All posts by erraffety

About erraffety

I'm a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Princeton University, who holds an M.Div from Princeton Seminary, and a B.A. from Davidson College, and is interested in faith, politics, and social welfare.

Holy weakness

In the last few weeks, we’ve settled into a pretty natural rhythm with Lucia’s digestive struggles–constipation and screaming some days, vomiting others, and a lot of delight and sunshine in between. I feel like a broken record when people ask me how she’s doing, because we’re out of the woods we were in in 2018–pain management, feeding intolerance, hospitalizations–and yet, things are never easy. And if I’m honest with you and with myself, I’ve been feeling a bit weak and weary on this journey.

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Lucia crying in pain in mommy’s arms.  All photos mine.

It’s an unsettling, even repulsive feeling for me.

I don’t experience myself as a weak person. I don’t experience Lucia as a weak person either. References to weakness in common culture, even in Christian circles, often smart for me, because it seems like we prefer to instrumentalize and capitalize on other people’s weaknesses, particularly and presumably those with disabilities and diseases, rather than feel or examine our own.

Perhaps the problem is the blame, the shame we instinctively attach to weakness–for my own part it’s attached to the responsibility I carry as Lucia’s mother, a teacher to my students, a scholar in disability, a pastor to others–the feeling that I’ve got everything to lose and nothing to gain in embracing, showing, or even acknowledging my weakness. You can’t be weak when you need to be strong. And in a culture where mothers are so often blamed and scapegoated for society’s anxieties and ills, how can anyone be honest about their own trials, their own weaknesses, their own humanity?

But here’s an even greater truth I know: we’re not meant to heal ourselves.

In fact, if there’s one thing Jesus’s ministry teaches me it’s that healing is first and foremost connected and relational. It can’t happen if we keep to ourselves. No, Jesus’s healing ministry invites us in, all of us. It connects people to each other, in our own needs and messiness as humans.

And at the very center of it is a weak Jesus who wants to be with us in our own weakness! I kinda can’t get over that truth. I struggle to believe it, really.

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Inside the Duke University Chapel on a recent trip.

But what if weakness–vulnerability–is more like permeability, surrender, yielding, and surprise–elements that, like Jesus, are so not of this world that we rarely recognize or behold them as God with us, rather they are conjured and dismissed as mere weaknesses when they appear in plain sight?

So this Lent, I feel myself being asked to do this wild, holy, dangerous thing of living boldly in my weakness–letting you know that I literally forgot to have the oil tank filled and my house had no heat a few weeks ago because I was so scattered and thin. And even then, Jesus didn’t shutter or scoff at my humanity, but loved me (and people loved me, too) anyway. As mothers we’re pretty good at being with our kids when they’re weak, but we cloak our own weakness lest it makes us reprehensible, permeable, out of control, irresponsible. And so last Tuesday, after I took Lucia to her usual doctor’s appointment, she came long to mine. I’d been trucking along with a painful sinus infection, too busy and preoccupied (although clearly not with heating my home!) to even feel or let feel my own weakness.

But a little holy weakness may be just what our world needs–let us not forget that in all this bustle and brilliance and appearances, we are all on our way back toward dust. So in my dusty moments, let me be reminded of not just death but the hope and healing of the cross. I mean, you really don’t have the cross without a fragile, incarnate God made weak, and yet holy. And so if weakness begets sanctification, let me be bold in my weakness, heartfelt in cleaving to God and to others in this world that worships strong.

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Happy moment with Lucia.
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What I Learned in 2018

There have been all these memes and review about the rottenness of 2018: it’s very clear many of us are ready to say good riddance. It was not a banner year for our family either–Lucia had one surgery and two unplanned hospitalizations and both of those came during busy semesters. But, she and we also had one of the best summers of our lives! She was healthy and happy and we went on two vacations with friends and family.

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One of my favorite photos of our girl. My photo.

When I look over this year, the lectures I got to give, the conference I got to plan, the articles I published and submitted, the major grants I’ve won, and the mentoring and ministry and preaching I’ve done, it means that much more that it didn’t happen in seasons where things were easy or seamless, and yet there is so much to treasure and cherish. Perhaps especially when things aren’t perfect, it really helps to look back. We rarely learn from triumphs and successes. We tend to just keep forging ahead. But disappointments, mistakes, and challenges are the sites where growth can take seed if we’re willing to own up to them.

In that spirit, I’m honored to share some of what I’ve learned with you in this year, and I invite you to do the same. What end of the year rituals do you have? What hopes do you have for 2019?

  1. I am thankful for the ordinary–it is a gift and it is enough.
  2. There is freedom in telling our stories.
  3. The myth of the modern, American family is that each of us stands alone.
  4. Words are not necessary to communicate.
  5. People with disabilities have gifts for ministry.
  6. I am a mother, too.
  7. As for me and my house, we will wait with joy.

*If you want to see my posts from previous years, check out how I found my voice in 2017 and What I Learned in 2016.

Waiting with joy in Advent

They are the social media forums that are the windows to our souls–an article about the lack of services for young adults with disabilities making the transition from school to work and out of the home is bookended by a comment from a mother whose daughter is only two and a half, but she says these are the very challenges that already keep her up at night.  Another post in a Facebook group is from a mother who’s just given birth by emergency c-section but less than 24 hours later she’s writing to ask if there are other parents whose children had similar births.  How were they affected? she asks.  What did their futures hold?

A few weeks later I sit in the pews in the second week in Advent and the pastor up front tells us about a question put to her at the beginning of this school year that she’s still pondering in this season, over four months later, and she asks it of all of us:

“What are you waiting for?”

I am not waiting for my daughter to die, speaks a still, small voice inside of me.

It’s a statement that feels so foreign to my being that I’m altogether startled by it, as if I brushed up against it and now I’m disoriented and dizzied.  No one waits for their child to die, I ponder…and yet we all do, in a way.  In fact, how many of us really live our lives longing for, with an expectation for life, rather than death?

I think back to those message boards and I see people for whom the future is tyranny and agony and for whom waiting is shot through with worrying and fear, one might say even death and despair.  As a parent of a child with a terminal disease I know that I would not be able to live with the tyranny of the future looming like that.  I’m not saying that I do not have moments where I blink back tears, so starkly aware for just a moment that life without my daughter seems altogether bleak or meaningless.  I have also had moments where her suffering seemed to be costing her too much in the land of the living.

And that thought didn’t come from nowhere.  Clearly, I am not immune, as anyone who lives in this world, to the reality of the pain of death.

But I realized relatively early on that while embracing Lucia for who she was would mean embracing death, it would also mean living an extraordinary life quite impossible without her.

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My photo.  Our family at Christmas.

A few weeks ago as I preached that first week of Advent, ruminating on John the Baptist’s birth, a friend of mine pointed out that Zechariah and Elizabeth, like Mary and Joseph, would have their greatest longings for life granted in this child, only to find their greatest heartbreak in his death.  Another friend of mine pointed out recently, and I’d never thought about it this way before, that these parents were living with children who had terminal diagnoses.  Jesus was predestined to die a premature death.

But there’s so much more to the story, as we know.  And Jesus’s story, even as it is often overshadowed by his bloody, violent crucifixion, was all about overcoming death–it was all about radiant, redeeming, everlasting–life.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for??!

The question begins to scream at me.  Because I can plainly see how the story of Jesus’s life, his parents’ lives, all our lives, are not so much about death, but about living life with abandon, with reckless, heartfelt love that bleeds out all over those around us who are suffering here on earth.  What if that kind of all of us-all on love, is what life, not just death, is really about?

As she closed her sermon, the pastor talked about how so much of ministry is about waiting with people.  And suddenly it occurred to me that when people wait with me, they’re often assuming we’re waiting for Lucia’s death–they tiptoe, they want to walk with us gently and patiently toward an inevitable tragedy, an inevitable heartache.  But I just don’t think that’s how God sees Lucia and her life.  And that isn’t how God is with us, how God has waited with us all these years.

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Photo credit.

It strikes me that in this third week in Advent, as we light the candle of joy and we celebrate joy in Jesus’s birth, as well as Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection that the tyranny of the future really threatens to rob us of the joy of the present.  That how we wait is as crucial as what we are waiting for.

So as for my family and I, the tyranny of the future can wait.  We will go on living, looking for signs of life, not just in this season, but in every season.  And we will wait with joy.

A life of gratitude

Over a year and a half ago now, we lost a wonderful man.  He was a deacon at our church, a playful, yet wise soul, and he happened to be the husband of the pastor I work with at church.  A month or so after he died the family sent out thank you notes with his photo and the caption read, “Just another day in paradise.”

That phrase was Pete’s response more often than not to the casual question, “how are you doing today?” It was maybe 20% conceit and 80% truth–you see, Pete was suffering from Multiple Sclerosis.  He’d needed to ride in a wheelchair, and he had lots of body parts that didn’t work the way they once did after many years of living with the disease.

But if you got Pete talking on the subject of “paradise,” he’d almost always follow that up with something about his life being “an embarrassment of riches,” and that was something I know he meant with his whole heart.  Even from his vantage point in his wheelchair, his body failing, Pete could see that what was important, even lavish was his own very life and the people in it, and they made that life worth living every single day.

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Pete, rolling through life with style.

Around the time our daughter Lucia was diagnosed with a terminal, genetic, progressive disease of the brain, my husband heard a radio broadcast about other kids with a similar rare disease, to which parents mentioned two lifestyle options–you can either fight like hell seeking a cure, they encouraged, or you can sit in a corner and mourn this terrible disease.

But if you’re any reader of this blog, you know that my husband and I have tried to make way for at least a third option, one that kind of reminds me of how Pete lived his life.  Because, although to some extent everyday is a struggle with and for our daughter Lucia, everyday it also somehow just as it should be.  Pete’s perspective on an “embarrassment of riches” truly resonates now that we’ve had four years with a daughter we were never guaranteed.  And that perspective, on the days where she’s struggling to keep any food down or inexplicably crying in pain, makes all the difference.

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Lucia, also rolls through life with style.                                                                                                   Pictured here in her Cinderella Halloween costume that her nana made for her.

I guess the lifestyle philosophy I’ve learned from Pete, my life, my daughter and others around me goes something like this–you either wake up convinced that the world is not as it should be, or you trust that there’s some wisdom, some perspective, some peace to be found in acceptance of this precious life you’ve been given, and you go about living it not with resignation, but with gratitude.  And gratitude, somehow, makes everything whole.

That’s what I saw and learned when I interacted with Pete, that he wasn’t papering over the difficulties and playing Pollyanna, but that in his wrestling, he’d found his way to sincere gratitude and that gratitude permeated every corner of his life.  Someone noted the other day that even when I tell them about the difficult times with Lucia, I’m usually smiling.  How can that be true? they wondered.

Because life with Lucia is a gift, plain and simple.  And life with Pete was a gift, too.  

Even on the roughest days, I can’t help but see life lived with Lucia as “another day in paradise,” “an embarrassment of riches.”  It’s not trite, just true.  And just as Pete taught me, I try to share that life of gratitude with others.

You can find my colleague, Beth Scibienski’s book, Who is God When We Hurt? that chronicles her life with Pete, her caregiving, her faith, and her grief by clicking here.

Our preparations are not our own

I was really humbled to preach the first sermon in Advent at chapel yesterday at the seminary.  For those of you who have been asking, here is a transcript of the sermon.  

Blessings on your Advent preparations!

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Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John.  Photo credit: Sweet Publishing/FreeBibleimages.org.

As begin our journey in Advent this morning, we recall that the narrative of Jesus’s birth in Luke is intertwined with the parallel story of John the Baptist’s birth and his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth.   In verses 5-20 of chapter 1, we are plunged into what Joel Green calls “the small town struggles of a little-known priest and his wife…the atmosphere is permeated by the piety of Second Temple Judaism and Jewish hopes for divine intervention.”

Now we’re living in a very different context than Zechariah and Elizabeth, but they feel like people we seminarians can relate to. They’re pretty faithful people. They’re really faithful people. Zechariah is a priest who’s given the honor of entering the sanctuary and offering incense in conjunction with sacrifices. The scripture tells us that he and his wife Elizabeth “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

But in placing their childlessness directly after their high religious and social status, the scripture isn’t just showing us their social disgrace but reminding us of their suffering. For Zechariah and Elizabeth who scripture tells us are “both getting on in years” we can only imagine that if they have been struggling to conceive for quite some time, they have likely known the pain of losing children, carrying hope and letting go of it.

And so when the angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, fear overwhelms him and though he’s told he and his wife will rejoice at the birth of a son John who will be great in the sight of the Lord, he doesn’t believe it. “How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” We’ve been prepared for years for this, Zechariah thinks. We’re in the temple everyday, we’re faithful, we’ve prayed and yet our prayers have gone unanswered. How will we know this time will be any different?

I find some solace in this beginning to Advent, this hard place, this small story in which God comes close and carries out God’s very plans amidst our lives. But I struggle to believe, too. You see, I have been pregnant during Advent, filled with the expectation of a child, of hope, of new life, but I have also miscarried in this season. And a few years ago, during Advent, even after having a child, my husband and I were still waiting. Following our daughter’s seizures and hospitalizations, around 10 months they did some blood tests, they sent them away, and we waited for a diagnosis.

And when we got our daughter Lucia’s diagnosis, a progressive, genetic disease of the brain, I remember wanting to be prepared. I googled the symptoms, the treatments, the prognosis. “Death in early childhood” it read. And so I remember wanting to be prepared for when, for how, for what that would look like, so I googled a lot more. We got a diagnosis and now I wanted a prognosis. I remember wanting to be prepared.

But for what? So I could hold back just a little bit, so I could love her…just a little less? What?

Now I would be lying if I told you that as a parent of a child with disability and a scholar of disability that I wasn’t pretty uncomfortable with a text this morning that seems to use muteness, disability, as a punishment for doubt and disbelief.

But my own experience also makes me wonder if there’s more to what God is communicating here. Because I remember that feeling of seeing the beautiful child God had put before me and yet wanting even more reassurance that things would be okay. Maybe that’s where Zechariah was, too, after all that waiting, even with the angel’s proclamation, he just wanted reassurance that things would really be okay. Even the good news wasn’t good enough to overcome all his fears, his plans, his googling. Maybe for Zechariah and for me and for you, we have been tempted to continue doggedly on with our own plans, because at least it gives us some control. When we begin the story, Zechariah and Elizabeth are seemingly in control of their lives and where we end our lesson this morning, perhaps the problem is that Zechariah is still struggling for it. He’d rather cling to control than experience what God has in store.

And so silence that looks like a curse of Zechariah’s unfaithfulness may be the very reminder in this Advent season that God is active in our smalltown lives even when we don’t believe it to be so. That loss and heartache and suffering and pain are the very places where God seeks to meet us, but where we often try to control that God who wants to break into our lives and our world with radical, reckless love. The best thing that God did for me in that Advent season was not to give me a clear prognosis, a healthy child or a new computer where I could google my future to death, but like Zechariah, God invited me to lay beside my plans and just love the person in front of me. God gives us life to go on living, not always in the form of children, but always in the people beside us and the ordinary circumstances of our lives—reoriented, shifted, rerouted toward the extraordinary love of Jesus Christ, our savior.

That son who will be born to Zechariah, John, will go onto urge us to “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” But make no mistake this Advent, we are but participants in the saving work of God, Jesus, and the Spirit. Thank God that our preparations are not our own.

I am a mother, too.

It somehow comes out both flippantly and emphatically from the podcast co-host’s mouth one afternoon:  “As a mother, your job is to grow them up and get them out,” she says, “to get them to be independent,” she clarifies.

I’m sure most people would agree with something like that, but in an instant, I’m on the outside looking in.  I’m tempted to consider that if I’m not mothering a child who will be independent, what am I mothering her for?  I’m tempted to believe that motherhood is decidedly more bottles and bullies and backpacks and basketball than surgeries and standers and hospital stays and wheelchair repairs.

But what if it’s not?  What if, even if motherhood isn’t shared, even if  it’s different, it can still be valid?  And what if some of those mothers on the margins can expand our ideas of what it means to mother, and what it means to care, to love, and to grow in relationship with our kids if we just let them in?

Recently as I’m writing up the research we did with kids with disabilities who are nonverbal and their families, I’ve been re-reading a treasure trove of a book by the anthropologist Gail H. Landsman on Reconstructing Motherhood in the Age of Perfect Babies.  In it, based on her research with hundreds of mothers, Landsman highlights the diminished motherhood of mothers of children with disabilities.  They have failed, she says to follow “the culturally appropriate trajectory,” which amounts to raising up a “normal child” (2009:10, 109).  Because ability is the “criterion for personhood” in the U.S., “the socially constructed reduced personhood of the [disabled] child is likened to the women’s experiences of motherhood” (50).

In her viral essay, “SuperBabies Don’t Cry,” writer, blogger, and mother Heather Lanier paints a similar picture.  She talks about how she did everything “right” in her pregnancy and her child was born with a disability.  She talks about how she blamed herself for her daughter’s disability, but she also talks about how blame suggests that we once had control in the first place.  And underneath this blame often lies a fear of disability, of what is different.  And what is different is emphatically part of being human.  “Here’s the thing,” she writes.  “If you buy into the false narrative that the body is controllable, that illness can always be prevented, then by proxy you are left with a disturbing, damaging, erroneous conclusion: the belief that a person’s disability is their fault.”

Like Lanier, part of my problem in seeing myself as a mother is that I’d subtly bought into some of these stereotypes about control, ease, and perfection, and so I don’t see myself as a mother so much as a keen strategist, a promising medical student, a scholar of disability, even.  Maybe it’s because my early days as a mother were so bittersweet–snuggly and hopeful, yet tinged, marred by the words “failure to thrive,” an MRI at four months, vomiting, a neurological diagnosis, so I suddenly wondered where I would fit in. What could a mother bring to these difficulties? What’s a mother to a child who needs hospitals and eegs and feeding tubes to diagnose, treat, and survive?

Indeed, I remember the way I tried, as any mother would in those early days, so unsuccessfully to keep Lucia comfortable, to keep her from screaming, not just for her sake but for mine. If I could get her to stop screaming, we could all find some peace, I’d think, we could all be okay, maybe she would be okay.

And when I couldn’t even manage that, I knew I had failed.  There was a moment where I had to drive all over town to find a pharmacy that would compound the medication that Lucia needed and on those drives she wailed in pain.  As we sat just outside the pharmacy, me holding her as she cried, an older woman next to me chided, “You have to talk to her, mama.  Talk to her, just don’t let her cry.” Oh if only my talking would have had any effect!  If only my child knew I was there.  And in that moment I felt that I had failed her as a mother. My mothering was a failure because my child was not okay, and while that wasn’t my fault, I could also barely offer anything to fix it, so sometimes retreating from her heart wrenching cries, willfully ignoring them, for instance, so I could keep my eyes on the road and my resolution all the way to the pharmacy in question or the hospital in many cases was the best I could do.

And of course, my best wasn’t just not good enough to make Lucia comfortable, it wasn’t good enough for me. I haven’t realized that until now that even though I’d navigated all the medical hurdles and the challenges with strength and grace, those triumphs didn’t seem to have much to do with mothering somehow, because behind the scenes everything still hurt.  We were out of control.  This was motherhood, too.

But gradually I realized that even though I couldn’t comfort her I could love her. I could accept her as she was. I was damn good at accepting her as she was, at loving her for who she is. She’d done the same for me somehow in those moments where I’d seemingly failed her, she’d always still receive me. There were more and more moments where as she opened up to the world I could see that she knew me and although I couldn’t fix things, she knew what it was like to have me nearby.

And so I began to write about this motherhood with all its aches and pains.  After a semester of teaching on disability and raising my own child, I wrote an essay about a child who was not to be pitied, because she is a beloved child nonetheless.  Today I realize that “I’m Not Sorry” was not just an essay about my daughter but also an essay about a kind of motherhood, my motherhood, which is not to be pitied but revered, respected, trusted, even included.  Indeed, writers like Landsman and Lanier, both mothers of children with disabilities, have opened up a space where motherhood is getting just a bit broader and roomier for those of us who may not have thought we fit or had anything to add.  Suddenly we wonder if the lessons from our motherhood have merit–if being both a mother and a nurse and a Medicaid expert and a therapist can be a tremendous combination, something that enhances the mother model rather than detracts from it.

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The moments I live for!  With Lucia on the porch.  My photo.

On one recent morning when I’ve looked forward to working from home, stealing a Monday morning from students, distractions, and the need to jump out of my pajamas, Lucia begins to whimper and then wail in pain as her nurse begins to get her ready to school. And although Sylvia is fully capable of comforting her and getting her ready, I realize something so crucial: “but, I want to be with her in her pain,” I think. And I run down the stairs and I peer into her crib and I scoop her up, knowing I can’t fix it, but knowing perhaps more fully than I’ve known most things in my life that there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

And I suddenly realize that what makes my mothering significant is these moments, too, these moments of strife and sorrow that I choose with this child, even when I can’t cure or comfort, but when I quietly accompany her, arrested of my own powers and control, to wherever we must go. I go with her faithfully and fully, because as hairy and fraught as it may sound, I’m grateful for even this moment because it is a moment with her.  I grew to be a mother who learned through much strife and angst that it has never been my role to soothe or to fix it for my child, that I don’t control or choose the circumstances of our life, and without Lucia none of those lessons about loving or living would have been possible.

Thanks to this child, I am a mother, too.

Praying without words

Somewhere around Thanksgiving I decided to try starting my day (again) with lectio and silence.  No matter how pressed I feel for time, when I get to my office or when I scoop up Lucia and head to the porch, I try to lend some space for breath and nothingness and silence.  Here I am in August and I’m still doing it, so there’s something.  But the reason I’ve been practicing some form of centering prayer for over a decade now is not because I’m good at it or because it’s easy, but because as with any discipline, it reminds me what a spiritual novice I really am.

Case in point: for several years after Lucia was born, because she needed and loved (and still loves) to be held, I struggled to find just ten minutes a day when my hands were free to sit in silence.  But in the last ten months, I’ve finally realized something: I’m much better at praying when I’m holding Lucia.  If I’m in my office alone, like I was this morning, I’m surrounded by my books and my responsibilities and distractions, and when an idea comes to me, my hands are instantly busied, trying to scratch down that idea on paper before it flees.  My eyes flutter open and my attention floats away from prayer to the day ahead of me.

But if I’m holding Lucia, I can’t use my hands.  When my eyes open or rest upon something, they often rest upon her, subtly bringing me back rather than away from the intention of it all.  Lucia’s voiceless expectation, the hopeful way her eyes dart and wander and peek up at me lead me back to the very present act of holding her, and being with one another–and our just being with God.

What I often count as an aberration, an intrusion from the true beauty and solace of our backyard view of nature–the screech of a large truck coming to a halt or a car horn blaring–Lucia accepts with diligent curiosity, reminding me just how fickle and narrow my own attempt at spirituality can be.

Indeed, it is only through this quiet discipline that I’ve come to realize that acceptance, such willful abiding in God’s presence, is anything but passive.  Rather it’s what I continue to yearn for after all these years, and that God has placed beside me a great spiritual teacher in my tender daughter is not so much a great irony, but a sweet revelation. I’ve always believed that you do not need words to pray, yet even my own beliefs can assert themselves so willfully that the prayer become secondary.  But I’ve never so palpably felt the resonance and profundity of that quiet as when I’m in God’s presence with Lucia alongside me.

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Morning prayer with Lucia on the porch.  My photo.

And would you believe it?  My second prayer word that I’ve been wrestling and striving toward all these years so ungracefully and confusedly is none other than abide.  And in leading me away from myself and toward attention to others, to my world, and to God, God continues to urge me to appreciate and learn from different ways of being.

Different ways of being that are good and perfect gifts.  Different ways of being that are of God.  Different ways of being that change us for the better, that lead us to learn from such wordless, sanctified offerings of pure, unadulterated delight that God has so generously made.

 

 

Simply gifts

It was one of the last few days of the semester, the time when spring is tempting summer and so this particular student and I had elected to head outside to talk.  As we settled onto the picnic table, she thanked me earnestly for all that she’d learned over the course of the semester, for my passion for ministry and students and for the class, but as she looked toward the exam she was to write, she had just one final question, she said.

“Do you really believe, Dr. Raffety, that people with disabilities have gifts for ministry?”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing, questioning whether I’d heard or understood her correctly, as she went onto qualify, quite sensitively, but definitively her disbelief in what I had believed to be the central tenet of the course–the one thing I’d been trying to get across all semester.  It was a mixture of righteous indignation and bitter disappointment and bewilderment that took over me in that moment: just how might I convince her?  Where could I even begin?

That was in May.  Our study of disability, communication, and joy with families who have children with disabilities who are nonverbal began in April and has continued over the last few months.  And as we’ve spent time with these children and their families, we’ve been struck by how much the struggles of communication are exacerbated by, if not even caused not by the children with disabilities, but by an environment that refuses to consider or appreciate the variety of their attempts to communicate.  As one specialist commented to me, “Because people are often only looking for speech, they dismiss a lot of what is also communication.”

But might it work much the same way with gifts? I wondered.  Because able-bodied people are looking for certain types of gifts in people with disabilities, gifts they’ve seen before in other able-bodied people and thus recognize, perhaps they literally don’t have the ability to perceive other gifts because they’re hovering under the surface, imperceptible to the able-bodied eye?  

Less than a month into our study, a young woman from one of the families we interviewed died.  I’ll still never understand how just a day after her sudden death, her mother had the wherewithal to contact a group of lowly researchers to let them know, but she did.  One of our research assistants dutifully went to the funeral.  Not only at her packed funeral but in a subsequent follow up visit, her parents shared the tremendous impact the young woman’s life had had on so many people around her, but also what they believed to be her unique abilities.  As I listened to the interview, I noted how confidently her parents asserted, “She was an excellent judge of character.  If she didn’t like someone, it was because she could tell they weren’t genuine… We often learned to take our cues from her reactions to people because she could really tell so much about them just from being with them,” her mother added.  All this hypersensitivity and supreme ability from a 30 year-old woman who had physical and cognitive disabilities, limited purposeful movement and no words.

Was this family, especially still fresh in the throes of grief, generously but falsely attributing super powers to their daughter with disabilities?  Or might it truly be possible, perhaps especially given their daughter’s presumed dis-abilities, that she had a unique way of interpreting and interacting with the world that has something to teach us?  

I’ve always smarted at literature that pronounces the gifts of people with disabilities in terms that are limited and narrow–they’re notable for their wonder at the world, their slow ways of being, their vulnerability, even their joy.  Those don’t seem like bad things on the surface, but the sparseness, simplicity, and uniformness of them, the suggestion that people with disabilities fall into these staid categories primarily because of their disabilities does not take full stock of their complicated ways of being human in the world that include but aren’t reduced to their disabilities.  Of course, yet another suggestion, that people with disabilities exist as objects, not subjects through which able-bodied people can get in touch with their vulnerability and brokenness as distinct aspects of all our human nature, is also quite offensive.

There’s nothing broken about my daughter, thank you very much.

However, if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure I’d ever contemplated how my daughter’s own differences in communication, brought forth by her disabilities, palpably registered in her limited movement, vision, and verbal invocations, might yield not just gifts of relationship or gifts of perspective but simply, gifts.  I had long noticed that even when Lucia’s gaze was positively fixed on the ceiling or when she seemed little aware of her surroundings, when her father walked into the room, she’d giggle knowingly and even turn to smile in his direction.  With low vision and limited head control, it’s pretty clear that she’s not seeing him, but sensing him otherwise; we’ve suspected that she “knows” him by the sound of the weight his carriage (and only his) induces upon our creaky floorboards, because she doesn’t react to anyone else coming into the living room that way.

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Lucia snuggling with her father on the couch.  My photo.

I’ve long believed that Lucia also knows we’ve come home to our house and entered the garage by the way the light darkens inside the van and the bump into the threshold, at which she always starts smiling and giggling.  But just a few days ago, she started smiling even as we pulled into the driveway!  And when we came home late from our vacation a few days prior and deposited her asleep into her bed that night, but she ended up in our bed when she was crying the morning after, when I carried her downstairs into the living room, even before I could pronounce that we were home she beat me to it, erupting into giggles, without so much as turning her head to look around the room!

And so, a few days later when the child study team from Lucia’s school called and kept talking about how difficult Lucia is to reach, teach, and communicate with, I kept thinking, are we talking about the same kid?  Sure, she doesn’t roll over and she can’t purposefully reach for objects, yet somehow, despite having low vision and not being able to purposefully turn her head with much precision, she knows who her father is.  What’s the problem here, again?  I wondered.  My perspective had been so altered by what we had been seeing in our research study that I couldn’t see Lucia the way they saw her; in fact, I corrected them on it.  I told them I didn’t want to hear anything more about how difficult my daughter was.  Wasn’t it their job to perceive where communication was already happening and magnify it?  Why were they approaching her as if something was wrong with her when it seemed something was wrong with them?  (They didn’t like that very much.)

When I responded to my student’s question in May, I spoke from my experience regarding Lucia’s gifts for ministry and the gifts of some people with disabilities in our congregation.  Just a few days after, I discovered this beautiful article from Amy Julia Becker, that could have been the anthem for my course, intentionally titled, after all as it was, “Ministry with People with Disabilities.”

But I feel convicted that even my own musings as a researcher, a scholar of disability, and a parent have been necessarily limited and incomplete.  Looking back on months of our ethnographic study with families with children with disabilities who are nonverbal, nearly every single one of the families notes the gifts of their children with ease; a dramatic portion of them question whether their children are really cognitively impaired or if it’s just the world that’s disabling them.  It makes so much sense–we believe that intelligence and gifts come in so many different forms.  We say that all the time, but perhaps we don’t really believe it.  But it was from the family of the 30-year old girl in our study, the person who had lived the longest, whose family arguably knew her the best and was the most familiar with her, from whom the most precise, dynamic assertion of gifts came.

As able-bodied people, we’ve got to actively stop denying and diminishing the contributions of people with disabilities because they’re not obviously or immediately available to us.  Just like the communication that is gainfully there, but simply different, the gifts are also decidedly there but often imperceptible given our own ableist lenses.  We’re going to have to learn to accept our own limitations in order to see differently, to believe, to anticipate that gifts come in seemingly curious forms.  They even disrupt the status quo, they disturb conventional knowledge, even knowledge of joy and humans and God.  

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Road tripping!  My photo.

The conviction of this research project has been that people with disabilities have so much to teach us about communication and joy and spirituality if we would just have ears to listen.  But my student wasn’t the only one who needs to be rid of her own prejudice and obstacles and ableism to really appreciate the gifts of people with disabilities.  That’s a lesson I’m learning everyday.  Indeed, I might have replied:

“Yes, I do believe people with disabilities have gifts for ministry, but sometimes I may struggle to see them.  That doesn’t mean they’re not there.  It means I have a lot of growing to do.  But I’m thankful that God has granted me a glimpse of them and I will continue to pray that I can learn to see differently and honor what God is doing in them and through them.  I pray that God grants you that, too.”

The inequalities that bind

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US-Mexico border, Agua Prieta, Mexico/Douglas, Arizona, 2003.  My photo.

This week we’ve seen children confined to cages, heard their screams as they’re ripped from their parents and witnessed our president bend to public and political pressure to amend his callous “zero tolerance policy” at the border. Yet, thousands of migrant children remain separated from their families, and I keep wondering if we’ve learned anything from all this. The government has wanted us to see a chasm between those families at the border and our own. In place of what could be a common humanity, a desperate dare-we-say American-like doggedness to seek a better life for their persecuted families, Trump and his allies have offered fraud, smuggling, and criminal behavior as self-inflicted explanations for migrant families’ plight. So perhaps what we’ve been faced with this week is the hearty evidence that not all families, let alone all childhoods, are created equal in America…

But isn’t this something we already knew?

We know that being needy makes you vulnerable in America, but whereas teenagers marching for “black lives matter” are vilified for lives lost, the white teenage activists from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High are praised for their activism.  It seems what we’re encountering is something even more pernicious than the inequalities themselves, rather the realization that not even all need is created equal.  Since the election, I have been desperately sharing my own story to keep the lives of families with children with disabilities, alongside the lives of so many other marginalized families, in view; however, it only recently occurred to me that by telling our story, I may be rendering further invisible families like the ones being turned away at our borders.

You see, while my family’s need for life-sustaining Medicaid for our medically fragile child elicits incredible sympathy, that’s largely because my daughter’s disability is often viewed as an underserved tragedy that has befallen a white, educated, hard-working, affluent, heterosexual couple. But while so many other families on Medicaid (especially families of color), equally needy to mine, are belittled for their poverty, chastised or blamed for the presumed neglect, fraud, or abuse that put them into the system in the first place, a common response to my family’s vulnerability is not just pity, but often, congratulation. We are heralded for our love and our sacrifice for our daughter. Meanwhile, the very nurses employed through Medicaid who tend to our daughter, monitoring her heart rate, seizures, and breathing overnight, are immigrants like those being turned away at the border. They work in unsteady employment for low wages, rarely receive healthcare, and they have either already left their children behind in their countries of origin in order to provide for them, or they leave their children in the care of others, so that my family can sleep at night.

These migrant families are part of what scholars have called the global chains of kinship and reproduction, stratified care work that elevates some families on the backs of others. If you think about it, certain groups of immigrants, children who are “rescued” through inter-country adoption or born through international surrogacy, are uplifted, generously welcomed into our borders and our citizenship, while the families they came from, foster mothers, surrogates, nannies, and other care workers, languish in the shadows, families already torn apart yet silently, incrementally, with little fanfare. Thus, the separation of families at the border is but a visible demonstration of the invisible borders we often perilously draw around our own family lives.

The myth of the modern family and this tireless invocation of the need for “family values” suggests that each family stands alone. Yet, in articulating my family’s story of need I’ve become aware of the ways we are uncomfortably and unevenly indebted to one another. I’d like to believe that with the outcry on social media and the political pressure brought by the public upon the administration’s immigration policies, a new kind of family values is emerging that does not deny, yet makes visible these inequalities and the families who have endured them in the pursuit of wellbeing and freedom.

But the challenge comes in both maintaining our common humanity and acknowledging the injustices that bind and separate us from one another. We cannot afford to look away, for it will cost us all our humanity. But we also cannot afford to go on living our fictional, solitary lives while asylum is being criminalized, need is being stigmatized, racialized, and vilified, and children with families are being abused and institutionalized.  My family, likely your family, needs these persecuted families, whether we choose to admit it or not.  If we cannot break the global chains of inequality, perhaps we can at least qualify and dignify the emotional labor that families like mine benefit from everyday.  We can refuse to participate in the politics that slander the need of some to elevate and fulfill the needs of others. We can turn away from pity and charity and toward justice, mercy, and grace.

And we can demand that America must do better by all of its families, especially those who have so painfully paid the price of vulnerability, so that others can thrive.

Words are not necessary.

Words are not necessary.

It’s not a finding in our research* just yet (although it very well may be), but the phrase the woman on my lectio and centering prayer app recites to me every morning to guide me into meditation and contemplation.  But even though she’s been saying it for at least months, possibly years, it’s only recently stuck out to me as a sentence that matters, because my life is teaching me to listen.

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A quiet spot on the seminary campus.  My photo.

A few weeks ago when I was conducting a delightful visit for our disability and joy research project, an insightful informant asked me if I myself am satisfied with the approach that they’re taking to Lucia’s communication at her school.  It was a lightbulb moment for me.  Of course it makes sense that as a parent of a nonverbal (although I really prefer the term extra-verbal) child with disabilities in conducting this project, I myself am searching for greater meaning, greater connection, and better communication with my kid.

But I realized, as so many parents in our project thus far, that what I’m really concerned about are the efforts and abilities of those around Lucia to appreciate her extra-verbal communications.  There’s a tendency in our hyper-verbal culture to denigrate the extra-verbal contributions of people with disabilities or to spend all our time trying to make their communications like verbal people rather than appreciating them for what they are.  There’s a tendency to rank modes of communication, to prioritize certain modes over others, rather than truly listen.

But what I know to be decidedly true is that I love being with Lucia.  I talk sometimes when we’re together, but it’s never occurred to me that she doesn’t respond because she does, perhaps with a furtive glance, a sheepish smile, a dart in her eyes, a babble a chuckle, a startle, and more often than not, her silence is a gift.  If I was with anyone else (in fact my husband just complained about this a few days ago!), I’d feel beholden to insert words to bind us together, but Lucia reminds me that words are not necessary, and that putting them on a pedestal, even for writers and poets and perhaps especially pastors tends to deny the stuff that makes the words–the people, their presence, their silence, the mystery–meaningful.

In one of our very first interviews one of the mothers told us earnestly and assuredly that her daughter was a terrific companion.  And so is Lucia.  And if I could have one thing in life I think it would be that others could experience that, know that, believe it, rather than pitying or assuming that what Lucia doesn’t do defines or mars her ability to communicate.  The project itself comes from a deep conviction that we’re missing out on something about what it means to be human, because we haven’t learned to listen to people with disabilities, their families, and what it means to them to communicate.  We haven’t honed this way of being human that is valid, that matters, and that is unique.

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With my dear companion and teacher.  My photo.

And so despite my introspection in that moment of research, to assume that I’m doing this project to make my kid a better communicator or to even tease out or enhance something that’s there but not just refined enough, would be antithetical to everything she has taught me and is teaching me.  Conversation if you think about it, communication, demands and relies upon silence and space to make its meaning–without it, it’s cacophony, chaos, babel, just words.  And it demands listening, attentiveness, paying attention not just to those words but to the space between.

In my love affair with centering prayer, I’ve found it so freeing to know that sighs to God are worthy, venerable, meaningful communication and that words are not necessary, not just to pray, but also for God to work.  But when I’m in spiritual direction sometimes I smart because I feel like I circle back to the same insights about God and faith over and over and over again.  Am I really growing if I keep coming back to the same lessons? I exasperatedly ask.  And then my spiritual director reminds me that growth happens in circles, concentric circles that wind their way, but toward depth, not necessarily great breadth or height or length, as the world imagines learning to be.

And so here’s Lucia, patiently, quietly, daringly reminding her mama that being different, being quiet, listening, and leaning in are good things in this world of competing, calculated, cacophonous communication.  If when it’s all said and done, she and the other families we have spent time with have only just taught us to listen, well, then we will have learned much more than we we started.  We will have found a depth to communication that we often slight and ignore, we will have found a dignity in difference that we so often dismiss or deny, and we will have found out not just some things about words but about the people who somehow teach without them, the people who remind us that our humanity is so much more than just words.

*I’ve been leading an ethnographic research project with families with children with disabilities who are nonverbal and we’re studying cultures of communication and joy this summer.  You can follow along with the research through some of my recent posts: Telling my story and  How it feels to be free. (And I’m sure we’ll publish something academic-y someday, too.)