Spirituality and hearing loss
Wright, N. (2013), 'Thought for the Day', Premier Christian Radio, 30 September - 4 October.
I work with Action on Hearing Loss, a charity that supports people who experience hearing loss, deafness or tinnitus. It also invests in biomedical research to find effective treatments and cures. If you’ve experienced hearing loss yourself or know someone who has, you’ll be aware that it can be a difficult and debilitating condition, often leading to frustration, loneliness and isolation. In the Bible we see examples of Jesus encountering deaf people and healing them, such as the man in Mark 7 who Jesus touches and heals miraculously. The account goes on to say that the people who heard about this ‘were overwhelmed with amazement’. Today, each new breakthrough in the field of hearing loss offers people increased choices and fresh hope. Every time that professionals, volunteers, friends or family reach out to offer a person love and support, I can see a flashback to the hand of Jesus. Each time scientific research makes an advance in this field, I can feel a resonance with his miraculous healing. Perhaps the question it poses for us is this: what can we do to bring hope and healing to those we encounter in our lives?
In Thought for the Day yesterday, I spoke about Action on Hearing Loss’ work with people who experience hearing loss, deafness or tinnitus and referred to Jesus’ healing a deaf person in Mark 7. It’s a very human story and a supernatural illustration of God’s miraculous power and compassion expressed through the healing of a person’s physical condition. Yet the Bible talks about other kinds of ‘deafness’ too. Sometimes, we can lose our ability to hear the voice of God’s Spirit speaking quietly and deeply within us because our lives get so crowded with noise or distractions. We can fill our days with so much activity, our minds with so many thoughts and preoccupations, that any possibility of hearing God is drowned out. It’s like the person who works in a noisy factory or other such environment for many years and, after a time, loses the ability to hear well. The ears become damaged and the person struggles to hear what other people are saying, or struggles to discern an individual voice clearly against a background of other distracting sounds. In Matthew 13, Jesus explains that he spoke to people in parables because, paradoxically, ‘though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ The parable he had shared immediately beforehand illustrated how different people respond to God’s Word. Amidst 21st century noise, we too need to be very aware of the risks of becoming spiritually deaf.
A few years ago, I started experiencing mild tinnitus, a continual ringing sound in my ears that gets worse when I feel stressed or tired. In retrospect, I realise I should have been more careful when listening to loud music when I was younger. It’s one of the reasons why it’s a very good idea to wear attenuated ear plugs when attending concerts. But protecting our hearing isn’t just about avoiding risks. It’s also about ensuring we take care of a precious ability that enables us to hear each others’ voices, to listen to beautiful, evocative music, to enjoy all the richness of sound that life can bring. Imagine hearing for the first time, having been deaf and not knowing what ‘hearing’ sounded like…what a difference to your life that would bring! Jesus and his followers spent time preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. It wasn’t just a message about what to avoid, it was about how to find fullness of life in a way that was more amazing than anyone could have asked or imagined. The question it poses is this: how can we experience and share this ‘fullness of life’ with people today?
The Bible has a lot to teach us about ‘community’ and enabling environments. Through my work with Action on Hearing Loss, I see there is so much more we need to do to create a genuinely inclusive society in the UK where everyone has a healthy sense of contributing, receiving and belonging. Hearing loss is an ‘invisible’ disability, although an increasing number of TV programmes are being subtitled or signed; special evenings are being held in cinemas where films are supported by text, and shops and other public buildings now have loop-systems installed to help people with hearing aids to hear better. In Galatians 5, Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit as qualities in a person’s life that, when expressed in community, create the sort of relational and nurturing environment and experience that most of us yearn for: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These qualities are the visible expression of God’s presence in and through us. When we open ourselves to God’s Spirit, when we allow his qualities to shape our lives, we gradually become more like Jesus. What can we do to transform our churches, organisations and communities so that people experience more of these qualities, more of the time?
I recently had the privilege of taking part in a course in British Sign Language, or ‘BSL’. It was a fascinating and helpful experience, especially for my work at Action on Hearing Loss. BSL is a highly creative physical language that uses gestures and movement to convey words, ideas and feelings. It made me aware of how limited spoken language can be. In the Bible, we see many examples of God communicating through physical actions and symbols. He goes beyond spoken words and is, thereby, able to communicate with a richness that touches our hearts as well as our minds. Think, for instance, of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. It was a shocking act at the time that has challenged leaders throughout the ages. I’ve also noticed how actions, like words, can be easily misunderstood. We learn to understand each other not just by what we communicate, but by what we know of and learn about each other through experience. It takes time to build a relationship, to develop trust, and in the spiritual realm this is where prayer and reading the Bible are so important. We’ve reflected this week on physical and spiritual hearing, on listening to God and being open to his Spirit. May you hear his voice and know his presence as he speaks to you in words or signs today.