The room had no windows. Easier to keep little eyes focused. When the door closed, a smiling face greeted me. Inside, I felt the weight of pending failure. I could not hide my frown.
For as long as I remember, I have found it hard to bring words out of my mind into the open. Connecting them in complex sentences? Impossible!
I am gifted with a stutter, but I haven’t always seen it that way. As a gift, I mean. For many years I loathed the room without windows, because of burning shame, and feelings of isolation. That little room was supposed to cure me, but instead it only reminded me of how different I was from ‘normal’ children my age.
Speech turned ugly one day, I don’t remember when, and can’t say why, I just remember feeling helpless to coach words out of myself. My larynx had suddenly frozen. I was knotted up in there so tight, that I tried head bobs, and body jerks to coax words to obey. It turned into a circus act, a spectacle if you’re taking notes. The antics never worked for long, but I’d get hooked on them. That’s when I decided it’s better I stopped talking. When my teachers would discover my special gift, they would hold my hand, and take me down the shiny tiled hallway, into the room with no windows. Outside that room, when I was alone, everything thawed into perfect fluency. Summer vacation was an escape; as I danced under the sun in rural farmlands, I would talk with my friends, or even a girl, give a speech, and order an ice cream cone, rehearsing perfect elocution.
That’s how it went until seventh grade. My English teacher Mr. Grace, assigned a short three-minute speech on our favorite pastime. I chose soccer. The whole day before I practiced without a flaw in the fields next to my house. However, the next day was another story. I could write a book about that dreadful class period, how it took forty-five minutes to deliver my speech. How my first real girl friend, Dawn Daddio, hung her head in shame while I died a thousand deaths. How every friend that had ever meant anything to me, fidgeted in their chairs. To this day when I speak to a crowd, which is often, I am anxious, awaiting eyes of judgment. Will I end up in the room without windows? Mr. Grace, why didn’t you rescue me that day? Why didn’t you live up to your name?
Or did you?
God’s genius led Mr. Grace to let me flounder before my peers for the entire period. It prepared me to seek his strength for every word I speak. The years of shame in the room without windows taught me that I will carry wounds until I’m in the womb of heaven, but need not let them define me. Even when, in my senior year in high school the friendly face turned on me and said rather dryly, “You better get a job that doesn’t include speaking.”
Two years later, after becoming a Christian, I asked God if he was going to heal me. He answered one afternoon in a dorm room surrounded by 13 strangers. Dave, the man most responsible for me coming to faith, invited me along with him to ‘show me how to share the gospel.’ Instead, he told the crowd pointing to me, “he’s going to share a little booklet with you called the four spiritual laws.” Once again, the eyes of judgment, the smirks, the uncomfortable body language of my listeners, as my infirmity held my tongue captive. Hot with shame, I followed him out of the room, and into the dorm lobby…surrounded by windows. I have always thought it symbolic. He turned to 2 Corinthians 12 and read where Paul had asked God to take away his ‘thorn,’ and God answered, ‘not so fast.’ He ended by reading,“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is released in weakness.” It was a turning point in my faith, yet the thorn remained.
It didn’t change the terror I felt in following Christ’s call into ministry, the impossible assignment during training check-out to recite the little booklet by memory. Nor, did it stop me from dying a thousand deaths on phone calls for support with perfect strangers, where sometimes I couldn’t get my words out at all, before the person on the other end, hearing only warbled breathing, would say, “stop calling here you creep!” and hang up! My new bride would be in the next room overhearing this nightly ritual, praying! To this day, some of those people I called cold turkey, still laugh about how bad I was on the phone. One told me recently, “I had you come over, only because I wanted to meet this person with such guts to die on the line that way!”
Do I still stutter?
But let me share a final story. Yesterday I had the chance to talk with a young man, who it turns out is seriously seeking truth. We were in a lively dialogue for over an hour, as I answered his questions, and opened up for him a new idea, that Jesus is truth. I told him about the room with no windows, my story of redemptive suffering. When I did, his eyes grew large, and he shook his head. “But you don’t stutter now, what happened?” I smiled and said, “Oh I do, especially in times when I forget that it’s only out of great weakness, His strength is seen. That’s when God reminds me of Mr. Grace’s class, and lets me feel eyes of judgment, my friend’s astonished and embarrassed looks, Dawn’s head lowering, ashamed of me. That’s when I know I still I need His mercy for every syllable, need his grace for every chance I have to show how much God wants to release strength through our weakest parts.”
What is the thorn God uses to keep you holding fast to Him?