For The Someday Book

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Preface: Yes, it’s been forever since I’ve written here. Life in London has been crazy and full and wonderful, and there is much to catch up on. I miss writing, so I am trying to make space for it again, as part of my Lenten practice. If I tried to catch up everything, I’d never get anywhere, so I’m just starting fresh.

20180214_122342For the third year in a row, I have stood outside our church building on Tottenham Court Road offering Ashes To Go to the thousands of people who pass by. Roadworks almost forced me to cancel this year, but I managed to find a tucked-away corner for two short hours at lunchtime.

It’s always a little bit awkward standing out there, with signage, stole, and small dish of ashes in my hand. In a multi-faith, international city, many people have never heard of Ash Wednesday, and stop to ask questions. Others stare, look away, smile, nod. Then a few immediately make eye contact and step right up for the gift of ashes.

This year, though, people also stopped to argue with me. Wearing a clergy collar on a female body, even in London, prompts daily stares and whispers. At least once a week, a stranger comments that they have never seen a woman priest before, or tells me I am wrong to do this work, or asks if I am wearing a costume. I’m used to it. Sometimes, there is even a real moment when eyes are genuinely opened.

I am always armed and ready for these encounters. When two different strangers approached during Ashes to Go to question how I can be a woman in ministry, I challenged them with a perspective they have probably never heard about the scriptures. I do this at least once a week. I know my lines, and they are well-rehearsed.

However, as often happens, both turned argumentative, wanting a long debate over weaponized scriptures. When that happens, I know it’s pointless and just time to get them to go away. However, I also still want to be nice, or at least seem to be nice. I’m supposed to be a good representative for Jesus and his church, and I didn’t want to give them any excuse to call me or my church hostile or dismissive or defenceless against their scriptural interpretation. That means I always spend an extra 2-5 minutes (or more) just trying to extricate myself gently from the conversation and get them to move on.  

I felt an acute sense of pain in these lost minutes on Ash Wednesday, as I watched countless other strangers pass by, unengaged. The detractors pulled me away from my purpose. As the second arguer finally walked off, I realised that, in the name of Jesus, I needed to stop wasting my time trying to be nice. With the whisper of the Holy Spirit, a new script appeared in my mind:

“I hear that you want to argue with me about my ministry, but I am not out here to defend God’s call or purpose in my life. I am here to offer the good news of Jesus to people might not hear it anywhere else. You are standing in the way of that work. So you need to move along, and let me get on with the assignment God has given me.”

I felt such a surge of power and authority in this new script, redirecting my energy to my call to connect with those who need to know Christ’s love. With this script in hand, I  realised the absurdity of standing on the pavement in front of the very church I serve, with my name on the sign with the title “Senior Minister” next to it, still defending my right to be there.

I was so eager to test my new lines, I almost hoped another interlocutor would appear, but none did. Still, I started rehearsing them for the next time.

The next night, Thursday, I left the office and went directly to an event at my son’s school, still wearing my collar. On our way home, I ended up sitting separately from my husband and son on the bus, and a stranger decided to announce to the rest of the bus that he had never seen a woman priest before, but he knew I was “illegal” and so was my church. I was unfazed,  but since I was not actually doing ministry, I reverted to my old scripted lines of defence about “not in my tradition, not in my understanding of Jesus’ love.” My family had never experienced this kind of encounter before. These real-life trolls don’t engage when there is another man to confront. My family’s response was to just get off the bus early and walk. I remarked that if I got off the bus or subway every time that happened, I’d never get anywhere.

Unlike all the other encounters, which I forget as soon as they are over, this one stayed with me last night. Perhaps it was watching my adolescent son react as a random stranger felt entitled to belittle and disparage his mother in public. Perhaps it was the new script for ministry moments from the day before. I realised in that moment how dis-empowering it is even to defend myself, as though these strangers’ opinions–which are usually uninformed and prejudiced and often drunken–entitle them to a thoughtful, compassionate response from me. They don’t.

This morning, I woke up to several social media posts about International Women’s Day, including this perfect (profanity-laden) one from the BBC:

There was also a Twitter meme with the hashtag #takeupspace inviting a feminist Lenten practice of refusing to be small in order to make someone else comfortable. Sit comfortably, use the armrest, cross your legs, throw an elbow on the empty seat next to you. Women have a right to exist in the world and take up space too.

I realised that my very engagement with these folks who simply seek to diminish or dismiss me because I am a woman in ministry actually gives them more time, energy and power than they deserve. I don’t owe them a damn thing, and certainly not a defence or explanation of my existence. I have a right to take up space in public without defending myself or my ministry.

While I don’t think the BBC’s basic “f*ck off” is Jesus-like enough for me, I am drafting a new script.

“I don’t owe you an explanation for my existence. You are not entitled to lecture me about my relationship with God. If you want to inquire about God’s love and grace, I’m here for that. But if you think you have the right to question God’s call in my life, you can take it up with God, not with me.”

It’s not perfect, but it’s an improvement. I’m off to memorise and rehearse my new lines for the next encounter.

Additional note: This also has me reflecting on the daily experiences of people of color, who are harassed, belittled and demeaned in public, in front of their children and colleagues, with an additional threat to their safety. My privilege as a white woman with professional status and resources allows me to be “mouthy” without serious risk of someone calling the police and claiming I am a threat. I might be called a b*tch, but I’m not likely to get hauled off to jail for standing up for my right to ride a bus or go to the park or sit in a coffee shop without being subject to interrogation by a stranger. This privilege often does not extend to men and women of color. I wanted to acknowledge the added layer of racism that only amplifies this struggle for so many. Even as I figure out how to take up my own space, I am also trying to figure out how to use my privilege to support others in taking up their own space too.


John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, A Startling Account of What We Can Know about the Life of Jesus, New York: HarperOne, 1994, 232 pp.

Crossan BiographyAs Holy Week approaches, I want to immerse myself in the story of Jesus, to walk with him and imagine his life and personality. I find myself looking many years for something to read that will further that effort. This book was originally purchased to read on my trip to the Holy Land in 2012, but I never got around to it. Too late for the Holy Land, but right on time for Holy Week six years later–24 years after its publication.

Crossan is a leading member of the Jesus Seminar and historical Jesus movement. This book was a shortened version of his more scholarly work examining what we can actually know and prove from history about Jesus of Nazareth. I suspected that I would discover much of the content of this book had been reshaped and rehashed in later Crossan works about Jesus, including God and Empire. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find much of the material was new to me, and the approach offered me a fresh, updated look at Jesus as I approached my Holy Week services.

Over the years, Crossan, Borg and other Jesus Seminar scholars have softened their approach. Their original attempts to segregate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith drew hard-edged lines, yet in spite of the fact that this book comes from that era, it is clear throughout that Crossan (himself a Catholic priest) is devout in his faith and dedication to Jesus. He seems less interested in destroying a traditional view than in painting a more accurate picture.

The hard scholarly edge remains in his sourcing. Crossan shapes a story of Jesus that relies on the biblical accounts as the least reliable sources, positing only those aspects of Jesus that are attested in non-biblical sources and situating him thickly within the politics and culture of first-century Roman Palestine.  While it is still disconcerting to read from time to time that Crossan believes some of my favorite New Testament narratives are pure fiction (including the Last Supper), I’ve heard those arguments many times now and breeze right past them to the more interesting elements–the consistent elements of Jesus’ identity, ministry and practices that are attested in both biblical and non-biblical sources, and make sense within the sociological and political world he inhabited.

Crossan’s Jesus is a peasant leader from Galilee, whose ministry is for the peasant classes of that region. One of the most interesting chapters is “The Jordan is Not Just Water,” in which he examines the political implications of baptizing people in the Jordan River, symbolic of entry into the Promised Land. He also articulates his well-known connection of Jesus and the Cynics, carefully charting what Jesus borrows and changes from their practices. Crossan affirms some core practices that remain central to both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith: his dedication to a “kingdom of nobodies,” the sharing of radical meals free of social distinction, the breaking of boundaries.

The chapters on the body and the cross spoke to me powerfully during Holy Week. Both spoke to the harshness of life in the Roman colony, with rampant death from disease and violence alongside social death and expulsion based on fear and superstition. Both chapters spoke about human bodies and Jesus’ body–their real pain and suffering, the exposure and mutilation of the cross, and the social alienation of victims of state terrorism by crucifixion, whose bodies usually could not be buried and were left to the dogs. The stories made Jesus seem very small, vulnerable and invisible within his world, like thousands of others—yet thanks to his disciples, his witness was unique enough to have survived.

This was a good refresher for me on the Jesus of history, and offered insights and perspectives that were new to me, even though the book is more than 20 years old.



One year ago today, I carried the last box of my belongings out of St. Luke’s UCC, where I had served as pastor for more than 10 years with a congregation whom I loved and who loved me in return. With tears in my eyes, I returned to take this photo, lock the door one last time, and surrender my keys.


I got into my car, piled high with boxes, and drove to the radiologist for a mammogram on the lump I had found in my breast a few days earlier, on the eve of my farewell service and celebration. The mammogram produced hushed tones, and I knew right away that wasn’t good. The tech escalated me to an ultrasound, and, after a few minutes, quietly left the room to fetch the doctor immediately.

They told me they couldn’t be certain, but the lump I found showed every characteristic of being cancerous. I called a dear friend from the parking lot, sobbing with fear and uncertainty. The next morning, as the crew loaded all our belongings into a container bound for London, the doctor called to schedule a biopsy.

Thus began the most incredible year of my life. Incredible is the only word I can muster, because it literally means unbelievable. I find this year in my life impossible to believe.

Today, one year later, I am sitting in the tiny village of Cadouin in southern France, sipping wine, eating Camembert on a fresh baguette, feeling great, and preparing to officiate a wedding in a chateau later this afternoon. I can’t believe I get this opportunity. Incredible.


My writing spot for this post: Les Anciens Gendarmarie, a police station in Cadouin dating to at least 1606, converted to a B&B. Every now and then, someone passes by my window on horseback.

This year, our whole family moved to London, and we have learned how to navigate a new country, a new city, a new currency, a new house, new groceries, and a new language (it’s more unfamiliar than you think). I have made more cultural faux pas than I care to remember—usually not even realizing it until hours or days later, too late to apologize—and received much forgiveness. Incredible.


View of London’s Canary Wharf from Greenwich, on a Sunday afternoon outing with the family.

My son has made his way in a new school, and we have all made new friends that we expect will last a long time. Incredible.

My new ministry at the American International Church in London has been a gift in every way, and I am honored to serve with such faithful folks. We are energizing one another with the possibilities and the power of the Spirit to work through us in this place. Incredible!


The day I had my PICC line removed, the end of chemo and just before surgery and radiotherapy.

I have had three surgeries, countless tests and procedures, six sessions of chemotherapy, 23 sessions of radiotherapy, yet I now feel stronger, healthier and more fit than I did a year ago. I lived with a PICC line for five months and spent most of the year completely bald. Another surgery and more targeted chemo injections still await, but the worst is over, my hair is growing back, and the cancer seems to be gone for now. Incredible.

Having never been to Europe before the move (except for the interview at the church), I have now explored Vienna, Austria; Bratislava, Slovakia; Rome, Italy; Prague, Czech Republic and the Perigord region, France. Unglaublich! Neuveritelny! Incredibile! Incroyable!


My son’s team in Prague. An hour after this picture, my son would be wrapped in this flag celebrating victory over Lithuania. Amazing!

Last weekend, my son played on Team UK, a 10U baseball team representing the United Kingdom in a tournament in Prague. We made new friends from across England that suddenly feel like our closest kin. They brought home a trophy and he wrapped himself in the Union Jack after hitting a walk-off double to win the game. Incredible!

My father died unexpectedly this year, yet even as I grieve his loss, there remains a sense of peace and relief in his sudden death, knowing he was spared a coming suffering. I want to call him up to tell him things all the time—like my son’s game-winning hit in Prague, or the fact that the rehearsal dinner last night at this wedding in France featured the Good Old Song from his alma mater the University of Virginia—but I feel a sense of peace and trust that he already knows. Incredible.


Standing in front of my dad’s office one last time, having dressed in our finest to go to the courthouse to probate his will. He took us to the courthouse with him often when we were growing up, and always required we look our best. I also always remember him in his gray suit, so I dressed to match.

A cadre of friends—both old and new, here and abroad–have been a posse, a safety net, a support structure, a protective guard, a soft landing place, a strength in times of trouble. I cannot imagine how I would have survived this year without such support, encouragement and permission to be needy for awhile. Incredible.

I learned to drink coffee. For those who know me well, you know that this may just top the list of unbelievable events. Incredible!


I learned to drink coffee in Vienna, accompanied by some new friends that already feel like heart-friends.

At several moments this year, I believed my life to be in jeopardy. There were some scary times, not just at the initial diagnosis, but during treatment here in the UK. (Those are some of the stories yet untold, except to a very small group of friends. They will be written as I am able, as I still need to process all that has happened.) Yet here I am, and the prognosis for my future cancer-free life looks very good indeed. Incredible.

This morning, I sat at a panoramic overlook looking over the village and Abbey of Cadouin (built in 1115), just trying to comprehend all that has happened this year. Incredible. Unbelievable.


This morning, one year later, overlooking Cadouin. The smile is genuine—I started laughing with joy after contemplating this incredible year. Here I am in France, a cancer survivor, pastor in London, beloved of God. Incroyable!

I was overcome with the feeling of privilege. I feel privileged to be alive at all, and only more so to have experienced this incredible year. I think this might have been simultaneously the best and worst year of my life. I have been privileged to experience things this year that most people only dream about—travel, living abroad, engaging in meaningful work, a thriving child, feeling beloved by family and friends. I have also been privileged to experience things this year that most people fear—cancer, chemo, the death of a parent–and to have survived them.

Today, it all feels like privilege. I can’t call the events of this year a blessing, because that opens the door to a theology in which God sends pleasure and pain to edify or punish or reward or inspire, and I don’t believe God works like that. Things happen, from cancer to death to miracles to weddings in France and baseball games in Prague.

I wrote earlier in this journey, quoting Frederick Buechner: “Welcome to the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.” Today, I make an addendum. “Give thanks, for God is abides.” I can only stand on this anniversary day, in this incredible, unbelievable year, and tell you that God has been with me, that I have survived, and that I feel only gratitude for the gift of it all—the hard days and the amazing ones, the grief and the joy, the pain and the pleasure. I am glad to be alive, and I am overwhelmed by love. If it seems incredible, that’s because it is, even to me. But it is my truth, my joy, my testimony. Praise be to God, for the gift of life.



The last post I wrote–not counting the eulogy for my dad–happened all the way back in January, just before surgery. In that reflection, I talked about how I kept moving forward, forward, forward, but my emotional and spiritual healing would require time to stop moving and even look backward, reflecting on all that I have been through. I had been too busy coping with the physical work of healing to attend to other matters. My silence here reveals I still haven’t managed to do that yet.

Since that last post, I had surgery, and discovered that the muscles for typing were the exact muscles that needed to rest during my recovery. My computer use was limited to the bare minimum. Then, before I was fully recovered, my father died, and the world began to spin again. I went home to Virginia for ten days, and returned to the start of Lent and the start of daily radiotherapy, which ran for nearly the same 40 days until Easter. Each day was truncated by radiotherapy, which sent me home to sleep immediately after, and my desire to honor holy week in my new church took all my working energy.

After Easter, I had planned to slow down and let the feelings come. I made intentional efforts to carve out spacious days with time to write. I had a trip to a seven-day conference in Vienna and Bratislava, and told everyone (including myself) that I planned to spend hours alone, writing and praying and processing.


Regents Park, on one of my long walks in London

Instead, I kept moving. Literally. One day in Bratislava, I planned to sit in a cafe and write. Instead, walked around town for nearly five hours, never even stopping for water. Here in London, I set out to walk to a coffee shop to sit and write, and end up walking and walking instead, until my feet are blistered and I’m too tired to shape thoughts and feelings into words. It has happened over and over. Yesterday, I cleaned all the things. Since starting this post, I have paid bills and started laundry and dealt with a pile of unread e-mail. I have to meet my guys at the baseball field this afternoon, and I just learned I could walk there in less than 90 minutes. I considered stopping this post so I could do that instead.


During that epic walk in Bratislava, I stopped at the Coronation Church to pray, and shed a few tears for my Dad. This guy walked in wearing a Rotary backpack. Being a Rotarian was a huge part of my dad’s life. This stranger felt heaven sent, and I wept some more.

I think I have been a bit starved for seeing things, after treatment left my world so small for so long. My walks have always been full of interesting things to see—beauty and humanity and energy. But I am the kind of person who needs to move beyond so many stimuli and process all that my senses encounter. Rather than pause to reflect, I have been walking myself so much that I come home too tired to do anything beyond watching TV and scrolling through Facebook—an exact replica of all the nights I’ve had through cancer treatments. Numb and exhausted, unable to concentrate and focus.

It’s probably good for my physical health to be walking so much, and I am using the time to think and pray, but I also feel like I just don’t know how to stop moving. I want to rest, to dig deeper, to feel my feelings and write my story again–but my feet keep moving.

I first realized the pattern after that day in Bratislava, but I didn’t know how to stop. For well more than a year now, since we first knew we were moving to London, life has been lived in a rush. There were visa applications and a house to sell, goodbyes to make and a church to transition. Then, just when I thought I could rest, a cancer diagnosis. What followed has been a crush of a new church, new job and new culture amidst chemo, surgery, radiotherapy and all the rest. Then the sudden death of my father.

Through it all, I knew I had to keep moving forward, and I did. Now my feet–and with them my mind and heart–don’t know how to rest anymore. I’ve lost my habits of reflection, my patterns of withdrawal, my mental space for writing more than sermons (and even concentrating on those has been a struggle). In order to renew them, I am starting writing by talking about how hard it is to write. It’s all I can manage right now.


Inside the Karlskirche, awaiting the Requiem

I am aware, too, that my feet may be in motion to run away from some of these feelings, because grief is big and deep and scary sometimes. But I have been allowing space for lots of feelings, especially for my dad. In Vienna, I attended a concert of Mozart’s Requiem in the Karlskirche. The Requiem has always been a piece that opened my heart to grief. As soon as I saw it advertised, the tears came. I knew I needed to go, and to use the music to let the feelings flow. I wept for the entire concert, and it was just what I needed. I pause for tears on a regular basis, so I don’t feel like my feelings are locked away from me.


I found these (very old) tissues in my dad’s briefcase, which had always been sacred space off-limits to the rest of us. I held on to them, along with some terribly old Altoids. I took them with me to Vienna, and to the Requiem, and it felt like my dad was there to catch my tears for him.


In the next two weeks, I am facing some time alone. Starting this morning, while the guys are at baseball. Then, three days, two nights home alone for the first time in more than a year. Then four days for a wedding in France, where I won’t know anyone apart from the bride, groom and rabbi. All those days fall around the one year anniversary of both leaving my church and home in Jeffersonville, and finding my cancer.

Normally, I would be fiercely protective of this time, with a long list of writing and thinking projects to tackle and a great eagerness for being alone. Not this time. I am nervous, because I won’t have any distractions or excuses. I think all my loneliness from the last year might catch up to me. My fear is that I’ll just keep busy, keep moving, keep walking—and spend all that precious time alone watching TV and scrolling Facebook again.


After the Requiem, I went out with friends and ordered an Old Granddad, my dad’s choice for bourbon when out to eat. He was also called Granddaddy by his grandchildren. Sipping bourbon is a slow burn, exactly the right speed for what I need right now.

But now I’ve managed to make it almost to the end of my first reflective writing in nearly six months. It’s nothing much, but I’m hoping it relieves the pressure to make way for some more writing to come, and reminds me of how much I miss it.

I want to go back to being myself again—and I don’t. I want to be changed by this experience—and I don’t. I should be different, shouldn’t I? Aren’t I? I’m only beginning to understand how my new country, new pastoral role and new status as cancer survivor will change me, and that’s all happening at the exact same time that I am finally feeling well enough to get back to being myself again. Only “myself” isn’t quite there anymore. I believe it’s writing that will help me find my footing again.

I am so glad to be through the worst of the cancer treatment, to feel my strength returning and exhaustion lifting. I look forward to slowing down my feet and the rest of me, so that I can also return to creativity, reflection and concentration. In all this, God has never felt far away, and for that I am most grateful. I hope it’s five days, not five months, until I am able to write again.





There is lots to update you all about on my cancer journey, but on Sunday, February 5, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 69. I have just returned from 10 days in the States to be with my family. I wanted to share with others who could not attend the words I offered at his memorial service. His life had a big impact on many people, and it was standing room only in the church.

Especially if you didn’t know my Dad at all, you might begin by reading his obituary here. Prior to this homily, three others spoke (his high school friend, a member of the men’s Bible Study he led for many years, and my sister).  I also read written letters from my husband (reflection-by-j)and son (reflection-by-b). 

What follows is my attempt to lift up my Dad’s life to God, to share what he meant to me, to capture what he meant to others, and to represent his voice and what he would have said of himself. It was an honor and a privilege to share that day, and to share with you. 

Love you, Dad. Always.

dad-bulletin-headshot-correctedLet me begin by saying, on behalf of my mother and sister and Dane’s sister Bonnie, thank you to all of  you for being here today. We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love from our extended family, this church, the wider church, and his circle of friends, colleagues and clients. Thanks be to God for you.

We knew my dad was beloved, and that he made a difference in his church and community, but we are only now discovering the depth and breadth of the impact his life had on so many people.

This is my chance to share the impact he had on me. When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be just like my dad. All the things you’ve heard in the words shared by others are true for me too–he influenced me with his generosity, kindness, faithfulness, cleverness, humor, integrity and pursuit of justice. But more than anything, what made me want to grow up and be just like my dad was his library of stories. I shared my husband Josh’s reflection on them as parables–for me, as a child, they were adventures. As I grew up, I wanted a collection of adventures and stories to rival his. Sorry, Mom, but I think this is probably why I live all the way in London. Blame Dad and his stories. If I’m honest, the desire to collect good stories has probably influenced more major and minor decisions in my life than anything else. I owe all of that to my Dad.


My dad and I in my first newspaper appearance, age seven months.

Dad knew that life is not only lived in the moment, it is re-lived in the stories you tell about it. My dad’s inspiration–all those crazy stories–taught me that life is not the sum of what you do (your career, your accomplishments, your alliances) or even what is done to you (the heartbreaks, the illnesses, the defeats). Your life is the story you tell about it.

That’s why this task today humbles me so, as it falls to me to tell the story of his life when he can no longer do so himself. All week long, I wrestled. There are countless stories to be told, but what’s the bigger story of Kenneth Dane Mills? What is the story of his life he would have me tell?

I first turned to fictional characters for inspiration. My father was Atticus Finch, the man of honor and integrity because he did what was right even when it was not popular. My father was Andy Griffith, the one you called in an emergency, trusting him to handle problems with grace, integrity and good humor. Even more, my father was George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life. He was the richest man in town–not because of money or status, but because of this–you all, who show up and tell us Dane made a difference in your life and you would do anything for my mom or any of us.

Those capture parts of his life, but none capture his true story. It took awhile, but finally this preacher realized the real story of Dane’s life is the same one she preaches week in, week out, the one from my day job. The story Dane would tell about his own life is that he was a sinner saved by grace, redeemed by Christ to live in love.

I’m so glad his high school friend Kevin spoke first, because if you only knew my dad as the upstanding citizen he became, you might not believe me–but now you know it’s true. I believe he saw his life as the story of a sinner saved by grace to live in love.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The firstborn son of Ken and Ruth Mills, born in Chelsea Naval Hospital in Massachusetts, brought home to an apartment so small his mother washed both dishes and diapers in the bathtub. At two weeks old, he and his mother boarded an airplane to San Francisco, to meet his father when his ship, the U.S.S. Dane, returned from a six-month cruise. His parents loved him and doted on him from that point on. Childhood on navy bases around the world was played out in cowboys and indians, Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap and baseball games–along with plenty of time annoying his two younger sisters, Carol and Bonnie.  

Dane wasn’t a bad kid, but that clever jokester we all know–while a direct inheritance from both his mother and his father–also made him a bit of a troublemaker. When he was in his early teens, they lived in Charleston, South Carolina, and Dad’s stories from those years are ominous–a boy on the wrong path with the wrong friends, sneaking out, smoking cigarettes, causing trouble. He often speculated he’d have ended up in jail if they hadn’t left Charleston for Virginia Beach. In his story, he was a sinner, saved from himself by the grace of God.

Somehow, the school and environment here channeled his energy in a better direction, and he transformed into a young man with both ambition and ability. He discovered he was a leader–Boys State, Leadership, SCA, Key Club and all the rest at the brand-new Cox High School. Don’t be misled, here–he wasn’t a model student (as Kevin said), and his continued harassment of his sisters earned him the nickname Daney Wayne the Window Pane. He did get a bit more generous–he allowed Bonnie to drive his car, but only after she had ironed all of his t-shirts. His t-shirts! Still, his future was bright–he was headed to the University of Virginia, eventually becoming the first in his family to graduate college.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves too much–because one of the biggest moments of God’s grace and gift in his life happened in those Cox High School years. He met my mother. The young Pat Halstead was then as she is now, sitting there in her red jacket. (My dad loved it when she wore red.) Beautiful, gracious, faithful and good. She was a cheerleader, and he played football, and their first real date was the prom. They loved each other from the time they were 16 years old, and stayed together while he was at Virginia and she was at Longwood, then when he graduated and joined the Navy, they got married on a the only weekend he could get leave–December 21, 1969. They honeymooned in Atlantic City, but found everything so closed up for the holiday they decided to just drive home for Christmas dinner. They listened to Christmas music the whole long drive, and neither one of them ever wanted to listen to it again. Their song was “My Girl” by the Temptations, and it summed up his feelings for her: he had sunshine on a cloudy day, all the riches one man can claim–because she loved him. They loved each other, and it was obvious to us growing up and anyone who knew them. But my dad believed his whole life he never deserved her, that the fact she loved him at all was gift of God, a grace unearned, a sinner’s life redeemed.

I think of the next chapter of the story as the time Dane tried to build a life worthy of the grace he had received. He was ambitious in all the right ways–to be a good husband and father, to build a thriving law practice, to do good in church and community.


Holding me while studying for law school

I, AKA Hot Shot, came along just as he was starting out in law school, and he often took care of me while my mom was teaching. Lauren, AKA Be-Bop, followed a few years later, about the time they bought the house on Virginius Drive. He worked at parenting like he worked at the law–thinking about how to cultivate the relationship he wanted with us and how to instill in us the skills, habits and values we needed. From the time we were two or three years old, he took us out on Daddy-Daughter dates, when we put on a frilly dress (which I never enjoyed) and went out to a nice restaurant for lunch, complete with Shirley Temples. We didn’t take many big vacations, but he somehow made our annual trips to Charlottesville to see my grandparents feel like a long, long, long journey, as he sought out every possible side road we could take to get there. Lauren called these his pig paths–but boy, the things we saw, the stories we collected on those crazy road trips! Dad made sure we knew how to change a tire and balance a checkbook–even though he was never very good at either of those things himself. He and my mom together kept us strictly in line, but they did it with love. Neither my sister nor I ever doubted, not for one moment that we were loved. His favorite scripture from Romans 8 proclaims that nothing could separate us from the love of God. Dad made it clear that nothing we did or could ever do would separate us from his love either. The story, his big story, is about grace–he knew he was a sinner and he knew we would be too, but he also knew that God’s love was bigger than all of that. He wanted to love like that too.

My Dad was always driven by the desire to be a good man, to be worthy of love and respect. He was good at it, too–good at being good, if you will. I often suspected he was way too kind to be any good as a lawyer. I got some perspective on that from some of you who were his clients, who told me that he treated you as his own–and he was going to stand up for what was right for you, unrelenting. It was his love and kindness that made him a good lawyer.

There are so many stories to share about the good he did for others–there is much more to say about the people he helped through his practice, his community organizations, this church and the wider church, and just in his personal kindness to strangers. From Galatians, we read about the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. My dad knew the Spirit and its grace, and he let that Spirit bear fruit in him. I know you all are here because you saw that fruit, and he touched your life and your faith with his grace.

And now I hear his voice in my head saying, “Did you just call me a fruit?”


Teaching Bible Study

Most of us who knew him saw a righteous man–but he saw where he fell short. He saw a sinner redeemed, a man doing his best to give back to God and to others because so much had been given to him. That’s why grace was so important to him.

One of the places Dane discovered that experience of grace was at his Emmaus Walk, and in the Emmaus community, which filled him with joy. He also found it here at Thalia United Methodist Church. You all put up with him and his corny jokes for more than 40 years. There outta be some kind of church merit badge for that. The Christian Home class, the Methodist Men, the bridge group, the early morning Bible study–you all loved him in good seasons and hard ones, and he would want me to tell you that he was so grateful.

If he were here, he’d tell you, all of you, from every facet of his life, how blessed he was to walk in this world beside you. How honored he was by the people who trusted him with their most intimate needs as an attorney. How humbled he was by the leadership roles entrusted to him. How flattered he was that the youth of the church would let him hang out with them as a chaperone. How amazed he was that their parents would let them. How lucky he was to get to be the one sleeping on the floor with the homeless. How much you showed him grace, and how grateful he was for the way you were loving, joyous, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful and gentle toward him.


Trying to pitch a fastball to his grandson (my son)

Starting with the death of his sister Carol in 1999, life had been hard. He lost both of his dear parents in short order. The practice of law shifted beneath him, taking with it the business and style he had crafted for himself. His grief over all of this was profound. There was still joy to be had–he had three grandchildren whom he adored. They made him so happy and proud. They remember all the trips they took to Plaza Bakery to get doughboys–and the way they would fight over his chair in the living room. He loved spending time with you. Besides that joy, Virginia basketball was good again, and he lived long enough to see his beloved Boston Red Sox break the curse and win the World Series in 2004–then again in 2007 and again in 2013.


Celebrating the 2013 World Series win with new gear

Even so, in recent years, he began to fade away somehow. I missed him already, before he was gone. When you asked him how he was doing, he would say, “Old.” It was a joke, but it wasn’t funny. Perhaps it was one of his story parables–telling us something about how he felt that we couldn’t grasp. Only weeks ago, he was finally diagnosed with a slowly progressing vascular disease that mimicked both Alzheimers and Parkinson’s Disease. That was a bleak outlook for the next 5-10 years, but no one anticipated his sudden death.

Still, life isn’t just what you do or what is done to you. Life is the story you tell about it.

Dane’s story was that he was redeemed by grace, blessed to live in love. Dane’s story is the Gospel story–where a life changed by grace, claimed by the Holy Spirit, bears fruit of love in the world. And this story has an ending like no other–because it ends with God’s grace swallowing us whole, forever, in the life everlasting, the grace eternal, the promise of resurrection.  That’s the end of Dad’s story, and the end of all our stories when they are lived in Christ.

Way back in high school, ever wanting to be clever, ever ambitious to write his own story, my dad picked up a phrase that he always used to say goodbye. He wrote in every high school yearbook he signed. He used it as the saluation in countless letters he wrote. And he whispered it in my ear many times when we hugged goodbye.

Vaya con Dios, he said. Go, with God.

So it is today we lay claim to the end of his story–and we pronounce with faith and hope and even dare to claim joy: Vaya con Dios. A sinner redeemed, a life of grace, lived in love. There is no better story. Thanks be to God for the life of my father, K. Dane Mills. Go with God, Dad. Vaya con Dios.

When I wrote my first blog post about being diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time my family was moving to London so that I could serve as the Senior Minister of the American International Church, I quoted a phrase learned from my mentor, the late Rev. Carl Schultz: Faith Faces Forward. That has been my mantra along this whole journey so far. It’s been a relentless season, with each day packed with new things to learn and do about cancer, ministry and life in the London.

In all the facing forward (and the weakness/fatigue of chemo), my writing has been neglected. I’m feeling its absence as a pile of unresolved emotions and untold stories, all of which need expression. As important as it is to face forward in faith and hope, I need some time to look backward, too. So much has happened in my outward life, my inward life has not yet had a chance to catch up. My body has changed during chemo, and it is about to change even more dramatically with surgery in two days. My ministry has changed, as I learn what kind of preacher, pastor and leader this new congregation requires. My home has changed, as that slow shift has taken place after the move to settle in to our new dwellings. My identity has changed, as I understand what it is to be an immigrant and an American in London. My home country has changed, as the election and its aftermath seem to have already brought about dramatic and harsh changes in the country we left behind.

I’ve been facing forward into all those many changes, like standing in the surf reacting to wave after wave–sometimes jumping, sometimes diving, sometimes crashing, always having just a moment to come up for air before another wave hits. We’ve made it through major church events and seasons, six rounds of chemo and many more tests and doctors visits and a hospital stay, transitioning my son into his new school, unpacking all but a few remaining boxes, and more. Every day I get up, look at what waves this day or week holds, and just keep going. Forward, forward, forward.


Even though it leaves us feeling like this most of the time, we keep moving forward.

I need some time and space to look backward. Those emotions and stories wait for me, and my healing will not be complete until they are felt and told. In recent weeks, I’ve been feeling very down, and I know it is because the feelings and stories are building up without release. I told myself that I needed to make writing a priority, for my own mental health, but the waves kept coming. My family deserved my attention at the holidays, and I wanted us to celebrate well after such a hard year.  My hands still get achy and stiff from the treatment, making typing or writing difficult and painful sometimes. Sunday’s always coming, pushing this work out of my mind to focus on the scripture and sermon for the week. Forward, forward, forward.

In two days, I’m having surgery. This will be a proper cancer surgery to remove the remaining tumor and hopefully get clear margins showing no more cancer cells in the area. Recent tests show that there is still no evidence it has moved to the lymph nodes, which is good news. Because of my size, it will be combined with a breast reduction surgery on that side. (A second surgery will follow this summer on the other side, to make me symmetrical again.) Again, the feelings are big–relief and accomplishment at reaching this important milestone and getting the tumor out at last, along with fear and sadness and confusion at realizing my body will be forever changed, even mutilated by this cancer journey. Y’all remember how much I had to write to talk about losing my hair? That was a temporary change. This is a permanent one. But I don’t have time or energy to write that post or work through all those feelings right now. Forward, forward, forward.


During an especially terrible week, a dear friend sent me these beautiful flowers. I wept with the love they carried.

I’ve been planning for months for the recovery, making sure I’ve got church and life covered during the healing time, anticipating two weeks completely off before returning to any responsibilities. Last week, the nurse informed me that is likely not nearly enough time, so I’ve been scrambling to get extra coverage, cancel commitments I made thinking I’d be ready, and feeling anxious about just how difficult the physical healing will be. Forward, forward, forward.

If I’m honest, though, it’s not the physical pain ahead that gives me the most anxiety right now. It’s that big pile of feelings and stories awaiting. When I stop moving forward, forward, forward and just rest, rest, rest after surgery, I fear they will overwhelm me. In optimistic moments, I can imagine having time, energy and focus to write about it all, one story at a time, processing the emotions and beginning to heal. In pessimistic ones, I imagine lying in bed, too physically weak to write or talk or even reach out to friends, but with waves of feelings so big I might just drown. I’ve been in that lonely place a few times already during chemo (those moments are among the stories and feelings that need to be told), but the need to go forward, forward, forward always pulled me out. What happens when I stop moving?


My favorite part of the flowers was the way they contained these black, thistle bits that seemed out of place with the gentle pastel petals. But there they were, and together it was beautiful. So much like my life–the painful parts with the lovely ones, all together beautiful.

Psalm 139 comes to my aid. The whole thing speaks to my heart, but especially this section:

Where can I go from your spirit?

    Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

    and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

    the night is as bright as the day,

    for darkness is as light to you.

There is much in me that seeks to flee, from God and from those who love me, and just let the waves crash over. Sometimes I wish for the darkness to cover me, or at least to take to my bed and let the covers plunge me into darkness for days on end. But there is no escape from God, no escape from love. The love is there with us, whether we want it or not.

I know that because of you all, dear friends and readers and church folks old and new. I’ve tried running away, but it doesn’t work. Over the last two months, I have tried several times to disappear from social media, to check out and slip into silence, to isolate myself from everyone. Living in a whole other country, it’s my only connection to most of you, so I was hoping to just escape unnoticed and be forgotten. But you didn’t let me. You keep sending me messages, comments, e-mails, even cards and packages. You reached out when I went silent too long. You told me you were praying. You remembered important events in my life and treatment. Even if I ignored you, or just didn’t have the energy and stamina to reply, you stuck around. You wouldn’t let me go.

You, my beloveds, are more relentless than the waves trying to knock me down. And God, I trust, is more relentless still.


I spoke to Lisa Mainwaring on Premier Christian Radio about my breast cancer journey. At the end of the interview, she prayed for me, and asked all her listeners to mark their calendars to pray on my surgery date. Now that’s overwhelming love.

This is me not running away from the big pile of stories and feelings. This is me looking backward just enough to name the truth of how overwhelming those stories and feelings are, in hopes that will help me keep going forward until I can return to give them the attention they need and deserve. This is me trying not to reach for the darkness to cover me, but reach for the light of love. This is me saying thank you to all of you, because you are the ones pulling me forward, forward, forward by your love, encouragement and prayers, which won’t let go even when I try to fight them off. This is me giving thanks to God, because whether I ascend to heaven or make my bed in hell, She is still there, with me.

This is me feeling much better for having shared this one tiny part of the stories and feelings.

Bring on the next wave. I’ll jump, dive, crash and come up for air one more time, trusting in love to keep me afloat. Surgery in 48 hours.




This post is a look backward, as I am today set to receive my final chemo infusion. However, it’s been on my heart for the last six weeks, and I can’t talk about where I am now without talking about where I’ve been. I’m trying to catch up–not just for you, dear friends and family and readers, but for me. This has been a hard season, and writing helps me process all that I have been thinking and feeling. Sharing with you all makes me feel strong in claiming my story. Beware going in, this post is less chipper than my previous ones. This is a space to tell the truth of the good times and the hard ones. Keep reading, though, as I hope to write two more posts in short order that catch up to today.

I thought reaching the halfway point in my chemotherapy would feel better than this. I expected to feel like I hit a milestone. Since I weathered the first half fairly well and with good cheer, I expected to find myself encouraged that, like meeting the winter solstice, I could begin moving toward the light instead of the darkness.

Instead, reaching the halfway point of chemo in good cheer freed my mind and heart to ask the hard questions about all the treatment and uncertainty yet to come. The sense of accomplishment gave me room to deal with some of the spiritual, mental and emotional issues that I have not had time or energy to approach since my diagnosis.  The blur of moving to London, first surgery, new job and chemo in the last three months made it so all I could do was keep going and push through. That was a gift, much like the numbness and denial of early grief. When that numbness subsides and the feelings break through, the pain floods in heavy and deep. Healing requires diving into the deep waters and learning to swim, surf, float through it. Halfway through chemo the dam of numbness gave way, and the flood took over with a host of questions and feelings.


This is our cat, Chance, when I was changing the sheets yesterday. This is a good reflection of how I’ve been feeling, except I’d probably get under the big pile of covers rather than on top.

The fear about side effects returned, as the second half of treatment contained a different set of drugs than the first. I entered the clinic as anxious about the fourth treatment as I was about the first one. (Those fears proved not unfounded, but that’s a story for the next post.) Unlike previous cycles, when I enjoyed the “feel-good” days leading up to treatment, I found myself filling with dread and fear about the new and unpredictable set of pains and side effects, likely harder than the first three rounds.

A new set of questions haunted me. Is the chemo working? What happens if it doesn’t? There’s no way to know until they go in for surgery and get a new pathology report. What will surgery be like? What kind of surgery will I need? When will it happen? How rough will the recovery be? Then comes radiation. How long will that last? I’m already so fatigued, and that is supposed to be as tiring (or more) than chemo, because it’s every day. How much work time will I miss? How will I keep up? Again, when will I know if this is working? (Just to be clear, the doctors have given me no cause to down the effectiveness of treatment, and I am holding on to that truth and trust–but it is natural to await proof that my cancer is responding as expected to the treatments.)

On top of all that, I am just getting tired of it. Halfway meant I had lost nine weeks already, and had another whole nine weeks to go. As a child, that was the length of an entire grading period in school. Half a school year in total, which always felt like an eternity. And that’s just chemo. Halfway through chemo isn’t halfway at all, with two surgeries and radiation ahead. Instead of feeling like I was headed into the light, it felt like a carnival ride that was lasting way too long.

If you know me at all in real life, you know that descriptions like “high-energy, hard-working, creative, cheerful, always upbeat” fit my usual self. Not my usual self during chemo. I wrote in my last post, many weeks ago, about my small world being enough. It stopped being satisfying about the time the halfway treatment arrived. I am tired of sleeping 12 hours a day, when I’m used to sleeping six or eight, and still being tired in the short hours I’m awake. I’m tired of “chemo brain” that makes it hard to concentrate, difficult to write (especially sermons), nearly impossible to read a book or some days even follow a television show. I’m tired of not going anywhere, except when work or family obligations demand it–and then planning days of rest on either side to make sure I can have the energy to go and the time to recover.


I bought this blue wig for Halloween, but I love it so much I keep wearing it–especially on days when I need courage. This is a pic from the Macmillan Cancer Centre, where I come for treatment and doctor visits.


So halfway through chemo, instead of feeling like a triumph, felt like a realization that there is a long way there is yet to go. Chemo is cumulative, so each round leaves me weaker and more fatigued. The halfway point brought that truth home, as I am not bouncing back like I did in the earlier rounds.

Halfway marked the first time sadness and self-pity set in. Suddenly, instead of laying in bed longing to be well and get out, I found myself on good days still longing to crawl back in bed, away from the world and away from people and away from cancer. I felt grumpy, cranky and mopey. I barely shed any tears over cancer from the diagnosis through the beginning of chemo. At halfway, I began crying in the shower every morning. After eating good and healthy foods, and having little appetite for the first three rounds, the new drug has made me ravenous, and I’ve turned to my oldest emotional crutch: way too much junk food. I don’t feel guilty over it, but it’s a sign to me that I need to pay attention to my feelings.

Halfway was now six weeks ago, and today I go for my last infusion. I wish I could write that I was better now, that the cloud had lifted and my cheer restored. That wouldn’t be true, though. I still feel heavy these days, not just in fatigue of the body, but of the mind and spirit as well. The news isn’t chipper, but it is still good: I’ve been here before. I’ve known seasons of grief and hardship, and I know they don’t last forever. I have learned what I need to heal–space, time, a warm bed, comfy clothes, a good sappy movie, a deep escape into a good novel, conversation with friends, conversation with God, space to journal, time to weep and let all the feelings surface, time to remember who I am, time to take stock of what has changed, what is lost, what is gained. And, yes, probably all of these moments involve junk food, too.


Speaking of comfort food, our Thanksgiving feast (and the boy in the picture) offered some great joy–for quite a few days, with leftovers we’re still enjoying.

Chemo is relentless, which means much of that deeper healing work will have to wait. In the meantime, trust that I do not despair. I persevere–surviving more than thriving, but that is all I need to do right now.

Plenty of good moments remain, which give me hope that more will follow. When things get low, I list them to myself. I love my work, and my new church has offered some beautiful, wonderful, glorious days in this time–the gift of many newcomers ready to engage, a Thanksgiving luncheon, the chance to help lead the Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, deeper relationships with people in the congregation, and a fun day decorating for Christmas, with our children delighted to take the lead. My husband and son are wonderful, and they know how to take care of me–which is not easy for someone who doesn’t like to need care from anybody. My extended family, my parents and I have grown closer and more intimate through this process. A core group of friends receives all my complaints, need for prayer, TMI medical details, related inappropriate humor and curse words. They respond with instant encouragement, laughter and grace, as the situation demands. A wider group of friends send gifts and cards, weekly messages of encouragement, scripture and humor, and reminders of their prayers. My current church lets me work, and they also let me not work, as the day demands. They too offer prayers, soup, patience, flexibility and understanding. My former congregation has sent gifts, prayers and love in the kindest, most meaningful ways. All of you who read and respond here and on Facebook offer me much encouragement as well. I need people to listen–and by reading this, you do.


Under the dome at St. Paul’s Cathedral, preparing for the American Thanksgiving Service on Thanksgiving morning.

This week marked the beginning of Advent in the church. Yesterday, we lit the first candle of the Advent wreath, the candle for hope. This has always been a powerful moment for me, especially this year. Against the darkness and all alone, this first candle shines in the darkness, a tiny, fragile flicker of light. That’s where I am right now. Not shiny and bright, not basking in sunshine or under the bright stage lights, but holding on to hope, fragile and flickering against the darkness.

More to come soon, I hope, about the pathway between halfway and today’s last treatment. Thank you for listening, for praying, for supporting me along this journey.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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