s allowed to set in.

If it would be monstrous for God to be proved a liar, Athanasius also argues it would be ‘unseemly’ should God prove neglectful. ‘Neglect reveals weakness,’ Athanasius posits, ‘and not goodness on God’s part.’

If the Artificer let his creation dissolve into ruin and nothingness, then it would be better had he not made us in the first place, for ‘…it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things he made should waste away.’

If we deserve restoration as God’s creatures, if God must restore us if he is to be worthy of his goodness, then the question turns from one of why to how.

How is God to restore us?

By our repentance?

While Athanasius doesn’t dismiss the value in repenting, repentance itself does not protect the veracity of God’s words in the Garden. Death is the problem. God said we would die and our repentance can’t undo death.

What’s more, repentance does not set us on a permanent course back to incorruption. We can’t say we’re sorry all the way back to Eden.

As Athanasius puts it, ‘…repentance [does not] call men back from what is their nature- it merely stays them from acts of sin.’ Put differently, ‘I’m sorry’ from creatures who are now less than creatures doesn’t cut it.

Death, which prevents us from living a fully human life, a life in God’s image, is the problem.

The only way to restore humanity then is for a true human life to be lived. For a true human life to suffer death and, in dying, triumph over death. This is a key different between Athanasius and many popular notions of cradle and cross.

For others, the incarnation is instrumental; it’s simply the means by which God gets to the end of the story- the cross- where the suffering Christ can elicit our repentance.

For Athanasius, the incarnation is the means and the end in itself. The Word taking flesh is like the antidote for which resurrection from death is the full and final cure.


To reference the promised second movie, the Word taking flesh is like Aslan’s rumored arrival in Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Aslan’s landing in Narnia alone begins to melt the White Witches’ snow long before the Christ-like lion suffers death on the stone table.

His coming alone initiates healing.