For those who are familiar with my writing, this will come as no surprise: personal stories that examine the point of encounter between life and theology fascinate me. However, I do not “out” people, spewing their private struggles across the internet for all to see. Personal stories inspire my thoughts and drive my writing, yet I am not writing about any one person. If you see yourself or someone you know in my reflections, it is only because I’m referencing experiences that are far more common than any of us realize.
Jeffrey is a Christian.
He reads his Bible. He lives as a disciple, not just a convert. He is involved in the local church and makes his personal witness open and obvious. Sure, little pet sins surface randomly, like those mushroom rings that sprout irresistibly from nowhere and for no reason. Nothing remarkable, though still worthy of repentance.
While unanswerable questions abound – Calvinism, alcohol, homosexuals in the church – they don’t really grab his attention. If you really want to reel him in, to set the hook and compel him to think and emote, ask deaf Jeff about his hearing family.
“Dad bludgeoned me into attending the reunion again, saying he would make sure I know what is going on. Same old story, year after year – ‘I’ll help you understand!’ Never came to pass. This always happens, and I always swear it is the last family event I’ll ever attend. I was in the room the entire time, and I was clueless. Even when I’m far away, I have no idea what is going on. My folks never write. They don’t mess with email, nor do they text; they are phone people. Always calling someone, never writing. Being deaf, I need something I can see; you know, like an email. Guess who didn’t know about my uncle’s cancer? My sister’s gall bladder surgery? My grandparents’ impending move from their home of 47 years? Yeah…that would be me.
“Mom always took me to church, a hearing church. She doesn’t like deaf churches, but never felt comfortable explaining the hearing sermon to me. ‘Just watch the preacher’s lips,’ she would say. Yeah, lip-reading from 30 feet. That’s great. Wasted 10 adult years before getting past that and finding someone who would tell me the gospel in a language I can understand.”
“I’ve been around the world, you know. North Africa, South America, Russia – all on mission trips. You know what? It’s the same thing all over. Deaf folks around the world say the same things I do: ‘I made it through Christmas/Easter/ Ramadan/New Year’s/birthday party with my family – ugg. After a mere 8 hours of watching my hearing family sing/talk/laugh/listen to music/have a great time, I was finally able to sneak away and meet my Deaf friends. I get so tired of having to be there when they don’t seem to care that I’m around.’
“And it’s not like I have any answers. I can’t point to the hordes of Deaf Christians in different parts of the world who have resolved these questions because quite simply I don’t know of any.”
Jeff’s struggle is not simply what to do when these issues come along. If only it were that simple.
There’s a perpetual, always-open scar from all of this; years and years of daily wrongs, never resolved because they never cease. Jeff is never fully included, apparently never listened to, never quite equal with everyone else. This isn’t stuff limited to childhood; we all have lingering issues from Mom and Dad. Instead, these are lifelong experiences fundamental to the Deaf experience. These relational scrapes and bruises never heal because they never end. In fact, they hurt worse as folks age; a 12-year old has no idea exactly how wrong it is to be so excluded from his family. A 48-year old knows quite well, and as a result the pain and outrage are greater.
“How do I tolerate my brothers telling me that I should try harder to keep up with the family’s conversation, as if there is some muscle I can flex to hear better. I do my best – when are they going to do the basics to keep me involved? You know – maybe making sure I can see their faces when they talk. Or turning on the lights in the evening so I can see. Or not sitting outside at the beach, chatting while looking at the stars. It’s not rocket science, folks.”
How does Jeffrey tell new Deaf Christians to manage the emotions of all of this? The emotion of all those years of living on the edge of their families, scrabbling to understand? Crossing over to spend more time in the Deaf community than with their siblings, then living a lie while pretending to understand what is happening at family gatherings? Realizing they would never feel as much of a part of the family as everyone else? Day by day, facing some sort of reminder of their position in life – at the bottom, free to catch only the informational crumbs that fall from the family’s table?
It isn’t really about deafness, you know.
How does a godly woman bear up under the weight of a father who spends his time berating, criticizing, lambasting her for imagined failures and petty flaws? Does she forgive him, every day, and return tomorrow for a little more? Or does she reach a point where she stands and walks away in order to “take care of herself”?
When church members tolerate repeated verbal attacks from the same cadre of fellow-Christians, week after week, project after project – what’s the solution? When the events are never resolved, never put to bed, and never, ever ending – what happens? Leave the church? Or do we heed Paul’s impassioned “Why not let yourselves be wronged?”
In 1 Samuel, we read about how King Saul spent years chasing David, a self-proclaimed flea hiding in the desert. After a final encounter, Saul admitted his flaws and accepted the inevitability of David’s ascent to the throne. He even called for David to return to his side, but 1 Samuel tells us that “…David went on his way, and Saul returned to his place.”
How did David manage the emotions of all this? Those years of living in caves, scrabbling to survive? Crossing over to the Philistines, living a lie while running raids in the desert, residing far from family and houses of stone? Realizing he was the head of a rabble of malcontents and tax cheats? Day by day, I imagine, some sort of reminder came his way of his position in life – at the bottom – when he had been at the top and lost it due to another’s sin. Day by day, he had to live with Saul’s persecution and his own loss. And in the end – David just walked off, leaving Saul to go home alone.
Was this a wise choice? A godly one? Is this something Jeff can do?
Jeffrey’s family doesn’t get it. The cousins speak for the family when they say, “He’s all preachy about being godly, but would rather spend his time with those deaf friends than with his family, people who love him.” For his part, Jeff struggles guilt from wishing he could just walk away from with the pain of what seems to be his family’s rejection
In the end, the biblical account makes clear that whatever David’s emotions, he rested secure in the rightness of his actions and his place before the throne of God. He pointed out that, “The Lord rewards everyone for their righteousness and faithfulness…As surely as I valued your life today, so may the Lord value my life and deliver me from all trouble.” I suppose the answer that Jeff must be prepared to give – the answer I must accept myself – is each of us is responsible for our own actions before God.
In David’s case, this meant spending years fleeing Saul, and guarding his heart from anger or hatred. The Bible records not a single act of David’s against Saul.
For the rest of us, I have no idea what to say. Do Deaf Christians sit perpetually at the edge of their families and stare straight ahead, uncomprehendingly? Do they decline to attend family gatherings in order to avoid the pain and subsequent bitterness, knowing that their families are likely to respond with anger and resentment and blame over their absence? Do they forthrightly state their needs at every gathering and just hope it works out differently this time? Is it a different answer for each of us, depending on what is necessary to guard our hearts from anger and bitterness?
I know this: the forgiveness required is perpetual and daily. Forgetting what happens – daily – is a bridge too far. Even so, when we find the proper path, God will give us the strength to manage it.
That’s a comforting answer, but it sure isn’t an easy one.