Ninety one words

Karl was a stutterer and he had to say the sacrament prayer.

No one had paid attention to this upcoming challenge. A discreet child, the boy had passed the sacrament for several years now. He had quietly moved from deacon to teacher. Not that he avoided communication, but he had developed compensating procedures, using short sentences, facial expression, a gentle nod and an approving smile. He had learned to hide his handicap.

Now he had turned sixteen. Our branch president, a convert of less than two years, interviewed Karl. Priest! Karl nodded and smiled.
– And of course you will bless the sacrament next week. Thank you, Karl.

No one will ever know the extent of the turmoil Karl went through. Seven days of bracing himself for the ninety one words to be said in public. He kept the unrest to himself.

O G… G… G… God, t… t… the E… Et… Et…

Behind the white linen Karl had knelt down. At once our small Mormon audience grasped the enormity of the challenge ahead. Of course, Karl was a stutterer. We knew that. Where was the inspiration of the branch president? A wave of embarrassment seized the congregation, heads down, eyes pressed, all hoping for some miracle of sudden fluency.

… we a… a… ask t… t… thee in t… t…

The obstacles ahead were ringing in our heads: thy, Jesus, Christ, bless, sanctify, bread, those, partake, that, they, body, thy… Karl would have to take them one by one. How long would his struggle last? Would he even reach the end as we felt the tension rise after each new hurdle taken?

in t… t… the name o… of t… t… thy Son…

Jesus Christ. You can say it, Karl. Jesus Christ. Relax. No one here is judging you. Say it softly. Jesus. Jesus Christ. Perhaps Savior would have been easier. But Jesus Christ is the same. Think of the Savior and say Jesus.

t… t… to t… t… the souls of all t… t… those… wh… who… p…

The souls who partake. What did I know about Karl? He gave me time to ponder. I realized how inconspicuous the boy had been in this small branch which I attended during my graduate studies. I knew his mother, a joyous sister who loved to feed the missionaries. She was single, but I did not know if she was a widow, or divorced, or unwed. Did it matter? She was well in her fifties, must have had Karl around age forty. Her only child. Karl was her all. He never strayed from her side. They had been members for a long time, she even belonged to the very first pioneers who had accepted the Restoration somewhere at the end of the 1940s, when a couple of missionaries had opened Flanders for the preaching of the Gospel. Karl and his mother. One of those odd couples, marginals in society, but so profoundly part of small Mormon branches in the mission field.

… t… t… that t… t… they m… m… may eat in…

Remembrance. Remembrance. That will be a hard one. Memory would have been easier. Or perhaps another word? To eat in remembrance, what does it mean so it can be said with the simplest of sounds?

For each word Karl tried to say, I felt that everyone in the audience said it inwardly a dozen times, for him, with him. Soundless, mouths were articulating, lips were moving. The bread was being sanctified with all the power of a group of saints powerless to help Karl. Embarrassment had left us, there was only this intense, mutual participation in every word, repeated over and over again as an offering to sustain the boy on his arduous journey.

… t… t… that t… they may a… a… always have his Sp… Sp… Spirit to b… be with t.. t… them. A… A… Amen.

He had made it. We all had. Never had a sacrament prayer been followed with as much awareness, as much mute support, as much love for this boy and for the Savior.

29 comments for “Ninety one words

  1. Wilfried, thank you for this post. How beautiful. It reminded me of when I was in Young Women’s and was preparing to play the piano in church. I was terrified. The very kind sister preparing the program took me aside and said “Think about who will be in the audience. Every single person there loves you and is rooting for you to do your very best.” That was kind of a breakthrough in church participation for me, and in understanding what it meant to be part of a ward family. I got a little teary when I read your post, because it brought back those intense feelings of family and acceptance that I discovered as a teenager.

  2. I had long forgotten a young boy in our ward that suffered this same challenge. Thank Wilfried, again, for an inspiring post. We are all stutterers in our own way, sometimes it is very well hidden.

  3. Great post, as usual, Wilfried.

    What do people think about the rigor with which bishops and branch presidents enforce the strict 100% correct rule for recitation of these prayers? When a young man is forced to say it more than six times in a row, often for petty violations that my ear doesn’t even detect, isn’t enough enough?

  4. We have had several young men in our ward who have learning, reading or speech disabilities. Sometimes only a few words in the prayer are intelligible. I am pretty sure that a time or two words have been missed or mispoken–although I cannot be sure. Our bishop rarely insists on a repetition, usually only for a big mistake.

    He usually adheres to a one-repeat only policy, even if, in correcting the mistake, the boy makes a different one (which has happened a couple of times). I think this is a wise approach.

    A few years ago, a prior bishop insisted that a boy repeat the prayer around six times, eventually going over to the table, and kneeling beside him. The boy never came to church again.

    That bishop was a very kind man. I think he only insisted on repetition because higher authorities had insisted.

    I like our current bishop’s approach better.

  5. How important it is for all of us to slow down and think, from time to time, about the things we repeat every week. Wonderful post.

  6. Wilfried, heartbreaking and gorgeous and redemptive, thanks. Some very dear ones of mine are stutterers, and I’ve seen the way it challenges them and especially me to exercise Christlike empathy, patience, humility and love. In this particular case, one boy’s weakness made an entire congregation strong, as Moroni promised it might, and allowed them to participate in the highest form of prayer, a communal, collective, totally unified effort.

  7. Another wonderful post, Wilfried. And what a wonderful example of the congregation participating, as we would wish it always would, in the pleading to God that is the sacrament prayer. The relevant pronoun in the prayer is “we,” not “I”. Perhaps we as a Church need more Karls.

  8. The Sacrament is the most important portion of our Sunday worship services. Your story marvelously demonstrates so many facets of this sacred ordinance. Thank you.

  9. Excellent. One of the best posts I’ve ever read on Times and Seasons (and please, this is not a mere expression of infamous Fowles hyperbole). It is not only inspiring but literary. Thank you, Wilfried, both now, for sharing this, and then, for praying for Karl and pondering his struggle and the meaning of the sacrament prayer while he struggled.

    I was oddly very relieved that the account didn’t end with a “miracle” that he had somehow managed to do it without stuttering. The Lord let him struggle on, like he lets us all struggle through mortality.

  10. I know of no one on LDS blogs who writes as well for blogs as does Wilfried. He manages always to have the right tone, never to offend, and frequently to inspire. When next year’s blogging awards roll around, I hope he will be nominated for both best post (whether for this one or another yet to come) and for best blogger. We are lucky to have him participate with us.

  11. The tears are still streaming down my face. I am a stutterer, and mother of two daughters who also stutter. I remember being so grateful I was not a boy and would never have to endure the agony of trying to say the Sacrament prayers — but I had plenty of other agonies. Two-and-a-half- minute talks that stretched into eternity for me and the suffering congregation, Ward speech festivals with mandatory participation, being called upon to say the prayer in class, or worst of all, being asked to read a scripture (no word substitutions allowed). Our participatory Church is nothing short of traumatizing for stutterers. As hard as it was to go through it myself, it has been even more painful to see my daughters suffer. The year my daughter was to receive her Young Womanhood Award, the stake leaders decided to have each girl give a short talk about her projects and what this award meant to her as a way of making the experience more mea

  12. Sorry, obviously I don’t know how to do this yet!! Here’s “the rest of the story” as they say…
    meaningful to the girls. It was a great idea for everyone else — it was a nightmare for my daughter. Rather than ruin the memory of this award forever, I allowed my daughter to stay home from the ceremony. I knew whenever she looked at her medallion, all she would be able to remember was the deep humiliation of stuttering in front of all the young women and parents of our Stake. At first I was upset at the insensitivity of the stake leaders, but I have since realized that we can’t change everything for the special needs of an individual — the program of the Church has to be geared toward the majority needs. It would have been wonderful if even one of her leaders had called her personally and expressed their concern and love and their understanding of how difficult this would be for my daughter. But we’re not Zion yet. One thing I know — when we finally do manage to create Zion, it will be because of our compassionate support of the stutterers in our midst (and yes, there are lots of different ways to be a stutterer). So thank goodness for stutterers of every variety! I do not shield my children from very much — these fires of adversity are what make us strong — but sometimes “enough is enough.” When one of my seminary students asks me not to call on them to read, I honor that request. Blessed be the Bishop who has the spiritual discernment to know when it’s right to have the prayer repeated and when it isn’t. And most blessed be our Savior who can make weak things become strong through His grace. That verse in Ether 12 gave me hope and strength to carry on, as did the loving encouragement of my family and a few Christlike teachers. By the way, did you know that Terry Warner was a stutterer?

  13. Three cheers for Wilfried. Another great post. Heaven help us if Wilfried ever transitions from personal narratives to straight-up exposition. We’d all be translated immediately, and the Bloggernacle taken into heaven.

  14. More likely, Steve, we’d all be condemned immediately and thrust straight down to hell. :)

  15. Thank you Brother Decoo for this beautifully written post.

    David H., I am sorry that the young man you mentioned did not return to church.

    Thank you Christie Frandsen for persevering and finishing your story.
    In my family we don’t stutter but are pathologicly fearful of speaking in public.
    Years ago when primary children were giving two and a half minute talks in Sacrament Meeting, my sister tried twice. She never said a word; just stood there silently sobbing. I don’t think she has given a talk in the 40 years since.

    More recently my teenage son was asked by the bishop to speak and he told the bishop no, thank you. When we got to church the next sunday, his name was on the program. When it was his turn he stood and said that he had told the bishop no when he had been asked to speak and he would not be giving a talk, and sat down. The bishop stood and apologized to him for misunderstanding, and the meeting proceeded. I was proud of him for dealing with the situation head on, rather than hiding as I might have done.

  16. Thank you so much for your participation, Christie Frandsen. That was a revealing and needed addition to my contribution. Also gratitude to you, Marta, for your touching words. There are vital leadership lessons to learn from such experiences.

    Thanks to all, of course, for your kind words. It’s getting embarrassing, but I appreciate it.

  17. Saying the sacrament prayer I imagine is stressful for the fluent speaker, let alone one who stutters. I am a speech language pathologist, and although my work with people who stutter has been limited, I can only imagine the torture this poor youth went through in this situation. No compensatory strategies to come to his aid! A high tension, high expectation, solo experience–nothing short of a nightmare for the person who stutters. Certainly there was no way out–he just had to plow through it. I’m glad it didn’t end with a miracle, too. So many times our trials don’t. We just have to get through them.

  18. Some of the things I’ve been reading here lately aren’t uplifting and some make me feel just plain bad. That essay made me cry for joy. Bless you, Wilfried. Please send it on to Ensign.

  19. Thanks, thanks. My parents are headed to the Brussels, Belgium mission soon (awaiting a French visa). After reading several of your posts, I am already in anticipation of the remarkable people they will meet.

Comments are closed.