Worship: with the voice or the heart?


Willie & Martin Johnson

My eyes filled with tears; I couldn’t make my voice sing a note. My father sat at the end of the church pew in a world of silence. His sudden deafness became a reality as we worshipped in song. I kept thinking I could hear his deep bass voice sing the old familiar hymns, hymns I learned to play on the piano and the family sang together. But his voice was silent; he could not even hear himself speak.

It was early spring in 1985. Last Thanksgiving Mama had noticed Daddy was not hearing her sometimes. Since he was only 56 years old, this was not a hearing failure due to old age. The doctors in Memphis began running tests, searching for a cause. By Christmas he was completely deaf, and no one could figure out why. He was so tired of hospitals; his kidney failure required dialysis three times a week, he’d had surgery earlier in the year for an aneurism and scar tissue in his colon. Imagine being in the hospital unable to hear a word that nurses, doctors, visitors, and family said. We wrote our words on yellow legal pads. His vision also began to fail, so we used black Sharpies and wrote in large letters. He finally said, “Enough.”

Mama brought him home, and he told her to put him in a nursing home. She had no intention of admitting him to a nursing home, but he somehow missed that message. I traveled to their home in Northwest Tennessee with my four-year old. Mama needed to go back to work, so we came to stay with him while she nursed patients at the Health Dept. Our first morning there she left for work, but he watched the door all day. Toward the end of the day I figured out that he thought she had been working out arrangements at a nursing home. He was waiting for her to come home and tell him which nursing home he would move in. I didn’t try to clear up his misunderstanding; I knew he would need to hear the words from Mama.

As soon as she came home from work, I told her what he was thinking. She wrote her words — she had no plans to put him in a nursing home – she had been at work all day. He protested, did not want to be anyone’s burden. Everyone would be better off if he were in a nursing home. Mama shook her head, “No” and finally got her Bible from the bedroom. As she sat on the footstool in front of him, she turned to 2 Corinthians 12:9 and showed him the scripture. Then she wrote it on the pad in big letters – “’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

As he finally understood her firm resolve to stay at his side, I slipped out of the room. Their tears and love for each other said everything without words. This love and partnership had traveled many miles to teach and preach God’s word. They both knew their traveling days were done, and the future was not so clear – except they would be together.

The next Sunday morning found us seated on the second row of that tiny country church where he preached every Sunday. Daddy sat on the end, Mama next to him, and then Jennifer and I. Every part of the worship service reminded me of his deafness. When someone led a prayer, he prayed his own. Mama tapped him on the arm to let him know the prayer was finished. Instead of delivering the sermon as he had every Sunday for over 35 years, he watched his youngest son preach. Every so often he turned to read the notes that Mama took.

At the close of the service he rose from his seat and carefully walked to the front. He explained his recent loss of hearing to this body of Christians who had provided him emotional support through all his illness. He finished with these words, “I’ve often wondered if it is possible to worship God if you can’t hear. Now I know you can.”

The next Sunday back at my home church my thoughts returned to Daddy sitting in worship. Imagine how a worship service appears to a deaf person — mouths are moving but no sound. Worship can so easily be routine, making the right sounds without any meaning. I wonder how our worship appears to God. Does He see a group of people moving their mouths with no sound? Our voices may be working, but our hearts and minds are somewhere else.

This is the verse that continues to run through my head:

The Lord says:
“These people worship me with their mouths,
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is based on
nothing but human rules.” Isaiah 29:13

Counting the joys and blessings of parents who left their four children and spouses, grandchildren, and great grandchildren with a legacy of faithfulness to their God and to each other.



5 thoughts on “Worship: with the voice or the heart?

  1. Lark Webb

    Oh, my, Martell….this is so touching….couldn’t help but get teary. What a beautiful tribute to your mom and dad! And a beautiful thought about heart worship. Thank you, friend!

    1. Nancy Tapscott

      I , too, was very touched and teary eyed reading this. I’m sure your parents were very special people.It certainly calls us to check our hearts during worship. Thanks for writing. I enjoy your blog.

  2. brenda1573

    Your dad’s voice was the very first thing I ever noticed about him when David introduced him to me. So powerful and gentle at the same time! I know his beautiful singing voice is filling Heaven!

  3. Marialyce T. Boudreau

    Dr. Souder,

    What a blessing to all who love our Lord…family…and friends. I will be watching for more touching stories.

  4. tim

    Martell, this teared me up as well. Thank you. Lets also pass on a legacy of faithfulness to God like our parents have. It really is what our life’s purpose is about..bringing glory to God.


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