“Why haven’t you been going to church lately?”
It’s a question I’ve been getting a lot recently in one form or another. I even received it from an atheist friend not too long ago, which caused me to suck my teeth like an sullen teenager and say, “Who are you, my grandmother? What do you care whether I attend church or not?” The reply was something like, “It’s just strange, that’s all. I mean, you are a practicing Christian, aren’t you?”
Other questions run along the lines of:
Are you mad at God?
My reply: Not really. Not any more than usual.
Are you having a faith crisis?
My reply: I mean, faith is always kind of a crisis, isn’t it? So, I don’t know. Maybe?
Are you mad at “the church”?
My reply: Not really. Not any more than usual.
I’m always at least a little bit mad at God and “the church”, but that’s a tension I embrace and with which I am comfortable. It’s even a tension to which I often feel a sense of call. Perhaps it’s the millennial in me.
So, why haven’t I been going to church lately?
The short answer: I’m not ready to go back yet.
The long answer: Oh, jeez . . . it’s such a long story. But here it is.
See, my church situation is complicated. I am basically, for all intents and purposes, a PK, which is short for pastor’s kid. How does one explain the complex subculture of Presbyterian PKs and Presbyterian church professionals to someone who isn’t part of it? I have no idea, but I’ve often thought of basing a novel on this strange, strange subculture. Neither of my parents was actually a pastor, however both are often mistaken for pastors. They have even been imagined into graduating seminary classes. There have been times when I’ve tried to explain that my parents aren’t actually pastors only to be met with an insistent, “No. No, they are. They went to seminary with me. Didn’t they?” Nope.
While I was growing up, my father served six different Presbyterian Church (USA) organizations — three different camp and conference centers in three different states, followed by three homes for abused, abandoned, and neglected kids, also in three different states. I’m not great at math, but according to my calculations that’s six states. We moved a lot. The other question I am often asked is if I was an army brat. Nope. I’m a PK, sort of.
My mother was a Director of Christian Education (DCE). Factor in that I spent part of my career working professionally for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and what you’ve got is that I know a lot of people . . . a lot of Presbyterian people.
A couple of years ago while I was attending a writing conference in New York City, my critique partner who is also from South Carolina, was worrying over what we would do in the event one of us had an emergency so far from home. I immediately shrugged and said it was no problem, I had friends nearby who would help us if we needed anything. Then I listed five people I knew who lived right there in Manhattan where we were staying. Her eyes got big. “How do you know all those people?” she asked. “They’re Presbyterian,” I answered. The next day, while strolling through Times Square, I ran into a friend of a friend from West Virginia. We chatted for a while about mutual acquaintances and also about camp. Then parted ways. Totally normal Presbyterian PK experience.
In short, I didn’t grow up in any one church. I grew up in a bunch of them. I grew up in a church that wasn’t a building. I grew up in a church that was an expansive fellowship of people all over the country . . . the world even.
When my mom was first diagnosed with cancer we moved in with my parents, in part because we were in the middle of a big life transition, and in part because someone needed to be home to help take care of my mother while my father was at work. I’d had a baby 6 months prior to Mom’s diagnosis. I’d also been the family breadwinner 6 months prior to Mom’s diagnosis. But suddenly, I found myself the stay-at-home mother of an infant and the stay-at-home daughter of a very sick mother. That’s where my life careened wildly off of the path I had charted for myself, which was go to seminary and become an ordained Presbyterian pastor.
Eventually, my mom went into remission, my dad retired, my husband took a new job, and we moved out. My parents relocated to a town where a lot of people who have spent their vocations working professionally for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) go to retire. They congregate there because when you have spent your entire life moving from place to place within “the church”, your community isn’t local. It’s a vast group of people who have spent their vocational lives in a similar manner, with whom you’ve formed important relationships because you’ve been the Body of Christ for one another over the years as together you’ve witnessed both the ugliest parts of “the church” as well as the most beautiful. Nobody but those people can quite understand what your life has been. So, my parents moved there to take care of my mother’s health and to be among their community.
But my mom’s cancer eventually came back, and it came back with a vengeance. This time I wasn’t living in the same house with her. No. This time I was three hours away (six hours round trip). At first things were fine. We all felt really positive, and Mom’s cancer was manageable. She was active and healthy and pretty much lived a normal life, but as her health declined, more and more, I found myself needing to commute the six hours to help out. I did most of my commuting on the weekends, which meant I started to miss church at the local church we’d joined when we moved. For two years I had attended regularly, been an active youth adviser, and helped teach the Wednesday night children’s program, but with my mother’s health declining, I needed to step down from those responsibilities.
The real kicker came in April of 2012 when my mother had to have an ileostomy because of some cancer blockages in her abdomen. Allow me to explain this fresh hell that was my mother’s ileostomy. An ileostomy is when your small intestine is surgically rerouted to a large, painful, open wound a couple inches from your belly button. This open wound is swollen and raw and it really needs to heal. However, there is the added complication that it is also the new exit for the contents of your digestive system, which really should not be spread over an open wound. To complicate things even more, part of your small intestine has been removed, so your body no longer absorbs the amount of nutrients it needs. Keeping weight on and not becoming ridiculously dehydrated is now a constant battle. There are lots of people with ileostomies who live very happy, productive lives. However, my mother had one more added complication, which was that she was doing chemotherapy on top of everything else, and chemotherapy is like being slowly poisoned.
She needed round the clock care. She needed nearly constant infusions to keep her body hydrated and properly nourished. She was so weak and in pain she could barely do anything for herself, and there was complicated medical machinery to operate, blood sugar levels to be tracked, special meals to be prepared, etc., etc., world without end. Amen. It was too much for any one person to handle. So, I spent more and more time at my parents house helping my father care for my mother. And before I’m asked, why didn’t you just get home healthcare? (I’ve been asked this question so many times, as if it were a magical solution to all our problems that I was too dense to have thought of on my own.) Well, we did have some home healthcare, but it turns out that changing an ostomy bag is not something that just anyone can do. In fact, most nurses don’t know how to do it unless they’re ostomy specialists. Anyone want to take a wild guess about how many home heath nurses are ostomy specialists?
So, my father and I became masters at the art of changing an ostomy bag. How many times does an ostomy bag have to be changed? Well, that depends on how often it leaks or it breaks or it refuses to adhere properly. There were many days and many nights spent entirely on trying to change an ostomy bag. At this point, I would often stay at my parent’s house for over a month at a time, while my husband was three hours away because he had to go to work. Meanwhile, on any given night, I might be trying to bathe a three-year-old and changing an ostomy bag at the same time. Although, there were many times when I left my daughter at home with my husband, especially after she started preschool.
So, on the weekends that I was home, I didn’t go to church. I slept and spent precious hours alone with my husband and daughter, lapping up the time that the three of us got to be together. And thus, I sort of fell out of the habit of going to church. Although, I did attend my parent’s church now and then, which was great because it was a congregation that 1) knew my parents and what was going on with them, and 2) contained a lot of people who’d known me since I was a child. I could go there and not have to explain anything.
One weekend while I was at home, I decided to go to the church where I am a member. I hadn’t been in a long time, and was immediately greeted with, “We’ve missed you. Where have you been?” It was all perfectly innocent and kind and well-intentioned, but I found myself having to explain to people over and over again where I’d been. It was exhausting, and the way my life was going, I had no — and I mean ZERO — energy to spare. No one could really quite grasp what I had been doing with my time. No one could really quite grasp the horror that was my life. And as people do, they made stupid comments like, “Well, I guess if you have to be caring for your sick mother, there are worse places to be than the Western North Carolina mountains.” And. “You know, they say with cancer half the battle is staying positive. Is your mother staying positive?” When you are sleep deprived, running entirely on adrenaline, and the only thing you’ve seen much of for the past month is gore, an ostomy bag, and the inside of your mother’s bedroom, these comments can chafe a bit.
And hey! I get it. I do. Not long ago I was chatting with a woman who’d just found out she had a brain tumor. She was describing all the strange symptoms that had led up to her seeking out a specialist to find out what was wrong. I asked, “When you found out you had a brain tumor was it kind of a relief to know why you were experiencing those symptoms?” She gave me the most withering look humanly possible and said, “No, it wasn’t a relief. I have a brain tumor!” At which point I mentally smacked myself in the forehead, and called myself a dumb-ass. So, we all do it. We all say the wrong thing at the wrong time. It just happens, and that’s okay.
Not long after my mother made the decision to move into Hospice, her pastor, Shannon, came to visit her in the hospital. Shannon had been a wonderful support and trusted friend to my mother throughout her journey through cancer. The moment that Shannon walked into that hospital room is forever frozen in my mind. She came in, walked over to my mother’s bed, and said, “Hi Peggy.” My mom looked up at her and very solemnly said, “Shannon, I’m dying.” Shannon quietly said back, “I know.” Then she bent over, took my mother’s face in her hands, looked deep into her eyes, and said, “You have been so brave.”
I heard those words as if God, herself/himself, had spoken them.
It’s been six months since my mother died, and I still haven’t been able to return to church. It’s not that I’m any more mad at God or “the church” than usual. I haven’t been back to church because for four years cancer has defined my life. Not only am I processing my mother’s death and my own grief, I’m processing how truly goddamn awful it all was — not her death, but her cancer.
I am the daughter of two people who devoted their entire lives to a vocation within “the church”, which means I’ve done a lot of living outwardly within “the church”. There are parts of my life in “the church” for which I am profoundly grateful, and there are parts of my life in “the church” that have left scars. As I said earlier, the subculture of Presbyterian PKs and Presbyterian church professionals is complex, but the relationships I have from a lifetime spent within that subculture are invaluable, and they’ve helped me get through this dark time in my life.
Shannon’s words often echo through my mind these days. “You have been so brave.” That was so very true of my mother, but it was also true of my father and me. We were so brave for such a long time, and now I’m exhausted. I am resting. I have turned inward. I am taking a break from institutional church. I am taking a break from large crowds. I am taking a break from situations that completely zap my limited energy. I am practicing self-care, and putting the boundaries in place that I need in order to process and heal. I am also enjoying uninterrupted, cancer-free time with my husband and daughter, which is something we haven’t had in four years.
I didn’t grow up in any one church. I grew up in a bunch of churches. I grew up in a church that isn’t a building, but rather, is an expansive fellowship. There are a small group of people within that fellowship with whom I am intimate, who have cared for me and my family so tenderly and with such expertise. It’s not that I have walked away from “the church” or given up on it. It’s that, right now, I am allowing the people who most understand and love me to care for me.
*Note: The pastor at the church where I am a member is awesome. She checks in on me now and then in expertly non-obtuse ways. We’ve had the conversation about why I haven’t been coming to church. In short, she’s in the loop, and she’s a very calm, supportive presence.