Many of you will be familiar with Jason Micheli, whose sermons — slightly irreverent at times, always insightful, full of narrative art and at times colorful language — sometimes appear on this blog. I have spoken in Jason’s church in Virginia a couple times, he’s a friend, and he’s got cancer — and he’s too young — and the book he’s written is everything I’ve expected of Jason and even better than that.
Pastor Keeps the Faith, and Keeps It Funny, in Face of Stage-Serious Cancer (A Press Release of Jason Micheli’s new book.)
It’s universally acknowledged that cancer sucks. Mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive type, is especially sucky. It almost always affects only men in their old age—not 37 year olds like Jason Micheli, a pastor, husband, and father. “I like to think I’m unique in all things, and it turns out I am, in the case of diseases,” he says. But here’s what Micheli wants you to know if you or someone you love has cancer: “Cancer is funny, too. No, wait, it really is. Any ailment that results in pubic hair wigs being actual products in the marketplace simply is funny.”
This type of bone cancer is so deadly that his doctors didn’t classify it with the normal four stages, they call it “stage-serious.” As he struggled with despair and faced his mortality, he resolved that cancer would not kill his spirit, faith, or sense of humor. Bracing, irreverent humor animates his new book, Cancer Is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo (Fortress Press, $24.99 hardcover, December 1, 2016), “a no-bullshit take on what it’s like to journey through stage-serious cancer and struggle with the God who may or may not be doing this to you,” Micheli says. “I hope this book will help you or someone you love laugh through the crucible of cancer.” “After eight cycles of nine chemo drugs, I believe laughter is still the best medicine,” he says. “Laughter is the surest sign you’re not alone, because joy is the most unmistakable indication of God’s presence.”
A sense of humor—Micheli’s is dark, ironic, and leavened with a charming silliness—is especially helpful during chemo treatments, he found: “Being deadly serious here of all places is the surest way to feel seriously dead already.” The laughter that Micheli encourages is not to be confused with happiness. “I have stage serious cancer, I’d be crop circles crazy if I were happy about it. Instead it’s laughter that feels like joy, that traces the line between disaster and the farce that we call life, feeling free—genuinely free— to be myself with others and before God.”
Micheli is used to people assuming that clergy are “officious and tight-sphinctered”; he notes that “the populace considers Christians to be uniformly unfunny.” But then it’s not so difficult to make them laugh. Except, of course, for the people who give him blank looks, not sure if he’s joking.
A pastor and theologian, Micheli’s reflections are not trite. He writes about being stricken with lethal cancer in the midst of a promising career and raising two young children. He struggles with what he believes. Figuring this out for himself—not to mention explaining it to his congregation and his sons—makes theology now a matter of life and death.
By turns laugh-out-loud funny and heart-wrenching, Micheli’s story shows how to stay human in dehumanizing situations—how to keep living in the face of death. He reflects on:
• The absurdity of chemo: “The only way for doctors to save your life, just as Jesus warned, is to bring you as close as possible to losing your life without actually killing you —though I doubt that poison derived from mustard gas was what he had in mind.” He notes the warning label on one chemo drug: “May Cause Leukemia.”
• Questioning faith: “Do you believe any of this? That those who trust in Jesus even though they die yet shall they live? The question had never even occurred to me until my own death became something less than what my trade calls ‘speculative theology.’”
• Indignities of cancer and chemo: From the “tumor baby” he carries, a 10 x10 inch tumor he dubs “Larry” that is “about the size of a Stephen King novel” to “needing help to pee into the plastic jug because you don’t have the ab muscles to do even that for yourself.”
• God and “our” cancer: “I didn’t need a God who shared my pain, because it was our cancer—my wife Ali’s and mine. I desperately wanted a God whose own life can show me a way to live in and through it.”
• The Christian fear of fear: “Other Christians treat fear like it’s more cancerous than cancer. I was afraid because I loved. I feared what cancer would do to my sons, to their happiness and joy and innocence and faith.”
• Being a pastor with cancer: “I feared what cancer would do to my congregation’s faith when they saw one of their pastors handed a huge crap-flavored lollipop.”
• When cancer comes in handy: “Cancer is not without its uses. It’s like having an ace in the hole you can play whenever it suits you without ever leaving the card on the table.”
• Suffering: “Only now that I was suffering more than I ever had in my life did I learn how Christians do not have an answer for suffering or evil.”
• Battle metaphors: “The language of fighting doesn’t really work for cancer. The ‘it’ in ‘Fight it, Jason’ was Jason. The ‘it’ was me —indelibly me. The cancerous cells were mine, only doing something differently and far more efficiently than my healthy ones.” “Cancer doesn’t make you wonder, ‘Why me, God?’ Only a dick would get caught up with that kind of question,” Micheli says. “No, cancer throws you in the scrum and makes you ask, ‘Why them, God? Why us, God? Why this world?’” Still, by the sixth round of chemo, he had to keep reminding himself that it was not God doing this to him.
After eight excruciating rounds of chemo, Micheli’s tumors were gone. Doctors don’t talk about remission with mantel cell lymphoma—he could still have mantle cell percolating in his bone marrow—but it’s as good news as he could have hoped for. “I don’t know what the future will bring. I don’t know if this story is over,” he writes. “In whatever life my family and I have left are more marvels than we can count.”
Jason Micheli is executive pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA, and writes the popular Tamed Cynic blog. He lives in the Washington, DC area with his wife, Ali, and their two sons.