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Spiritual Aphasia

Diane Ackerman recently wrote a book about her experience as a caregiver to her husband of 35 years after his massive stroke. The stroke that writer, poet, and professor, Paul West suffered left him with a condition called global aphasia.  This very educated and respected crafter of words completely lost his control of language. 

I was listening to Katty Kay interview Ms. Ackerman on NPR’s Diane Rhem show and got caught up in the conversation about this chronic disease. It is an amazingly touching story of unfailing love. The author explained how her husband’s damaged brain created a disconnect in the retrieval and sorting of words, causing the wrong words to constantly stream from his mouth. She spoke of the bond between them that gave her insight into his thoughts, allowing her to interpret his meaning even though his words didn’t come out correctly. It was the way she “saturated him with language and never left his side” that created an environment allowing for progress and healing to occur.

Apparently 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire suffered the same malady and spent the last two years of his life in a semi-paralyzed state, able to only mutter one word until his death.  Unfortunately, that word was a blasphemous curse, which highly distressed the caretaking nuns who had no idea his profanity was as unintended as it was inappropriate.

Interestingly people with aphasia think they are speaking normally. The intent of their communication is sensible and purposeful. However, what is heard leaving their mouth has no bearing on their intention. 

It makes me wonder if there is such a thing as “spiritual aphasia.”

Recently a Christian fundamentalist stood outside a Lady Gaga concert distributing “Get Out Of Hell Free” cards and even confronted the artist herself about her “pervert ways.” I’d like to believe that his intention was to represent the God he claimed to believe in but that his “spiritual aphasia” just made the words come out wrong.

There are times I cringe when I hear what comes out of the mouths of Christians—judgment, condemnation, intolerance, hatred:  conservatives toward progressives, liberals toward fundamentalists, believers toward those who believe in a different way than they do or not at all. I seriously doubt anyone is intentionally trying to alienate the other, but it seems we’ve lost all control of our language. There is a disconnect in the retrieval and sorting of words, causing the wrong words to constantly stream from our mouths. 

Sadly, I think the wonderful opportunity of increased social interaction with venues such as Facebook, blogging, tweeting has exacerbated the problem. Since we’re not standing face-to-face with the person we are disagreeing with, we’ve lost our filters. Unkind and ugly comments are thrown back and forth without consideration of how they are heard and interpreted—particularly by those who may be seeking a Savior they don’t yet know.

Mary Ackerman knew how to begin the healing in her husband’s mind: saturate him with language and never leave his side. I believe Jesus wants a relationship with us that will re-teach us how to speak.  I believe He desires to never leave our side, to saturate us with the language of love, grace, and mercy. And I believe that is a sufficient and complete vocabulary.

At the recent ONE conference, Eddie Hypolite, associate youth director of the South England Conference, used the illustration of a song sung in two very different genres to describe the way we talk about Christ and how it can be either understood or completely misinterpreted.  He asked those at the conference an essential question, “Are people understanding the story of Jesus in the way we’re teaching them?”  

The Seventh-day Adventist church has a wonderful message, but how many times have we tried to promote our faith by pedaling the minutia of religion? We desperately try to protect what is comfortable and safe by eagerly condemning what is different and unfamiliar. I want to believe everyone’s intention is honorable. However, the Word has really gotten confused in our minds and in our words if we don’t hear the Christ in our Christian conversations.

Tami Cinquemani is Worship Director at the Florida Hospital Church.

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