The Gift of Silence: How I Lost a Vocal Cord and Found My Voice

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” 1 Kings 19:11b-12

In May 2010, my doctor discovered I had a growth coming out of my thymus gland and tightening around my windpipe. At the time, the surgeon thought the growth was likely cancerous. When I awoke from surgery, the surgeon reported that the growth had been removed successfully and was not malignant.

He also said that the hoarseness and weakness in my voice after surgery would soon go away. It didn’t.

After careful examination, it was discovered that I had unilateral vocal paralysis, a fancy way of saying one of my vocal cords, the left one, was not working.

I was devastated. My deep bass singing voice was gone and my broadcast-quality sermon voice was reduced to a whispery croak. How would I preach and lead worship?

It was impossible, but there were other consequences. Even when I felt normal otherwise, my inability to speak well put me at a social disadvantage. It was no longer possible for me to be heard in a crowded room.

I found myself avoiding areas where the ambient noise was great. My voice often gave out after a few sentences anyway. I became more introverted, and while on disability, I soon learned that the world could carry on just fine without me.

What was new to me, or seemingly new, was the silence.

I spent much of my days post-surgery in silence. At home, there were few phone calls or visits because most people were busy with their lives. At first I would turn on the radio or the CD player to fill that awkward silence.

But soon I turned the electronics off. As a church leader in my busy world of meetings and pastoral care, I snatched my sermon writing a few minutes here and there so I had seldom experienced true silence. It seemed foreign.

Then, after some awkwardness, I began to drink in that silence. I began to relax.

The hectic pace of my thought life slowed to a crawl. After I relaxed, other thoughts began to fill my head, thoughts that may be valuable for preaching.

Silence has been synonymous with contemplation since the very start of our Christian faith, yet we American Christians are uncomfortable with silence. Instead, we fill our worship services and our sermons with more sounds, different sounds and louder ones.

Silence for contemplation used as an exegetical tool is uncommon among preachers. We pastors live lives of almost constant interruption and so our sermons often show the lack of depth that contemplation can bring.

Silence in worship and in preaching is rare nowadays, especially it seems in contemporary services, but silence has its time-honored place. Have you ever heard a truly great preacher speak? They seldom speak quickly. Using a slower-paced voice filled with silence, we preachers may appear more confident and authoritative.

Most preachers, myself included, have mainly lost the art of the sermon pause, that silence in a sermon given to listeners so they may ponder the preacher’s words and the word of God to them.

The use of deliberate longer silence with a clear goal for the congregational listener is almost an endangered species.

Volume lowering, that “almost silence,” is another area in which many preachers miss an opportunity for achieving outstanding “listenability.”

We preachers often use a loud voice constantly, one with which our hard-of-hearing aging congregations will have no difficulty. Varying the voice, however, frequently keeps listeners, including those hard of hearing, from tuning out.

I have learned this year that because my voice is soft at best, people listen more carefully to me and seem to retain more of what I say even if they may not catch every word. Varying the volume of the voice during preaching also saves wear and tear on the voice.

Roger Love, renowned voice expert, recommends practicing different volumes of voices and timbres which can be used to different effect and to prevent fatigue. I’ve learned such modulation may save a preacher from a strained voice or worse yet nodules, a type of scar tissue on the vocal cords that may require surgery to repair or can even debilitate vocal cords permanently.

God is so often found not in crisis or noise or action but in the silence and reflection that follows.

Use silence as a regular part of your sermon preparation. Use your voice carefully and well. Use it — and its absence — in preaching to good effect, that in hearing your words and truly listening, members of your congregation may be transformed.