A Theology of Laryngitis
— Wednesday, October 29th, 2008 —
Scattered about my desk right now are about fifteen Sugar-Free Ricola cough drop wrappers, and a lukewarm cup of some grassy herbal tea. I’ve lost my voice. Again. This has happened before, several times. The weather changes. I’m over-commanding the chords. And then it’s gone.
The worst was my wedding day. Unable to croak out a sound, I feared I wouldn’t be able to repeat my vows in front of God and those witnesses, or even to say “I will.” So I spent that morning buying Fisherman’s Friend throat lozenges at Wal-Mart, that afternoon drinking some “Red Zinger” tea my aunt had souped up. Like Carol Brady just in time for her Christmas song solo, my laryngitis lifted, just before the ceremony.
But my voice is gone again, and I’m frustrated. I’m a pastor and a professor and an administrator. More importantly, I’m a dad, a husband, a friend. My connection to everyone important to me has been reduced to sterile text messages, banal emails, and a series of nods, waves, and homemade sign language. I notice now how often I try to sing along with Hank Williams, and nothing comes out. I notice how tempted I am to call friends to talk, and can’t make it happen.
Millennia ago, a blessed priest named Zechariah faced a far more terrifying round of laryngitis. When an angelic being appears to him in the temple, Zechariah questioned him regarding the message of a son named John who would soon be born to the priest and his wife Elizabeth. The angel removes the priest’s voice. When Zechariah leaves the temple, the people gathered around, but he couldn’t teach, couldn’t explain. Instead, “he kept making signs to them and remained mute” (Luke 1:22).
I never paid that much attention until this morning as to why this was so significant. John asked a question, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?” On face value, it seems much like the blessed virgin’s question shortly thereafter, “How shall these things be?” But there’s more here. Zechariah wants a sign. He wants to know how he can know. He’s burning incense in the temple, standing before a fiery supernatural being and he wants to know how can know, for sure.
The being’s words are striking: “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:19-20).
The angel was sent to speak. Zechariah was called to hear. Zechariah chose to speak instead. Gabriel’s message was a word, the expression of God’s purpose. Zechariah wanted to draw out a dialogue, as though he were instructing the people to whom he ministered. When Zechariah’s voice later returns, he’s much less interested in instructing. He doesn’t even tell the people why he’s naming the child John, instead of Zechariah. He simply blesses God (Luke 1:57-79).
Why was the angel so offended by the priest’s question? It’s because, as Jesus puts it, “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Zechariah’s question was a representation of who he is.
That’s important because of the way God’s designed the universe. His character, his heart, is expressed not in a set of ideas, but in a Word, verbal speech that is personal and in communion with him, a Word that takes on flesh and bone and dwells among us (John 1). God doesn’t think the universe into existence. He speaks it.
Man, then, in the image of God is frustrated if we can’t commune with one another through verbal speech. And we’re always tempted to use our God-imaging mouths to instruct God, rather than to listen. I suppose that’s why we try to remove all the mystery and awe from this ancient faith, reducing a word passed down to us to a series of book volumes or a chain of PowerPoint platitudes.
Losing my voice is good, for a season. I can see that life is jetting forward without my voice. People are still getting saved. My children still obey, and disobey. My students still learn. My cricket chirp is just one of billions here in the twilight. There were many before, and there’ll be many after.
I’ll pray though for my voice. It’s not enough to hug my son Samuel, as I just did. I want to say, “I love you.” It’s not enough to text message back and forth thoughts on Romans 13 with a pastor friend, I want to ponder the text with him, verbally. It’s not enough to believe in my heart that God has raised him from the dead, I want to confess with my mouth “Jesus is Lord.”
In the meantime, I’ll just listen. There’s a conversation going on, one that started before the galaxies were sparked. The God “who spoke to our fathers by the prophets” has now “spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1-2).
So maybe I don’t have that much to say right now after all.
All Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (ESV).