Like the Oscar voters who named The King's Speech the best movie of 2010, I loved the movie (which just released to DVD) not just for its excellence, but for a particularly poignant reason: I am a stutterer. And I'm a pastor, which means my problem, like the king's, is often quite public.
I prefer "stutterer" to "stammerer" because of the onomatopoeic irony: the word sounds like the sound. It's a term fraught with consonant-rich pitfalls for those inflicted with the impediment. You can tell a lisper by how they "lithp." You can tell a stutterer by how they "st-st-stutter"—and sometimes that yields embarrassing and painful moments, especially for a child.
I remember in school when we were all required to read aloud. I cannot express the dread that would sit, knotted and grotesque, in the pit of my stomach as I waited for the death knell signifying my turn to read. Usually, I was mercifully given small parts, usually one sentence, but they grew all out of proportion in my mind, becoming the enemy. I would flip forward in my book, counting the pages till my part, inwardly pleading for the bell to ring—signifying the end of class and my reprieve from a fate worse than death. In one class, there was a boy who delighted in tormenting me because of my stutter and the ensuing facial contortions. His impersonations weren't that great, but still they were like a knife to my heart. One time he mocked me and, driven by irrepressible rage and impotent outrage, I punched him. The manliness of my just onslaught was somewhat offset by the fact that I was crying like a baby. But beggars can't be choosers. And even though I hit him, he got in trouble. For that instant, life was sweet. (Plus, girls thought my stutter was cute. Which would both thrill me and infuriate me.)
Oh, and I hated my name. I wished I was Oliver or Sam, a name that lacked the curse of the hard first syllable. While others dreamed of being a celebrity or a Mighty Morphin' Power Ranger, I dreamed of simply saying, "Hi, I'm Sam." I dreamed of speaking without facial contortions, tricks, or run-ins to say what I wanted to say.
Crashed and burned
It's ironic that I'm now a preacher [assistant pastor at Cornerstone Wesleyan in Ontario]. That I can stand in front of people and speak, read, enunciate, articulate, and express myself is a gift I revel in and do not take lightly. Stutterers often have a good vocabulary; it helps to be a veritable walking thesaurus of all the alternate, and easier, ways of saying things.
I've always been the witty one, the one with insight and the clever comeback. But no one knew it except me. As a stutterer, I am like an extrovert trapped inside an introvert's body. I've been imprisoned behind my own tongue, making Psalm 51:15 more than mere metaphor to me. It's more like a literal scream of desperation: "Loosen my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise."
Of course, the pain and embarrassment of stuttering don't fade away with childhood. When I stand before our congregation, I treasure this gift of (mostly) fluency, but it's not always smooth sailing. A recent Sunday was my worst, eloquence-wise, in a long time. I was tired (strike one), I was nervous (strike two), and I took on too much responsibility in the service (strike three).
After leading worship, I began reading the text from which I was preaching. I stumbled over one word and, like an over-extended runner, I began to trip, flail, overbalance—and I eventually fell gracelessly to the proverbial verbal ground. Then it went from bad to worse. I must have stuttered every sentence. I clawed my way on all fours toward the finish line, and when the final word of communion was u-u-u-uttered and the congregation dismissed, I sat exhausted in the sanctuary, too emotionally frail to meet my friends' concerned smiles or well-meaning encouragements.
I hung around for a bit, and then went home and inwardly collapsed. I'm thankful my wonderful wife knew me enough to send me off—alone—to Starbucks to read my book in quiet. Just what the doctor ordered.
This is what I wrote in my journal that afternoon:
"I feel frustrated. I feel broken. I could not face people after the service; their pity or confusion or well-meaning encouragement. Lord, I feel like I let You down, but I can't help feeling like You let me down … My greatest desire is to allow Your Spirit to convince others through my words. It's a fire burning in my bones; I cannot keep it in. See fit to free me for honest expression. I know there is a lot of self in these requests; but I had hoped that our interest in my fluency might be mutually beneficial."
The next morning, I spent a couple of hours on my own in the sanctuary, re-preaching the sermon to empty pews, so that I might be able to put into the hands of the people who graciously made it through the sermon on Sunday the intended result. Did I preach the whole sermon again for God's glory, or for the sake of my reputation? I don't know. Perhaps both.
Deciphering God's will
At times like this, I question the will of God, too beat up to pray for a miraculous healing (which I know God can do). I wonder whether the best I can expect is to stumble through life, unfulfilled in what I think is my calling as a preacher. Perhaps my best work will be done on paper. Perhaps I should leave the ministry and instead work with my hands. I'm married with three kids, so becoming a monk vowed to silence is no longer an option.
Who knows, perhaps God will raise me up, loosen my lips, and I'll become the greatest expositor of Scripture this world has ever known. I doubt it, but it's nice to dream. But that's the problem—stuttering makes one a realist. Life never is more real than when you've stalled your way through an agonizing preaching of God's Word, followed by a backfiring observance of Holy Communion. If it wasn't so sad, it would almost be funny.
I still have my King's Speech moments, when the stars seem to align and the words seem to flow and heaven seems to rejoice—when people's minds are changed and the church becomes a little more inspired toward holiness. But right now I feel like I'm embroiled in the cursing scene of the movie, frustrated at my inability to articulate what I think would glorify God.
I vacillate between two poles—hope for what God can do in and through me, and the familiarity of self-loathing. I am grateful that my life is lived largely at the former pole, with occasional days spent obsessing over the latter. I remember my childhood despair and rejoice that God has brought me thus far.
I know my stutter has been formative, making me who I am. I know it's driven me to read and write, because I need an outlet. I know it's given me empathy toward people who struggle. I know it's helped tune my radar to those on the periphery. I know it's provided me with a sense of gratitude for what to many is a given: fluency. And when I do preach well, I know it's not me!
My stutter may be my equivalent of Paul's thorn (1 Cor. 12:7). It may be part of God's inconceivably great plan; his ways and thoughts are definitely higher than mine (Isaiah 55:9). Whatever it is, I am (mostly) thankful for it. Even now, still reeling after that sermon, as face my stuttering self. Even as those childhood feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness resurface. Even as I wish, hope against hope, that this stuttering would cease and I could share from the side of victory.
Even with all of this, I have a sneaking suspicion that this bane of my life might actually be my greatest blessing—the means by which I am constantly driven back to the throne of grace. It's my quickest reminder that I'm not "all that," when I'm tempted to think I am.
After a recent study group in which we discussed the persecution of Christians (both historical and current), I wrote this in my journal this week:
Lord, I ask whether it is enough for me to know that You are Yahweh. Would it be enough for me to know that you are glorified in my stutter, even if You never intended to take it away. O God, I long to be free from it; to know the freedom of an untroubled tongue. Yet, my soul finds rest in God only. My hope is in You.
To that, I say a-a-amen.
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