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

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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…

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