In 2007, this popular singer almost lost his voice. Not long after, he started singing your stories.
- Posted on Feb 7, 2013
Every day someone tells me their story. They come by the thousands over Facebook and my website. Stories about people’s struggles with divorce and alcoholism. People who’ve lost their jobs or just lost their way. Hearttugging accounts from veterans still fighting battles here at home.
They’re not all sad. Many are tales of triumph. Of hope. Or faith. But behind every one is a person who more than anything wants to be heard. Everyone has a story.
I’m a singer-songwriter by trade. Folks send me their stories hoping I’ll tell them through song. But it never would have happened had I not first told my own story one night not long ago.
I was wrapping up a concert, the final notes from my song “More” fading away. It had been a great show, but there was something I urgently needed to say, an urge that was on my heart.
“You don’t know how grateful I am to be here,” I said when the applause subsided.
“Seven months ago doctors operated on my vocal cords to remove a polyp, a growth in the lining of my throat that had made it so I could barely speak or sing. That was scary. But the worst part was when my doctor told me what I had to do to recover.”
At least I thought it was the worst part at the time...
I was still groggy from the anesthesia, sitting in my hospital bed, that spring of 2007, just able to focus on the doctor beside me.
“The surgery went well,” she said. “Now your vocal cords need time to heal. You must remain completely silent for the next seven weeks. Until then there’s no way for me to know if you’ll be able to sing again.”
Are you crazy? I screamed in my mind, suddenly alert. But all I could do was nod obediently. Already I’d gone a week without talking in preparation for the surgery. That was bad enough. But this felt like a kind of solitary confinement, being unable to give voice to the thoughts and fears rapidly multiplying inside me.
What if I still couldn’t sing? What if I didn’t sound like me? My fans bought my music expecting to hear a distinctive voice, the Matthew West sound. No one would pay a dime to hear me if I sang like Kermit the Frog. I had a wife, Emily, and a young daughter who depended on me. Singing was all I knew.
I went home that afternoon. But there it seemed as if I were more an observer than a member of the family. I’d always had a lot to say on pretty much any topic—an opinion, a witty aside, a story or favorite memory. And when I wasn’t talking I was singing.
Not that I always had to be the center of attention, but expressing myself—through words and song—was who I was.
Every morning at breakfast, Lulu, my two-year-old, would stare at me, bewildered at what had become of her once oh-so-talkative father. “Talk, Daddy,” she said over and over. But all I could do was smile and shake my head.
“Daddy can’t talk right now,” Emily tried to explain. “He has a boo-boo that needs to get better. But he’s still the same daddy.”
I got a whiteboard to write on, but it wasn’t the same as having a conversation. Mostly it was a tool for me to vent my frustration. “This is driving me NUTS!” I scrawled to Emily.
“I know,” she answered. “You just have to be patient and trust that God has this under control. It’s all going to be good. You’ll see.”
I rarely left the house. I didn’t want to be around anyone when I couldn’t talk. Most days I retreated to my music room, the place where I’d written so many of my songs. My latest release, due out in January, was called Something to Say. As if!
I couldn’t even bring myself to pick up a guitar. I spent hours writing in my journal. One day I tried to make a list of other careers I could pursue. What was I good at? Singing. Writing songs. Singing....
My mind went totally blank. That was it. That was all I knew how to do. Why is this happening to me, Lord? But God was as silent as I was.
I stopped going to church. I couldn’t go there, not with everyone singing around me and asking how I was doing. But one Sunday Emily insisted. I shrugged in resignation.
Emily found a pew near the front. I plopped down and glanced in the bulletin at the title of the sermon: “Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen to Good People?” Nice topic, I thought ruefully. But as the pastor spoke it was as if I were the only person in the sanctuary.
“I want to read a quote from C. S. Lewis,” he said. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
I moved to the edge of my seat, slowly repeating the quote in my mind. Listening, with my whole body. Hearing the words, yes, but there was something else. A comforting sound I couldn’t quite identify.
I thought of all the times that God had been there for me in my career, the gifts he’d given me, my wonderful family. Whispers I’d barely heard, taken for granted. Without God none of it would have happened. He was there beside me every step of the way.
Could I have doubted that he was beside me even now, shouting to be heard?
I’m listening, God. Tell me what you want me to hear. Lead me where you’d have me go. There was no response. Not in words, at least. But for the first time in months my worries faded. Yes, God was in charge. That was all I needed to know.
That afternoon I returned to my music room and filled pages of my journal with my fears and frustrations, but now it was freeing, not paralyzing. With every pen stroke I let go of another torment. I prayed, not with words, but with feeling and sensing, my soul shouting in the silence.
There was the sound again. Like waves crashing onto the shore. God’s love washing over me.
“Share my blessings,” he seemed to say. I didn’t know what that meant, yet it comforted me.
The day to see my doctor again finally arrived. I was nervous but not afraid. She examined my throat and then asked, “So how are you feeling?”
I smiled, nodded energetically.
She laughed. “You can talk now,” she said.
“Oh, okay,” I said. Two words. And yet I listened in wonder at the sound of my voice. Like a child talking for the first time. It was me, just like before. I could hardly believe my ears.
“You’ll need to work with a speech pathologist and a vocal coach,” the doctor said. “They’ll show you how not to strain your vocal cords. But you’re good to go. I’m looking forward to hearing your next song.”
Now here I was, a little more than six months later, on stage in front of 1,000 people. Something to Say was my best-selling album yet, one of its songs, “More,” a No. 1 hit on the Christian music charts. My voice had never felt stronger. I was so thankful. I couldn’t say it enough.
“God has blessed me so much,” I said. “And I am so grateful. I doubted my faith at times, but God was always in charge.”
I walked off the stage to thunderous applause. It felt wonderful, like a great big, beautiful blessing.
I hung out backstage for a while, letting the crowd disperse, before making my way to the tour bus. There, at the bottom of the stairs, was a cluster of fans. Autograph seekers, I figured.
“I got laid off a year ago, and with all our bills sometimes I just want to give up,” the first woman in line said. “I wanted to thank you for what you said. I’ve struggled, but you gave me hope.”
“Thank you,” I said. I hugged her. It seemed like so little. But what more could I do?
Behind her, another woman, with a teenage son. “My husband has cancer,” she said. “It’s really scary to think of losing him. I can’t wait to tell him what you said about God being in control.”
Every person there had a story. People bearing up under challenges I couldn’t imagine. I kept thinking about them long after I went to bed. And I knew what I was being called to do. This time God didn’t need to shout.
“What if I asked people to send me their stories?” I said to my manager the next day. “Made that what my songs are about, all of them. People are hurting out there. They want someone to listen to them, a chance to be heard.”
“Let’s give it a try,” he said.
So we posted requests on Facebook and my website, sent out tons of tweets. The response was overwhelming. People sent stories by the tens of thousands. I read them in a tiny one-room cabin in the woods. The quiet and isolation made it the perfect place.
Lyrics and melodies came to me easily, like someone was writing them for me, whispers that filled me with warmth and joy.
Two albums later my career has never been stronger or more inspired. One thing’s for sure, I’ll never run out of ideas. Everyone, I’ve learned, has an amazing story to tell, and I want to help them tell it. My voice is my gift, and gifts are meant to be shared.
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