By Jason Micheli
Two years ago, I woke up from emergency abdominal surgery, which removed a tumor the size of a “Harry Potter” hardback from my innards The doctor told me I had a rare, aggressive and ultimately incurable cancer. After a year of intense, butt-kicking chemo, I’m back as a workaday pastor.
And I’m so freaking grateful for it.
I resonate lately with St. Paul and his letter to the Church at Philippi. Maybe I do so because I know that after he wrote his letter, it was curtains on Paul.
Nonetheless, Paul and I have a lot in common.
Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).
Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).
Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty (plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-butt insurance claims).
Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in Philippians, I’ve got so much for which I am grateful.
To my church
I know, when life sucks it’s novel or “gutsy” to gripe about institutional religion. That feels to me like it’s either too easy a complaint to be true or too depressing to bear if it is true.
The Philippians fed Paul. He was in a Roman prison when he wrote to them. The money the Philippians sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry or you didn’t and you went hungry.
Like Paul’s church in Philippi, my parish has done so much for my family and me. They fed us and prayed for us and with us. They helped with medical bills and sat with me in the hospital. They were there to catch me when I passed out in the chemo room. And they didn’t bat an eye when I puked in their cars.
My colleague, the Rev. Dennis Perry, was with us the night I learned I had cancer. He prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for us all during my treatments and he’s held my hand through the new normal.
My church has done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.
Because the truth is: I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.
In other words, I was a guy who kept score.
One thing cancer has taught me: When you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way, too. And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back. And you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that bad things have happened to you.
All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and the Church responded by giving me so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay all this?
I physically can’t write that many thank-you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want anyone else barfing in my car.
I tried repaying one of my benefactors by driving him to his vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.
So how could I ever give back everything I have been given? Balance the scales?
I can’t ever repay everything that’s been done for me.
And what has been done for me isn’t even the most important thing that’s been done.
Unlike Paul, in this crucible of incurable cancer, I’ve not been able to say (as Paul humble-brags in Philippians), “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
When you have cancer, everyone — EVERY SINGLE PERSON — tells you “to kick cancer’s ass.” But it works the other way around. Cancer kicks yours. The last months and years, I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.
Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt “thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith And Paul’s “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me” sounded to me like an empty cliché.
I may have a few things in common with Paul and the Philippians but not with the “I can endure all things through Christ…” part.
Unless. . .
Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about Christ’s Body, the Church: “I can endure all things through you who strengthens me.”
After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel, “I am the Light of the World,” looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them, “You are the Light of the World.”
And when we profess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future, but he’s here and now. There is no Christ “up there,” because he’s here. Now.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [Philippians 4:13]
So maybe. . .
Maybe when Paul says, “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he doesn’t mean, “I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…”
Maybe he doesn’t mean, “I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…” And maybe he doesn’t mean, “I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…”
Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you, the Church. About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.
If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can my wife. And so would my sons.
We can endure all things because the Church has been with us. More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.
As Sam Wells observes, “with” just might be the most important word. In Scripture, “with” is much more important than “for.”
“In the beginning,” says Scripture, “the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God and without him not one thing came into being.”
In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So, at the very end of the Bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.”
According to the Bible, “with” is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life, action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.
And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.
Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again. Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: “It was kind of you,” he says, “to share in my distress.”
It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in my wife’s worry, Church. In my boys’ fears and anxiety, Church. It was kind of you to make my cancer — our cancer — yours, too.
Thank you, for being with me.
Thank you for sharing in my distress.
Jason Micheli is executive pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA. Jason is the author of Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, a co-host of the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast, and writes the popular Tamed Cynic blog. He lives in the Washington, DC area with his wife, Ali, and their two sons.
Posted November 9, 2017