cancelled in my heart

This is a story of eating humble pie.

For the last 15 years, part of my work has been facilitating conversations with young adults about the concept of “vocation,” or “calling.” I worked with Brethren Volunteer Service and a bunch of other faith-based long-term volunteer programs. I traveled all around the country, and over the course of those years, I probably facilitated 100 conversations about how we discern God’s call in our lives. I loved doing that work, and as I listened to young people talk about how they sensed God at work leading them toward lives of faithfulness, my understanding of vocation changed pretty radically.

In the beginning, I used a video of the author Donald Miller to help start conversations. Miller had written a book called “Blue Like Jazz,” which was a NYT bestseller that told the story of how he found his way back to God. The book was so popular that it was made into a movie, and Miller ended up writing a second book, called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, a reflection on what it’s like to see your own life made into a movie. At those vocation sessions, we watched an interview where Donald Miller talked about the second book, and what he learned about the process of story-telling and how that could change the way we live our lives. 

It was a good activity. We’d watch Donald Miller, discuss what we heard, and then do an activity where the young people would try to imagine their own lives made into a movie. But after a few sessions, I started hearing interesting feedback: the way Miller talked about how people’s lives change – how the plot advances – was filled with privilege. He had transformed his life by undertaking a cross-country bike trip and hiking Machu Pichu in Peru, but these volunteers were spending their lives working with underserved populations – people in poverty and affected by addiction, violence and hunger. Advancing the plot of our lives by taking an expensive vacation to South America just wasn’t relevant, they said. They – and I – started getting annoyed with Donald Miller for assuming everybody’s life looked like his.

So, we started incorporating that – a conversation about privilege and what other events might change the course of our lives into the discussion. But eventually, I just couldn’t, in good conscience, keep asking these young people to use Donald Miller’s very white, rich, privileged example of story-telling as a guideline for their own lives, which they were attempting to live in solidarity with the poor, oppressed and hurting.

And then, Donald Miller made it even easier for me to delete him from the curriculum: he sold out. I and all those young people I was working with were living on very small stipends, living in community, and dedicating our lives to living simply and radically. Donald Miller wrote his books and then pivoted his fame and success into a very, very lucrative marketing and branding company. I remember when I learned that he was hosting weekend retreats that cost $10,000 to attend. I threw my hands up in disgust, and cancelled Donald Miller in my heart. How in the world, I wondered, could someone who was so obviously motivated by profit and wealth be a trustworthy guide for me or my people who were determined to live by other values? Ugh. Double ugh.

Donald Miller grew his brand, and then grew it some more. Today, he’s a multi-millionaire who never talks about finding God anymore. He used the fame he gained by being honest and vulnerable about his faith to become very, very rich and traffic in ways for other people to get rich, too. Ugh. Double ugh.

I started working in a congregation, and then came to understand that it was time for me to move on. Right around the time I was starting to think about what would be next for me if I left the Manassas CoB, the senior pastor gave me a Christmas gift. “I left it on your desk,” he said. “I saw it and thought it might help you with your discernment.” I unwrapped the present, already skeptical, and laughed out loud. It was a copy of Donald Miller’s newest publication – not a memoir or spiritual reflection, but a personal branding workbook, a course in how to market yourself. I laughed out loud, tucked the book deeper in my desk, and mostly forgot about it.

But my season of discernment continued, and one day, at a loss for how to move forward in deciding what to do or where to go next, I picked up the workbook, opened to a random page, and did the activity there – a way of mapping out your life, like screenwriters map out the plot of a movie, in order to notice patterns and themes. The reflection at the end of the activity opened doors in my brain, calmed my anxiety about what was next in life, and helped me decide to actually resign from the church, even without a new job. I was so MAD that it was Donald Miller, the sell-out, who had gotten me out of my funk.

I kept leading sessions on vocation, and I’d tell this story and use this new exercise from Donald Miller – the lesson being, of course, that you might find direction and guidance even from the person or place that you least expect it. I laughed at myself, the volunteers had meaningful experiences with the new story-mapping exercise, but I continued to think of Donald Miller as a sell-out whose profit-driven, capitalist sin just happened to be helpful for those of us who actively wanted to live very different lives. This went on for a while.

This year, I’ve been in another season of vocational discernment. I spent a few months applying for full-time jobs to complement being a ¼ time pastor, but nothing took root. In December, a member of the Manassas congregation who works in marketing sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in doing some marketing copywriting for him. He had recently done some professional development and was implementing a new marketing strategy for the company that included all new branding and a new, story-telling approach to their product. I’d write several blog posts each month, he said, being consistent with their new marketing language and themes, and if I was interested in learning about the theory and process underlying his new approach, he’d also love to pay me to read the books that had helped him get to this place.

I eagerly agreed, because I like and trust this guy and was curious about what marketing copywriting might entail. It seemed like a good first step into freelance writing, which is what I am doing a lot of now, three months later. Freelance writing has unexpectedly become where most of my energy and time are happily spent. He sent me the title of the book.

Can you guess?

Yep. Building a StoryBrand, Donald Miller’s latest capitalist profit-driven offering. I called my friend Callie, who had been with me through all those years of loving and then hating Donald Miller, who had joined me in bashing him for selling out and laughed at me for finding his later work so poignantly helpful in my own life. We laughed together. I’m still kind of mad about it. And I am chastened, humbled, corrected: that I have found direction for my life’s work from the very last person I wanted it from not once, but TWICE. Donald Miller just won’t leave me alone. Dang it.


I still really dislike Donald Miller. I am still deeply skeptical about the way he used his Christian fame and his story of finding God to become a millionaire. I do not want to pattern my life after his. And also: I cannot escape the fact that his work has, in some strange ways, shaped my life. I keep having to eat that humble pie.


I told this story yesterday morning in a sermon on 1 Samuel 13, the scripture where the prophet Samuel names David as the next king of the Israelites.

Samuel and God have had a long, winding relationship over the years. Before Samuel showed up on the scene, the people of Israel have spent generations being led by judges – they had no king, and God liked it that way. But the people looked around and saw that all their neighbors had KINGS, not a panel of judges, and they thought it sounded like a good idea. They insisted. God relented, and even though he sent the prophet Samuel to warn the people that having a king would lead to no good, he also had Samuel anoint Saul to be the king the people were clamoring for. 

It didn’t go well. Saul was big, a military star, and humble to boot. But he couldn’t bring himself to obey God completely, and so God sent Samuel to remove him from his throne. And then, God sent Samuel to the house of Jesse, because God had chosen a new king from that set of brothers.

Samuel shows up, invites the household to worship with him, and explains his task. Bring out your sons, he tells Jesse, so I can see which one is God’s choice for king. So Jesse parades his sons before Samuel, each one bigger and mightier than the last, but Samuel says NOPE to every alpha male in the line. The whole crowd is exhausted by the end, and Samuel sighs: “Is there really no one else? These are ALL your sons?”

And Jesse says, well, there’s the baby, but he’s not even grown yet. We knew he couldn’t be the next king, because he’s barely out of elementary school. We kept him out in the pasture with the sheep while we had this meeting. “Good grief,” Samuel says, “get him in here!”

And so here comes David, a tiny, young, bewildered kid. The way scripture describes him makes it sound, to us, like he’s good looking, a prize of a man. But the Hebrew language makes it clear: this is a pretty boy. He’s not big and muscular, he has no military experience, he’s barely even of legal age. He’s such an unlikely candidate that his father didn’t even invite him to the meeting! But when David comes in from the pasture, the Lord says “there he is! This is the one! Anoint him!”

And so Samuel, long used to God’s strange ways, anoints the kid David as the next king of Israel. And we learn that from that moment on, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him in powerful ways.


The story of King David’s life is long and complicated. He wasn’t always a fantastic king, and he wasn’t always a fantastic leader. But from that moment he was dragged in from his place with the sheep, he was God’s choice. His life shaped the lives of many, many others. God anointed him, and worked through him in ways that no one – not even his own father – could have imagined.

I think sometimes we are amenable to the idea that God works through the people we ignore when those folks are people on the margins. And, honestly, that’s how a lot of scripture tells the story. I wonder, though, how willing we are to consider that God works through people we ignore because they’re NOT on the margins. What if God does show up in the work of millionaires like Donald Miller? What if we DO learn from famous people and politicians? What if we can find ways to draw nearer to God even in the life and work of people we deeply, deeply disagree with? What if God cares way less about our human hierarchies than we do?

That’s hard for me. It is, honestly, kind of offensive. I would much, much rather write those people off, have them cancelled, and never have to consider the complicated realities of their humanity ever again. I would really like to have been able to categorize Donald Miller as a faithless sell-out whose life and work could be tossed in the bin of “never going to be relevant or important for my life.” Unfortunately, it seems like that’s not how God chooses to work.

To be honest, I don’t really like this thing that I’m preaching this morning. It’s much easier to give into our human tendency to categorize people as good or bad, progressive or conservative, with us or against us, and then orient our lives so that we only interact or take guidance from the people we’ve determined to be on the correct side of that line – whatever the line is that we’ve chosen to draw. 

But I don’t think God ever cancels people. I don’t think God ever writes anyone off, or throws any person into a bin of “irrelevant” or “unimportant.” And I would like to have my heart shaped like God’s – or at least spend my life in pursuit of that kind of love and grace. 

The calling of King David, and the subsequent mash up of his life as King, filled with some good choices and plenty of very, very bad ones, makes me consider the ways that God views us. My own experience with writing off Donald Miller and then having his work shape my life over and over again makes me re-think the way I choose to categorize and interact with people across all the spectrums of life.

I wonder, who in your own life would you be least likely to willingly learn from? Who in our life together have we written off that just might have some priceless guidance or instruction or pathway to God? I don’t know the answers to those questions, and I am, honestly, sort of reluctant to even speak a name aloud, lest I be drawn, again, into the process of having to eat humble pie and realign my understanding of the way the world is organized. But I’m curious enough to hear what you think.

my cross to bear

The gospels are not of one mind on the question of whether or not Jesus carried his own cross. John is pretty quick to tell us that Jesus hiked up to Golgotha carrying the cross by himself. The other three gospels tell us that Simon of Cyrene, who Mark calls a “passerby,” got conscripted into the cross-carrying task. Like folks in my bible study said last night, Jesus would have been pretty beaten up by that point, and carrying gigantic pieces of lumber up a mountain would probably have been beyond his bodily capacity.

But we still talk about it like John is telling the gospel truth, even though everybody else disagrees with him. Jesus lugged the thing up the mountain. That image is in a lot of Christian art, and threads throughout a lot of Christian imagination. He had a cross to bear, right? Just like we’ve got our own crosses that we need to lug around behind us.

In another version of the story – not found in any gospel – Jesus starts out carrying the cross alone, but can’t manage it. When the soldiers see what’s happening, they grab Simon off the street and finish the hike with a stranger bearing Jesus’ cross for him. It makes sense that this has become the narrative of that moment, mashing the gospel accounts together and providing an explanation for why they’re different.

I like the traditional version the best, if I get to choose. Of course the Roman soldiers would try to force a criminal to lug their own torture device up a mountain themselves – that’s what systems of oppression do. But whether from physical exhaustion or spiritual wisdom, Jesus refused to carry his own cross. They had to conscript someone else – an innocent bystander – into their murder plot. In fact, the Romans had already recruited an entire echelon of religious leadership into their death cult. If you read that passage in John’s gospel, you hear the priests tell Pilate not to worry, that they have no king but Caesar, that their ultimate loyalty already lay with the state oppressing their people.

Which makes me wonder: how often do we get conscripted into structures of violence because we refuse to see or believe someone else’s pain? And how often does our reluctance to name our own suffering enable the continuation of those systems and structures?

I was formed – by culture, theology, and personality – to encounter the public, vocal suffering of another with some skepticism, and to keep my own suffering far from the public eye. Sometimes, we humans do use our pain as a means of manipulation or a vehicle for accumulating attention. But for the most part, I think people share their pain because it HURTS. We hear about someone’s suffering when the suffering has become too much to bear alone.

Jesus didn’t choose stoicism. He cried out, he demanded explanations from God, he bled and stumbled right there in public. I’m not great at witnessing suffering, much less admitting it or contemplating it. But I do wonder whether we’d be in a better place if we sharpened our abilities to encounter and stand in solidarity together when suffering happens, if we learned how to share the weight, if we insisted on bearing those crosses *together.*

condemned to death

The first station of the cross asks us to reflect on Jesus being condemned to death. I wrote the other day about Jesus being not the judge or jury, but the defendant, and how the religious leaders put the entire thing in motion. You know what religious leaders are putting into motion, right now? The condemning of trans kids to death.

Don’t believe me? Haven’t thought much about it? Start paying attention. Because all those inter-church squabbles over the last few years with “traditionalists” and “conservatives” insisting that they are only following scripture and only working to protect children and only using their ecclesial power to hold people “accountable” has, as it so often does in our near-theocratic country, bled over into legislation.

There are 350 anti-trans bills being considered in 36 states right now. These bills are attempting (and, in many cases, succeeding) at things like banning drag shows when children are present (you probably heard about that one, since the Governor championing it has been in drag, himself), forcing parents to end life-saving medical treatments for their children and attempting to DEFINE what it means to be a man or a woman.

Transgender teens are 8x more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender peers. Some studies show that 50% – HALF – of trans kids have considered ending their own lives. Receiving gender-affirming care – the medical care that these bills are attempting to block – has been shown to lead to a 60% drop in depression risk and a 73% drop in suicidal thoughts, on average.

Instead of addressing *actual* threats to children like hunger (1 in 8 kids don’t have enough to eat and the federal emergency SNAP supplemental support just ended this week. More kids are hungry today than they were last Sunday.) and gun control (the #1 cause of death for American children, period.), politicians are making a big deal about an imagined threat, fomenting fear and unwarranted disgust, and KILLING some of the most vulnerable among us.

Maybe you don’t want to pay attention to this. Maybe you think casual ignorance is appropriate. It’s the second Sunday in Lent, a season when Christians are invited to reflect on how we might draw nearer to Jesus, y’all, and instead Christians are out here systematically killing vulnerable children by stigmatizing them, ostracizing them, denying them essential medical care, and passing laws that are turning entire families into political refugees seeking safety and asylum far from home. I know some of them.

This post could have just been a single meme:

But here are a couple resources I’ve found helpful, in case you want to stop ignoring the hypocrisy and violence, too:

An interview with Dr. Izzy Lowell, who offers gender-affirming care to trans folks across the US. Her explanation of the details of what’s involved in transitioning, especially with kids, was super helpful in my expanded understanding.

Trans 101: A Brief Guide, from the Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBTQ Interests, for those of you who share my Anabaptist faith tradition:

This beautiful Dunker Punks podcast episode with Jon Bay, who talks about being trans in language that turned my brain upside down (he’s a poet, so, you know, it tracks.)

The readership of this little blog is heavily tilted toward people in the Church of the Brethren and clergy. This movement got its start and is being fueled by Christian nationalism; by Christians. Challenging homophobia and transphobia in your congregation, with your pastor, in the denominational structures, in the minds and hearts of people you study scripture with IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. The tentacles of this violence are far-reaching, and its consequences are deadly. If we’re here, participating in the Christian sector of American life, we have a responsibility to be honest and vocal about how those loud, angry voices insisting on more punishment, more condemnation and more murder are not only wrong but also dangerous. I’ve got one foot out the door, but as long as I’m around, that’s what I’ll be doing.

the cheap seats

Through the magic of Zoom, I got to be part of some courtroom joy this week. Friends were going through a process of legal adoption, and they got to invite their community to participate in the final court session. I signed on and dozens of tiny faces in tiny boxes popped up from around the world. The proceedings proceeded and the judge issued a formal decree of adoption. It was beautiful and bizarre, and a deep joy to get to participate.

I haven’t spent a ton of time in courtrooms, but ministry has taken me there more than once. Years ago, a family asked me to attend a hearing for their loved one, who’d been charged with assault. The entire situation was complicated and confusing, and it was abundantly clear that the precious person who’d been charged with a crime needed care and not incarceration. I showed up at the courthouse where I met four family members and their lawyer, and we filed silently into the pew. Bench. Pew?

In that particular court, the folks appearing to have their cases heard were not present in person. They are across the street in the city jail, and appeared over CCTV. Several cases were heard before the one I’d come to support, and when the judge called their name, the lawyer motioned all of us to stand. In the tiny courtroom, our move made a pretty sizable commotion, and the judge looked up from his desk and stared, questioningly, at our crowd. “Your honor,” the lawyer explained, “these are the defendant’s parents, spouse, and pastor. They’re here to support the defendant’s immediate release into their care.”

That morning, at least, no other defendant had anyone show up for them other than their lawyer. Our bench (pew?) full of community was an anomaly, and it convinced the judge that the person whose fate he was deciding had a place to go and people to hold and care for them. It worked, that time.

Courtrooms look a lot like traditional church sanctuaries, don’t they? A room filled with benches (pews), all facing the front where a big wooden podium holds the most important person in the space. Seats for a few others up front, called upon when their input is required. But the person behind the pulpit (podium) presides. In liturgical traditions, the verb is even the same: a judge presides over courtroom proceedings; a pastor presides over the eucharist.

The pulpit at Christ Church, a colonial-era Anglican church in Lancaster County, Virginia. Built by the grandfather of Robert Carter III, who left the Anglican Church to join the Baptists because of his “radical” anti-slavery beliefs.

If you read the biblical narratives of Jesus’ own trial, you learn that he himself ended up in a couple of courtrooms. First, the religious leaders summoned him, denounced him and pronounced their judgement, then they sent him to the Roman governor, who added his stamp of approval to the death sentence. When we read this text in our bible study this week, I was struck by the courtroom image. Jesus in the courtroom.

In a lot of Christian theology, God is the judge – the good judge, the just judge, the one with integrity, to be sure, but definitely The Judge. God is the Presider. God sits up front, behind the big wooden podium, er, pulpit. God is the Most Important Person in the Room. God issues death sentences.

But in the gospels, God isn’t the judge. Jesus – the second person of the Trinity, not just God’s son but the clearest image of God we get, God’s own self – is the defendant. Jesus isn’t in the judge’s chambers. Jesus isn’t in the judge’s robes. Jesus doesn’t sit on the death panel or inhabit the Roman governor’s place of power. Jesus is dragged into court by a lynch mob, and the religious leaders sit in judgement upon God’s own life.

I know some lawyers, and I even knew the judge that day I spent on the courtroom pew. The ones I know are good, decent, fair-minded and strive to do their work with integrity. But despite the way we arrange our spaces, despite the way a sanctuary looks or a courtroom is designed, the people up at the front are not the most important people in the room. When God showed up in a courtroom, he was in the defendant’s chair.

My congregation re-arranged our sanctuary when we returned to the building during Covid. Our chairs are in a circle, the altar table is in the center, and I don’t preach from the pulpit anymore. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to preach from a pulpit again, even though I GET the thrill of it, the ego boost of it, the importance that comes from climbing up higher than everyone else, proclaiming and presiding over people’s lives. I get it. I like it. It’s just…that’s not where God is, you know?

calling an audible

I had a whole Lenten series planned around a particular curriculum – both for my congregation’s weekly Bible study and for these Lenten reflections on my blog, but my blog writing has been kind of a slog, and when I sat down to prepare for last night’s study, the curriculum was just…bad. The previews looked good, I had been excited about the topic and the questions we’d get to explore, but it just wasn’t working, in either context.

So, I changed things up. Instead of esoteric conversations about the existential meaning of pain, my congregation is spending the season reflecting on the Stations of the Cross.

Stations of the Cross is a spiritual practice that follows Jesus’ last few days on earth, from his trial to his death. Early followers of Jesus would make an actual, physical and geographical pilgrimage, walking where he walked up Mount Calvary, where he was crucified. Later, Christians made that practice portable by installing 14 stations – usually with imagery and prayer prompts – all over the world.

Reflecting on Jesus’ suffering has not ever been a prominent part of my faith practice, and even now I’m sort of surprised by how eager I am to enter into this study and reflection. But the new curriculum is actually good and thoughtful, and I also had a meaningful encounter with the Stations on sabbatical last year that changed my perception of them.

St. Francis Springs Prayer Center has a prayer walk with the Stations installed along a hillside and beside a gurgling creek. I walked that trail and prayed the stations several times when I spent time there during the first week of my sabbatical last March. Their stations included the traditional images, but the prayer prompts each tied Jesus’ suffering to the immediate suffering in today’s world.

“III. Jesus Falls for the First Time – We remember those who have fallen ill due to the absence of health care as a human right.”

Praying the Stations of the Cross is meant to be a contemplative practice, and walking the trail at St. Francis Springs last year definitely was that for me. I spent three days there in silence and solitude, walking and napping and relishing the gift of having someone else cook and serve me every meal. This Lenten season is very different in my life. Instead of a month-long sabbatical, I’m juggling three jobs, traveling much more, and floundering a little to find my footing both personally and vocationally. I appreciate the invitation to combine personal contemplation with global justice, and (no surprise), I’ve got some things to say about it.

So, if you’re up for me calling an audible here in the middle of the season, stick around. February is over (thank the Lord), and I’ve got some new direction. I’d love for you to join me.

who runs the world?

A few months ago, someone invited me to be on a panel. They had two men, they told me, and wanted to make sure they included diverse voices. I declined, but suggested another (phenomenal) woman. They didn’t invite this other woman, and the panel ended up including three white men.

Which is a tiny little blip on the world’s monitor of gender justice, right?

A few years ago, I was part of a planning committee for a regional event. I suggested we invite a (phenomenal) woman to be a keynote speaker. “Well,” others said, “she just doesn’t really connect with our people here.” We didn’t invite her, even though I – the one who had suggested her – was born and raised and working as part of the aforementioned “our people” “here.”

Another tiny blip.

Have you ever noticed that the memes about pastors on the internet always use “he” and “him” pronouns?

Blip. Blip. Blip.

Did you know that the Church of the Brethren denominational staff is led almost exclusively by men? Did you know that only 23% of CoB congregations have a female pastor?

Have you heard that girls who grow up in a congregation with a female pastor – not even one they’re close to, not even one who cares directly for them or their family – end up with higher self-esteem, more education, and better earnings?

No wonder they work so hard to keep us out of visible leadership positions. What would happen if more girls grew up respecting themselves and insisting that others do the same?

(I’ve mostly given up on trying to change this particular institutional system, but if you are still invested in that kind of thing, you could, I don’t know, invite a woman to preach, host a woman to lead your congregational retreat, refuse to participate in events and organizations that refuse to honor women’s leadership. You know, for a start.)

more vulnerable

I hate hospitals, but I’ve learned to appreciate what happens in them. Most people spend some time in a hospital room over the course of their life. Some of us end up there more than others, of course, and the probable percentage grows as we age. But I’ve learned, in these years as a pastor, not to assume anything about who needs healing, and how.

When I started out as a youth pastor, my job description included “pastoral care for youth,” and since my seminary education had led me to believe that “pastoral care” mostly involved visiting old people in the hospital and offering subdued sympathy for grieving people, I was baffled as to what pastoral care for YOUTH might entail. I learned pretty quickly, though, that teenagers’ bodies and souls are just as prone to pain and just as much in need of healing as anyone else. Bones break, parents get sick and die, anxiety and depression run rampant.

I found myself in hospital rooms, funeral homes, doctors’ offices and mental health facilities regularly in that job. And when I got to my current church, tasked with pastoral care for all ages, not much changed. My congregation is tiny – not small, tiny – and I still make several hospital visits each year. We live in a place with world class hospital systems, and I think I’ve been in them all over the last 7 years. One precious older woman, whose health required her to visit several different hospitals toward the end of her life, took up the habit of ranking the attractiveness of the doctors at each facility. I loved visiting her, hearing how the latest crop of MDs ranked.

There are rhythms and etiquettes to visiting someone in the hospital. People are vulnerable as patients, and part of my job is to honor that vulnerability. They’re usually naked under the thin hospital gown. Sometimes they’re tethered to a bed by cords and tubes, sometimes they’re just too weak to sit up by themselves. Most of the time, some kind of drug or another is altering their ability to process or make decisions. Usually, if you’re in the hospital for some kind of treatment, you are not in your strongest frame of mind to begin with. Pain messes with us, and the processes of healing do, too.

A medical student visited worship last week, and told me that her professors are trying to teach them motivational interviewing, how to really *listen* to their patients. I’ve encountered doctors who are great at listening and doctors who are really, really bad at it. And, I know that a doctor’s job – like a nurse’s or a medical technician’s – has long checklists and limited time. Listening is hard to do when your job description entails finding and fixing a problem – finding and fixing dozens of problems for dozens of people every single day. Honoring vulnerability is hard to do when everyone is expecting you to figure out a way to stop this person from being forced to be vulnerable.

My job, on the other hand, has no time constraints other than my lunch plans. I will probably not get called away to another emergency, since this visit with this person IS the day’s urgent matter. I know that not all pastors have that luxury, but my job – part-time pastor of a tiny church – does. Which is an incalculable blessing. Some people, of course, are too uncomfortable in body or brain to want a long visit with their pastor. But other people relish it. I do, too. Dedicated one-on-one time with someone is rare, and even a meeting over coffee or lunch doesn’t provide the kind of intimacy and vulnerability of a hospital. People are willing to go deep, to be honest, to offer up truths about themselves and the world that just don’t see the light of day during a crowded restaurant lunch hour. I know it’s true, because I have received confessions and heard stories and shared prayers against the backdrop of beeping monitors and rumbling oxygen machines that I never would have dreamed of in the outside world.

Which is what I mean when I say that I’ve learned to appreciate what happens in hospitals: not the physical healing and awe-inducing miracles of modern medicine, though that is certainly worth pondering – and I have. What I mean is the way that being in a hospital, facing the limitations of our bodies and brains forces us to be honest with ourselves and with one another. I have been surprised, infuriated, delighted and crushed inside hospitals, and very little of that has had to do with diagnoses or treatment plans. Maybe it’s callous to say that visiting people in the hospital helps me be a better pastor; but that is true. It’s also true that spending time with people in pain has made me more of a person: softer, gentler, more curious, more convinced of each one’s intrinsic value and belovedness.

have tumor. can’t talk.

February always undoes me. Some years, I remember that, and anticipate the undoing but in the end, it doesn’t matter. I still unravel. February is hard for a lot of reasons, but it’s mostly hard because the body keeps the score. Trauma re-wires the brain and the body, and our physical selves *remember* in ways our conscious brains can’t always access.

In February of 2009, I went to the doctor for what I thought was an infection and found out I had a good-sized tumor on my right ovary that needed to be removed immediately. I was living in Illinois, and when the eskimo-boot-wearing doctor at urgent care told me the news, I texted my Mom to update her on the situation: “Have tumor. Can’t talk.” Pro tip: do not do this.

My conscious brain doesn’t remember a whole lot about the rest of that day, except that an entire network of people who loved me mobilized immediately. Kim Bickler, a co-worker, drove me to the next doctor, who opened up an emergency appointment for me. My housemates cooked me dinner. My friend John, who was living in St. Louis, threw his kitten in the car and drove across Illinois to my house. My mom found a surgeon in Virginia, and my dad booked me a plane ticket home. Mary Jo, my boss, sent an urgent email to the dozens of clergy women who’d been at the retreat I just coordinated, asking for prayer.

I know that I didn’t sleep that night, because my gmail archive still holds a 3:30am email sent to my family in Virginia, explaining the situation. And God bless Gmail, because it has also preserved this next-morning reply from my Grandpa Bobby:

Hey Dana Beth:  If I had known you were sending this email at 330am this morning I would have jumped right out of bed to get the update.  I pray that you can get the infection and fever cleared up real fast and make your decision about coming home to get the problem taken care of.  I know that you already know we will all be praying for you and thinking about you and doing anything you would like for us to do for you at anytime.  PS.  I would probably have gotten JOJO out of bed at 330 also.  Keep us posted often.  TRY to get some sleep and rest if you can.  bobby.

“If I had known, I would have jumped right out of bed to get the update.”

That made me weep when I read it earlier this month, because Bobby died in 2020 (in January, which is close enough to February to forever be part of the perpetual undoing), and because I know, deep in both my bones and my brain, that my grandpa really did love me in the way that he would jump out of bed at 3:30am if it meant he’d hear from me. He really would have woken JoJo up, too (though she would have been a lot more cranky about it).

I know that it was true because when I finally landed in Virginia, had a fitful night of sleep and got to the hospital at the crack of dawn for pre-surgery prep, both of my grandparents were already there in the waiting room, ready to sit through the hours’ worth of surgery with my parents. I am weeping, again, remembering it.

I found that old note from Bobby because I was digging through my email, trying to confirm that it was, in fact, my right ovary that had been removed 14 years ago. My left ovary has been aching all month, a thing that happens in February. Even though I knew my left ovary was still there, even though I can FEEL the emptiness in my right side, even though the ache is palpable and material, I needed some written confirmation that a surgeon did, in fact, remove my right ovary fourteen years ago. I don’t really trust my body’s memory very well, a slight that I am learning to correct.

Because my body knows its shit. It knows that losing an ovary was traumatic, in ways both physical and emotional. It knows that being loved through trauma is an incalculable gift. My body knows that I need to remember, to grieve and give thanks. My body knows, even when I don’t, that there are still lessons to learn and actions to take from that time. My body knows why February always undoes me, and why that’s important to acknowledge. My body is a site of pain and loss, and my body also works hard to remind me that even in pain and loss, possibility comes as a standard feature.

The Saga of the Cancerous Butt Wart

If you came here for some Precious Moments-style Lenten devotions this morning, I’m sorry. This is the story of my dog’s cancerous butt wart.

Our household spent most of January preparing for and dealing with the aftermath of the tiny dog’s surgery to remove a mast cell tumor on her rear end, otherwise known as The Cancerous Butt Wart. It was, technically, an uncomplicated surgery that went very smoothly and had the best possible outcome. The tumor was removed with good, clean margins and has a less than 5% chance of recurring. The 11 year old chihuahua is a spry old thing and healed well, all things considered.

But it was a hellacious week, nonetheless. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent contemplating the surface area of a chihuahua’s hindquarters, but suffice it to say: it’s small. Tiny. And there’s a lot going on back there, too. We’re talking essential organs, necessary orifices, etc., etc., etc. Fran’s cancerous butt wart was smack dab in the middle of it all, equidistant from one essential orifice and another. I was…concerned. When we discovered the tumor back in December, the vet had to use a fine-needle aspiration to confirm that it was cancerous, and the aspiration did not go well. They finally took Fran out of my arms and into the recesses of the vet clinic and brought her back to me, still bleeding and sad. “Well,” the vet told Franny, “you tell all the women you see over the holidays where we stuck that needle today and they will *definitely* be giving you extra treats!”

The surgery itself went smoothly, and I picked up a totally drugged out dog at 5pm on a Thursday.

She spent the entire evening whining pitifully as she came out of anesthesia and realized that she was, in fact, alive and that, hey, my butt HURTS. She wouldn’t let me touch her, which hurt me almost as much as I imagined the gargantuan incision on her tush hurt her. I was beside myself with worry: she wasn’t shaking or panting and didn’t seem to be in loads of *pain,* exactly, but she was NOT acting like the dog I knew and she wouldn’t let me do anything to help her. Neither of us slept.

The next morning, my anxiety found a new outlet. I started obsessing over whether or not the tiny creature would be able to poop with that gigantic wound slashing across her butt. And then, if she DID poop, wouldn’t that be kind of…unhygienic? Because the incision was so freaking huge and because it ran the length of her rear end, there was no way to bandage or cover it. And stuff was…happening back there. The dog squats on the GROUND in order to relieve herself. I called the vet to make sure I wasn’t supposed to be rubbing some kind of cream or salve on the dog’s ass. “Nope,” they assured me, “it will heal on its own.”

So, we muddled through. I had to barricade the couch and close off the bedroom – no jumping allowed for 10 days. We slept together on the living room floor. Poor, pitiful Fran tolerated the donut that kept her from licking and biting at her stitches, but once her gigantic butt wound started to heal, it started to ITCH, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to keep her from scooting herself across the carpet. We kept not sleeping.

I was required to “check” the incision twice a day. I don’t know if you have ever tried to get a visual of an angry chihuahua’s backside, but it isn’t exactly a piece of cake. Her tail covers the whole thing, and the lighting in our apartment leaves a lot to be desired. Which meant that I spent far too much time that week out on the neighborhood sidewalk leaning over, peering at my dog’s butt. A couple of times, the vet requested photo documentation, so not only was I the weirdo gaping at a chihuahua’s ass, I was also PHOTOGRAPHING IT, over and over again. Creepy.

On day 6, we went back to the vet to have them trim the stitches. That night, with the vet’s permission, I gave Fran some benadryl to knock her out and get us both some shut-eye. Except, instead of knocking her out, those 10 mg of benadryl made her LOSE HER EVER-LOVING MIND. She bounded off walls, tore out stitches, careened into crate doors. I finally had to scoop the creature up in a headlock and sit in a rocking chair for 90 solid minutes to get her to calm down. The vet took out the remaining stitches the next day because I was DONE.

And, apparently, so was Franny. Once the stitches came out, a full week after they’d gone in, she was…fine. We slept through the night. She ignored the gigantic incision wound still covering her rear end and just…got better. This morning, she leapt out of bed, tail wagging, ready for a morning walk before I was.

I hope that Fran stays healthy the rest of her life, because I’m not sure I can live through another week like that. And I also know that creaturely bodies don’t age in reverse. Franny won’t get younger or healthier; eventually, her body will develop something less benign than a cancerous butt wart and she will die. Yesterday, the dog was with me when I had ashes imposed on my forehead, and Pastor Sharon blessed Fran, too. We’re both beings made from dust and to dust we will both return.

I don’t mind that part, exactly. Returning to dust has a holy beauty to it. It’s the part just before that that scares me. It’s the suffering and pain that require care, the knowledge that I am the only being in the world responsible for this tiny, spry creature who loves so fully, that whenever she is in pain again all the soothing and caring and decision-making will fall to me. That’s the stuff that terrifies me. I will do it, because I love the dog more than I knew I could, but I don’t know how.