Sound and Silence

when necessary, use words


December 2006

A Worthy Worship 6 – In Work, Play, Church, World, In All.

Reflections on the everyday by Rob Mills

I have come to realise that it is impossible to move toward a more worthy form of worship without taking on the issues of how we percieve life, ourselves, and G-d. Without doing this, without reflecting on the life we live, I doubt that the growth required for a healthy spirituality is possible.

The single most pernicious factor militating against a Worthy Worship is the idea that our world is divided into parts; the religious part and the worldly part. This philosophically is known as dualism, it derives from Greek thinking where the “real” is always in opposition to the “ideal”.  

I say it is pernicious very intentionally – it is a weed with strong, long and deep roots that can take a lifetime to extract. This idea of division pervades all we do. It doesn’t help that we live in a scientific age where categories and hierarchies are the basis for knowledge. 

I am very interested in epistemology. This is the study or knowledge of knowledge itself. Its basic question is “How do we know?”. There are many answers to this question; the main two in the Western world are “I know because I think” (rationalism) and “I know because I observe” (empiricism). Others include “I know because I feel”, or “I know because I exist”. These ways of knowing are all valid.  

Another way of knowing is “I know because I believe”; faith is the basis of spiritual knowledge. “Faith is the evidence of things not seen and the substance of what is hoped for”, it is put in Hebrews. Moreover, it is important to realise that mere belief could be in anything. “I know because I am in relationship” underpins the fact that G-d is not just an idea but a being who knows and can be known. Desmond Tutu describes the African concept of ubuntu, where “a person is a person through other people”. 

If dualism is the sin, what is the right state of being that provides an effective framework for worship worthy of Creator G-d? Ouch, that’s the big question. Lets try to answer it in one quote; Paul talking about Jesus, Paul says “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven…” (Col 1).  The key word for this discussion is “All”. All things will be reconciled back to G-d. Everything on Earth and everything in Heaven. Everything. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

And there is neither sacred nor secular, between church and world, between nations and races, between work and play, between worship in a house of worship and worship in a house. In fact, the measure of your worship is how you approach the mundane. Are you glorifying God in your everyday home life, or while you do the unpleasant tasks like managing waste, doing routine chores, or doing that which demands sacrifice? 

If this sounds like we are not acknowledging the reality of categories of life, not taking all the natural polarities we encounter or think daily (work v play, friend v colleague, musician v not musician, heaven v hell, sinful v righteous) into account, we need to make sure we understand the difference between Dualism, and Dialectic. Dualism is a static demarcation between opposites. We are either one or the other. Dialectic, on the other hand, is a dynamic state of balance or tension between opposites. We are always moving between one and the other.  

Maybe this all boils down to the attitude with which we view life and its parts. Life as we know it has parts, do we accentuate those through dualism or work with G-d dialectically? Do I see a “heathen” or a “human with potential”. Do I see a consumer of art, or a creator? Do I see an unqualified layperson, or someone G-d says is a part of the priesthood of all believers?  A dualistic attitude is “He has left the church”. The dialectic approach would be “He is not as close to us as he was.” “She is not a musician” rather than “She listens to, enjoys and feels strongly about music.” 

I am not here proposing anarchy (no structures or rules), saying that anything goes, or that person 1 should be made treasurer, or that person 2 should therefore be qualified to lead a band. Qualification and quality are very important in maintaining trust, or making an activity worthy. What I am trying to emphasize is that a worthy worship is not possible with a dualistic mindset. If we do not have a strong appreciation of “God in all things” our worship can not be whole hearted.  This means, if our notion of worship is only an activity that happens in a church meeting, it falls short.

If on the other hand we bring our lives to that meeting, that is the substance of all we are and is happening to us, at home, in a family, amongst friends, facing enemies, at work, in the marketplace, our struggles, our pain, where our passion lies, the things we loathe, like or love, books, movies, music, food, sport, the outdoors, technology, any number of activities that give us life, as consumers and as creators, if we bring these things to a meeting and they find some sort of expression, we will then start to enter the fullness that is the inheritance of the children of G-d. If we can truly embrace the “All”, I believe that the depth and breadth of our expressions of worship will be hugely expanded, and move towards that state of a worthy expression.


A Worthy Worship 5 – A Poetic God

There are many to whom “Poetry” is that flowery quarter of the garden of life where the sensitive ones go to think sensitive thoughts, while they go about the real business of life, organizing, negotiating, doing battle, surviving. To be sure, poetry itself is hard work, most of us were forced to learn this in school. Its not as though one can easily find an hour to read and decode just 14 lines of a sonnet, for example. Why make all that work for yourself, on top of all the demands of making a living? It just sounds like masochism. 

As a teenager, I discovered my way with words, and started to write with great earnestness, trying to emulate those I had been exposed to – Hopkins and ee cummings are two I recall. At the same time, I started my life long commitment to music and song. By my early 20’s I had decided that I would throw my weight into songwriting, and not pure poetry. Poetry is an art form in decline, I reasoned. 

It has only been in the last few years that I have come to refer to myself as a poet again. Not however because I have started writing any, but because my view of the poetic has broadened to the extent that I recognize the presence of, or at least a relationship to poetry, in all I do. I call this the Aesthetic. (The word comes from the Greek word αισθητική meaning a perceiver or sensitive, and is traditionally a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty). 

In considering this Aesthetic, this set of principles by which to live, what is important is not so much poetry – the creative use of image and idea in print – but rather, the Poetic. It is not a technique of language, but a set of guiding principles for a life worth living. It affects our words, for sure, but it plays a key role in our communication; written, spoken, and nonverbal, our quality of life and ultimately in our spirituality and our worship.  

I have been involved to some degree in the practice of communal music making in churches, on and off, for more than 25 years. There have been some times where I felt a genuinely creative outpouring, but on the whole, when I encounter so-called “Worship Music” I am left with questions rather than solace or elevation. And I think I now know what that question is … Where is the Poetry? 

I’ll say it straight out – I believe in a Poetic God, who is worshipped and served poetically. According to the gospel of John, “You will worship God in Spirit and in Truth.” This spirit, this truth, is a creative and a communicating spirit, greatly interested not only in what is said, but also in how it is said. 

So do you have to be a poet, or have to like poetry, in order to worship? No, but what you do need is an Aesthetic. OK, so then do you need to be a philosopher to worship? No, you need to be a perceiver. One who sees, savors, learns and appreciates. Having an aesthetic is a key to being human. I have a feeling that not many people are going to agree whole heartedly with me on this. Let me offer some reasons why having an aesthetic may not be considered that important or relevant:

  • Primarily, most of us in the world are “just trying to survive”. Survival is a full time job and more, for many it can be a desperate fight. This needs to be acknowledged, but I believe that everyone has the capacity or call to live at least some of their life beyond the “survival” mode.
  • The fear of pain – the opposite of aesthetic is of course anesthetic, and having an aesthetic means opening up to all that is potential painful.
  • A belief that it is better to view life in black and white rather than looking at shades of grey, this simplifying approach does help us avoid lifes inherent complexity.
  • A lack of curiosity, fear of taking responsibility, plain laziness, and thus defaulting to the “group” way of thinking. 

We need therefore to ask, what constitutes the Poetic? It is a worthy exercise to examine the rudiments of poetry. This means the basic building blocks of how language is used by the Poet. Once we have a theoretical framework, we can start to apply the principles to living. The principles of poetry include figurative language (metaphor, allegory, irony), musical devices (rhyme and rhythm), and pattern. Some of these we use daily without acknowledging; others we might find hard to fit into current notions of worship. 

We may be surprised by how poetic the bible is. Or any Holy book for that matter…I am wanting to read the Koran to gage its sense of both history and the poetic. For where there is poetry, God dwells.  

I believe that if we take the poetic to heart, we will find ourselves in a new world; that of the Ongoing Creation. Words, conversations, movements, dramas, brand new combinations, fresh situations, new aspects of ourselves revealed, sounds and music, images and artworks, new ways of seeing God, spectacular vistas, beauty in the oddest places, points of view infused with hope. Things that we never imagined existed.

Worship, infused with the poetic, is a rich conversation. Think of the life inherient in a moment of awe or discovery – “Eureka!”, a deep deep howl of pain -“Why have you forsaken me?”, a fine musical conversation between master improvisors, the perfect dinner with loved friends.

If we desire this, this place beyond our wildest imaginations, then there is a lot to learn, or perhaps to unlearn, to get back to a place of awe and wonder, of wildness and potential. Poetry ultimately is not a skill for sophiticates, but a way of seeing the world, a way of seeing G-d. It might just be the ONLY way to avoid to state of being described in Isiah 6:9 – “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.”

My New Zouk

zouk.JPGI have a new instrument. An Irish Bouzouki, or Zouk. It’s a relative of the mandolin, having 4 courses (double stings) tuned (like the mandolin or violin but an octave down) G-D-A-E. This means that guitar chord shapes are not very helpful. But it is this fact I love – it forces you to follow your ear not your visual patterns.  

The Irish made this originally Greek instrument their own about 50 or 60 years ago. Donal Lunny is perhaps the Irish Bouzouki’s finest exponent. (Although Monthy Pythons Cheeze Shop Ensemble really catipulted the instrument family to fame). 

It has been used extensively by Celtic bands; a favourite example of mine is the Afro-Celt Sound System. I first decided I wanted one after hearing Blue States “Elios Therepia”.  

This is the first instrument I have commissioned. I asked Dave Shapiro (of Porterville, Western Cape) to build me one after seeing his work. He delivered it last weekend, and boy is it a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. It is made of Kiaat (a local hard wood) for the back and sides, Cedar for the top, and Indian Rosewood for the fretboard.

In this last week I have put bazouki parts down on 5 tracks on my new album, it now feels complete – I had imagined this sound long before I actually had the instrument. More on the recording project later, for those who are interested.

I love these times of newness – so much comes out of them. So many new ideas, themes, sounds. I have taken to acquiring instruments in the last 5 years. Up until that time I aspired towards “specialization”, I have played guitars and saxophones since I was 16, that’s almost 30 years ago. My liberation from specialization came when my wife Ann bought me a mandolin for my 40th birthday.

Since then I have added to my collection a charango (Bolivian stringed instrument traditionally crafted from the shell of armadillo), a bass clarinet, a set of Indian tablas (2 hand played drums), a tunable didgeridoo, and ectara (One stringed Indian instrument), a wonderful Upright Piano (Grotrian Steinweg) which we inherited from Anns aunt, and many more hi-tech electronic tools – Korg Kaoss pad, plus various software systems – Native Intrument’s Reaktor and Abletons Live for example. 

Everyone should take up a new instrument every few years – it’s a great creative tonic. 

Anyone out there done this recently?

A Worthy Worship 4 – Intimacy

Rolf Lislevand - lute

With what attentive courtesy he bent
Over his instrument
Not as a lordly conqueror who could
Command both wire and wood,
But as a man with a loved woman might,
Inquiring with delight
What slight essential things she had to say
Before they started, he and she, to play.

Frances Cornford, “The guitartist tunes up.”

Here we have some images reflecting an artist at work. Or to be exact, involved in the preparations for work. Happily for Rolf Listlevand, seen above tuning his lute, work is play.

What I notice above all things is his attitude. He bends his ear to the body of the instrument, listening for things that very few people might be aware of. He listens for that moment when 2 frequencies become one, vibrate in perfect unison.

This act is almost impossible when there is any distracting noise. It requires a space and a time completely given over to the task, to the relationship between the artist and his instrument. 

These days, given the high levels of energy implicit in much publicly consumed music, we have given this ritual over to technology. We use digital tuners which tell us visually whether a string is in tune or not. I refer to many types of music, but not the classical kind – here the ritual of tuning up retains its currency. Think the Western orchestra, or the Indian Classical ensemble.

So what is so arresting about this mans attitude? For one, it demonstrates commitment, representing years of practice and discipline. It demonstrates respect, respect for the music about to be rendered, the instrument, the exchange. Above all, and incorporating these two aspects, it is an act of intimacy. 

The comparison with an intimate relationship between 2 people as expressed in Cornford’s poem, and the element of play involved in that relationship, is very powerful. It brings the respect shown to a thing or an abstract idea, into the realm of the personal.

It may be a truism but it remains worth saying, that one of the most sacred experiences we can have is an intimate relationship with a lover.  What underpins the power of sex? Here are two answers to this question:

Firstly, it ensures the survival of the species, it leads to procreation. And second, the sexual urge draws to our attention a yearning for intimacy. And the ultimate intimacy is divine intimacy with the Creator. 

I would go as far as to say that the ultimate goal and prize of all spirituality is not escape from damnation, not even the achieving of perfection, but it is defined relationally, in terms of intimacy. And all worship needs to have this as its goal.

Intimacy is a frightening proposition. Fairly scary for women, and terrifying for men, if I may allude to common stereotypes. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, says the book of Hebrews.

Is this because the living God is a vengeful, malicious megalomaniac? I suggest that the answer lies in the fact of Holiness. G-d (at least the God of the Bible) is by definition holy, and that which is less than holy is simply unable to survive in that reality, like straw in the presence of fire. 

But we need to be clear, holiness is not achieved by good works or self-sanctification, it is the gift of G-d in Christ, experienced through faith… this is the heart of the Christian gospel.

I hope that the relation ship between holiness and intimacy is emerging.  Although the Holy G-d can not countenance sin, we are asked to present ourselves, present our whole heart. This means that we bring every part, the light and the dark, all our blemishes, doubts and failings.

Intimacy may be about holiness, but it is not about perfection.  If I am 90% light and 10% darkness, and I present my light, happy-shiny 90% in worship, am I better than he who is 60% light and 40% darkness but presents 100% in worship?

True intimacy in worship involves the whole heart, including what is fallen. In fact it is these very blemishes which are ironically becoming to G-d, and it is an act, perhaps the greatest act, of courage and of faith, for anyone to allow another into the darkness of their secrets.

Religion encourages us to look and act the part of a holy person; but G-d asks for all of us including the our down and dirty secrets. If we were to say that it takes two to be intimate, we will have made some progress. But I believe the journey far goes beyond this. 

Intimacy should become an expression not just of an individual and their God, or of two individuals, but need to become an expression of community as well. It needs to become a quality of life in a group of people.

Worship should enable this process.  And furthermore, as paradoxical as it may sound, we need to become intimate with the cosmos itself. By understanding that the whole created order is not something separate from our relationships with people, our worship will reference the world, the whole of creation.

Righteousness is not a moral achievement, it an awareness. It means to be in right relationship with all that is. If we are becoming friends with G-d how can we not care for the ongoing work of G-d, the ongoing act of creation. This involves restoration of damage, be it relational, ecological, psychological or in any other domain, but more so the ongoing act of creation, in all its forms.

If we strive then for a worship of righteousness, of rightness, in closeness with life, this sense of harmony will begin to emerge. And then we can with our maestro, perhaps begin, “Inquiring with delight what slight essential things she had to say” …

A Worthy Worship 3 – Space and Silence

Deep Sky by Rob Mills

What do we mean by silence? Is it an escape from modern life – traffic, kids or insessant demands? Is it the choice of lifestyle for those called to contemplation? Is it perhaps that terrible state in which all our worst fears come out to taunt us? Is it a Rule called “shhh!”? Or simply the “absence of noise”?

Partly. Actually, not really. The most appropriate understanding of the term, for me, refers to an awareness and inner discipline, a backdrop against which all spirituality is allowed to take place.

It is not necessarily a protracted period of low decibels, it is not necessarily vacuous. It is not a place of dread, but of faith; not a vocation, but a practice; not an escape, but a place to be entered into; not a nirvana without desire, but all about Yearning; certainly not a legislated law, for it is suffused with Grace; and not merely defined in negative – it is not an Absence, but the ultimate, in fact, in Presence.

And Space? Well I’m sure you are seeing that space and silence are closely related. Silence exists in the realm of sound and language; space in the realm of the Earth, our Habitat, and how we order our immediate environment. Silence has to do with waves and space with matter, if you like. And Light, which is both wave and matter – well that’s another tangent for another time.

Everyone knows what it means to “give some space”. It has to do with courtesy, respect, and ultimately love. It has its phobias – claustrophobia is the fear of enclosed spaces, and agoraphobia of open spaces.

It might be helpful to ask, what is noise? What can we identify as militating against the practices of the spirit? Here are a few ideas, a few “sins against Space and Silence”:  

Verbosity – saying it in 200 words when 20 would do. Saying it at all when silence would do. More words, and less communication. This is often brought about by the lack of trust in or confusion about what is being said, so it is over emphasized. Or the lack of the ability to say “I don’t know.” Or, simply, the fear of silence.

Cliché  – the regurgitation of someone’s tired idea, or a tired interpretation of anything new. An indication of the fear of finding ones own meaning, of forging ones own vocabulary.

Clutter and Consumerism  The accumulation of stuff made by some corporation dedicated to profit, with no authentic feeling for the product or artifact at all, in order to fill some fear of being without.

Machismo – The forcing of the self onto the world, to make up for the fact that one does not really believe in ones own worth; hiding behind a wall of sound, to escape the responsibility of being alive.

Unless we develop and cultivate a feeling for space and silence, we will not become worshippers. The Creator inhabits not temples of stone, but the praise of people, the worship of those who believe and belong to him-her. In fact, even inert rock worships.

Is it enough to say, “I am quoting from the BIBLE, this is worship. This hymn is from the HYMNBOOK, of course its worship. We’re in a church, aren’t we? Can’t you see that this is a religious activity, you querulous infidel?”

Well, yes, I can see a religious activity; it’s just that God seems somewhat absent from it, all the religous noise has made it impossible to hear anything of value.

When I listen to the story, the pain or the joy, of another, I create space. When I hold my response, when I am patient, so as to give them time to formulate their thoughts, their questions, I create space. When I listen to the birds, the wind, when I watch the ripples in the grass, I create space. When I allow myself or another to question, verbally or otherwise, without rushing in with a solution, I create space.

When I lay a table with a vase of freshly picked flowers, I create an environment for community. When I allow an instrument to reverberate, to let it interact with its environment, when I don’t impose a response on one hearing my songs, when I let words breathe, and my ego steps back, when I am lost in the wonder of a child’s imagination, when I take a path less worn, honor my curiosity, when I listen, look, or savor, a space emerges which begins to give way to a worthy worship.

Listen to “Space in the World”, off my album “The middle of it all”.

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