Tension and Resolution


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A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October 1, 2017, World Communion Sunday and the final sermon in the series “Composition 101.”

Text: Exodus 14:10-16, 21-31

Tension. It’s something we all experience regardless of age or situation in life. An infant feels tension between need and satisfaction of that need. As we grow, we experience tension in relationships, often as the result of disagreement, confusion, resentment, or hurt feelings. Tension exists in our bodies and in our thoughts. There are places of tension in our church and denomination. And then there is the world around us. There’s tension… between nations, between parties, between regions, between races, between competing priorities, between the NFL and the president of the United States.

Tension is everywhere and affects us all the time. And tension isn’t always bad. It can be value neutral, as in the tension that arises when you know something’s inevitable but don’t know when; or in the midst of unpredictability—the tension of now knowing how things will turn out.

And tension can also be healthy and positive. For example, to “hold perspectives in tension” as you discern how to move forward is a healthy practice. There will always be tension in times of growth and change—whether that’s in an individual’s life, a family, a congregation, or a culture. Just as the tension of a rubber band increases as it is stretched, so when we are stretched to learn new roles, skills, or capacities, there is tension. There is always tension in the becoming, in the in-between times, in moments of waiting and anticipation.

The more aggressive, destructive tensions in our lives and world can be devastating if not resolved or relieved in some way. And while other tensions can be neutral and even ultimately positive, acute tension is generally not a comfortable place to dwell for the long haul.

Tension also shows up in music. One theorist suggests that musical tension is analogous to tension in general. Things like disharmony in relationships, inevitability, and unpredictability find their way into compositions, creating a feeling of tension. The most obvious way this shows up is in what’s called harmonic tension—a relationship between pitches that creates a sound or feeling of dissonance. Stanley gave me a couple of examples of this—what’s called the minor second or major seventh (have him play these intervals). This is a form of harmonic tension that can be very dramatic.

A piece of music can employ harmonic dissonance or tension throughout, creating sometimes a sense of dread or discomfort, sometimes a feeling of melancholy, other times a sense of mist and mystery, the unseen, unknown… and, often at the very end of the piece, the harmonic tension—the dread, sadness, or confusion—“resolves,” the relationship of pitches shifts, creating a different sound and experience, like light breaking through the cloud, like scales falling from eyes, like a clenched fist opening to receive a gentle gift. (Stanley plays/choir sings an example)

This is called “resolution.” In my quickfire study of musical tension and resolution, I was struck by what I learned about something called the “tonic” note. The tonic note is like the hub on a bicycle wheel, it’s the center around which the rest of the composition is built, connected, and held secure. The tonic note is the pitch on which the music sounds finished. (speak to Stanley) Can you play middle C on the keyboard? That will be the tonic note. Now play C- F - G - F in a loop. Now see what happens if you simply stop after the final F. It doesn’t seem finished, right? It's ‘hanging”… it is unresolved. Stanley, how about the traditional “Amen” chords at the end of hymns? (play…) This is simple, subtle, resolution.

Resolution in music is that moment when tension is relieved, when there is a sense of rightness, of completion. It is achieved by bringing the piece of music into relationship with the “tonic”—the homebase, the center.[i]

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve talked about musical composition, applying it as a metaphor for the life that God creates, the life we share. In that metaphor, life and the whole creation is God’s love song. God’s creative love is the “melody,” God’s saving grace is the “rhythm,” and God’s empowering, eternal presence with us is the ostinato, the “stubborn” repeated reality undergirding the whole thing. We are made to sing and dance, to live, love, and serve in harmony with God, others, and earth. God’s love is the “tonic note” in the song. God’s overflowing love, wanting to be shared, powerful to create and recreate life, to wake us up and set us free—that love is the center of the song, the center of life, the hub around which everything connects and is held. But as with almost every musical composition, there is tension in the song. To illustrate, we look to our text for today.

Last week, we met Moses and witnessed the moment when God called him to return to Egypt and lead the enslaved Israelites to freedom. Between that moment and today’s story, Moses brings God’s simple message to Pharoah: “Let my people go.” Pharaoh refuses. Pharaoh is given 10 different opportunities to relent—plagues are showered upon Egypt, but Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he refuses to free the slaves. Finally, following the last plague—a plague that takes the life of Pharaoh’s son—he tells Moses to take the people and go. But once Israel has gone, the Pharaoh changes his tune, “What have I done letting Israel leave?!” And he mounts up in his chariot and leads all the chariots and armies of Egypt to recapture the freed slaves. (Ex 7-14)

Our “classic” story today picks up right there, at the moment of the Israelite exodus when the sea is in front and the Egyptian army is closing in behind. The people are quick to cry to the Lord in fear and to doubt Moses. They even argue that it would have been better to remain in slavery than to meet this fate. But, as the story goes, God is with the Israelites and brings them to safety, moving the waters aside so that they can cross on dry ground. The mighty Egyptians—following a leader who could have made a different choice—get stuck in the mud and perish.

There is tension all over this story. There is the dissonance of broken human relationship, of oppression. There is the dissonance of the inhuman impulse to enslave other members of our human family, of hearts hardened against compassion and care. There is pride and greed, the senseless commitment to violence that leads to seashores covered with the broken, lifeless bodies of God’s beloved ones.

There is also the tension created by the unpredictable, the unexpected—the thing we don’t really understand and can’t explain in the story. Did the waters really miraculously “form a wall”—in the Cecil B. DeMille kind of way? Was that some fluky weather event—like the mysterious fog and wind that allowed General Washington’s Hail Mary move in 1776—the crossing of the East River—to go undetected by the British? Or perhaps it was a natural ebb and flow (like the tides of Lindisfarne) that occurred right on time…

There is the tension of the people moving from slavery to freedom—and the fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability that ensues when stepping out of the dark, out of the closet, out of shame, out of destructive relationships, and into a new identity, a new reality, into freedom from the familiar bondage.

Tension abounds. Where is the resolution?

Some might think that resolution is found in the destruction of the enemy. “Ding dong, the witch is dead.” But that is not God’s song. God’s song—remember!—is a song of love that creates and recreates, a song of grace and mercy, a song of steadfast presence, a song that calls us to risk joining in. There is healthy tension in God’s song—a natural result of growth and change and newness. Unhealthy tension is added when God’s own children seek to silence the song, to dehumanize and demonize others, to shut the mouths of prophets and poets, to bind the little ones so they cannot dance, to beat down the vulnerable so they cannot step into freedom. But whatever the tension, the resolution in God’s song will always be tuned to the tonic note of love and will always result in liberation, in greater freedom. Freedom to love more, to forgive, to be brave, humble, sacrificial, generous, gracious, honest, freedom to be more truly and fully ourselves as God creates and calls us to be. The resolution in the story—and in God’s song—happens in the crossing over—from slavery to freedom, from fear to trust, from hatred to love, from death to life.

The resolution in God’s song is like emerging from deep under water and taking a full breath, like stepping out of the chill and confusion of a fog into the warmth and illumination of the sun, like glimpsing—even for a moment—what is possible if we were to truly drink in the tonic, the originating note that is God’s love. What a song we are created to sing! The melody is God’s creative love, the rhythm is God’s gracious love, the ostinato is God’s ever-present love, the resolution is God’s liberating love. We might name this song, “Communion.”

[i] Grateful for the following sites that provided info and insight on musical tension and resolution: https://www.quora.com/What-is-tension-in-music-and-how-do-you-teach-it; http://www.bluesguitarinsider.com/learn-to-play-blues-guitar/tension-and-resolution-the-essence-of-the-blues-and-all-music; https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonic_(music); https://www.britannica.com/art/tonic-music

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