Fortress Press, 189 pages
Reviewed by Deborah Lewis
Jason Micheli gets one thing wrong in this book: He is always a pastor.
It’s not as if he tries to hide this, but he repeatedly makes the distinction between his life as a pastor before cancer and his “non-pastoral” life as an ordinary person with cancer. The fact that he can’t maintain the artifice of separate pastor and person identities results in a compelling story, underscoring precisely this flimsy distinction. The word I keep coming back to is “parson,” the somewhat antiquated church lingo used to describe pastors. “Parson” means “person,” as in “person of the church,” a representative of the body of believers. The parson represents the rest of us.
Here’s where Micheli’s distinction both falls flat and makes his larger point. He’s not just any patient with cancer. He’s a pastor who has stood by the hospital beds of countless suffering patients and parishioners. He may be on a medical leave of absence from his daily duties, but he’s unable and unwilling to leave behind his role as parson, the representative Christian. The very existence of his book is testament to his primary pastoral role of living life publicly and professionally. He never relinquishes this role.
With his status as patient comes the realization that his previous pastoral familiarity with death and suffering hasn’t inoculated him. As a pastor, he operated as if “I serve the suffering but I do not suffer.” As a patient, he connects unexpectedly to the man whose friends lower him through the roof to be healed by Jesus (Mark 2:1-12). Praying for his own healing, Micheli wonders “if my preacher’s reading of such stories wasn’t too cute by half. … But you know what Jason the patient on the mat discovered that Pastor Jason, standing in the pulpit, had not? Healing’s important, too – damn important. And, whether this thought is heresy or not, healing is no less a miracle than forgiveness.”
It’s exactly this type of deft move that cements Micheli as our parson. He is not interested in making himself look good (as a pastor, husband, patient or Christian) or in protecting God from our worst fears. His abiding, passionate interest is in following the gospel wherever it leads. If there is good news Christians are meant to share, then it has to be good news in the midst of life with cancer, too. Nothing is off limits. By the time Micheli allows himself to ask, “Why is God doing this to me?” and offers, “Here’s the go I made of it,” the reader knows she’ll get an unvarnished, real-life, hard-core gospel exploration of what is most often a clichéd and unexamined question, even among Christians.
The gift of this book is its all-access glimpse into how a person does this. Any of this. Micheli is our parson, the one standing in for us as a person and a Christian with cancer, showing us what it looks and feels like to be scared to death and fearless at the same time, taking it all seriously but with a sense of humor inspired by God’s own joy.
Deborah Lewis is a United Methodist pastor serving as director and campus minister of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Virginia.