Preaching with Parkinson’s Disease

colour_play_silver_1(Creative Commons image by time_anchor on flickr)

What I’ve learned that will make you a better preacher.

For the past seven years I have been living with Parkinson’s Disease (PD), and my church has been living with a pastor who is living with PD.

Parkinson’s is a degenerative neurological disorder that results in the brain’s inability to produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that assists with motor functions. PD isn’t a terminal disease, but it is a disabling one that spans not just years, but decades. PD patients develop tremors, difficulty with speech, loss of balance, trouble swallowing, a lack of visible facial emotion, and cognitive problems. Various therapies exist, but these address only the symptoms; they are not a cure, although researchers are making strides towards one.

Billy Graham, a well-known preacher with PD, was once interviewed by CNN’s Larry King, who asked how Graham felt about his disease. Graham replied that, “I feel great about it … I believe the Lord has many lessons to teach me through this disease.” That faithful response is higher than any I can claim. I live with PD; I don’t feel especially wonderful about it or thankful for it. I’d trade it in a flash for a common cold or even the flu.

Still, I do believe that the God who draws good even from a cross can make this experience of mine, if not joyful, then at least revelatory. What I’ve had to change or release has revealed new ways of being and doing, and new insights about the people with whom I minister.

That includes preaching, or course. I feel the things I’ve learned about myself and the craft in relation to a debilitating disease have made me a better preacher. And I believe they can make you a better preacher, too — without need of a pesky disease!

People won’t “hear you,” unless they can hear you!

PD affects the tone, volume, and emotionality of my voice. I need to make a conscious effort to speak loudly and distinctly. I never was one of those booming voice preachers, and so, like you (perhaps), I blamed people’s inability to hear me on their stubborn refusal to get hearing aids, use the headphones provided, or sit nearer to the preacher.

My vanity was quickly overcome by the PD-ness of my voice. I realized then just how much trouble others had hearing me even before. Rather than ignore or blame poor sound on acoustics, I started wearing an ear-set microphone that was recommended by a sound engineer. On his advice we also moved the speakers to a place where their sound waves would not create “dead spots.” I also became more aware of my need to slow down and enunciate, to pause and let people really hear the sermon.

Don’t overdo it when it comes to gesturing. Be aware of your body.

Parkinson’s causes my right hand to be less coordinated and to shake uncontrollably. I was very self-conscious about it, because I feared people would be watching the hand instead of listening to the sermon. And I know from observing preachers who repeatedly make elaborate hand and body motions that they are distracting. Have you ever counted how many times a pastor points a finger or does air quotes? (Shame on you!) What PD taught me is that my hand tremor is the least of my worries. I needed to work on authentic movements that added to the sermon. It was an area I had pretty much ignored.

It isn’t about you — it’s about the gospel.

Part of PD is the lack of visible emotion — the voice becomes monotone, the body rigid, and even the face refuses to register joy or sadness (known as the Parkinson’s Mask). One sad thing about that is people see this blank slate and conclude you are emotionless, detached, and unapproachable. That is tough to overcome. And an introverted personality can cause similar problems.

I have to very intentionally show emotion while preaching. And I reveal more about my story than conventional homiletical practice would dictate. Their seeing inside me somehow makes the exterior deficit irrelevant. Likewise, embracing your physical being can be a gateway to hearing God’s word for a congregation. Just remember — it’s not about you — except for your inclusion in the “for you” of God’s love and grace. That’s the gospel we’re here to proclaim.

Not every sermon is inspirational, but every sermon is inspired.

Everything takes a bit longer to do when you have PD. Sermon prep is no exception. Unfortunately there are still only 24 hours in a day, and seven days in a week. So trying to complete everything I used to do readily with PD (or depression, or diabetes, or name your poison), something’s gotta give — or change.

I aim to preach a shorter, more succinct sermon. I rely as much on commentators and biblical scholars as I do on my lexicon and Kittle to do the language work. I used to fret over the manuscript and mark it up with changes up till the singing of the gospel verse. Now I type it once, read it twice, and make minimal notes (I could never read them anyway!). My point is this: I selfishly wanted every sermon to be a home run. I needed people to say after church, “Great sermon, Pastor!”

I wanted to evoke tears, to crack people up, and help them rise up from the depths of life’s terrors and puzzles, breaking through the surface into a bright shining world of clarity and grace. It’s gotten harder to do all that. In fact it was always hard. And always vain to try to fill myself on what is to be poured out. Thank God PD has taught me that it is God who uses my human words to convey his message.

My words may be uninspiring, but they go out from my mouth and don’t return empty — because the Holy Spirit works through me, and does that Spirit thing in the hearts of those for whom the sermon will touch. And that truth will set you free, not to be a shoddy preacher, but to trust in God that even our worst can be God’s best.

Those are just a very few things that I’ve learned about my preaching so far on this journey. They are practical things mainly. I might have learned them in a different fashion had I not developed PD. But then again, maybe not. So I keep a watch on this interloper and its effects, looking for how PD’s interference might paradoxically reveal a healthier preacher and servant of God.

As for you, take from my humble advice that which helps you — leave the rest. But do pay attention to the underlying premise. For we all live with a “thorn in the side,” and what we gain or lose because of it is up to us — and up to God, who can redeem the brokenness of our bodies with the good news that we are called as preachers to proclaim.