Today in the Mission Yearbook

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

March 1, 2023

Photo by Joshua Reddekopp via Unsplash

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 during a recent 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 hourlong 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.’ … 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.”

Jones gave 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.”

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.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Presbyterian Association of Musicians town hall

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Samuel Son, Manager, Diversity & Reconciliation Associate, Advocacy, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Teresa Sontarp, Director, Financial Reporting, Board of Pensions

Let us pray

Creator God, the church you created has spread throughout the globe. We give thanks for what we can learn from one another’s experience and for those who work to share such insights among the members of your family. Amen.