Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Deaf-Mute In All of Us

People have often asked me what it’s like to grow up with a deaf-mute mother. Before she came to live with me after my father passed away I would respond with a puzzled look and say something like, “Uh, I never thought much about it.” Seriously. Then I’d try to lighten the awkward moment by telling the inquirer what an advantage I had as a teenager. I could say whatever I wanted and my mom would never hear it.

On the serious side, communicating with my mother is very difficult, often frustrating. She doesn’t read lips. In fact she doesn’t read at all since she never had an education. My father made up a sign language for our family that is much like charades. If you have played the game you know how difficult it is to be understood. Concrete words are not easy. Abstract ones are nearly impossible without a common point of reference.

When I left home, I slowly came to realize that my growing up years were anything but normal. It wasn't until my mother came to live with me that I began to understand how her silent, unhearing presence impacted me in profound ways.

I have never had a deep “conversation” with my mother. In our relationship, I am as deaf and mute to her as she is to me. Now that she has lived with me for the past 15 years I am painfully aware that loneliness and isolation is her normal. I grieve for her inability to connect with the world in meaningful ways.

Lately I’ve come to the conclusion that life with a deaf mother in some ways is not all that different from life with normal hearing people.

Occasionally I run into people who hear my words but act deaf. I have conversations with people and I can tell I have not been heard. When I have something important to say I am treated in such a way that makes me feel like they wish I came with a remote and a mute button. Attempts at dialogue end up being a game of charades with large amounts of emotional energy expended to make limited points of connection.

Being deaf or mute doesn’t have to have a physical cause. It can be a state of the mind and heart. For the person who is trying to speak, the blank stares in response can have any number of causes.

A closed belief system. Fear. Preservation. A position of superiority or privilege. Lack of trust. Exclusion. Pride. Lack of empathy. I have been guilty of all of these and more. I know I have been deaf to the stories of others, to their attempts to connect with me.

And I have often stopped my ears to God.

This phenomenon is described in Scripture often where the loss of physical senses is a metaphor for the spiritual, emotional and mental state of a close mind and hard heart.

Psalm 135:15-18 The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. 
Isaiah 6:9-10 Go and tell this people: " 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.
Jeremiah 6:10 To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the LORD is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.
In the Old Testament, the main Hebrew word for “to obey” is the same word for “to hear, listen, pay attention, perceive.” The Jews understood that deafness is the lack of deep understanding, accurate perception and immediate responsiveness. Hearing is the prerequisite to obedience and to action.

And hearing is necessary to a transformative community, a community that listens well to God and to each other.

I’ve been in a season of articulating some concerns, expressing my passions and advocating for gender reconciliation. It’s been a season of refinement, of clarity and of growth. The result has been further shaping and a deeper confidence of who I am and who God is to me as a woman. I am finding my voice and speaking up. But I know that it is not my responsibility to open deaf ears.

It’s fruitless to keep speaking to closed ears. It’s exhausting to keep participating in a “charade.” It’s time to turn my attention and energy to those who are listening and need a listening ear, to those who need encouragement to speak because they have muted themselves among the deaf.

God is shaking up the church. For those who are willing to abandon their trenches of tradition, he is unstopping ears, unmuting voices and powerfully reconciling men and women along the Way.

Isaiah 35:1-6  
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you." Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.  


  1. I loved this, it really makes you stop and think!


  2. just recently I have come across a diffent way of hearing the "pearls and swine" story -- one in which the "pigs" are not despised and unworthy of receiving pearls, but just not ready or able to appreciate them.

    I am learning to have a more tender heart toward those who are just not ready to see or hear who I am and what I have to say. I am learning to practice cHesed toward them by accommodating how I lead according to their readiness to follow.

    It is much easier to try to command that others follow ... but that is not how God leads -- and for those who are confused by leadership patterns in the OT, look at Jesus and you will get the full picture of our loving God -- who accommodates our sad "piggishness" until we are ready for our eyes to be opened and our ears to be unstopped and our feet strengthened and straightened...and praise will come out of our mouths.

    Be blessed....