The first thing anyone learns in conversation with the voiceless is that God isn’t tidy. He’s not predictable. Just when you expect him to do one thing, he does another.
I’ve seen him explode through my carefully built theologies like a Jack-in-the-box. When we truly give ourselves over to the disruptive love of Christ, all our neat, orderly categories are suddenly at risk. Including some of the ways we think about God.
This much became clear to me in the route that led me to work with the comatose. Before then, I was a worship leader in a midsize church. It was a part-time job, and my wife, Gail, worked part-time as well.We wanted it that way, so we could be free to do other ministry work in our spare time—speaking and singing in churches, prisons, and coffeehouses.
Eventually, though, Gail and I both got burned out from all the Christian work we were doing.We felt as if we were on a spiritual treadmill, fulfilling “status quo”ministry in a lot of the places where we spoke or sang. There seemed to be so many religious fads, so much hype. So many “shoulds”and “howtos.” We both found ourselves hungry for something more, something deeper in our faith lives.
Finally, we cast ourselves into the unknown.We prayed for new direction, new hearts.We prayed for God to speak to us.
All that came to me was the term “music therapist.” Suffice it to say, a few months later, we were penniless.We left our brand-new, custom-built home in upstate New York for a cheap travel trailer in rural Pennsylvania—and we began singing to people in comas.
I don’t recommend this route for everybody. But it was the right road for us at the time because of what we were learning about life and love and God. The long and short of it is, it was a journey that required what our “status quo”existence hadn’t required: faith.
Of course, working with the comatose in itself is an act of faith. Sometimes not even an eye-blink or a flicker of recognition will cross the face of someone we’re ministering to. All we can do is be truly present with these people, lift up our hearts in song alongside them, speak whatever words of comfort or hope we can.
In the beginning, I truly did this work by faith—faith that, somehow, this was part of what Jesus meant by reaching out to “the least of these.” Faith that the comatose are among the poor, the imprisoned, the needy—the ones we’re called to reach with love.
That’s about all I had to go on, because I never really saw much in the way of responses. At least, I didn’t think so at the time. Occasionally, a patient’s muscles would relax while I sang. But that was about it.
So eventually, I created my own tidy categories for God. I had learned not to expect much.
“I’m not out for results,”I’d say. “I’m just here because Jesus wants me here.”
But sometimes, in my periods of doubt, I wondered if this ministry was all just a waste of time—God’s time. After all, I could have been down in Times Square, helping feed the homeless, the way Gail and I used to do.
In those early days, I was discouraged a lot.
Then there was Rob.
I had been visiting the young man who was Rob’s roommate. The young man’s parents had invited me to sing to their son, and after a few weeks of visiting him, Rob was moved into the room.
At that time, Rob was one of the roughest cases I had ever seen. He looked as if he might not even be alive. He never moved, apart from his breathing, and his eyes remained closed. Throughout the following weeks, I knew him only as a motionless body across the room.
The only things I knew about Rob came from the chart at the foot of his bed: His name was Rob and he was in a lowlevel coma (meaning, he showed no response to outer stimuli). The only other background I had on him was from a nurse. She’d told me Rob had been in a car accident in 1988. Since that time, he hadn’t shown any signs that he was ever going to emerge from his condition.
One day, when I was singing to Rob’s roommate, I decided to move my chair across the room and talk to Rob.
I felt the strongest urge that I should speak to him about bitterness.
At first I thought I might be cracking up. I mean, I knew absolutely nothing about this guy. But I paid attention to the nudge. I pushed my chair over to Rob’s bed and tried desperately to remember any passages from Scripture about bitterness.
“Hi, Rob,”I said. “I’m John. I’m sure you’ve been hearing me with your roommate all these weeks. I thought it was about time I introduced myself.”
Rob lay still as ever.
“Rob, I feel the Lord wants me to tell you something,”I continued. “He wants to tell you not to hang onto any bitterness in your heart. I don’t know what that might be, but he does. And whatever it is, it’s destroying you inside.”
As I spoke, Rob’s body visibly tensed up. It was the only movement I’d ever seen him make.
I continued, “God’s Word says,‘Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.’God wants that for you, Rob. He wants to clean out all that bitterness from your heart and fill you with his Spirit.”
I began singing: “Create in me a clean heart, O God. And renew a right spirit within me.”
Within moments, Rob seemed to fill up with anger. Soon he was straining against the manacles that ordinarily kept his wrists from curling. The sight was astonishing. Nobody had seen this guy move at all in the months he’d been here.
I closed my eyes and kept singing.
“Rob, there’s only one person who can help you with your heart,”I said. “It’s Jesus.The doctors might be able to do something to help you recover your body. But only God can bring true life to your heart. And he wants you to know that he sent his son to take on your sins himself and to cleanse you from all sin—if you’ll give your heart to him.”
I opened my eyes.
Rob’s body was now as tight as a piano string. His jaw muscles bulged from intensity as he clenched his teeth. In a moment’s time, he began making faces and noises.
I got scared as I saw this happening. I closed my eyes again and just kept singing.
Rob continued to thrash for some five minutes. All that time I silently prayed for him.Then, suddenly, almost as soon as he’d tensed up, Rob fell back in his bed. As I looked closer, a wave of peace seemed to envelop him. I watched as his expression gradually became serene.
A few minutes later, a nurse walked in.
“Wow,”she remarked, setting down a tray. “What did you do to him? He’s never looked like this before.”
I wasn’t sure I’d “done”anything to him. But it looked like something important had happened in Rob’s heart.
Over the next few weeks, I continued talking to Rob about the love of Jesus.Yet I did it all by faith. I didn’t see any further signs that he had understood me at all, but he continued to look peaceful.
A few months later, I didn’t know what to expect the day I took my friend Mike along with me to the Milford Head Trauma Center. Mike had come from New York City to visit Gail and me that weekend in our little trailer in Pennsylvania, so he could go with me to the head-injury hospital. Mike was a good harmonica player, and he had brought along his instrument to accompany me on guitar.
It was great to have some company along because going to the hospitals was pretty lonely.Yet, the ironic thing was, every time I took someone new along, it only increased my doubts about this strange ministry of mine. I couldn’t help wondering: Will Mike understand what I’m doing? What if nothing happens today? Will he think I’m making all of this up? Am I really not getting through to these patients?
As we neared the hospital in Milford, I tried to summon some hope. Maybe something is happening after all, I told myself. Then I remembered Rob and decided we’d go see him first.
I was banking on my earlier experience with Rob as we neared his hospital room. I was trying hard to believe that nothing I’d done with this young guy each week had been in vain.
I began my usual banter.
“Rob, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,”I said, unpacking my guitar case. “This is Mike.”
Mike, not knowing the extent of Rob’s condition, reached out his hand toward the listless body.
Suddenly, without missing a beat, a trembling hand rose up and came across the bed to shake hands.
I was stunned.
Rob can hear. He’s responding. He’s actually reaching out to shake hands!
Mike didn’t know any differently. He took Rob’s hand and shook it.
“Hi, Rob,”he said. “How ya doing?”
I sat speechless. Mike started singing a chorus and then blowing on his harmonica. Dumbfounded, I slowly joined him on guitar, still unable to believe my eyes.
The sight of that pale, trembling hand was a sign—a sign that he might be hearing me.
A short time later, I learned something else about Rob. A nurse told me that just before his accident, he had been in a terrible fight with his mother.
Suddenly, I understood more about why I had been prompted to talk to him about bitterness.
One day at the hospital, before I’d started my afternoon rounds with patients, I ran into Rob’s physical therapist in the elevator at the hospital. When she saw me, she smiled.
“Did you hear the good news about Rob?”she asked.
“No,”I said, eager to hear what she had to say.
“He’s come out of his coma. He can answer yes and no questions.”
I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to start asking Rob questions.
That day, I plied Rob with every question I could think of. He would answer with a nod or a shake of the head. I even threw in a few trick questions, to make sure he wasn’t just nodding and shaking. Sure enough, Rob was tracking right along with me.
He even showed a sense of humor in some of his responses. He’d often give me the opposite answer I was expecting. After that, there were many afternoons I just spent time laughing with Rob.
I also spent many afternoons trying to teach Rob some songs. Of course, he couldn’t speak—yet he did mouth the words as I sang the choruses over and over.
One day as we were “singing”together, a nurse walked in.
Rob and I had started in on the chorus, “Praise the Name of Jesus.”
The nurse just stood there as I sang and Rob mouthed the words. She seemed puzzled.
“But—he can’t say anything,”she pointed out to me.
I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing.
“I know,”I answered between breaths. “He’s singing!”
Maybe it was my imagination, but Rob almost seemed to grin. I think he got a kick out of it too. Over time—and with help—he began to sit upright. Soon he could almost feed himself.
Then one day, Rob surprised me again.
I was praying for him, asking Christ to touch his heart every day. When I finished, I looked up and saw Rob as he uttered, “Amen.”
That was the first word anyone had heard him speak.
After that, Rob began to talk, albeit very haltingly and slowly. One of the first things he said clearly was “ice cream.”
I got a kick out of that one.
For a while, there was only one other clear word from Rob: “home.”He wanted to go home.
Finally, the day came when I decided I had to ask Rob what I’d been wondering all along.
“Rob, I have to ask you something,”I began. “Do you remember when I first came into your hospital room? Remember when I was always singing to your roommate about Jesus?”
“You do remember that? Tell me—could you hear what I was saying then?”
He nodded again.
Now came the question I was really curious about. “When I prayed with you that day—did you ask Jesus into your heart?”
I stopped for a moment. “You’re sure, Rob? You’re not pulling my leg, are you?”
Rob shook his head.
“Good,”I said. I couldn’t believe this. But then again, I guess I could. “Is the Holy Spirit ministering to you every day now?”
Again, a nod.
After that, I was convinced Rob had heard everything I’d said while in his room, even when he was at his lowest level. And I was convinced he had encountered the love of God in a real way, whenever it had happened.
I was the first person to take Rob outside the hospital after his accident. It was just a short stroll around the block as I pushed him along in his wheelchair. But that was one fantastic block.
I bet Rob had often wondered if he would ever be able to communicate to anyone again. And I thanked God for both our sakes that he had helped us to communicate. Because, at that point in my work, I was the one who had needed to be spoken to. I had desperately needed to hear what Rob had to say. I’d needed my tidy world disrupted. I’d needed words of encouragement—from the voiceless.
“You keep working hard in your therapy, Rob,”I kept telling him. “Try to keep from putting up a stink, okay? That way I can get you in my van and take you home for the weekend.You can go to church with us.”
Rob always nodded at that.
We walked by an ice-cream parlor. I remembered one of his first words: ice cream. Then I remembered that one of the nurses had told me Rob had been a cook in a restaurant before his accident.
“Rob, I want you to promise me something.”
Rob was listening.
“I want you to promise that when you get out of this wheelchair, you’ll cook me the best meal you’ve ever made.”
He nodded again. I loved that nod.
Some people might say I was getting Rob’s hopes up. But I truly want that meal from him. I don’t know if it will happen in the Milford Head Trauma Center—or around another dinner table one day in heaven.
But what I do believe is that Rob wants to cook me that meal ten times more than I want to eat it.
The first lesson of the voiceless: Real life is always untidy—and full of surprises.
Kind of like God.