Monday, August 17, 2009

Hearing God (by Billy Coffey)

My children have recently decided to forgo their usual extended Sunday School for the “big people preachin’.” Which was a surprise to me, since both of them have always seemed to enjoy a Sunday morning service that consisted of a Bible story outside, some coloring, and then hitting the playground. I know I would.

But my daughter is not the sweet little girl anymore as much as she is the sweet young lady. Crayons and swing sets just weren’t cutting it when it came to spending the Sabbath with the Almighty. So yesterday when we pulled into the parking lot, she looked at me and said, “I want to sit with you and Mommy today.”

To which my son replied, “Me, too!”

Well. Alrighty then.

We took a quick survey of Big Church decorum (“Be still, be nice, and be quiet,” I said) and strolled into the sanctuary as a family for the first time.

Our church had become newfangled in our worship. In place of actual hymnals with actual pages, two giant screens on either side of the sanctuary flashed the lyrics to our worship songs. Fine for tall people. Not for munchkins. My daughter couldn’t see the ginormous screen because of the ginormous football-playing teenager in front of her.

“Let’s move closer,” she said.

I offered to let her run point, and she proceeded to lead us all the way to the front. Reading the screen would now be akin to sitting in the front row of a movie theater, but this is what you do for your children.

That particular spot also happened to be directly behind the three rows reserved for our congregation’s deaf members. I wasn’t sure who had thought of the idea of providing someone to translate the preacher’s spoken words into sign language, but he or she deserved a lot of praise. All three rows were full, and full every Sunday.

The praise team began their first song. My daughter stood on the chair beside mine, holding onto my arm for dear life and belting out lyrics for all to hear. But me, I didn’t do much singing. Or listening. No, my attention had been placed squarely upon the three rows of churchgoers in front of us.

They were wonderful, those people. Happy and smiling. Far from being outcasts in the service, they were active participants. They still received the pastor’s wisdom. They still sang, only with hands instead of words.

They still praised God.

But they couldn’t hear our praise team. They couldn’t grasp the rhythms of the guitars and keyboard and drums. They couldn’t hear the emotional crack in our pastor’s voice has he recalled a monumental battle of faith he once endured.

They understood, those three rows of people. They knew the facts of the songs and the sermon. But I couldn’t help but think they were missing out on the feeling.

Because that, by and large, is what sound does. It brings feeling.

Like the feeling of peace when the rain taps your roof. Or the feeling of bliss at your children’s laughter. It’s the wonder that comes from hearing a summer thunderstorm or the joy of sleigh bells at Christmas. Those are the little moments of life, the seeds of lasting memory. Ones made neither by sight nor touch, but by sound.

Yet just as I began to mourn for them, I realized other sounds they would never have to hear.

Like the sound of tears being wept. Hate being spewed. Anger being vented.

They may have missed some of the best things in life, but they also missed some of the worst.

Like me.

Because we were not so different in our limitations. I could hear, but that didn’t mean I always listened. Just like I could look but not always see and touch but not always feel. In the end, we are all handicapped in some way. That’s what being human meant.

With the help of an interpreter, I spoke with one of them after the service. Michael, he signed. An amazing guy with an amazing heart for God. Also someone who was, unlike me, quite content with his limitations.

Hearing could wait, he said. And I was wrong, Michael could feel plenty. He could feel the love of God, the closeness of the congregation, and the faith he knew to be true. Hearing, he said, could wait. And I don’t blame him. Because the first thing he will ever hear will be his Father saying, “Welcome home.”

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at What I Learned Today.

And in case you missed it, Kat Smith over at Heart to Heart posted an interview with Billy yesterday. You can check it out here.


Keystone said...

I am one of those who sits in the second pew. I sit closer to center, to read lips of pastors, who believe that worship hour is their exercise and fitness time, as they run from side to side.

Standing at a podium for all to see and hear is passe. So I read lips, until the pastor runs to the far side of our mega church, to make a connection to those folks, by turning his back on 90% of the rest. It is repeated as he races to the far side, and now, excludes 90% from the other direction.

Our deaf section was purchased by a sign language woman, and made it her personal ministry. The words for "heaven" and "Holy Spirit" are more beautiful to watch than hear.
"Glory" will astonish you.

As the pastor runs to and fro, I turn to the right, and catch the instant replay in American Sign Language. In fact, my vocabulary of churchy words is greater than my vocabulary of basic English.

My daughter sat next to me in the second aisle from age two until age 16. Her knowledge of God exceeds many pastors. She knows her stuff. She hears, and also signs better than me.

There is a difference between hearing and listening. For those who have ears to hear, some do, many tune out. For those who have no hearing, they grow exhausted at the speed and translation, and interpretation going on as they listen, instead of hear.

You speak of a teardrop being missed by us; I tell you that a teardrop makes a crescendo of sound in my heart. They have been among the most eloquent speeches I have heard.

The other items you say are missed are glaringly picked up better for deaf and hearing impaired, as they are tuned in and listen....not hear. You will find empathy in that group, for they hear with their heart.

In regard to sign language, and hard of hearing or deaf, we do not do Hearing God; we do Listening to God....and He speaks every time.
Sometimes, I think he prefers ASL to words spoken in a sermon.

For a real treat, find a bowling spot with a team that signs all discussion. Someone makes a strike, and it looks like pandemonium in silence!

As church population ages, and hearing declines, this ministry will lead everywhere, and folks will finally Listen to God, after years of Hearing (without listening).

This post hit home. Take no offense at my words. For each day, the world you saw and wrote,.... is the world I live.

Denise said...

Awesome, awesome post my friend.

Heather Sunseri said...

That is an heart-warming post. I love that we get both sides to the story(from Billy and from Keystone in the first comment). Whether you hear with your ears or with your eyes, words spoken to praise Our Father are beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I agree...awesome post!

April said... powerful, Billy! I'm at a complete loss, but this post was a definite favorite of mine.

Joanne Sher said...

Oh SO powerful, and what an incredible reminder of our brokenness. Sending a dear friend who's studying to be a sign language interpreter here for the read. Hope you (BOTH of you hehe) get another follower.

Anne L.B. said...

Keystone, I've grown up among people who are blind. I understand well that loss of one sense makes the others far more accute to feelings and sensations, which people with five senses are not privileged to catch.

I am often moved to tears during praise time. Watching the ASL words you describe moves me to a place where I'm unable to sing.

I'm a visual learner anyway, and wonder how much more meaningful communication might be if I watched each word in my day signed.

Candace Jean July 16 said...

When hands dance, it's hard not to hear God. There's such beauty and expression in signing. Wonderful post, Billy.

Annie K said...

Perhaps they 'hear' the music through the vibration of the beat... And while their worship doesn't include hearing the music, think how more intune they may be to 'hearing' God speak. No outside noise to distract, just their hands raised and the words of worship being said in their hearts to God.

Beth said...

Just beautiful, Billy. My grandparents often used to take in people who needed a place to stay. Once when we went to visit they had a young woman staying with them who was deaf. She liked to feel the vibration of a song through the floor next to the speakers and sign to was one of the most beautiful expressions of worship my young eyes had seen. Truly we limit ourselves so much in worship...

Liz said...

This post challenges all of my senses, but yes, especially my heart. My sister is deaf and visually impaired as well (a result of Rubella) and to watch her take in the world around her has been a great gift to me. This post, both Billy's and Keystones comment, bring the world full circle. The only thing that matters is knowing Him.

Jeanne Damoff said...

This is beautiful, Billy. And I love Keystone's comment, too. Like others have said, watching ASL often moves me to speechlessness and tears. It's like dancing one's thoughts to God instead of speaking or singing them. I've learned a little ASL to use in choreography, and I've often wished I were fluent in it. Sometimes, if a song really gets inside me (and I'm alone), I make up my own sign language to offer it back to God.

Thanks once again for being such an astute observer in your world and sharing your insights with the rest of us. I love your willingness to approach strangers and strike up meaningful conversation, even if it requires an interpreter. I've told you before that you make me want to live more aware. You also make me want to engage more. These are gifts to me, and I thank you.

Have a beautiful week.

FaithBarista Bonnie said...

I love watching our ASL interpreter sign during the worship music. She sits up front, and everyone can see. It is beautiful and always moves me. I love reaching out my hands to heaven, inspired by them, as I sing and I feel my heart open, as I let go of my stiffness. They are the ones who help me hear.

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Lovely post. Thanks, Billy.

KM Wilsher said...

"Those who have ears let them hear". . .
HE was never speaking of audible sounds.
Great post, Billy ;)
It's great to experience through your eyes and words!

jasonS said...

I have to agree- with Billy's post then Keystone's comment- I feel very full right now. Just tremendous...

Mich said...

Beautiful post.

As someone who grew up with 4 deaf great aunts and uncles, I really could appreciate this post. there was a church who offered this service in the same town my family lived in. they have all passed on, but It is nice to know that someone took the time every Sunday to share God's beautiful words to them.

I am so glad I stopped by!

Heart2Heart said...


Thanks for your link to Billy's Interview from yesterday. It's hard to think that there are still people who have never visited him and read his stories.

The world is such a better place for people like you and Billy. Thank you for hosting his blog writings on Monday. It's a treasure I look forward to everyday.

Love and Hugs ~ Kat

Anonymous said...

Love this post Billy!
Yesterday after our guest speaker finished his amazing sermon the worship team came back up to do one last song. The Pastor asked us to stand up (which always feels good after sitting so long) and we did. My husband gave me an odd look which immediately directed my attention 1 row up and over from us. This is when the real sermon began (as well as my tears) was the young woman who always sits in her wheelchair in the front row, inflicted with numerous physical ailments which would prevent her from standing on her own...but her friend quickly unstrapped her then lifted her up underneath her arms and let her praise God...hands raised and 'dancing' like the rest of us!

Beth E. said...

I guess there's a big difference between hearing and listening, huh? God is all around us! He can meet us right where we are...with all of our imperfections and handicaps...and speak to us. Whether or not we listen is a matter of the heart. :-)

I'll be thinking about this post the rest of the day, Billy. I'm looking forward to reading your book!

Anonymous said...

this is nice...

Sparrow said...

I'm glad Joanne sent me over to read this. I love reading both your experience and Kaystone's responce. I, too, find that sometimes ASL can express emotions even better than English, though I suppose there are always some things lost in translation, no matter what languages are being used. As an interpreter student, it's a big responsibility and honor to be the one to make that interpretation, and definately forces us to not just hear, but listen for meaning.

lynnmosher said...

I once wrote an article for our church paper when my husband and I guided new members who were deaf through an interpreter, as we worked with the new member ministry. Awesome experience!

We also have a large section for the hearing impaired at our church. Sometimes, when I'm able to go, I cannot sing; I just stand and watch these precious praisers. I am always so touched that I forget to breath.

We have one precious soul that I love to watch as he sings with his hands. He has so much emotion. I once told him that I wished I could sing as beautifully as he does!

Thanks again, Billy, for an awesome observation of life. Be blessed...