The last couple of weeks we have looked at passages which talk about the amazing way Jesus was at work breaking down barriers. Paul reflected in amazement that because of Jesus there were no longer distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, males and females, slaves and free people. Why? Because all of us are one in Christ Jesus and the differences are no longer significant. We are equal in God’s sight. Jesus also broke down the barrier between us and God when he gave his life for the sins of the world, reconciling us to God. And the barrier created by our self-rejection, believing there is no way God could actually love us, was brought down by God sending the Spirit of Jesus into our hearts to assure us that we are his beloved children. This good news is the heart of the Gospel, and reminds us that we are called to be a part of the ministry of reconciliation and of breaking down barriers.
This week Central Presbyterian Church has taken a wonderful step towards breaking down a barrier which limits many people from full participation in church and life in general. That barrier is hearing loss, which is the third most common physical condition in America, behind arthritis and heart disease. Some 48 million Americans have significant hearing loss, one out of every five Americans. This number has doubled in the last 20 years. One out of every three Americans 65 years of age and older has hearing loss. 15% of children between 6-19 have measurable hearing loss in at least one ear. 60% of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced hearing loss. At a mattress store last week the guy working there pointed at my hearing aids and said he is legally deaf from working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier before ear protection had been upgraded. 30 million American workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work. So the problem being addressed is a huge one and will only be growing larger as time goes by.
So what have we done this week to try to bring this barrier down for folks? We have installed a hearing aid loop system, and if you are seated on the main floor of the sanctuary in the two large sections of pews, you are “in the loop.” I’d like to tell you about this miracle, because if you are not a hearing aid wearer you will never even know it is there.
To begin with, several people made generous contributions to purchasing this technology, several of whom will not even benefit from it – at least not yet. Then Monday some of our fabulous volunteers showed up and in short order had pulled up the edge of the carpet down the side and center of the pews. Then James and Don of American Hearing Loop in Greenville laid wire in loops unobtrusively under the carpet and under pews, and in three days had the system up and running. It carries sound from our normal PA system, and hearing aids equipped with telecoil receivers are able to receive the service audio directly into our hearing aids with no other equipment or head phones required. About 60% of new hearing aids are equipped with telecoil receivers, which also are used for better hearing on telephones. My last two sets of hearing aids have had them, so that is over 15 years. If you purchase hearing aids from this point forward, make sure they are equipped with this technology. On my hearing aids the t-coil is activated by pushing a button on the hearing aid. We do have several sets of headphones which operate on this system for those whose hearing aids are not equipped with t-coil receivers or who do not have hearing aids but need assistance hearing. I worshiped in two places last summer that had this technology and it was a wonderful experience.
Having good hearing is one of those things that is easy to take for granted if you have it. Since it is such a big problem, I’d like to try to help you understand what it is like not to have it by reminding you of some of my story. One of my brothers and I both experienced hearing loss in early childhood. We both had scarlet fever with high temperatures, which could have caused it, but some of the medicines given children back then were later found to cause hearing loss as well. I remember having diagnostic hearing tests in elementary school to determine the level of loss. They apparently didn’t make hearing aids that would address the kind of loss we had at that point, so the prescription was to sit in the front row of every class right in front of the teacher. I later found out that I also learned to read lips so that it was through the combination of sound and watching the lips that I followed things. Obviously that didn’t hold up when there were class discussions, but I got enough in class and picked things up very easily from reading, so I was able to be successful through public school, through graduation from Davidson College, and through two years of Columbia Seminary. At that point I did a church internship for a year, and one of the things I learned was that I just couldn’t function in committees and Session meetings and deacon meetings where people were spread around the room. I was going to have a hard time being a successful pastor if I didn’t do something. I had never been back to an audiologist since that grade school visit, so I went back and found out that hearing aid technology had come a long, long way. I got my first hearing aid in 1981 – I was too self conscious to be willing to wear two at that point – and hearing aids have made the difference in my being able to have a career in the ministry.
But a room like this still causes lots of problems for someone like me. Hearing aids pick up a lot of stuff besides what you want to hear. Echo, reverb, bulletins crinkling, and if I can’t see the face I am still not confident I’ll make out the words. Trying to hear in church or a presbytery meeting or a theater is hard, exhausting work. The headphones we have here have helped a lot, but they are not ideal.
But listening in the hearing loop is easy. I can close my eyes and every word is crystal clear. If I was going to church every Sunday instead of preaching and leading worship every Sunday, having a hearing loop system would make all the difference in my participation and enjoyment level. I’d hate to know how many people have quit going to church because they can’t hear what is said. If you know such people, either members of our church or not, and they are hearing aid wearers, I hope you will encourage them to come and try this system out.
You notice I said, “if they are hearing aid wearers,” and now I’m going to step on some toes. If you are finding that you are having a hard time hearing here and wish they would turn the PA system up louder, that’s probably a sign that you should go get your hearing checked. Here are a couple of very telling statistics. Among adults age 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than 30% have ever used them. Fewer than 30%! Among adults under 70 who could benefit from hearing aids, only 16% have ever used them. Most people wait at least ten years from the time they are aware they are having difficulty hearing until they go to an audiologist.
Why? They are expensive and are bafflingly not covered by Medicare or most insurance companies. They aren’t perfect and take some time to get used to, so people don’t like to be patient and adjust to them. And of course, vanity – you don’t want other people to see you having to wear hearing aids. Well, you have to make your own decisions about all that but take into consideration your own quality of life as well as thoughtfulness for your loved ones who may be finding it harder and harder to communicate with you. Higher frequencies are usually affected first so that it becomes difficult to hear the flute or piccolo notes or the doorbell or the telephone or the higher voices of women and children. You find yourself having to turn up the television more and more because, while you can hear noise from the tv you can’t distinguish the words. And of course you are frequently having to ask people to repeat themselves. Hearing aids don’t fix all that, but they make it much better.
So on behalf of all the hearing impaired members of Central Presbyterian Church and all who will come in the future, thank you for removing this barrier and opening the door to full participation for us. And let’s continue being self-aware about other barriers that keep people from being able to participate fully. We have made good strides in handicap accessibility with ramps, elevator, bathroom upgrades, and handicapped parking areas, but I’m sure there is more we can do to encourage those who are in wheelchairs or on walkers to come and participate fully and not feel “in the way” or unimportant. We have large print bulletins but can be more considerate of the visually impaired. We need to be welcoming and including of children with birth defects, genetics issues, learning disabilities, personality disorders, and as I learned more fully this year, nut and other allergies.
Jesus spent a lot of his ministry trying to break down barriers which kept people from participating in life and society. The deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and welcomed back into society, the poor are valued and having the good news proclaimed to them. The church doesn’t have the same powers that Jesus did, but we can live by the same values and stress the same priorities.
Churches have been far too willing to allow our agendas to be set by politicians and political parties. We have been far too interested in deciding who we should include and who we should exclude. We have put more barriers up than we have brought down. This is not the mission of the church. The mission of the church has to do with words such as grace, love, reconciliation, acceptance, forgiveness, humility, and hope.
Paul asked, “How are people 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 hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?… Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”
God rejoices when barriers are brought down. When the blind are helped to see. When the deaf are enabled to hear. When people are presented with the Bible in their own language. When people reach across lines of color, of class, of politics, of nation, of oceans, to offer good news and invite to inclusion in the great household of God.
Let those who have ears to hear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
June 11, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church