Why Offering Me Communion Doesn’t Make Me Feel More Welcome at Your Church

A reflection by Sarah

Over time, I’ve talked to a lot of people who are concerned about welcoming members of the LGBTQ community in churches. More broadly, I’ve noticed that every few months there is some internet discussion about helping many different groups feel more welcome. Questions arise: how can the church better welcome LGBTQ people, celibate people, disabled people, parents with small children, or (insert group here)? I’ve seen various kinds of prescriptions offered where to welcome x group, churches should be doing y and z. I’ve noticed a trend that many of these prescriptions focus on making sure that all these different groups feel welcome at the Eucharistic table. It troubles me that often, churches see the Eucharistic table as the baseline for welcome. Today I’d like to reflect on why I don’t associate receiving communion with being welcomed at church.

Before I dive into my reflection, I’d like to clarify a few things up front. First, I’m not going to be making a theological case for open or closed communion practices. I respect that Christian traditions have differing norms, and I’m not going to tell anyone what to believe on this matter. Second, I believe that decisions regarding whether or not an individual participates in the Eucharist within the context of a particular community should involve that person and the priest or pastor of the church. I do not support the practice of denying people communion without offering any sort of explanation. I do not support using the Eucharist as a way to humiliate people publicly. Furthermore, I do not support denying a person the Eucharist simply because of known or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, ability level, class, race, or other factors that I’m forgetting to name off the top of my head. Priests and pastors should not surprise people by denying them communion when they approach the chalice. If at all possible, any issues regarding reception should be sorted privately before the service has begun.

Throughout my life, I’ve always belonged to Christian traditions that practice closed communion, meaning that only duly prepared members of that particular tradition are able to receive at the Eucharistic table. In my current tradition, I’m grateful for the fact that it is common practice for parishes to offer an unconsecrated bread of hospitality in addition to the Eucharist. This unconsecrated bread can be consumed by anyone in attendance, including visitors and members who have chosen not to commune regardless of reason. I’m also grateful for the fact that I’ve never belonged to a parish where I have felt obligated to receive the Eucharist at every service. I have always seen the decision to receive or abstain from the Eucharist and the process that leads to that decision as an essential part of my spiritual formation. All of these factors probably play a role in why it is so jarring for me to encounter very different attitudes when I’m visiting church with a friend from a different Christian tradition or when I’m in an environment where communion is offered to every person present regardless of whether he or she is even a Christian.

Not long ago, I attended an event that involved Christians from multiple traditions and people who did not identify as Christian at all. I knew that as part of this event, communion would be offered. I didn’t even need to consider the question of whether I would receive because I’m committed to following the practice of my tradition: communing only at parishes within that tradition and only on days when I’ve prepared myself properly to receive communion. At this event, one of my friends introduced me to another friend of hers. I don’t remember our initial conversation topic, but within less than five minutes this new acquaintance wanted to know my Christian tradition. I responded. Without a moment’s delay, he asked me, “Are you going to take communion with the rest of us on Sunday?” Taken aback, I responded with a very timid “No.” He proceeded to fire questions at me one after another in an attempt to figure out why my response was not “yes.” I can’t think of too many situations in my life where I’ve felt more awkward with a person attempting to help me feel more welcome. As I responded to each of his questions, it became obvious that none of my answers were satisfactory to him:

My tradition doesn’t practice open communion, and I’m not comfortable receiving at this event.”

“But closed communion is a tradition of man; at God’s table, everyone is welcome. Don’t you feel welcome?”

“I do feel welcome here, but I’m not comfortable with participating in a Eucharist outside of my own tradition.”

“Don’t you know that God loves you and wants to embrace you?”

“Yes, and I don’t need to receive communion in order to know that.”

“Why don’t you challenge yourself this weekend to let go of everything that’s holding you back so that you can be welcome at God’s table?”

Though this example is an isolated incident, it is not the only time in my life when I’ve ever been asked to defend my decision to abstain from receiving communion. Again, I understand and respect that Eucharistic theologies differ from tradition to tradition. I don’t see it as self-evident that people from other traditions will be aware automatically of the norms present in mine. Nonetheless, I’m troubled by my observation that most attempts to make me feel welcome at the Eucharistic table have actually caused me to experience shame and alienation.

The decision to partake in or abstain from the Eucharist in any Christian service is a deeply personal choice that should be far more complicated than asking oneself, “Is anyone going to stop me from receiving? No… Okay, then. I guess I’ll be taking communion.” I consider questions of Eucharistic reception to be on the same level of intimacy and privacy as questions about one’s sex life. I have no more business wondering why someone else isn’t receiving the Eucharist when I am than I have in wondering why (or if) someone else is having sex while I’ve chosen celibacy. Conversations about these matters should take place in the context of meaningful relationships where it is safe to be vulnerable. I cannot imagine myself discussing all the particulars of how I decide to receive (or not receive) the Eucharist with anyone other than my confessor, Lindsey, or my closest friends. I don’t discuss the depths of my spirituality with just anyone. It strikes me as entirely disrespectful for any other person to be asking me to justify in detail why I’ve decided to abstain from communion.

It is my opinion that using the Eucharist as the primary means of showing welcome is one of the most theologically detrimental aspects of life in modern churches. Holding that “welcome” necessarily means “Eucharistic participation” confuses the life we share with God and the life we share with each other. It minimizes the significance of community hospitality by implying that any church following a closed communion practice is, by nature, inhospitable. Historically, baptism has been the way we connect our life in Christian community with our life in God. Until the past couple of centuries, the Eucharist has never been understood as first and foremost a showing of hospitality. While the Eucharist is indeed a community act, it seems to me that many churches today neglect to consider how this sacrament relates to one’s individual life with God and to theological unity within the community. When a new acquaintance is telling me constantly, “You are welcome at God’s table,” this person is not communicating any sense of care about my relationship with God or the faith I confess personally. Instead, this person is trying to reassure me that there is no rupture in the relationship between me and the people gathered in that space. It leads me to wonder, how could a relationship that does not yet exist be ruptured? Does this community believe that the only way to build a relationship with me is to invite me to their Eucharistic table first and then get to know me and my faith later?

Such practice can lead to an even more detrimental belief: that we are all entitled to the Eucharist. I empathize deeply with people, particularly LGBTQ Christians, who have been denied communion unjustly and have perhaps been publicly humiliated in the process. It’s wrong to weaponize the Eucharist. On more than one occasion, I have been denied the Eucharist simply for being a lesbian, so I can relate to the spiritual agony of being unjustly barred from communion. However, telling Christians that they have the right to demand the Eucharist because it is an entitlement only exacerbates this problem. I know people who choose what churches to attend based solely upon which priests or pastors will allow them to commune without asking any questions about their spiritual lives because from their vantage point, they are entitled to the Body and Blood of Christ on account of their baptism. I believe that all Christians should have access to communities where they feel safe among members of the parish and with the clergy. All Christians should have access to communities where it is safe to commune.

Paradoxically, the only way it can be safe to commune within a particular church is if abstaining from communion is also safe. Grilling a person with a thousand questions about why he or she chose to abstain from receiving the Eucharist does not create an atmosphere of safety. Gossiping about why a person has abstained (and what sins he or she is certainly committing…because why else would anyone abstain?) does not create an atmosphere of safety. It seems that very few churches today have any space whatsoever for the person who has decided to abstain from communion, regardless of the reason. It doesn’t matter if a person abstains for a day, a month, a year, or more. Many church communities opt either to flood that person with welcome so he or she feels okay to take communion or to humiliate the person publicly in order to encourage “repentance.” These communities have lost sight of how baptism welcomes us into God’s family and have replaced baptism with Eucharistic participation in terms of its implications for hospitality and love. In many cases, both open and closed communion churches have made Eucharistic participation the baseline for welcome. As long as this remains true, discussing communion with me as a visitor in your church is not going to increase my sense of comfort in worshiping with your community.

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Why I Call Myself “Celibate”

A reflection by Lindsey

There has been a fair amount of discussion in certain places around the internet on whether people can call themselves “celibate LGBTQ Christians.” We’ve written quite a bit already on why we use LGBTQ language to describe ourselves. Today I’d like to offer some more thoughts on why I call myself celibate.

Simply put, I call myself celibate because I see celibacy as integral to how I experience my sense of self, my life in Christ, and my life in the world. My celibate vocation influences so many of my decisions that it’s impossible for me to envision my life any other way.

I haven’t always been committed to celibacy. I hadn’t even encountered celibacy as a word until I was 24 years old. It’s incredibly difficult to live into a vocation if you don’t even know what to call it.

When I speak of vocation, I often think of a room that has many doors. One door is “marriage” while all of the other doors are entry points into various celibate vocations. Celibate vocations are diverse, and it’s entirely difficult to know which exact door God wants to open fully.

I grew up in a family where everyone got married. Extended family functions were literally gatherings of tons of nuclear families. Everywhere I looked, I saw family lived out at the center of virtue. The adults in my life impressed upon me the ways parents provide care and stability for their children. I saw a lot of healthy examples of marriages, and I spent a long time considering what role marriage might play in my own adult life. I deeply appreciate all of the lessons I learned about what marriage is and what marriage could be.

Nonetheless, I developed these kind of niggling feelings that it might be best for me to forgo getting married. When I was in college, I thought I might be bi-vocational. I easily saw myself moving into doing college ministry while working as a college professor. It seemed rather irresponsible to give myself to both pursuits while also trying to care for a family. Later on, in graduate school, I had a profound sense that I had zero desire to be a parent. This realization hit me like a ton of bricks, and I started to question conventional wisdom that marriage was both the default way of life and a necessary rite of passage.

Almost immediately, I had a sense of deep and abiding peace wash over me when I realized that I could forgo marriage. Yet, I found myself in a place that some would describe as “overwhelming with creative potential” in much the same way real estate agents speak of the potential of home requiring significant repairs. I felt like I had entered No-Man’s Land. There was no roadmap, but I thought I might be able to find a way forward.

At first, it was really hard to find any help figuring out what I should do. I was attending churches that placed marriage on an incredibly high platform and never spoke of either singleness or celibacy. I had a vague sense that nuns lived celibate lives. I tried searching for information on Catholic religious life to find models even though I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was doing. I figured I’d save all of the theological questions I had about Catholicism for another day. I was desperate for any information about what my life could actually look like, and I wanted to find models where celibate people lived together in community.

After spinning my wheels for quite a bit, I started to get some traction. I sensed God calling me to live my life in my current Christian tradition where celibate vocations are slightly more visible. I began hanging out with lots of different people who were living celibate vocations. While I never quite experienced an overwhelming sense of “Wow, I totally belong here,” I did start to notice patterns found within celibate vocations. I was overwhelmed by the distinct sense of family found in every monastic community I visited. Monastics cared for one another in deep, profound, meaningful, and lasting ways that even appeared to reach beyond the grave. This sense of family varied a bit depending on the size of the community. I remember visiting a community of over 400 nuns where the nuns lived in a collection of small homes with two to six nuns per house. Every time I met a group of monastics, I was amazed at how wonderfully human all of them tended to be. I noticed that the most hospitable monastics also tended to be those who had also cultivated meaningful relationships with other monastics in their community. I had never been so glad to see the stereotype of “All monastics are people who have absolutely shunned all forms of meaningful human connection” so completely and entirely disproven. Many monastics encouraged me to continue cultivating my own vocation, and some directed me towards specific people living celibate vocations outside of the monasteries.

Then my younger brother got married. All of a sudden, people younger than me were mature enough to make the decision to get married.

Being the firstborn comes with a number of implicit assumptions. I realized that everyone thought it to be rather odd that I wasn’t married. I did the only logical thing I could think of and spent a few days at a monastery before my brother’s wedding. I knew in the absolute depths of my being that I did not feel called to marriage. I found myself at a crossroads of vocation. It was time to take the next step.

The problem I faced was that I didn’t have a clear set of next steps. I couldn’t go to my church and say, “I’d like to make a public profession that I intend on fully embracing celibacy.” Even though I had been trying to spend time with any celibate person I could find, everyone I found lived in a monastery as a monk or nun. I had university debt to pay off, and my story didn’t seem to mesh with any of the monastics I talked to. It bothered me that almost every church I could think of was prepared to help my brother marry, but I couldn’t think of any church that was prepared to help me embrace celibacy. I thought back to everything I had learned from the monastics that I had already met. I couldn’t help but remember people who had entered monasteries later in life. All of them had started living out celibate vocations long before they committed to a particular monastic community. I heard a chorus of voices telling me, “I entrusted myself to God’s care.”

So I did the next thing I could think of: I stood in the privacy of my own prayer corner to ask for God’s help in cultivating a celibate vocation that would bring me life. I knew that I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew equally that the time had come for me to tell God about my earnest intentions. The time had come to trust Christ that he would guide me as the good shepherd. The time had come for me to start to say, “I’m celibate.”

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The Problem with “If” Questions

A reflection by Sarah

Lindsey and I are always glad to receive questions from readers. We enjoy answering them to the best of our ability through email or directly on the blog. When we respond to a reader’s inquiry, we try to be as candid as possible even if that means the reader is unhappy because our response takes a different direction than was expected. Occasionally, we’ll hear from some disgruntled person who has asked us, “Do you think all LGBTQ people are called to celibacy?” and isn’t satisfied with our answer: “We can’t tell other people what their vocations are. We encourage people to find trusted spiritual directors within their own Christian traditions to help guide them through the discernment process.” Some people consider that a dishonest answer, but it’s the most authentic way I can possibly think of to respond. I’m no priest and don’t consider myself qualified to advise anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, on whether to pursue a married vocation or a celibate vocation. It is because I’m not a member of the clergy (thank God) that I can respond to that question so easily.

Rarely is it difficult to tell someone, “I’m not the person to ask about this. No, really.” It’s much more challenging to respond when a question is very personal and cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” There’s a certain kind of question that bothers me intensely. It’s the hypothetical, “If x were true, would y change?” Here are some examples that I get frequently both on and off the blog:

  • “If you hadn’t grown up in Eastern Kentucky, would visiting rural areas still give you so much anxiety?”
  • “If you had been raised in a wealthy family, would your political views be different?
  • “If you had not been raised Christian from birth, would you still have become interested in theology?”
  • “If you weren’t a lesbian, would you still sense a call to celibacy?”
  • “If you had not experienced sexual abuse as a preteen and teenager, would you still sense a call to celibacy?”

The first three are fairly innocuous; I can’t see anyone reacting harshly to any response I might offer. The last two…not so much. When most people ask these questions, they are looking for certain responses: Yes, I would still be called to celibacy because it’s a personal choice that has nothing to do with my sexual orientation. No, I wouldn’t because my church’s prohibition on gay marriage is the only reason I’m celibate. Yes, I would still be celibate because I had considered celibacy even before my abuse began. No, I wouldn’t because my abuse made me afraid of sexual intimacy. Most people who ask are looking for one of these “right” answers. My answer is always the wrong one, and it’s the same for all five on the list: I don’t know.

The problem with “if” questions where the asker anticipates a yes or no response is that more often than not, these questions can’t be answered authentically in one word. If I had been raised in a wealthy urban or suburban family with non-Christian parents, I have no idea how different my life would look. Certainly I’d have a different set of childhood and young adult experiences, but there’s no way of predicting exactly how different they would be. Maybe I would have developed a sense of anxiety in cities and a preference for life in the foothills of Appalachia. Maybe I’d be a hardcore Republican or Democrat. Maybe I would have decided to work in the corporate world, or abandon civilization and live in a treehouse just because. Maybe I would have experienced conversion to Christianity as a teenager or adult and had a more difficult time coming out as Christian than coming out as a lesbian. Or maybe not. None of these are part of my story, so I don’t know. That’s as authentic a response as I can give.

The same is true for the last two questions. If I weren’t a lesbian, I’d be a different person. God might be calling me to a different vocation, or to an entirely different set of smaller vocations within a broader construct of marriage or celibacy. I would probably interact with the world much differently. My experiences of beauty, friendship, and connectedness likely would not be the same as they are now. I’m sure that my spiritual needs would be different too. My life would also look incredibly different if I were not a survivor of sexual abuse. I might not be as independent or as compassionate as I am now. The ways I understand trust, safety, honesty, repentance, and so many other facets of life would have been formed through entirely different sets of circumstances. Though this has not always been the case historically, Christian vocations in the modern West are ways of life chosen by adults who are responding to callings. During the time of my abuse, I was an adolescent who did not have the spiritual or emotional maturity to make vocational decisions. My entire vocational discernment process has taken place during my adult life. Though I can tell you confidently that my celibacy is not a fear response or an aversion to sex after surviving the worst few years of my life, there is no way I could possibly know all the particulars of how my identity as a survivor has impacted my experience of vocation. I do not know whether I would have discerned a calling to celibacy if this part of my identity did not exist. I don’t think I can ever know in this lifetime.

About half of you are wincing as you read this. Those words have a tendency to make people uncomfortable, especially in conversations related to sexuality and Christianity. They cause discomfort because we want to have a yes or no answer. If we don’t, people who disagree with us can and will use our uncertainty against us. I don’t know means that a person is wishy-washy, straddling the fence, or afraid of making a firm declaration one way or the other. I don’t know means that a person’s voice doesn’t matter in real conversation, and it will not matter until that person makes up his or her mind. I don’t know is understood as a sort of holding tank that is unsustainable long-term. “Commit to a side in the fight against injustice!” people tell me. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  Thanks for informing me that you care about my story only because it either confirms or contradicts your biases.

Why is it that I don’t know is an acceptable answer for the first three questions on my list, but not for the last two? I think it’s because we are told that we have to know, and that knowing is the only way to get any affirmation or validation from other people. It’s also because there’s comfort in knowing. If we know “the truth” about people, we can decide whether or not to give them our trust. A few of you want me to state outright that my decision to pursue celibacy is in no way connected to my sexual orientation. You want to know that if you support Lindsey and me in our blogging about celibacy, we’re not going to burn you someday by announcing that our secret mission is to convince all LGBTQ people to be celibate. A few more of you want me to state that my choice of a celibate vocation is influenced by something negative like sexual abuse so you can write me off as just another example of a broken person who has been hurt and now perpetuates the abuse cycle by using a personal story as a weapon against non-celibate LGBTQ people. Neither of these is going to happen, except maybe the writing off part: whether you take me seriously or not is entirely up to you. I spend most of my life in the grey area but have little tolerance for bullshit. When I tell you that I don’t know something, I mean that. I’m not like a politician who claims publicly to have an “evolving” opinion while holding my actual thoughts back from everyone else.

I have much admiration for people who don’t have black and white responses to everything because I struggle with the temptation to answer questions that way. It’s easier, and it ends difficult discussion much more swiftly. But some questions deserve more than “yes” or “no.” Some questions cannot be answered in this lifetime and it’s foolish to pretend that they can be. This is why I believe that conversations about faith and sexuality would be much more productive if we made space for I don’t know and stopped dismissing those three words as the mark of a weak, indecisive person whose voice is unimportant.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

The Problem of Wanting a Truly Inclusive Church

A reflection by Lindsey

Being and doing church together is hard. I can’t think of many things that are as demanding as trying to be the Body of Christ, built together for the purpose of reflecting God’s heart for the world. Some days I find myself wanting to give up all together.

I have certain scriptures that haunt my consciousness. They have for years. When I think about the Church, I hear John’s observation from Revelation ricocheting between my ears: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” I’ve wondered what exactly that verse indicates about the life in the hereafter, and I long to be a part of a church community where everyone is welcome with their diversities.

But there’s a problem with wanting a truly inclusive church. I find myself always leaving certain people out.

Over the last several months, I’ve been made painfully aware that I’m an ableist jerk. Attending church and coping with Sarah’s rapidly changing ability levels has been hard. I’ve realized that no matter what parish we attend, Sarah is frequently the only person with substantive hearing loss who needs support in accessing the service. But I’ve realized that there are more people who are absent. I’ve attended church in so many different communities. Across all of those communities, I recall only ever seeing one blind individual, one hard-of-hearing person, and maybe four wheelchair users. That’s really pathetic.

But what strikes me as even more pathetic is my own response. I have it in my head that these people pass through church. They come to church, they get prayer, and God heals them. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? There are countless stories of Jesus healing in the Gospels, and there are all sorts of exhortations to pray for the sick in our efforts to manifest God’s Kingdom on earth. How many times have I laid hands on a person to say “Holy Spirit come and bring healing”? How many times have I decided that if a particular person isn’t interested in healing, then that person lacks faith?

It’s tough stuff, so I find myself wondering, “What does God’s vision for an inclusive church actually look like?”

I don’t have the foggiest clue. Lately, I’m wondering if God’s Church is full of people who make me really uncomfortable. I am a judgmental, arrogant jerk who asks the question, “What is that person doing here?” But every time I ask the question, I realize that I could very easily be on the wrong side of the line I’ve drawn around who is welcome. When it comes to drawing lines to divide us and them, there’s something in me crying out, “You know Lindsey, by that set of metrics, you’re among the them.” The more I try to wiggle and redefine the boundary so I’m on the “right” side, the louder that voice cries out. Drawing lines to divide people is hard.

The problem is especially pronounced in Christian communities because, as Christians, we have a sacred obligation to present Christ to the world. Over two thousand years, God has chosen to entrust this task to people with the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide us along the way. I can’t help but read the history of the Church without thinking about the Old Testament stories of the Israelites. Does anyone else read 1 and 2 Kings and start screaming at the Israelites to get it to together already? If the scriptures bear witness to anything, I think they tell us that we truly suck at being a people of God.

I live in this odd hope that the Kingdom of God is made manifest now. Here, on Earth, in real time. I wonder a lot about what the here and now is supposed to teach me about the Eschaton. I reflect on everything I think I know and how so many of those beliefs have changed as I’ve really given myself to the task of following Jesus.

I do my best to find my way through the fog. Thinking about how I approach these really hard questions, I keep coming back to, “What are we saying about Jesus if we say xy, or z?” I try really hard to listen for the Holy Spirit. Occasionally, I reach conclusions that x is likely incredibly dangerous and has amazing potential to do harm. I’ve dug into that those questions and have concluded that certain theological tenets are essential. I didn’t have a sense of belonging in a particular Christian tradition when I started asking these questions, but along the way I encountered my current Christian tradition where all of a sudden I had a way of saying, “This is what it means to be the Church.” Fast forward six years, and I find my spirit troubled that I’ve never been in any local church community in any tradition that invites everyone to encounter Christ.

So much of the problem of being a truly inclusive church is that gap between what I believe the church should be and my tendencies to squirm when I see someone who makes me feel uncomfortable. Lord, have mercy.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Praying the [insert identity here] Away

A reflection by Sarah

I’ve been trying to find the right words for this post for nearly two weeks. I’m a bit afraid to write it because I don’t like sounding preachy (which I can be at times) or snarky (which I am most of the time). Most of all I fear coming across as ungrateful even though I’m not. There’s a bit of wisdom from my Christian tradition that says “Lord have mercy” is the best prayer we can pray in any circumstance because prayer is meant to acknowledge our smallness and God’s greatness and express our desire to become fully united to God. If you feel so inclined, I’d appreciate a few repetitions of those words for me as you read this.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been stuffing a lot of difficult emotions. Not surprising. I tend to do that until things burst out on their own in some way that’s self-destructive. I fall into this pattern especially easily when I don’t know how to discuss situations where I’ve felt hurt or shamed because of someone else’s words stated with the best of intentions. Prime example: interacting with my mother who has always believed that my lesbian sexual orientation is a choice, and that I could become straight if I really tried hard enough. As I wrote once before, I respect the sincerity of her convictions and her wanting what she thinks is best for me, and I can still do this while believing with all my heart that she’s dead wrong. I’ve always been grateful when she tells me that she’s praying for me, even though at times I suspect this means she’s praying that someday I’ll stop being attracted to women. As time goes on, it becomes less stressful to take this in, sit with the anger and sadness it brings up, and appreciate my mother’s intentions for what they are. I’ve had time to grow a thicker skin where this is concerned. But that’s not true for similar situations that are newer to me.

Two weeks ago, I found myself awkwardly at the center of attention in a very large group of people as Lindsey shared about some of the difficulties we’ve been experiencing within the past year. My one ear that can still hear speech was full of fluid that day. I can read lips only when I’m standing very close to someone, so I was relying almost exclusively on a friend who volunteered to interpret for me. I watched as Lindsey spoke tearfully about my health problems and the issues that led us to leave our last parish. Soon, Lindsey was motioning for me to come forward. A bit bewildered, I came and everyone began to pray for us before I had any sense of what was happening. The mix of emotions I experienced within the minute or so that followed cannot be expressed in words. I was grateful to be surrounded by kind and loving people from all forms of Christianity who are willing to pray for us when some in our own tradition will not. I was anxious because I had no idea what was being prayed since the prayer was not interpreted. But the most overwhelming feeling came on slowly and hit hard within the few hours after: angst like none I’ve ever experienced at any point after adolescence. Angst that began to surface as soon as I realized that most of the crowd was probably praying for something very different than what Lindsey and I have been focusing on in our own prayers.

I tried to get some rest that night. All my mental focus on reading lips during the day contributed to a significant vertigo episode, and I just wanted to forget about what had happened and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But the next day when I could hear somewhat more, I found the events of the previous evening difficult to put behind me. Dozens of people — folks who have been shamed and harassed by others intent on praying their gay away — were approaching Lindsey and me, offering to pray my deafness away. Within less than 24 hours, I was told of three different herbs that supposedly cure deafness, two different scriptural passages that might cast out the “spirit of deafness,” and God only knows how many bits of advice for passing as a hearing person. Eventually, I stopped engaging in conversation when the issue arose. Every time someone stopped me to ask if I’m the person who is losing hearing, I came up with some reason to end the discussion quickly. It didn’t take long for me to identify that I had experienced exactly the same feelings several years ago — the first time my mother told me I could choose to be straight if I wanted, and that she would be praying for me.

I think perhaps I’ve made reference to the similarities between coming out as a lesbian and becoming a late-deafened adult. I can’t remember the post. Maybe I’m just imagining that I’ve written about it before. Regardless, the resemblance between my life now and my life at 17 is uncanny. It’s bizarre to be feeling teenage angst during my 30s. It’s maddening to encounter well-meaning people almost daily who tell me that I should be working harder to avoid ever telling anyone about my hearing loss, that I should be medicalizing my hearing loss just as much as my vertigo, that they are praying I don’t become more dependent on sign language, that God will certainly restore my hearing in the Eschaton, that because I have the ability to talk I should be using my voice all the time, or that it would be irresponsible for me to decide against getting cochlear implants eventually. I’m tired of seeing people begin to cry when I tell them that I have a deaf ear. I’m tired of reading course evaluation comments from students who are skeptical of my intelligence and listening to people comparing hearing loss to suicide. All this is even harder to manage when the messages come from people in the Church. It’s no wonder so many serious Christians who have been deaf from birth are inclined to look for churches that welcome Deaf culture even if their personal beliefs are at odds with the theologies taught at those churches. It’s also no wonder that so many Deaf people are completely uninterested in going to church at all. I’ve not been dealing with this for nearly as long as some people, and already I find myself wanting to yell (or sign) obscenities.

None of us understand fully the needs of other people. Only God does. I wonder how often in my own prayer life, I’m asking God for something on behalf of another person that would actually be hurtful and disrespectful to that person. So often we see every struggle in a person’s life as a problem that can be lifted away with divine intervention. If something is hard or seems hard to us from an outsider’s perspective, we want to do everything we can to make things easier. But sometimes, what one person sees as benevolence another sees as condescension. Sometimes without even realizing it, we assume that one state of being is superior to another just because one is our experience and the other is a different experience that seems like it would be unpleasant or limiting. Sometimes when we pray with the intention that a person’s life would improve, we ask for the wrong things — things that might, should they happen, bring about reduction in that person’s quality of life. We need to stop praying away the gay, the deaf, the blind, the poor…the aspects of life that make people who they are. We also need to stop assuming that we necessarily know what is best for everyone who is different from us. And I need to stop writing because I’m starting to get preachy. But if there is anything I’ve learned from my own experiences thus far, it’s that “How can I pray for you?” is a question that cannot be asked enough. And when I’m entirely clueless about what another person needs from God at a given time, it’s best to stick with “Lord have mercy.”

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