Finlandia

Source: Finlandia

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Finlandia

Finlandia

by Margaret Plumb

Time lapses still.

Cathedral ceilings and stained glass
Clothe me in a blanket of silence.
I sit here in the quiet

Lists and schedules, plans and projects,

cells and laptops, politics and presidents

Homes and food.

Music lifts the air now

 like a feather

Bows tremble on strings,
They gasp in awe
At the pureness of their own voice
I am filled with emotion
Simply because of beauty, nothing else.

Finlandia is calling me.

Jean Sibelius, long gone, scribbled dots on lines

And birthed an anthem,

Unearthly, beauty transcendent.

Sustained notes on a score are brought to life

Once again, a hundred years later,

Breathed through instruments,

Through disciplined hands on bows and keys.

Strings vibrate with the tones of heaven

Filling space with hope and triumph and peace,

A grand beauty.

Michelangelo near-touching hands

Etched in my memory

An eternal weight of glory

Calls to the soul.

Musicians and artisans hone their skills,

Giving their blood and hands

A lifetime of sweat

Compulsive quest  to capture the beauty.

Mortal reaches to touch the eternal

Fixating to display the sublime

Even for one fleeting moment, to soar,

To remind us that all is not meaningless.

Heaven come to earth and reveal yourself.

I must be about my Father’s business, said Jesus.

And this, I too, must be about.

Finlandia (Be Still My Soul) by Jean Sibelius

Stones in the Road . . . blog series by Mike and Margaret Plumb

Stones In the Road (part 1) by Mike Plumb

stones in the roadMy mother was by my bedside in the Intensive Care, looking at me like a sad puppy. I was barely coming in and out of consciousness. I remember I’d seen my ‘angel- like’ wife and my kids earlier. I also remembered seeing or hearing church friends. After coming out of the clutches of death, memory can be sketchy at best.

Mom and my step dad Lowell made the trip from Bellingham to Eugene in apparently  record time, considering Mom never leaves her house anymore. I must have been really sick this time for Mom and Lowell to be in my room.  Mom, brushing my brow said, “How could God allow this to happen to you after all you two have been through already, it’s so unfair!” This wasn’t the time for me to reassure my mother, I was still trying to get a handle on things myself, and also I was unable to speak due to the severe surgery I just survived and the tubes springing out of every orifice. Since that day I have had a lot of time to think about things, the way things really are, and Mom’s question does at times come to the surface.

Thinking back to my early Christian life — I was considered impetuous and “too willing” to take risks. I liked the feeling of being on the cutting edge and stepping out in faith. If you’re not an ADHD Jesus follower like me then you’re most likely thinking, “What kind of risk or cutting edge is there in being a Christian and especially a church pastor?” Well, it started with three little words. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me”–those three words opened the doors to a world beyond imagination and some of the greatest adventures and supernatural miracles one can experience.  These are all marvelous stories in themselves, but I’ll skip them here (I’ve written about some of these adventures in “Going to the Sun.”) and flash forward about 30 years to the hardest and least glamorous part of my journey, which in part included my massive heart attack and subsequent triple-heart bypass.

It was some years before the new millennium. Maggie, myself and a group of longtime friends from all around the country felt the call to ‘go it together’ to start a new church in Eugene, Oregon. What’s interesting is how different we all were and how excited to drop what we were doing, pull up roots and pioneer a church based on diversity, community and teamwork. Not to get into that story, but just to give a small background– this new church exploded onto the scene. I called it my dream church (maybe you could identify it to your own circumstances; a dream job, a dream career or perhaps ‘home’ would best describe it). But this was not your father’s old Oldsmobile, as the saying goes. This place was full of life, creativity, and imagination at every level.

The troubles started for us right at the tail end of an extraordinary event, a miracle that involved all of our church community as well as many others. A young, vibrant woman in our church, who was on a long waiting list for a rare liver replacement, got in a near-fatal car accident. She was on life support and not expected to live. Immediately, a rotating team of prayer warriors was formed, about 100 in all, and rallied together at the hospital, praying around the clock in the intensive care waiting room—imploring that this 19-year-old girl would come back to us. Long story short, she went from being as good as dead to a remarkable recovery, getting off all life support, amazing doctors and all of us in the hospital. Not only that, but shortly after, against all odds, a new liver came in for her and the subsequent transplant was successful. I suppose I would have given my life to save Bonny’s; she being almost engaged to my oldest son at the time.

On the heels of that event, while we were still rejoicing in the list of supernatural events, something happened to me that made me acutely aware that all was not well with my spine. I had already suffered from ruptured discs and already had undergone a couple of discectomies, but I kept going, despite the pain. But on that dreadful Sunday while I was preaching, and lost continence (peed my pants), was when I knew that something was really wrong. Although I managed to get out of there with (hopefully) no one knowing, the shame and embarrassment, followed by the worry, overcame me. I hid in my car and my thoughts ran wild with a myriad of possible health implications. This was to be my descent into a long, dark and confusing period of my life.

Stones in the Road, part 2

Sunday, Bloody Sunday…by Margaret Plumb

Usually the social animal, Mike had left the church building hurriedly after sharing and before service was over. I couldn’t leave yet because I was leading more songs, but I saw him going out and knew something was wrong. When you have over 20-years as a married couple, best friends and co-ministers together, well, you just know.

Mike had been having a lot of trouble with his back. It had started a few years prior, and he’d had two laser surgeries in his lower lumbar. These had alleviated the pain for awhile, but then it would return in a different place in his back. Periodically we were getting prayer for Mike’s back problems. The pain became unbearable at times, and affected Mike’s interest in the ministry and other people, always his strength. We had traveled to several places to receive prayer for recovery, even flew to a church in Toronto, Ontario where it was reported that divine healings (and a few other controversial things as well) were happening. Although we were very much blessed there, mostly by the spirit of love, he received no physical healing.

My husband, though, has a high tolerance for pain and is able to withstand a lot and still appear like nothing is wrong. (Not me. If I have even a headache, forget socialization of any kind until it’s gone.) So he continued to function as founding pastor and one of the team of elders, preaching about half the time, along with a few others. Although he believed in the priesthood of believers and sharing gifts, he had a strong gift for preaching: stirring up, challenging, inspiring. And so others urged that he teach often. This particular Sunday was no different, he had shared a stirring message but then abruptly cut it short. I got up and filled in a little at the end before segueing into some more songs.

When I found him in the parking lot, and he told me what happened, I quickly got him out of there. We were both mortified, still being young enough to be appalled by this “freakish” event. I drove home to the sound of Sunday, Bloody Sunday by U2 on the radio. The following week was filled with blood(y) tests, examinations, MRI’s and cat scans. Our doctor pulled some strings and was able to quickly get Mike in for a consultation with a neuro-surgeon, to tell us the results. So we found ourselves in a Dr. ______(rhymes with “Killer’s”) office, waiting together nervously to hear the news. After what seemed like an hour, he entered brusquely, briefly introduced himself and then read us our rights. Mike had Spinal Stenosis (narrowing of the spine) plus Degenerative Spinal Disease. Basically the disease of an old man, like maybe 90. He did not explain any of this but told us bluntly that Mike would most likely be in a wheelchair within 2 years. When he saw our shocked faces he got a little impatient, and basically said, “Get over it, a lot of people can live productive lives from a wheelchair.” If he didn’t actually say that, it was inferred loud and clear, it really was almost that blunt. That’s what Mike and I heard anyway, when those words hit our guts. He said we needed to schedule an operation with him immediately (he seemed almost eager to cut), and that he had a schedule opening in four days. So, after four minutes of his time, he abruptly got up then and left, on to another patient or game of golf, the busy life of a neuro-surgeon.

Mike and I walked out to the parking lot in a daze…we stood outside our car, under a tree, and held each other and wept. I finally said, “I do NOT want that man operating on my husband!” To which Mike agreed.

We went home to research, consider our options and search out other neuro-surgeons in the area. When we told our team of church leaders, they were stunned and immediately began a prayer vigil. They were confidant that healing was in store, a mighty victory and testimony. Hadn’t God brought us through many, many obstacles before, as a church and we had prevailed? We were a group of people that not only believed in the supernatural, but had all seen and experienced divine healing first-hand. So our friends contacted all the prayer warriors they could, those gifted with special faith and a passion to pray, and they all went to work on their knees.

No healing was imminent, however, and after giving it a good amount of time, and through much pain, we scheduled an operation with Dr. Hacker, an unlikely name for a surgeon, but he came with excellent references. We had to wait more than a month to get in, though. That month took us on a fast downward spiral. The pain becoming excruciating, where Mike was sometimes only able to crawl. He then began to lose feeling and function in his right hand; his writing hand. This was scary for him; besides being a chronic remodeler and one who likes to do physical work, Mike at that time still did most of his writing manually on yellow notebook tablets, and I would type it up and edit it. ( A tablet wasn’t a wireless personal computer then, and it’s almost an obsolete word now in referring to a notebook. I recently told two different young piano students to bring a tablet for my on-going notation on their progress, and they each replied, “What is a tablet?” At that time though, 1998, it was still common to write manually; word processors being a fairly new alternative to typewriters. It really wasn’t all that long ago.)

Besides the fear of this hand-paralysis being the onset of full paralysis (a very real scenario according to the medical establishment), having to look at the possibility of retirement and deterioration while we were still in our prime, was almost unthinkable. We had established a ministry that we’d been in preparation for all our lives. We had forsaken all to follow Jesus. Throughout our lives together we had come through many trials; “fiery furnaces of affliction” that we felt had molded our character and-made us trustworthy to be servant-leaders. We had built our new ministry on a foundation of love, honesty and teamwork—and freedom for the operation of all the gifts. We were just beginning to see wonderful fruit and the dynamic mystery of the church functioning as it should, everyone sharing their unique talent and everyone having a “voice.” I was unable to grasp this new development and demise, and just barely able to acknowledgment it. Surely this season would pass quickly.

Stones in the Road, Part 3

California Dreamin’ by Mike Plumb

stonesI was lying down in our van in the church parking lot, not only because of shafts of white pain, but also hiding, trying to maintain my sense of dignity. It just seemed as if everything was going wrong all at once. And of all possible places and times, in the middle of talking on Sunday during church. As I tried to calm myself, lying there out of sight, my mind by its own will forced me back to old memories that I had long forgotten.

I went back to my teen years (30-plus years earlier) and a conversation between a doctor at UC Hospital with me and my dad. He was giving directions that I would need to wear a back brace and get monthly cortisone treatments for the foreseeable future. That, because of my accident, there’s a possibility that my back concussion and bruising injury could come back to me with a vengeance. But as a teenager then, all I heard him say was that for my back to properly heal, all sports would be out for me for the next few years.

I was fourteen when fate played that card. I grew up in Napa, California, and although that may sound cool now, with its reputation for yielding international top wines and a tourist vineyard destination, back then it was more of a farm town which hosted a mental hospital. But Napa was quite ‘sochy” (socially conscious) and class-oriented, probably preparing for its soon-to-be world debut. Anyway, myself and two buddies were involved in our newest hobby, model flyable airplanes. These were extremely light, built from balsa wood–classic, self-propelled via rubber band. Even though I thought it was a cool hobby- taking the place of my Duncan Yo Yo’s faze, I didn’t think at the time I was a nerd. I mean, I wore Converse (Chuck’s All Stars) and real Levi Jeans. No JC Penny’s or Monkey Ward’s brands for me. To wear Ward’s tennis shoes was social suicide! Doing so may also kindle one into deep psychological problems and I was already in line for experimental drug trials for Ridlin.

Anyway, engaged one day in some of that hyperactivity with my friends and our new model airplanes, I accidentally got my model airplane stuck on the roof of the neighborhood Catholic church. I suppose I didn’t understand church or religious protocols, so when two of my buddies lifted me over their heads to climb upon the front entryway porch of St John’s, none of us thought it might be an affront to God. Apparently the priest thought differently, he heard the commotion and came running out the front doors, knocking over my friends, which sent me flailing through the air, landing back first on the concrete steps. It was a small miracle I managed to grab my little airplane before the lights went out.

Next thing I know, there’s a crowd of people standing around and some guy with a lit match in my face asking me, “What do you see?”  I didn’t immediately answer because I didn’t know how much trouble I was in. Then I heard that oh, so familiar, full of concern voice of my Pops: “What the hell’s happening here?” He was pushing his way through the crowd, trying to find out what I’d gotten myself into this time. While I was saying, “I think I’m OK” to my Dad and the concerned priest, an ambulance showed up and medics jumped out. I heard the priest tell the medic that I only fell 6 or 7 feet. The medic said, “Don’t try to move him, he landed in a bad position on these steps, he may have broken or injured his back”. As the medic started talking to me, we all realized I couldn’t move. Nothing worked from my waist down. The ambulance drive to the UC hospital was one of the longest of my life. In those days a parent or spouse didn’t get to ride in the ambulance with their loved one. I rode the two hours with an attendant that looked and acted like Elvis. I had no one in those days to pray for me. I don’t think I ever heard of such a thing as praying for people. In fact the steps of the Catholic church where my body first started to turn on me was the closest I had ever been to being in church.

I was raised as agnostic as it gets. Both my parents worked in mental health at Napa State Hospital. I suppose my early growing years were made up of having the free rein to run (actually ride my bike) around a state hospital because my parents were in management roles. Boy things were different, I remember my Pops bringing home old alcoholic patients to live and work on our little piece of heaven, cultivating our little American dream. Mom and Dad’s secret dream took the form of a small farm-vineyard we owned on Old Sonoma Road. This was the classic California Dreamin’ lifestyle and where I first learned about “keeping up with the Jones’.”  These were fairly innocent times, but sadly, Mom introduced a new world-view into those years–dinner parties, cocktails, material prosperity, cheating, and ‘Frank Sinatra” cool. So, while many young people get their world-view from Sunday school and church, I got my world-view from what it takes to keep up with the Jones’s. This would soon be a horror story for my family growing up.

Back to my ambulance ride, and then to the hospital, where traction and tests, traction and x-rays, traction and probes, traction and traction took place. After a few hours some feeling began to come back. After a couple days there that I can’t remember most of the feelings came back and I was walking again. After a week it was decided that I seriously bruised my spine and did some damage to some discs and vertebrates. OK, what did that mean? Remember, this was before MRI’s so what it meant was: Time will tell but in the meantime, your baseball and sports career is finished. Baseball was my second life after model airplanes and Yo Yo’s. I had a letter to earn as a high school pitcher. I was primed to be good enough to play first-string relief as a sophomore. I was up for all city. This was a huge bummer to my freshman world.

Then my Mom and dad divorced. My brother Greg and I woke up one morning and found Pops crying at the kitchen table. Never, I mean never, had we seen Pops cry. He looked at us and said, “Your Mom is gone, she has left us and won’t be talking to any of us for several months.” Well, a lot a good all that material stuff did us now. Now, my losing out at sports seemed like nothing more than sour milk. I threw up right there in the kitchen. My little brother cried and grabbed hold of Pops leg and didn’t let go of it for six months.

Hundreds of family friends consoled us in the next few months, but never once did anyone ask us if they could pray for us. Were there no Christians in California in the sixties? God and prayer were as foreign to my world then as the absence of them would be now.

So this is where my physical problems began and perhaps the heart-sickness that would eventually lead me to a God-experience that shook my world and gave me a heart for people in need, which led me to becoming a pastor.

So I guess you could say my back problems started as a result of the Catholic Church, I jokingly tell my wife, who was raised Catholic..

Stones in the Road, part 4

“Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” by Mike Plumb

stones, hardship, pain, sickness, faith, obsacles, getting old, disease, surgeries,disability, early retirementSickness can be quite a bother. Say you’ve just been struggling with hay fever or asthma for years and sometimes the sickness puts you out of commission for a week of so. Or you have a bad back like I had and every once in a while you throw out a disc or get a bulging disc. It can hurt like hell and put you on your back for a couple of weeks. There are many ailments many of us just live with and take our medication,  trust the Lord and we keep on keeping on. But when an ailment turns in on you and decides it wants your mind, body and soul; when illness wants to take absolute control; when life is taken out of your hands and some enemy (because he sure aint no friend) is now in charge, with weapons pointed at everyone around you — believe me, life changes. And the ailment becomes much more than a bother.

Or to put it a different way: maybe you are familiar with the county jail system. You visit prisoners on a monthly basis. You’re the kind of person that really cares and for some reason may believe if it wasn’t for grace you could be in jail yourself (not that you are doing anything criminal or anything). But then one day out of the blue, while you pack up your guitar from the free space area of the jail and begin to leave like any other Sunday afternoon, suddenly a jailer and a few prison guards come up to you and say “HEY YOU,  come this way.” Immediately they ask you to strip, they throw your clothes into a bag, give you some orange jump suit and order, “Put it on.” Next, they say, “Follow me,” with some serious frowning going on. And to think, just an hour ago you thought they were friends and you were on your way to dinner with them. Last of all they bring you to this small cell that says “Solitary Confinement” over the door. Inside there is a folder with a judge seal and a signed charge. On the folder is your name and under your name it says “LIFE, with a small possibility of parole.”

We met with Doctor Hacker and he spent a good hour trying to show and tell us why my condition was such a big deal. He showed us the film of my spine (neck region) like a power-point presentation. He pointed out portions of broken vertebra and spinal bone that were wedged into my spinal chord like knives. The penetration into the nerves was causing the paralysis in my right arm and hand. What he wanted to do with this first surgery was clean, scrape and laser. He said he would do everything possible to speed up the date of surgery, because he knew the level of both pain and fear I was in. He also put me on a handful of new medication for pain, muscle relaxing, anxiety, mood control, heart and blood pressure, and sleep. He pretty much demanded my complete obedience and said he thought he could keep me out of a wheel chair but more than likely I could no longer handle even small amounts of stress because of the damage to my spinal chord near the base of my brain. He also said this breakage and canal shrinkage would only get worse.

Maggie, always believing for the best, asked him if this meant I could still do some kind of part-time ministry at our church community. He looked at her with all the encouragement a man of modern medicine can and said, there is always a chance. Then with a smile, said he was a Christian and believed that miracles occasionally happened. So I had a praying surgeon that would come to know me and my spine like family over the next ten years. The meds did slow the pain but had all kinds of side effects. I think overnight I went from being ADHD to being paranoid, majorly depressed and slightly psycho. One thing for sure, I was not the old Mike any longer.

Within the first week of my wait for a surgical miracle my eyes became clouded with a blackish material which began forming and oozing dark goo. I broke out with open sores all in and around my mouth. Maggie told me later that she saw this and thought, “My God, he’s being eaten up with cancer!” It was scary because we had no idea what was going on. I feared cancer as well, but neither of us mentioned it to the other. We found out from our doctor that it was most likely pain herpes.

After surgery, when I came out of anesthesia, the doctor told me he had to do much more than anticipated and ended up fusing three

“…and i lift my hands…”

neck vertebrae and scraping another disc. The surgery required that he go through the front of my throat and the back of my neck, both. He said, unfortunately, that all the invasive surgery may have affected my vocal chords. He was right. To this day I struggle with throat issues, some hoarseness and speaking problems and worst of all, loss of most of my singing voice. I still love worship and try singing even if I sound like Yoda from Star Wars. Hacker said my recovery may take three to six months, at least twice as long as he first thought. Of course it always takes twice as long as they say anyway, so I figured it may be up to a year of recovery. Even though I was now on a morphine patch, the pain ripped through the fog like a ten-wheeler going down the freeway at full throttle.

Post-surgery, I went in for another MRI in which they had to sedate me to keep my body still enough for the MRI pictures to work. Two days later I was back in Hacker’s office with Maggie at my side to hear the news. The Doctor knew the stakes for me and the church so he had another lady taking notes on a computer and another surgeon near his side. He was being overly pleasant which didn’t make me feel any better. He showed us the new MRI picture then explained that my spinal bone material was much more brittle than he had thought, which was not good. He said the fusion was a success but discs on both side of my fusion were going bad and it would only be a matter of time before I would need more surgeries. He said he was still hopeful that I would not be wheel chair bound, but that he had to say something: Unfortunately, my condition was such that he strongly advised I remove myself from all stressful situations, both physically and mentally. Retire. I would no longer be able to work.

When I was in my 20’s, the thought of an early retirement would have been pleasant to my laid-back self.. Not so with the active go-getter self  I had become. That, combined with my ADHD, made those words sound like a death sentence. Or,  life with a small chance of parole.

Stones in the Road, part 5:

“Everybody Hurts . . . Sometimes”

by Margaret Plumb

ImageFor every hardship I experience, there’s an inner Catholic telling me it’s not nearly as bad as what others have faced– which makes it difficult to write about our plight. The self-censoring in my head tells me I am not worthy to consider my sufferings in light of others’. The drill goes something like this: “Who are you to tell your story? Why is yours any more special? Plenty of others have it much worse. This is the silly trial of a privileged American; some in third world countries are facing genocide.”  And so on. Add my mother’s voice to that: “There are starving children in Africa.”

To compare sufferings, though, seems as useless as comparing blessings. Hardship and suffering are all relative. One man’s trauma is another man’s mere annoyance. The fact remains that pain is pain; be it emotional, mental or physical, and regardless of whether we’re talking about a festered sliver, a toothache, or 4-stage cancer, the pain is very real to the person suffering. In light of this, I am plunging forward; hushing the voices of self-abasement that say my story is not worthy of consideration. So I’ll continue with my tale of  what may be to some, a  festered sliver.

Initially, throughout the onset of Mike’s problems– the pain, the questions, the tests, the diagnosis, the surgeries, more pain and medication complications, more questions–support poured in for us. Church friends prayed around the clock, people called and wrote with words of encouragement. Almost daily we received a call or a note in the snail-mail. We were showered with love and concern. And we were extremely grateful. But as time went on and our trials continued, we became weary and  a weariness seemed to come over others as well. What they were believing for was not happening, at least not in their time-table. From some people, there was an anger directed at Mike for somehow letting them down. They thought he should ignore the pain, confess health, and keep being the great white leader. That’s easy to say if you’re not walking in someone else’s shoes. Some people began to “suspect” that he did not have enough faith. This sentiment grew.

As appalling as that sounds, I don’t blame them, it’s human nature. Most of us build our life on a code of some sort, principles or doctrines, whether we’re people of faith or not. When someone’s plight challenges the foundations we’ve built on, it’s easier to discredit that person than to discredit our belief system. So, there were those who would rather blame Mike for not having enough faith, rather than allow their own foundational belief system (Word of Faith) to come into question, and so crumble their world. It’s what happens when we put our faith in our own faith or a specific set of promises, or our dogma—rather than in God himself. Who is, well, just bigger than all that. And he doesn’t seem to like being pinned down.

I found myself in that same predicament as well (though not over a healing doctrine). I had placed so much faith on the prophetic words that had been spoken over us through the years, and the firm conviction that we were in the prime of our life doing what we had been prepared to do. “For this time.” To quit would mean denying the authenticity of prophecy, or so I thought then. Even more so, it would undermine all that I believed God had spoken to us and prepared us for. It ultimately could undermine my entire faith in God. I sensed spiritual disillusionment lurking on the sidelines, waiting for a weakness. I felt the wolves at the door, hungry to take me out.

I set my will and  pressed forward.

You may still wonder why, in light of all that was happening to my husband, we ignored the Doctor’s imperative to step down. A little background info: prior to that time in years past, in some of the other churches we had co-pastored, I had withheld some of myself and put the people at arm’s length. I was less transparent and had much more self-interest. But I also felt deeply that we were meant to plant a work. It would be the culmination of years of “training” in the school-of-hard knocks. And we wanted to start fresh because we had a vision.

So, we came here because of a vision. We sold our lovely, just-finished remodeled home in Washington and uprooted our family and the kids from  their schools, to come back to Oregon. We sunk our investment into a much less expensive property, and the rest of the profit went into establishing the new faith community, based and founded on LOVE being the bottom line—and the highest goal. It was our life-dream. (I can feel the skepticism from you right now, I agree, that sounds naïve…like the faith of a child?) Into this new community I poured out my life and truly felt I had sacrificed all. I found a joy in giving of myself. The more devoted I became, the more ego and selfishness dropped off. I was laying down my own life and losing it for others, to see them shine and move into their gifts, and to see a bit of heaven come to earth. It wasn’t for “our church,” it was for the Kingdom of God. I was an idealist and had sacrificed much to see those ideals come to pass. We were deeply invested, financially, emotionally and spiritually. This was our heart and soul. To give up in mid-stream not only seemed incongruous, but also just downright painful. Maybe a sliver to some, but equal to 4-stage cancer to me.

Besides that, I was still somewhat in denial of the ramifications of Dr. Hacker’s diagnosis and his prognosis for our future. We’re always a bit skeptical of the medical establishment, anyway, and back then we were learning that we had to be our own advocates. (We like our doctors, but hey, they’re human beings like the rest of us) My hand was on the plow, no turning back. We were used to facing obstacles, and persevering through. My path was set, my focus was clear.  As anyone who is purpose-driven will attest to, there will always be  adversity to overcome in the pursuit of something more lofty. The path of least resistance usually is the path to nowhere.

And so, I treated this as another false scare, like a junkyard dog on a strong chain, something to divert us from our intention. I resisted the doctors’ advice, and Mike and I decided we should go forward in a more advisory role, which was where we were headed anyway. We would still be on the pastoral team: my role would be strengthened, and Mike’s diminished. We would still give counsel. Well, that was our aim, anyway. A rude awakening was still awaiting us. It took some inside and outside pressure to pry my hands off the plow handles.

Stones in the Road, part 6

“Stop Children, What’s that Sound?”

by Margaret Plumb

One night Mike had a vivid dream. We, along with many friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, were riding on a carnival carousel. The ponies were going up and down and we were all engaged in the ride. Suddenly, Mike and a few others, specific people he knew, flew off the platform, onto the ground. He wasn’t able to get back on. He wasn’t even able to get back up, but reached out his hand toward the people on the carousel as they went circling around and around. No one saw him to help.
stones
_____________________________________________

So, Mike and I sort of switched leadership roles. Although we had worked as a team, it was like 60/40, now it became 40/60.

There’s a fine art to leadership. And much abuse of it. But the lack of it is not  pretty either. Unless there is some sort of guidance, eventually someone or some agenda will take over, and far too often it will be self-interest, not the interests of the whole group.  At the Vine, our church plant, there were some who were chomping at the bit to take over spiritual influence when Mike got sick, to steer it in a direction that we had not founded it on. So I took on more responsibility of the leadership. Mike and our denomination backed me up on this. I am not a natural leader, but if there is a vacuum, I can step in.

And for those who have been soured by “leaders” this is what I mean: I mean someone who helps facilitate so that everyone has a voice and not just a few dominant ones. A leader is not there to take control, but to keep those who like to control, and those who have a thirst for power, from pushing themselves in. A leader has a gift and responsibility to maintain the spirit of freedom and love and honesty and allow it to prevail. To keep the main thing the main thing. To be aware of other agendas that compete with the main thing. To protect the bottom line—LOVE. Which, by the way, is no milk-toast word, it’s about the meatiest word that exists, demanding a courage beyond our own strength. Show me a place where multiple leaders (plural) are working together in cooperation, humility, and love, and I’ll show you a happy, free, healthy and thriving place, full of synergistic energy and creativity and LIFE  spilling out of all sides and running out to those who are thirsty.

Just sayin’.

Well, this looks good on paper…But, in fact, we had experienced it during various pockets of time. And it was an incredible  thing.

I tried to keep it all working. I tried my best to keep love posted as the banner over our doors at the Vine. With Michael’s health demanding much of my attention, though, I did not have the where-with-all to lead well. And Mike became so preoccupied with his deteriorating health and pain that I felt alone in trying to keep our dream. Sometime in the middle of all this Mike resigned, and I kept going for a while, attempting to preserve something he’d want to return to when he got well. It took some outside interference; a session in  a “pain psychologist’s” office (More on that in next blogs, but no, Bill Murray, it was not pain therapy) to pry my hand off the plow and see that Mike’s health was not going to be a peripheral issue. Finally I ended up resigning as well. My last message at the Vine compared the difference between love and power, and was a plea to let Love be the bottom line AND the highest goal. I was about to  be tested on that for many dark days. I was to learn many things.

We got a great send-off and were blessed and honored. We hoped to continue to attend the Vine and maintain a more advisory role. That desire was not to be. In no time at all, things got weird there, for lack of a better word. There was no way to define the spirit in the air. The spirit of grace that had been painstakingly cultivated changed into something more like paranoia. Whatever it was, it was definitely not the spirit of Christ as I knew him. But in His name, Paranoia, Confusion, Anger, and Suspicion were having a party, and I wasn’t invited. I went anyway, but Mama told me not to come; you play with fire and you’ll get burnt. Yet, I was still in battle mode, still wanting to counter this departure from the feeling of community. I couldn’t make sense of this drastic change in attitude and to this day still have no idea what whirlwind of confusion whipped through our church. I do suspect that power and false spirituality teamed up together to form an alliance.

I tried to keep attending but began to feel pushed out. Nothing I could put my finger on, but as real as night and day. I had no idea what was going on and why all of a sudden there was coldness toward us where there once was warmth. Anyone in the work force who has been through a business management change knows what I’m talking about. The old guard is usually forced out in lieu of the new. The thinking is: Better to start clean with the new vision. And sometimes, if the old won’t leave quietly, some extra leverage is needed to do the ousting, dirty tricks or whatever is necessary to make them look bad.  At some point we felt our whole family was being attacked. We now were becoming a liability. A power shift was eminent, and we needed to be routed out. Common business practices but not what I expected in our church. The barbs toward us were sharp and carefully aimed to find their most effective mark. There was something insidious about the attack which told me that evil was a partner in it. What is more painful for a woman than seeing those she loves being demeaned? My husband, and my sons! (who had a youth ministry to the grunge kids.)

I was torn apart inside. The pain of this rejection, the confusion of evil, and the erosion of everything we had worked for, on top of the bad turn with Mike’s health, was like salt in the wound.

In all fairness, this wasn’t from everybody in the church, not by a long-shot. Just a small few who were chummy with each other, a handful of those who took it upon themselves to make the transition and change direction. The majority probably didn’t know, and perhaps they felt rejected by us, too, because we resigned. But we were weakened and unable to fight any other battles. I needed my energy to focus in on Mike and his health, to be his advocate in the medical maze of red tape. And, while some around us were cultivating paranoia, we had our own fears to deal with: fear of the unknown in regards to Mike’s health, because it was seeming like more than back issues.

A few weeks later I visited at the Vine (Mike had a rough week and wasn’t able to sit in chairs with his back.) and just felt strange. I didn’t belong. There I was, feeling like an outsider in the church we had founded. And then I realized that they truly were a different church, the personality had morphed into something that wasn’t who we were. And that if I were to be true to our beliefs, I needed to recognize that and let them be. That was our theology, that the church is the people and the people are the church. And so, after an internal struggle, I blessed them in my heart and left quietly afterward, never to visit again. Shortly after that the church changed their name. The shift was complete.

In less than a year they closed their doors.

Stones In the Road, part 7:

“The Sounds of Silence”

by Margaret Plumb

So, I let it all go. The church, my eldership role, pastoring and leading worship. Let go of being co-editor of Branches magazine, writing the articles, the writer’s guild. I gave up marketing my C.D and quit any touring. And my two sons left home as well. I felt empty-nested, was out of a job, out of purpose and looking at a bleak future. The disillusionment that I had been holding at bay came flooding in. My hope was seriously deferred.

The silence was deafening. We went from being popular, noticed, beloved, treasured, respected and cared for, to . . . nothing. I even missed the phone ringing, which is highly unusual. (See blog: https://plumbliners.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/confessions-of-a-phonaphobiac/) Popularity and limelight are not all they’re cracked up to be. I saw from the outside how people like to chum up with those perceived to be in power, and dropped when that influence fades. Eric Clapton’s blues song, Nobody knows You When You’re Down and Out  sums up something quite similar.  I had no idea who my friends were. I dared not even try to keep any lest I be accused of “sheep-stealing.” I have a huge aversion to gossip (thanks to Mom), so I avoided sharing my story with anyone, so as not to discredit anyone. Taking the “high road” at times like these has sometimes resulted in isolation and loneliness. But I didn’t trust my anger to not seep out. Where do old pastors go?

We were on that carousel in Mike’s dream. Health issues had forced us out of the game of life. Too early. The pain was more acute because we were still in our “productive” years. The world, as well as some of the American church world, wants energy, youth, ambition. And when you are no longer useful and fall off, you are forgotten. It’s for this reason that we write,  to make people more aware. Because, how opposite is that from the gospel of Jesus, who calls ALL to him who are weary? Who says he did not come for those who are healthy, but for those who need a physician? There are huge masses of people who can’t even make it to church let alone sit in an uncomfortable pew. Who feel left by the side of the road or thrown off the carousel because of illness, while life spins on without them. But meantime their  world has been drastically altered. Those who have been disabled are in a whole different reality. I now understood the medical terminology of  living “a new normal.”

This is the first time I have written about this period in our lives. It has been like a precious trunk of pain, packed away in a corner of the attic, filled with personal things and secrets. As I’m going through the trunk now, sorting through the old things, the memories are sharp and the pain returns. But, as difficult as this is to dredge back up, I can honestly say, almost a decade and a half later, I feel no anger nor bitterness. In retrospect I see many possible sides, shades of gray where I once saw only black and white. The issues are multifaceted and complex. Sometimes we aren’t as full of integrity as we think we are, duh. Sometimes we misread others’ motives, duh again. And sometimes we just won’t be able to make sense of things, and have to be alright with that.

Grace and forgiveness have worked their way through me. But it took some time for the healing. Years. Now I can truly say, “Father, forgive us for we know not what we do.”  Because fear has a way of tempting any of us to give in to our lower natures. There’s no one exempt. Love and fear will always wrestle for preeminence. Remember George Orwell’s book, “1984” ? Peel back the obvious meaning and find a secondary theme about love and fear:  in the book,  a couple’s deep love for each other was slowly undermined and finally destroyed by a methodical system that worked on each of their deepest fears. This is how evil works. And I know that no matter how noble I may think I am; no matter how I try to take the high road — if I was given just the right set of circumstances, if my fears were played upon just right — I would cave in to my lower nature as well. Knowing this helps me be graceful.

We’ve been irrevocably changed since Mike’s health issues began. Some of the things I left behind are not to be compared with some of the treasures I have found (future blogs). Back then, though, I left in pain and despair, no doubt escorted on each side with self-pity and self-loftiness.

I went quietly. That’s my way. But the turmoil raging inside was anything but quiet. I took up art again as a means to still my mind and refocus.

An instance happened around that time which gave me a hint that God was still with us. Early one morning after some bleak night hours; “the dark night of the soul,” I asked God to speak to me if he still cared. I randomly opened my bible to the words of Paul: (Philippians 3:7-11)  “I have suffered the loss of all things…that I might know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings.”  I felt like the voice of God was speaking directly to me. I got up with the sun and my guitar and wrote a very simple song. Impulsively I decided to visit a certain church, over an hour away. I would be late, I knew, and almost didn’t go. But the church was large, and I sat in the back, obscured in an alcove.  I was just in time for the message, which opened with this scripture and theme:

Philippians 3: 7-11. “…But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Hidden in the back row, I wept with release.

__________________________________________________________________

Never-failing Love
(A simple song I wrote one morning before the sun came up):

In the early hours of morning, I will come to you and pray,

Cause I know that you are listening, and I know you see my pain

In the quiet of this hour I will rest my anxious soul,

For I know you take the broken and I know you make them whole.

Oh, never-failing love, never-changing grace
You’re solid as they come…

I watch the first bright rays of sunlight  shoot across the eastern sky

And I’m reminded that your glory never fades, it does not die

Though sometimes obscured by darkness, the sun rises just the same

And so I know that you are with me,  and I know you know my name.

Oh, never-changing love, never-changing grace
You’re solid as they come…

In the early hours of morning I will come to you and pray

Cause I know that you are with me and I know you are the way

In the stillness of this hour I will rest my anxious soul,

For I know you take the broken and I know you make them whole.

Stones In The Road, part 8

“The Elephant in the Room” by Michael Plumb

stonesHave you ever had suicidal thoughts?” Is one of the questions on all those medical forms you have to fill out. In one weak moment I checked the box next to that question. It could have just been one or two fleeting thoughts, but it was enough to alarm my health care providers. You may wonder why I could even harbor such a thought, with so much still going for me. Let’s put it this way . . .

______________________________________

The New York Giants have a motto, “Talk is cheap, play the game.” (Leave it to a New Yorker to be so insensitive in an otherwise politically correct world.) In San Francisco they have their own motto about the game, “Let’s have some reasonable discourse with each other and think about the meaning of the game.” (Okay, I made this 39558_AndGodSaidPlayBallone up.)

But for those in the real world who actually show up to play with all-out abandon, the potential of being taken out of the game is far greater than for those who are merely spectators. A player will eventually be dropped from the line-up. Aside from death or early retirement, there are injuries, moral infractions, irreconcilable differences, family problems and losing one’s edge. From the mundane to the catastrophic, anything can take us out of the game.

The aftermath for anyone who becomes catastrophically unproductive will eventually be the same. In New York, because talk is cheap, they just toss the loser over the side of the boat. In California, they have a more therapeutic approach — convincing the loser to throw himself over the side of the boat. From the perspective of anyone who has gone from being an active producer that everyone respects to being sidelined, out of commission and forgotten—the result is devastating.thrown overboard

To broaden this, anyone who has spent twenty or more years in the harshest conditions of training and equipping to prepare them to be the best they can be, only to be eliminated from their purpose, cannot help but wrestle with the burden that it was all for nothing. This kind of personal crisis is one of life’s hardest experiences. Few can overcome without becoming jaded or cynical for the rest of their lives. My wife, Maggie, and I understand this winner-to-loser dilemma first-hand — our experience in the active game of life spans nearly 30 years. Our expulsion was crushing.

The next few years would require courage of another sort beyond what Maggie and I possessed at the time.

Learning to live with ongoing major physical problems, severe pain and multiple surgeries has a way of bringing one down a few notches. My super-hero status in my own mind was sent to the recycle bin. The constant battle with severe pain took much of the idealism out of my pursuit of the risk-taking kind of spirituality.

Even trying to continue as a bench-sitter, where I could at least play in the game as a part-time adviser, rooting for my pastor wife Maggie, turned out to be just as unrealistic as the Baltimore Orioles beating out the Yankees for a chance to play in the World Series. There comes a point when you throw in the towel because you’ve lost so much strength you can’t even pull off being minimally active. The last straw, especially for Maggie, was when friends in higher places (my health care providers to be exact) directly intervened in our future. They feared I might become suicidal.

So we were pressed on every side to see a professional who would help us make this drastic life-change—a return to the small. This was not just the first psychiatrist in the yellow pages, but a high-profile shrink who mostly worked with big-name athletes facing career-ending injuries. In many ways our life dream had been peaking, by seeing a spiritual community come into being that actually worked. I suppose the ending of this dream and the demisshrinke of my physical health was a dramatic disappointment similar to that of an athlete at the top of his or her game being taken out by a career-ending injury.

When I walked through the hand-carved cedar door into the shrink’s Asian motif office, it was the beginning of the end of my “first life.” The corduroy jeans, the turtleneck sweater, cool in a hip, thinned-down Buddha way — here sat the medicine man who removed my thin veil of god-like mortality and reduced me to a couch potato. Doctor “Springtail” eventually beat Maggie and I into subjection to the inevitable. It was more like he wore me down, putting me through every new age exercise known to the universe, taking me from adventuring pioneer to yes, little grasshopper, spend your final days watching Spongebob Square Pants.

uh, Dr. Springtail, does this mean I get an A on my psychological profile?

Our therapy began with he and I sitting in lotus position sharing a cup of herbal tea. This seems innocent enough but in reality it was physically painful for me due to the spinal degeneration. The thought of seeing ex-athletes doing this in his office, especially maybe a big ex-football line-man, made me want to laugh. Was this the point? The visits got more interesting as we went along. Some sessions he would attach probes to my head that connected to a box with lots of little flashing lights. Then he would do odd things like pointing out strange artifacts in the room, asking me questions like, “What does that Buddha hanging on a cross suggest to you?” There were the sessions where he’d have me wear ear phones while playing goofy sounds that he called birthing music. Not only would I have to listen to this, he had me sitting cross-legged in just my underwear. According to the doctor this would disarm all my walls of defenses. At this point I wondered if he’d been a CIA shrink. Seemed like straight out of their “How-to extract information” manual.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????

Instructions: plug in and let the healing begin.

After several such sessions with Dr. Springtail, his half-hearted conclusion about me was I had a slight touch of Jesus martyr syndrome. I asked him if he ever told his famous athletes anything like that. He replied,

“No Michael, you are my most unique patient.”

And you are a most unique shrink” I replied.

The next several sessions up until my last visit seemed more curiosity on his part than psychoanalysis. We would sit in a normal fashion in his private office. Then he proceeded by asking me to tell him about my adventures in following Jesus, especially the encounters with the supernatural that he referred to as the magic. He would want to hear every detail. He could care less about my personality hang ups, my work as a professional therapist and family counselor, being a pastor, or my family dynamics. This was no longer a patient-doctor relationship, it had morphed into two men seeking deeper meaning to life as equals. He said he didn’t doubt my Jesus adventures for a moment.

Later Doc Springtail confessed to me that he had been the son of a Methodist pastor but gave up Christianity due to discouragement from what he saw as a lack of authenticity in its followers. That day we continued another hour and a half through his lunch break. Doctor Springtail said he left the church looking for a deeper supernatural atmosphere, something more on the order of mine. I asked him if he found some authentic stuff in what he was doing now. He said, “I think I’m closer.”

Then Doc Springtail’s high-priced sessions of $200 per 55 minutes finally paid off. (Luckily for my insurance.) The final session was with both Maggie and me. The Doc said his purpose in the therapy was not just to convince me to face the severity of my condition, but just as importantly to convince Maggie that she had to let go of seeing the completion of her/our lifelong dreams, now being blown away in the wind. He was convinced that our life was changing from high-energy to a snail’s pace, we now needed to learn to live small. My body could not handle the stress of ministry any longer. All my doctors had conferred with each other, agreeing that my spinal condition would only worsen, making any kind of normal life impossible.

elephqant in roomThis was Doctor Springtail’s final appeal, saying our lives from now on would be like having an elephant tag along wherever we went, and this very unwanted house guest would stick like the smell of death. This is the famous “elephant in the room” analogy. The helping professions use this particular word-picture because an elephant is pretty hard to ignore — plus someone has to clean up the droppings. To be honest, that job had fallen on Maggie and the kids far too often.

The elephant analogy has proven to be a good one if such things can be called good. Neither science (through nine operations), nor dozens of times I’ve gone for prayer (even to the extent of traveling great distances), have proven effective in healing my body altogether . . .yet. But the story isn’t over. So,  you learn, you cope, life goes on. But in the meantime, how do you live?

The best words that Dr. Springtail left us with, the words that stuck, was a saying of Mother Theresa’s, something like,

No more big things, only small things with great love.

Part 9: The New Normal, by Margaret Plumb

So, these two avid adventurers began our “new normal.” Retired with disability. Life with chronic pain and numerous health complications. Life with the elephant in the living room. This meant taking one day at a time, learning to live with the ebb and flow of the bad days and the good days and, back then, they were about 2 to 1, respectively.

Mike was referred to the pain clinic, a group of doctors specializing in pain management. We learned the cycle of being in and out of doctor’s offices, of multiple surgeries, of both outpatient and hospital stays, perpetual MRI’s, tests and more tests, countless cortisone shots, the many medications, the medications to counter the other medications, the changes of medications, and all the side effects of each. This whole medicine thing was much more traumatizing for me than all of the emergencies and surgeries put together. Mike is extremely sensitive to medications, his system seems to react to almost everything. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that over the course of 12 years Michael has had over 100 medicine changes, each one an experiment, trial and error, an attempt to find one or a combination that worked for him. Certainly this was hard on his system, and just as certainly it was hard on mine. Yes, I was not the one in pain, but absorbing all the side consequences  of the medications — the mood swings, the mental, emotional and physical side effects — is no picnic. Mike probably experienced every side effect on the list except for sudden death syndrome, and he came close to that at times as well.  All the personality changes made me wonder at times which was the real Mike.  I remember a few times being afraid to leave the house because he was experiencing a bad side effect of a new medication: suicidal thoughts. He was so scarily down, that I needed to call in people to “sit” with him and watch him if I needed to go out. And then, midway through our decade-plus health crises, Mike had a heart attack and an emergency triple-bypass which complicated treatments, as back and heart sometimes needed opposite care….

Managing and navigating a social life amid all of this proved to be a challenge. We had to be really fluid with our plans, which meant having to cancel many social functions at the last minute, or be noncommittal. Or leave early from events. Sometimes in social settings, others’ feelings would get hurt; taking Mike’s moods personally. Most people did not understand, since there was little visibly wrong, and Mike can appear vital and healthy in the midst of big-time pain. He does have a high tolerance for pain and doesn’t complain about it, so many don’t know what he’s going through. We ended up dropping a lot of casual acquaintances during this time, it was just too difficult.  Even with our own family gatherings, noise and energy would get to him, and he’d often retreat to his bedroom. Yes, even our kids did not understand altogether. I believe they were still in denial of the change in their dad. They still couldn’t get used to seeing their active, energetic and catalyst father losing his essence. In every way that they had looked up to him, a hero, bigger than life—it had all changed. He was becoming a different person, and I don’t know how much of it they were able to accept. But one thing that did not change was Mike’s faith. He continued to believe in the love of God for him, and was always able to worship, regardless of pain or questions. This was a great example to all of us.

I looked at this as OUR trial. It was way more than one person being sick. We were in it together, it affected both of us. Countless people over the years would ask, How is Mike? Sometimes this was  a conversation opener, more often people were genuinely concerned. Very rarely,  someone — who usually had been through it themselves and understood– would say, “How are you doing? Being a caretaker is a lonely business, you become a social mediator, a buffer between your spouse and the outside world; a “press agent”, you are a health advocate, navigating through bureaucracy and a zillion options, you need to be a comforter to your spouse, yet also have to be tough at times, have to make judgment calls and hard decisions when they are unable to.

The inevitability of growing old brings health challenges with it, and we sort of expect that. Yet we fell headlong into our health trials early; Mike was in his mid 40’s. At that time, we were the only ones we knew–in our age group– experiencing these issues. We were the only ones our age retired because of disability. It would have been comforting somehow to find other peers in our situation, so that’s why we write now. We humans, for some odd reason, derive strength and hope from identifying with others. It’s like, “What, you’re going through this too? I thought I was all alone.” I am writing this, not to whine or gripe or dis on my lot in life — but to be open and honest, and hopefully someone can benefit from relating to it. The health issues threw us into another world and lifestyle we were unprepared for, compounded by the complexities of living with ongoing disease in communities that believe in healing.

I am barely scratching the surface of what would seem like negatives in our “new normal.” Yet I’m amazed at how, whatever trial we find ourselves in, there is grace. Amazing GRACE. I wish my literary side would allow me to put ten exclamation points after that. Because, joy is not absent in these hardships, contrarily, joy is what sustains us. Although unanswered questions plagued us, we still had our faith and it was deepening. We still had hope in our hearts and a hope for the hereafter. This is not an addendum to the story, as in oh yeah, by the way, there was hope. There is no way we could come through this and allow the suffering to work for good, if not for the grace of God–that unseen force that carries us and propels us forward, that blows the breath of strength into our weakness.

And, as if Grace, Joy and Hope were not enough, we were also discovering some unforeseen treasures.

SCONES in the Road….part 10

...and He shall smite the rocks and turneth our stones into scones."

…and He shall smite the rocks and turneth our stones into scones.”

It started when we were first learning to live our new normal. It was born out of necessity but has become one of our greatest joys.

We were unable to visit churches or sit for any period of time. Mike’s back couldn’t take it, or if he did, he would spend the next few days paying for it. Since we believe that fellowship is vital to the Christian lifestyle, we decided to hold meetings in our home, where he could be comfortable. Many from the Vine (our previous church plant) were wanting to know what we were doing so they could be a part of it. But we discouraged most of them; causing a split with our old church was the last thing we wanted or needed. But we did stick with one couple in our church who’d become good friends, and who probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere else; the guy was converted in our church.

We started meeting in our home with this couple, plus some people who had moved into Eugene from other parts of the country, and who’d read our description of Oasis Ministries (something we founded after the Vine, a broad-scoped ministry based on supporting and fueling other new ministries, spiritual entrepreneurs, creativity, the arts and innovation).

We began with a few single people, a few married couples. We needed a support group at that time, so we didn’t publicize our meetings, they were kept underground because we didn’t want it growing.  It didn’t take long, though, for the Vineyard pastors in town, Mike and Gabby French, to find out about us and ask to join our group. They had lost their church as well, and Gabby had suffered many bouts of cancer. So we met in our home for about a year and then began switching around to others’ homes. The gatherings were/are built on a system of support based on feeding the spirit, the soul, and the body.

The Body: we always have a meal together each time we meet.

The Soul: we remain friends, we do things together, we laugh and play, converse.

Spiritual: we worship a lot together. Everyone loves to worship which makes this a wonderful experience. We pray for each other and share scriptures. Sometimes someone may have a specific teaching, but mostly everything is done rather spontaneously.

We wrote about this group in “Going to the Sun.” Here is an excerpt:

These past eleven years Maggie and I have survived largely by a support group of friends who’ve become like family to us. We’re not exactly what you’d call a church, though we pray for each other and do some group activities like feeding the homeless, taking trips together, and singing at nursing homes. We number about 15-25 and meet at least once a week, taking turns in each others’ homes. Many bring all types of musical instruments. Some nights the songs are intimate and meaningful, some nights it’s an all-out hoedown. Singing together has become a lost activity in many segments of our society, but not for us. We can jam the night away in a spontaneity that rivals the Grateful Dead. We always have a meal together, and some, like chefs-gone-wild, go over the top to bring something special each week, except my wife and I who often grab something at Safeway at the last minute. She justifies this, saying she leads in the music every week and works her fingers to the bone on the guitar strings. Each week is a feast, from pulled pork to Thai Food and everything in between. Some of the secrets to our longevity, besides the food, are great tolerance and . . . lowered expectations (insert music notes here). All of us have irregular personalities that could be deal-breakers, but we’ve committed to hang in there with each other, regardless. Funny how others’ irritating quirks sort of disappear when you’re committed to love.

Some in the group have specific compassion to work with the homeless community, others hang with the dread-lock crowd, still others are teachers and professionals. There are ex-pastors, science-brainers, artists, carpenters, writers. We have almost equal numbers of married couples and singles. We help each other with projects, including working together on our kids’ weddings. We stay energized by the young people involved, who divert us from ranting about our aches and pains, a run-away-train of a conversation if let loose. When we see the whites of their eyes rolling back, we get the hint.

When we meet, we talk about everything from bible verses to empty nest syndrome, to how we derive meaning in life, to dogs and their habits. Quantum physics and genealogy. We laugh a lot. We argue over health care, we discuss the war. We have just about every view possible on politics and still love each other. This alone is worth the cost of admission.”

Imagine a modern family deciding to change their dinner habits; to turn off the i-phones, the computers, the T.V., and sit down at the table each night to eat together as a family. At first it may seem awkward and boring, but after the deprogramming, they just may re-learn how to converse, exchange ideas, explore the rhythm of  talking and listening, and discover each other again. The dinner hour may well become the highlight of their day.

 Our culture is so geared toward high-energy entertainment; programmed, structured, and leader-led events, that we don’t know what to do with ourselves without it. In our gatherings we are re-discovering how to just be with each other—lowered expectations and all. No microphones. Returning to simplicity. Waiting for and allowing the room to fill up with the presence of God in worship. Listening to hear him speaking through others. Discerning GOD in each other.  Each gathering is different, and we look to find Jesus in whatever way he chooses to show up. We enjoy it the same if there is a very small group or a larger one. Because everyone matters. It hasn’t always been easy, but a commitment to love unconditionally has been the key to longevity. That, and some killer good food and good worship.

When we started this group, we needed something safe. We needed sabbatical. We needed friendship, support and emotional healing. So we were cautious about who we let in, which was a whole new practice for us—we’d always been about inclusiveness and reaching out. But since each of us maintains our (individual) arenas of outreach, plus, as a group we try to do activities to bless others, we trust that keeps us from being ingrown. Although we visit other churches periodically, plus for six years I led worship weekly at a community church — with state-of the art sound system, full band and the whole nine yards — I always considered (and still do) this Monday night group my main church. It’s sustained us for the last 13 years, with less trauma and drama than even a tenth of all the previous combined 30 years of church.

Mike and I are committed to being there every week, like Woody Allen said: 90% of success is just showing up. But, there is no performance, no pretense, no image-consciousness. We are relaxed and free to be ourselves. We’ve seen each other through the good the bad and the ugly. Some have come and gone during the course of this time, or moved away, and we remain friends with them, but for the most part we’re all still together. Others have joined us, too. We do whatever we can to cultivate love, honor, acceptance, and friendship, as we’re all so different and have different things that drive us. In this age where people change churches more often than they change their oil, this is a priceless thing. And necessary as we’re aging and will need each other more and more for support.

There is a scripture, “…we have this treasure in earthen vessels…” We’re rediscovering the treasure, Jesus, in each other. This Monday night group (just call us Second Day Adventists?)  is merely one of the unforeseen treasures that have come our way. What was born out of necessity has become our mainstay. One day, when pondering the drastic changes in our lives since we moved to Eugene, I was reminded of something. I remembered that when we first moved down here, it was with a mission to return to our first love and our first works. In a large sense, this was a returning to our first love and first works. Because, in almost exactly the same organic way, this is how we embraced community during the first few exciting years of our newfound journey with Christ.

To Be Continued…

What’s a quasi-technically savvy middle-aged woman to do?

I think I can get by well enough in the internet-tech age. In some areas quite well, in fact. In many more instances I have blaring, gaping holes in my technical knowledge. Ah, life in the purgatory between being totally ignorant of technology, and a techno-whiz. Maybe I’d be better off in one of the two camps. It’s the in between that gets me.

Case in point: Two days in the life of me…

I am helping to host one of the baby showers for my pregnant daughter. I need to pick up shower invites right away.  I am running behind on this, I should have done it last week. I’ve got to get some invites sent off today!

  1. Mike drops me off at a party supply store, while he goes over to shop groceries. Surely, at a party store, there will be a huge variety of invitations to pick from. Not so; they carry just a few, and most of those are for either a girl or a boy, which won’t work. Not that this is an alien baby or anything–my daughter and husband have chosen not to know the gender of their baby in advance. A completely foreign concept today, but my daughter is a throw-back to quainter times. I must have read too many “Little House” books to my girls.
  2. I walk over to a craft store to see if they have invitations, but no, just the crafts to make them. I am a painter, not a craft person, so that will not work.
  3. Can’t call Mike to let him know where to pick me up, as my phone, which has been giving me nothing but trouble since I got it, finally bit the dust earlier today and I cannot turn it on.bad cell phone
  4. I walk to the store where Mike is grocery shopping and run into an old friend/acquaintance I haven’t seen for years. Of course there is the obligatory 10-15 minute catch-up. Which also means Mike has probably finished shopping and left the store.
  5. Can’t find Mike; after wandering in the parking lot and store for an hour (neither of our cell phones is working), we finally find each other. We are tired, but need to finish this errand, which has taken a lot longer than anticipated.
  6. We stop at another store; a cheap department store which I will leave unnamed so as not to invoke the ire of Fair Trade consciousness. The store’s smiley faces do not match my own as I discover there is neither a big selection nor the right colors (yellow and gray to match the nursery), and, even if I were to purchase some,  it would cost me $25 just to buy enough.
  7. Next store:  Hallmark, a sure-fire bet of success. We find out when we get there that it has moved.
  8. After asking, someone directs me to where in the mall it is now located. I walk for 10 minutes to find it. Surprisingly, Hallmark, the bastion of all things correct and lovely for every occasion, also has a very poor selection. I have by now given up on the gray and yellow theme and I compromise on a green diaper card (no, not that color of green) with whimsical caricatures on it. But the ones I settle on, I discover there are only two boxes. Not enough. Besides that, had there been enough, it would have cost me over $30. The other packages (of ten each) are a make-it-yourself kit.  Again, $30 dollars for the total amount I need as well. Hmmm, it’s more expensive to “make” my own? (using all their ideas and parameters.)
  9. I go home hungry and tired, after all my failed attempts….and then… Big Idea!  Why not really go original; design and paint my own? I have an idea for a slogan that I haven’t seen before. Besides that, I can create it in the right colors! I can cut down on costs by just copying the original.

(Next day) Today!

  1. Paint the picture! This is the easy part.
  2. Go to find the camera to take pic of painting—uh oh, , battery is dead.
  3. Look for the battery charger which we always keep in the car, but it’s not there. After scouring the house for it, I finally find it!
  4. Discover that the the battery to my new camera does not fit in this battery charger of my old one (which got lost about 6 months ago) even though it looked like the same size.
  5. Okay, another plan. I find Mike’s camera, although not quite as good as mine, it will have to do.
  6. Discover batteries are dead.
  7. Change batteries, then set it all up on the tripod to take pic.
  8. Discover that the shutter will not push down.
  9. After Mike looks at it and tries to fix it, decides that it’s irreparably damaged.mikes camara
  10. Go to Bi-Mart in our little town to buy a battery charger for my new camera.
  11. After looking for clerk for 10 minutes, I find her, only to find out Bi-mart does not carry those.
  12. Almost decide to drive into Eugene, 25 minutes away and $8 dollars of gas each trip. Decide to wait until we go in later, with a dinner date.
  13. New Big Idea: scan the painting into the computer! Why didn’t I think of that earlier? Of course!
  14. Bring laptop over to the scanner, plug in USB chord, but then battery goes dead on computer. Find the cord ( it only takes me 2 minutes, a record!) and electric outlet near scanner to plug into.
  15. Try to scan. After running for 10 minutes—scanning attempt failed. Try again, same amount of time. Try one more time to no avail.
  16. New Idea! Text daughter, Kayla, to see if I can borrow her camera out of her and Aaron’s house (they live next door)
  17. Although she is working, she will sometimes text back. Wait for awhile, no answer.
  18. Another idea, text Aaron (my son-in-law)! He always responds, you can count on him for that.
  19. I go to text Aaron (on Mike’s cell phone) and realize that I do not have Aaron’s number memorized, and discover that Mike does not have Aaron’s number  in his cell address book.  Mike does not have any numbers in his address data base. Mike has not set up an address book. Mike is less technically savvy than even I.
  20. I then see my cell phone on the table and without thinking, grab it to text Aaron– only to remember that my cell phone does not work now.messy-desk

Well, there you have it. Another productive two days in the life of Margaret Plumb. The Perils of Peggy.  You are either totally relating to this, or, if you’re a ducks-in-a-row type of person, reading this with appall and disbelief and mouth hanging agape. If the latter, you are probably itching to help me organize my life and point out a few obvious errors in my actions. But perhaps, you may have already decided that I’m a hopeless case, after discovering a clue to my existence on my list. (Hint: number 10– “I painted a picture, and that was the easy part.” )

Tonight I go to Staples to try to finish this job that has only taken me two days so far.

Who knows, that may be a whole other blog for tomorrow?

SAM_0160

Please donate to the technically-challenged. Since I spent 1 hour and 2 days on this, figuring my time at $25 an hour, that makes these a $425 invitation. For a fraction of that, you can help me recoup my costs and order them for your own announcements or shower party: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/1-baby-on-the-horizon-margaret-plumb.html

Unforeseen Treasures…Scones in the Road

...and He shall smite the rocks and turneth our stones into scones."

…and He shall smite the rocks and turneth our stones into scones.”

by Margaret Plumb (continued from part 8)

So, these two avid adventurers began our “new normal.” Retired with disability. Life with chronic pain and numerous health complications. Life with the elephant in the living room. This meant taking one day at a time, learning to live with the ebb and flow of the bad days and the good days and, back then, they were about 2 to 1, respectively.

Mike was referred to the pain clinic, a group of doctors specializing in pain management. We learned the cycle of being in and out of doctor’s offices, of multiple surgeries, of both outpatient and hospital stays, perpetual MRI’s, tests and more tests, countless cortisone shots, the many medications, the medications to counter the other medications, the changes of medications, and all the side effects of each. This whole medicine thing was much more traumatizing for me than all of the emergencies and surgeries put together. Mike is extremely sensitive to medications, his system seems to react to almost everything. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that over the course of 12 years Michael has had over 100 medicine changes, each one an experiment, trial and error, an attempt to find one or a combination that worked for him. Certainly this was hard on his system, and just as certainly it was hard on mine. Yes, I was not the one in pain, but absorbing all the side consequences  of the medications — the mood swings, the mental, emotional and physical side effects — is no picnic. Mike probably experienced every side effect on the list except for sudden death syndrome, and he came close to that at times as well.  All the personality changes made me wonder at times which was the real Mike.  I remember a few times being afraid to leave the house because he was experiencing a bad side effect of a new medication: suicidal thoughts. He was so scarily down, that I needed to call in people to “sit” with him and watch him if I needed to go out. And then, midway through our decade-plus health crises, Mike had a heart attack and an emergency triple-bypass which complicated treatments, as back and heart sometimes needed opposite care….

Managing and navigating a social life amid all of this proved to be a challenge. We had to be really fluid with our plans, which meant having to cancel many social functions at the last minute, or be noncommittal. Or leave early from events. Sometimes in social settings, others’ feelings would get hurt; taking Mike’s moods personally. Most people did not understand, since there was little visibly wrong, and Mike can appear vital and healthy in the midst of big-time pain. He does have a high tolerance for pain and doesn’t complain about it, so many don’t know what he’s going through. We ended up dropping a lot of casual acquaintances during this time, it was just too difficult.  Even with our own family gatherings, noise and energy would get to him, and he’d often retreat to his bedroom. Yes, even our kids did not understand altogether. I believe they were still in denial of the change in their dad. They still couldn’t get used to seeing their active, energetic and catalyst father losing his essence. In every way that they had looked up to him, a hero, bigger than life—it had all changed. He was becoming a different person, and I don’t know how much of it they were able to accept. But one thing that did not change was Mike’s faith. He continued to believe in the love of God for him, and was always able to worship, regardless of pain or questions. This was a great example to all of us.

I looked at this as OUR trial. It was way more than one person being sick. We were in it together, it affected both of us. Countless people over the years would ask, How is Mike? Sometimes this was  a conversation opener, more often people were genuinely concerned. Very rarely,  someone — who usually had been through it themselves and understood– would say, “How are you doing? Being a caretaker is a lonely business, you become a social mediator, a buffer between your spouse and the outside world; a “press agent”, you are a health advocate, navigating through bureaucracy and a zillion options, you need to be a comforter to your spouse, yet also have to be tough at times, have to make judgment calls and hard decisions when they are unable to.

The inevitability of growing old brings health challenges with it, and we sort of expect that. Yet we fell headlong into our health trials early; Mike was in his mid 40’s. At that time, we were the only ones we knew–in our age group– experiencing these issues. We were the only ones our age retired because of disability. It would have been comforting somehow to find other peers in our situation, so that’s why we write now. We humans, for some odd reason, derive strength and hope from identifying with others. It’s like, “What, you’re going through this too? I thought I was all alone.” I am writing this, not to whine or gripe or dis on my lot in life — but to be open and honest, and hopefully someone can benefit from relating to it. The health issues threw us into another world and lifestyle we were unprepared for, compounded by the complexities of living with ongoing disease in communities that believe in healing.

I am barely scratching the surface of what would seem like negatives in our “new normal.” Yet I’m amazed at how, whatever trial we find ourselves in, there is grace. Amazing GRACE. I wish my literary side would allow me to put ten exclamation points after that. Because, joy is not absent in these hardships, contrarily, joy is what sustains us. Although unanswered questions plagued us, we still had our faith and it was deepening. We still had hope in our hearts and a hope for the hereafter. This is not an addendum to the story, as in oh yeah, by the way, there was hope. There is no way we could come through this and allow the suffering to work for good, if not for the grace of God–that unseen force that carries us and propels us forward, that blows the breath of strength into our weakness.

And, as if Grace, Joy and Hope were not enough, we were also discovering some unforeseen treasures.

SCONES in the Road….part 10

It started when we were first learning to live our new normal. It was born out of necessity but has become one of our greatest joys.

We were unable to visit churches or sit for any period of time. Mike’s back couldn’t take it, or if he did, he would spend the next few days paying for it. Since we believe that fellowship is vital to the Christian lifestyle, we decided to hold meetings in our home, where he could be comfortable. Many from the Vine (our previous church plant) were wanting to know what we were doing so they could be a part of it. But we discouraged most of them; causing a split with our old church was the last thing we wanted or needed. But we did stick with one couple in our church who’d become good friends, and who probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere else; the guy was converted in our church.

We started meeting in our home with this couple, plus some people who had moved into Eugene from other parts of the country, and who’d read our description of Oasis Ministries (something we founded after the Vine, a broad-scoped ministry based on supporting and fueling other new ministries, spiritual entrepreneurs, creativity, the arts and innovation).

We began with a few single people, a few married couples. We needed a support group at that time, so we didn’t publicize our meetings, they were kept underground because we didn’t want it growing.  It didn’t take long, though, for the Vineyard pastors in town, Mike and Gabby French, to find out about us and ask to join our group. They had lost their church as well, and Gabby had suffered many bouts of cancer. So we met in our home for about a year and then began switching around to others’ homes. The gatherings were/are built on a system of support based on feeding the spirit, the soul, and the body.

The Body: we always have a meal together each time we meet.

The Soul: we remain friends, we do things together, we laugh and play, converse.

Spiritual: we worship a lot together. Everyone loves to worship which makes this a wonderful experience. We pray for each other and share scriptures. Sometimes someone may have a specific teaching, but mostly everything is done rather spontaneously.

We wrote about this group in “Going to the Sun.” Here is an excerpt:

These past eleven years Maggie and I have survived largely by a support group of friends who’ve become like family to us. We’re not exactly what you’d call a church, though we pray for each other and do some group activities like feeding the homeless, taking trips together, and singing at nursing homes. We number about 15-25 and meet at least once a week, taking turns in each others’ homes. Many bring all types of musical instruments. Some nights the songs are intimate and meaningful, some nights it’s an all-out hoedown. Singing together has become a lost activity in many segments of our society, but not for us. We can jam the night away in a spontaneity that rivals the Grateful Dead. We always have a meal together, and some, like chefs-gone-wild, go over the top to bring something special each week, except my wife and I who often grab something at Safeway at the last minute. She justifies this, saying she leads in the music every week and works her fingers to the bone on the guitar strings. Each week is a feast, from pulled pork to Thai Food and everything in between. Some of the secrets to our longevity, besides the food, are great tolerance and . . . lowered expectations (insert music notes here). All of us have irregular personalities that could be deal-breakers, but we’ve committed to hang in there with each other, regardless. Funny how others’ irritating quirks sort of disappear when you’re committed to love.

Some in the group have specific compassion to work with the homeless community, others hang with the dread-lock crowd, still others are teachers and professionals. There are ex-pastors, science-brainers, artists, carpenters, writers. We have almost equal numbers of married couples and singles. We help each other with projects, including working together on our kids’ weddings. We stay energized by the young people involved, who divert us from ranting about our aches and pains, a run-away-train of a conversation if let loose. When we see the whites of their eyes rolling back, we get the hint.

When we meet, we talk about everything from bible verses to empty nest syndrome, to how we derive meaning in life, to dogs and their habits. Quantum physics and genealogy. We laugh a lot. We argue over health care, we discuss the war. We have just about every view possible on politics and still love each other. This alone is worth the cost of admission.”

Imagine a modern family deciding to change their dinner habits; to turn off the i-phones, the computers, the T.V., and sit down at the table each night to eat together as a family. At first it may seem awkward and boring, but after the deprogramming, they just may re-learn how to converse, exchange ideas, explore the rhythm of  talking and listening, and discover each other again. The dinner hour may well become the highlight of their day.

 Our culture is so geared toward high-energy entertainment; programmed, structured, and leader-led events, that we don’t know what to do with ourselves without it. In our gatherings we are re-discovering how to just be with each other—lowered expectations and all. No microphones. Returning to simplicity. Waiting for and allowing the room to fill up with the presence of God in worship. Listening to hear him speaking through others. Discerning GOD in each other.  Each gathering is different, and we look to find Jesus in whatever way he chooses to show up. We enjoy it the same if there is a very small group or a larger one. Because everyone matters. It hasn’t always been easy, but a commitment to love unconditionally has been the key to longevity. That, and some killer good food and good worship.

When we started this group, we needed something safe. We needed sabbatical. We needed friendship, support and emotional healing. So we were cautious about who we let in, which was a whole new practice for us—we’d always been about inclusiveness and reaching out. But since each of us maintains our (individual) arenas of outreach, plus, as a group we try to do activities to bless others, we trust that keeps us from being ingrown. Although we visit other churches periodically, plus for six years I led worship weekly at a community church — with state-of the art sound system, full band and the whole nine yards — I always considered (and still do) this Monday night group my main church. It’s sustained us for the last 13 years, with less trauma and drama than even a tenth of all the previous combined 30 years of church.

Mike and I are committed to being there every week, like Woody Allen said: 90% of success is just showing up. But, there is no performance, no pretense, no image-consciousness. We are relaxed and free to be ourselves. We’ve seen each other through the good the bad and the ugly. Some have come and gone during the course of this time, or moved away, and we remain friends with them, but for the most part we’re all still together. Others have joined us, too. We do whatever we can to cultivate love, honor, acceptance, and friendship, as we’re all so different and have different things that drive us. In this age where people change churches more often than they change their oil, this is a priceless thing. And necessary as we’re aging and will need each other more and more for support.

There is a scripture, “…we have this treasure in earthen vessels…” We’re rediscovering the treasure, Jesus, in each other. This Monday night group (just call us Second Day Adventists?)  is merely one of the unforeseen treasures that have come our way. What was born out of necessity has become our mainstay. One day, when pondering the drastic changes in our lives since we moved to Eugene, I was reminded of something. I remembered that when we first moved down here, it was with a mission to return to our first love and our first works. In a large sense, this was a returning to our first love and first works. Because, in almost exactly the same organic way, this is how we embraced community during the first few exciting years of our newfound journey with Christ.

To Be Continued…

“The Elephant in the Room” by Michael Plumb (Part 8 of “Stones In The Road” series)

continued from part 7….

stonesHave you ever had suicidal thoughts?” Is one of the questions on all those medical forms you have to fill out. In one weak moment I checked the box next to that question. It could have just been one or two fleeting thoughts, but it was enough to alarm my health care providers. You may wonder why I could even harbor such a thought, with so much still going for me. Let’s put it this way . . .

                               ______________________________________

The New York Giants have a motto, “Talk is cheap, play the game.” (Leave it to a New Yorker to be so insensitive in an otherwise politically correct world.) In San Francisco they have their own motto about the game, “Let’s have some reasonable discourse with each other and think about the meaning of the game.” (Okay, I made this 39558_AndGodSaidPlayBallone up.)

But for those in the real world who actually show up to play with all-out abandon, the potential of being taken out of the game is far greater than for those who are merely spectators. A player will eventually be dropped from the line-up. Aside from death or early retirement, there are injuries, moral infractions, irreconcilable differences, family problems and losing one’s edge. From the mundane to the catastrophic, anything can take us out of the game.

The aftermath for anyone who becomes catastrophically unproductive will eventually be the same. In New York, because talk is cheap, they just toss the loser over the side of the boat. In California, they have a more therapeutic approach — convincing the loser to throw himself over the side of the boat. From the perspective of anyone who has gone from being an active producer that everyone respects to being sidelined, out of commission and forgotten—the result is devastating.thrown overboard

To broaden this, anyone who has spent twenty or more years in the harshest conditions of training and equipping to prepare them to be the best they can be, only to be eliminated from their purpose, cannot help but wrestle with the burden that it was all for nothing. This kind of personal crisis is one of life’s hardest experiences. Few can overcome without becoming jaded or cynical for the rest of their lives. My wife, Maggie, and I understand this winner-to-loser dilemma first-hand — our experience in the active game of life spans nearly 30 years. Our expulsion was crushing.

The next few years would require courage of another sort beyond what Maggie and I possessed at the time.

Learning to live with ongoing major physical problems, severe pain and multiple surgeries has a way of bringing one down a few notches. My super-hero status in my own mind was sent to the recycle bin. The constant battle with severe pain took much of the idealism out of my pursuit of the risk-taking kind of spirituality.

Even trying to continue as a bench-sitter, where I could at least play in the game as a part-time adviser, rooting for my pastor wife Maggie, turned out to be just as unrealistic as the Baltimore Orioles beating out the Yankees for a chance to play in the World Series. There comes a point when you throw in the towel because you’ve lost so much strength you can’t even pull off being minimally active. The last straw, especially for Maggie, was when friends in higher places (my health care providers to be exact) directly intervened in our future. They feared I might become suicidal.

So we were pressed on every side to see a professional who would help us make this drastic life-change—a return to the small. This was not just the first psychiatrist in the yellow pages, but a high-profile shrink who mostly worked with big-name athletes facing career-ending injuries. In many ways our life dream had been peaking, by seeing a spiritual community come into being that actually worked. I suppose the ending of this dream and the demisshrinke of my physical health was a dramatic disappointment similar to that of an athlete at the top of his or her game being taken out by a career-ending injury.

When I walked through the hand-carved cedar door into the shrink’s Asian motif office, it was the beginning of the end of my “first life.” The corduroy jeans, the turtleneck sweater, cool in a hip, thinned-down Buddha way — here sat the medicine man who removed my thin veil of god-like mortality and reduced me to a couch potato. Doctor “Springtail” eventually beat Maggie and I into subjection to the inevitable. It was more like he wore me down, putting me through every new age exercise known to the universe, taking me from adventuring pioneer to yes, little grasshopper, spend your final days watching Spongebob Square Pants.

uh, mr. springtail, may I

uh, Dr. Springtail, does this mean I get an A on my psychological profile?

Our therapy began with he and I sitting in lotus position sharing a cup of herbal tea. This seems innocent enough but in reality it was physically painful for me due to the spinal degeneration. The thought of seeing ex-athletes doing this in his office, especially maybe a big ex-football line-man, made me want to laugh. Was this the point? The visits got more interesting as we went along. Some sessions he would attach probes to my head that connected to a box with lots of little flashing lights. Then he would do odd things like pointing out strange artifacts in the room, asking me questions like, “What does that Buddha hanging on a cross suggest to you?” There were the sessions where he’d have me wear ear phones while playing goofy sounds that he called birthing music. Not only would I have to listen to this, he had me sitting cross-legged in just my underwear. According to the doctor this would disarm all my walls of defenses. At this point I wondered if he’d been a CIA shrink. Seemed like straight out of their “How-to extract information” manual.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????

Instructions: plug in and let the healing begin.

After several such sessions with Dr. Springtail, his half-hearted conclusion about me was I had a slight touch of Jesus martyr syndrome. I asked him if he ever told his famous athletes anything like that. He replied, “No Michael, you are my most unique patient.”

“And you are a most unique shrink” I replied.

The next several sessions up until my last visit seemed more curiosity on his part than psychoanalysis. We would sit in a normal fashion in his private office. Then he proceeded by asking me to tell him about my adventures in following Jesus, especially the encounters with the supernatural that he referred to as the magic. He would want to hear every detail. He could care less about my personality hang ups, my work as a professional therapist and family counselor, being a pastor, or my family dynamics. This was no longer a patient-doctor relationship, it had morphed into two men seeking deeper meaning to life as equals. He said he didn’t doubt my Jesus adventures for a moment.

Later Doc Springtail confessed to me that he had been the son of a Methodist pastor but gave up Christianity due to discouragement from what he saw as a lack of authenticity in its followers. That day we continued another hour and a half through his lunch break. Doctor Springtail said he left the church looking for a deeper supernatural atmosphere, something more on the order of mine. I asked him if he found some authentic stuff in what he was doing now. He said, “I think I’m closer.”

Then Doc Springtail’s high-priced sessions of $200 per 55 minutes finally paid off. (Luckily for my insurance.) The final session was with both Maggie and me. The Doc said his purpose in the therapy was not just to convince me to face the severity of my condition, but just as importantly to convince Maggie that she had to let go of seeing the completion of her/our lifelong dreams, now being blown away in the wind. He was convinced that our life was changing from high-energy to a snail’s pace, we now needed to learn to live small. My body could not handle the stress of ministry any longer. All my doctors had conferred with each other, agreeing that my spinal condition would only worsen, making any kind of normal life impossible.

elephqant in roomThis was Doctor Springtail’s final appeal, saying our lives from now on would be like having an elephant tag along wherever we went, and this very unwanted house guest would stick like the smell of death. This is the famous “elephant in the room” analogy. The helping professions use this particular word-picture because an elephant is pretty hard to ignore — plus someone has to clean up the droppings. To be honest, that job had fallen on Maggie and the kids far too often.

The elephant analogy has proven to be a good one if such things can be called good. Neither science (through nine operations), nor dozens of times I’ve gone for prayer (even to the extent of traveling great distances), have proven effective in healing my body altogether . . .yet. But the story isn’t over. So,  you learn, you cope, life goes on. But in the meantime, how do you live?

The best words that Dr. Springtail left us with, the words that stuck, was a saying of Mother Theresa’s, something like,

No more big things, only small things with great love.

(to be continued . . .)

 

“Stones in the Road” Part 6 (Stop Children, What’s that Sound) & Part 7 (The Sounds of Silence) by Margaret Plumb

One night Mike had a vivid dream. We, along with many friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, were riding on a carnival carousel. The ponies were going up and down and we were all engaged in the ride. Suddenly, Mike and a few others, specific people he knew, flew off the platform, onto the ground. He wasn’t able to get back on. He wasn’t even able to get back up, but reached out his hand toward the people on the carousel as they went circling around and around. No one saw him to help.
stones
(Continuing from Stones in the Road, part 5)…

So, Mike and I sort of switched leadership roles. Although we had worked as a team, it was like 60/40, now it became 40/60.

There’s a fine art to leadership. And much abuse of it. But the lack of it is not  pretty either. Unless there is some sort of guidance, eventually someone or some agenda will take over, and far too often it will be self-interest, not the interests of the whole group.  At the Vine, our church plant, there were some who were chomping at the bit to take over spiritual influence when Mike got sick, to steer it in a direction that we had not founded it on. So I took on more responsibility of the leadership. Mike and our denomination backed me up on this. I am not a natural leader, but if there is a vacuum, I can step in.

And for those who have been soured by “leaders” this is what I mean: I mean someone who helps facilitate so that everyone has a voice and not just a few dominant ones. A leader is not there to take control, but to keep those who like to control, and those who have a thirst for power, from pushing themselves in. A leader has a gift and responsibility to maintain the spirit of freedom and love and honesty and allow it to prevail. To keep the main thing the main thing. To be aware of other agendas that compete with the main thing. To protect the bottom line—LOVE. Which, by the way, is no milk-toast word, it’s about the meatiest word that exists, demanding a courage beyond our own strength. Show me a place where multiple leaders (plural) are working together in cooperation, humility, and love, and I’ll show you a happy, free, healthy and thriving place, full of synergistic energy and creativity and LIFE  spilling out of all sides and running out to those who are thirsty.

Just sayin’.

Well, this looks good on paper…But, in fact, we had experienced it during various pockets of time. And it was an incredible  thing.

I tried to keep it all working. I tried my best to keep love posted as the banner over our doors at the Vine. With Michael’s health demanding much of my attention, though, I did not have the where-with-all to lead well. And Mike became so preoccupied with his deteriorating health and pain that I felt alone in trying to keep our dream. Sometime in the middle of all this Mike resigned, and I kept going for a while, attempting to preserve something he’d want to return to when he got well. It took some outside interference; a session in  a “pain psychologist’s” office (More on that in next blogs, but no, Bill Murray, it was not pain therapy) to pry my hand off the plow and see that Mike’s health was not going to be a peripheral issue. Finally I ended up resigning as well. My last message at the Vine compared the difference between love and power, and was a plea to let Love be the bottom line AND the highest goal. I was about to  be tested on that for many dark days. I was to learn many things.

We got a great send-off and were blessed and honored. We hoped to continue to attend the Vine and maintain a more advisory role. That desire was not to be. In no time at all, things got weird there, for lack of a better word. There was no way to define the spirit in the air. The spirit of grace that had been painstakingly cultivated changed into something more like paranoia. Whatever it was, it was definitely not the spirit of Christ as I knew him. But in His name, Paranoia, Confusion, Anger, and Suspicion were having a party, and I wasn’t invited. I went anyway, but Mama told me not to come; you play with fire and you’ll get burnt. Yet, I was still in battle mode, still wanting to counter this departure from the feeling of community. I couldn’t make sense of this drastic change in attitude and to this day still have no idea what whirlwind of confusion whipped through our church. I do suspect that power and false spirituality teamed up together to form an alliance.

I tried to keep attending but began to feel pushed out. Nothing I could put my finger on, but as real as night and day. I had no idea what was going on and why all of a sudden there was coldness toward us where there once was warmth. Anyone in the work force who has been through a business management change knows what I’m talking about. The old guard is usually forced out in lieu of the new. The thinking is: Better to start clean with the new vision. And sometimes, if the old won’t leave quietly, some extra leverage is needed to do the ousting, dirty tricks or whatever is necessary to make them look bad.  At some point we felt our whole family was being attacked. We now were becoming a liability. A power shift was eminent, and we needed to be routed out. Common business practices but not what I expected in our church. The barbs toward us were sharp and carefully aimed to find their most effective mark. There was something insidious about the attack which told me that evil was a partner in it. What is more painful for a woman than seeing those she loves being demeaned? My husband, and my sons! (who had a youth ministry to the grunge kids.)

I was torn apart inside. The pain of this rejection, the confusion of evil, and the erosion of everything we had worked for, on top of the bad turn with Mike’s health, was like salt in the wound.

In all fairness, this wasn’t from everybody in the church, not by a long-shot. Just a small few who were chummy with each other, a handful of those who took it upon themselves to make the transition and change direction. The majority probably didn’t know, and perhaps they felt rejected by us, too, because we resigned. But we were weakened and unable to fight any other battles. I needed my energy to focus in on Mike and his health, to be his advocate in the medical maze of red tape. And, while some around us were cultivating paranoia, we had our own fears to deal with: fear of the unknown in regards to Mike’s health, because it was seeming like more than back issues.

A few weeks later I visited at the Vine (Mike had a rough week and wasn’t able to sit in chairs with his back.) and just felt strange. I didn’t belong. There I was, feeling like an outsider in the church we had founded. And then I realized that they truly were a different church, the personality had morphed into something that wasn’t who we were. And that if I were to be true to our beliefs, I needed to recognize that and let them be. That was our theology, that the church is the people and the people are the church. And so, after an internal struggle, I blessed them in my heart and left quietly afterward, never to visit again. Shortly after that the church changed their name. The shift was complete.

In less than a year they closed their doors.

Part 7: The Sounds of Silence

So, I let it all go. The church, my eldership role, pastoring and leading worship. Let go of being co-editor of Branches magazine, writing the articles, the writer’s guild. I gave up marketing my C.D and quit any touring. And my two sons left home as well. I felt empty-nested, was out of a job, out of purpose and looking at a bleak future. The disillusionment that I had been holding at bay came flooding in. My hope was seriously deferred.

The silence was deafening. We went from being popular, noticed, beloved, treasured, respected and cared for, to . . . nothing. I even missed the phone ringing, which is highly unusual. (See blog: https://plumbliners.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/confessions-of-a-phonaphobiac/) Popularity and limelight are not all they’re cracked up to be. I saw from the outside how people like to chum up with those perceived to be in power, and dropped when that influence fades. Eric Clapton’s blues song, Nobody knows You When You’re Down and Out  sums up something quite similar.  I had no idea who my friends were. I dared not even try to keep any lest I be accused of “sheep-stealing.” I have a huge aversion to gossip (thanks to Mom), so I avoided sharing my story with anyone, so as not to discredit anyone. Taking the “high road” at times like these has sometimes resulted in isolation and loneliness. But I didn’t trust my anger to not seep out. Where do old pastors go?

We were on that carousel in Mike’s dream. Health issues had forced us out of the game of life. Too early. The pain was more acute because we were still in our “productive” years. The world, as well as some of the American church world, wants energy, youth, ambition. And when you are no longer useful and fall off, you are forgotten. It’s for this reason that we write,  to make people more aware. Because, how opposite is that from the gospel of Jesus, who calls ALL to him who are weary? Who says he did not come for those who are healthy, but for those who need a physician? There are huge masses of people who can’t even make it to church let alone sit in an uncomfortable pew. Who feel left by the side of the road or thrown off the carousel because of illness, while life spins on without them. But meantime their  world has been drastically altered. Those who have been disabled are in a whole different reality. I now understood the medical terminology of  living “a new normal.”

This is the first time I have written about this period in our lives. It has been like a precious trunk of pain, packed away in a corner of the attic, filled with personal things and secrets. As I’m going through the trunk now, sorting through the old things, the memories are sharp and the pain returns. But, as difficult as this is to dredge back up, I can honestly say, almost a decade and a half later, I feel no anger nor bitterness. In retrospect I see many possible sides, shades of gray where I once saw only black and white. The issues are multifaceted and complex. Sometimes we aren’t as full of integrity as we think we are, duh. Sometimes we misread others’ motives, duh again. And sometimes we just won’t be able to make sense of things, and have to be alright with that.

Grace and forgiveness have worked their way through me. But it took some time for the healing. Years. Now I can truly say, “Father, forgive us for we know not what we do.”  Because fear has a way of tempting any of us to give in to our lower natures. There’s no one exempt. Love and fear will always wrestle for preeminence. Remember George Orwell’s book, “1984” ? Peel back the obvious meaning and find a secondary theme about love and fear:  in the book,  a couple’s deep love for each other was slowly undermined and finally destroyed by a methodical system that worked on each of their deepest fears. This is how evil works. And I know that no matter how noble I may think I am; no matter how I try to take the high road — if I was given just the right set of circumstances, if my fears were played upon just right — I would cave in to my lower nature as well. Knowing this helps me be graceful.

We’ve been irrevocably changed since Mike’s health issues began. Some of the things I left behind are not to be compared with some of the treasures I have found (future blogs). Back then, though, I left in pain and despair, no doubt escorted on each side with self-pity and self-loftiness.

I went quietly. That’s my way. But the turmoil raging inside was anything but quiet. I took up art again as a means to still my mind and refocus.

An instance happened around that time which gave me a hint that God was still with us. Early one morning after some bleak night hours; “the dark night of the soul,” I asked God to speak to me if he still cared. I randomly opened my bible to the words of Paul: (Philippians 3:7-11)  “I have suffered the loss of all things…that I might know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings.”  I felt like the voice of God was speaking directly to me. I got up with the sun and my guitar and wrote a very simple song. Impulsively I decided to visit a certain church, over an hour away. I would be late, I knew, and almost didn’t go. But the church was large, and I sat in the back, obscured in an alcove.  I was just in time for the message, which opened with this scripture and theme:

Philippians 3: 7-11. “…But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Hidden in the back row, I wept with release.

__________________________________________________________________

Never-failing Love
(A simple song I wrote one morning before the sun came up):

In the early hours of morning, I will come to you and pray,

Cause I know that you are listening, and I know you see my pain

In the quiet of this hour I will rest my anxious soul,

For I know you take the broken and I know you make them whole.

Oh, never-failing love, never-changing grace
You’re solid as they come…

I watch the first bright rays of sunlight  shoot across the eastern sky

And I’m reminded that your glory never fades, it does not die

Though sometimes obscured by darkness, the sun rises just the same

And so I know that you are with me,  and I know you know my name.

Oh, never-changing love, never-changing grace
You’re solid as they come…

In the early hours of morning I will come to you and pray

Cause I know that you are with me and I know you are the way

In the stillness of this hour I will rest my anxious soul,

For I know you take the broken and I know you make them whole.

Stones in the Road, part 5: “Everybody Hurts . . . Sometimes” by Margaret Plumb

ImageFor every hardship I experience, there’s an inner Catholic telling me it’s not nearly as bad as what others have faced– which makes it difficult to write about our plight. The self-censoring in my head tells me I am not worthy to consider my sufferings in light of others’. The drill goes something like this: “Who are you to tell your story? Why is yours any more special? Plenty of others have it much worse. This is the silly trial of a privileged American; some in third world countries are facing genocide.”  And so on. Add my mother’s voice to that: “There are starving children in Africa.”

To compare sufferings, though, seems as useless as comparing blessings. Hardship and suffering are all relative. One man’s trauma is another man’s mere annoyance. The fact remains that pain is pain; be it emotional, mental or physical, and regardless of whether we’re talking about a festered sliver, a toothache, or 4-stage cancer, the pain is very real to the person suffering. In light of this, I am plunging forward; hushing the voices of self-abasement that say my story is not worthy of consideration. So I’ll continue with my tale of  what may be to some, a  festered sliver.

Initially, throughout the onset of Mike’s problems– the pain, the questions, the tests, the diagnosis, the surgeries, more pain and medication complications, more questions–support poured in for us. Church friends prayed around the clock, people called and wrote with words of encouragement. Almost daily we received a call or a note in the snail-mail. We were showered with love and concern. And we were extremely grateful. But as time went on and our trials continued, we became weary and  a weariness seemed to come over others as well. What they were believing for was not happening, at least not in their time-table. From some people, there was an anger directed at Mike for somehow letting them down. They thought he should ignore the pain, confess health, and keep being the great white leader. That’s easy to say if you’re not walking in someone else’s shoes. Some people began to “suspect” that he did not have enough faith. This sentiment grew.

As appalling as that sounds, I don’t blame them, it’s human nature. Most of us build our life on a code of some sort, principles or doctrines, whether we’re people of faith or not. When someone’s plight challenges the foundations we’ve built on, it’s easier to discredit that person than to discredit our belief system. So, there were those who would rather blame Mike for not having enough faith, rather than allow their own foundational belief system (Word of Faith) to come into question, and so crumble their world. It’s what happens when we put our faith in our own faith or a specific set of promises, or our dogma—rather than in God himself. Who is, well, just bigger than all that. And he doesn’t seem to like being pinned down.

I found myself in that same predicament as well (though not over a healing doctrine). I had placed so much faith on the prophetic words that had been spoken over us through the years, and the firm conviction that we were in the prime of our life doing what we had been prepared to do. “For this time.” To quit would mean denying the authenticity of prophecy, or so I thought then. Even more so, it would undermine all that I believed God had spoken to us and prepared us for. It ultimately could undermine my entire faith in God. I sensed spiritual disillusionment lurking on the sidelines, waiting for a weakness. I felt the wolves at the door, hungry to take me out.

I set my will and  pressed forward.

You may still wonder why, in light of all that was happening to my husband, we ignored the Doctor’s imperative to step down. A little background info: prior to that time in years past, in some of the other churches we had co-pastored, I had withheld some of myself and put the people at arm’s length. I was less transparent and had much more self-interest. But I also felt deeply that we were meant to plant a work. It would be the culmination of years of “training” in the school-of-hard knocks. And we wanted to start fresh because we had a vision.

So, we came here because of a vision. We sold our lovely, just-finished remodeled home in Washington and uprooted our family and the kids from  their schools, to come back to Oregon. We sunk our investment into a much less expensive property, and the rest of the profit went into establishing the new faith community, based and founded on LOVE being the bottom line—and the highest goal. It was our life-dream. (I can feel the skepticism from you right now, I agree, that sounds naïve…like the faith of a child?) Into this new community I poured out my life and truly felt I had sacrificed all. I found a joy in giving of myself. The more devoted I became, the more ego and selfishness dropped off. I was laying down my own life and losing it for others, to see them shine and move into their gifts, and to see a bit of heaven come to earth. It wasn’t for “our church,” it was for the Kingdom of God. I was an idealist and had sacrificed much to see those ideals come to pass. We were deeply invested, financially, emotionally and spiritually. This was our heart and soul. To give up in mid-stream not only seemed incongruous, but also just downright painful. Maybe a sliver to some, but equal to 4-stage cancer to me.

Besides that, I was still somewhat in denial of the ramifications of Dr. Hacker’s diagnosis and his prognosis for our future. We’re always a bit skeptical of the medical establishment, anyway, and back then we were learning that we had to be our own advocates. (We like our doctors, but hey, they’re human beings like the rest of us) My hand was on the plow, no turning back. We were used to facing obstacles, and persevering through. My path was set, my focus was clear.  As anyone who is purpose-driven will attest to, there will always be  adversity to overcome in the pursuit of something more lofty. The path of least resistance usually is the path to nowhere.

And so, I treated this as another false scare, like a junkyard dog on a strong chain, something to divert us from our intention. I resisted the doctors’ advice, and Mike and I decided we should go forward in a more advisory role, which was where we were headed anyway. We would still be on the pastoral team: my role would be strengthened, and Mike’s diminished. We would still give counsel. Well, that was our aim, anyway. A rude awakening was still awaiting us. It took some inside and outside pressure to pry my hands off the plow handles.

…To be continued (soon) in part 6…

Stones in the Road, part 4: by Mike Plumb “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie”

stones, hardship, pain, sickness, faith, obsacles, getting old, disease, surgeries,disability, early retirementSickness can be quite a bother. Say you’ve just been struggling with hay fever or asthma for years and sometimes the sickness puts you out of commission for a week of so. Or you have a bad back like I had and every once in a while you throw out a disc or get a bulging disc. It can hurt like hell and put you on your back for a couple of weeks. There are many ailments many of us just live with and take our medication,  trust the Lord and we keep on keeping on. But when an ailment turns in on you and decides it wants your mind, body and soul; when illness wants to take absolute control; when life is taken out of your hands and some enemy (because he sure aint no friend) is now in charge, with weapons pointed at everyone around you — believe me, life changes. And the ailment becomes much more than a bother.

Or to put it a different way: maybe you are familiar with the county jail system. You visit prisoners on a monthly basis. You’re the kind of person that really cares and for some reason may believe if it wasn’t for grace you could be in jail yourself (not that you are doing anything criminal or

Life...with a small chance of parole

Life…with a small chance of parole

anything). But then one day out of the blue, while you pack up your guitar from the free space area of the jail and begin to leave like any other Sunday afternoon, suddenly a jailer and a few prison guards come up to you and say “HEY YOU,  come this way.” Immediately they ask you to strip, they throw your clothes into a bag, give you some orange jump suit and order, “Put it on.” Next, they say, “Follow me,” with some serious frowning going on. And to think, just an hour ago you thought they were friends and you were on your way to dinner with them. Last of all they bring you to this small cell that says “Solitary Confinement” over the door. Inside there is a folder with a judge seal and a signed charge. On the folder is your name and under your name it says “LIFE, with a small possibility of parole.”

We met with Doctor Hacker and he spent a good hour trying to show and tell us why my condition was such a big deal. He showed us the film of my spine (neck region) like a power-point presentation. He pointed out portions of broken vertebra and spinal bone that were wedged into my spinal chord like knives. The penetration into the nerves was causing the paralysis in my right arm and hand. What he wanted to do with this first surgery was clean, scrape and laser. He said he would do everything possible to speed up the date of surgery, because he knew the level of both pain and fear I was in. He also put me on a handful of new medication for pain, muscle relaxing, anxiety, mood control, heart and blood pressure, and sleep. He pretty much demanded my complete obedience and said he thought he could keep me out of a wheel chair but more than likely I could no longer handle even small amounts of stress because of the damage to my spinal chord near the base of my brain. He also said this breakage and canal shrinkage would only get worse.

Maggie, always believing for the best, asked him if this meant I could still do some kind of part-time ministry at our church community. He looked at her with all the encouragement a man of modern medicine can and said, there is always a chance. Then with a smile, said he was a Christian and believed that miracles occasionally happened. So I had a praying surgeon that would come to know me and my spine like family over the next ten years. The meds did slow the pain but had all kinds of side effects. I think overnight I went from being ADHD to being paranoid, majorly depressed and slightly psycho. One thing for sure, I was not the old Mike any longer.

Within the first week of my wait for a surgical miracle my eyes became clouded with a blackish material which began forming and oozing dark goo. I broke out with open sores all in and around my mouth. Maggie told me later that she saw this and thought, “My God, he’s being eaten up with cancer!” It was scary because we had no idea what was going on. I feared cancer as well, but neither of us mentioned it to the other. We found out from our doctor that it was most likely pain herpes.

After surgery, when I came out of anesthesia, the doctor told me he had to do much more than anticipated and ended up fusing three

"...and i lift my hands..."

“…and i lift my hands…”

neck vertebrae and scraping another disc. The surgery required that he go through the front of my throat and the back of my neck, both. He said, unfortunately, that all the invasive surgery may have affected my vocal chords. He was right. To this day I struggle with throat issues, some hoarseness and speaking problems and worst of all, loss of most of my singing voice. I still love worship and try singing even if I sound like Yoda from Star Wars. Hacker said my recovery may take three to six months, at least twice as long as he first thought. Of course it always takes twice as long as they say anyway, so I figured it may be up to a year of recovery. Even though I was now on a morphine patch, the pain ripped through the fog like a ten-wheeler going down the freeway at full throttle.

Post-surgery, I went in for another MRI in which they had to sedate me to keep my body still enough for the MRI pictures to work. Two days later I was back in Hacker’s office with Maggie at my side to hear the news. The Doctor knew the stakes for me and the church so he had another lady taking notes on a computer and another surgeon near his side. He was being overly pleasant which didn’t make me feel any better. He showed us the new MRI picture then explained that my spinal bone material was much more brittle than he had thought, which was not good. He said the fusion was a success but discs on both side of my fusion were going bad and it would only be a matter of time before I would need more surgeries. He said he was still hopeful that I would not be wheel chair bound, but that he had to say something: Unfortunately, my condition was such that he strongly advised I remove myself from all stressful situations, both physically and mentally. Retire. I would no longer be able to work.

When I was in my 20’s, the thought of an early retirement would have been pleasant to my laid-back self.. Not so with the active go-getter self  I had become. That, combined with my ADHD, made those words sound like a death sentence. Or,  life with a small chance of parole.

Stones in the Road, Part 3 “California Dreaming” by Mike Plumb

stonesI was lying down in our van in the church parking lot, not only because of shafts of white pain, but also hiding, trying to maintain my sense of dignity. It just seemed as if everything was going wrong all at once. And of all possible places and times, in the middle of talking on Sunday during church. As I tried to calm myself, lying there out of sight, my mind by its own will forced me back to old memories that I had long forgotten.

I went back to my teen years (30-plus years earlier) and a conversation between a doctor at UC Hospital with me and my dad. He was giving directions that I would need to wear a back brace and get monthly cortisone treatments for the foreseeable future. That, because of my accident, there’s a possibility that my back concussion and bruising injury could come back to me with a vengeance. But as a teenager then, all I heard him say was that for my back to properly heal, all sports would be out for me for the next few years.

I was fourteen when fate played that card. I grew up in Napa, California, and although that may sound cool now, with its reputation for yielding international top wines and a tourist vineyard destination, back then it was more of a farm town which hosted a mental hospital. But Napa was quite ‘sochy” (socially conscious) and class-oriented, probably preparing for its soon-to-be world debut. Anyway, myself and two buddies were involved in our newest hobby, model flyable airplanes. These were extremely light, built from balsa wood–classic, self-propelled via rubber band. Even though I thought it was a cool hobby- taking the place of my Duncan Yo Yo’s faze, I didn’t think at the time I was a nerd. I mean, I wore Converse (Chuck’s All Stars) and real Levi Jeans. No JC Penny’s or Monkey Ward’s brands for me. To wear Ward’s tennis shoes was social suicide! Doing so may also kindle one into deep psychological problems and I was already in line for experimental drug trials for Ridlin.

Anyway, engaged one day in some of that hyperactivity with my friends and our new model airplanes, I accidentally got my model airplane stuck on the roof of the neighborhood Catholic church. I suppose I didn’t understand church or religious protocols, so when two of my buddies lifted me over their heads to climb upon the front entryway porch of St John’s, none of us thought it might be an affront to God. Apparently the priest thought differently, he heard the commotion and came running out the front doors, knocking over my friends, which sent me flailing through the air, landing back first on the concrete steps. It was a small miracle I managed to grab my little airplane before the lights went out.

Next thing I know, there’s a crowd of people standing around and some guy with a lit match in my face asking me, “What do you see?”  I didn’t immediately answer because I didn’t know how much trouble I was in. Then I heard that oh, so familiar, full of concern voice of my Pops: “What the hell’s happening here?” He was pushing his way through the crowd, trying to find out what I’d gotten myself into this time. While I was saying, “I think I’m OK” to my Dad and the concerned priest, an ambulance showed up and medics jumped out. I heard the priest tell the medic that I only fell 6 or 7 feet. The medic said, “Don’t try to move him, he landed in a bad position on these steps, he may have broken or injured his back”. As the medic started talking to me, we all realized I couldn’t move. Nothing worked from my waist down. The ambulance drive to the UC hospital was one of the longest of my life. In those days a parent or spouse didn’t get to ride in the ambulance with their loved one. I rode the two hours with an attendant that looked and acted like Elvis. I had no one in those days to pray for me. I don’t think I ever heard of such a thing as praying for people. In fact the steps of the Catholic church where my body first started to turn on me was the closest I had ever been to being in church.

I was raised as agnostic as it gets. Both my parents worked in mental health at Napa State Hospital. I suppose my early growing years were made up of having the free rein to run (actually ride my bike) around a state hospital because my parents were in management roles. Boy things were different, I remember my Pops bringing home old alcoholic patients to live and work on our little piece of heaven, cultivating our little American dream. Mom and Dad’s secret dream took the form of a small farm-vineyard we owned on Old Sonoma Road. This was the classic California Dreamin’ lifestyle and where I first learned about “keeping up with the Jones’.”  These were fairly innocent times, but sadly, Mom introduced a new world-view into those years–dinner parties, cocktails, material prosperity, cheating, and ‘Frank Sinatra” cool. So, while many young people get their world-view from Sunday school and church, I got my world-view from what it takes to keep up with the Jones’s. This would soon be a horror story for my family growing up.

Back to my ambulance ride, and then to the hospital, where traction and tests, traction and x-rays, traction and probes, traction and traction took place. After a few hours some feeling began to come back. After a couple days there that I can’t remember most of the feelings came back and I was walking again. After a week it was decided that I seriously bruised my spine and did some damage to some discs and vertebrates. OK, what did that mean? Remember, this was before MRI’s so what it meant was: Time will tell but in the meantime, your baseball and sports career is finished. Baseball was my second life after model airplanes and Yo Yo’s. I had a letter to earn as a high school pitcher. I was primed to be good enough to play first-string relief as a sophomore. I was up for all city. This was a huge bummer to my freshman world.

Then my Mom and dad divorced. My brother Greg and I woke up one morning and found Pops crying at the kitchen table. Never, I mean never, had we seen Pops cry. He looked at us and said, “Your Mom is gone, she has left us and won’t be talking to any of us for several months.” Well, a lot a good all that material stuff did us now. Now, my losing out at sports seemed like nothing more than sour milk. I threw up right there in the kitchen. My little brother cried and grabbed hold of Pops leg and didn’t let go of it for six months.

Hundreds of family friends consoled us in the next few months, but never once did anyone ask us if they could pray for us. Were there no Christians in California in the sixties? God and prayer were as foreign to my world then as the absence of them would be now.

So this is where my physical problems began and perhaps the heart-sickness that would eventually lead me to a God-experience that shook my world and gave me a heart for people in need, which led me to becoming a pastor.

So I guess you could say my back problems started as a result of the Catholic Church, I jokingly tell my wife, who was raised Catholic..

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