Saturday, July 23, 2011

Don't Bang the Drum

"It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Shakespeare’s description, voiced by Macbeth, of the futility of life reminds me of how we in modern times live our lives enveloped in the continuous noise of TV and music and talk radio and email and the web and social networking and advertising. There is lots of sound and fury; much of it signifying nothing.

I’ve been learning, over the last few years, to embrace silence and emptiness instead of filling in the spaces with “sound and fury”. It is in the emptiness and the silence that I sense God and--sometimes--hear the "still small voice". It can be challenging. I’ve been conditioned over a lifetime--perhaps even addicted--to stimuli. But as time goes by I find myself more and more drawn towards silence and emptiness.

I read recently that if you count the rests, more than half of Beethoven's music consists of silence. In a commencement address to the Berklee School of Music, Sting said the following: "I'm wondering whether, as musicians, the most important thing we do is merely to provide a frame for silence. I'm wondering if silence itself is perhaps the mystery at the heart of music? And is silence the most perfect music of all?"

In the Quaker tradition, worship gatherings are built around silence. Silence plays a central role. Robert Lawrence Smith describes a Quaker meeting thusly:

“The traditional Quaker form of silent group worship has no parallel in other religions and has changed very little since the seventeenth century. What others call a religious “service”, Friends [Quakers] call a “Meeting for Worship”, emphasizing that there is no liturgy and that worshippers come together as equal participants … Quakers are unique in their appreciation of the spiritual power of group silence … Quaker Meeting uses shared silence as a medium of group discovery, as a way of sharing ourselves with others – and with God.”

How different a one hour Quaker "silent" meeting is from the one hour church services that I used to attend where every moment was filled with something. There could be no silences; no dead air. The services were a whirlwind of songs, an opening prayer, announcements, a sermon, a closing prayer, a closing song and “see you next week”. There seemed to be an almost palpable fear of allowing any emptiness to encroach.

Emptiness and silence bring uncertainty. What will happen? Will God speak? Will someone fall asleep or fail to be entertained? Will someone do something inappropriate? When we embrace emptiness we must relinquish control.

Lorraine, the pastor of the Quaker meeting I belong to, tells the story about the time she showed up to church on Sunday morning with laryngitis. She didn't realize she had lost her voice overnight because she hadn't spoken to anyone until she got there. It was no big deal. Rather than scramble for someone to fill in, the meeting just embraced the silence. In silent worship we wait and listen. If God prompts someone--anyone--to speak, they are encouraged to do so. But everyone is also encouraged to not speak unless they feel strongly that God is prompting them to. Better to have holy silence than words spoken for the sake of filling space. It reminds me of a great worship song by Scott Underwood that says, "We will stand back and let you move, stand back and see what you will do."

I was in the car today, not embracing silence but listening to The Waterboys. One of the songs jumped out at me. I have no idea what the songwriter was referring to when he wrote this, but to me, “Don’t Bang the Drum” is an apt metaphor for letting go of all the sound, the fury and the busy-ness to instead embrace the emptiness, the silence and the uncertainty.

Don’t Bang the Drum
(by Scott / Wallinger, © 1986 Ensign Records Ltd.)

Well here we are in a special place
What are you gonna do here?
Now we stand in a special place
What will you do here?
What show of soul are we gonna get from you?
It could be deliverance, or history
Under these skies so blue
Could be something true
But if I know you
You'll bang the drum
Like monkeys do

Here we are in a fabulous place
What are you gonna dream here?
We are standing in this fabulous place
What are you gonna play here?
I know you love the high life
You love to leap around
You love to beat your chest and make your sound
But not here man, this is sacred ground
With a Power flowing through
But if I know you
You'll bang the drum
Like monkeys do

Here we stand on a rocky shore
Your father stood here before you
I can see his ghost explore you
I can feel the sea implore you
Not to pass on by
Not to walk on by
And not to try
Just to let it come
Don't bang the drum
Just let it come
Don't bang the drum
Just let it come…

(This was originally posted in December of 2006 and has been revised somewhat)


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