Friday, January 31, 2020

Notes from my Knapsack 2-6-20

Notes from my Knapsack 2-6-20

Jeff Gill


My voice, public and private


I've been asked about this enough in the last few weeks I thought I'd write a bit about the situation regarding my voice, and the spasmodic dysphonia (SD) that is affecting it.

Yes, I still have SD. It's not something that goes away, you just have to learn how to work with it. It's a neurological disorder, not organic/physical damage to the vocal cords. In fact, my vocal cords are just fine! It's the response of the muscles that work the vocal cords, the spasms of spasmodic dysphonia, which is my disability.

In normal functioning, it comes and goes. SD is most problematic in the normal speaking voice. Ironically, singing -- which uses a different neural pathway -- is almost entirely unimpaired. So I can sing, and I can hyper-project (also known as bellowing) in a normal vocal tone. But there's a price to pay, as normal as it sounds, once I'm back to speaking in a softer tone of voice. In fact, the quieter I try to be, the more likely the spasms will take over.

SD is very in keeping with something you might have heard of: spoon theory (you can look it up on Wikipedia - In spoon theory, you have a finite number of spoons or spoonfuls you can use during the day. I have received some training in how to work around the SD, after the spectacular failure of the Botox treatments injected into the vocal cords that marked the last two years of my vocal recovery. I can with attention and effort make my voice fairly normal . . . up to a point.

But after I use up enough "spoons," even the vocal therapies I've been taught run into the wall of the spasms that are the issue in having SD. I can sing, but it uses up some of those spoons; I can shout and call out loudly, but it burns through spoons. And the total amount of speaking, plus the amount of stress in the day, uses up spoons to where I'm out of options, and the spasms are most of what you hear.

As I've said to many who've asked: the great thing about SD is that in the entire medical history of the world, no one has ever died of spasmodic dysphonia. So it's poorly understood medically, and has few treatment options. That may change in the future, but I'm told not to get my hopes up. I just have to balance out my use of my voice, and how, as well as manage stressors to mitigate the impact on my vocal cord muscles.

Compared to many other disabilities, I am very blessed. This is a small price to pay for age and exertion and likely overuse. But it creates its own problems: foremost being people worrying, when my SD is in full flower, that I'm sick and contagious with something. Sometimes it's that people get the impression I'm getting choked up about something, even though we're just talking about casual matters.

I am scaling back, and making choices, day by day. My speech therapist says it's not likely to get worse, and I'm not doing damage to my vocal cords (even if it sounds like I must be), so I can carry on. It's not painful as much as it is simply uncomfortable to speak sometimes, and that itself is a reminder to be careful, to be cautious, to count my spoons and use them wisely. For everyone who has asked how I'm doing, thank you; for those who catch me in a good moment and assume it's cured, sorry but no; and for those who are helping me deal with this unexpected complication in a highly verbal life, bless you all -- I have more to say, I just have to think through how to say it, and when.


Such as in columns such as this one!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's saying "no" a little more often, and hopes you don't take it personally! Tell him how you deal with limitations at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Faith Works 2-1-20

Faith Works 2-1-20

Jeff Gill


Where the news is not the news



"Rattlesnake on the path."


When I was hiking with our Philmont crew in the New Mexico mountains, our lead person shouted back down the trail those four chilling words.


Fortunately, he'd seen the snake before stepping on it, and stayed to help the rest of us heading up the steep and rocky path give the rattler a wide berth.


Except we didn't. The people ahead of me, and myself, I walked away from the rattlesnake, but not as far as I could have. I wanted to get a good look at it, but stay safe. So I edged around, in a tight circle, looking it over from darting tongue to faintly buzzing rattles.


That's kind of how I feel about discussing the story recently all over social media about a Methodist church up in Minnesota. The initial story was that the wider church was closing down the congregation and telling the old people to go away, so they could re-open a few months later as a re-launched congregation, in the same building.


It came out in a local paper, then the state capital media picked it up, and then . . . it caught fire. Every online platform, it seemed, picked up the story and intensified the pain and injustice, upped the indignation, and passed it along for two, four, sixteen, 256 blogs and webpages to continue the story. It went viral, as the phrase goes.


And like so many viral stories, it turns out to have another side. A couple days after the initial eruption (65,536 and so on of posts and tweets), a few major news outlets sent reporters in to dig deeper, and found out there was more to the story. Also worth noting: in the Methodist church, unlike many other traditions, the local congregation does not own their building, nor pick their pastors. Lots of misunderstandings around that subject, as well.


But I'm not as interested in the sad, not surprising "rest of the story," a narrative which I kind of guessed at, as I read the first fifteen messages I got asking "what do you think about this?" And I've been fairly low key on social media and in the church where I serve in my reactions to the story.


Because I think the real story here is how so many people all over the country leapt directly into the anger and angst and worry over small churches with mostly older worshipers getting closed, or worse (note: #irony) having contemporary worship forced upon them. The original narrative of the viral story was a perfect combo of those horrors: old people pushed out AND the new church having contemporary worship.


Look, I am all too aware of how in cases right in my neck of the woods, an organist of thirty years service (and a good one, I would note) meets the new pastor and is told over the first (and last) handshake "thank you for your years of faithful service, and you can enjoy worship now from the pews because we're going in a new direction." I've picked up new members that way. Also by people having their familiar worship overnight becoming very loud and extremely unfamiliar. It's painful at best, and at worst it can be very badly handled . . . though I will say in some ministers' defense that after you've learned there's no upside in a cautious approach, the temptation is there to rip the bandage off in one quick rip.


What is leading to this sorry state of affairs, though, is that traditional worship is struggling in this country. I see various statistics, depending on who's making their case, but it's well known: more churches are having to shut down their pipe organs for lack of players at any price, going to keyboards and simpler music; choirs are more rare, whether in frequency or if they exist in a church at all; outside of liturgical traditions, informality has become its own rigid orthodoxy.


Full disclosure: the church where I serve is hybrid "relaxed traditional" but clearly the latter, with hymnals (yes, I've gotten the post about keeping hymnals, only forty-eleven times) and a choir and bulletins with the service outline across two pages. We've held steady in attendance over the last five years, which is good compared to many of our peers, but not something I'm comfortable with entirely.


The truth, though, is that in general traditional worship has seen staggering losses in attendance over the last decade or two. Yes, there are exceptions, and usually it doesn't take long to figure out the exceptional circumstances at work. And if you want to reach younger people (yes, I know there are exceptions, rare but they exist) you need contemporary worship.


This has created over the last few years a huge tension in churches of all sorts and denominations and non-denominations alike. They don't want to die as a church, but if growth looks like that, then…


Which is where, God willing, I'll pick up next week!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's been mostly a traditional kind of guy for most of his life, but he's curious, too. Tell him what you've wondered about worship at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.