February 16, 2020

Remembering The Stutterer

10019014.JPGWhen I was a child and a teenager, I stuttered. For several years, quite badly. Those who know me will notice that I can still get into some stuttering patterns when I’m nervous or stressed, but for the most part, my stuttering left me around age 15 when I started preaching regularly.

There are different kinds of stuttering. Mine was a primarily a problem with certain hard sounds. Dad told me that he first noticed I couldn’t say “Alice,” but just froze up on the hard “a” sound. I’ve been avoiding those hard “A’s” ever since. Some of you could compose a sentence to torture me and put it in the comments if you like.

I had other kinds of stuttering patterns, including halting, lots of “uh’s,” (Hi Phil!) and repeating certain words. There’s nothing more fun than wanting to talk to a girl and getting stuck repeating the word “You” over and over. “You you you you you you look really nice.” Kind of takes the blush off the rose. If her name was Alice, it could turn into a real circus.

When I was in middle school, an observant and caring teacher finally tried to get me into speech therapy. A nice lady came by my class and asked me to stay after school to see the speech therapist. I didn’t stay- having more important things to do and not knowing what that was anyway- and may have suffered for a few more years as a result.

I have a memory of being in front of an elementary class giving a report, and stuttering very badly; so badly that time went on and on and the teacher finally had to cut my report short. Apparently, unlike some kids, stuttering didn’t have much of an effect on what I attempted to do in front of others. I tried out for plays and wondered why I didn’t get the lead. When I first began talking in front of groups of people in churches, I was still a stutterer, but by God’s grace, the more speaking I did, the less I stuttered.

Today, if you listen to me preach a typical message, you’d never guess that 35 years ago I sometimes couldn’t say a sentence without stuttering badly.

I have friends who stutter. One friend from college days got a master’s in speech therapy….and still stuttered so badly that when he called me on the phone, there was no sound at all. It took my dad a while to realize he wasn’t getting some kind of freaky obscene call.

Some of my students stutter. One young man was obviously nervous about doing an oral presentation of a Shakespeare sonnet. He decided to perform the sonnet in a faux British accent and delivered it perfectly. Like a lot of us, he’s discovering that various kinds of speech patterns go through different routes of the brain and can avoid stuttering completely. Many of us learned this from watching stuttering country music star Mel Tillis sing.

I’ve learned some things from being part of the stuttering community.

1. I’ve learned what it’s like to have your imperfections unavoidably noticeable.

Human flaws are a mixture of the public and the private. Increasingly, our American culture is about the quest to present a perfect public image. We’ll pay thousands of dollars for perfect bodies, teeth, hair, clothes, cars, resumes, etc.

If you open you mouth and repeat the word “you” ten times, however, it tends to spoil that image. There you are- a person who can’t talk. How do you like me now? And, of course, in many cases you know that you are going to be disliked, thought unintelligent and passed over for opportunities.

Our natural tendency is to hide our flaws. Some of us can’t. We need to come to a place of peace and acceptance about that, and move on to what God has in our future.

2. I’ve learned what it’s like to live with a problem for a lifetime.

My stuttering almost vanished in my teenage years, but it’s still enough a part of my life that I understand how each of us are presented with choices about how we are going to live with our problems. Some of us will be called to live with imperfections and flaws that won’t go away and won’t get better. Will these things define us? Will they defeat us in the journey to have a meaningful life? Will we allow the perceptions of others to become our self-perceptions?

Our imperfections can become the occasion to rely more on the grace of God than other people. Remember Jesus’ words to Paul about his “thorn:” “My grace is sufficient for you.” Paul said his “thorn” was sent by God to keep him from becoming arrogant. God put it there so that Paul wouldn’t see himself apart from God’s grace and power. He learned to see that his weakness was a manifestation of God’s strength IN weakness.

3. I’ve learned that a problem or flaw can become the occasion for sin.

Working with teenagers from many different backgrounds has made me a pretty unsentimental person. I feel the pain many of my students have experienced, but I’m also aware of how problems like poverty, dysfunctional families, even abuse can become the fertile soil of sin rather than redemption and righteousness.

Yes, believe it or not, my stuttering didn’t entirely work for my good. At times, it became the reason I excused and tolerated sin in myself.

One of my co-workers was, for many years, a missionary to a particular disabled population. He had worked at a school for this disability and always pointed out how this disability made those who had it particularly difficult, bossy, selfish and aggressive. When I first heard this, I thought, “How mean!” But he was undeniably right, and not just about that particular disability.

All of us who have to live with an imperfection need to face up to the fact that our “suffering” isn’t automatically redemptive. Satan comes to us and presents particular kinds of sinful choices that are tied to that flaw.

Are you overweight? From a dysfunctional family? Poor? Single? Are you old? Neglected by your children? Not compensated appropriately for your work? All of these are occasions to trust Christ and move forward in his grace…or opportunities to sin, be demanding, self-pitying and manipulative.

4. I’ve learned about human cruelty and the power of love.

When you stutter, you are going to be the butt of a lot of cruel humor. Some people in the world will be particularly cruel. Others will join in to a lesser extent, or just laugh. Or remain silent, unable to make up their minds how to act. Sometimes Christians will lead the charge to get others to laugh at what you can’t help.

Since the school shootings of the last decade, there has been an aspect of youth culture that says it’s weak and wrong to suffer cruelty and teasing without retaliating violently. In fact, in the dating culture of America, getting public, humiliating “revenge” on someone for dropping you is quite common. All of this builds on our natural, but now fallen, desire for justice. If you stutter or have another kind of public flaw, you will have many opportunities to decide if you can forgive the cruel.

I’ve noticed that I have a particularly strong reaction to those who ridicule some of our older or handicapped staff or students. I have to ask for God’s grace to not overreact when I see someone teasing an overweight kid or a student with severe acne. Those episodes stir something deep in me, and I know what is: I’m once again the stutterer on the playground.

Of course, at the heart of Christianity’s story is the cruelty of those who humiliated and executed Jesus. He had prepared his disciples for this by repeatedly teaching the power of forgiveness and love towards enemies and persecutors. Those of us with public flaws and imperfections will have opportunities to see these kinds of people with the eyes of Jesus. Jesus taught that it was a great privilege to suffer for him. It’s our privilege to take cruelty aimed at us over lesser things and to transform it into opportunities to be like Christ in forgiveness and grace to others.

5. I’ve learned about the fellowship that exists among the those with persistent flaws and problems.

I’m fascinated at how the current vogue is to make the church a fellowship of hip, cool, affluent people from great upper middle class white families with perfect kids. Hello? What Bible are you reading?

Don’t think I’m unaware that the tattooed, the pierced and the mohawked can be just as self-centered in their ideas of the church. We all can. Old. Young. Counter culture or mainstream traditionalists.

The church is gathered around Christ and the Gospel, and it looks something like this:

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the LORD.”

Sadly, many of us who are flawed live in isolation from others like ourselves. We withdraw in fear of exposure and suffering. We forget how much grace and acceptance there can be in learning that we aren’t alone, that others have been down a similar road and there is hope on the road ahead.

The power of Christ is manifested among those who come to the table as a broken community of pilgrims recognizing God’s grace and the Good News of the Kingdom in Jesus.

So today I am remembering the stutterer. He and I are the same person, but he is part of the story and I am all of the story. I can see God’s hand in all of it in ways I couldn’t years ago. I can thank God for the small impact stuttering had on my life, and the endless goodness and grace of God in small things.

Comments

  1. Michael,
    Great post, as seems to be the norm around here.

    I’m thankful for a Grade 9 home room teacher, Bill Hawkins, who got me into drama so he could teach me to slow my speaking down to a comprehensible speed. When I’m nervous I still speed and stumble. In fact, the first time I preached (in the late ’80’s) I delivered a planned 22 minute sermon in 13 minutes.

    I’m also thankful for a community of believers who accept me, as flawed as I am, and for the grace and goodness of God.

  2. I have a son who struggles with dyspraxia-basically he has a hard time getting his mouth and tongue to move properly to produce the correct sounds of speech. He’s like a person having difficulty pronouncing the words of a foreign language without an accent–only his problem is with his native tongue! He’s only 9 now but I’ve mentioned Paul’s thorn in the flesh to him in discussing his challenge. And I also pointed out that Moses said that he was ‘slow of speech’. Maybe Moses was a stutterer or someone, like my son, who had to speak slowly in order to properly enunciate and correctly pronounce his words.

    James Earl Jones, an actor noted for his wonderful voice, stuttered so badly that he was functionally mute for several years. He credits a high school teacher who discovered his writing talent for helping him out of his silence. He had him recite a poem every day in class.

    Stories, like these, and yours, of people with speech difficulties going on to excel in speaking professions are amazing and really encouraging to young people still struggling with these challenges.

  3. Monk…

    I really apreciate your essays, and how they touch on the human-ness of our lives. I am continually delighted to find that in my brokeness, God’s grace shines even brighter. It really is true, and it really is the Good News. Thanks again…

  4. Michael,

    I am glad I ran into this post. I’ve suffered with panic anxiety since I was 18. In high school, I would sweat so bad that I would excuse myself to the bathroom from class and try to collect myself. Then full blown panic attacks ensued in college. Only after two years of intensive medical testing did I realize I had what runs in my family: panic anxiety.

    I am now pursuing God’s call in my life in seminary, hoping to become a pastor or professor. In any case, I feel led to pursue teaching up front, where my panic will undoubetly surface. I now see my struggle as insurance that I will give glory to God for his help to me and for any fruit he works in my ministry. But at times, I wish I could figure the disease out, eradicating it from my life with perscription drugs or intense workouts or soul-searching therapy. To date, God has chosen to leave this thorn, so I am left to trust God’s word, a place I should be, clinging to “his power made perfect in weakness.”

    Thanks for sharing your story of stuttering. I am encouraged to know of other brothers experiencing parallel suffering to my own.

  5. I am now able to comment, Michael. Thanks for your help. This was a great post. As one who in God’s wisdom has had to deal with this issue, I appreciated your kind words.

  6. Dear iMonk, (I like that handle so much that I can’t bring myself to use “Michael”),
    The sunshine of my life, who is 4 and mildly autistic, suddenly developed a stutter last month. For a developmentally delayed child, my son acquired beautiful language skills within the last year. So I’ve been crushed about the onset of stuttering. Does he need another frustrating challenge in his life???
    Thank you for easing my mind and heart, a bit.
    SusanF

  7. Michael, I found your post via a link on the Between Two Worlds blog. I found your post and the comments to it freeing. I, too, have been a stutterer. When I was in fourth grade and we had to take turns reading aloud, when my turn came I could not get a single sound out of my mouth. Over time, like you, I have progressed. My work requires that I often speak before churches, so when I stutter or get a panic attack it is difficult for me. But before I speak, I’ve been trying to put the matter in God’s hands. He’s been helping me understand that he wants to show his strength through my weaknesses as Paul spoke about. I also found help from a caring Christian psychiatrist who assured me that it was not a lack of faith for me to take some mild medication before public speaking. So I sometimes do and God works through that also. He likes to get the glory and I am growing in wanting that for him.