Moses, Marilyn, and Me

Moses, Marilyn and Me: a select group.

Moses, the Prophet and Marilyn Monroe, that is.  And me.  Add Winston Churchill to this unlikely list, and Bo Jackson, Lewis Carroll, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin.  Finally, we’ll throw in the voice of the Dark Side, James Earl Jones.

All these are in an unfortunate league, the society of the tongue-tied.  We’re stutterers.

At its core, stuttering is a physiological problem, observable by brain scans.   It might be impolitic, but it’s not wrong to say that we have mal-formed gray matter.  So you can tell a stutterer to slow down, relax, take deep breaths, sip gin – it’s not going to solve his problem.

There is some screwy part of our brain that makes voicing words starting with a vowel particularly troublesome.  I mentioned Bo Jackson, the former running back for the Raiders – some of you might remember his Nike advertisement campaign: “Bo Knows.”  “Bo knows football.”  “Bo knows basketball.”  “Bo knows weightlifting.”

The idea for the campaign arose from two realities: 1) Bo Jackson was an extraordinary athlete, playing in the Major Leagues and the National Football League – truly he did know all kinds of sports.  2) The other situation is not as well-known: Bo stuttered, and couldn’t refer to himself in the first person while giving interviews.  So it went, “Bo ran well today.”  Those stupid vowels.

Colin feels for Bo.  I worked the front desk of a hotel while attending seminary.  When I’d book rooms over the phone, I would conclude the reservation by giving the customer a confirmation number generated by the computer.  Some of those numbers occasionally  included the cursed numeral that lies between the seven and the nine – the one initial voweled number!

So what would this aspiring pastor do?  Not exactly lie, but give them a special confirmation number, a better number, one relieved of first-letter vowels.

The physiological problem lies at the core of stuttering.  But the struggles you encounter when hearing a stutterer are mainly the psychological effects that have sprung from that core.  Past failures at saying a sound lend fear to the next time that sound is called for.

So we have to work on our stuttering, practice fluent speech.  And part of our job is to destroy the psychological dragons that formed during past conversations.  We have to overcome the memories of our past failures.  This takes work.  And it looks silly – purposefully bouncing first sounds, dramatically elongating the vowels etc.  In college, part of what drew me to Tonia was that, for some reason, I didn’t feel totally wacko while practicing my speech around her.

Now we have five kids, and when they were little I’d worry that my bound-up tongue would be passed on to them.  When they spoke I narrowed my eyes and listened closely, alert for word avoidances. Unfairly I’d savage every tiny stammer of theirs: no one was going to endure what I’d gone through.  Luckily none of them stutter; only the byproduct of awkwardness has passed down, and they can take care of that themselves.

Why enter the ministry, which requires so much public speaking?  Well, first of all, thanks be to God for getting everything made within SEVEN days.  But the explanation behind my vocation is in the terse reply the Almighty gave to Moses, the stutterer Prophet, when Moses tried to opt out of his speech-heavy calling.

God’s simple reply: “Who made your mouth?”

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