Singing in Minor Key

Friday, November 30, 2018

My husband sometimes plays a silly frustratingly annoying game whereby he takes a song and sings it in minor key. He leaves the last line of the song in the discordant tones, and let me tell you, it feels like they echo throughout the entire room. It's haunting. It's unsettling. And, much to Aaron's glee, there's a rush to fill the uncomfortable, ensuing silence with the song re-sung in major key.

Minor key is uncomfortable. There's a reason why it's associated with funeral dirges. And The Rolling Stones (sorry, Stones fans). And it's because of this discomfort that we tend to shy away from them.

We are a culture of comfort; we ironically go to get lengths so as to avoid feeling even remotely uneasy. Call someone up on the phone to ask a question? Pass. Break from routine and sit in a new spot in a class or meeting? Pass. Go to the store across the street to purchase something instead of ordering through Amazon Prime? Pass.
Being honest and vulnerable with God, ourselves, and others about where we are spiritually? Pass, pass, pass.

It's no wonder, then, that the songs we sing in church are mostly praise and thanksgiving. We like the feel-good songs that proclaim wonder and awe for the wonderful things that God has done. We like the choruses that remember God's love and faithfulness. And while these are important and necessary components of worship, they should not be the sum of our entire liturgical practice. This is actually contrary to what we see in the whole witness of Scripture. As OT scholar Brueggemann says, "A church that goes on singing 'happy songs' in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does."*

The wisdom literature is full of poems and songs that are set in minor key. In fact, laments are the most common form of song in the book of Psalms, comprising over 40% of the psalms. In contrast, our worship tends to be reflective of the following [slightly dated, but nevertheless relevant] chart:
Psalm 44 is a prime example of singing in minor key. It accuses God of deserting his people even though they were faithful in keeping God's covenant. "Awake, Lord," it says. "Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?"

Can you imagine going to church and singing worship song like this that expressed doubt, pain, and despair? Yet, this psalm was a prescribed text of prayer for the Jewish people. They rightly understood that worship needs to recognize hurt, no matter how vulnerable or uncomfortable it may make us feel.

Our worship has lost touch with reality if we cannot express our pain and suffering.

Our full worship of God cannot be succinctly summarized by songs in major key; we also need to sit in our feelings of loss, doubt, hopelessness, and complaint and express these to God. 

And it is only when we express the sum of our entire human experience that we can move from lament to praise, from despair to trust.

When we do this, worship becomes uncomfortable because it is a paradox. Yet, by merging both the major and the minor key chords together, our worship can reach a whole new level of meaning and intimacy with God.

Sometimes we follow God with absolute devotion and we feel betrayed when we are not rewarded accordingly. We need to sing about our hurt AND our resolve to stay committed. 

Sometimes the situations in our lives are not immediately (or ever) resolved. We need to sing about our confusion AND our trust.

Sometimes we wonder whether God really hears us. We need to sing about our doubt AND our gratitude.

In our worship, let's get uncomfortable. Let's be honest and vulnerable. Let's start singing in minor key.

* Breuggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms. Augsburg Old Testament Studies. Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1984. 52.

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