Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, March 03, 2018

On losing one's hearing

It never occurred to me to write about losing my hearing until I read the column by one of my favorite columnists, Frank Bruni, called "Am I Going Blind?" My heart certainly goes out to him, as to anyone who is stricken with blindness in later years (arguably, it may actually be easier for someone blinded when young...learning Braille etc. is more difficult for an older person).

I don't in the least want to write "poor poor pitiful me" and I feel that I am coping with my new deafness quite well, all things considered. But I was struck by something that a friend of mine said when, in his 70s, he lost most of his hearing and all of his sight.  He said something to this effect:  "Deaf people get no sympathy. When you're blind, everyone offers help, everyone seems to understand what it's like, everyone responds to you, nobody shrugs it off, nobody presumes to tell you how you should deal with it. But when you're deaf, people just say impatiently, 'Why don't you get hearing aids?' when you are standing right there wearing them." A woman I met last week said that when people say that to her, she replies, "I can only wear two at a time." It makes her feel better to retort that way, but apparently it makes no impression on the insensitive person.

My mother became extremely deaf in her later years and I made a concerted effort to make sure she could always hear me. I spoke distinctly, articulating every syllable, and always tried to remember to face her directly. I'm trying not to praise myself in this overmuch, but it is hard for me to be patient with people who don't try to make an effort. I sometimes ask people who mumble at me, "Don't you have an elderly grandparent?" It makes no impression.

I have met some people whose hearing aids seem to work fairly well. Mine do not. I am on my second top-of-the-line pair, and I work with an audiologist, but no matter what I do, I cannot hear certain people at all (only a few, a blessed few, are really easy to hear). I cannot hear anyone who is not directly facing me, cannot hear lectures or panel discussions, cannot hear the questions people ask me after my presentations, cannot hear in restaurants, cannot participate in meetings. One of the things people don't understand is that it is wearisome to try to hear. You have to work very hard at deciphering a sentence. Typically you will be able to hear everything except the key word, and when you tell people that you missed the key word they almost invariably repeat the entire sentence, sometimes at length. After a few minutes of listening intently to a conversation and attempting to decipher what is being said, one becomes worn out and gives up. It is embarrassing to keep asking people to repeat, and most people get irritated after one or two times of asking. It's particularly distressing to try to speak to young children, which as I get older is more and more important to me. (It is a blessing that my two great-nieces enunciate beautifully and for the most part I can hear them.)

Over the past five years, I have had to resign from committees that I really valued and felt that I could contribute to. I have had to turn down invitations to meetings/colloquies/seminars because I can't participate in the discussions. I used to love gatherings at meetings of colleagues and friends, but now I rather dread them unless they are very small groups in very quiet rooms.

My beloved grandmother, Lily Dabney, became very hard of hearing in her later years. She was the most sociable person that the Lord ever made and adored nothing more than going to parties. I think of her all the time, being very sociable myself, and wondering how she did it. I think she was successful in faking it; she would give every appearance of listening intently, and then she would make some charming witticism or observation which might or might not be related to what was being said to her.  She was such a gifted conversationalist that I think she got by with it and continued to be invited to parties into her early 90s. Her manifest love of company carried her through, even though she couldn't hear.

I'm not able to do that, although I have tried, because for me the content of a discussion is paramount.  I am miserable if I can't participate in the currents of conversation. Therefore my life as a travelling preacher and lecturer/speaker is becoming exceedingly difficult. It's often been said that being hard of hearing is worse than being blind because it cuts off human connections. I feel a kinship with Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII; she lost most of her hearing at an early age and became isolated, though much loved at a distance by the English people. I myself knew a woman who, when she developed severe hearing loss, announced to her church that she would not come any more and did not want any visits. I wouldn't go that far, but I can entirely understand how someone might wish to opt out of the exhausting struggle to hear and withdraw into a world of books, closed captions, and private consolations.

One of the reasons I like to go to St Thomas Fifth Avenue is that they have a phenomenal system of headsets which I pick up before the service. It's such a professional setup that it's like having one's hearing completely restored. This is only true, however, for the spoken parts of the service. Listening to classical music with intense pleasure--particularly the choral repertoire--is apparently gone for ever for me in this life. I can no longer listen to any of my hundreds of recordings of beloved operas and oratorios--can never hear Kathleen Battle or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau again--not because I can't turn up the volume, but because the music is shriekingly distorted and painful to hear (this happened to my mother also).

Why am I writing this? I guess it helps me to write it...but also, I am hoping that others might be motivated to be more understanding of those who have lost their hearing, and to try harder to be audible. When you come across hard-of-hearing people, you will find that nothing makes them more grateful than to be able to hear you talk to them. It might be one of your spiritual gifts!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The truthtellers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

This blog is for preachers. It’s the first blog I’ve written in about eight months, having found Twitter a lot less taxing (there’s a lesson there, not entirely a good one!).

I am in a Starbucks by the side of the road. I have pulled off because I have been on my car radio listening to an hour and a half of speeches by the teenagers who survived the MSD school shooting and have gone to Tallahassee to confront their legislators. As I listened to their electrifying presentations, I kept thinking over and over about how much we preachers of the gospel have to learn from them.

(I will refer to them as “young people” rather than “children” out of respect for them, although they very strikingly refer to themselves as “children” to call attention to what they see as the failure of the “adults” to protect them.)

Not every speech was equally noteworthy. Two or three of the young women would benefit from voice lessons to lower their registers. I am writing about the most impressive of the speeches, which propelled me out of my car. What was particularly striking about them? What can preachers learn from them?

First and foremost was their urgency. It was not to be denied. They are infuriated by being patronized, by being told by legislators how wonderful and brave and powerful they are. They are not interested in being praised. They want to get something done. Like it or not, it cannot be denied that prophets have arisen in Israel. The time will soon come when recalcitrant lawmakers will begin to dread the appearance of young people in their offices and in the hallways, just as King Ahab dreaded the appearance of Elijah.

I have heard a great many sermons in a variety of churches all over this country and abroad. The majority of them lack urgency and passion. They lack courage and commitment. It seems that teachers these days must actually be prepared to take a bullet while protecting their students, but how many preachers give the impression that their message is a matter of life and death? I forget which one of the great preachers of history it was (Whitefield? Wesley?) who said that every sermon should be delivered as if it were the preacher’s last.

It is true that young people with a cause tend to be reckless in their certainty. It is a classic characteristic of youth. But were the apostles any less committed to preaching the gospel in circumstances that might well result in their imprisonment or death? Is maturity an excuse for pallid sermons?

Second and almost equally notable was the young speakers’ renunciation of all clichés, all platitudes, all used-to-death phrases continually trotted out by politicians and other public figures. With the exception of “never again,” which has had its day and probably should be permanently retired, these young people explicitly renounced standard phrases, telling the legislators that they were tired of hearing about “thoughts and prayers,” tired of being told “this is not the time for that conversation,” tired of hearing about how “our hearts are broken,” tired of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” We have heard all this before, they said, and we are sick of it. We are sick of empty talk.

Note that they are not rejecting speech per se. They are making speeches. What they are rejecting is  empty, shallow speech without any heart in it, let alone truth. It was instructive to go back and forth between listening to them and changing channels to hear the concurrent speech at NASA by Vice-President Pence. His speech compared to theirs was robotic, predictable, flat. He talked about how our national heart was broken about the school shooting, but he sounded as it was simply an item to be checked off his list. It sounded inauthentic.

So third, the students’ speeches were authentic. It is shocking and preposterous that the Twittersphere is ricocheting with viral accusations that their speeches were written for them, that they are “crisis actors.” No one except the most hardened skeptic listening to them could mistake the immediacy of their recounting of their experiences hiding in closets, texting their last words to parents, hearing the shots killing their friends. Over time as they are asked to repeat their testimonies, the freshness will fade, but the immediate impact cannot be taken away. Preachers can learn from this, also. No story borrowed from a homiletical website can substitute for the preacher’s own personal investment in what she is saying. Over time, congregations learn to spot the difference between what is the preacher’s own, won through struggle, and what is second hand.

Fourth, the young peoples’ speeches for the most part were very artfully constructed. One young woman spoke about her determination to demonstrate that no adult had written her speech for her. She hardly needed to say this because the gut-wrenching nature of her testimony was far too honest and immediate to be parroted. Given this, it was quite breathtaking the way she and others put their speeches together. What they lacked in Churchillian eloquence was compensated for by their skillful use of repetition and crescendo reminiscent of African-American preaching. They did not allow their speeches to flag in energy or forward movement. So many sermons that I hear tail off at the end, as if the preacher lacked the energy and conviction to make the sale, so to speak. The preacher preparing the sermon should always allow time to craft the ending. No matter how much effort is put into setting the stage, if the sermon loses strength at the end, the effort is lost and the opportunity for a breakthrough dribbles away.


Now, clearly, these young people are fired up because of what has just happened to them. It may be that they cannot muster up this level of passion month after month, which is what they will be required to do in order to overcome the timidity of the legislators. Preachers, similarly, will protest that they cannot produce high drama Sunday after Sunday, year after year. But as the doctrine of the Word of God attests (see Karl Barth), every authentic proclamation of the Word is in itself a high drama. Every time the preacher goes into the pulpit, the Powers of Sin and Death are lurking nearby to undermine the power of the voice of God. The Word of God—as William Stringfellow, for one, tirelessly proclaimed—is the weapon of Truth against falsehood. Over a preaching lifetime, a preacher should be able to attest that he or she has faithfully grappled with the Enemy so as to make room, Sunday by Sunday, for the Word to speak.