Surely this time would be different. Ken was my friend. He lived within a mile of my house. Surely he wouldn't ridicule me.
I inched up to the table where Ken and some guys in my high school class sat around waiting for the first period bell to sound. In our conversation, I tried to say the word "swimming." "Sw" sounds were tough for me, and it came out sounding like "wimming." When the snickers started, Ken said, "Go ahead, Larry, say that again. Hey guys, listen to how funny he talks." His words hurt deeply. The laughter hurt more. Trapped! Again! I walked away embarrassed. Not mad; just hurt. The mockery was sometimes overwhelming.
One thing was certain—I hated school. Getting on the school bus each morning and stepping onto the school grounds felt like (forgive my frankness) hell on earth. Classmates waited for me to use words with "th" and "sw" sounds, which were difficult for me to pronounce. (Count how many times you use the word "the" in a conversation to get an idea of how overwhelming the ridicule became.) I tried to escape by hiding between parked cars or by seeking solitude in the bushes. Rainy days were the worst. On those days, I just had to let my classmates "enjoy" themselves at my expense.
The highlight of my day was getting off the bus and walking down the lane to our farm. The dairy farm was like heaven to me. Dairy cows didn't laugh at me, nor did my family. Home was my refuge.
By now you've figured out that I was born with a severe speech impediment. I inherited this impediment from my dad. My tongue did not know where to place itself for certain sounds. "The" was my hardest word. I could say "fa," "sa," "ta." I just couldn't say "the." My parents didn't seem concerned. On the dairy farm, the emphasis was on working, not talking. I had a strong work ethic and a high energy level; for me, talking was the hardest work of all.
One time in third grade I had to stand up and speak. All eyes were focused on me. The giggles began before I even spoke a word. I lasted thirty seconds before I froze up. I couldn't get another word out. I just stood there. The teacher had mercy on me. "Go ahead and sit down, Larry," she said. I sat down defeated, humiliated, and frustrated. Being laughed at by the whole class was far worse than the individual teasing I endured regularly.
Even before I trusted Christ, I told people I wanted to be a preacher. I had no idea why. Raised in a small, boring, liberal church, I thought a preacher was someone who got up and talked for thirty minutes each Sunday, then sat around for the rest of the week. I assumed that any major physical activity would shatter his "holiness." Seriously! I knew that was not the kind of person I wanted to be. I had too much energy. So I resolved to stop telling people that I wanted to be a preacher. But the next time I was asked, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" I blurted out once again, "I'm going to be a preacher."
When I was a pre-teen, I went to my family doctor for the treatment of a simple cold. As he knelt down and put his icy stethoscope on my chest, he asked, "Well, what are you going to be when you grow up?" I answered, "I'm going to be a speaker." (Somehow I thought "speaker" wouldn't hit him as hard as "preacher") His next words pierced like a knife. "Well, you can give that up." I hoped that was all he would say. But then, as though to twist the dagger, he continued without a pause, "You could never speak with your problem."
His harsh words reverberated in my mind like a gong. If I couldn't be a preacher, what else was there? I walked down the steps of the doctors office feeling as though I was walking into a grave—my future had collapsed.
God, however, had only started His work.
Each year in November, Dad rewarded us for our hard work all year on the dairy farm by giving us time off from chores to go hunting. So I would head to the woods every day after school and all day Saturday. A sense of wonder saturated me as I gazed upon prancing deer, skittish squirrels, the curvature of tree trunks and their bark, rows of neatly plowed soil, rolling green hills, and scattered ponds. Even the sound of the ground as it crunched beneath my feet intrigued me. This was Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—"garden spot of the world." I decided there had to be a Creator. But why did He make it, then leave it? How could a person know Him, touch Him, feel Him? Why did nature seem so full and yet I felt so empty?
These questions led me to study the Bible. At first I found it boring—even confusing. Christ's words, "He who believes in Me out of his heart will flow rivers of living water," didn't make sense. I asked my mother what she thought it meant. She explained, "It probably refers to having babies." That answer didn't fit. The text said "he."
My Bible study technique was also very poor. I would close my eyes, let the Bible fall open, then point to a verse. Still, God was in control, and slowly I began to put things together. Jesus Christ was the only way to heaven. One night, as I approached my early teens, I knelt by my bed. My words were simple. "God, the best I know how, I'm trusting Christ as my only way to heaven." That night, the storm within me began to calm. As far as I know, it was that night that I crossed from darkness into light.
God did more than give me His gift of eternal life that night. He galvanized the direction of my life by setting me on a mission—an all-consuming one. I had to be an evangelist. To stand before people—fifty or fifty thousand—and tell them how they could know they were going to heaven would be like heaven itself. This would be the first of many "supernatural touches."
The next supernatural touch came while I was sitting in high school literature class. I sat by the window so I could see the outdoors. Impressed with God, but disheartened with life, I put my head between my hands as my eyes filled with tears. I didn't want my peers to see I was crying. My mind was on the inescapable, repeated ridicule due to the speech impediment I couldn't overcome. Embarrassment kept me defeated. I whispered simple words to God: "God, if you will heal me of this impediment, I'll always use my voice for you."
I can't explain what happened next. How do you explain the supernatural? Suddenly I had a control of my tongue I had never had before. Words came easier. Some sounds didn't seem as difficult. The teasing and jeers from others began to subside.
Upon graduating from high school, I attended Philadelphia College of Bible (now Philadelphia Biblical University). To God's glory, in my fourth year I was able to make a speech and was elected student body president. For graduate studies, I went to Dallas Theological Seminary. In 1973, again to God's glory, my classmates voted me one of the four best preachers in the fourth-year class.
After that fourth year's sermon, I walked into the office of Dr. Haddon Robinson, a man who had greatly influenced my life and had become my mentor. I could tell something was on his mind by the way he stared at me. "God has given you such a gift," he remarked. "I just wish you knew where to place your tongue for certain sounds." His words startled and puzzled me.
"What did you just say?" I asked.
"You don't know where to place your tongue for certain sounds," he explained. "People who do it right don't know how to tell you to do it. They just do it right."
Holding back my tears, I said, "Dr. Robinson, I've never had anyone tell me that. I've been told I'm lazy when I speak."
He interrupted me with a chuckle, "You're the last guy I'd call lazy." Throughout my seminary years he had observed my ambition and energy level.
Dr. Robinson referred me to Beverly Warren, a speech therapist and committed believer. I had graduated from seminary and started my full-time evangelistic ministry. My excitement was almost uncontrollable as I began to live out my God-given passion. I was on the road every other week proclaiming the gospel, night after night, in week-long crusades. Every week I was not traveling during 1973-1974, I had an appointment with Beverly. Five dollars a week is all she would accept for her coaching.
My first appointment with Beverly was memorable. She asked, "How did you get to where you are? God has obviously done something. You don't get where you are on your own." My mind flashed back to that moment in high school when I told God, "If you will heal me of this impediment* I'll always use my voice for you." I told her my story. Her excitement and expertise convinced me that she could take me the rest of the way. The sounds and syllables she gave me week-by-week brought me to a point where at last she said, "You're there. I don't know what more to tell you."
Does that mean I speak perfectly? No. But in regard to that, nearly identical comments of Beverly and Dr. Robinson have greatly ministered to me: "Whatever people notice will help you, not hurt you," they said. Dr. Robinson went further with his thoughts, "Non-Christians do not identify with losers. They identify with losers who have made it." I knew that he wasn't calling me a loser because he continued, "Non-Christians are not drawn to someone who has struggles and doesn't try. But they are drawn to someone who has struggled and made it."
I still ache to be able to speak without slurring a syllable. There are times I get teary-eyed even now when I listen to those who can. I'm passionate about speaking, especially to and about unbelievers. I'm a perfectionist. But years ago on my knees I made an agreement with God, "If You want to be glorified through my weakness, instead of allowing me to have perfect speech, that's okay." Paul wrote, "And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor. 12:9). My passion is not just to speak; it is to clearly present the message of the gospel.
I once went to Tennessee to speak. A believer who brought his friend to hear me asked him afterwards, "What do you think?" The man replied, "It is the strangest thing I've ever seen. He cant speak clearly and he's the clearest speaker I ever heard."
Doesn't God have a sense of humor? He took someone who physically needed His help each time he spoke (and still does), and gave him a passion spiritually to clearly present the plan of salvation.
I've surrendered this book to God to that end—that you too might not just preach the gospel, but that you might clearly preach it. So clearly, in fact, that there is no question in your listeners' minds about how to receive eternal life.
I'm still learning, but I want to share what I've learned through speaking in more than one thousand outreaches. I want to tell you what I wish someone had told me more than forty years ago. My prayer is that this book will help you, long after I'm gone, to speak in such a way that you are not only understood, but that you cannot be misunderstood.
I've told my loved ones, "When I'm gone, don't waste that valuable space on my tombstone with my name and years of existence. Just write in letters that encompass the tombstone: 'Be Clear! Be Clear! Be Clear!'"