‘I can’t believe I get to be part of something so beautiful’

A tender story about the joy of singing punctuates Monday presentations during the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship and Music Conference

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by David Beale via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — It’s Tom Trenney’s job to deliver the Routley Lecture each day this week during the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship and Music Conference. Rather than lecture students meeting both in person at Montreat Conference Center and online during his opening talk on Monday, Trenney told them a story from a few years back about a college student of his named Summer.

A first-year student, Summer asked Trenney if she could join one of the choirs he led, a choir made up of women who hadn’t made the grade for the university’s top performing choir. Of course, he told her. Just go see the registrar. Summer told him she’d been ridiculed all her life for her horrible singing. Trenney’s strategy preparing for the choir’s upcoming concert was to place Summer between two of the best sopranos. The strategy worked.

“They sang so beautifully that night,” said Trenney, the minister of music at First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, and an assistant professor of music at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He’d recorded the concert, and played a song set to the poetry of Emily Dickinson for the class the day after. He asked students for their thoughts. Summer’s was the first hand he saw.

“I can’t believe,” Summer told her instructor and classmates, “I get to be part of something so beautiful.”

“Based on that reflection,” Trenney said Monday, “she understood music ministry better than all the rest of us.”

Tom Trenney

Trenney is labeling his five talks “And May God Give Us the Faith to Sing Always.” He calls Fred Rogers, himself a gifted and creative musician, his “spiritual superhero.”

“I often wear sweaters,” Trenney said with a wide grin, “and as an organist I frequently change shoes.”

Even Mister Rogers’ producers used to urge the Presbyterian pastor and children’s television pioneer to speed up his on-air cadence. But Rogers stayed with his trademark pace. “He understood dead airtime was actually very live airtime,” Trenney said. “Sometimes we need silence.”

Choir members singing together in their sanctuary or rehearsal space do their deepest listening in those spaces, Trenney said. “Unless you’re taking a yoga class, the choir can be one of the few places where people are thinking about their breath,” Trenney said. “Evan if you take in twice as much air [than usual], there’s still plenty for everyone else.”

Picture how hunched over we are sitting in our work cubicle tapping our computer keys while talking on our phone, Trenney suggested. “Think how that minimizes you,” Trenney said. “When people come to a singing space, their bodies open and rise … How blessed are we to encourage people to that space!”

Taking it to the church

The Rev. Meg Flannagan, co-pastor St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C., is working each afternoon to give conference attendees ideas on how to bring what they’re learning back to their local context.

the Rev. Meg Flannagan

Take hymn 808, Flannagan suggested, found in the hymnal “Glory to God” (on which Flannagan worked hard as a PC(USA) national staff member to bring to Presbyterian congregations). That hymn, “When Memory Fades,” set to the tune Finlandia, talks about God’s memory and arms upholding us even as our own memory fades. If worshipers find the hymn too emotionally fraught to sing, encourage them to hum along, Flannagan said. “If people are emotional, you give them space to feel all the feels without the pressure to get all the words out,” Flannagan said. “We have so many words in worship. Give people space to participate in a different way.”

Flannagan also suggested preachers and others designing worship services pause three or four times each year to “intentionally use expansive words for God,” such as those found in the Scots Confession, now more than 450 years old, and, more recently, in Carlton R. Young and Brian Wren’s hymn, “Bring Many Names.”

Preaching, teaching — same thing, right?

the Rev. CeCe Armstrong

Conference preacher the Rev. CeCe Armstrong, associate pastor at St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C., drew on her 17 years teaching math before entering ordained ministry to explore comparisons between teaching and preaching. Armstrong said she taught her students mnemonic devices, including a cheer, complete with hand motions, to help them remember the formula for determining the slope of a line.

As a preacher, she uses alliterative mnemonic devices to help her craft sermons. She cited three methods: Entrance, Explore, Explain and Exit; Think, Talk, Try and Take; and Sketch, Study, Show and Share.

“Y’all go ahead and preach these sermons and write these lessons,” Armstrong said near the end of the 50-minute class.

Read other stories about PAM’s Worship and Music Conference here, here and here. The conference continues both in person and online through Friday.

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