Preaching, Paralysis, and Pounds: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

First the good news – I will be returning to my pulpit on November 19.  It will have been three months since I last preached and, based upon this post title’s alliteration, I might be a bit rusty!  I haven’t gone three months without preaching for almost thirty years now.  It will be nice to get back to work.

For any of you who might be available, please consider yourself invited to church on November 19th.  I will be preaching on finding and following God in difficult circumstances.  The week after that will be a Thanksgiving sermon, and then we are into Advent.  I am eager to get back to my principal calling.

There is also some bad news that I would like to share as well.  This past Wednesday, November 1, I had a scope sent up my nose and down my throat to get a look at my vocal cords so that we could see what is going on in my voice box.  After an uncomfortable few minutes in which I was asked to say “eeeeeeeee” while the tube was poking around, we found some clarity.  As I had come to suspect, the left side of the vocal cords are in fact paralyzed.  This is new information.  The surgeon was and is quite certain that the nerves that control the motor functions associated with the ninth cranial nerve were not damaged.  But evidently a lot of things can happen in those types of surgeries.

The Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist I saw on Wednesday suggested a possibility that I hope and pray describes my situation.  He noted that sometimes when a nerve has experienced trauma, like that of a major surgery, the nerve gets “stunned” (his word).  The result is a temporary paralysis that can sometimes last for months. At some point, such nerves will “wake up” (his words again).  That would be wonderful!  Currently, I have full command of my speech as far as articulation and clarity go.  My challenge is that because I cannot close the vocal cords on the left side, I cannot regulate the airflow through my voice box and have only limited control of the pitch of my voice.  My vocal tone is very breathy, or hoarse, I can’t build up the air pressure necessary to raise my voice at all.  And my singing range is just about an octave.  My days of singing in the University of Maryland Choir are truly over…

I would very much appreciate the prayers of all who read this.  Lord, restore my vocal cords.  Whether they are truly paralyzed or merely stunned.  I would like to shout again.

In the meantime, I have been told that I sound like Marlon Brando in the Godfather.  So there is that…

The good news is that I am preaching again and soon.  The bad news is that my left vocal cords are paralyzed temporarily or permanently.  The ugly news is that I only weigh 144 pounds.  YIKES!

Eating continues to be a terrible problem and it has been compounded by a really unfortunate side effect to the vocal cord paralysis.  For weeks I have been asking my speech therapist and the ENT doctor about the really bad cough that I have.  The ENT specialist told me this past Wednesday that people with paralyzed vocal cords simply cough a lot.  And the cough is not productive (I know, that’s gross to say in a blog but keep reading – we’re about to get even grosser).  The unproductive cough is again due to the inability to build up sufficient air pressure to get the cough to be effective.  When my body feels that there is still some irritant that a cough should be removing, it puts the cough reflex on steroids and my diaphragm starts to spontaneously spasm.  And then, before I know it, that fifteen hundred calorie meal that I manfully fought down one swallow at a time is laying in the sink, or in a bucket, or looking up at me from the porcelain throne…  This happens several times a week – usually at night.

On the bright side, since the sensory nerve was cut, vomiting doesn’t hurt anymore.  I remember as a young father wondering how infants could spit up and not cry.  Now I know.  But I have got to stabilize my weight and then put some pounds back on.

What a wild train ride this recovery has been.  That attempted microvascular decompression of the ninth cranial nerve is the gift that keeps on taking.  But it gives as well.  Isn’t it true that when we go through difficult times, right alongside of the anxiety and the depression that come and go we also have that sweet sense of the Spirit of God accompanying and strengthening us in our deeper desponds?  I am reminded again and again that Jesus never told anyone that if they followed him they would have nothing but peaches and cream for the remainder of their life.  In fact it is the contrary in many respects.  And there is a reason for it.

Last week my father called me and read me a passage from James chapter one.  I will close by sharing it with all of you.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”  (James 1:1-4)

May we all grow in our perseverance and have an ever-maturing faith as we patiently and joyfully endure whatever trials come our way.

 

N.B.  The picture is thanks to the Linked In account of Dr. Priyanjal Gautam who is associated with the NIMS Medical College and Hospital in Jaipur, India.  The image on the left shows healthy vocal cords in the breathing position.  The center image shows healthy vocal cords as they are when you speak.  The right image shows paralyzed vocal cords – one side will not close in order to produce optimal speech.

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Bald Spots, Pot Bellies, and Plugins

This has been quite a month.  At my two month follow-up with the neurosurgeon, I got a good report – things are healing nicely.  But he also said that my issues with speech and swallowing are going to take a lot longer to resolve themselves.  I had been under the impression that the “two to three month” recovery meant that in two to three months you would have no idea that I had been operated on.  Wrong!  The two to three months was the amount of time it would take me to regain a modicum of health and wholeness sufficient to begin returning to my normal routines.  He assured me that I would not know the degree to which my swallow and speech will normalize for eight months to a year.

A real sign of returning to normalcy was going to get my haircut last Wednesday, October 18.  The gal who cuts my hair has a beautiful Armenian name- that I can never remember.  But she took the scar in stride and did a good job of fixing the haircut my surgeon had given me.  There were, however, two discoveries made after the haircut when she held up the mirror so that I could see her work.  I have bald spots as a result of surgery.  One on each side, each about the size of a quarter or half-dollar.

Oh well.  I still have more hair than my brothers…

Eating is going well – but I have been losing weight.  I am only a couple of pounds from my seminary weight.  Because eating takes longer and involves a measure of concentration, I am simply eating less.  And some high calorie foods that I use to love – like cheeseburgers – don’t even bear thinking about.  Bread is very hard to eat.  I am mostly doing soups and good old-fashioned “hot dishes” when that is an option.  Pizza I can do, but only if it’s thin crust.

Yesterday I had a graphic reminder that much has changed because of this surgery.  A young man I have had the great privilege of coaching just committed to play Division I lacrosse at Jacksonville University in Florida.  It is a new program, but it will do well and Joey should get a lot of great experience playing LSM there (“Long Stick Midfielder” for any non-laxers).  In the maxpreps press release, he chose a picture of himself in action on one of our favorite rivals’ fields in sunny Agoura, California.  In the background, to the left of him in the picture, I am on the sideline.

Two things struck me when I noticed that.  First, that pot belly is gone.  And good riddance I suppose, although I think it did make me more buoyant – which is a good thing?  But the other thing I noticed was my left hand.  Applying pressure to the left side of my neck – trying to minimize what was often excruciating nerve pain while cheering the boys on.  It is nice to know that that is a posture I will no longer have to maintain.  And as I work out the speech and swallowing issues it is a great reminder that there was a good reason for risking the surgery!

During these past ten weeks of recovery it has been easy to completely forget about how bad the pain was and instead focus only on how hard the recovery is.  Pictures like these help us to remember that the past is rarely as wonderful as we make it out to be.  Solomon offers a piece of advice in Ecclesiastes 7:10:

“Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’  For it is not wise to ask such questions.”

The reality is that the “old days” had problems of their own.  And even if in some ways those days were better, how is it wise to dwell on them without appreciating that undoubtedly “today” holds some advantage over yesterday as well?

This past week I have also been very encouraged by a lot of folks who have been concerned that this blog was down!  Last night I was sitting with Kerrie in a small examination room at the Calabasas Urgent Care- she was having some really bad back pain we wanted to check out (just a painful muscle spasm).  After her appointment, while we were waiting for the nurse practitioner to return with some paperwork, there was a knock on the door and a familiar face said hello. It was another doctor who has on several occasions visited church with her family!  She and her husband have been reading this blog and she shared with me that they have been praying for me – and she noticed that the blog was down.

It has taken me three days to discover the reason for the site failing – it involved the email subscription “plug-in” that I use.  In its last update, something that loaded onto my site was incompatible with my site.  So it could not open.  I would never have sorted it out if it were not for Ezekiel at Bluehost knowing his stuff so well – thanks Ezekiel.

And I thank all of you who read this blog – for your prayers and encouragement.  I am doing well.  I am planning a return to full time ministry in early or mid-November.  My voice is not what it was, perhaps it will never be.  It tends to be very hoarse and I can’t make myself heard over the dishwasher.  My singing range is less than an octave.  And I have made my peace with the prospect of no more burgers or deep-dish pizzas too!

The old days were not better than these.  And “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”  (1 Corinthians 2:9).  My best is yet to come; isn’t yours?  Only love God through whatever old days and new days you are thinking about and experiencing – all will be well.

 

N.B.  The picture of the right side of my head pictures the bald spot that is opposite of the surgery site.  The cut started at the nape of my neck, went straight up the back of my head and at the top of my ears went straight to the left.  There were staples on the right side of my head, but I have no idea why. Presumably, this bald spot is due to having had some staples there.

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Spitting, Whistling, And Drinking Soda from a Can

Have you ever felt that your prayer requests were too trivial?  That somehow God would be offended if you brought unimportant matters to his attention?

Over the course of my ministry, I have met with a number of folks who believe that God is not interested in the smaller details of their lives.  God is only interested in the big, capital letter business of your life.  I have even ministered to Christians who are ashamed or embarrassed because they care about things that they believe should not matter to them.  Or would not matter to them if they were more mature.

I felt that way myself back in August of 1991.

I graduated from the University of Maryland (Go Terps), in December of 1990 – I took an extra semester because I changed majors twice as an undergrad.  I immediately applied to and was accepted by the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.  That meant that I had nine months to earn as much money as I could to go towards the cost of grad school.  Every morning I would wake up at 4:45 and get to Duke’s Deli by 5:30 a.m.  The deli closed at 4:00 p.m., so I would be home by 4:30.  Then I would either teach saxophone lessons to aspiring jazz musicians or rent myself out as a handyman.  In this last endeavor, I did quite a bit of painting.

My parents’ house had aluminum siding, but the woodwork from the soffets to the window trim needed to be scraped and repainted.  That was a good job for me.  Until I smashed the two smallest toes on my right foot, anyway.

I was working with a thirty-foot extension ladder to get up under the eaves on the second story in front of the family room when, having extended the ladder to its full height, the ladder came sliding back down its full length and landed on my right foot – with which I was maneuvering the ladder into position. To this day I have no idea why the ladder’s safety latch didn’t catch on any of the rungs to stop its collapse.  In my sleep deprived state, I watched the ladder come clattering down, and then I felt pain.  And lots of it!

My older brother rushed me to the Urgent Care in town.  Doug and I had removed my shoe and my foot was in a plastic grocery bag that had collected quite a bit of blood by the time we arrived.  My two smaller toes on my right foot looked like smashed red crayons. The doc picked out bits of toenail for about fifteen minutes, wrapped me up, and put me on crutches for three months.  He taught me how to care for the toes and told me that the toenails would not regrow – I should not be alarmed by their absence as I healed.

So come September, I hobbled off to seminary, where one of my classmates was a medical doctor who was leaving medicine for ministry.  He examined the wound a couple of times a week to make sure it wasn’t getting infected.  And when I shared with him how disappointed I was that the toenails were gone for good, he suggested we pray about it.  My first thought was that surely this is a silly thing to be praying about.  Well, my doctor friend convinced me that God meant it when he said, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything… present your requests to God.”  (Philippians 4:6).

I am reminded of this every morning when I pull a sock on my right foot and can count five toenails – each precisely where it should be.

In my current recovery, I have taken to praying for every step of improvement – however small or seemingly insignificant it may be.  By the end of my first full day in the hospital, I realized that I couldn’t spit.  The nurses kept an accordion-like, collapsible vomit bag right near my face during that first day.  I was evidently reacting strongly to coming out of anesthesia and being introduced to new meds.  And when they asked me to spit in the bag, I could only drool into it.

During the night I was trying to get Kerrie’s attention but I couldn’t speak above the hoarse, quiet whisper the surgery had left me with.  I could not wake Kerrie up.  I couldn’t clap because of the lines going into my right wrist and my left hand.  Knocking on the bed rail was too quiet.  My next idea was whistling.  Please note that under ordinary circumstances, I do not recommend whistling as a method for summoning your best-beloved.  But these were extraordinary times.  So I puckered up and… blew air.  I couldn’t spit.  And I couldn’t whistle.  Two weeks later, sitting up at our dining table at home, I realized that I couldn’t drink out of a soda can either.  The left side of my mouth just couldn’t make a satisfactory seal against the rim of the can.

Harking back to my toenails, I have been praying about things like these trivial matters.  “Lord, help me to spit, whistle, and drink from a can…  and give me patience with all of these things I can no longer do.”

Fast forward five weeks: I can spit.  I can whistle.  I don’t need to drink my soda through a straw.

There is a scripture in Psalm 18 in which David reminds us of God’s role in our accomplishments:

“With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall.”

These are relatively mundane military tasks, given that they have been performed countless times by countless people over the course of human history.  But David, our father in the faith, acknowledged that even these things are occasions in which we see the gracious assistance of God himself as we face the conflicts and obstacles that confront us.

What are the smaller troubles in your life? Do you believe that God wants you to bring even these to him?  I will continue to pray about things like spitting and whistling.  Especially whistling.  I used to be able to whistle Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony from beginning to end – today I am nowhere close to that kind of range and pitch control.  But I can get Kerrie’s attention!

May God grant to all of you the desires of your hearts as you delight yourself in Him.  (Psalm 37:4).

 

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Lifesavers and Church

This past Thursday, September 14th, I met a man who reminded me of Helen Keller’s famous proverb: “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”  He had come to the practice field behind Medea Creek Middle School because his son was going to participate in the Fall Starz lacrosse Program that I have helped coach for years. I was making an appearance to see the boys and got to talking with him.  He noticed the scar running up my neck and showed me his.  He had just had a liver transplant.

I found myself – dare I say it – thinking Helen Keller wasn’t entirely correct.  It should be said that “I cried because I had no shoes but cried even more when I met a man with no feet.”  I say this because, for me, noting that others have it far worse than me does not mitigate whatever pain or suffering I have.  Rather, the pain or suffering that I have enlarges my capacity to sympathize with others in their suffering.  To be perfectly candid, prior to my head surgery, the trauma of a major surgery and the uncertainty of recovery when things go poorly – all these sorts of things, were purely academic to me.  In fact, they could not be otherwise.  There are some things that you will only have the vaguest apprehension of until you have entered into the world of another person’s difficulties.  I found my heart aching for this guy.  I wouldn’t trade recoveries with him for all the money in Las Vegas.  But I sure am praying that all goes well for him.

In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul opens his letter to the church in Corinth with that thought:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

There is a redemptive aspect to our suffering, whether that suffering is very great or relatively minor.  Whatever our suffering is, in as much as God comforts us in our troubles, we are by experience enabled to comfort others in their suffering with greater sympathy and compassion.  Seek God when you suffer, so that you will be able to guide others who suffer to the source of all comfort.

Two days later, on Saturday the 16th, speech therapy began.  This is something I had been very much looking forward to.  Earlier in the week, I had received a notice that I was to call the Physical and Occupational Therapy Department at Kaiser to set up my first appointment.  My first call went to voicemail and I couldn’t leave a message because the mailbox was full.  A very frustrating experience. My second call enabled me to leave a message.  When I received my return call, the very kind receptionist informed me that the next available appointment was in mid-October!  That would never do.  My voice is still very weak and labored – and I told the receptionist that I must go back to work in mid-October and as a pastor I need to start speech therapy asap to get my voice back.  She was awesome.  I would be seeing a speech therapist a couple of days later.

Two great things happened at speech therapy.  The first was educational.  It turns out that having been intubated for just about twelve hours, there were a number of potential difficulties associated with the stresses of that condition that could account for a significant part of my speech related issues.  I am now slated to see an ENT specialist to get a thorough overview of the structures involved in voice production.  The second was, I believe, an unintended consequence of a recommended practice.  My therapist told me that I should be sucking on hard candies regularly to keep the back of the throat and the vocal chords from drying out.  Well, just days after beginning this, I have found that the constant, subconscious activity of pushing lifesavers around the inside my mouth has just about restored a full range of motion to my tongue!  As for the voice, in the mornings I have good tonal quality – I tire easily though and by afternoon it is considerably more frail and deliberate.  And I am still limited to one volume – very quiet.  I am unable to raise my voice at all.

It had been four weeks since I had attended a church service.  I am quite sure that I have not missed more than two Sundays in a row since I was being “knit together in my mother’s womb!” (Psalm 139 reference).  I would not miss a fifth in a row.  So, hopped up on lots of Ibuprofen and Tylenol, I joined the rest of the Bjerkaas family in the minivan and off to church we went.  On that second weekend of NFL competition, it was church 1, Bob 0.  I loved being back at church, and I took time to greet as many folks as I could.  After church, one of the elders, Tyler (who had preached an outstanding sermon that morning on 1 Timothy 2:5-6), came by to visit.  And after that, I slept for TWENTY hours.  I have got to remember to go slow and simply do what the docs say.  Recovery is going to be two full months.

This week I have decided that I can’t push too hard.  I am not going to visit lacrosse practices.  I am not sure whether or not I will make it to church.  I will keep working the exercises the therapist assigned – and eating lifesavers.  And I am going to pray for folks I know who have had organ transplants.  Who can imagine the hopes and fears of people who have experienced that procedure.  Won’t you take some time and pray for the people you know as well?

 

N.B.  Just a nice pic from the good folks at Lifesavers.  It is a better choice than a pic of me sticking my tongue out of the left side of my mouth.  Rather indecorous…

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A Numb Skull and a Stiff Neck

I suspect that as my brothers read this blog post’s title, they are thinking, “Praise the Lord, he’s back to normal – recovery only took a month!”

There may be a kernel of truth to that.  But one of the things I have learned about recovery from more involved surgeries is that as you heal, you become aware of conditions that hadn’t even registered as problematic earlier in your recovery.

Take the numbness of my skull for instance.  During the first two weeks of my recovery, I couldn’t wash my hair.  I couldn’t comb or brush my hair.  I couldn’t put any covering on the wound on my head.  In short, I left my scalp be!  Then during week three I could start taking showers and very, very gently began washing my hair.  And for that first week of showering would you believe that I found a way to wash my hair without touching the back left side of my head?  I washed the hair – not the scalp.

I have always erred on the side of being squeamish when it comes to medical issues.  Concerning myself anyway.  Cleaning fish and birds or field dressing a deer never bothered me.  Getting blood drawn?  Different story.  I remember as a senior in high school when I went to the Military Entrance Processing Station – at the time located in Glen Burnie, MD, and hesitated to allow the army phlebotomist to draw my blood.  She looked at my papers and said, “It says here you want to be a Marine.  Really?”  Well, that shamed me into learning how to man up and drop the arm on the table, look the other way, and recite the Apostle’s Creed until the vials were full.  But even now, thirty years after I tried to enlist (I was medically disqualified on account of a degenerative eye disease), giving blood still leaves me extremely reticent to straighten my arm out afterwards.  And that cotton ball and strip of medical tape?  It will fall off in its own good time – maybe a day or two later.

Needless to say, this last surgical adventure really had me doing everything I could to simply leave the wound in my head alone. So it wasn’t until this past week – the fourth week since surgery – that I tentatively, and oh so gently, washed my scalp.  That is when I realized that while my fingers were feeling my head, my head was not feeling my fingers!  Somewhat concerned, I told Kerrie, my head has lost sensation.  Her response: “Of course you can’t.”  It had never crossed my mind that when you make a ten-inch long cut up and around the back of a man’s head, and roll the scalp away from the skull, that is going to bring on a fair bit of localized nerve damage too.

Every week since I came home from the hospital, John, a friend from church who is a retired Orthopedic Surgeon who specialized in lower spine issues, has made house calls to check up on me.  His visits have been extremely encouraging as he has shared with Kerrie and me a physician’s perspective on my recovery progress.  After his first visit when I had been home for just a few days and was struggling with such a burden of discouragement, I remember on several occasions whispering to Kerrie, “Tell me again what John said?”  Well, this past week I shared with John about my scalp numbness.  His response: “Of course…”  But he did say that some of the feeling would come back.

And the stiff neck.  The first couple of weeks out of surgery, things like an insensate scalp and extreme discomfort in moving my head to the left were complete non-issues.  I wasn’t even aware of them.  Although I had been told by my surgeon that my neck would be very sore because of the way he had manipulated and moved those muscles during the surgery, I never noticed until the end of week three.  It could be that the steroids and painkillers I was on suppressed the pain.  It could be that I was dealing with other pains and worries that were far greater and didn’t have time or attention to spare for lesser aches. But now that my surgical wound doesn’t throb anymore, my neck sure hurts!

In a way, this is strangely comforting.  It is proof that in some significant ways, my body is healing.  I now have the luxury of noticing a stiff neck.

Many years ago I remember having a conversation with my Dad in his study at our home in Running Brook.  I was concerned that in trying to live the Christian life, I would experience growth in one area and then notice that I was struggling in an area I hadn’t even considered to be a problem before.  He gave me an analogy for progress in the Christian life that I have never forgotten.  “Bob, growing as a Christian is like climbing a ladder through the clouds.  God is only going to let you see a couple of rungs in front of you.  He wants you to focus on the things that matter most for where you are right now.  And it is good that he does this.  What if God showed you every rung you have yet to climb – every issue, character flaw, temptation you will struggle with.  That would be the most discouraging thing you could ever see.  You would be tempted to give up.  The fact that God is showing you the next rung is proof that you are growing and an encouragement to keep climbing.”

That was over thirty years ago.  I have reminded myself of that truth many, many times since.  And spiritual recovery and physical recovery have this in common.  As my body slowly recovers, new issues will present themselves as challenges to overcome.  And so there is something encouraging about facing these two new issues.

So, for the time being, it may be the case that both figuratively and literally I have a numb skull and a stiff neck!  But the main thing about this growing and healing process is that we intentionally progress – that we don’t become lazy or static.   Physically speaking, I have two new rungs in front of me.  What about you?  In your progress in life are you facing any new or unexpected challenges?  Do you see them as evidence of growth in any way?

Spiritually speaking, the fact is that none of us are perfect.  Not even close.  The Apostle Paul acknowledged this with blunt candor in his letter to the Philippians.  And then he went on to say: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining on toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14).

And so physically, just as much as spiritually, those of us in recovery need to put yesterday in the books and move forward.  Forgetting and straining.  Moving past one challenge and embracing the new neck exercises that will take care of that stiffness and pain.  You see that new rung on the ladder in front of you?  By the grace of God, you can take that one step higher in whatever recovery you are facing – however much straining it requires!  As Paul writes later to the same church, ‘we can do everything through him who gives us strength.’ (Philippians 4:13)

 

N.B.  The picture is of a real stiff-necked numb skull 🙂

 

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French Toast, Letting Go, and Berger Cookies

Here at the California Bjerkaas house, we probably had the most laid-back Labor Day in the entire country.  Nothing but napping and soft foods all day long.  It was like a sneak preview of my retirement…

Tuesday morning, after the kids left for school, Kerrie and I decided to go to the IHOP down the street for breakfast.  As a pastor, I frequently meet with people for coffee or a bite to eat, and the IHOP on Kanan Road is on the short list of establishments I frequent.  Walking in, we sat in one of the booths opposite the dining bar – but Luigi did not wait on us!  They had a new waitress and the booths had been assigned to her.  Kerrie had one of the small combo breakfasts and I had my usual – half an order of French toast.  Luigi came by to check out the cane and the scar, and he shared with us a very encouraging story of his mother’s complete recovery from a head surgery.  It was good to get out of the house and connect with people from my ‘normal’ life.  Our new waitress was kind enough to take a picture of us on our first post-op date.

This was the third week since surgery, and despite the feeling I had that nothing was changing, Kerrie and the kids were insistent that my voice was getting a little bit better every day.  When you are the one doing the recovery, it is so hard to notice the small improvements – at least that has been true of me.

There were, however, some changes in my condition that I very much wanted to force.  I considered it something of a tragedy that two of my favorite things -eating and sleeping, had become such unpleasant and difficult affairs.  There were some things I could do about the sleeping issues.

Going to bed offered three major hurdles.  The problem posed by keeping my shaved head and exposed surgical wound warm at night was taking care of itself.  Despite having inherited some specious genes, the hair is good!  It is plenty thick and grows fast.  Similarly, I could now lay on both my left and my right side without too much discomfort.  But what about that drowning sensation and the need to have the hose from the Baby Smile Nasal Aspirator duct taped to my hand?

I have taken a piece of Jesus’ teaching as axiomatic for all of life. In John 8:32, he tells those who follow him, “If you hold to my teaching you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  Freedom is often the result of confident obedience, whether we are obeying God or a doctor’s orders or a pharmacist’s prescription instructions…  We often experience truth and freedom when we are committed to doing what we are told by those who know best – whether we feel like it or not!  Too often we would have the freedom come first.  Sadly, life does not always work that way.  Sometimes we have to “hold to the teaching” before we experience its truth and find our freedom.

There were two things that I knew to be facts.  First, my surgeon, whose descriptions of what my recovery would be like had been nothing if not thorough and accurate, had never said that anyone had actually drowned in their sleep.  Second, I had in fact fallen asleep every evening since coming home and I had not drowned a single time.  Therefore, my anxiety regarding the difficulty of swallowing excessive amounts of spit that I was not swallowing ‘automatically’ was groundless.  Despite how difficult it was to lay down without taping that hose to my left hand, it was time to cast that crutch off.  Throughout the night I would still wake up and have to intentionally force my body to swallow.  But I could handle that.

And here I am blogging about it a week later.  I still haven’t drowned.

I have also built up far more strength and balance when walking.  The $2.50 cane had served its purpose.  While I still took it with me on longer trips, I decided that I would attempt more and more to get around the house without it.

On Thursday the 7th, I climbed the forty steps from Hollytree Road up to the practice field behind Medea Creek Middle School.  Oak Park Lacrosse was beginning its Starz Fall-ball League.  It was great to see the guys and meet the new class of freshmen.  I was able to stay for almost twenty minutes before I was exhausted.  And it was very frustrating to be unable to speak above a loud whisper.

The highlight of this third week, by a long shot, was when the doorbell rang on Friday.  I was expecting a group of kids I had coached – both alumni and current lacrosse players.  I even put on my SF State cap before opening the door to show some respect for one of my alumni’s current school.  I opened the door.  And there was Ellie my sister-in-law!  Steve my brother was behind her to the left.  They had flown in from Maryland to surprise me with five boxes of Berger cookies and a comic book (just about my post-op reading speed).  We had a blast with Uncle Steve and Aunt Ellie here.  It turns out that Kerrie and the kids knew all about their visit – they did a great job of keeping it a surprise.

The past and present lacrosse crew did come by on Friday and it was great to connect with those guys and girls.  Brendan, an All American LSM back in 2014, read Psalm 64 – a psalm that deals with the destructive power of words and the final justice of God.  There is something priceless about old players coming back and ministering to their old coach.  And the lemon cookies they brought were awesome.

That psalm was a good one for me.  It starts with David the Psalmist asking that his life be preserved from what he fears and it ends with him declaring, “Let the righteous rejoice in the LORD and take refuge in him; let all the upright in heart praise him!”  Whatever you or I happen to be afraid of in whatever chapter of life we are currently experiencing, we can still trust that God’s redemptive justice is more than equal to our present challenges.

May your days be filled with the finest things in life – good friends and family, French toast and cookies, and above all else the freedom that comes from taking God at his word and trusting that his eternal purposes will always prevail – however difficult it is to swallow or speak today.

 

N.B.  The picture is of me and Kerrie at the IHOP.  I wear lacrosse caps backwards when I am out in public – that way the cap’s bill covers a rather unsightly scar going down the back of my neck.   Post surgery, the hair on the back of my head is very short- the hair on the sides and front is getting long.  I am hoping to get a haircut to acquire a more normal look in the next week or two!

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“My Heart Will Sing and I Will Not Be Silent”

Tuesday, the 29th of August, in addition to being a day marked by authentic shish kabobs, was also the day I sat down to blog for the first time in almost a month.  That was thirteen days after the surgery, and I was finally feeling lucid enough to put my thoughts into a decent enough order to be sensible.  I also found it strangely empowering to describe some of the things I had been going through- and I know my parents sure appreciated a window into what their son was experiencing.  Since speaking was so difficult, the written word was and still is by far the most comfortable way to communicate.

And the blog was well received.  This was the biggest encouragement yet.  It made me imagine that even if recovery went poorly (which I firmly believe will not be the case), there is still a wide range of ways in which a person can communicate – especially a preacher.  So I would like to thank all of you who have been a part of that encouragement!  Some time ago I wrote a blog entitled “A Kind Word.”  Your kind words have done much to lessen my anxiety.

So that was the good news during week two of the recovery – my mental faculties were sufficient to the task of writing.  What about reading?

After getting a couple of days of writing under my belt, on Saturday morning, September 2, my good friend Cory from church came by.  For the first time since surgery, I left the house for a non-medical appointment.  So where did we go?  A used book store of course.

The Agoura Library has a basement, half of which is a parking garage.  The other half is a used book store that is only open on Saturdays.  And the bookstore has two parts.  One part that is the store itself that is open to the public.  The other part is just the basement of the library and is filled with stacks and stacks of books that are being processed before being sold in the store.  Cory, being on good terms with his neighbor who runs the bookstore, got us into those old stacks.  He helped me hobble over to the religion section, got me a stool to sit on, and there I sat.  Overwhelmed.

Just getting into the bookstore had been tough.  Now I was facing three bookcases, each with five shelves, each shelf holding two rows of books – mostly stacked on their sides…  Ninety linear feet of books on theology, church history, biblical studies, philosophy, practical ministry…  I almost fell asleep a couple of times.  I ended up finding three books to buy (which Cory very kindly picked up for me).  Tasker’s old Tyndale commentary on the Gospel of John – a great book and an exceptionally clean copy. And two studies of homiletics from the past twenty years.

Originally, Cory and I were going to grab coffee as well. But I was not up to that so back home it was.  Back at the house, Connie, my administrative assistant from the church office, and her husband Charly were visiting and I am afraid I had no gas left in the tank.  I had been on my first outing and it had won.

After a nap, I opened up Tasker on John to read his introduction to the Fourth Gospel.  And I couldn’t get through it.  One or two paragraphs was about my limit.  While I could focus on what I was writing, following someone else’s academic writing was still beyond me.  That was a bummer but not altogether unexpected.  The mental demands of watching sitcoms on TV was still putting me to sleep!

So, I could write, but still couldn’t resume my reading schedule.  Nonetheless it had been a good week.  My brother Jim had arrived on Thursday the 31st for a three-day visit following a conference he had attended up in Monterey.  We had a blast and it was great seeing the kids hanging out with their Uncle Jim.  Next time we hope Julie can come too.

I also ate my first sandwich since surgery.  Mark and Allison from the lacrosse world (I have coached all three of their kids), came by with chicken salad sandwiches.  It took me an hour to eat that sandwich, but one small bite and one awkward swallow at a time got the job done.  That was also the first time that I had eaten with anyone other than family.  Mark and Allison were very gracious to excuse my sloshing water around to get the sandwich to the right side of my mouth if it strayed too far to the left.  My tongue was still pretty useless on that side of my mouth.  When that nerve was cut, my table manners took a huge hit.

On Sunday, Uncle Jim took the kids to church and afterwards for lunch we had some very dear old friends come over from Camarillo.  Kerrie and I have known Bob and Trudy since we were little kids back in the seventies.  Spending time with family and old friends is the best – especially when sweet potatoes are involved.

Jim left that evening.  But first he read Psalm 30 from my Psalm book;

“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.  O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever.”

What a wonderful way to close out a good week.  Comparatively speaking, my first week at home had been full of fears and trauma.  This past week had been so much better – certainly not perfect, but better.  And for that I give thanks to God.  My heart will sing and I will not be silent.

 

NB The picture is of me and my younger brother Jim, a Lt. Col. in the US Army.

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The Tenderness of People and Heeding Al Jarreau: Get Your Boogie Down!

An old time preacher, Henry Moorhouse, once said, “It is a wonderful thing for a pastor to suffer, that he might learn how tender people can be.”  What was true in the mid-nineteenth century is still true today.  And it is true in two different ways.  In the first place, despite some of the bumps and bruises I have accumulated throughout my life (even some pretty significant ones like losing ninety percent of my vision and having to give up a musical avocation due to a bum jaw), I don’t think I have ever suffered in quite the same way that I have in this past month.  This has been a different sort of suffering.

I remember when I was pastoring in St Albans, VT and had my first kidney stone. That was eye opening.  I had been awakened in the middle of night with intense pain – I was sure I was dying!  Kerrie relates how I kept telling her how glad I was that she married me and that she had been such an awesome wife…  Roberta from church had rushed over to our raised ranch to sit with our babies while Kerrie rushed me to the ER at Northwestern Medical Center (where those babies had all been born).  One morphine drip later and all was well.  On that occasion, I learned something about physical pain that I had not known before.  The human body was capable of experiencing FAR MORE pain than my life experience had led me to believe was possible.  I would rather break a bone than have another kidney stone as bad as that one had been.

Well, this business with swallowing and speech challenges has taught me something about how much psychological pain and tenderness we can experience as people.  And it is quite a lot more than I have personally experienced up until now.  As I write this blog I am sitting at home and do not have my personal study notes at hand – they are in wild stacks and files in my very cluttered office at church.  But you may take it as a fact that by far the most frequent command that God gives his people concerns fear – “fear not, do not be afraid, be courageous, be very courageous…”  If you were to count up all of the imperatives God’s Word calls you to obey, this group of commands is the most statistically preponderant:  Do Not Fear!

Let’s tease that out for a moment.  What is the immediate and explicit effect of sin upon the human condition?  Adam and Eve apprehend their complete exposure and… they are afraid and hide.  A significant aspect of our flawed human condition involves our giving way before those things of which we are afraid.  In this broken world, much of our struggles find their root in this very natural but unpleasant response.  We all struggle with fear now and then.  And I have been both humbled and blessed to have experienced more fear in the past weeks than I have ever experienced before! For all of you who have shouldered far heavier burdens in this life, you have more of my sympathies than ever.  And more of my admiration for your courage as well.

But there is another way in which I have seen the tenderness of people through this hopefully short chapter of my life.  Ms. Judy from church set up a “Meal Train.”  The “Meal Train” website allows one to set up an account for a family that is going through some difficult period.  Friends, neighbors, and family can sign up on that website and bring a meal by the house.  And over the past three weeks, Kerrie and I have been truly blessed by how many people from church have brought meals by.  It has been a huge relief for Kerrie (who is our culinary genius) – who has been able to focus on taking care of me.  And the food has been absolutely delicious!

We have also been blessed with restaurant cards and meals brought by from neighbors in the community.  On Tuesday the 29th, one of our parishoners, Justin, brought by some authentic Persian kabobs.  And then some old lacrosse players stopped by with a spontaneous delivery from an area restaurant!  For my part, the shish kabob was heavenly – it was so tender I could eat it!   My son Nat, a true carnivore, had a little bit of everything.  After finalizing his plate he exclaimed, “I am having five different kinds of meat for dinner!”  We have been eating like kings and feeling a whole lot of love.  Thank you so much to all of you who have come alongside us in these and other ways.

On Wednesday evening the 30th, Kerrie and I took a ride to the Good Will store in Thousand Oaks.  I had been going for walks with Kerrie up and down our street.  I was very unsteady on my feet and wanted to buy a cane.  Holding hands with Kerrie on our walks gave some stability.  A cane in my other hand would help me that much more.  For $2.50 I was good to go.  Someone’s old cast-off was getting a new lease on life.

There were two songs that ran through my head with some regularity during these days of more physical activity.  One was a contemporary praise song by Jeremy Camp, “Same Power.”  One of the verses would play on a loop as I forced myself to walk to one more driveway without resting…

I can walk down this dark and painful road

I can face every fear of the unknown

I can hear all God’s children singing out

We will not be overtaken, we will not be overcome…

The other song was of an altogether different genre.  Al Jarreau’s “Boogie Down” had me funk-steppin’ with that second-hand cane:

 

I can be what I want to
And all I need is to
Get my boogie down…

I got my certain and my sure ‘nough on
And I’m puttin’ on my really for real
You face that curtain with your best stuff on
You are the winner and you’re gonna feel…

Thank you Lord that despite the large and small fears that present themselves to us, we can face whatever greets us on any given day.  Thank you that you faced and overcame our worst and greatest fears at Gethsemane so that you could ultimately free us from fear – even the fear of death itself (Hebrews 2:15).

May God bless each of you as you face your fears and get your boogie down – becoming the amazing person God has called you to be.

 

 

N.B. Sharp looking cane – the price was right.  Be good to yourself – click on the hyperlinks for “Same Power” and Al Jarreau’s “Boogie Down.”

 

 

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Let the Good Times Roll! A Large Fries and a Slow God

Finally, a really good day!

Monday, August 28, was a day I was not looking forward to.  It was the day Kerrie and I would have to drive back down to Sunset to get my stitches removed. I had never before had stitches – and I had no idea what to expect.  In my imagination, I was afraid each of those thirty-six stitches was going to be a tugging and pulling affair in which all sorts of unpleasantness could go wrong.  And the staples!  That didn’t bear thinking on…

But boy was I wrong.  Ruth was my neurosurgeon’s Physician’s Assistant.  She had me lay down on my chest, whipped out a pair of scissors that looked an awful lot like the kind we use to cut tape off athletes’ ankles, and before I knew it, thirty-six stitches were gone!  And then for the staples.

“Robert, you are going to feel a pinch…”

Ha!  I felt nothing at all.  The last of the staples out and I felt I had finally caught a medical break.  Something had actually gone better than I had feared!

Ruth gave me the same neurological check up I had received so many times while in the hospital, she answered a few questions Kerrie and I had about my recovery – especially about the fact that my swallow seemed to get no better and my speech was so very weak.  Orders were put in for therapy appointments to begin during my third week of recovery.  She seemed pleased with the fact that I was talking, however quiet and raspy I sounded.

On the way home, Kerrie suggested driving through McDonalds for lunch.  This worried me.  I didn’t know what I could eat from their menu.  I ended up ordering a large fry and a large Diet Coke.  Since being in the hospital, my eating habits were no fun at all.  I would eat a small cup of diced fruit, drink one of my Ensure Shakes, and be exhausted from the work of commanding my body to swallow.  I was forcing myself to eat little snacks and drink those shakes throughout the day – working really hard to get at least 1,500 calories down in every twenty-four hour period.  What a way to diet!  I was hungry all the time, but the amount of energy it took just to eat soft foods made even the thought of eating a very unpleasant affair.

So as we pulled out of the McDonalds drive thru, there I was – staring at a massive red container overflowing with French fries.  I had also asked for a small cup and filled it with about a dozen ketchup packets since I was apprehensive about swallowing dry food.  One at a time, I lathered those fries in ketchup and I ate those fries.  All seventeen thousand of them.

It seems silly looking back on it, but finishing that large fries was huge.  The large fries equaled 498 calories – the ketchup comes in at 20 calories per packet.  I had just eaten, at one long, slow sitting in LA traffic, about 600 calories!  By far my best since surgery.

Upon arriving home, we received a wonderful card from Ken and Joni.  I have read that note a dozen times now at least.  And it resonates so powerfully – especially knowing it comes from a couple who have endured and overcome so much in a lifetime of ministry with a disability to people with disabilities all over the world.

This is what they wrote:

Sometimes when you are in a long, tiresome season of very slow healing, you wonder if you ever will come out of it.  Days drag on, especially for the first few weeks, and you have to fight off anxiety because everything seems to be taking forever; healing is happening way, way too slow.

Bob, I realize it’s a slow healing process, but consider these words by Fredrick Faber, “In the spiritual life, God chooses to try our patience first of all by his slowness.  He is slow: we are swift and precipitate.  It is because we are but for a time, and He has been for eternity.  Thus grace, for the most part, acts slowly.  He works little by little… There is something greatly overawing in the extreme slowness of God.  Let it over-shadow our souls, but let it not disquiet them…  Wait, and He will come… and when He comes, go with Him, but fall a little behind; when He quickens His pace, be sure of it before you quicken yours. But when He slackens, slacken at once: and do not be slow only, but silent, very silent, for He is God.”

It had been a good day.  A worry had proved to be nothing at all – the stitches and staples removal had been a piece of cake.  I had attained a new high calorie mark in a single meal.  Getting calories down was a huge part of my healing process – that large fry was a big win.  And I had been greatly encouraged by a simple reminder from good friends that God is at work in the details of our lives – especially when things seem to move so very slowly.

May your day be full of pleasant surprises as you face your fears and fries alike!  And may you be strengthened in your humble patience as you wait for our slow God – who is always exactly on time!

 

 

N.B.  Yes, that is the actual empty fry container.  A trophy of this strange season of recovery!

 

 

 

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Faces in the Carpet and Where Is that Children’s Choir?

Thursday morning was a bummer, but Thursday afternoon was awesome. JP, one of the lacrosse dads who plays an essential role in administration for the Oak Park Boys Lacrosse Program, came by with a car load of the seniors from this year’s team.  All but one of the guys was interested in checking out my new scar.  I don’t blame my squeamish defenseman for passing.  I saw a picture of the scar once and plan on never viewing it again.  Yuck.  We had a great visit and the boys took turns reading me verses from Psalm 19.  We had a great conversation about the difference between hidden faults and presumptuous sins.  And we reflected on the often forgotten truth that not only do rules, God’s or the NFHS High School Boy’s Lacrosse Rules, warn us against those things that will cause failure, but it is also the case that “in keeping them is great reward.”  Just seeing those guys brightened my day.

Thursdays at the Bjerkaas house are usually an incredibly fun but hectic affair. Kerrie and I have an open house every Thursday night – we call it Taco Thursday.  We put out a spread of beef, chicken, and fish tacos, together with all sorts of taco condiments – plus beans and rice.  And on any given Thursday night, anywhere from ten to forty kids come by – sometimes their parents too!  By Oak Park standards, we have a biggish back yard with a mature Mountain Ash and a large play structure I built for the kids ten years ago.  It is awesome to see high school kids just being kids.  Hanging out in the tree or on the swings.  Sometimes a group of them are studying around the picnic table or playing Mario Cart or Jack Box on the big screen in our living room.  There are lacrosse players, kids from the band, kids who just like to hang out…  It is our favorite night of the week here.  So when I am too banged up to open our home it sort of adds to the sense of loss.

On Friday night I was sleeping on the couch and only my middle son Timmy was home with me.  He saw what he described as a “sports car” pull into the driveway and a big guy carrying a large stick come up to the door.  Timmy didn’t recognize the guy so he didn’t open the door.  It had been one of my lax guys who is a regular suspect on Taco Thursdays – Marcus.  The stick was a rolled up 3’ x 8’ banner that the kids had made at school that day.  And it was full of well wishes and greetings from current and past Oak Park kids – and there were notes from our Taco Thursday crew.  The banner really made my day – it currently has pride of place on the bedroom wall, so I can regularly read the admonition “GET WELL SOON!”  Kerrie thinks it’s funny that all the girls lacrosse players call me “Coach Bob” but all the guys just call me “Bobby.”  I had never noticed.

The days following Dad and Mom Williams’ departure were mentally and emotionally tough.  Not only did my swallow and speech seem to resist any improvement, but as I was healing, different aches and pains would actually seem to get worse.  Laying on the couch during the day, drifting in and out of wakefulness, there were many times when I wondered if I was losing my mind!  The area rug that Kerrie picked out for our dining room is a kind of abstract monochromatic floral print.  I would lay on my side on the couch in the dining room, propped up by one of the big hospital wedge pillows Kerrie had bought me and I would see faces in the carpet.  A cowboy, a couple sharing a glass of wine, a hippie dude with a broken guitar…  And I would imagine life stories for these bizarre carpet people.  I would try to fit them in lax lineups or compose sermons for them.  And then I would swear I was losing my mind!

I was also hearing choirs.  No lie!  This strange phenomenon actually started in the hospital.  I would turn to Kerrie and whisper, “Do you hear that choir?”  And it was always children singing.  I never told the doctors or nurses about hearing the choirs – that might have put me on a floor in the hospital I wouldn’t have liked so much.

The human mind is a funny thing – and it seems especially to act funny when it is under a lot of stress.  As I write this blog, it has been over a week since I heard one of my choirs singing and I don’t see faces in the carpet anymore.  I don’t know how typical or rare it is for recoveries from head surgeries to experience these types of things, but if it is ever your turn, hang in there and enjoy the music!

On Saturday or Sunday I once again heard a children’s choir and in my throaty sotto voce I called Kerrie, “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” she replied.

“The children are singing again!”

I got up from the couch and stepped out the back door onto the patio.  And there were the voices!  Somewhere down the street there was a young girl’s birthday party and however many seven or eight year old girls were in attendance, they regaled me with song after song as only young, unselfconscious children can.  It was priceless.  So, if you are hearing voices in your recovery, keep listening!  Sooner or later, the choir is bound to arrive.

These days were also tough on me and Kerrie.  The most unwelcome part of my recovery during the first week and a half of being home concerned my dread of going to bed.  Not only would I be in a constant psychological struggle with the drowning sensation.  But my head would throb.  It wasn’t simply post-surgery pain.  Rather, it was connected to the temperature.  There are a lot of good things that may be said about living in Southern California.  Attention to detail in home construction is not one of them.  Our church house for example, was built forty or fifty years ago, and there is not one shred of insulation in the walls.  During the hot days, the AC is in overdrive keeping the house cool (the ridiculously inefficient ventilation scheme doesn’t help).  During the cool evenings, the temperature in the house drops quickly- especially when a window is opened and a ceiling fan is switched on.  And when that cold air hit the shaved back of my head where the surgical wound was it felt like an ice pick hammering at that little titanium plate that was holding my brain box together.  So Kerrie would be burning up or I would be freezing.  These were difficult days.

One of the things that I learned during this first full week of recovery at home was that the road to health and wholeness is not linear.  It does not proceed step-wise from A to B to C…  Instead it is more of a cyclical or iterative process.  You experience a bit of growth in A, then something changes in C, B might get a little worse, then better. A seems plateaued, then C takes two steps forward, then a big one back…  There is an ebb and flow to strength, energy level, willingness to fight for everything from calories to sleep…  Encouragement is not constant, neither is hope.  The one thing that is constant for me is the will to trust enough to keep the fight going – with whatever strength I can muster.

Over the years I have quoted an ancient Israelite proverb to lacrosse players and visitors to my pastor’s office alike: “If you falter in times of trouble, how small then is your strength.”  Proverbs 24:10.  It is only when you are at the very breaking point that your strength is actually seen most clearly. The weight lifter’s strength cannot be measured until he can bear no more.  The runners speed is unknown until she cannot sprint one step faster.  The team’s unity cannot be assessed until they lose that heart-breaker in overtime.  And I cannot prove to a watching family the strong merits of trusting God in undesired circumstances if I will not trust him enough to exercise what strength of character he has given me.  God is bigger than my current discomfort.  As one of my parishioners read to me from Psalm 46, God is himself with his people, we will not be moved.  God will help us at break of day.

Until then may God be with you my friends.  As you stand up under the difficulties you embrace day after day may you come to know that God is indeed a “refuge and a strength for his people – a very present help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

 

Tomorrows Therapeutic Writing Assignment: Let the Good Times Roll – A Large Fries and a Slow God.

N.B.  The picture is of the awesome banner the kids brought by.

 

 

 

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