The deaf man came to our church the first Sunday in Lent. A teenaged boy, wearing khaki pants and a bow tie, entered the sanctuary with him. They sat in the front pew. From behind we could see the bald spot on the man’s crown, dark strands of hair slicked across. The boy was a foot taller than the man, with a wizened face and blond hair. We assumed they were father and son.
Of course we couldn’t tell the man was deaf—not at first—though we did notice the riveted attitude in which he sat, waiting for the service, head tilted back and tipped sideways as if discerning a far-off melody. When the organ prelude began, the boy lifted his hands and began to wave them back and forth. Immediately the man did the same. Thinking our visitors were of the charismatic persuasion (it was our custom to tolerate this kind of demonstrative worship, though we couldn’t imagine our organist ever moving us to such displays), we grew uncomfortable and averted our eyes. But when Don Holdings stood to deliver the welcome, the boy began to carve shapes into the air.
We’d never had a deaf person among us. We had the elderly hearing-impaired, but their disability was in the natural order of things. We gave them amplification headsets and watched them twirl the volume knobs at their ears.
After the service, a deacon offered the deaf man a headset to use the following week.
That won’t do any good, the boy said (not the man’s son, but his translator). The silence inside his head is impenetrable.
The following Sunday we sat closer to the front. We were eager to watch the boy take sentences into his body and churn them out with his hands. We wanted to give our children a better view. During the sermon the boy mimicked the snap of scissors across his uplifted forearm for shepherd, for sorrow stroked the air with fluttering fingers as if brushing aside a beaded curtain. There seemed to be no turn of theological complexity the boy couldn’t grasp, the hands, arms, and torso moving in singleness of purpose without thought for the strange and, in another context, embarrassing motions they were performing.
Gathered in the foyer after the service, we said it was like watching an Olympic athlete, the kind of effortlessness that made you feel in your bones you could get up off the couch and do a triple axel. It partook, we said, of the nature of holiness itself: one man giving of himself in surrender, the other receiving in gratitude.
The spectacle moved some of us to tears.
Only during communion were the bodies of the deaf man and his translator still. And it was during communion the third week they visited that we saw Christ’s foot tumble from the stained glass window at the end of the deaf man’s pew. Those of us sitting nearby heard the soft shink of glass hitting the flagstone pavers.
We looked: Christ in the Jordan River, standing on one foot like a pelican; John the Baptist behind, shell aloft, about to pour. Underwater, Christ’s remaining foot was the frozen turquoise of an Alaskan glacier, while his calf—also submerged, though separated from the foot by a thin strip of black lead—was a lambent sea green.
The missing foot was the size of a lime. Through the opening, a shaft of sunlight, spiraling with dust, shot into the nave and hit the cheek of the pastor’s wife, who turned to locate the source of light.
The deaf man stood. The boy, in a stooped pose, also stood. The man signed to the boy, who turned to face us.
Corbett Earnshaw would like to make a confession, the boy said.
We realized we’d never asked the deaf man’s name.
The organist stopped playing. The elders paused in the aisles, holding their silver trays.
Again the boy spoke:
Mr. Earnshaw would like to confess that he does not believe in Christianity, he has never believed in Christianity, and he will no longer be attending this church, nor any other church, for the indefinite future.
Corbett Earnshaw walked down the aisle and disappeared into the foyer. His face—why hadn’t we noticed?—was a handsome one. Two elders followed Earnshaw out of the sanctuary. The boy, still hunched in what now seemed an apologetic attitude, also left.
In the rear corner of the chancel, the organist began to play again, sotto voce.
We’ve been duped, we said. The deaf man’s signing during hymns, his rapt attention to the translator—it had all looked so heartfelt. We agreed that using one’s hands in worship gave the impression of spiritual earnestness, that had Corbett Earnshaw sung like the rest of us—head down, gripping the hymnal—we might have detected his insincerity.
A small faction of our congregation, however, admired what Earnshaw had done. College students, graduate students, young singles. Some had body piercings and tattoos; many raised their hands during the doxology and benediction. These young men and women began to say—first among themselves, and then to the rest of us—that God worked in all sorts of ways, not only through what we considered our religious life; that God could use, for His own purposes, experiences which seemed anti-Christian, such as Corbett Earnshaw’s leaving the church, an act which reflected the divine trait of honesty.
In leaving us, they said, Corbett Earnshaw was nearer to the real presence of Christ than he was before he left. In this sense, couldn’t we view his act as an inspired one?
Many of us agreed, though we kept our opinions to ourselves until the Session of Elders declared an official position on the matter.
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