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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16 thoughts on “Praying the [insert identity here] Away

  1. Very well said Sarah…and you know what? You’re entitled to your feelings and I think it’s important to share how you are feeling. I would never offer to pray your deafness away…unless that’s what you wanted. I will however keep you in my prayers as you learn to live with your hearing loss. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I’m in tears reading this: “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.”

    When my daughter Emma was born with Down syndrome, we had a friend who flew to see her within about a week of her birth (she was still in the hospital) and wanted to pray for God to heal her. I was still very weak from the c-section, but that was the first of many times I would need to find my voice for her. I already knew she was a gift, exactly the way God made her. While I had no illusions that God would actually change her into a girl with only 46 chromosomes, I was aghast that anyone would want to tell God to take back the gift of Emma. Yes, her life seems limiting to us…but she has a contentment and grace that I hunger for in dealing with the world. If, as a 14 year old, she were to be changed to a neurotypical child, I think she would find her life less beautiful, less vibrant, and far more constrained. Why would I want that when I’ve spend her whole life trying to be more like her!

    Sorry for the tangent, but…I understand. It is vitally important to ask how to pray, and to remember ” For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

    Peace.

    • Sorry it took me such a long while to get back to comments on this piece. May God bless you, Emma, and all your family. Lindsey and I continue to pray that all people will be loved and known for who they are.

  3. Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability, Sarah. When we were asked to pray for you, I did wonder what was going through your mind — and I am so, so sorry to hear that the rest of the conference was marred by people, well-meaning yes, but misunderstanding.

    I do keep you and Lindsey in my prayers. I have known so many who have had “their prayers answered”, and so many more who have not. I don’t pray for cures, but I do pray for hope, and I pray that you have it in spades.

    • I also struggle with depression and have gotten similar responses in that context. It’s always awkward to have to explain these things in the moment when someone is trying to be helpful but is actually being ableist.

  4. This.
    I really hope people get it.
    Somehow I mostly escaped people trying to pray the deaf away, at least to my knowledge. Probably some stealth pray-ers were out there (surely including my mother), but it wasn’t in my face.
    The part at the end is so important: ASK.
    Ask how to pray for you.
    Ask how to support you.
    Ask what can be done.
    And just as important as the asking, ACCEPT the answer and respect it.
    Even, no, ESPECIALLY if the answer is not what you were expecting, and not what you think “should” be done.
    How very very patronizing to do otherwise.

  5. This is so powerful–thank you for sharing it. I am very aware of ableism in church and spirituality since I live, and have one child who lives, with a mental health diagnosis that has some challenges yet even more gifts when appropriately monitored–but only the former is recognized in our ignorant and stigma-filled culture and especially church. And we face a much easier challenge than you and so many sisters and brothers in disability since we can generally pass for neurotypical due to a combo of no visible symptoms and social privilege ensuring lower stress lifestyle and excellent treatment options. As with my queer identity (bi but perceived as straight cause of a mixed orientation marriage) being careful about disclosure is prudent self (and child) care– yet I also pray I can grow toward finding more safe times and places–and courage and humility– to claim both communities in more concrete speech and action for justice.

  6. Conventional preaching on Jesus’ healing ministry is generally terribly ableist, which IMHO contributes to the kind of hurtful prayer you describe here as well as the non-inclusive churches Lindsey describes in her post. I am so grateful that my preaching professor included this perspective which I was clueless about till her course– but saddened that some colleagues still didn’t seem to get it in their practice sermons so I fear they are doing the same in their parishes.

    • Sorry it took me so long to get back to this! I agree with you. There are better ways to discuss Jesus’ healing ministry than what most people typically listen to in church.

  7. Powerful post, Sarah. I learned through my experiences with cancer that people’s prayers “for me” we’re almost always their way of dealing with their own anxiety.

    • Thanks for commenting, and sorry it took me a while to get back to this. That’s a good point–very often we respond to things that make us anxious by trying to pray them away.

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