Archives For Jesus

What I Need to Hear

Jason Micheli —  August 6, 2015 — 4 Comments

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If NASA’s recent photos of Pluto caused you to feel optimistic about the human capacity for advancement, then you need only wait for the elevator at my oncologist’s office complex to be reminded we are a species who only recently ate each other at Jamestown and, even more recently, elected Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate.

My doctor’s medical complex belongs to that school of architecture known as ‘Eastern Bloc’ and it seems to have been designed with as much haste and forethought. Aside from a few cock-teasing spaces outside, all the parking is underground. Thanks to the pre-Obamacare boom days of price-gouging healthcare the complex outgrew its design long ago such that now it resembles a Lower Eastside tenement building stuffed with beige medical equipment instead of rotting mattresses.

On the entrance wall, the number on the fire marshall’s sign announcing the building’s max capacity has been whited out and now reads ‘Whatever’ in blood red crayon.

In a facility so crowded and busy, parking spots are as rare as erections during chemotherapy. Hours before their appointments, cars of the elderly and the ailing stalk the underground lot like hookers looking for a coked-up John. Indeed it can take so long to find an empty parking spot that it’s not uncommon to spot senior citizens, leaning against their walkers and siphoning gas from a parked car into their stalled-out Buick LeSabres.

After the euphoria of a found parking space settles, patients at the medical complex must tackle their next gauntlet.

The elevator.

To imagine what it’s like waiting for the elevator in this building, first imagine the DMV.

Crossed with a TSA line where every passenger is 10 minutes late for their flight.

Now, put it in a closet.

Not only is the basement hallway outside the elevator small and filled with people frantic with their self-importance, the 2 exits, one at either end of the hallway, make it impossible to establish a coherent line of waiting people much less demarcate a front of the line. And because the elevator travels slower than a covered wagon over the Oregon Trail, each time the elevator goes up it’s no time at all before a sizable horde of watch-glancing patients are demonstrating anything but.

Patience.

Every time, before the elevator has reached the first floor another over-capacity crowd has arrived. Waiting.

The constipated pace of the elevator, the constantly arriving crowds of the infirm and impatient, the dual entrance impossibility of establishing who’s been waiting longest- altogether these factors foster an atmosphere that can only be described by way of reference to Black Friday or Lord of the Flies.

In that 6×15 foot petrie dish outside the basement elevator:

The blind are butted in front of or ‘helpfully’ pointed back in the direction of the parking lot whence they came.

Expectant mothers are body checked by heavyset mustached men late for their sleep apnea appointments.

Recent immigrants from all 7 continents ‘forget’ every stitch and syllable of their English as they feign incomprehension and walk through the people in front of them like that subway rider in Ghost.

I’ve seen parents scribble their phone number on their toddler’s forehead before abandoning them for a final spot on the elevator.

Likewise, I’ve stared at my shoes awkwardly while a spouse hops onto the elevator and leaves their partner behind with an anticlimactic ‘This is what it’s come to’ shrug of the shoulders.

Without a doubt, the worst offenders are the old people.

And, by that, I mean their behavior has convinced me maybe Soylent Green isn’t such a rash idea after all. Waiting for the elevator, they act as though their gray (or blue) hair gives them an automatic EZ pass to the front of the line. As if monopolizing the electoral system and bankrupting social security weren’t sufficient AARP perks.

And those are the polite ones.

Most old folks don’t hesitate to throw a varicosed elbow if it’ll help them wedge their way past those around them. I’ve seen countless others wield their walkers, oxygen tanks and even spare pair of Depends as weapons, beating off rightful elevator riders like they were back alley muggers.

Just the other day, waiting for the elevator for my appointment the following afternoon, I had to referee  when a 70 year old woman with a Philly accent stiff-armed a pregnant woman on crutches as soon as the elevator doors cracked open.

Just imagine the cast of Cocoon suddenly being handed scripts for The Hunger Games and you have some idea of what it’s like to wait for the elevator at my oncologist’s office complex.

Were the oxygen in my blood (and in my head) not cripplingly low I’d take the stairs to the 10th floor. But I can’t. So every time I’m faced with the Sisyphean task of riding the elevator to the doctor’s office.

Because there’s no discernible front of the line and no butcher to hand out numbered tickets to order us, what has emerged instead is an impromptu triage system where each hopeful elevator rider is ranked in urgency according to the perceived hierarchy of needs and ailments.

For example, someone going in for a followup to their joint replacement procedure ranks ahead of a middle-aged man going for a GI scope; however, both of them take a backseat to a mother-to-be in her third trimester with 8 floors up to go.

Of course, if that mother-to-be is only in her first trimester then, it goes without saying, she can hoof it up the stairs.

So can someone seeing an optometrist, as pretty much everyone in the elevator triage ranks ahead of them; that is, unless that someone is A) Blind or B) suffers dementia or C) is a wheelchair bound agoraphobe.

This impromptu triage system has introduced a note of civility to the basement hallway where before there was only the makings of an exploitative Pay Per View melee, and while no written rules or policies of our triage system are anywhere posted, an understanding as settled in among us regulars.

We’ve established, for example, that chest X-rays rate ahead of regular ones. Someone with TB gets on the elevator ahead of someone with high BP, but, because we’re all in a hurry, that someone with TB does not ride the elevator alone. Appointments with urologists and proctologists, on the other hand, are judged an even draw to be settled by rock, paper, scissors- provided the anally-impaired patient doesn’t also suffer from hand-crippling arthritis, in which case he or she should probably get to move ahead in line anyway.

The system works.

Hemorrhoids and genital warts might be uncomfortable nuisances out in the world but in our elevator triage system they’re like Charlie’s golden ticket, moving the sufferer ahead in line, past the shin splints, ear aches and common colds. In perhaps this system’s only hint of social Darwinism, the morbidly obese (because of the floor space they require) are consistently consigned to the back of the line where, with the UPS deliveryman and the medical supply salesmen, they sometimes have to wait 5 hours before being granted a spot on the elevator. I like to think this is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that not only do terminal cases get an automatic spot on the elevator, we let them push the buttons.

Needless to say, in this elevator triage system, having a rare, incurable cancer turns out to be a perk.

On most days I don’t need to wear my immune-deficient face mask or even say the C-word. Like I’m so much water around rock, my bald head, sunken eyes and bare brows are enough to move me to the front of the line.

Having Mantle Cell Lymphoma is like holding a hand with a suicide king in it. As soon as the doors ding open my malady trumps most others and, just like that, the ordinary everyday ill are left behind, watching me ascend, like the Risen Christ, to the floors above them.

The only hitch in my MCL-derived VIP status is when I run up against someone who’s been dealt shittier cards than me.

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

The other day I was holding my son Gabriel’s hand waiting the elevator to deliver me to another of my daily appointments. When the doors dinged, I stepped forward without even thinking or looking around so accustomed had I grown to to my ‘least enviable’ superlative.

Immediately I got stuck in the doorway, shoulder-to-shoulder with 2 other patients and with Gabriel left crunched between our competing thighs. We all wore the same quizzical expression, dumbfounded someone would judge themselves more miserable than us. Behind us were the usual variety of patients stuck on the bottom rung of our triage system, watching to see how this impasse would play out.

‘I.

Have.

C.O.

P.D.’

An elderly woman a with weather-haggard face and wiry hair huffed in between oxygen tank assisted gasps.

What an act. I wish I had COPD, I thought to myself. If only I could be so lucky. What I wouldn’t give to [be as old as you and] have COPD.

‘So,’ I said, ‘I have MCL. It’s incurable and I’m not yet 40.’

 

‘Well I have lung cancer,’ wheezed the man wedged into my right. He looked to be in his 50’s and wore a double-breasted suit along with his look of world-weary resignation.

 

‘I

Can.

Barely.

Breathe.

I should.

Go first.’

The woman angling at my left said…breathlessly. Were it not for the tubes going into her nostrils you’d think she was auditioning to play a Tennessee Williams character.

 

‘Me neither,’ said the wheezy man as he squeezed a leg past Gabriel.

I wish I was only short of breath. How simple would life be if I was geezer with lung cancer, the asshole in my head said. 

‘I’m dizzy all the time, I said. The chemo’s killed all the oxygen in my blood. I feel like I’m going to pass out at any moment.’

 

‘I’ve got that problem too,’ the man wheezed.

 

‘Me too,’ the old bitty didn’t say but nodded.

 

‘I’ve got young kids and cancer,’ I said like it as my final answer to Regis Philbin before mustering enough pity for a Save the Children commercial and glancing down at Gabriel.

 

‘What’s.

Your.

Point?

I’ve got________________8 grandkids.’

 

‘Seve________n,’ the double-breasted man with the combover pleaded.

And just like that we’d stalemated into silence. Gabriel tugged forward on my hand while everyone else stared at us feeling unqualified to arbitrate.

‘I, uh…’ I cleared my throat and stared into the numbers above the elevator.

‘The day before yesterday…I, uh, found a lump in my nutsack.’

 

‘You’re.

Supposed.

To have.

A lump_____________there.

Two.’

The old lady gasped like a bellows.

But even if she didn’t, I heard it in my voice, the kind of matter-of-factness that’s only possible with the truth. I found a lump where there shouldn’t be a third.

‘For God’s sake, let the man pass,’ a man behind us shouted.

About me.

Now, if I’ve spun the lines above with hyperbole, this is the straight, naked truth: 

After the others filled in the space around me, after they let me push the buttons and after the doors closed and we rose like the inverse of Jesus on Easter, the thought overwhelmed me: I wish I was down there.

With some other ailment that meant I was still waiting in line.

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Later, Gabriel and I were sitting in the waiting room when a heavyset woman with heather-colored bangs and a younger man, who was tall and thick, came out pushing a man I took to be her husband, his father.

The chemo glow I see in the mirror I recognized on him. He was hunched over like a soothsayer and his storm-colored eyes were ringed red. He’d been crying; his family still was, over something they’d been told back in the exam room I guessed.

His wife stopped directly in front of us to blow her nose and while she did her husband glanced at us but with a faraway look and then he nodded at me like we were driving past each other on the same small road and then, suddenly and quickly, he laughed.

Giggled almost. And then his son pushed him away towards the exit.

If it wasn’t because of the eerie laugh, then Gabriel caught more than I realized because he clutched my arm like he does in a storm when he’s trying to squeeze his way underneath my umbrella.

After the exit closed behind them, Gabriel asked me in his inside voice:

‘Dad?’

‘Yeah Gabriel.’

‘Dad, why do you have cancer?’

I responded, unspoken, with a question of my own:

Why is God doing this to me?

I’d been living with the C-word for 7 months and, call it professional pride, this was the first time I’d allowed myself to ask that question.

Sitting there next to Gabriel, who clung to my hairless arm, I finally asked it, finally permitted myself to step over into whatever official stage of grief signified by such a question- though it was still safely rendered (and kept at a remove) in the third person. The second person (Why are you, God, doing this to me?) still felt too hot to touch.

I’d never asked it myself before, but I have plenty of experience listening to that question. It comes with the job, hearing others ask that question, often followed by me reframing it.

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The first time I heard that question asked anywhere but in a Lifetime movie, I’d been a seminary student for 2 semesters, and I’d been a solo pastor for 3 months when a member of my tiny little congregation outside Princeton, New Jersey went home one Sunday after the 10:00 worship service, climbed downstairs to his basement, spread out the plastic tarp that was still dirty from a long ago family camping trip, unlocked the deer rifle with which he’d once taught his son to hunt in the Pine Barrens, sat down in a wrought iron lawn chair, and killed himself.

His name was Glenn.

He came to church with his daughter-in-law. Sometimes her husband, his son, came with them. He was named Glenn too. They always sat in the very middle of the sanctuary near the center aisle.

At the end of every service I would stand outside on the steps of the church porch. He would make his way through the line and would shake my hand and say ‘Nice sermon…the organ sounds out of tune though’ and then he would walk off down the sidewalk and drive away in his red PT Cruiser.

Every Sunday it was like that until the Sunday he drove home and decided to take the key hidden in a kitchen coffee can and unlock his gun cabinet.

Later that afternoon, his daughter-in-law called me at my apartment. And when she told me what he had done, I couldn’t help myself. Without thinking how it might sound, I just asked her: ‘Why? Why would he do that?’

She was crying too hard to get the words out, but I heard one: cancer.  An answer though wasn’t really what I was asking for.

What I wanted was something more like absolution. Because listening to her sob in to the phone, I felt stabbed by guilt: guilt that I never took the time to get beyond: Nice sermon…the organ sounds out of tune. I was just a ‘part-time’ pastor. I had books to read and papers to write and classes to attend and he never fit into my schedule.

She caught her breath long enough to ask me if I would come over to Glenn’s house.

I said yes. It wasn’t until I hung up the phone that I realized: I’d never even been to a funeral before.

After a drive in my car that I quite honestly hoped would never end, I met them at Glenn’s house. Neighbors standing in the street stared at me as I got out of the car and walked up to the house. When Glenn’s daughter-in-law answered the door, I hugged her there on the front porch- not because I knew that was the right thing to do, not because I was overwhelmed with empathy or even because I’m a natural hugger- I was just terrified to say anything.

She led me down the hall to Glenn’s kitchen where we all sat down while she started to rummage through the refrigerator to make sandwiches no one would eat. Even if we couldn’t articulate it, we all sensed that eating would’ve violated something sacred.

Sitting in Glenn’s kitchen I noticed the appointments and To-Do’s written on a Philadelphia Phillies calendar next to the black rotary phone on the wall. A shopping list was scotch-taped on his fridge door next to faded 3×5 photos and postcards. He needed eggs and creamer.

I sat there with my hands on the pink formica tabletop acutely aware that my 10 ‘Master of Divinity’ courses felt like something I had mail ordered from the back of a Marvel comic and had in no way prepared to do anything for them.

Since the To Do list on Glenn’s fridge door made it appear that he’d had other plans, his daughter-in-law reached for another explanation.

‘Why would God do this to us?’

We sat in the quiet that was my lack of a response for a long time. Thank God we did too. It was only later in my ministry, after I’d been with several other grieving families, that I understood how all the usual cliches we wield against death were off limits that afternoon.

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The next time, that I remember anyway, someone asked me that question I was sitting shot gun in battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.

We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.

Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Which, of course, is but another way of asking: ‘Why is God doing this to me?’

The question came from a guy named David.

David was good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.

Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.

David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.

Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.

At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.

He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.

I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.

We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.

Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album. He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died. He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer. He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night. And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping.

It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.

David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.

Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.

He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.

Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.

He was quiet for a few minutes, and I knew it was coming. The question.

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Not long after my drive with David, I was working double duty nearby as a hospital chaplain at UVA, where one of my responsibilities was to accompany shocked and freshly grieved strangers to meet the bodies of their loved ones. I didn’t need hindsight to know it was a task for which I was wholly inadequate.

One winter night, in the middle of an overnight shift, I was paged to go and meet a mother who’d arrived to see her daughter.

She was waiting at the security desk when I found her- on occasions like that they’re easy to spot. She didn’t look any older than my mom.

Her mascara had already streaked down her cheeks and dried in the lines of her face. Her hair was matted from where her pillow had been just hours before. I noticed she hadn’t put any socks on and she’d put her sweater on backwards.

When I walked up to her, she had her arms crossed- like she was cold or like she was holding herself. ‘I don’t know what she was doing out this time of night’ she kept whispering to herself.

A resident doctor, a med student no older than me, accompanied us. She’d been the one who’d attended her daughter when the rescue squad brought her in from the accident.

The three of us walked soberly to a tiny, antiseptic room. A nurse or an orderly pulled a little chain string to draw the paper curtain open, and when the mother saw her daughter she immediately lost her footing.

And then she lost her breath.

Then after a long, stretched-out moment, somewhere between an inhale and an exhale, she let out a bone-racking sob.

I had my arm around her to comfort her and keep her from falling, but I didn’t say anything. I’ve always been wary of anyone who knows what to say in comfortless moments.

The med student, though, was clearly unnerved by the rawness of the mother’s grief and by the absence of any words.

She kept looking at me, urging me with her eyes to say something. I ignored her, and the mother kept sobbing just as loudly as she’d begun.

But maybe I should’ve said something, because when I refused the doctor put her hand on the mother’s shoulder and looked over at the teenage girl lying on the metal bed with flecks of dried blood not all the way wiped from her hair and forehead and said: ‘That’s alright. She’s not here. She’s slipped away. That’s just a shell…’

I’d known instantly it was the wrong thing to say, that it rang tinny and false and was completely inadequate for the moment.

Nonetheless, it surprised me when she pushed the doctor away and slapped her hard across the face and cried: ‘It’s not alright. That’s my daughter. She’s not just anything. She’s Beth.’

Chastened, the doctor said I’m sorry and slunk away.

I stayed with her a long while after that, my arm around her, listening as she stroked her daughter’s hand and hair and softly recounted memories.

In all that time, she hadn’t really acknowledged my presence until she turned and looked at the badge on my chest that read ‘Chaplain’ and asked me: ‘Why…why would God do this to her?’

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About a year before I learned I had cancer I met with a woman in my church who’d just found out she had it.

She’d lost her husband a few months earlier after a long illness. Their daughter was no older than my oldest. Only weeks after she buried her husband and consoled their daughter, she learned she had a serious form of cancer.

Eventually our conversation boiled down to that 1 question:

Why is God doing this to me?

Those are just the memories that stick in my mind and in my craw. I’ve listened to some semblance of that question more times than I can recall. And over the years I think I’ve acquitted myself well listening to people ask that question through tears or clenched teeth, mirroring their emotions, affirming their feelings and perspective, neither needing to protect God from their anger nor taking their anger so seriously that I turned God into a prick, all the while testifying through my compassion for them that God is NOT doing this to them.

I’ve even learned over the years that you don’t need to be a believer to ask that question. When there is no apparent or satisfying cause to the suffering that’s befallen you, believer or not, it’s just a matter of time before you aim your ire at the First Cause. Where else but there does the buck eventually, eternally stop?

I don’t know how to parse it down for Gabriel, but there is no reason, other than the obscure molecular one, that I have stage-serious cancer. So despite being practiced at exonerating God in the workplace, I can’t help but wonder lately why God’s doing this to me.

After all, His Word says that He’s the One in whom my mutinous cells live and move and have their being.

I mean, sure, I know God’s not really doing this to me (I think), and I’ve got the diploma and the tomes to prove it but ever since I allowed myself to ask that question, I can’t stop wondering.

I think that’s what I never appreciated before, all those times listening to others ask that question.

I never realized how once you ask that question of God, since God’s not quick to answer it or allay your concerns, it just lodges there in your soul and nags away at you.

With no reason I have MCL, every passing day I grasp for one, yearning even for a bad reason such that now I can’t look at my lab results or scan reports without scrolling down a mental list of my sins, searching for a reason, wondering if God is doing this to me because I did X to Y all those years ago.

Gabriel’s question prompted a question to which I’ve listened more times than I can remember and lately now I’m listening to myself ask it.

So what follows is for me.

Maybe you’re lucky and you don’t need to hear this. If so, you can stop reading now.

But I need to hear it, hear what I’ve told others when the shoe was safely on the other foot.

God’s not doing this to you.

God’s not against you.

When Jesus gives his disciples a prayer to pray, he first warns them:

‘Do not be like the pagans when you pray…’

The pagans believed that god- the gods- changed. The pagans believed god’s mood towards us could swing from one fickle extreme to its opposite, that god could be offended or outraged or flattered by us, that sometimes god could be for us but other times god could be against us.

And so the pagans of Jesus’ day, they would pray ridiculously long prayers, rattling off every divine name, invoking every possible attribute of god, heaping on as much praise and adoration as they could muster.

In order to please and placate god.

To manipulate god. To get god to be for them and not against them.

The pagans believed that if they were good and prayed properly then god would reward them, but if they were bad and failed to offer an acceptable worship then god would punish them.

The god the pagans prayed to was: an auditor always tallying our ledger to bestow blame or blessing based on what we deserve, an accuser always watching us and weighing our deeds to condemn us for punishment or recommend us for reward.

The pagans had a lot of names for who they prayed to: Mars, Jupiter…

But scripture has one name for the kind of person the pagans prayed to: שָׂטָן, ha-satan. What we call Satan. In the Old Testament, satan doesn’t have 2 horns, a tail and a pitchfork. In the Old Testament, satan isn’t the Prince of Darkness or the personification of evil. In the Old Testament, satan is our accuser- that’s all the word means. Satan is one who casts blame upon us, who finds fault in us, who indicts us for what we deserve.

Jesus doesn’t want us to turn God into a kind of satan. Jesus doesn’t want us to mistake God for an accuser, to confuse God for one who casts blame and doles out what’s deserved.

Jesus wants us to know:

The god you think is doing this to you isn’t God.

God’s not like that. My Father isn’t like that, Jesus warns. Our Father isn’t like that. Don’t be like the pagans.

God doesn’t change. And so God never changes his mind about us. About you, Jason.

Or about you, ____________ (fill in the blank if you’re still reading).

God’s love does not depend on what we do or what we’re like. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints. As far as God’s love is concerned, our sin makes absolutely no difference to God. Our sin can’t change God because God doesn’t change.

God sends rain upon the just and the unjust. God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve. God forgives even when we know exactly what we do.

God is an old lady who’ll turn her house upside-down for something that no one else would find valuable, a shepherd who never gives up the search for the single sheep, a Father- Jesus’ Father, Our Father- who never stops looking down the road and is always ready to say ‘we have no choice but to celebrate.’

No matter what it may look like in your life right now, Jason, God is for us. You.

Always. Nothing can change that. Because God doesn’t change.

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.

Or-

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

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Chemo Day #3

Thomas Lynch was the first writer able both to tease and to dash my dreams of becoming one, all in the space of five pages.

In what would seem a writerly conceit, he’s also the nation’s most famous undertaker. In the little town of Milford, just north of Detroit, Thomas Lynch buries his friends and neighbors for a living.

He writes in his spare time.

I invited ‘Tom’ (if I couldn’t match him at least I could befriend him) to speak at my church many months ago.

I should’ve realized back then that soliciting an undertaker’s presence into your midst- albeit one who has a sideline in poetry- seldom portends happy news.

Now, Tom’s two weeks out, his flight and his room are booked, his agenda is set and I’ve just had a tumor the size of a trade paperback excised from my insides- oh, and I’m waylaid in an oncology ward with a rare and incurable cancer, ingesting a cocktail of poisons to help the grim news go down.

So both my dashed dreams and my dire diagnosis I blame on the undertaker.

But, as Tom himself points out, my luck isn’t all that exceptional. The numbers- as in, THE NUMBER– are against me.

In his book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch writes:

Brenda Fitzsimons, The Irish Times

The most satisfied of my customers say: I hope to never see you again. I wear black most of the time, to keep folks in mind of the fact I’m not selling Buicks.

I’m the only undertaker in this town. I have a corner on the market. The market, such as it is, is figured on what is called the crude death rate- the number of deaths every year out of every thousand persons.

Here is how it works.

Imagine a large room into which you coax one thousand people. You slam the doors in January, leaving them plenty of food and drink, color TVs and magazines. Your sample should have an age distribution heavy on baby boomers and their children- 1.2 children per boomer. Every seventh adult is an old-timer. You get the idea.

The group will include fifteen lawyers, one faith healer, three dozen real estate agents, a video technician, several licensed counselors and a Tupperware distributor. The rest will be between jobs, middle managers, ne’er-do-wells or retired. Now for the magic part- come late December when you throw open the doors, only 991.6, give or take, will shuffle out upright. Two hundred and sixty will now be selling Tupperware.

The other 8.4 will have become the crude death rate. 

Here’s another stat.

Of the 8.4 corpses, two-thirds will have been old-timers, five percent will be children, and the rest (slightly less than 2.5 corpses) will be boomers- realtors and attorneys likely.

What’s more, three will have died of cerebral, vascular or coronary difficulties, two of cancer, one each of vehicular mayhem, diabetes and domestic violence. The spare change will be by act of God or suicide- most likely the faith healer.

The figure most often and most conspicuously missing from the insurance charts and the demographics is the figure I call:

The Big One.

The Big One refers to the number of people out of every hundred born who will die.

Over the long haul, The Big One hovers right around…well, dead nuts on 100%.

If this figure were on the charts they’d call it death expectancy and no one would buy futures of any kind. But The Big One is a useful number and it has its lessons. Maybe it will make you want to figure out what to do with your life. Maybe it will make you hysterical with fear.

As a clergyman with a sizeable chunk of my workaday year given over to beholding mysteries with a benediction and a fistful of dirt, I recognize the attention-getting power of a horizontal body.

Indeed, I daresay, one horizontal body that’s no longer moving is more compelling than two bodies that are moving horizontally together.

Like Thomas Lynch, I know firsthand many times over that there’s nothing quite like the presence of a dead guy to fix one’s mind on figuring out lowest common denominators; namely, between you and the universe. Or God.

My trade as much as Tom’s depends upon that number: the Big One, and for as long as I’ve been a pastor I’ve operated on the assumption that the Big One, 100% Death Expectancy, 0% Survival, is the only number that really matters in the grand scheme.

The Big One, I’ve always thought, is the only number that matters for taking accounts, auditing actual value and putting life in its proper perspective.

But I’m not a pastor anymore.

At least, not right now I’m not. Nor will I be for some time to come. I’m a patient, and after one surprise surgery, followed by a scary pant-pissing diagnosis and now facing a long chemo protocol that makes me blanch and odds I’d rather not weigh…

Lately, I’m convinced that the Big One is not the only number that matters.

Not by a long shot.

In fact, the last couple of days numbers seem to be the only thing I can wrap my head around.

Maybe it’s because I’m staring at Day #4 of something like 150 (if all goes well, says the doc) to come.

Or maybe it’s because I’m feeling flat-lined fatigued, tapped-out tired from my third 24 hour drip of yet another ‘medicine’ that ends with the suffix -toxin.

It could be because I’m strapped to this IV pole, tethered by the port and tubes in my chest, and plugged into the wall like a plastic, beeping prisoner.

And I’ve worked in a prison- I know of what I speak; prison is freaking boring.

The truth is it’s just been a couple of days and I’m already exhausted, a scorecard that makes me swallow hard at the road ahead. I’m fed up with waiting to throw up. I’m tired of waiting for when the meds will give me the runs and I’m tired of wondering whether I’ll be able to unplug all my shit and make it to the toilet in time when they do. And I’m seriously done with the way the brown bagged potion on my pole makes my piss the color of blood.

And burn.

Not to be too graphic.

My point is- I’m weary and, wearied, words are starting to prove elusive for me, making it easier for me to mark the time and transcribe the moments not in words but in numbers.

Numbers like:

43- the number of cancer-related television commercials I counted yesterday during dinner.

38 – the number of those commercials which aired on CNN

24 – the approximate number of hours per day that the Crocodile Hunter: Steve Irwin is on television.

2006 – the year the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, died.

7- the number of times the charge nurse has balled me out for refusing to wear the hospital-issue, rubberized, geriatric socks.

3 – the number of times the cancer-themed, Joseph Gordon Levitt/Seth Rogen bromance, 50/50, has aired during my hospitalization.

6 – the number of times my nurse, Joyce, has walked in and caught me watching #19 Children on TLC this week.

Too Many to Count – the number of tumors in my chest and abdomen regions according to my CAT Scans

5 – the number of IV bags being routed through the 2 tubes ported in my chest cavity.

180 – the number of seconds it takes me to unplug all those bags before I can begin to drag myself to the bathroom.

14 – the number of times I need to get up to go to the bathroom every night.

48 – the number of minutes I spent crying, full-on tears, during lunch today while watching Charlie Rose interview a panel of New York oncologists.

26- the number of minutes I made it into Episode 1 of Season 1 of Breaking Bad before realizing the premise hinged on a father and husband with terminal cancer, balling like a strung-out meth-head and turning it off.

4 – the number of times during our ‘walk’ today that the soft-spoken Licensed Clinical Social Worker observed that I seemed ‘cynical.’

3 – the number of patients I could overhear weeping last night long past midnight.

2 – the number I overheard the night before crying out in what sounded like agony while they threw up from their chemo.

14 – the number of times my doctor has asked if I have diarrhea.

8 – the number of times I’ve had it.

2- the number of times my mom surreptitiously washed my sharted on shorts to spare me shame.

23.6 – the amount my White Blood Count has dropped since Friday.

2 – the number of panic attacks that have awakened me in the middle of the night this week.

19 – the number of cans of Ensure, sent by the dietician, sitting unopened in my room.

14 – the number of years Ali and I will have been married this coming August.

40 – the percentage of my total years (37) that I’ve been in love with her and she (fingers-crossed) with me.

75 – the percentage of time I’ve not lived up to her expectations.

100 – the percentage of time she’s exceeded my own.

52 – the rough estimate of years, based on average life expectancy, I anticipated to have left with her.

12 – the age my oldest son is now, the age I was when my parents split, an age I know can make a lifetime’s difference.

41 – the percentage of my boys’ lives I’ll ‘miss’ this year while in treatment.

Forever – the amount of future time I assumed I had with them.

35 – the best guess number of times this week I’ve prayed a desperate, lame ‘Please, make it go away, God’ prayer.

0 – the number of times God has replied thus far.

With my brain cobwebbed on chemo and fitful sleep, I’ve found it easier to mark the time with numbers.

And, sitting here in my bed, sifting through all these numbers and searching out lowest common denominators, I’ve discovered:

Tom’s Big One isn’t the number that matters most to me in the grand scheme.

Not anymore.

I don’t really give a damn about my 100% Death Expectancy anymore because there’s a few other numbers that have gripped my attention, especially this one:

7: the median number of years for Mantle Cell Lymphoma until a relapse occurs.

But that’s hardly the only number. There’s:

44: the age my wife and I’ll be then.

16: the age my youngest, Gabriel, will be when I cross that number.

4: the number of years Ali and I will be just shy of our 25th Anniversary

60: the decade to which my life expectancy is shortened if my MCL requires bone marrow transplants.

Yesterday afternoon a pious-eyed chaplaincy student from the seminary just down the road wandered into my room. Having designated my religion as ‘Christian’ at patient registration last Friday, she had arrived to offer me pastoral care. I’ve been in her shoes before so I tried to be on my best behavior; I didn’t even mention that I was, had been a pastor. When it came time for her to take her leave, she extended the invitation for the obligatory prayer.

And thankfully she spared me any ‘Fatherweejus’ tripe but dammit if her prayer wasn’t all about me and the Big One, about FREAKING ETERNAL SALVATION and me trusting myself to it.

She said ‘Amen’ and I said ‘Thank You’ even though I was thinking ‘I’d like to punch you in the teeth.’ Because I don’t care about eternity right now.

I’m not afraid to die.

I don’t need a miracle or a cure, the latest elixir or a magic potion or the Jesus Prayer.

I don’t need forever.

I just want more time. That’s all.

Eternity is not a number I care about because I’ve got numbers like 7 and 60 that are now my Big Ones.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this nearly a month long nightmare (and if that sounds too stoic and brave, just go back to the top and reread)

It’s how quickly you can make peace with the likelihood you’ll die far sooner than you expected

It’s how quickly you can make peace with the fact that it’s likely this (and not peaceful old age or angina) that will kill you

It’s how quickly you can make peace with it, IF (a big fucking IF) you can just see your kids grow up, that’s all.

You can make peace with it if you can just enjoy your wife’s company for another factor (or two) of seven.

Eternity is the wrong damn number because it’s not so hard to make peace with death if you can just have a little bit more time.

So that’s what I’ve started to pray for, more time.

Hopefully it’s not too much to ask for; after all, when you think about it, time- literally, all the time in the world- is the exact gift God gives us at Easter.

My Cancer Playlist

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2015 — 29 Comments

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Ash Wednesday: 2/18/15

The day before I left the hospital, per my oncologist’s orders, I had a dual lumen port installed in my chest, just opposite my heart. It’s a device, an accessory if you will, into which the poison will flow when I return in two days for my first bout of chemotherapy.

An orderly named Nathaniel wheeled me down from my room to a unit whose name I missed in the wincing, DUI-like jingle-jangle that was Nathaniel hitting every bump, corner, laundry bin and stray wheel chair along the way.

In his defense, he was distracted.

Nathaniel was Ethiopian, which I could tell from his complexion and his accent. He was, he told me freely and for no apparent reason, an Orthodox Christian, which led to my ill-advised confession to being a man of the cloth.

As soon as Nathaniel found out I was a ‘priest’ (which happened just as we passed my nurse’s station), he ceased looking at the route ahead of the $35,000 bed to which I was chained by way of compression socks and IV needle and instead he zeroed his attention on my ‘sense of peace here in the hospital.’

Is how he put it.

‘It must be wonderful,’ he rhapsodized, ‘feeling the Holy Spirit overshadow you.’

Is this guy serious? I thought to myself. Or is it the morphine?

But what I said was:

‘I don’t know Nathaniel. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she wound up an unwed, teenage mother. I’m not so sure I need any overshadowing on top of the- you know- scary, stage-serious blood cancer.’

But Nathaniel wasn’t listening to me. At all. He was too excited about having a genuine Christian talisman in his presence, albeit one- according to the nurses- with strong vital signs and alive for at least a little while longer.

‘With the Holy Spirit, I imagine you feel no pain, no pain at all’ Nathaniel said beatifically, just as he bumped the side of my bed against the elevator door, sending what felt like a 9.0 fart engulfed in flames through my recently incised insides.

Once delivered to my pre-op bay, I waited while several nurses stopped by my bed to reassure me how I would ‘experience no pain’ while they sunk what looked like a diaphragm with purple spermatozoa into my chest and attached it my jugular.

‘You’re not going to knock me out?’ I asked in disbelief.

‘We’ll administer a mild sedative. You won’t feel a thing’ the last nurse promised.

‘Really? How many of them do you have in your chest?’ I asked.

Huffing at the pain- in- the- ass-impossibility that was patient 5421, she walked away only to return a few minutes later to explain how if my chest port ever got infected then it would be A) excruciatingly painful, B) ‘compromise my treatment’ and C) ‘quite possibly kill’ immune-deficient me.

‘Kick ass’ I said like Maverick about to take-off.

They wheeled me into a room that had a basementy, 12 Monkeys feel to it where the nurse pitilessly instructed me to climb onto the operating table, which in my sutured, doped-up state was like asking John Goodman to scale a pommel horse.

Holding my bowels with my left hand and trying to cover my bare behind with my right, I attempted a ‘maneuver’ that felt (and probably looked) like a full-body dry heave.

I wound up splayed down over my knees on top of my face with my hairy, recently sponged-bathed butt sticking up in the air.

Seeing my futility, they picked me up and moved me the way lifeguarding students handle accident dummies.

They laid me out on the table, wrapped a sort of inflatable mattress around my circumference and positioned my head across my left shoulder- so I couldn’t be a witness to the carnage to come, I suspected. Informing me they’d just administered a mild sedative, someone, who I couldn’t see but who smelled of Axe Body Spray took to shaving my chest.

‘Sigh’ I sighed.

I’d already had one shave job that week.

‘Say,’ I said, ‘If I gave you $50 cash would you just go ahead and give me a full body wax?’

‘Not during working hours’ Axe Body Spray replied creepily. When he finished his hasty man-scaping, a bracing sensation struck me.

‘Is that…? rubbing alcohol?’ I asked, feeling the liquid ignite all over me- especially around my nipples-before dripping down my sides.

‘Yes’ he said ‘

‘Lovely’ I said, ‘For a second there I forgot about the bone-crunching pain in my gut.’

Like I said, I’d already gotten one half-assed shave job before my intestinal surgery.

Thanks to Axe Body Spray, from my Twig and Berries to my Adam’s Apple, the only hair on my upper body now resides on top of my shoulders.

And my hands.

Seriously, my top half now looks like the love child of Justin Bieber and Samwise Gamgee; actually, given my weight loss, I look more like the bastard child produced by a Kiera Knightley affair with a short-order cook from a Greek Diner.

Like I said, lovely.

Not to worry though. While doing some online cancer research, I inadvertently discovered that they actually make pubic hair wigs for chemo patients.

No joke, they’re called ‘merkins,’ made from real or artificial hair, and come in snap-on and velcro varieties. But that- after I throw up in my mouth- is an essay for another day.

As the drowsiness set on me, the nurse asked: ‘What kind of music do you like?’

‘Oh, just about anything’ I lied to avoid conversation.

‘Bluegrass?’ she asked.

‘Actually, yeah, I like bluegrass a lot’ I responded.

‘Hmm, not me,’ she said before turning it to what I could tell was one of those sackless, soft pop stations that purport to play ‘the best songs from the ’80’s.’

Sure enough, Tears for Fears were just finishing up wanting to rule the world when the Belinda Carlisle song ‘Heaven on Earth’ kicked on.

Just as I was going lights out to the world, I considered that if Belinda’s right, if heaven is a place on earth, then (in addition to Cleveland and Walt Disney World) it’s anywhere but here. Near me.

I woke up without realizing I’d been asleep. ‘Everything okay?’ I asked, not even sure if they’d begun.

‘Sure,’ the nurse said, ‘you didn’t move at all, except when you bounced your hips a little to ‘Raspberry Beret.’

I blinked my eyes awake and felt the dull ache in my baby bottom chest, just opposite my heart. I turned my head and saw the wires with input heads on the end dangling down my torso.

Hickman_line_catheter_with_2_lumens

When I showed the chest port to my boys later that evening, they both immediately compared it to Tony Stark’s arc reactor. It’s not a bad analogy. The arc reactor, after all, not only powers Tony Stark’s Ironman suit but it keeps Tony’s body from slowly poisoning itself.

It’s a sound analogy, but really the chest port resembles auxiliary audio cables coming out of my breast.

The effect of which is to make me look like a piece of stereo equipment.

As though if you stuck an antennae up my bum in the AM and plugged me into a speaker, I could play All Things Considered for you. Or, I keep thinking, music.

If you plugged me in to your car stereo or your surround sound system, what music would MP3 me play?

What soundtrack for the movie Jason has Cancer is recorded there just across from my heart?

I imagine the cuts from my pre-diagnosis days would include something like REM’s ‘Shining, Happy People’ or maybe something from Astral Weeks and Miles’ Birth of the Cool album. You know, the kind of music you’d sample for the theme ‘blissful ignorance’ and postured cool.

When I expressed my first fart after surgery, the sign they’d put Humpty’s insides back together again, I probably would’ve played ‘I’m So Excited.’ And when I dropped my first post-op deuce a couple of days ago, MP3 me probably would’ve blasted Handel’s Hallelujah chorus or maybe Elton’s ‘Rocket Man’ or, since we’re talking crap, anything by Coldplay.

The night Ali climbed into the hospital bed with me, damning my leaky bile tube and laying right on top of it, and wiped the night sweat off of me and held me until the nurse made her get out, the night we learned I had Mantle Cell Lymphoma.

It’s cheesy but if you’d plugged me in that night I would’ve played Phil Collins’ power ballad ‘Against All Odds.’

Over and over.

With me as Jeff Bridges in the music video, and cancer as James Woods, and Ali as whoeverthatactressis.

Ever since the evening my GI doc called after my CAT Scan and asked if I was sitting down, there have been plenty of singles like Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ and Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ rattling around inside me. Except, when I’m with my kids. No matter how shitty I might feel or how depressed I get, the soundtrack for when my boys enter the room would probably be the Shins or the Decembrists, something fun and airy and lackadaisical enough to hint at the possibility of happy endings.

And since I belong to a church, one of my tracks is surely Joe Cocker’s cover of the Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help from My Friends.’

Most of the time, though, if you plugged me in and never pressed pause, I bet the music I’d play would include plenty of tracks from the Cure or Morrissey or the National, you know, the kind of music that makes you want to pull the shades and drink by yourself all day, munching on rat poison while you watch a Full House marathon- mostly because I fear- FEAR– that if you plugged my breast into your Bose, you’d discover that I come with a hidden, bonus track. One that wasn’t listed when you bought the album but has been there the whole time nonetheless and can’t be deleted.

Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’

If you plugged me in and never pressed pause, I fear you’d eventually end on a cut like Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’

The funny thing about fear when you’re a Christian (especially a pastor) is how other Christians treat fear like its anathema.

Verboten. More cancerous than cancer, like its a tumor that threatens the Body of Christ.

To be afraid, to pay attention to the prognosis, to weigh the odds and fear where you’ll end- all of of it, many unwittingly imply, is the opposite of faith.

After all, if you trust God then you shouldn’t fear what tomorrow will bring. Let go and let God. Give it over to the Lord. Trust Jesus. Everything happens for a reason. He never gives you more than you can handle. Have faith that all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

Whatever happens, He has a plan. Have faith, not fear.

Christians get it honest, I suppose, this fear vs. faith way of thinking.

‘Don’t be afraid’ is perhaps the most common refrain in the testaments. Yahweh, his angel Gabriel, Jesus himself are constantly telling people not to fear.

And the other night in the hospital when I couldn’t sleep and was flipping channels on the TV, a bouffant preacher hawking a bible study curriculum on the Trinity Broadcasting Network reminded me how the New Testament letter from John says that fear is the opposite of faith and that perfect love (for the Lord) casts out all fear.

From where I sit in the cancer chair, that’s horse shit, even if it is in the bible.

And, I’m not even sure it’s true.

I mean, sure, it’s true if what John means is that love, as in Love; as in Jesus, casts out all fear. It’s true if what John’s really after is that faith, as in Jesus’ Faith, is the opposite of (our) fear. And maybe it’s true if what John has in mind is action, causation; that is, provoking faith and love in someone is the opposite of provoking fear in someone.

Sure.

But otherwise, the notion, hawked by that TV preacher and so many other well-meaning Christians, that the presence of fear equals the absence of love is total rubbish.

If there’s one thing stage serious cancer does, it’s inject an ample dose of clarity into your life.

Here’s what my dosage has revealed: I’m afraid because I love.

I’m not afraid for myself, for what the treatment or the cancer will do to me. I’m not afraid of the pain or discomfort. I figure if I can live for a month with a 10×10 inch tumor obstructing my poop chute, I can handle chemo and bone marrow transplants.

I’m not afraid for me. I’m afraid because I love.

I fear what this cancer will do to my boys, to their happiness and joy and innocence and faith.

And while we’re on the subject of faith, I fear what it will do to my congregation’s faith to see one of their pastor’s handed such a huge crap-flavored lollipop. Speaking of church, I’m afraid of the stress this places on my colleagues, who got left holding the bag with literally a day’s notice. I’m afraid if when I return to work, it’ll be as a shell of my former (without peer) self.

I’m afraid of the burden and grief this will bring my friends and family; I actually visualize seeing it in their eyes.

I’m afraid of the toll this will take on my wife, having to attend to the ‘…in sickness and in health…’ part of her vows earlier than expected. I fear losing not our marriage or our family but the one- the freaking perfect one- we’ve built and enjoyed with our kids. In the back of my mind, I even fear practicalities like what this will cost, and therefore what will it cost us in terms of the dreams and goals we previously harbored.

I’m riddled with fear and for St. John or a hair-sprayed TV preacher or well-meaning well-wishers to suggest that means I lack faith or love seems to me completely tone deaf.

If I didn’t have so much and so many I love, I wouldn’t give a damn and I could take this shit sandwich stoically. But because I do, there’s no way around it. I’m afraid. And if that somehow puts me at odds with Jesus, well then I guess we’ll have to sort it out when I meet him, which I hope is later rather than sooner.

If you plugged MP3 me into a surround sound, you know what track you wouldn’t hear playing from somewhere just west of my heart?

You’d never hear Neil Young’s single ‘Hey, Hey, My, My.’

You’d never hear it because of that line from the chorus, where Neil sings:

‘Its better to burn out/than to fade away…’

My wife won’t have it. She’s determined we’ll grow old and gray and fade away together; in the meantime, I’ll have to ignore the Johns and the TV preachers and just trust that if the people in my life are worth Jesus redeeming then they’re worth my fears too.

50 Shades of Humiliation

Jason Micheli —  February 17, 2015 — 25 Comments

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517

‘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.

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Dear friends, HEWHOMUSTNOTBENAMED and random visitors,

As you may already know, I’m going on my 10th year at Aldersgate Church and in all that time I’ve taken 1 paternity leave, several long potty breaks and, count them, 0 vacations.

Working with a man like Dennis Perry, a man whose name will go down in history with names like Michael Scott, Gomer Pyle and Roscoe Peco Train, I simply couldn’t afford to take time off of work. I cared too much about you all to allow you to suffer long under Dennis tired, broken body, diminished mental faculties and antiquated job skills.

I couldn’t even get away and let Dennis ‘phone it in’ at work because even then, I knew, the phone in question would be a rotary phone.

Just think, there’d you be, waiting as long for Dennis to complete a thought as it takes to dial a number with a 9 and a 0 in the area code. People of Aldersgate, I just couldn’t do that to you. I love you too much.

Fortunately for you all, Hedy’s arrival on staff has made me as irrelevant, ineffectual and archaic-seeming as Dennis has proven these past many years, which is lucky for me because, now, like Bilbo Baggins, I’m going to be away for a while.

If you skipped church last Sunday, are not on social media or were just trapped under something heavy this week then you might not have heard already that I have the ‘C’ word.

No, no that ‘C’ word. Don’t be so vulgar. This is church.

No, I have that other ‘C’ word.

Cancer.

The irony in all this is the first thing that hit me too: this past year Aldersgate has had a healthy, in-shape pastor and his name was Dennis Perry. I’m never exercising again.

To make a long story short, I’ve suffered abdominal pains since the early fall, pains I chalked up to too much coffee in my stomach, too much fat in my diet or too many church people in my schedule.

That most of you didn’t even know I was suffering such pains, I attribute to a virility that makes Lee Marvin look like Judy Garland.

Last Thursday I had a CAT scan of my abdomen, which showed that my pain was caused by an intussusception, a rare condition (for adults) where my small intestine had inverted and was ‘telescoping’ in on itself. Ali and I met with a surgeon on Friday morning who explained the surgery and warned us as well that she was concerned about what could be causing the intussusception.

The surgeon had hoped she could do the procedure laparoscopically, but when I woke up on Monday evening, feeling like someone had gone at my gut with an electric Thanksgiving knife and a battery acid chaser, I suspected it had been a bigger surgery.

In fact, they removed about 3 inches of my intestine to correct the inversion, and they also removed from my small intestine a 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, whom I’ve since taken to calling- affectionately- ‘Larry.’

Let that sink in: 10 by 10 inches. I can now say I understand what women go through in child birth, which I think should make me even more appealing to the ladies (if such a feat is even possible).

A 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, unlike a real baby, however is not an occasion for cigars and balloons.

The pathologist took initial slides of the tumor immediately after surgery and on Tuesday the oncologist told Ali and me that, even without the exact biopsy results, he knew:

I had a lymphoma that fell somewhere among 5 rare cancers of the blood.

You can imagine how we took that news. I went to the doctor last week thinking I had a gall stone or an ulcer. The idea that my body, which has always been a source of pride in me and arousal in women- the idea that my body was now trying to kill me was a complete shock to us. The idea that if I do nothing at all I’ll swiftly be dead was an even bigger shock.

We cried.

A lot.

I made lots of apologies for all the ways I’ve been a crappy husband because I assumed we had all the time in the world.

Finally, we dried our eyes and told our boys, Gabriel and Alexander, that Daddy has cancer, which is what was making his tummy sick, that I’m still sick and that the doctors are going to work to make me better but it’s going to take a long time and I’ll be sicker in the meantime.

Today is Friday. We met with the oncologist last evening. It turns out:

I have Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a rare, non-Hodgkins form of B cell lymphoma that typically only organ music-loving people the age of the 8:30 service get. Its spread through the GI System and bone marrow.

 

I like to think I’m unique in all things and it turns out I am in diseases as well.

Because it’s a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I’ll be fighting it likewise. I will begin 4 two-part phases of aggressive chemotherapy this coming Friday- not much of a break I know.

Each phase will last approximately a month. The lymphoma has spread to the rest of my system so I’ll definitely be hospitalized again for the first phase as the oncologist wants to monitor my kidneys. Hopefully, hospitalization won’t be necessary for the succeeding treatments. At the end of the 4 phase treatment, it’s likely I will need to undergo bone marrow transplants as well.

All in all, I think its safe to say 2015 will be an exceptionally crappy year for the Micheli household. The Nats better freaking make it out of the first round because I’m not going to have much else going for me this year.

In case you were wondering, I won’t be around much for the next 6 months.

I hope you continue to be around for us though. I’m not normally given to sappy, sentimental nonsense, but I can’t tell you how fortunate we feel to be going through this in a church and a community we’ve come to know so well. Already so many of you have been key to getting us through the dark nights we’ve had. We’re going to need you and we’re not the type to ask so don’t wait for us to ask. Just continue to do what you’ve been doing.

ImamPastorI like to yank Dennis’ chain but without him I’d probably still be in the corner crying and sucking my thumb.

I couldn’t have made it through this week without Dennis and I won’t make it through the weeks ahead without him, so cut him some slack. And even though you know I won’t be preaching for quite a while and you know he’s likely to bore you to tears, please show up at church anyway.

It might not surprise you, but my biggest fear- the thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night with panic attacks- has been about my boys. I don’t want to put them through this and I certainly don’t want them to lose me or the family they know. You can help on their end too. When you see them, please don’t ask about me or my cancer.

Please just treat them like normal kids because a normal life for them is my biggest goal in all of this.

10350435_10204746594086950_2925906432646049018_n

I miss you all. I really do, and I wish I could be there today to say all this to you. And don’t sweat the God thing, people. Please. I never believed before that God does mean-ass stuff like this to people so I’m not hung up on God doing it to me. I don’t believe there’s any mysterious ‘reason’ other than the chromosomal one that cancer- however rare- is happening to me, and I don’t believe there’s a bigger plan behind all of this other than the same plan God has for all of us: to love and glorify him through Christ. I’ve just got to figure out how to do that given my new circumstances.

Finally, don’t pity me.

Cancer’s not all that bad.

For example, just as I was drifting off before surgery I heard one of the surgical staff say aloud: ‘We’re definitely going to need a bigger tube for the catheter…’

See, some dreams do come true. Even amidst nightmares.

– The End. 

PS:  I hope to hell not. 

10917296_10205661027787221_3674691722071054151_nA Eucharistic Meditation ~ 

Dear $@#holes,

It’s me, Jason- Tamed Cynic. You know, the Christian whose blog you hacked.

What’s that? You don’t remember me? There were thousands of other random, anonymous victims just like me?

Oh, I see.

I guess that’s a valid excuse. Of course- and this is just a word to the wise- it’s a not a compelling excuse, morally speaking. It’s like Ray Rice explaining that he’s hit so many women, he can’t really recall the one in the elevator. See my point?

But you still don’t remember me?

Fine, never mind. Let’s just indulge my narcissism for a moment and pretend you do.

Now that we’re speaking one-on-one, maybe I should begin where you began and take you to task for your big, bold header you left on my hacked homepage:

‘Muslims are Not Terrorists.’

I get it. I even agree with you, Muslims aren’t terrorists. Terrorists are terrorists, and some of them happen to be Muslim and some of them (more than we care to remember) are Christian and most of them are motivated by something else entirely (politics, economics etc).

So I agree with you, but it’s like Marshall McLuan said way back at the time of the Shah and SNL: ‘The medium is the message.’ 

Following McLuan then, the fact that the medium in this case is a cyber terrorist hacked website belies the message you want to lead with in your headline.

You could post ‘Mom’s Chocolate Chip Cookies are the Best’ in that header but your creepy, comic sans-meets-Osama-hacker-font still would make us wonder if maybe Mom was a baby-eating witch who lived in a hovel deep in the Black Forest.

You see, you want your message to be that ‘Muslims are Not Terrorists,’ fine, but your hack-attack medium makes it inescapably obvious that at least one Muslim IS a terrorist.

You.

You’re lucky I’m a Christian, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist.

I’d love to torment you with the irony of you declaring that Muslims are not terrorists whilst cyber-terrorizing me, but then it wouldn’t really be fair to ridicule you when the fundamentalists of my own tribe don’t do irony well either. After all, Christ’s non-violent cross was painted on chainmail and swords long before Mohammad came on the scene.

While we’re at it there’s the other little irony that the instigating sermon in this case wasn’t critical of Islam at all.

Indeed you hacked me for a sermon that wound its way to telling Christians that they needed to love people like you.

Well played, Mr Islamic Cyber Idiot.

When it comes to those Christians who question the veracity of your headline that ‘Muslims are Not Terrorists,’ your I-didn’t-read-all-the-way-to-the-end, irony-laden screw-up speaks volumes more to them (to indict you) than anything I said to them (to love you).

Way to take a semi-decent, conscience-afflicting sermon and let all my listeners feel like they were justified for suspecting it was just a load of horse s@#$.

‘Because,’ they’re all thinking now (thanks to you), ‘we can’t love terrorists.’

Speaking of which- and I ask since this is your area of expertise, what’s a few notches down from terror? I mean, the feelings you induced in me weren’t exactly terror, yet it was more than inconvenience. While it’s true the craptastic havoc you wreaked on my blog was a giant pain the @#$, it was (a bit) more than a bother you made feel.

For starters, you scared my mom a little more gray, and (thanks to you, again) now I’ve got to text her every night, like a cub scout away at camp, that we’re all okay and not, say, bound and gagged inTurkey.

Your shenanigans provoked feelings in others too.

I can’t tell you how many finger-wagging notes I got messaged to me scolding:

‘This is what you get for letting them worship at your church.’

You see, thanks to you, a whole bunch of otherwise open-minded Christians think its defensible to assume that the old guy at Starbucks or the lady who drives the neighborhood ice cream truck are probably party to an Islamic terrorist network.

Hearing this, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist, should irritate you at least as much as it irritated me. But irritation is not what you made me feel either.

After all, my kids’ faces and names are buried there, in bits and bytes, in my blog. So is my wife’s. And, a bit further down, as you no doubt already know, is our address. Where our credit card number is to be found as well.

I’m not trying to play the martyr, that’s your forte. It’s not like I ever felt my life was in danger, and I’m definitely not suggesting I’m on the front line of freedom. We’re talking about a freaking blog, let’s not forget, I’m not on the front line of anything. Still, you made me- anonymous me- feel…vulnerable.

Yes, I think that’s the right word.

Vulnerable.

I can’t help but think, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist, the feeling you made me feel is exactly what so many of my neighbors and friends and congregants feel all the time. Vulnerable.  And when you’re feeling vulnerable, convinced that yours is an exceptional situation, I can tell you it’s not long before the rationalizing kicks-in, reasoning your way away from Jesus:

Surely we can’t forgive that person… It would be irresponsible to forgive that sin…

Jesus doesn’t really expect us to turn the cheek in this situation…

What am I supposed to do, just give them my children’s cheeks too?

Loving this enemy is no strategy to make them no longer an enemy, it will only get you killed…

Jesus must be talking about life in the Kingdom not in this world…

Our enemies sure won’t abide by any of these commandments…

Those were the thoughts running through my head in the hours and days after your ‘attack,’ Mr. Islamic Cyber Terrorist. They’re all thoughts similar to the ones a good many of my friends and congregants hold, and, truth be told, I used the word ‘rationalizing’ above for a reason.

They’re all incredibly reasonable rebuttals.

They make a lot sense; in fact, truth be told, they make a hell of a lot more sense than Jesus.

And that wouldn’t be a problem if Jesus was politely removed elsewhere, a figment of history or an absentee lord. We could raise our reasonable, real-world rebuttals to his teaching and then get about dealing with the likes of you. Conscience cleared.

The problem is Jesus has this annoying tendency to show up.

That’s what makes him different from your prophet.

You might not know this, Mr Islamic Terrorist, but the night before he dies Jesus sits his twelve disciples down and he says: here’s bread, here’s wine. Eat. Drink. Do this.

Do this and I’ll be with you.

Admittedly, this is irrational and it can’t be explained and it can’t argued with.

And maybe that’s the point.

Maybe it has to be that way because people like me are always going to have to deal with people like you.

Maybe Jesus knew that without bread and wine, we would forever think and argue and rationalize the claims he makes on us as a way of keeping him from us.

Maybe Jesus knew we’re no different than those two disciples on the way to Emmaus, who’d heard all the stories, who knew all the beliefs, who could recite the Easter Gospel and yet had no intention of doing a damn thing about it, who were quite content to say ‘isn’t that interesting’ and not have it change their way in the world.

Maybe Jesus knew that without bread and wine we’d always find a reason to reason our way away from him.

So then, maybe Jesus gives us- Christians, I mean- bread and wine not so we can get close to him as we- Christians, I mean- so often imagine.

Maybe Jesus gives us bread and wine because it’s the only way he can get close to us.

And therein lies my problem, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist. You see, I know how I feel about you. I know what I’d opt to do to you had I not made the mistake of giving my life to Jesus, and I can come up with several dozen cogent reasons why you and your ilk warrant an asterisk at the bottom of the sermon on the mount.

My problem is that I can mount my own reasonable arguments against you, but I can’t argue away what Jesus says about you (worth dying for). I can’t avoid how Jesus would regard you (with grace, for you not what you do) or deny what he’d tell me to do about you (love and mercy).

And, like I said, this wouldn’t be a problem if Jesus had conveniently absconded to the great by and by, but tomorrow is Sunday, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist.

Tomorrow I’ll set the table with bread and wine. We’ll all ask Jesus to come join us at the table. And if there’s one thing the Gospels make clear: Jesus never refuses a dinner invitation.

Tomorrow, Jesus is going to show up, real and present. It’ll be the same the Sunday next and the Sunday after that ad infinitum, or at least to the eschaton.

I can come up with all kinds of good reasons why you should be the exception to Jesus’ teaching, and I’d be happy to list them for you someday, but what in the world am I supposed to say to Jesus tomorrow morning when he shows up in bread and wine?

How can I tell Jesus to his face that he’s wrong about you?

How can I tell Jesus that you don’t deserve grace or mercy for your sins when he’s sitting right there at my table?

Talk about an awkward dinner conversation.

Like a lot of dinner parties I’ve been to, to be stuck with the host often means you’re stuck with the other guests too; likewise- and you can be damn sure I never saw this coming- when I gave my life to Jesus, I also in some odd way gave it to you even though I’ve no reason to expect you to treat it well. I guess that counts as another irony.

Anyway that’s my problem, Mr. Islamic Cyber Terrorist. I don’t want to love you; I don’t think you’re lovable.

I don’t even know what it means, practically speaking, to love you.

But tomorrow morning I’m having breakfast with Jesus and I know, if it were up to him, he’d save a seat for you.

So maybe GI JOE was right all along: knowing is half the battle.

Maybe whatever it means to love you starts right there, with bread and wine, and knowing that whenever we invite Jesus to dinner he invites the likes of you.

Maybe the first step in no longer seeing you as an enemy, the first step towards regarding you as a friend, is seeing you as a fellow undeserving guest.

lightstock_48159_xsmall_user_2741517

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.

Love,

Dad

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Yes.

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_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.

Jesus Doesn’t Exist

Jason Micheli —  December 5, 2014 — 1 Comment

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I’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

3. Is Jesus a Human Being?

No.

Not like you or me even though he’s every bit like you or me.

Jesus is the union of humanity and divinity.

He is the ‘God-Man’ as the early Christians put it; in other words, the two natures- human and divine- share, in Jesus, one substance. The two natures are not discrete properties which for a time share the same real estate in Jesus. They share same existence.

To bring the distinction into still greater focus:

Jesus has no existence of his own apart from his existence in the Word.

There is no mortal, historical person called Jesus of Nazareth who still would have existed had there been no incarnation. Apart from his existence in the Word, Jesus has no existence as a human being. The human Jesus exists only also as the eternal Son.

So, yes, Jesus has an authentic human existence, as human as you or me, but Jesus’ human existence is only by virtue of his existence in God.

Unlike you and me.

Whereas we get our human existence from God, the human Jesus exists in God. The very existence of the human Jesus is God’s existence.

So, no, Jesus is not just a human being because Jesus is never not of one Being with the Father.

“He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…” 

– Hebrews 1.3

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

1. Who is Jesus?

Jesus is the One for whom a ‘Who?’ question can never sufficiently identify him.

To answer fully ‘Who is Jesus?’ requires asking ‘What is Jesus?’

Most obviously ‘Jesus’ names the son of Mary and Joseph, but ‘Jesus’ also designates the human who is the embodiment- literally so- of the eternal God.

On the one hand, Jesus is but another ordinary child named Yeshua in 1st century Galilee. On the other hand, this Yeshua is the Word of the ineffable God made flesh in 1st century Galilee.

This is but a way of answering the ‘Who is Jesus?’ question with the response ‘Jesus is the incarnate God.’ Jesus was (and is) a human person; however, this same identical human person was (and is) God. While the adjectives ‘divine’ and ‘human’ answer the question ‘What is Jesus?’ (his nature) question, the name ‘Jesus’ refers to who (which person) he is.

For example, ‘Who’ Jesus is is the Messiah, the oft-promised, long-awaited King of Israel to whom God promised to give dominion over the Earth. ‘What’ Jesus is is the union of humanity with the divine which brings our human lives, through the Holy Spirit, into the life of God.

Who Jesus is is the 2nd Adam, the first fully human person, who lives a life of love and fidelity even though ‘humanity’ responds to such human a life by killing it. As such, what Jesus is is the ‘Faithful One’ whom the righteousness of God vindicates by raising him from the dead.

Who Jesus is is the 2nd Abraham, the child of Israel through whom the redemptive blessing of God comes to the whole world, which makes ‘what’ Jesus is…salvation.

Who Jesus is is the One in whom our rejection of God and our rejection of authentic humanity coincide; therefore, what Jesus is is our original sin.

Jesus is our Fall and our forgiveness.

“You, who are marked out for vengeance, may take our present life, but the King of the universe for whose laws we die will resurrect us faithful ones again to eternal life.” – 2 Macc 7:9).

2. Why Do We Say Jesus was Born from a Virgin?

In order to confess that Jesus is the beginning, the first fruit, of God’s New Creation.

Just as the Word brought forth creation from nothing, brought into existence all that is without needing any previously existing materials, the Word takes flesh in a virgin’s womb.

Takes flesh from nothing.

Takes flesh, that is, apart from Joseph, sex and the normal, necessary means of human creating.

To confess the virgin birth is to profess that the incarnation is what Matthew calls it at the beginning of his Gospel: a Genesis.

A new beginning.

Which makes Mary the New Eve and Jesus the 2nd Adam and each of us, in Christ, a new creation.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away.”

– 2 Corinthians 5.17

Making Love…a Verb

Jason Micheli —  July 28, 2014 — 3 Comments

10494562_881661191848427_6390847377076382822_nOne of the gifts that comes with serving in one congregation for an extended period of time is watching kids whom I’ve baptized grown in to youth and seeing youth become adults, going off into the world and, sometimes, getting married.

Sometimes to each other.

This weekend I had the honor of performing the wedding ceremony for two special people, Will Gerig and Becca McGraw. I met them when they were both youth in the youth band at church, shortly before they started dating.

Here’s the wedding sermon I wrote for them.

The texts were selections from the Song of Songs and Colossians 3.12-17.

Will and Becca,

Let’s just say I can’t believe the kids I knew in the youth band are now old enough to get married.

And let’s just say I can’t believe I’m old enough to be marrying the kids I knew in the youth band. I’m old enough to have been at this a while.

For example, I’ve done a lot of weddings.

By my best guesstimate it’s around 70 times- 70 times that I’ve stood in sanctuaries like this and announced ‘Dearly Beloved.’

By my best guesstimate it’s around 63 times- 63 times I’ve had to suffer through 1 Corinthians 13 (‘Love is patient, love is kind…’) as the scripture passage despite registering my strenuous objections with the bride and groom.

By own best guesstimate it’s around 3 times- 3 times my notes have blown away with the breeze at an outdoor wedding, which makes it 3 times that I’ve lost my train of thought and called either the bride or the groom by the wrong name.

2 times- by my guesstimate that’s how many times the bride has been so late to her wedding I started to seriously wonder if she’d show at all.

     And 1 time- 1 time I’ve had to stand up front with a fake smile plastered on my face as a 12 year old boy, whose voice is newly in the throes of puberty, tries to make Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ sound worshipful.

     God I hope that remains the only time.

I’ve done a lot of weddings.

By my best guesstimate about a baker’s dozen of those occasions have been for close friends of mine, friends from in and out of the congregation, people I know pretty well.

I even presided at my college roommate’s wedding in the chapel at UVA, which I’m guessing Will must’ve vetoed as a location for your own wedding since he still hasn’t come to grips with Virginia Tech’s massive inferiority in all things.

I’ve done a lot of weddings and many of those weddings were for people I knew pretty well.

But to the best of my memory, my best guesstimate is that out of all those weddings- all those brides and grooms, all those rings and ‘for richer for poorers’- I haven’t known any of those couples as long as I’ve known the two of you.

Nearly 10 years. Will you were 8 and Becca was 7 if I remember correctly.

I remember one of my first conversations with Becca. She was sitting on the parking slab outside the youth wing here and alluded to a crush she had on some boy whom she chose not to name.

And I remember hoping, whoever he was, that he was a nice guy because Becca seemed to be the sort who deserved a nice guy.

And I remember Will coming up to me, the new pastor, to introduce himself. I remember thinking Will was kind of corny and a little bit shy but thoroughly sincere; in other words, he was completely different back then.

I remember treading bacteria-infested water in Belize with Becca as she gave me advice on what makes for a good confirmation class and what makes for a bad one.

I remember the many worship services where, after it was done, Will would come up  to me and give me his deadpan assessment of the sermon and I would leave having no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not.

I’ve done a lot of weddings and some for folks I knew pretty well but none for a couple I’ve known as long as I’ve known you.

I mean, out of all those 73 or so grooms Will is the only one who has ever patiently waited inside my tent simply to scare the pants off of my wife.

And of all the photos I have on Facebook from mission teams in Guatemala, Will is the only one to pretend to behead me with a machete from behind.

Of all the weddings and all the couples, you two are the only ones I’ve spent a week with at a monastery in France, singing and praying and hiking and posing awkwardly for photos as all Europeans do.

I remember whispering to my wife in our tent one of those nights at the monastery, both of us thinking you two seemed perfect for each other, that even then your relationship was healthier than most people who’ve been married their whole lives.

And I remember that last night in France as we slept on the airport floor awaiting our flight and you two lay there holding hands when you thought no one else was awake or looking.

I’ve known you guys a long time.

Long enough to know how you two feel about each other.

Long enough to know how you two feel today.

Long enough for me to feel nearly as happy and ecstatic and joyous as you feel.

But then, today at least, that begs a question:

If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?

     If love is a feeling, how can you two promise that to each other forever?

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     The bride in the Song of Songs says that ‘love is as strong as death’ as ‘unyielding as the grave.’

She sings, in fact, that ‘many waters cannot quench love’ nor ‘rivers wash it away.’

Earlier in the song she confesses that her groom’s love for her has the power to make her beautiful and lovely.

But again- there’s the question: if love is just a feeling how can she describe it like that?

 Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over.

You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.

If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

Amen.

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Just kidding.

But, it gets worse. When you turn to the New Testament, love isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.

When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’

And the night before he dies, when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’ And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’ And in a different letter Paul goes so far as to command husbands to love their wives and wives to love their husbands.

Those are all imperatives.

Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another.

Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another.

They’re imperatives. They’re commands.

Here’s the thing.

     You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion.

     You can only command an action.

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.

Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.

We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, something we fall into (and out of).

The culture has so shaped us that that’s how we hear a scripture like the Song of Songs.

     The culture teaches us to think of love as a noun, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.

But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.

And of course the rub is the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

In scripture, even in an erotic love poem like the Song of Songs, love is an action first and a feeling second.

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

You know me well enough to know I’m trying to sound unromantic.

I know that its a feeling that sparks a relationship, but the basis for an enduring relationship, the basis for a relationship that can last a lifetime is making love…a verb.

Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it.

That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And you can ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.

     Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. That’s what ‘for better, for worse’ is all about.

Paul says: ‘Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ so that ‘the peace of Christ may rule in your hearts.’

     In other words, where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.

You do it and then you feel it.

So, in your relationship you may not feel gentle but you act gentle.

You may not feel compassionate on a given day but, just as you would a child, you listen and show them compassion.

You may not feel patient and kind tomorrow evening but tomorrow evening what you do is muster up some patience and kindness.

You may not feel very forgiving the next time the two of you fight but forgiveness is exactly what you offer.

I’ve known you two longer than any of the 73 couples before you. I know how perfect you are for each other. I know how you make each of us better too.

But even the two of you- you can’t promise each other the feeling of love.

That’s not the covenant you make today.

     The covenant is that you promise the action of love every day.

     Love is something you do and today you promise to trust the doing, to trust the doing transform to transform your heart.

Again and again.

Day out and day in.

     That’s the promise.

And that kind of promise…

It doesn’t just take two people. It doesn’t require the perfect relationship.

It doesn’t take a feeling. It takes faith.

It takes faith, I think, because that kind of love?

That kind of love is exactly how Jesus loves us.

With Us: A Christmas Sermon

Jason Micheli —  December 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

postcardHere’s a Christmas Eve sermon on John 1.1-16 from several years ago.

If you’re in the area, then come to our Bluegrass Christmas Eve Service at 5:00. 

Merry Christmas to all of you. 

The first time I ever went to church was on a night like tonight. Christmas Eve.

My mother made us go, my sister and me. We’d never gone to church before so we didn’t know on Christmas Eve you have to come early. We sat far up in the balcony in some of the last seats left.

I was a teenager then, 16 or 17 years old. And I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get dressed up. I didn’t want to sing songs that others knew better than me. I didn’t want to sit in a hard, uncomfortable pew and listen to a minister preach. Or tell lame jokes.

I mean- why would anyone want to ruin Christmas by going to church?

I didn’t believe. Better still, I disbelieved more strongly than I believed in anything.

I was convinced you Christians just turn God into whatever and whom ever you want God to be. If you’re a Republican then so is God. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat then, surprise, God agrees with you on most essential things.

You put God in a box. You wrap him in whatever flag you’re already flying. You put him on your side of this or that issue.

And what better example of that could there be than tonight? I thought. Christmas Eve, the night when, you Christians say, God Almighty swapped heaven for a trough, when God took flesh and became a baby: a sweet, passive, docile, wordless, dependant baby.

You know…if you want a god that can be used by us, then Christmas Eve is made to order. A baby? That’s a god that lets us be in charge. That’s a god we can worship and celebrate without having to be changed or challenged. I thought.

The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach said that when Christians say “God” they’re really just talking about themselves in a loud voice. When I was 16 or 17, I was a lot like Feurbach- except I also like Super Mario Brothers and Professional Wrestling.

I didn’t believe. And I knew all the arguments why I didn’t.

The thing is, back then, I didn’t know much about babies.

My first son, Gabriel, was already 15 months old when I got to hold him for the first time. My wife and I, we held him for the first time not in a hospital or maternity ward but in a hotel.

That’s where our adoption worker brought him to us. Instead of pinks and blues, the “delivery” room was decorated with tropical plants and Mayan art.

Technically speaking, he wasn’t still a baby. He was no longer a newborn but his toddler’s eyes still looked out at the world with innocence and wonder. His fingers were still small and fragile beneath their soft, pudgy skin, and they still clutched onto my fingers for protection. And even though he knew a handful of words already, he still most often spoke in shrieks and cries that demanded care.

We spent our first few days as a new family in that little hotel in Guatemala while we completed the paperwork for Gabriel’s adoption.

The wrought-iron table in the hotel courtyard was where I first sat him on my lap and learned how to feed him and wipe his mouth and clean up after his spills.

The slate patio outside our hotel room, where we sat down on the ground opposite each other, pushing plastic cars back and forth, that’s where I learned to earn his trust.

The hotel garden had a tall, thin palm tree growing in it. That’s the tree I pulled on and swayed back and forth, pretending to be an angry gorilla. That’s where I made Gabriel laugh for the first time. That’s where I made him laugh away his fears.

And then there was the old burgundy armchair in our room- that’s where I held him against me and, for the first time in my life, let my too-cool, cynical voice sing soothing and silly songs to him.

When I was 16 or 17, I didn’t know much about babies. I thought that just because they’re wordless and dependant then they must be passive, harmless. I didn’t know then that babies alter lives. They clutch and grab and pull on us when we’d like to get on to something else.

How could I have known at 16 or 17 how babies disturb schedules, how they force us to think about someone other than ourselves? They jumble and reorient priorities. They call out of us a tenderness and compassion we didn’t know we possessed.

Babies give us a glimpse at the person we could be if everything else in our lives was wiped clean or made new.

I didn’t know it when I was 16 or 17, but if you really want to invade someone’s life, if you want to mess with their priorities and preconceptions, if you want to change them or draw out them love and mercy- then you send them a baby.

If the Gospels were college courses, then John’s Gospel would be a 400-level class. John’s Gospel is the course with all the prerequisites because John presumes you’ve already heard the Nativity story before.

John expects you to know that, when the story opens, Caesar rules the world by the sword and that he needs a census to pay for it.

John expects you to remember that this “king” is born to a poor, unwed, 15 year old Jewish girl, whose unlikely pregnancy few will believe is a sign of anything more than what you could read on the bathroom wall about her.

John expects that by the time you get to his Gospel you should be able to write a short answer essay on the paradox of this cosmic news being delivered not to the press or priests, not to the wealthy or the wise, but to shepherds, who in first century eyes were about as smart and savory as the sheep they kept.

You need to know that the news the shepherds hear from angels is an answer to a prayer so old it had almost been forgotten.

John expects you to know all that because John doesn’t just want to tell you the story of Christmas. He wants to interpret it for you.

He wants you to be able do more than point at tonight’s scene and say ‘the manger goes here, the wise men go over there.’

John instead wants you to be able to creep up to the manger and look down upon the baby it holds and say to whoever will hear your awed whisper: ‘This is what it means. This is why this birth, this night, is more holy than any other.’

Holy because the baby Mary holds is, inexplicably, God- made flesh.

His cooing voice is the same voice that long ago said: ‘Let there be light.’ His tiny fingers that hold onto Mary’s are somehow the hands that first hung the stars in the sky, and the light in his half-open eyes is the same unquenchable fire that once met Moses in a burning bush.

Tonight, his skin is still splotchy. It feels new and warm, but the truth is he is timeless. Eternal. And in his small, gently rising lungs is the power to make worlds.

John wants you to know that tonight.

John wants you to look down into the manger and know that God’s plan to finally disarm us of everything but our love is to send a baby.

And not just any- but Himself, made weak and wordless and wrapped in strips of cloth. Made flesh.

Made every bit like one of us so that every one of us might be made more like God.

Our first night with Gabriel was Easter night, a year and a half ago. My wife was asleep on top of the bed still in all her clothes. The television played softly in Spanish and showed pictures of Easter parades from earlier that day. Gabriel stirred awake next to my wife, crying and fearful.

At that point in my life I’d been a Christian for 11 years. I’d been a minister for 5. And it was Easter. But it was the first time in my life that I really understood tonight.

I sat Gabriel in the burgundy armchair with me. He curled up in my arms and I sang him back to sleep. I saw pictures of the Easter Jesus play across the TV screen and I looked down at Gabriel: tiny, trusting and unknowing. And I thought to myself: ‘This could be God.  In my arms. Breathing against me.’

That’s when the strangeness and mystery of what John tells us tonight really hit me for the first time. Thinking about how much Gabriel had already changed me in just a few hours, I realized for the first time what a powerful thing it is that God does tonight.

I used to scoff at Christmas because I thought a baby was just a safe idol that could be used by us, could be made into whatever and whomever we wanted. But it’s actually the opposite. Babies have within them the power to remake us. What God does tonight is actually more powerful than a hundred floods or a thousand armies.

I mean- go ahead and ask a baby about what you’ve done or not done in the past. Ask a baby about that relationship you’ve yet to reconcile. Ask them about the expectations you’ve not met or about the sins you’ve committed or that thing you’re afraid to tell your spouse or your children or your parents.

You’re not going to get an answer. Babies don’t give answers. They just give light. With babies all that matters is that they are present, that they are there, that they are with you.

I mean- try telling a baby you’re not completely convinced they exist. Try telling a baby: ‘I don’t think believing in you really works in a modern world.’ It’s not going to get you off the hook. With a baby all our questions are relativized.

Babies force us to love them on their terms.

The calendar and the TV said it was Easter, but to me that first night with Gabriel was like Christmas. Holding him in my arms I could sense a new life that he opened up to me. He had neither the words nor the power to absolve me, but, holding him, I felt that everything had been forgiven. Who I’d been before he came into the world no longer mattered.

It only mattered who I would be from that moment on.

Tonight, the baby Mary holds in her arms, the baby breathing against her, IS God. Maybe you’ve heard the story before. Maybe you know where the manger and the wise men should be placed.

But I don’t want you to leave her tonight without knowing that- without knowing that because God takes on a life that means your life is sacred, without knowing that God is new and warm and cooing tonight in order to disarm you of everything but love, without knowing that God is born tonight in order to draw out of you the person you no longer thought could be.

Tonight, Mary holds him in her arms: the Word made flesh.

Tomorrow, Mary’s reputation will still be suspect in the eyes of her community. Tomorrow, she and her fiancé will still be homeless. They’ll still be poor. Tomorrow, their lives will be in danger. Tomorrow Mary won’t know what the future holds or if she’s strong enough to get there.

Tomorrow, her questions and fears and doubts will still be there. And so will yours.

But tonight none of that matters. Tonight, all that matters is he is with us. Tonight, that’s enough.

So listen to John’s invitation and creep up to the manger. Look at the light in his eternal, newborn eyes and know that everything you’ve done or been before tonight is forgiven. Know that all matters is who you are from this moment on, the moment he comes into the world.

Because I can speak from personal experience- this child, he has the power to make you new again.

Merry Christmas.

 

StJosephbyGerritVanHonthorst1620As promised, here’s the audio and video from the weekend’s sermon on Joseph. You can also download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Better yet, download the FREE Tamed Cynic mobile app linked in the sidebar.

Here’s the audio:

1. There’s-Something-About-Joseph-J-Micheli-12-15-2013.mp3     

And here’s the video:

 

jules-hr-600x300It’s a Wonderful-But-Also-Cliched-And Moralizing Life

This time of year, with Gabriel’s ‘Do not be afraids’ and the heavenly host’s ‘glorias,’people tend to have questions about angels.

Much like the devil, pop culture’s assumptions about angels run far afield of what we actually find in scripture.

And as with the devil, the ubiquity of pop culture stereotypes on angels often makes people reluctant to jettison their Touched By An Angel/Highway to Heaven/Fat Cherub Baby Calendar images of angels.

So, if you’re like all the other people who’ve ever asked me about angels and devils then you’ll read my sober, scripturally based response and decide you like Michael Landon better.

As my son says before I smack him, ‘whatever’ (just joking).

First, what are angels?

Simply put, angels are messengers.

That’s what the word ‘angel’ literally means.

And you should notice how similar it is to the word ‘evangel’ or ‘proclamation.’

Angels do evangelism.

That, with few not contradictory examples, is what they do.

Angels are creatures of God and thus subordinate to God. They’re creatures given over to a specific purpose: the mediation of heavenly revelation or messages.

They’re God’s tweets in other words.

Because they’re creatures given for a specific purpose, they have no free will.

Because they are without free will, they are subordinate in creation to human beings- and if you’re about to push back on that it’s because you’ve got Milton’s Paradise Lost in your head not the bible.

Check.

Mate.

Now, this heavenly revelation bit is key.

The message angels deliver is straight from the presence of Yahweh.

Think of the Holy of Holies and how risky it was for Israel’s priests to venture close to it.

Angels bring the holiness of God near into the present. Therefore, they’re scary. In a fear of God kind of way.

There’s a reason Gabriel is constantly having to say ‘Do not be afraid.’

Just like Jewels in Pulp Fiction, Gabriel is a ‘Bad m%^&$# F$%^&*(’

And Clarence, no matter how we might feel about the Jimmy Stewart movie, could never ever be mistaken for a Bad m%^&$# F$%^&*(

An angel as sweet and reassuring as Clarence is not an angel sent from the holy presence of Yahweh, the God who is, as Hebrews says, ‘a consuming fire.’ clarence

Back to the Christmas story or just the Gospels in general. What makes the Gospels take an angels distinct (especially compared to some of the Jewish writings in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth) is how the Gospels take on angels is thoroughly Christocentric (Jesus centered).

You’ve got angels, most notably Gabriel, at the beginning of the Gospel in the Nativity story.

You’ve got angels at the end, in the form of the strangers at the tomb, when Jesus is raised from the dead.

In the middle, you’ve got Jesus.

Why no angels? Because, back to the top, angels mediate God’s revelation.

And Jesus Christ is himself the perfect, complete revelation of God.

No other messengers necessary.

Which leads to a theological question I don’t have time for now but you can feel free to weigh in on:

Since God has sent us Jesus, the complete revelation of God’s message….

And since Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit….

Do we need

and/or

does God continue to send angels?

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The following is a small group reflection written for our church planting planning team. 

“I would rather be with someone who is real than someone who is good.”

– Philip Yancey

During the 2006 campaign, ‘political correspondents’ for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart purported to provide election coverage from locations all over the state of Ohio. You can see a clip here.

From different towns and cities and polling places.

Every correspondent though reported their story while standing in front of an Applebee’s restaurant.

Each exactly like the other.

As usual, the Daily Show skewered something very true about our culture.

Just think of the homogeneity of our shopping centers. When there is a combination of Barnes and Noble, Home Depot, Target and Panera everywhere, it begins to feel as though every place is the same, or that no place is unique. Or real.

What we experience in shopping centers isn’t that different in kind from the fake reality we see on television.

What we see on television isn’t that much different from the abundance of fake foods sold in our supermarkets.

What we find in our supermarkets is but another example of the digitally altered and perfected music we hear on the radio or the false sounds we hear from politicians.

On many levels, ours is an inauthentic culture:

the artificial is everywhere and everywhere it is promised to trump the real thing.

In such a culture, Christians are called to be a People who are honest, genuine and real.

There’s a story in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. It’s the last in a series of 3 ‘Kingdom moments’ in which Jesus non-violently upends the status quo. Jesus calls Simon, who is a tax collector and, as such, is a Jew who makes his living by colluding with the Roman Empire.

Tax collectors were sinners. Outcasts. And even among the ‘ochlos’ (the despised and outcast poor) tax collectors were the most loathed of people.

Not only does Jesus call Simon to follow him, Jesus promptly eats and drinks with Simon and other sinners. Mark’s telling of Jesus eating and drinking with sinners includes the curious phrase “on his left elbow.”

That is, Jesus is reclining at the dinner table on his left elbow.

The left elbow was a 1st century colloquialism for being casual with another.

For being real.

Authentic.

Not a high and mighty Messiah, Jesus was authentically himself with sinners.

And by giving them his left elbow, Jesus gave sinners the right signal to be authentic themselves.

Incidentally, it’s when Jesus and his followers are being real around a table that Mark uses the word ‘disciple’ for the first time.

The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, commenting on the fake reality of contemporary culture, writes that what is needed is a “substituting the signs of the real for the real.”

There’s both a need and a hunger, he argues, for a reality that’s really real. He’s right. From farmers’ markets to home-brewed beer to handmade clothes sold on Etsy, people crave the authentic.

What’s more, today people are so numbed to the artificiality marketed to us from every angle that increasingly they have what Ernest Hemingway called a “a built-in, shockproof, bullshit detector.”

[What things in or about church would set off Hemingway’s BS Detector?]

Missiologist Michael Frost says this is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Church.

On the one hand, more and more people long for authentic relationships and experiences, communities of truthfulness and vulnerability.

On the other hand, this is exactly what many churches tend to avoid.

Churches too, Frost points out, peddle the artificial and inauthentic. Often churches are not places where folks recline on their left elbow with each other, sharing what’s really going on in their lives.

Churches are sometimes guilty, Frost says, of painting the Christian life in the sweet, sentimental glow of a Norman Rockwell painting. When Norman Rockwell fails to match people’s reality (because, admit it, it does for all of us), churches can end up alienating people.

Which leads to an interesting question:

[What are the things you can’t do, say or express in Church that you do in other everyday activities in your life?]

Which is just another way of asking:

[Why do Christians so often value respectability over authenticity?]

It’s important that we have an answer to that last question.

As Frost writes, in our increasingly post-Christendom culture Christians need to earn the right to be reheard:

“Is it too simplistic to say that we earn that right through our authentic lifestyles?

In a culture yearning for authenticity- the real- the pressure is on us in the Christian community now more than ever to put our time and our money where our mouth is and live what we preach.”

We’re called, in other words, not to be perfect Christians.

We’re called to be genuine people.

Who are trying to follow Jesus.

Which is good news.

Because if authenticity is what more and more people hunger after, then they’re searching not for the former but for the latter.

[What does a community of authenticity look like?

What’s the congregational equivalent of a farmers’ market?]

[What might it mean to practice an organic, homebrewed faith?]

 

 

 

reza-aslan-muslim-zealot-book-author-slams-Jesus-christianity

This past weekend we concluded our sermon series on Reza Aslan’s best-selling book, Zealot.

Dennis Perry, my associate pastor, brought the homiletical thunder.

Or at least a couple of sermonic sparks.

Here’s Dennis’ sermon:

1. 9-29-2013-Whose-Jesus-D-Perry.mp3     

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‘A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “You could declare me clean, if you dare.” Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Snorting with indignation, Jesus dispatched him, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 

On Facebook this week I shared an article I found on the Daily Beast with the amusing title, ‘I’m a Porn Star and I Believe in God.’

I only glanced through the article but I read enough to catch a whiff of the author’s condescension, subtly mocking the (often vague and contradictory) religious beliefs of porn stars and their (often equally vague and contradictory) justifications for their work in light of their faith.

What came across in the article is exactly what the headline was meant to pique: Surprise.

Surprise that ‘those people’ would believe in God.

I don’t know why it would surprise.

Many porn stars apparently believe in a personal God who bears a slight familial resemblance to the God of the Bible but not enough to be overbearing.

Just like many plenty of church do.

I confess I shared the story on Facebook with a little added snark about the possibilities for creating a niche, micro-targeted church just for porn star Christians.

Having shared it on Facebook, I immediately wondered what exactly would be wrong with a community of porn stars following Jesus.

Why is it, for example, that a Daily Beast article with the title ‘I Coordinate Drone Attacks and I Believe in God’ or ‘I’m a Corporate Lawyer and I Believe in God’ or, to be above board, ‘I’m a Pastor in an Affluent Denomination and I Believe in God’ wouldn’t register the same tone of surprise, if any, as a ‘I’m a Porn Star and I Believe in God?’

Because any honest read of the Gospels would lead you to bet that Jesus would have a thing or two to say about those other vocations too.

And there’s no question in mind as to who Jesus would be hanging out with if he had to choose.

This is hardly a defense of pornography, quite the opposite. It is, however, an honest pondering about why the word ‘purity’ carries only connotations of sex.

Why do sexual sins triumph over other ones? And why do we assume those sins disqualify from discipleship while others do not?

What prompted me to reconsider the Daily Beast story this week was my reading of Mark’s Gospel, the story of the leper in 1.40-45.

The purity regulations about leprosy are found in Leviticus 13.2-14.57 and revolved around 2 basic considerations: Leprosy is a communicable disease and a priest must preside over any ritual cleansing

The verb (katharizein) translated ‘to cleanse’ actually means ‘to declare clean.’ Jesus, as he does with ritually proscribed food, announces the man clean.

‘To declare clean’ shows how the point isn’t Jesus’ miracle-working per se but his claiming authority that belongs to the guild of priests, who would consign the leper to the margins where ‘sinners’ belong.

Jesus defies Torah by usurping the priestly prerogative.

Mark makes a point of emphasizing- remember every last detail in Mark is important and intentional- that Jesus touched the leper first before he healed him.

Where Jesus should’ve become contagious from leprosy, the leper becomes contagious with Jesus.

The exchange here between the leper and Jesus symbolically illustrates how the order of power has been overturned: Jesus is attacking and infecting the status quo.

Many translations give the impression in Vs. 43-45 that Jesus instructed the man to follow the priestly ritual: “go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

But if that’s the case then the above is just, only, a miracle story. To read it that way, misses the tone of the story: the leper himself recognizes that approaching Jesus, a nonpriest, for healing violates the social order: “…if you dare…”

And why would Jesus then be angry and indignant?

The emotions attributed to Jesus only make sense if the leper has already gone to the priests for healing, and the priests for some reason rejected his petition.

Having been healed, the leper’s task is not to publicize a miracle but to help confront an unjust system: Note how in V44 the object changes from ‘priest’ to ‘them’

It’s about more than what 1 priest did or failed to do. It’s about the whole system.

Jesus’ anger is against the whole purity system that make people victims twice over, first by stigmatizing them and then by barring their religious participation if demands, which are not exerted on others, are not met.

I can’t help but wonder if Jesus’ reaction to a condescending story like ‘I’m a Porn Star…’ wouldn’t be surprise but anger.

And I also wonder if after Jesus declared those porn stars ‘clean’ we religious folk wouldn’t be a little PO’d with Jesus.

Angry enough to kill him.

 

 

Borg, Bras and Clergy Collars

Jason Micheli —  September 24, 2013 — 5 Comments

In my sermon this weekend I tried to approach the question of Resurrection by putting the onus on the person who disbelieves the Church’s historic claim.

‘Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?’

It’s a damn good, table-turning question I think.

And it wasn’t originally my question. I thought giving credit where credit is due would not only be appropriate but illuminating.

Back in 2007, I went to the National Cathedral to listen to a panel discussion that the Cathedral was hosting.

The theme of the event was “The Church in the 21st Century” and for the event the Cathedral had gathered well-known speakers and scholars like Tony Jones, Diana Butler Bass, and, someone dear to my own heart, Marcus Borg.

Actually, I think Marcus Borg is a unimaginative, knee-jerk, liberal fundamentalist hack. Bless his heart.

Like Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot, Marcus Borg has made a career out of regurgitating old Aryan arguments and outdated, hackneyed scholarship to make the claim that the Jesus of the Gospels bears little resemblance to the “real” Jesus of history.

The Gospels, Borg argues, are not stories grounded in real history; they are instead myths and metaphors which convey deeper spiritual truths and universal existential principles.

dc-Marcus-Borg-speaking-to-a-group-300x160In other words, the “real” Jesus never really said: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, forgive 70 x 7, get rid of all your stuff and give it to the poor, a rich man’s getting into heaven is about as likely as shoving a fully-loaded camel through the eye of a needle.

According to Borg, the “real” Jesus never really said those things and thus the “real” Jesus never really expected us to do them. Not surprisingly, Marcus Borg is wildly popular in denominations like the United Methodist Church.

At the National Cathedral, Marcus Borg was the rock star of the panel, and by the time I arrived there was already a horde of Episcopal priests gathered up front staring at Borg so ecstatically I thought they might start to swoon or throw their bras and clergy collars at him.

Not wanting to be mistaken for one of Borg’s fanboys, I sat in the back with the civilians, scooting into a pew next to a tiny, old man who was wearing a knit suit.

Because the theme was ‘the Church in the 21st Century” and because we were surrounded by Episcopalians, it didn’t take long for the panel to steer the discussion toward which Christian beliefs were outdated and needed to be rethought and reinterpreted for the modern world.

And it didn’t take long for that discussion to get around to the resurrection.

With an air of enlightened self-importance, Marcus Borg droned on about how what matters is not that God raised Jesus from the dead; what matters is that the disciples experienced resurrection in their hearts.

For that matter, Borg continued doling out his koan-like nonsense, it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was never actually crucified. It’s doesn’t matter if Jesus never said or taught any of the words attributed to him by the Gospels. It doesn’t matter if someone named ‘Jesus’ from Nazareth was never born- virgin or not, we can suppose.

It doesn’t matter because what matters is that it’s experienced as true in us.

It struck me then that it’s appropriate Borg deems the Gospels myth since his entire theology revolves around another myth: Narcissus.

The panel continued on that nonsensical line for a while.

Finally, during the Q/A the old man next to me got up and shuffled up to the microphone. He was small and had white hair and must’ve been in his 80’s I guessed.

Softly into the microphone, he said:

‘Tell me, Dr Borg, was the tomb empty? Or not?’

 

With what sounded like a rehearsed reply, Marcus Borg said:

‘If I had to bet a dollar or my life, I’d bet there was no tomb. And if there was a tomb then it was not empty.’

 The old man’s mouth dropped.

 And Marcus Borg added: ‘Of course there was no physical, literal resurrection. That’s impossible.’

The old man shuffled back to my pew and sat down.

And then he leaned over and with genuine anger in his voice, he asked me:

“Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?

Shouldn’t someone who doesn’t believe the Resurrection have to come up with a better explanation for everything?”

But that wasn’t all.

While the man whispered in my ear, Borg had resumed his condescension:

‘We all know dead bodies DON’T come back to life. The Resurrection violates everything we know about nature.’

And the old man muttered underneath his breath:

‘But that’s exactly the damn point.’