Sunday, February 21, 2010

The "Sound" of Silence

A few of my more recent posts regarding spirituality have centered around conduct in meeting itself, and I would like to take the opportunity to note that I do not envision my role as that of martyr or chief complainer. I'd very much rather us get along, but sometimes that goal is complicated by a few who misinterpret my messages. My motives in documenting these, to be frank, jarring confrontations stem from love and with it the hopes that others who may have experienced similar situations in their own faith journeys might recognize that they are not alone. I feel certain that many of you have had to make a rough compromise with your faith gathering of choice, knowing that while most of your fellow worshipers are convivial and friendly, a few of them are not. Indeed, I refuse to let those who set themselves up in antagonistic positions based on their own unfounded fears and anxieties jeopardize my own prayerful, spiritually moving experience.

To wit, those of you who attend more traditional services whereupon a minister, rabbi, imam, vicar, priest, or other singular figure is the sole person responsible for an extended talk/sermon might find unprogrammed Quaker service a bit of an adjustment. If the laity were not merely encouraged, but also expected to bring their own vocal ministries forth into active worship, one wonders what group dynamics would be expressed. Too often what suffices for freedom of expression among fellow believers is stifled or discouraged by passive-aggression both before and after service, and it might be a disquieting experience if people directly stated their opinions in the middle of service itself. One wonders what elephants in the room might be pointed out and what these might say about the spiritual gathering as a whole, or, for that matter, those individuals who comprise it.

To be sure, vocal ministries in Quaker worship are not really supposed to put anyone in their place or instruct as to them where they have strayed, but some with a vested interest in the way things have always been seem to be quite willing to use it in that fashion. I think I understand now evermore why change is so threatening for so many people. For some, change is perceived as a zero sum game. For others, it is a needed, collective effort towards reform and equality. I fall into the latter camp, as do most of my fellow Friends, but there is a decidedly vocal minority who side with the former. I suppose they have their reasons.

I could always ignore the compulsion from the Inward Light of God and not even bother speaking forth the messages it bids me say. But if I did so, I would be acting in direct contradiction to the Spirit itself. To be blunt, though it frequently comes across as an unwelcome admonition when someone invalidates my own message, I try as hard as I can not to judge. It is never pleasant being lectured by someone who can't see beyond his/her own tunnel vision enough to not take a very small sliver of a larger point completely out of context.

I was certainly glad that others in meeting came to my defense, as they have come to my defense before, but I honestly would rather they hadn't had a need to do so. Meeting is not a battleground. Meeting is not a time to snipe at others. Indeed, the irony of all is that my message was a rather tame one, all things being equal. I spoke, in part, about how I appreciated everyone's contribution to First Hour and noted that there was a sort of freedom inherent in an unprogrammed worship service setting, structured as it is so that there isn't a very regimented litany of hymns to sing, passages to recite, Bible verses to read, and all of the other programmed features of Christ-centered worship I grew up observing.

I concluded by mentioning that I took the messages I heard on Sunday with me through the rest of the week and took the time to ponder them. This was taken by one Friend as meaning I was somehow implying that anything went with Quakerism and that we had no established rules of worship. Furthermore, she continued, my message must have been incomplete and not well thought-out. My conclusion was clearly wrong, and she clearly knew better than I did. That interpretation was in such direct contradiction to the original intent that it took me several minutes to understand how the Friend had even arrived at that conclusion in the first place.

When situations like these arise, my immediate thought is to what precisely God is teaching me. Having had several hours since this morning to contemplate the matter, I think He was showing me, yet again, the reasons why change, real change, is so difficult to achieve. In these times, we've all been wondering why we haven't gotten the necessary reform measures passed through Congress and enacted for everyone's benefit. Within the context of an individual faith group, one has a chance to view what life is like from the the inside, not the outside. The personalities, problems, egos, rivalries, and maddening complexities of humanity are in full display there. It's no wonder than many take the path of least resistance, which in my case would be merely to sit down and shut up. But I refuse to do so.

Though Quaker service might be conducted in silence, this silence is not a passive one. It is a very active silence in which we commune with God. As I sat this morning and tried to make sense of what I had heard, my mind flashed to a familiar song by Simon & Garfunkle. Specifically, I recalled the last two verses of "The Sound of Silence".

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

"Fools," said I, "you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you"
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

Silence ought not be passive. Silence is active if we take from it what we are instructed by whichever Higher Power or Divine Guidance from which we draw spiritual guidance and solace. We can always choose to do nothing. When God instructs us to stand, speak, and be heard, we can always ignore it, as we are remarkably good at formulating evasive excuses and rationalizations. We have that freedom at our disposal and we also know that God speaks to us differently. I believe that He has a different plan for each of us and we have a choice whether to embrace it or not to embrace it. We can always push it aside for fear of being misunderstood or to avoid potential pain caused by those who do not understand and will lash out at us. We are granted a choice and it will always be ours and no one else's. To be a minister of any sort promises the best and the worst of humanity.

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