Confessions From the Guy Standing at the Back of the Church

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time standing at the back of the church. Maybe it’s because I like to stand back there and take it all in. Or maybe it’s reflective of how I’ve felt lately: a little removed, a little estranged.

This week I meandered to the back of the auditorium and found a small space in front of an emergency exit door (and the metaphors mount). Actually, this particular location would be better described as the only slightly hidden spot in the auditorium: on one side, a table covered in sign-up sheets; on the other side, a man sitting on a mobility scooter.

I know the man. His name is Gordie.

* * * * *

Not too many years ago Gordie played the guitar for our church’s worship band. Whenever I saw him he would shake my hand slowly with his big bear paw and say in his deep, quiet voice, “Hey, Shawn.” Gordie never wasted words. He loved listening to a good story, and when you spoke to him he wasn’t looking around or feeling for his cell phone – he was right there, in that moment. His replies were thoughtful and succinct. He is the friendliest quiet man I’ve ever met.

I don’t know the whole story, but Gordie started feeling ill. And his body stopped listening to his mind in small, barely noticeable ways. Then came the news that no one wanted to hear: Gordie had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s, a disease of the nerve cells that control voluntary movement. The doctors said that, at a rate they could not forecast, Gordie’s body would begin shutting down.

Gordie played guitar for our church for a long time, standing for a while, then leaning on a stool, then sitting in a chair. But eventually his fingers couldn’t keep up with his mind. When I speak to him now, his eyes are the same, taking it all in, but he has lost most of his ability to verbally communicate. He gets around on his scooter. He comes to church every Sunday.

And, as always, he loves to listen.

* * * * *

Standing beside Gordie on Sunday, I wondered what it was like, having full mental capacity yet unable to do so much. Trapped. When the service ended, he lowered the seat of his chair, moved his hand on the joystick that controls the scooter, and pulled away. When he speeds down the hallway, his wife laughs and reminds him to drop it down a gear.

I leaned forward and put my hand on his shoulder.

“Have a good week, Gordie.”

He smiled. I missed his deep voice.

* * * * *

I want to be as courageous as Gordie. I want to have as much perseverance as he does. But sometimes I just feel scared and weak. Sometimes I want to hang out by the emergency exit doors in case I need to make a quick getaway…from faith, from community, from life.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from Gordie, it’s that anyone can get through anything. I’ve learned the value of listening, of looking at everyone through kind eyes. Mostly I’ve learned that you don’t have to speak to change people’s lives.

When I grow up, I want to be like Gordie.

24 Replies to “Confessions From the Guy Standing at the Back of the Church”

  1. Thanks for the story. It hit home for me. My dad had ALS. It seems at times, the people hit by this disease can be the strongest around us all, and maintain just as good an outlook as they possibly can. Just like you, it’s a hope, attitude, and outlook that I hope to hold one day too.

    1. Hey Kellen,
      Gordie is my dad and I know what it feels like. Hard to fathom really. I hope the best for you and your family.

      Shawn, thanks for this post! I’m proud of who my dad has become and I hope I can be half the man he is.

      1. Sorry to hear, but it sounds like Gordie is a great guy. Sounds like you’ve got a great dad. It’s interesting that you never hear about the disease until it hits your family, then it’s suddenly everywhere. My wife grew up in Ephrata, PA which I think might be kind of near where you live. If we can swing it, and you’re up for it, maybe we could meet next time we make it back down that way. If you have any questions or have something to talk about when it comes to someone who’s been there before feel free to contact me through my site,

  2. I’m sorry to hear about your father, Kellen. I wish you and your family all the best on the journey ahead.

  3. i wonder what that scared and weak place has to say to you (its purpose for showing up) in order to be like Gordie.

  4. Great post!
    Like all the metaphors, especially the ones surrounding the emergency exit door … I’m kinda feeling like I’m standing by one myself these days.

    My heart breaks for Gordie … and his family.

    Thanks for the reminder that listening is often more important than talking.

  5. Shawn your post was so right on. Gordie is my Brother-in law. One who would always listen and good eye contact. So true. We love him. He has always been an insperation to so many.

  6. Shawn, I work with people with physical disabilities every day and I would say ALS is by far one of the worst if not the worst disease/disability that I have worked with. I can not imagine what it would be like to have the full capability of mind and not be able to do anything physically. I can not imagine what it would be like to watch your father or husband go through this horrible disease. But yet each person that I have met with ALS have a spirit about them and they still shine through even though they are living with this reality. Their eyes and smile tell you a million things without them speaking a word to you. As much as I hate what ALS does to a person, I feel privileged to be part of their life for such a short time in their life. And I admire the courage that they have as they deal with the punches that life throws their way. I am reminded that my life problems are not as bad when I look at people who have deal with this reality every day.

  7. It’s called Grace. A beautiful, personal, intimate Grace. Gordie personifies the word–along with the many other people out there whose lives are broken but their spirits are secure.

  8. Shawn, thank you for this post. My dad inspires me everyday. Although he can not talk anymore, he speaks through his smile and laughter. I appreciate his courage and admire the way he’s handled living with this disease.

    I’ll join you in saying that when I grow up, I want to be like my dad.

  9. I used to work for the ALS Assoc. and I’ve had similar experiences to yours with Gordie, over and over. At this rate, I left the organization about a year and a half ago because of relocating, and I think only two of the dozens of patients I knew are still alive. It’s one of the most devastating diseases ever. The ones who are able to cope really do have something to teach us all.

    1. Shawn,

      I have been a recipient of many conversations with Gordie when he worked at Auntie Anne’s. I’ve loved his compassion and he comforted me when I needed it. He is a Giant a man!

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