Friday, August 29, 2014

Thoughts on Faith, Hearing God, and Deafness

"But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?  As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'  But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our message?'  So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ," Romans 10:14-16, NRSV 
The music starts.  The organist starts doing their magic, and suddenly we realize we indeed are in our favorite old church with multi-colored stained glass windows telling the story of Jesus, wooden pews with decades of use, and hymnals that are falling apart at the seams yet enriched with the scent that only old books have.  Or we find ourselves entranced by the sounds of the band starting as the lights dim, the congregation silencing as the worship leader plays a 4-chord progression on his guitar, and the preacher invites us into worship as our eyes close so we can soak in the beauty of it all through our ears.  We are in one of the places where we come to meet with God and to hear his message.

When I was younger (like twelve and younger), I wanted to be a famous pop star.  I loved singing and my parents forced me to take piano lessons starting in second grade.  I quit piano in sixth grade, picked up flute in band, handbells and choir at church, dropped flute, started piano again, joined school choir, started strumming guitar, and it's pretty much been a musical whirlwind ever since.  It's involved periods of no sound, periods of being surrounded by performances and concerts, and times of being told over and over by God that this is a talent he's given me but not what he wants me to pursue as a vocation.

On May 17, 2010, I woke up with bad vertigo and unable to hear in my left ear.  Over the next couple months, several hearing tests, steroids both orally and by a shot in the eardrum (yep, it's probably even more painful than it sounds!) I came to identify myself as half-deaf.  I had completely lost all hearing in my left ear by some freak accident (I blame artificial sweeteners, but that's another story).  The first time I sat down at the piano only lasted for about thirty seconds when I came to realize that the base notes were never going to sound quite the same again.

In the Bible we see examples of how hearing is good.  We recognize how we are to hear the good news of Christ and spread it through sounds we make with our mouths.  We recognize how we are blessed when we hear the good news of Christ.  My question is, what does it mean to spread the good news to those who can't hear?  Is hearing the good news something that is figurative or literal?  What does it mean to hear God if you can't hear?

When I was a junior I took a semester of American Sign Language.  I took this so that I could learn some sign so that I knew that I would be okay if I went completely deaf (real fear, y'all!).  That particular year the speech pathology school at Baylor was going on a mission trip to Honduras.  I got really interested, went to the information meeting, and even started my application.  That was one of the first times I realized that American Sign Language is not universal.  We would have needed to learn Honduran Sign Language.  And although I didn't end up going on the trip, I did learn something important that sits on my heart far more lightly than it should: the deaf community is the most unreached people group in the world.

There are several reasons for this.  Some of them deal with the hearing world's lack of understanding of the deaf community.  Some of them deal with the lack of knowledge that hearing people have of sign language.  But I think that possibly some of them have to do with how we hear the good news.  If we're told that we hear God and experience God in church and spread God through voice, then how do we do it when the other person can't hear?  How do we embrace others that don't experience God in the same way and physically cannot?  How can our differences unite us as one church?

The main question I want to tackle here though is, what does it mean to hear God when I can't hear?  If we put all this focus on the importance of hearing, then what does that mean for people who can't hear sermons or music or bow their heads while the pastor prays and know what he or she is saying?

Fanny Crosby was a prolific hymn writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  According to her Wikipedia page (legit source? ehhh...) she wrote over 8,000 hymns and Gospel songs, with 100 million copies printed.  It is debated if she or the Wesley brothers wrote more hymns.  What stands out the most about this woman is that she was blind.  Yet in her many songs, including well known favorites, "Blessed Assurance", "To God be the Glory", and "All the Way My Savior Leads Me", she talks about sight and seeing God in different ways.  Of how although she can't see, God leads her anyway.  The lyrics to "All the Way My Savior Leads Me" are as follows (italics added):

"All the way my savior leads me;
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who through life has been my Guide?
Heavenly peace, divinest comfort,
Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know, whatever befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well,
For I know, whatever befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well.

All the way my Savior leads me,
Cheers each winding path I tread,
Gives me grace for every trial,
Feeds me with the living bread.
Though my weary steps may falter,
And my soul athirst may be,
Gushing from the Rock before me,
Lo! a spring of joy I see,
Gushing from the Rock before me,
Lo! a spring of joy I see.

All the way my Savior leads me;
Oh, the fullness of His grace!
Perfect rest to me is promised
In my Father's blest embrace.
When my spirit, clothed immortal,
Wings its flight to realms of day,
This my song through endless ages:
Jesus led me all the way,
This is my son through endless ages:
Jesus led me all the way."

To lead and to see are spoken of here not in the physical sense, but in quite a figurative one.  I can say that God has been leading me through life, but when I say that I also recognize that he has not literally been pulling my hand guiding in whichever way he chooses.  This is a kind of spiritual and figurative guiding that results from my individual time spent with God and in devotion.

Hearing is both the same and different.  When we talk about hearing God, most often we are talking about the figurative or internal call.  Not the kind of call Mom yells upstairs when it is time for dinner.  Hearing God in our lives is a complicated topic in and of itself with how to identify it.  However, people will agree that it is not where the heavens open up and God peaks out from behind a cloud and speaks in a mighty and manly voice, like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

But not being able to hear in a hearing Christian world makes life complicated.  At least it does for me when I think about this.  Being a lover of music, so many emotions are caught up in that.  A song can evoke a memory of church growing up.  A certain pastor's voice can bring positive or negative emotions to the congregation.  The common thing in Christianity today is the need to feel God.  To come out of a service with a heart-warming joy that abounds from your time spent in community and with Jesus.  For me that feeling most commonly comes from music.  I have a feeling that is the same for many people.  If we can't hear the music does it mean that God is not in that place?

If we're told by God to tell the Gospel to others and to hear and receive, how does this correlate to someone whose ears don't hear?

I realize that I am not the best person to be writing this.  I am not fully deaf.  I am very much a member of the hearing community.  Although I have knowledge of the deaf community, I am not a member of it by any means.  And yes, this is a whole other community.  There are schools, churches, and other organizations for deaf people.  Some restaurants in urban areas are starting to become more deaf friendly as well.

While I'm talking about this division between the hearing Christian world and not having hearing, it's important to say that there are Christian groups that are doing stuff in this manner.  There are ministries in a few churches that minister to the deaf.  There are non-profits that focus on this.  Concordia Seminary has a Deaf Institute of Theology.  A few other seminaries and theological schools have deaf programs as well.  There is a book on Deaf Liberation Theology written by a deaf woman with her PhD (which I'm really interested in and will have to look into more later).

In lieu of my place in this matter, I think these are essential issues for us as Christians to think about.  As future and present leaders and members of churches, it is important as well.  Because deaf people aren't just people who can't hear, they're people who's whole lives revolve in a visual arena filled with other senses.  People who don't view themselves as disabled.  They're just people that happen to not have the sense of hearing.

If we're to tell the Bible, the way we tell it will look different-- maybe we will show it.  If we're to equip to go out, maybe we equip those who can sign.  There are many different ministries that churches can provide and that's something I would suggest churches look into.

My love for music, playing music, and listening to music hasn't changed.  I quit doing choir for the time being because it became hard to blend my voice.  This is going to change soon though I hope.  I try to sing more solo or to harmonize.  I've picked up guitar and continued playing piano and handbells, although I'm not playing that for now.  Music has been and always will be an important part of my life.

In his mid to late twenties, Ludwig Van Beethoven began to lose his hearing.  Being a wonderful musician and composer, this drove him crazy!  In 1802 he wrote a secret suicide note to his brothers.  He decided to not kill himself, hid the letter, and it was discovered after his death 1827.  Instead of committing suicide, he pursued harder after his passion of music, often feeling the vibrations of the chords through the piano instead of hearing them.  Over Christmas break I looked up the words to that letter since Beethoven and I share some similarities.  Beethoven reminds me that no matter what difficulties may come my way, especially from hearing issues, that if God has put a passion or purpose on my heart, I should find a way to make it a reality.  Hearing God's purpose for my life comes regardless of my ability to hear.

“...forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher, O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else - Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein,” Beethoven

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