Russ Dean has taken a vow of silence.
He had little say in the matter.
In June, the co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church came down with a cough. It steadily worsened, then became violent, so much so that he often found it hard to breathe.
He was told it was bronchitis. He was put on heavy steroids. His body remained a blasting zone.
Finally, a specialist told him that whooping cough or some other aggressive virus had attacked his vocal chords.
Doctor’s orders: Dean wasn’t allowed to utter a syllable for 10 days. He has been banned from public speaking until October. Singing – Dean is an accomplished musician – is out of the question.
Anybody who knows Russ Dean knows that for him, seven weeks of relative silence is a sentence of hard labor.
“There is never a moment that his mind is not running and racing with theology, the thought and study of God, and trying to find ways to communicate it,” says his co-pastor, Amy Jacks Dean, his high school sweetheart in Clinton, S.C., and his wife of 26 years.
Russ can do limited one-on-one speaking at something just above a whisper, but for now even that wears his voice out. Something as intrinsic to his calling as a sermon risks permanent damage.
We’ve been exchanging emails this week, talking about coping with the unexpected.
“It’s been very strange,” he wrote. “The loss of a voice, for a ‘vocal athlete,’ as the doc called me, is pretty tough. She also said to me, ‘You’re disabled. If we need to sign any insurance forms for you, we can do that.’ Those were pretty tough words.”
Much, then, is in flux for the Deans, at both church and at home. Russ snaps his fingers or claps to communicate with sons Jackson and Bennett. That works fine at one of the boys’ baseball games, not so well when trying to break up an argument in the back seat of the car.
Still, the Deans have acquired new insights into such popular pastoral terms as patience and faith. There is no quick fix, Amy tells me. Even with time, Russ’s voice may never completely come back.
For now, Amy has taken over the sermons (they used to split them). This Sunday, Russ has written a prayer that Amy will read to the congregation. Russ will accompany her on the piano.
As much as Russ’s illness has affected the family, there are lines Amy refuses to cross.
“God didn’t do this to us,” she says. “God is walking this path with us, equally as disappointed that there is the loss of a voice of good news. Lord knows, the world needs some good news.”
Luckily, there is some.
It can be found in a more modern turn on Russ Dean’s ministry, his blog.
In his latest posting, he talks about the difference in telling someone, I’m thinking about you vs. I’m praying for you.
Dean says he’s always thought the two aren’t the same. Now he can feel it.
“Being the object of your prayers has moved me,” he writes to his congregation. “It hasn’t changed my predicament. It may not. But it has changed something much more important than my voice.”
He goes on.
“If we could learn that prayer isn’t a magical ability to harness some divine force in order to change the world in the way we want, the power of prayer might actually begin to change the world.
“It has mine.”