Support our siblings affected by disaster, hunger and oppression through One Great Hour of Sharing.

Presbyterian pastor and musician: Music flows like the waters of baptism

A Presbyterian Association of Musicians town hall looks at how music and art help us connect with baptism and communion

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Joshua Reddekopp via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — At baptisms especially, Presbyterians love to talk about water. Some of the more adventurous baptizers even splash some of the water out of the font to remind those gathered to celebrate of their own baptism.

The Rev. Meg Flannagan, the co-pastor at St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, who previously served on the staff of the PC(USA)’s Glory to God hymnal, says music can have a similar effect during the sacraments of baptism and communion. “Sound moves and waves and pools,” the same way water does, Flannagan said Thursday during a town hall offered by the Presbyterian Association of Musicians. The “bong” of a large handbell “flows through [the player] and beyond. Your whole body vibrates.”

Flannagan and the Rev. Dr. Ann Laird Jones, the year-round director of arts ministry at Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, North Carolina, were asked to share from articles they’d recently written for “Call to Worship: Liturgy, Music, Preaching and the Arts,” for which Jones wrote “Art and the Lord’s Supper: Choreography of Grace and Table” and “Art and Baptism: The Choreography of Visible and Invisible Grace” and Flannagan wrote “On Music: Singing Our Way to the Table” and “On Music: Our Community Pool.” They were hosted by the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Office of Theology & Worship. Watch the hour-long event here.

The Rev. Meg Flannagan (Screenshot)

In her article, Flannagan notes that the “preschoolers in our house know that we do not eat until we have each said, ‘Thank you, God, for …,’ during which time God usually receives gratitude for sharks and fire trucks and cupcakes and other simple, yet heartfelt experiences of our day.” When it’s their turn to pray, the children “always choose to sing,” she reports. “One table blessing that our children frequently choose to sing is an adaptation of ‘Lord, We Thank You for This Food.’ The melody is from the Bunun people of Taiwan, although in our family we call this song the ‘Tom, Tom Blessing.’ While one person cants a melodic blessing, the others hit their fists into their own palms as if they were mashing up food, singing ‘tom’ every time their fists hit their palms. As Glory to God notes, the sung ‘tom’ is an onomatopoeia that simulates the sound of pounding rice. Because this part of the blessing doesn’t require any words from the group, it is a perfect song to teach children while they learn to talk. It teaches so much more than a food blessing: they have learned another culture’s music, another culture’s food tradition, the song style with a cantor and congregation, and the global church’s praise of God.”

Photo by Nico Smit via Unsplash

Jones took those in attendance through a largely pictorial presentation on art that depicts both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. “The Lord’s Supper is not merely a series of words and phrases with a few actions thrown in, but a choreography of gathered grace,” she wrote in “Art and the Lord’s Supper: Choreography of Grace and Table” for “Call to Worship.” “Even in an empty sanctuary as we are drawn to this Lord’s Table, we imagine the choreography, the action about to take place.”

In “Art and Baptism: The Choreography of Visible and Invisible Grace,” Jones wrote of thinking of “congregations holding their breath to see if the baby will wake up and cry when the water hits their universe, only to find their own faces wet with tears of joy. They can almost feel the spray of water themselves as the baby comes close, carried down the aisle.”

“I think of Creeden,” Jones wrote, “baptized on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a man led by faith to dare to speak the truth which cost him his life in a world where too many are held hostage by fear, by poverty, by inequality based on skin color or nationality or sex. Creeden, a young Black child, bears the seal of God’s eternal love. Will it be enough to protect him?”

The Rev. Dr. Ann Laird Jones

Close your eyes, Jones suggested to readers, “and imagine the way water spins in the air as it is poured or lifted up, a dance of invisible grace with a magnanimous twirl! Water is on the move throughout the Bible, a vital part of many narratives that splash into our sanctuaries as well.” Then Jones cited the waters of Creation, where “order and chaos dance a wild tango.” The waters of the sea between Nineveh and Tarshish “are vast enough to hold a magnificent creature capable of swallowing Jonah, enabling him to continue his journey to Tarshish and the acceptance of God’s grace.” In the New Testament, “enraged, stormy waters of a usually calm Sea of Galilee threaten to drown the disciples and their boat until Jesus calms the waves with his touch. Water offers new life to an outcast Samaritan woman. Moving, flowing water is ever present in the salvation narrative.”

“Imagine the choreography of not only the elements on the [communion] table, but the space in which you worship,” Jones said during the webinar. “See the space as not static, but as something you can do something to and with. Put fans to the banners to show something is happening. God moves in our midst.”

Learn more about PAM’s Music and Worship conference, set for June 18-23 and June 25-30, by going here.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Ministries: , ,