Transcript - Get Your Spirit in Shape: Keeping Faith and Humor in Cancer
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In the studio
Today’s guest is the Reverend Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor, blogger, podcaster and author. Recently, Jason released a remarkable memoir about his journey through treatment of cancer. The book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, is a real-life look at faith in the midst of pain and suffering. And somehow it’s also really funny. Getting to talk to him on the phone was a great deal of fun and quite inspiring. I hope this conversation speaks to you, too.
On the phone
Joe: Welcome, Jason.
Joe: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Jason: I am a United Methodist pastor serving in Virginia. I’m just a few miles outside of Washington, D.C. I’m the Executive Pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church. I’ve been here about a dozen years. Before that I served a smaller church in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Before that I served a little church and was a prison chaplain in New Jersey.
Joe: You recently released a book about your journey through a personal crisis. And the book is called: Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo. The book is getting some pretty amazing reviews. And it seems, at least in my circles of social media, that it’s pretty popular. I’ve seen it popping on my Twitter feed. Can you tell me a little bit about the book?
Jason: Sure. About 2 years ago this past Christmas, after about 6 months of some pretty terrible ongoing kind of abdominal pains and ongoing doctors’ appointments to no effect, I had a CAT scan and the doctor called me that night and asked if I was sitting down. I had surgery the next day.
They removed about a 10" x 10" tumor out of my intestine that was causing the pain. I woke up from surgery to my wife explaining to me that they didn’t have the results for the biopsy yet, but I probably had one of five rare cancers. I have something called mantle cell lymphoma. It’s an incredibly rare cancer. It usually affects men in their 70s...
Joe: …which you are not.
Jason: No. I was 37 at the time. So that began a year of intense chemotherapy and bone marrow biopsies and things like that.
I realized pretty early on, based on how people were reacting to me, that a lot of people have unresolved grief around someone they know with cancer or maybe cancer themselves. So I decided that since a large part of my vocation is to model how to do the faith in front of other people, I thought now that things got really real for me it would be appropriate to model how I do cancer as a Christian, too. And so I started writing.
And it’s funny just ‘cause it’s a frame of reference I try to bring the things, and also because humor is a defense mechanism that I like to use subconsciously. And it’s theological and narrates my journey through my therapy and kind of emerging out of it.
Joe: It’s a wonderful book. You take some really complex theological pieces and make them accessible because of your spiritual journey.
Jason: Yeah, it’s easy to do contextual theology when you’re thrust into a completely new context. All of a sudden the landscape of my life was completely different. And so I think familiar beliefs and familiar Scripture passages all looked different to me, given where I was at. So I was able to see things I hadn’t seen before, ask questions I hadn’t asked before, and appreciate certain parts of what it means to be a Christian that I don’t think I’d really understand this easily before.
Joe: You use a term to describe your cancer that I hadn’t heard before, stage-serious chemo is in the subtitle of the book. What do you mean by that?
Jason: So, when I was asking my oncologist right after my surgery how bad it was, and I think because of cancer movies everyone knows they’re supposed to ask what stage ot is. So that’s what I asked him.
It’s the nature of mantle cell that it can’t be staged like other cancers can. And mostly that’s because by the time it presents itself it’s already too advanced to really measure. So calling end-stage cancer was my doctor’s way of kind of deflecting the question and trying to help me understand what it was I was dealing with.
Joe: How are you doing today?
Jason: I’ll never be in remission. So I get a day every month of maintenance chemo to keep it at bay. I follow that up with CAT scans and blood tests and all of that. So I feel normal and I’m healthy and I’m back to work, but I’m living with uncertainty, just a little more uncertainty than the average person lives with.
Joe: One thing I really appreciate about the book is how honestly you talk about not only how your faith helped you through the journey, but also how some things we think of as pretty common weren’t helpful at all when you were in a crisis situation. Okay if we talk about some of that stuff?
Joe: All right. One of the things where you find a lot of humor, I think, is how cancer changed your body image; how you thought of yourself physically. How did those things change?
Jason: Well, I mean... I looked like a mole rat with glasses. I write about in the book, that because I’m a pastor and I’ve worked with a lot of women who’ve gone through breast cancer I’m aware of how cancer changes women’s self-image. But I don’t hear a lot…I haven’t read a lot about how it affects men. And so all of sudden, you don’t feel good and then that’s coupled with the body that stares you back in the mirror looks that of a little boy. Couple that with the impotence that chemotherapy drugs can occasion….
You don’t realize how much your self-image as a man is determined by cliché things like virility until it’s gone. And then you have to negotiate what it is to be a man in this context, and also how you see yourself and how does the world see you.
Joe: And what did you take away from that as you’ve thought through that?
Jason: That’s a good question. No one’s asked me that question before. I think it made me return to the initial claim of the faith that made me a Christian.
I was initially attracted to the message of the incarnation, and particularly this idea…’cause I became a Christian as a teenager when I had all kinds of self-image problems. What I really resonated with me was the idea, not just that God would take flesh, but that God would take flesh like mine. That God would take something that I, at that time of my life loathed, and would somehow make it holy.
With cancer I found myself kind of loathing the face that I saw in the mirror and the body that I saw in the shower. And so I returned especially to that idea that, even a body like mine was one that God would be willing to put on.
Joe: One of the interesting things you do in talking about the incarnation is you talk a little bit about how that led you to a new understanding of discipleship. You said something about how every cancer gets a different mixture of chemicals in the chemotherapy, how everybody responds differently. And that led you to understand, my body is unique; my body is different, which also means my path of discipleship is different… there’s no one right way to do that.
Jason: One of the reasons I wrote the book is, I think people need permission if they’re depressed, if they feel like they’re losing their faith, if they’re angry at God, if… you could fill in… They need permission to say that it’s okay to feel those things as a disciple, that there isn’t a right way to do suffering as a Christian.
That was the sense I got from a lot of books that people gave me. Here’s the Christian way to think about this, or here’s the Christian’s way to talk about what you’re going through, here’s the Christian way to feel that. And it’s not one-size-fits-all. I mean, God puts on a particular human body and incarnates it in a particular way. So I think that what we’re called to do is to incarnate it in our own time and place in the context of our own lives. And I think that will look differently. And certainly how Jesus lives his life gives us a template, but it’s certainly not one-size-fits-all.
Joe: You talk about the Christian response, that you read books that said this is the right (for lack of a better word) way a Christian should feel about these things. One of the thoughts in a really powerful section, you talk about your fear. I love that you give us permission to be afraid.
Jason: Yeah. It’s probably the one thing that surprised me the most . I would wake up with panic attacks, thinking about how this was affecting my wife, my boys, while they’re still young. I would just wake up in the middle of the night just like covered in sweat, unable to breathe.
That happened to me when I’m laying in the hospital, and there’s a lot of terrible Christian television on late at night. And there’s almost this unspoken implication (and promulgated by Christians) that fear is the opposite of faith.
It’s true that like again and again and again God or Jesus or Gabriel is telling us to not be afraid. I mean, not only is fear like a valid, human emotion. I think it shows that like we actually give a crap about the people in our lives. And it’s a sign of love, or can be.
Joe: I love the way you say that in the book about you were afraid because you loved, because you were afraid for your children or afraid for your wife or for others around you.
You also talk about your prayer life and how going through this journey kind of changed the way you think about prayer. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jason: So I confess in the book and to you, I am someone who lives in my head and it’s hard to turn off the noise. And I’ve never been a good pray-er as a consequence. I found that to be particularly true when I was sick, mostly because I did have a lot of noise in my head governed by fear, anxiety, but also because I just didn’t feel very good and didn’t have the strength or the energy to do something like pray well.
I had been told by a guy in my church a long time ago when I was just a student pastor in New Jersey. And it came back to me in this case. It really forced me to rely upon and really value the fact that other people told me they were praying for me. I think because I work in a church I hear people say all the time, ‘Well, you’ll be in my prayers.’ And it’s almost like jargon that the pastor or the church people will say. Or least that’s how it always sounded to me. But now that I couldn’t do it by myself, I realized for the first time just how much that meant to me, to be kind of stewarded in prayer by other people.
Get Your Spirit in Shape
Joe: I have this theory that we can be the faithful ones for others. Like you talk about being. Having that weakness and the cancer, and not feeling strong enough to pray, and you leaned on or relied on the prayers and the faith of the people who surrounded you.
Jason: Yes. It also led me to really appreciate what Paul says, that none of us knows how to pray just because, the idea of God is incomprehensible. But just the sheer act of praying is itself God’s action within us. So even my terrible, terrible cancer prayer were grace.
Joe: I want to go a little bit deeper on one of these things and maybe two. We’ll see how long it takes.
One of the things that really stood out for me or really spoke to me is, you talk about the presence and absence of God. When you experienced the presence of God you became aware of God’s absence in other places. And one of the illustrations you talk about is Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel when they get thrown into the fiery furnace. And you ask the question, Did they know that the angel was there with them?
Joe: How did you experience that?
Jason: That reflection came at a time when I was down. I came to the conclusion that it’s hard to know that God is with you when you’re in the midst of the fire. You have to rely upon what the community and what your friends say they see. I think maybe one of the requirements of faith is having faith that they’re telling you the truth.
So much of our faith, I think, too often we make ourselves the only arbiters or what’s true or false. And we don’t trust the judgments of the people around us. Maybe that’s just part of what it means to be baptized into a community rather than just solo spiritual journey, that even when we’re in the midst of suffering and it doesn’t seem or feel as though God is with you, if those people close to you in your life tell you that God is, then maybe you ought to have a little charity in believing them.
Joe: And I heard you just say part of your faith is faith that the people around you are telling you the truth.
Jason: Yeah, if faith means trust, it’s to trust the testimony of the people around you.
Joe: Being a part of the community is a huge part of that. When we talk about being a part of the community it’s more than just showing up.
When I read your book I thought a lot about how difficult it would be for me. I tend to be introverted and keep my stuff to myself. I mean, you talk about being physically naked, but you were also kind of emotionally and spiritually naked. Was that a difficult experience for you?
Jason: I mean, I am shy and introverted. I would rather be by myself. Most pastors are like that probably. But it was also my personality. But if I’m gonna write about this I’m not gonna use stained glass language, is the phrase that I use.
I try to do that in my ministry, too. I’m not gonna play the role of the pastor. I’m Jason who’s doing the faith, and I’m also your pastor. There’s just so much sentimentality in Christianity, in particular I think. And there’s so many trite clichés that we use to keep ourselves in an emotional distance from other people’s suffering. And you know, in the cancer ward you realize that that theology has victims. I was determined not to produce victims. Maybe I wouldn’t help anyone, but I wasn’t gonna hurt anyone.
Joe: One of the reviews I read of your book was exactly that, that you don’t have this kind of stained glass, ivory tower. You’re in the grit of it, and theologizing from there. It’s just really powerful, especially for those who may not be as connected to the church.
Jason: I do think it’s probably just my age and my generation. I do have a lot of friends who aren’t church-y people. And I do think we, in our culture—it’s so Instagrammed—I think we hunger for authenticity. And I think a lot of what turns people off from the institutional church is that for whatever reason we don’t seem to give permission for that kind of authenticity. And so, I mean, I’m the pastor, so I might as well model it.
Some of the book started off as blog posts on my blog, and initially there was some blow back about how I was talking about my experience. Eventually that went away and other people found it helpful. So….
Joe: What was the push back?
Jason: People were uncomfortable with some of my language and uncomfortable with asking questions and not doing the, “all things work together for good” kind of stuff. They have Joel Osteen for that. They don’t need me.
Joe: What advice would you give to someone of what not to say to someone who’s in a place of crisis?
Jason: I’ve said this other places. But you know, one of the things that really encouraged me was that nobody in my church gave me a Romans 8 quote, or something like that. So I was really proud of them.
So I guess my advice is…. I think lots of people know what not to say, except when they get in that moment—there’s something about the moment. I think there’s something about being made vulnerable to someone else’s suffering and seeing someone else who has been rendered vulnerable. Then I think speech that we would normally not use comes to mind just because, they’re clichés and they’re out in the ether and we’re scared. So we grab onto the first thing we can grab a hold of, and often it’s not helpful.
My advice is what my advice would have been before I got sick. It’s don’t say anything except maybe, ‘I’m here for you,’ or ‘I care about you,’ or ‘I’m so sorry.’ But just show up and just let them know that you care.
I do talk about this. I think never under any circumstances should a Christian try to explain another’s suffering. I think there’s something very contrary to the whole message of the cross/incarnation in trying to impose meaning on another’s suffering.
Joe: Say more about that.
Jason: The way I interpret the cross is that God in Christ will not resort to violence even in the face of our own violence, but responds with resurrection. And so for me that means that there is no good end to suffering.
Jesus’s suffering is the sign to which, the length to which, God will go in order to be with us and to not treat us in kind. And so I think God doesn’t use suffering to achieve his ends. God doesn’t use violence to achieve his ends. God doesn’t use evil to achieve his ends. God instead gives us Easter. And so I think sometimes our fearful need to impose meaning on another’s suffering is to go in the opposite direction, and it’s to do something that God has shown a refusal to do himself.
Joe: That helps.
Jason: That may be a little too abstract, but….
Joe: No, no. it helps a lot.
This seems a really simple question after that. How can we be most supportive? What were some of the things that people did for you that blew you away with their care and concern for you?
Jason: There’s one lady in my congregation who posted a cat picture on my Facebook page every day. I don’t even like cats, but that was just a constant reminder that I was in her thoughts.
Someone else sent me a card every day. They brought me food. They…some of my friends in the congregation drove me to my chemotherapy treatments, caught me when I passed out, and wiped vomit off my face, and all sorts of sordid things like that.
They just let me know that they cared. You just show up and you do what you can. And you don’t need to solve any problems. You just need to be there. And I think part of like the prelude to that is a willingness to narrate your own suffering. I think permission would be given if more people took it and shared their own experiences. I’ve learned things about people that they never would have told me before. And I think it’s a shame that they didn’t.
Joe: To bring this full circle, the name of your book is Cancer is Funny. Why is cancer funny?
Jason: So, I do that in a couple of ways. The way I try to frame the introduction is that I noticed early on, even among nurses and doctors who may or may not be religious or Christian, that everyone assumed—it’s kind of a universal assumption—that suffering brings you closer to God or enlightenment or wisdom.
But, you know, for Christians, God is most fundamentally joy or love or goodness, however you want to describe God’s essence. So, it doesn’t make any sense to me that if an experiencfe of suffering leads you closer to God, that should leave you bereft or grieved. At some point that journey through suffering to God should bring you closer to joy or laughter.
As a pastor I know that’s true, having buried so many people, that grief turns to laughter very quickly and unexpectedly. And so that’s kind of my theological framework, as to why it’s funny. But it’s also funny in the sense that seeing kids with cancer in the waiting room of my oncologist’s office it makes belief in God seem absurd sometimes. So cancer is funny in the sense that it can feel as though the joke’s on Christians for believing sometimes.
Joe: As we wrap up I want to ask you the question that I ask every guest that I have on Get Your Spirit in Shape. What spiritual practice would you recommend that we try out?
Jason: I don’t know if it qualifies as a spiritual practice, but my number one take-away, I think (and I mentioned a little bit of it) is that my experience has made me appreciate my friends in a way that I never did before, and maybe took for granted. And so not praying many hours or receiving the Eucharist, but taking the time to listen and appreciate the friends that you have through Christ in your life.
Joe: You tell this great story at the end of the book where you talk about how you came to appreciate the little things in life and began to see things a little bit differently. And I really appreciate that.
I want to give you a chance to talk about your other work. Your blog is called The Tamed Cynic. Do you want to tell me a little bit about that?
Jason: I started a blog, I don’t know, 4 years ago or so. It’s named after the Rienhold Niebuhr book, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, which was his diary from his first couple of years in parish ministry. When I first felt a call to ministry when I was in college, that was the book that my pastor, named Dennis, gave to me. He is the pastor with whom I serve on staff today. So, I named it Tamed Cynic because I’m cynical, but also kind of an homage to kind of the arc of faith and vocational journey.
Joe: It’s funny. Dennis is the one who recommended your blog to me a couple of years ago. I interviewed him for a story, and all he said to me at the end was an off-hand comment. It was like, You should really read my associate’s blog. Within a couple of posts I was a subscriber. So I’ve been following you for a couple of years.
Joe: Yeah, that’s when I first learned of your journey through cancer, was through the blog. Dennis was my intro into that.
Jason: The blog is a good example of what I mean by friends. The blog went black for a while, and I heard from all these people around the world that, I mean, I’ve never met in meaningful, not cursory ways. I know it’s supposed to be dead people that we’re surrounded by like a cloud of witnesses, but that’s what it felt like. Some of those have turned into friendships that I value as much as any.
Joe: You’re also co-host of a podcast called Crackers and Grape Juice.
Jason: Yeah, I mean, not to beat a dead horse, but when I came back to work feeling really grateful for some of these people in my life I wanted to be able to engage with them as much as possible. So I started a podcast with them and then I wanted to have conversations with some of these people that I was friends with over the Internet. So really the podcast kind of grew out of how I wanted to embody this new appreciation I had for these relationships in my life. It’s called Crackers and Grape Juice. It’s taken on a life of its own. So it’s good.
Joe: Thanks, Jason. It was really good talking to you today.
Jason: Take care.
In the studio
Joe: That was Jason Micheli, United Methodist pastor, blogger, podcaster and author of Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo. I highly recommend the book.
To learn more about Jason, to buy his book or to connect with his blog and podcast go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. While you’re there, click on my email address and send me your thoughts and ideas for topics you would like to hear us talk about in the future. And be sure to take a moment to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, GooglePlay, or Stitcher. We have a wonderful episode coming up in March about the songs of Lent and Easter that you won’t want to miss.
Thanks again for listening. We’ll be back soon with more help for keeping our spirits in shape. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.