My Personal Little New Year's Miracle
You know I struggle with this voice condition called spasmodic dysphonia. "Spasmodic WHAT??" you say. Believe me, I never heard of it either until the nice man in the white smock told me I've got a classic case!
It's not at all like the "singer's nodes" I always feared I'd get from singing like Bob Dylan for years in noisy, smoke-filled taverns with my old band mate, Jimmy Lewis.
S.D. is neurological. Not a thing wrong with my throat, or my vocal cords. It's the NERVES that send the signal to the vocal cords to open and shut to properly articulate words. Those nerves are fried extra crispy and no longer fire properly; so the vocal cords "get stuck" either open or closed, and certain vowels or consonants literally get choked down in my voice box.
How did I get it? Don't know. Probably the combination of emotional stress and Lyme disease about five years back. Shania Twain is convinced that's how hers came on (Shania, very fortunately, has been able to afford the best voice-therapy money can buy for several years, and she sounds amazing now. There was a time she believed it meant THE END, as far as her career went! I'm genuinely happy for her).
What does s.d. sound like? It "gives the voice a tight, strained or strangled quality" (spasmodicdysphonia.org).
I like to point people to Robert F Kennedy, Jr, whose s.d. has been on the news, lately, as he's speaking out about vaccinations. You can catch a sampling on YouTube. I have a real soft spot in my heart for RFK, Jr., because his dad (one time frontrunner for president, until he was shot down like his older brother) was someone I admired a great deal when I was a boy.
RFK, Jr., has also survived the suicide of someone he loved very dearly, as have I.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out this is probably not a good thing to happen to a guy who makes his living as a public speaker. My wife, my kids, my students all tell me I'm still very understandable. They tell me it surely must seem far worse to me, and bugs me a whole lot more than it does most folks who have to sit and listen to me struggle on.
And I can believe that. After all, I was a professional radio announcer for nearly ten years. I was more conscious than most of the need to "enunciate clearly" (a radio station General Manager once told me I had "flawless diction." Coming from one radio professional to another, I must admit that's a compliment I treasured.)!
I no longer speak two or more hours a day, five days a week, now that we've left New Tribes Bible Institute. But I still welcome opportunities to teach and preach from God's Word, or to publicize the amazing work God is doing through GoodSeed.
So, we were very pleased to speak at a New Year's Eve celebration at Caswell Bible Chapel in North Carolina. I was to give a ministry update at 6 pm, after which we shared in a fellowship meal from 7-8. Then, at 8, I would share a message from the Word. I chose to dish out some meat from Habakkuk, and had a great time studying and learning new truths from this powerful little book.
But my voice has been rough lately. Plus, it was evening, and I tend to decline the closer we get to bedtime (again, it's the Lyme).
About ten-fifteen minutes into my message, I was really struggling. I felt the way RFK, Jr. sounds. It was hard, and wearying, and actually quite humiliating; painfully so. I could see several people fidgeting. I felt sure they were experiencing that awkward embarrassment FOR ME and the obvious difficulty I was having (What I didn't realize until later was a lot of folks were feeling increasingly uncomfortable because the heat was turned up. The room was getting warm and they were fighting off sleepiness, especially with full bellies from the meal they just had!).
And right in that moment my heart sank to the floor with the most profound discouragement. The thought assaulted my mind, "Richards, what on earth are you doing??? Anyone with half a brain can see your days as a speaker are OVER. Do everybody a favor. HANG IT UP! Whoever would want to sit and listen to this unpleasantness?"
Sadly, my content was not that engaging at that point, either; mainly, I think, because my impediment was sucking up so much of my focus, my thoughts just wouldn't flow. It felt mechanical and drab. All I wanted at that moment was to apologize to these good folks, grab my wife and go home, or quit this earth and be with the Lord; immediately, if not sooner.
Instead, I just groaned inwardly and mentally gave it to Jesus. I had no other choice!
"Lord, these folks are here to get something encouraging, challenging, inspiring, from your Word. I thought I had that to give to them, but I got NOTHING (inward sob). If anything, ANYTHING AT ALL! is going to happen here, it's going to have to be ALL YOU."
About a minute later, I hit the part of Habakkuk chapter 2 that the Lord had really opened up for me afresh through my studies. He thrilled my heart with Truth about Him; shot me up with a quick dose of passion to communicate these gems, and my Saviour walked me through that wall.
I promise you I couldn't have willed it to happen in a million years, but my voice relaxed and freed up. I felt lucid and in the groove and the thoughts and the words flowed.
I wouldn't kid about such a thing.
Afterwards, a dear brother came up to me and said, "I don't know if you're aware of this, Ernie, but when you really hit that rich vein in God's Truth, your voice got PERFECTLY FLUENT. It was as different as night and day."
Still stunned myself, I muttered, "yeah, wasn't that something?"
"No!" he said. "That wasn't 'something.' That was God!"
Unfortunately (from my lame human perspective), when the sermon was over, so was that nice vocal reprieve.
People have told me it's my "thorn." Frankly, I thought being only 5'3" and appearing as just a head sticking out of most pulpits was "thorn" enough 😉. I guess He thinks otherwise.
I guess He doesn't mean it to be something I can just be rid of, or turn off and on at my will and whim.
I guess it's His way of KEEPING me at a new level of dependence.
I have to be honest. I still wouldn't mind just having my old voice back, if it were up to me.
It's not. So, all glory, honor and praise to Him in the meantime (Romans 5:3-5)!!