Michael Lee presents chapel devotional
By School of Religion - May 7, 2024

On May 1, Michael Lee presented the School of Religion spring chapel devotional. Michael is a dual-degree MA in Religion and Society and MD student. After completing his third year of medical school, Michael spent the 2023-2024 academic year studying at the School of Religion and will graduate in June 2024. He will return the the MD program and plans to graduate in May 2025. A transcript of his devotional is below.

I remember the first time I attended a twelve-step meeting. I took a seat on the hard metal folding chair on the far right, closest to the door. I felt uncomfortable -- like I didn’t belong. At least my classmate Jonathan was sitting beside me, and he was out of place as well.

The person at the front shared a few words, and then it was time, apparently, for us each to introduce ourselves.

“I’m Bill, and I’m an alcoholic,” the first man shared.

“Welcome, Bill,” everyone said back.

“I’m James, and I’m an alcoholic.” Welcome, James.

“I’m Alice, and I’m an alcoholic.” Welcome.

For our chapel today, I’d like us to take a moment to reflect on the importance of weakness and humility in the Christian life. Paul calls out the church in Corinth for what he perceives as their arrogance. “Already you have all you want!” Paul writes sarcastically. “Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!”[1] He asks rhetorically, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”[2]

I think it can be pretty easy for many of us to fall into the same trap as the church in Corinth -- especially for driven, educated people. Education confers a fair amount of privilege, and it can be tempting to define ourselves by it, making it central to our identity. And one issue with being a driven person -- and I think that most of us in this room are pretty driven people, certainly I am -- is that we can tend to define ourselves by the hamster-wheel of resume-building rather than by recognizing that we are beloved of God every bit as much as someone without food, shelter, or an impressive resume.

There’s an irony here -- Dr. Plantak introduced me in absurdly glowing terms, just in time for me to give a talk about humility! Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a bondservant on our behalf; how can we be intentional -- how can I be intentional -- to ensure that I define myself by Christ and his cross, and not by other things, such as wealth, status, education, or the rat-race of academic success?

Today I want to share two ways, I think, that we can cooperate with God in cultivating such humility -- firstly, through daring to encounter God in the midst of our own personal experiences of suffering, and secondly through solidarity, especially within the body of Christ, with others who are afflicted (“the poor in spirit”).

I should clarify that I’ve lived a life of immense privilege, in the grand scheme of things, and I’m not really in a position to speak authoritatively either about suffering (or really anything else, actually -- but for some reason Dr. Ranzolin asked me to speak today, and I foolishly decided that this would be my topic, so here we are).

As an adolescent, I had anxiety-related mental health issues, which caused me significant psychological pain for several years. These mental health issues became very tightly connected to my understanding of God and religion, which was profoundly unpleasant in ways that I cannot and will not unpack right now. But afterwards, some years later, I reflected on all of this in my journal; and I wrote: then I remember that God too bears scars, that his creation tortured, humiliated and murdered him, and he was willing to suffer with his people. I remember that he says that we are worth it, that he loves his church as passionately as the bridegroom loves the bride in Song of Songs (one of my favorite books of the Bible). I remember that through suffering he redeemed suffering so that now suffering itself points back to him. I remember that I have his spirit, so he experiences every iota of pain that I do. I remember that he said on the cross that it was finished, and I trust that his victory is complete and overrides all other considerations without exception. And I remember that he, the suffering, glorified king, is my friend.

This concept -- of a suffering God -- really helped me to remember that sometimes it’s not in spite of, but actually by means of our negative experiences that God meets us. This isn’t a justification for suffering and evil in the world -- there can be no justification -- but sometimes we can meet God in the midst of it, or at least, in retrospect, see God’s presence with us.

And these personal experiences have, I think, given me a sensitivity to the importance of mental health in a way that I probably otherwise wouldn’t have had -- and thus I think that at times, our weaknesses – our “arduous gifts” – are also calls into deeper vocation. Sometimes I am to find callings based not on what I think of as my “gifts”, but instead from my weaknesses, the points of pain that drive me out into community with others. And thus, I’d argue that our weaknesses are sometimes a profound, though unpleasant, way for us to meet God.

And even when our weaknesses isolate us, I wonder if God can nonetheless be manifest through pain. I imagine the apostle Paul, tormented by his “thorn in the flesh”, curled up in a fetal position on the ground, crying himself to sleep in the darkness. I imagine Barnabas standing helplessly nearby – for pain cannot fully be shared, and anyone who suffers ultimately suffers alone. I imagine the exhausted silence at the end of the tears – and in that stillness, a voice: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect through weakness.” Slim comfort, this – yet in it, Paul chose to be glad.

Back to the AA meeting. There were, in that room, at least fifty of us seated in the metal folding chairs, and Jonathan and I were sitting on the opposite side as the first person to speak. I had no idea what I was supposed to say when it came time for me to introduce myself. “I’m Michael, and I’m here to satisfy a requirement for my neuro-psych rotation in medical school?” Probably not.

I noticed a poster of the Serenity Prayer on the opposite wall. I hadn’t realized how explicitly religious twelve-step meetings could be. I came to a building expecting to find a room full of recovering alcoholics; I hadn’t realized many of them would also be my brothers and sisters in Christ.

“I’m Rick, and I’m an alcoholic.” Welcome, Rick.

It was now my turn. What should I say?

“I’m Michael… and I’m just here to listen. And to learn.”

There was a brief pause; my response was unexpected. Then, “welcome, Michael.”

The remaining people introduced themselves. More introductory words were spoken.

The meeting, for me, was a blur. I felt self-conscious, though I should have known better. This wasn’t about me. A few people shared their testimony of becoming sober, mostly men. Then a woman stood up and began to share her story.

“People talk a lot about ‘the gifts of the program’,” she said. “I used to be like, ‘what gifts?’ But guys, the gifts of the program are real, they’re real. I have freedom I didn’t know was possible before I got sober, alcohol was the one thing holding me back from being able to do whatever I wanted”.

Her voice was a stained-glass window, so bright with joy shining through -- a joy that clearly was very, very hard-won, bought with the lived experience of more suffering, struggle, and hope than I’d ever known.

She finished speaking and sat down. Everyone clapped politely.

One more person spoke, and then it was time to close. I realized we were saying the Lord’s Prayer together, apparently.

“Our Father, who art in heaven,” we began. “Hallowed be thy name.”

I mentioned “solidarity with the afflicted” a few minutes ago. I want to argue today that there is something uniquely valuable about confessing, pleading, and worshiping alongside the poor in spirit. Not seeing them as the grateful objects of our beneficence, but rather as our equals: beloved brothers and sisters with whom we are one in Christ. If we have Christ in common, then we are one, as Jesus and the Father are one, one body and one Spirit. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One bread and one cup. One God and Father of all: over all, through all, and in all. We may not always recognize this, but God’s reality is not contingent upon our ability to see it. We should pray for eyes to see, yes; but even when we are blind, the truth remains.

“Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The ultimate goal of the spiritual life, I realized afterwards, is to encounter the living Christ and His kingdom -- and if Christ is not here among these alcoholics, the poor in spirit, then Christ is nowhere.

“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts -- as we forgive our debtors.”

Later, reflecting on this event, I would realize that this twelve-step group is a better church than most churches, and I wonder whether it is only our pride that keeps our “respectable” churches from being run like twelve-step programs. This AA group is filled with broken people -- and who isn’t a broken person? -- who have committed to intentional, communal practices of repentance and struggle against their demons. This is not a sleepy, complacent Christianity -- this is Christianity that confesses, that pleads, that fights.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Why aren’t churches run more like twelve-step meetings? Perhaps because the American church has suffered collective amnesia; we have forgotten who we are. Profoundly broken; profoundly beautiful. Desperately needing to be loved unconditionally, but not even knowing how to respond to such love. Desperately needing chances to love others unconditionally, but falling short even when the opportunities are granted us. Bearing the glory of God’s image, crushed by the weight of sin. We are all failures, treasures, sinners, saints. God’s own.

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”

I’ve talked today about two of the less popular ways of meeting God -- through our own negative experiences, and through worship and solidarity alongside the marginalized. I’d like to close with a poem I wrote around a year ago, titled “God Dwells in Cathedrals of Silence”:

Life’s unlooked-for interstices

Beneath action’s fury

The undergirding quiet between each heartbeat

The caesurae between notes


It is here that god speaks

Quietly, forgoing the capital G

Emptied of Sinai’s thunder

Softer than my breath


We are louder than this god,

This god who divests himself of glory

We do not hear him.

We are too strong to bear his weakness.


And yet

His weakness bears the world



Thank you.


[1] 1 Cor. 4:8, NIV

[2] 1 Cor. 4:7