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Speaking Without Speech

You never know what’s around the corner, as the saying goes. Neither did I know what was on the other side of the door as I was departing a skilled nursing center recently. I didn’t know I was about to carry on a conversation with someone who can no longer talk but who still communicates clearly in the universal language shared by all who, through the ages and around the globe, know Jesus Christ.

I opened the door to exit the facility and there sitting in a wheelchair was a gentleman whose proximity to the door seemed to indicate he was ready to enter the building. I asked him if I could hold the door and help him in. He looked at me, smiled and said something I took to be a religious blessing of some sort in a language other than English. It seemed like a blessing because he put his hand over his heart like he was offering a gesture of appreciation.

I asked him another question, something like how was he doing today. He answered again with words in that other language. Right then it dawned on me that that the language he was speaking actually wasn’t another language, and that the sounds he was making were not really words at all. The man was talking to me by uttering just a few monosyllabic sounds over and over. They were strung together with the intonations and inflections of sentences, yet they were unintelligible. I asked him, “have you had a stroke?” He nodded in the affirmative and pointed to his elevated left leg supported by the wheelchair. He then pointed to his limp left arm resting in his lap. It was like he was saying, “Yep, see the evidence right here, it’s a stroke alright.” And while pointing, he was still uttering those few sounds.

His brain was fully engaged in a conversation with me. In his mind, he was forming all the words he wanted to say but his body could only produce a few sounds. His receptive ability seemed good, though. I said to him, “So your receptive language ability is fine it’s just that your body won’t produce your words because of the stroke, right?” He nodded and said “yeah.” So, he could say at least “yes.” I asked him if he could write. He replied, “nah.” So, he can say “no” as well, but his expressive communication deficit extends to putting words on paper too.

Then he blew me away. He had a lanyard around his neck with a name badge attached. He lifted the badge for me to read. It had the name of the facility and its logo on the top and in the center it read “Pastor John.”

“Ah,” said I. “You know Jesus.” A big smile spread on his face and he spoke more of those sounds and made more hand-to-the-heart gestures. I don’t remember everything we said to each other. I was saying the words, John was replying with comments and blessings only as he could do. We communicated together for a short while and both of us were getting tears in our eyes. He didn’t need to have the words coming from his mouth because what was coming out of his soul was communicating with me just fine. I offered to pray for him, and he gladly accepted. (I could kick myself for not asking him to pray for me; I’ll do that if I get to see him again.)

I left John that afternoon blessed in great measure because we two followers of Jesus had just communed in a spiritual revival. Two disciples bearing witness to each other, strengthening one another, loving one another. And I learned a lesson that applies to making disciples of Jesus. It’s a lesson about communication. Often, Christians can be reticent about getting involved as disciple makers. We think it’s not the right time or we enter into rationalizations about how God hasn’t “opened the door.” We think we’re not eloquent enough or we expect the preachers to be doing the lion’s share of evangelizing the lost. They’re the trained communicators, aren’t they? Gavel me guilty on all counts. But my interaction with John was a bright reminder that the Holy Spirit who lives in God’s children is the evangelist of record. He is the impossible-to-open door opener and he is the most eloquent communicator who reaches deep into souls. He can even help two people to converse and worship together in His name despite a significant language impasse.

I haven’t asked anyone how official John’s pastorate is there at the facility but I doubt officialdom really matters or counts when it comes to what he is offering to anyone who crosses his path. I think John has been assigned there by God to make disciples of Jesus as he listens, smiles and offers the gift of time — being there for others. John can’t speak out the words of the Gospel right now as he would, no doubt, love to do. Yet there he is, willing for God to use him to convey the life of Christ in him to the world. He’s God’s ambassador, God’s slave, and God’s disciple, doing all he can do as a resident in a skilled nursing facility to make disciples of Jesus. I think John is so overwhelmingly comforted by the Holy Spirit that he exudes that comfort for others to receive. What a gift!

Paul reminded Timothy to “proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Being laid up with a stroke sounds like an appropriate time to concentrate solely on yourself and make yourself top priority. But whether or not it’s convenient for John, he’s on duty for God. I know Jesus approves of persistence because he taught about “shameless audacity” in the context of prayer (Luke 11:5–13). I think it’s pretty audacious for John to wear that name tag and represent his Savior. But I imagine he just thinks it’s his normal duty and only his good pleasure to be useful in his Master’s service. He’s proclaiming the message — that’s his job.

Disciple makers and leaders come in all shapes and sizes. I just didn’t expect to open that door and find one like John. A man who, despite his disability, still persists on the front line — the front door actually — actively in service for Christ, speaking without speech, inspiring others to follow his Master.

Is there something in your life that seems to be holding you back from making disciples of Jesus? Is it possible that the very thing which seems to be your deficit might be overcome in such a way that God’s glory shines there? Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

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