Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

The Bible is Not Anti-Gay

30 Jun

I’m reblogging this in light of last week’s SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality. I’m delighted, obviously! #Lovewins! Also, the media these days would have you believe that the Christian Right has a monopoly on Christianity, but nope. Nope. Nope. It doesn’t.

Glimpsing God

With all the fuss we’re hearing from Christians in the media these days about the evils of homosexuality, it’s got to make you wonder how I can say that homosexuality is no more sinful than heterosexuality, and still call myself a Christian. More than that, how can the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the Presbyterian Church (USA), ordain openly gay and lesbian clergy? And why would openly GLBT people want to be clergy in the first place? It seems homosexuality is incompatible with the Bible, right? Wrong.

It all comes down to Bible interpretation. Let’s talk about this, shall we?

The Christians we tend to hear in the media, who so vehemently oppose homosexuality as an abnormality, a perversion, or a willful act of sin, are coming from a fundamentalist school of Christian thought.

Just like other world religions…

View original post 2,866 more words

Pregnancy, Depression, and Me

18 Feb

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality . . . – Andrew Solomon

This past summer my husband, Dave, who’s a horticulturalist with a passion for public gardens, was offered a really cool job at a really cool public garden outside of Atlanta, GA. It was an opportunity too good to refuse. So, we decided to pack up and move. A few weeks later, while in the midst of acquiring packing boxes from liquor stores, researching the ins and outs of putting our house on the market, trying to figure out our temporary living situation in Georgia, and researching schools for our 5-year-old, I found out I was pregnant. Holy freaking surprise, Batman!

After my initial shock wore off, I decided to have a little fun at Dave’s expense. So, I placed the positive pregnancy test in a bakery bag that had once held a jumbo cookie. When Dave got home later that day, I nonchalantly handed it to him all, Look! I got you a cookie, because I’m awesome like that. He eagerly opened the bag, peeked in, closed it and said, “This. Is not. A cookie.” An excellent observation on his part. Nope. It was not a cookie. And thus we began, not one big life transition, but two.

Here’s the thing about life transitions: No matter how great they are, they can still totally screw with your mental health, especially if you are me. As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I stopped taking my mental health meds — one medication for ADD and one for depression — because that’s what doctors tell you to do when you get pregnant. That’s what I did during my first pregnancy, and thanks to all the crazy hormones, I made it through just fine. But this time my brain went, “LOL! You thought you could go off meds and completely uproot your life while undergoing the physical and emotional changes of being pregnant? You thought you could do this without some kind of mental health comeuppance? Oh, and by the way, aren’t you still grieving your mother’s death? Bless. Your. Heart.”

I’m fairly good at reading my own mental health temperature, and long about September, I could feel it coming on — the depression. Ugh! But I still had seven months of pregnancy to go, and I really wanted to muscle through it without medication. I tried to accomplish this with exercise. I did lots of walking and hiking, which helps, but has never been a mental health cure-all for me. The depression refused to be muscled out, and by October it was in full swing.

As I talk about depression here, I’m going to use a lot of “I statements” to describe my personal experience, because I think each person who suffers from depression experiences it differently. We are all individuals after all, each with different life circumstances.

When I talk to people who have never experienced depression, they seem to think it is something akin to deep sadness. However, that’s not how I would describe it. The Andrew Solomon quotation above really resonates with me: “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.” To me, depression feels like a cold, wet blanket has been thrown over my brain. There’s a heaviness and a slowness to everything, as if my mind is mired waist-deep in mud while trying to run a race. The simplest tasks feel like climbing Mt. Everest. I will look at something like a pile of laundry and not know how to proceed with it. My brain literally won’t tell me where or how to begin the task. This kind of thing usually starts me down the path of mental self-flagellation. After all, everybody else in the world can perform simple tasks like folding laundry. It’s not rocket science. Ergo, I must be the dumbest most worthless person in the world.

When I’m depressed I can’t write. I can barely string a coherent thought together. When I’m depressed it’s extremely hard to return phone calls and emails. Heck, I can barely feed myself because figuring out how to make a meal is too complicated. You can imagine how all of this plays into the crucible of guilt that is already part and parcel of parenthood. “Mommy can’t do anything for you right now, sweetheart, because her brain is broken.”

When I’m depressed I don’t feel enthusiastic or excited about anything, which leads to a feeling of hopelessness and a warped sense of time. That dark tunnel feels eternal. It has no beginning and no end. Time stops. No other reality exists. Depression is all there is in my world, and depression is hell.

I’m really fortunate, however, because in my family and circle of friends mental illness and depression are not taboo. I have a history of mental illness on both sides of my family. So, growing up, I was taught that having a psychiatrist or a therapist was like having a general practitioner — just a smart, practical way of being proactive about your health. In my family, if you need medicine for something like strep-throat, you take medicine. If you need medicine for something like ADD or depression, you take medicine. You do this under the care and supervision of a doctor, of course. Thank you Jesus for modern medicine!

A phrase I hear and see a lot in the media is this one: America is over-medicated. It’s often thrown around with the implication that people should be able to grin and bear it when it comes to mental illness. Get out there and exercise! Try changing your diet! Meditate! Go to church! Have more faith! Concentrate on your blessings! Think about starving people in the third world, and quit your whining. Again, I acknowledge that everyone’s situation is different, and maybe those things work for some people. However, it’s a phrase that irks me, because it carries a certain weight of shame for those of us whose quality of life is dependent on medication. I’ve tried at various points in my life to go off medication only to slip right back into the living hell of depression, which is completely debilitating. With medication, I get to be Neely and do all the great things that entails. I will probably always need medication to control my depression, and that’s okay.

The other thing I hear floating around in conversations about mental illness is that my generation is the most depressed, mentally ill generation there has ever been. This statistic is often delivered with a smidgeon of condescension, as if our devil music, crazy new technology, and postmodern morals are to blame. Personally, I don’t think my generation is any more depressed or mentally ill than past generations. I think what’s happening is that mental illness is finally becoming less taboo. So more people are being open about it. Medication and treatment are better than they’ve ever been, which doesn’t mean the mental heath care system isn’t a terrible mess. It is, and it needs to get better and better and better. But these days, more people come forward to get treatment than ever before, while past generations of people with mental illness suffered in silence because one simply didn’t speak of such things. Many a family, including mine, has a story about Great Aunt So-and-so who quietly hanged herself in the barn, or “accidentally” took too much laudanum. No one quite knows why she did it, but it’s shameful to speak of. So, let’s pack that skeleton away in the closet and keep it quiet, okay? Okay.

I am extremely fortunate to have a supportive spouse who can tell when I’m getting depressed and say, “Hey, I think you’re slipping into depression. Time to check in with your psychiatrist and see if you need to adjust your medication or something.” And, “What have you eaten today?” And, “We’re a team, remember? Right now I can take extra good care of our child and things around the house until you are better.” Talk about Grace and glimpsing God! Dave Simpson, for the win!

So in November I finally had a conversation with my OB about getting back on medication for depression even though I’d hoped to make it through this pregnancy without it. With my doctor’s guidance, I was able to safely do so. He gave me a little speech about how brave I was to ask for help when I needed it. At the time, I thought the speech was weird. After all, I would talk to him about medication or treatment for any other ailment I was experiencing. I’m the mother of an extremely active 5-year-old, and I was trying to settle my family in a new place. I needed to function. I wasn’t being brave, just practical. Thinking back on it, however, I realize his speech is evidence of just how taboo mental illness still is. For another woman it might have been a very brave thing about which to come forward. Especially a pregnant woman who, according to society, is supposed to be glowing and euphoric.

I am exceedingly aware of how lucky I am. Not everyone has such supportive family and friends. Not everyone has a flexible work schedule that will allow them to take care of themselves when they need to. Not everyone has access to good mental health care. I wish I could wave a magic wand and change all that. The best I can do for now is to be open and say, “You have a mental illness? Hey, me too. And it doesn’t mean that you are lazy or don’t have enough faith or gratitude or strength or smarts or whatever. It’s an illness not a depravity.”

And about my surprise pregnancy: We’re really excited about it. We’re good at welcoming the unexpected, and in about six weeks we will welcome our second daughter to the world.

“You know it’s very likely that your daughters will also suffer from some kind of mental illness,” my OB said during our conversation.

“Yes, I know,” I said, “but in our family mental illness isn’t taboo. My daughters will be taught to take care of their mental health without shame and to do so just as diligently as they take care of their physical health.” With love and support, we will meet the challenges that lie ahead, together.


Further notes on depression:

Because I’m pretty open about my depression, I’ve had friends call me to say, “I think I’m depressed. I need help now, but I called all of my local psychiatrists and therapists, and they all have waiting lists. I can’t get an appointment for another two months. What do I do?”

Set up an appointment with your general practitioner (primary healthcare provider). That can be your first step. They can get you the help you need until you can come under the care of a psychiatrist. If you don’t have a general practitioner, go to a walk-in clinic or the emergency room. Use Google to find out if there’s a community mental health center near you. In an emergency call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

Check out (National Alliance on Mental Illness). They can be a great place to find local resources.

Some of my favorite thoughts on depression from around the web:

“Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land” by Libba Bray

“Strange and Beautiful” by The Bloggess

TED Talk: Depression, the Secret We Share by Andrew Solomon

My Letter to the Justice Department and Ferguson Chief of Police

14 Aug

Over the last couple of days I’ve watched in horror as events in Ferguson, Missouri have escalated and become the stuff of dystopian novels — militarized police with tanks and full riot gear attacking a handful of peaceful protestors assembled in their own neighborhood, as well as the members of the media present to report the story. There hasn’t been a lot of coverage of the events taking place in Ferguson in mainstream media. However, there is a lot of live coverage on Twitter from independent reporters, as well as reporters like Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, and St. Louis Alderman, Antonio French. You can watch what is happening live on sites like Livestream (click on “I Am Mike Brown Live from Ferguson”). A friend on Facebook recommends

Today it was time to close my dropped jaw and get to work. Why? Because I’m horrified. But the good news is that I have a voice, and so do you. And I live in an age in which the e-mail address of the Department of Justice as well as the Chief of Police for the Ferguson Police Department are just a quick Google away. So, I wrote them an email, which I have posted below with the hope that it might inspire you to do the same. FYI, I called the Department of Justice first, and they told me they would prefer an email.

Oh, and by the way, here are those e-mail addresses I Googled:

Chief Jackson:
US Department of Justice:

If you decide to compose your own e-mail, please remember to be polite. Coming across as an asshole will not help your cause.

My Letter:

I’m writing to you as a concerned United States citizen, because I’ve been very disturbed by the live footage I’ve watched over the last two days of Ferguson police attacking peaceful, unarmed protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets, and sonic cannons. I was further distressed to watch rubber bullets catch fire on the lawns of surrounding residences and to see tear gas canisters launched into a residential neighborhood. As a parent, my mind immediately conjures up images of tear gas leaking into homes where frightened children are trying unsuccessfully to sleep. What a terrifying paradox for residents seeking safety inside their own homes only to find that safety violated by police weapons.

The right of US citizens to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech is protected in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. I am horrified to watch the Ferguson police violate that right, and even more horrified to watch them do so in such a violent manner.

Furthermore, it is extremely discomfiting to watch the Ferguson police repeatedly order journalists to stop filming, and to read the numerous reports of journalists threatened with arrest, violence, and illegally detained. The freedom of the press is another right protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution as well as the United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration of Human Rights. I utterly fail to understand why the world is witnessing such a gross violation in the 21st Century United States of America.

The world is watching very closely as events unfold in Ferguson, MO. I very much hope that the brutish behavior of the Ferguson police we have witnessed in the last week will come to an immediate stop, and that appropriate legal action will be taken against those who have perpetrated such violent rights violations.

Neely Stansell-Simpson of Columbia, SC

Why I Use Birth Control

15 Jul

I got to be a contributor to Rachel Held Evans’s blog this week. The post is titled, “Why I Use Birth Control”: 11 Women Speak Up. 

Gird Up Your Loins

6 May

My friend, L.G. Kelso, who writes fantasy and contemporary novels, invited me to write a guest post about the challenges of the writing process. So, I wrote about why life and writing are hard, and why it’s important to redefine success. I think the essay can be applied to more than just writing. So, check it out here: Gird Up Your Loins!



Some Pushback From Last Week’s Post & Thoughts On Setting Boundaries

28 Mar

I received some pushback on last week’s blog post, Why I Haven’t Been Going to Church. I asked the sender, who is a good friend and someone who has known me since I was a kid, for permission to share our conversation on my blog. I wanted to share this conversation for several reasons:

1) I thought he made some very valid points.

2) It’s a great example of respectful pushback, about which the entire internet could stand to learn a thing or two.

3) I’ve received several notes from pastors and educators, throughout the week, about how my post has sparked some discussion within their churches about millennials and pastoral care. I thought it might be helpful for others to see my response since I’m a millennial.

Our Conversation:

Neely, I love your blog that is circulating on Facebook now. There’s a lot I want to say about your thoughts. I like them very much. They give me insight I’ve never had before. I have lots of compliments.

But I want to push, too. If you were still a member of (church I used to be a member of), I would want to see you in church. I know it would be difficult. But I would want to see your face, to hug you and Dave, to get on my knees for Sophia to give me a high five. You’d get all the bone-headed, well meaning questions, etc. And I’m sure it would still make you ache. But we as a flock would be so much richer with you adding to our hymns of joy and lament. You’d help us keep it real. Your very presence might help us keep our feet to the fire of being an authentic community of faith.

I read your words, and I understand them as best an outsider can. But there’s another reality, too, that has to do with the localized body of Christ needing to be whole and that can’t happen until everybody is there.

I’m describing an other-worldly view, I guess, a “Places of the Heart” eschatology*, and yonder Jordan reality, but we’d be closer to that heaven-on-earth with you, Dave, and Sophia in a pew.

* Eschatology is the theological study of end times. The coming of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.

My thoughts on this are rough, and probably wrong. That’s why I’m sharing them privately in this message. If I were in your shoes, I’d probably do the same thing.

But I’m not in your shoes. And I believe I’d be more whole if I saw your shoes at church on Sunday. That’s how much you and your family are needed. That’s how much you are loved.

While I was taking time to think about his message, I responded:

Thanks for your thoughts. You are eloquent and wise as always.

His Response: 

Neely, I’m probably neither. I’m sometimes am an idealist when it comes to the church. I just see it as a safe place for broken people, which is one reason I’m in it.

I love your blog when you say you’re not madder than usual at God or Church. It’s a safe haven and God is a friend, except for the times when it’s not and he isn’t. Sometimes the church is a desperate institution trying to pay its bills, and God is, well, just God.

Well, I’m sure glad I know your family. Take good care.

My Response (I clearly went with the Socratic method. Geez, so many questions.): 

I’ve slept on it and had some time to reflect. Here’s my response:

You’re someone who has taken a sabbatical, right? Why take a sabbatical? Why go away to rest and study and be creative and be silent and listen to God? Why is that beneficial? Why can’t you do all those things in the presence of your congregation? Why create a special time that is set apart to grow and allow God to nourish you in new and different ways?

Why did Jesus go off into the wilderness by himself? Why did Jesus get on a boat to get away from the crowds? Why did Jesus stop worshiping and preaching in his hometown? (I’ve got an answer to this one. It’s because they wanted to throw him off a cliff, and he knew that he needed to live to fight another day.) Not that I am Jesus in this scenario. I’m just sayin’, there’s precedent.

I think the church is theoretically a great place for broken people even though it is filled with people who fear brokenness. I also think the church is a great place for workaholics, and an excellent environment for burnout because we want so badly to be Christ-like — for everyone to be Christ-like — we often try to convince ourselves and others to crucify themselves.

When my mom was first diagnosed she did a lot of reflecting on her life, and one of the biggest things that she regretted was that she had not done a good job of taking care of herself. She’d spent her entire life putting others before herself, and she wondered if that weren’t the reason she now found herself to be very sick. She wanted me to learn from her mistakes — we talked more about this during the days she was dying as well. She wanted me to learn to be good at self-care and setting boundaries because this is not something that the church or society teaches. I think this is especially true in the case of women. She wanted me to learn to be fierce with my boundaries and my self-care, and she wanted me to teach and model those things for Sophia. My family has a pretty extensive history of women who put themselves last, the results being early death, and institutionalization. My mother and I decided it was time to break that cycle, and model healthier behavior for future generations.

“The church” has asked me to crucify myself several times in the course of my life, but I keep telling it no, because I’ve got stuff to do.

I remain always a fan and admirer of yours.

Grace and Peace,


And lastly, a word from our blogger about setting boundaries:

This week, I have also received notes from readers around the interwebs giving me permission to take a break from church. This is nice and all, and I get that the basic sentiment is reaching out to offer empathy and support. But here’s the wonderful thing about boundary setting: I do not actually need your permission to do it. This sounds snarky, and I don’t mean it that way. I really don’t. It’s just that I would like to see people doing a better job of setting boundaries for themselves. I would particularly like to see women doing a better job of boundary setting. So, I think it’s important to say that setting boundaries is about giving yourself permission to take care of you.

When it comes to setting boundaries, ain’t nobody gonna do it for you, folks. That’s your job.


Why I Haven’t Been Going to Church

21 Mar

“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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 706 other followers