Today we have the funeral of a remarkable church member, John Reedy, whose gentle wit and firm faith was truly inspirational. All those who signed for him during our church services appreciated his attentiveness and encouragement.
Attending his service will be a good number of people from the deaf community and the challenge facing me is that the person who will be doing much of the signing, Hannah Lewis, is deaf herself.
Hannah is another remarkable person, deaf since childhood. Ordained, she is the team leader for work among deaf people in the diocese. It was her contribution to Guidelines, the Bible Reading Fellowship notes, in November 2009 which totally transformed my attitude to deaf people, to anyone with a disability, or indeed to those who are different to the majority population, such as gay people or little people.
Hannah makes the observation that “deaf people do not consider themselves as ‘sick’ and in need of healing, if that means being made to hear. For some deaf people, the idea that Jesus sees them only as someone to heal is a barrier to following Christ.”
“We are more than a people who can’t hear,” she writes. “We have a community and a culture of our own.”
Running through her commentary is a Holy Spirit-inspired determination to be seen in her own terms as a “first class deaf person” rather than be patronised or even worse, pitied. “We are as we are, made by God to be as we are and not to try to be like someone else.”
Clearly being deaf is central to her own self understanding – it is who she is, it is integral to her fundamental identity as a human being. “It is good when we can learn to accept who God has created us to be, to accept the limits of our unique bodies and characters, and seek to develop what we are rather than striving after what we are not.”
I recall Cynthia, a wheelchair-bound member of my first church in Litherland, who dreaded the annual healing service, the sense of letting her fellow Christians down yet again by being unable to stand.
So in the passage from Mark 7:31-37 it is the people rather than the deaf man who wants Jesus to heal his deafness.
For the big question is “Will there be deaf people in the Kingdom of Heaven?” I used to think that the answer is obvious but many deaf people would beg to differ.
These fellow saints firmly believe that the important components of their identity – including being deaf – will still be identifiable.
“But we will no longer be subject to the limits imposed by being deaf. In other words, in heaven all people will know sign language as well as every other language.’ Well, that was a conclusion I would never have anticipated.
“If I were a butterfly” is now well passed its sing-by date but the chorus still stands “But I just thank you Father for making me me!”
For the me that I am is precious, unique and thanks to the resurrection victory of Jesus, indestructible.
All this is possible because the Word was made flesh. But how does a deaf person respond to that phrase? Again, something which had never crossed my mind. I will give Hannah the last word: “This is God’s overwhelming desire to communicate with the people of God, a desire that reached its pinnacle when the Word became flesh and God’s only Son was sent to live as one of us.”
So please pray for ministry over this Christmas period, that the startling and surprising good news of God’s overwhelming love may truly be heard in our hearts.