It happened again the other day – as it has countless times over the past 18 months: “How is your voice?” he said. “I’ve been praying for you.”
Wow. You? Praying, for me?
On Aug. 24, 2012, Michael Gordon, then the Observer’s Religion Editor, wrote an article chronicling my battle with a violent, four-month coughing attack. I was never properly diagnosed, but I probably had whooping cough. True to its name, the “hundred day cough” resulted in damage to my 10th cranial nerve, which controls the larynx and all its functions in speaking and swallowing. The damage resulted in the most frightening season of life I’ve yet known. Before I understood what was happening I had experienced a number of laryngospasms, in which the vocal cords slam tightly together, a reflexive measure to prevent aspiration of any liquid into the lungs – but which also prevents the flow of any air, in or out of the lungs. This nerve damage, along with the mechanical trauma of all the coughing and a multi-week prescription of steroids, left me with almost no voice for nearly three months. (Hurray, the preacher can’t talk for three months!)
Humorous as that may be to congregation members who would rather hear my wife and co-pastor Amy preach, you can imagine how it sounded when the director of the Speech and Swallowing Clinic at the Medical University of South Carolina said, “It’s just too early to know if you’ll get any of your voice back.” Amy and I returned from Charleston in nearly complete silence, which had almost nothing to do with the condition of my Vegas nerve, my vocal cords or my lungs. The doctor had used the word “disabled.”
You cannot preach if you are vocally disabled. Nor can you get a job as a teacher. Or selling shoes. Or as the register clerk at Harris Teeter. Or, come to think of it … what exactly can you do if your voice is so weak your sons can’t even hear your voice from the back seat of the car?
So we went home, and Amy preached, and I sat eerily quiet on the rostrum every Sunday, fighting tears most of the time. I listened to the hymns, and I just wondered. I spent 10 days of complete silence, maybe twice, and three months without even talking on the telephone. And we prayed.
Apparently so did you.
In that 2012 Observer article, I said to Michael Gordon, “Being the object of your prayers has moved me. It hasn’t changed my predicament. It may not. But it has changed something much more important than my voice.” I was only beginning to understand that truth.
Two years later I cannot tell you how many times I have been stopped on the street, in the grocery store, at the ballgame. Nearly every one of you has said: “I’ve been praying for you.”
I don’t know what you think about prayer. I can tell you I have a deeper appreciation for the discipline and for the mysterious communal power of prayer than I had two years ago. That Observer article closed with these words: “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.”
Prayer has changed my world. Your prayers. My voice is back, strong, though not 100 percent. I don’t have the strength or stamina I had before vocal paresis (my official diagnosis), but I have enough voice to do my job. And now that I’m speaking, I need to say to this community, which has supported me so quietly, so powerfully, so importantly…
Russ Dean is co-pastor at Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.
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