Disabled pastor labors 6 months on last sermon

by Tammi Reed Ledbetter/Southern Baptist TEXAN, posted Monday, October 16, 2017 (one month ago)

ALBA, Texas (BP) -- For 34 years, Ron Dyess preached the sufficiency of God's grace, encouraging folks amid trials in their lives with God's promise to supply all their needs.

He thought he understood those Scriptures -- until he began dealing with a neurological disease.

In 2013 the signs of an undiagnosed condition began to appear. First, he began falling. Then he noticed he was mispronouncing some of his words. That gave way to slurred speech. A neurologist diagnosed Dyess with Primary Lateral Sclerosis (PLS), a slowly progressing motor neuron disease that causes muscle nerve cells to break down and weaken.

Dyess and his wife Janice already had built a house in East Texas to which they would eventually retire. A year after the PLS diagnosis as he struggled to preach and pastor, he decided to retire early and relocate to Hainesville. The couple joined Lake Fork Baptist Church in Alba where a college classmate of Dyess served as pastor.

Janice and Ron Dyess pause for a photo with Lake Fork Baptist Church pastor Perry Crisp and his wife Dorinda after Crisp preached a sermon written by Dyess over the course of six months.
Photo provided by Lake Fork Baptist Church
"Ron is trapped inside a body that won't cooperate, yet his mind is still bright and brilliant," said Perry Crisp, his pastor and longtime friend. Earlier this year he asked Dyess what he would preach if he had one more opportunity despite the weakness PLS had caused in his voluntary muscles, like those that control the legs, arms and tongue.

"He sent me his typed message after months of painstaking work," Crisp told the Southern Baptist TEXAN.

Through the use of an Eye Gaze computer provided by the state of Texas, Dyess had been able to stare at the letters or pre-programmed phrases on a screen and "type" with his eyes.

On Aug. 20, Crisp gave voice to the message Dyess had prepared for six months by preaching it to the congregation at Lake Fork Baptist.

"It made me laugh, cry, smile and think," Crisp said after reading the sermon.

In his manuscript, Dyess described PLS as a slow progression of the more common Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. "Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed at 21 [with a form of ALS], has lived 53 years with the disease. I certainly don't desire to live that long and be constantly reminded of my limitations," Dyess communicated. "Nevertheless, I'm not going anywhere until God calls me home."

Every three months, Dyess recounted, he returns to UT Southwestern Hospital in Dallas to be seen by a team of doctors, therapists and technicians during a three- to four-hour visit. He uses an iPad with an application that speaks what he types. "This device has given me freedom to speak again," Dyess communicated, "and opened doors of opportunity to witness, especially to those in the medical field."

Crisp, in preaching from Dyess' text, explained to the congregation the experience of being trapped in a broken body. "This wretched disease has stolen my ability to walk, talk, as well as my personality. By looking at my facial expressions you might think I'm a few bricks shy of a load," Dyess wrote, "but I fully comprehend everything."

Initially questioning why he was given the disease, Dyess said God brought to his mind all the Scriptures he had preached from the pulpit at the three churches he had served. "It was as if He was saying, 'You've preached these Scriptures, now live them out in this season of your life.'"

As he learns to live on the other side of the pulpit, Dyess said he can no longer visit folks in hospitals and nursing homes as he did as a pastor, careful to avoid exposure to illness. "I am learning to be satisfied with praying for folks on the prayer list of the church," he said.

Dyess described learning to live in a handicapped world, referencing the invalid man in John 5:1-9, a passage he said speaks loudly of the value of a friend. "Like him, I am totally dependent on others. I can't dress myself, feed myself or bathe myself. I can hold on to a handicap bar and pull myself up to stand, but because I have no balance, if I let go I make a greasy spot on the floor," he wrote.

"Every day God reminds me to be thankful for His provisions," Dyess said, claiming the apostle Paul's contentedness in Philippians 4:11-13 for this season of his life.

In learning to preach without speaking, Dyess found reassurance in the testimony of Peter and John, who said they "cannot but speak to what we have seen and heard" in Acts 4:19-20. "I loved preaching, singing and playing the piano," he wrote. "Since God chose to close this chapter in my life, I've had to find new ways to preach. God is not limited in His abilities to provide the means to those willing to be used for His glory."

Dyess closed his message with Proverbs 3:1-13, describing the process of trusting the Lord and "learning to use what I've got while I've still got it." He remembered a plaque hanging on the wall at his grandmother's house which read, "'Soon this life will all be past, and only what's done for Christ will last."

Praising those who had led in worship and preaching, as well as the church family that had welcomed him and his wife, prayed for and encouraged them, Dyess wrote, "May you continue to be God's catalyst in loving folks that He brings to Lake Fork Baptist Church as you use what you've got while you've got it."

Tammi Reed Ledbetter is special assignments editor for the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
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