Cancer is Funny

Jason Micheli is a United Methodist pastor in DC and blogs at www.tamedcynic.org
They write out my chemo schedule by hand each month, scribbling the names of my drugs on different days in a curly hybrid of print and cursive, before making photocopies and handing one to me. The schedules can prove hard to read, which I pointed out to my oncologist a while back: “What’s this prescribed on my schedule for Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday?”

“Ah, that’s a d. It says ‘dex.’ It’s short for dexamethasone.”

“Funny, I thought it looked like a lowercase s,” I said, feigning disappointment. “You might have to apologize to my wife. I already showed this to her and said, ‘Doctor’s orders.’”

He pretended not to hear me, staring at my labs on the computer screen, before replying. “Well, if you could pull that off four days in a row after six months of chemo, then I really should get you into a clinical trial. You’re worth studying.”

Ever since I was diagnosed with a rare, incurable cancer in my bone marrow, I’ve had moments like this one. Funny moments.

I know, it might surprise you, but cancer is funny.

And I think cancer is funny not because of what you suffer or how you suffer it, but because of who else is there with you as you suffer in the cancer ward.

Ever since I first used Google to search for mantle cell lymphoma and discovered I have an exceedingly rare lymphoma that almost always affects only men in their old age (as in, not thirty-seven year olds. Dumb luck that caused me to chuckle—after crying like a man-baby), I’ve wondered if the surprise that cancer is funny has less to do with how we conceive of the disease and everything to do with how we understand the nature of the Divine. I’ve wondered because the most common questions I’ve received during my treatment are all about God.

They’re not even veiled questions. Cancer is just the excuse to drill down and inquire about the existential:

•“How has cancer deepened your faith?”

•“Have you grown closer to God in your suffering?”

True, I’m a minister, and my line of work tends to invite such conversation, but talking with other patients, these kinds of questions are par for the cancer course. Even when the question is phrased in the negative, as in “How has struggling with cancer challenged your faith in God?” the premise still  connects the experience of suffering with an experience of God. Implicit in such questions is an assumption first asserted by John Chrysostom, a fourth century Christian clergyman whose oratory netted him the nickname John  Goldenmouth. He wasn’t always the flawless orator. Proving that a golden mouth does not guarantee a gem of a mind, Chrysostom once preached,  “Tears bind us to God, not laughter.” You might expect to find such esteeming of seriousness and suffering in a religion with a cross at the front  of every sanctuary and an execution at the heart of its story, but the Gospels frame their narratives not from the perspective of the crucifixion, but from the hindsight of resurrection’s happy surprise. In other words, the laughter of Easter, not the laments of Good Friday, should determine for us how we conceive of God and ourselves as God’s creatures.

Everyone assumes that suffering leads the sufferer to God, and sometimes it does. Suffering can knock down all our other (self-) defenses so that we can finally, wholly, depend upon our maker. But if suffering leads us closer to God, suffering should not leave us mirthless.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and priest from the twentieth century, posited as a sort of first principle, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” The first time I heard my youngest son’s belly laugh, I marveled over how a celibate like Pierre had understood about God what it took fatherhood to teach me.

Everyone assumes suffering leads you closer to God. And no one registers surprise to hear how cancer has led someone to a deeper (i.e., more serious) faith, but people betray something like shock when you suggest to them that cancer can be funny. If God is Joy, then we can’t rightly be said to have grown closer to God, through suffering or any other means, without a marked increase in joy, and with joy comes laughter, mirth, and a levity only the good news of grace makes possible.

Despite the finality with which he expressed it, John Goldenmouth Chrysostom was only partially correct. Tears, and the suffering that provokes them, can in fact bring us closer to God by leaving us no other options but turning to God. But tears and suffering cannot fetter us to God. Only joy can bind us fully to the God who is most infallibly Joy.

Cancer is funny, then, because the suffering occasioned by cancer draws you nearer to God, and the closer you get to God, the louder laughter becomes.

Jason Micheli’s theological memoir, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, is available for pre-order now.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.