Sunday Sermon – 15 July 2018

Not Hearing is Not an Acceptable Excuse

For as many years as I can remember I have been a sufferer from a chronic medical condition which claims many victims, though it is seldom, if ever, fatal. The ailment, I suspect, is endemic. It knows no boundaries. It is found in every land and among all generations. Though the old are prone to it, the young are not immune. More common than the common cold, I believe it must have existed from ancient times. I have fears that our great-great-grand-children yet unborn will fall prey to it, for there is no sign that it is on the wane. Yet the cure is simple and the necessary treatment inexpensive. The remedy can be self-administered in the home, without the need to visit doctor’s surgery or hospital, if the will to be rid of the plague is firm enough.

What is this mysterious wide-spread epidemic from which so many of us suffer? It is often referred to by its acronym, SHL. Its full title is “selective hearing loss”, sometimes called “voluntary deafness”. It is triggered by the awkward question, or follows a request for help to which we find it inconvenient to respond. In truth it is not so much an illness as a convenient tool. “I didn’t quite catch what you said”, allows a few extra moments in which to compose an excuse. Or “I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear you”, “Oh, did you say something?”, are among the time-honoured phrases which reveal the disease has taken hold. Sometimes we say in aggrieved tones, as we seek to divert blame elsewhere, “Well, why didn’t you ask me?” This is an attempt to wrong-foot the accuser when we know full-well that the plea had been made and ignored.

Of course the condition can be a blessing if constructive use is made of it. There are occasions when to ignore a remark made in anger, out of spite or through thoughtlessness, by pretending not to hear it can calm a difficult situation. The non-response may prevent an indiscretion becoming a major incident. However, much more frequently, SHL, selective hearing loss, stems from selfish self-protection rather than indicating a concern to protect another from their folly.

Recently my hearing loss has become less selective and more actual, but that is another story. Like losing teeth, noting silver hairs among the grey, and complaining that newsprint is smaller than it used to be – it is just a milestone indicating the terminus is not as far away as it was a year or two ago.

The Israelites of old suffered from selective hearing loss. Why else, as the Old Testament reveals, did God preface his remarks, nay his commands, with the words “Hear, O Israel”, unless He thought they weren’t listening? That old phrase is now replaced by the injunction, a standard phrase in the teacher’s repertoire, “Now pay attention. Listen to me, carefully”.

Hearing, listening to what is being said, is an important aspect of life. It must be, because all the main political parties reiterate over and over again that theirs is a party for folk who listen to what people say. Whether they do or not might be a matter of opinion, but no aspiring politician dare say, “I am not listening to you. I suffer from SHL, and I am not seeking a cure just yet”.

But if listening, hearing, is a crucial aspect of civilised living, it is only a start. In itself it achieves little or nothing. In Romans 2 Paul writes in one of his many letters these cautionary words,

“It is not by hearing the law, but by doing it that man will be justified before God”

As we know Paul didn’t consider the possibility that woman might also seek justification before God. Equal opportunity was a concept still to be developed in the first century A.D

In biblical language the word “law” covers not merely the rules of the state and the requirements of religious observance, but also norms of what we might call Christian behaviour. This desirable mode of life is not, of course, confined to Christians, all religions warn against mere lip service, but most of us understand what is meant by that convenient piece of short-hand.. The law in this sense covers not only criminal acts – murder or theft – one’s obligations to the state – paying one’s taxes and advocating change by democratic means, – the demands of religious observance, but as Jesus constantly preached, love of one’s neighbours, coupled with understanding and charity are also matters of law.

So, though listening and hearing are essential first steps, it is not the end of the journey. It is a precursor to action.

It is not always easy to listen. It is not an original or profound observation to note that the world gets ever noisier. Sounds, most of them man-made, swirl around us. Traffic noise drums; overloud radio and television sets blare; background music in hotel, shop, supermarket, restaurant and hostelry whines on constantly; voices raised in anger beset our ears; triumphal applause and shouts of encouragement fill the sporting arena; machinery on building sites alternatively shrieks and rumbles. We are surrounded by din and, paradoxically, the louder the noise the less we hear. We switch off in self-defence. In our anxiety not to be deafened, we are in danger of hearing nothing. The plea for assistance and the cry for help are subsumed into a general background cacophony.

So, that is the excuse. Justification for failure to hear comes easier than admitting a failure to respond. Easier to say there was so much going on that I couldn’t tell what you were saying, than to admit to selective hearing loss. “I never heard you”, is so much more comfortable a position than, “I just didn’t want to know, so I stopped up my ears”.

And what is it we should listen to? Part of the answer I have already hinted at. The world is full of requests for help, voiced or implicit. Some minor, some major. Frequently the demand is small. A sympathetic ear, a direction sought by a stranger, a friendly word, a helping hand over a small obstacle, a moment or two of our time.

Other cries for assistance call for greater sacrifices on our part. This may mean giving time, maybe goods and money, sometimes commitment is requested; often all three are on the list. Hearing pleas challenges us to respond to the needs of others. In one of the church litanies, possibly used less frequently in our worship than was once the case, the congregational response went, “O Lord, hear our prayer”. There are many in the world who cry out to us, “Hear our prayer”. To ask God to react when we fail to hear those who call to us, is a form of hypocrisy which Jesus frequently condemned.

But listening and hearing is about more than responding to shouts for assistance. There are other voices to detect. One is commonly described as the still, small voice. It is the nagging of conscience. Sometimes it is a call for action; at other times a cautionary warning calling for restraint. Conscience preaches both of the things that ought to be done, as well as warning about that which should be left undone. The selective deaf frequently overlook the whisper. “Speak up, so I can hear you more clearly”, is a response infrequently given by SHL sufferers to the whispers of conscience. The voice may be small, but the pitch is such that the words come clearly enough. There are none so deaf as those who will not hear.

Then there is the voice of experience. In this context, hearing is broadened to encompass all forms of communication. There was a time when reading and writing was a skill only a few possessed. Books along with other written materials were scarce. The learning of others was passed on by word of mouth. Prophets and the preachers, wise men and women, relied on speech, the gift of tongues, to transmit their message. Human memory was the record book. But today wisdom, as well as much foolishness, is passed down through books galore, through media outlets present in every home. Telephones and computer screens proliferate, posters line the streets, and thoughts or opinions circle the world with the speed of light. Newsprint gobbles up whole forests every year.

There is such a lot to hear that inevitably much must, to use a cliché, go in one ear and out of the other. Selective hearing loss is an inevitable result. Indeed it becomes a proper defence against madness. It is not the hearing loss that is to be deplored; it is the way selection is made that needs to be regulated.

Clever men do not always speak wise words. Foolish folk may sometimes utter profound thoughts. Thousands of words are about trivia; others are barbs of malicious poison. Truth and falsehood exist side by side. Mischievous gossip needs be separated from human concern. Is the preacher leading the congregation towards false gods or to an better appreciation of the mysteries of creation? Is the message we hear leading to a more humane world, or to deeper divisions between brother and brother, sister and sister, nation and nation?

How do we know what to hear and what to ignore? There is no simple formula that will ensure that we always get it right, but I believe there are ways of testing our judgement. If we try to live our lives within a framework that recognises that there are things greater than we can understand; that we are surrounded by, and live within, a creative power which is a source of the moments of a deep peace which passes all understanding; then we start with a reverence for life and for the wonder of a universe in which that life exists.

If we believe that all people are created equal in the sight of God, if we believe that we are all brothers and sisters, neighbours one to the other, then our selective hearing starts with a reasonable chance of being right. That which we choose not to hear is tested as to whether it falls within or without the framework of our professed beliefs. Did we not hear because we did not want to be personally inconvenienced, or were we ignoring cruel or thoughtless words which distressed our neighbour?

Perhaps we cannot eliminate SHL, selective hearing loss, entirely and maybe we should not try to do so. Used wisely, it oils the wheels of human progress. I shall not, alas, always employ SHL with wisdom. I shall continue to make mistakes, deliberately or otherwise. I shall still, I admit, hear what is best ignored and ignore what ought to be heard. But I am trying not to benefit from the infliction, using it only for selfish advantage. I trust you are too.

C.J. Rosling 14 May 1999

Hucklow 16 May 1999; 26 February 2006
Mexborough 16 May 1999
Fulwood 12 September 1999
Chesterfield 6 August 2000
Upper Chapel 28 October 2001
Stannington 19 February 2006

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