Motor neuron disease doesn”t keep pastor from preaching one last sermon

ALBA—For 34 years, Ron Dyess preached the sufficiency of God’s grace, encouraging folks who had experienced trials in their lives with the promise that God would supply all their needs. He thought he understood those scriptures, but it was not until he began dealing with a neurological disease that he realized he did not.

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. After visiting a second neurologist, Dyess was told he had Primary Lateral Sclerosis (PLS), a slowly progressing motor neuron disease that causes muscle nerve cells to break down and weaken.

He and his wife, Janice, already had built a house in East Texas to which they would eventually retire. A year after the PLS diagnosis, Dyess 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.

It was reasonable for Dyess to assume he’d never preach again. Primary Lateral Schlerosis causes weakness in voluntary muscles like the ones used to control legs, arms and tongue.

“Ron is trapped inside a body that won’t cooperate, yet his mind is still bright and brilliant,” shared Perry Crisp, his pastor and longtime friend. Earlier this year he asked Dyess what he would preach if he had one more chance.

“He sent me his typed message after months of painstaking work,” Crisp told the TEXAN. Through the use of an Eye Gaze computer provided by the State of Texas, Dyess can stare at the letters or pre-programmed phrases displayed on the screen and “type” with his eyes. 

On Aug. 20 Crisp gave voice to the message Dyess had prepared for six months and preached 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), which is better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. “Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed at 21, has lived 53 years with the disease. I certainly don’t desire to live that long and be constantly reminded of my limitations,” he admitted. “Nevertheless, I’m not going anywhere until God calls me home.”

Every three months 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 and opened doors of opportunity to witness, especially to those in the medical field.”

Crisp 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,” he wrote, “but I fully comprehend everything.”

Initially questioning why he was given the disease, Dyess said God brought to his mind all of 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.”

From John 5:1-9, Dyess described learning to live in a handicapped world, 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 Phil. 4:11-13 for this season of his life.

In learning to preach without speaking, Dyess finds the testimony of Peter and John reassuring, citing 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 testimony with Prov. 3:1-13, describing the process of “learning to use what I’ve got while I’ve still got it.” He remembered a plaque hanging on the wall of his grandmother’s house which read, “’Soon this life will all be past, and only what’s done for Christ will last,’ then added, “If only I had adopted that motto when I was a child.”

Praising those who had led in worship and preaching, as well as the church family that had welcomed he and his wife, prayed for and encouraged them. “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.”

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