Episode 19: Off the Road with Willie, Johnny, and the Boys
One of the early losses due to “the fire in my bones” was my ability to travel and speak. When the pain first laid siege to my life, I was riding the crest of my career as a speaker and teacher, making trips throughout Texas, working with pastors in Austin, flying to Malibu to speak at the opening night of the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, speaking at Summit, or annual Bible Lectures at ACU, and traveling abroad to teach at a premiere Russian university (St. Petersburg). After the first surgery, the slow steady burn began to reap its losses. I took on fewer speaking assignments and stayed closer to home. As the pain intensified, I made arrangements for a stool or a chair with an ottoman while preaching—an incredibly awkward adjustment, but one I was willing to make for the joy of preaching. After my second surgery I cut back more on travel and speaking, and even more after the third surgery, then the fourth (and the fifth to come), graph points that began to map a curve, moving down sharply at first, and then more gradually reaching a flat “new normal,” a phrase I despised but was learning to accept.
Though I didn’t fit typical pastoral ministry well, teaching and traveling to conduct a teacher’s training workshop, kick off a study of the Psalms or Proverbs, or help a church when it was between pastors—this was different: it was fun. The work carried its own costs, finding the time to prepare and physical weariness. And there were a few times I really didn’t want to leave a Saturday football game at halftime, just because I needed to get on the road. Still, however, I kept booking engagements because I loved to go, maintaining good church relations was part of my job, and, to be honest, I needed the extra money that churches would offer me in gratuity for speaking. Two trips in 2009, however, joined forces to purchase a raven named Nevermore.
The first came at the end of May, to the small town of Cherokee, TX. I left on Saturday afternoon to make the two-and-a-half hour drive before it got dark. I’m among the lucky few who have never gotten a ticket for a moving violation or been in an accident. This isn’t to say I didn’t deserve my share of tickets or come close to causing or being caught up in an accident; I was just lucky. By the end of May, however, driving out of town had become a Catch-22 proposition: I could drive with the distraction of pain (sometimes severe) or I could take medicine, have less pain, and technically drive under the influence. Truthfully, I was a DUI looking for disaster. At the same time, pain or no pain, the words “I regret that I am unable to make the trip” had not yet entered my vocabulary.
About halfway to Cherokee I began to get sleepy because of a small dose of medication and insomnia (another new friend I’ll introduce later). Two hours into the trip, getting sleepy turned into I can’t stay awake. I turned up the radio, sang along, moved my head side to side, sat up straight—and, still, I’d drift to the edge of the highway, onto the shoulder of the road, and wake to the sound of tires rolling across grooved pavement. Fifteen minutes to go: I couldn’t stop. I needed sunlight to find where I was supposed to stay for the night, and I certainly needed sunlight to keep me awake. So I pushed on, invigorated by shots of adrenaline every time I drifted and suddenly woke.
Had I been a compliant learner, this trip would have stopped me from driving out of town—Nevermore. But I wasn’t and I didn’t. At the time I didn’t feel like I had any other options. I still had places to go and things to do. So, I determined to be more careful about when I left and how much medicine I took before leaving. But, God forgive me, I kept driving. And thank God I didn’t kill anyone.
I flew to my last event of the year where I joined new friends Scot McKnight and Tremper Longman III as resource speakers for a conference at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN, on “Preaching Character” from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes). Dave Bland and David Fleer, friends and conference organizers, provided a comfortable stool from which I could teach my classes. Our campus host and first lady of the university, Rhonda Lowry, also noticed my pain and went out of her way to help me. She rounded up pillows from every room in the building so I could be more comfortable as I listened to other speakers. And when she saw that I could hardly walk, she arranged for a university golf cart to transport me across campus to lunch. Their hospitality stands out in my memory as one of most sensitive and helpful efforts that I have ever experienced. At the same, it was painfully obvious that I was no longer healthy enough to stay on the speaking circuit. Nevermore.
I admit I miss the honoraria, the “gifts” or money given to me for speaking. On one hand, most of my students who enter ministry earn a salary equal to or higher than my own within their first five years on the job. This is not a complaint, just reality. I chose my profession and would make the same decision again. Private Christian universities simply do not have the luxury of paying their faculty competitive salaries. On the other hand, during these years it seemed as if we were always trying to catch up to bills that never seemed to get paid in full, especially as we turned the corner into 2009. And on the third hand (always handy to keep near), my daughter was now a student at ACU, and even with my employee discount, tuition and housing well exceeded what my salary could cover. So, while my daughter worked part-time during the school year and full-time in the summer, I stayed on the road for the extra income—willingly and happily.
It might have helped, if I’d had a preset schedule of expenses or set speaking fees. I don’t begrudge any of my friends who require specific levels of support; it’s just never been my style. I’ve just always accepted whatever a church gave me, most often a check in a sealed envelope tucked into my pocket just before I left for home. Some churches were super generous, others less so. I found, however, that the two extremes produced a reasonable average, but not as one might expect. Oftentimes, larger churches, especially nearby, asked me to do something that required extra preparation time and then offered a nice handshake as I left, while small churches have been incredibly generous—nearby and far away. It’s a mystery, but not beyond a reasonable hypothesis. I think smaller churches know “the cost” of staying alive and take responsibility for their expenses. Meanwhile, larger churches sometimes tend to take their abundance of resources for granted, including the guest speaker.
After the conference at Lipscomb University, I came off the road. Before 2009, I averaged well over 20 events a year, most outside of Abilene (or outside of Oklahoma City when I lived there). Since 2009, a period of nine years and counting, I’ve spoken fewer than a dozen times in total. I still schedule events, but only with careful restrictions and assistance. I miss it. I miss working with pastors and conference planners. I miss being with former students, supporting their ministries and offering them safe space and time to talk about their lives and work. I miss the travel, the different places to visit and see. I miss standing before people I don’t know and the challenge of engaging their minds and hearts. And I miss the good feeling of exhaustion when an event is over and I’m on my way home.
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton).