On Music: Wood and Wind—Worshipful Music Welcoming All God’s Children
A Master of Divinity student at The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Amy Cerniglia serves as the director of music and outreach at Peace Presbyterian Church and as communications coordinator for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.
In every time and place, God has called music out of human hearts. I’m an organist, so my primary instrument could hardly be more bound to a specific location, yet the walls of a church can’t confine all the music in the worship of the triune God. A drum circle on the Gulf Coast of Florida initially opened my eyes to the Spirit’s creative nudges when the pandemic prevented us from glorifying God within our beloved church sanctuary. God has called music ministry out of unexpected places and called people into worship while they might not have otherwise stepped into the church.
Upon my relocation to Florida to serve as director of music and outreach at Peace Presbyterian Church, church members encouraged me to explore a new experience with the historic Siesta Key Drum Circle. While organists are generally expected to reproduce a particular set of notes for a specified length of time, the drum circle removed all sense of individual control from our collective music. This democratic experience of sharing music and movement empowers all ages, faiths, languages, and abilities to co-create. An hour before sunset, drummers of all backgrounds gather with drums of all shapes, sizes, and histories. There is no official “start time,” only the organic emergence of beats that call us to gather. Outside of my comfort zone and outside of the church walls housing my primary instrument and musical tradition, these diverse strangers quickly befriended me.
My new friends taught me that a good neighbor does not play so loudly in the drum circle that they cannot hear their own neighbors. After all, we are not playing music from a page, and we can only follow each other’s lead. While there is no clear “right” or “wrong” note in a drum circle, the practice of listening to our neighbors supports the unity and beauty of the rhythm. Together, like a healthy congregation, we discern the way forward. During breaks between music, we chat, get to know one another, and often share rhythms from our own backgrounds. In other words, we enjoy fellowship. One participant shares patterns that he remembers from the marketplaces of Morocco, while a high school student from Bradenton, Florida, shares a beat he’s practicing in his school marching band. Our diversity allows us to learn from each other. And just as Scripture says that “a little child shall lead them,” children tend to be the least self-conscious in jumping into the center of the circle to dance. Once kids have introduced the idea, younger and older adults are pulled into the beat.
As a community, we care for one another. Like a church congregation honoring beloved members with flowers on the church chancel or inscriptions on a memorial wall, the drum circle at Nokomis Beach is blessed by several women arranging flowers in the center of our circle every week to honor the memories of longtime drummers. While the beach drum circle does not provide explicit Christian formation, the Holy Spirit regularly drums in my heart, and I search for opportunities to incorporate this into formal corporate worship. In their book Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology, Jeremy Begbie and Steven Guthrie distinguish between music that contains explicitly theological text and music that does not. Citing Karl Barth’s appropriation of Mozart’s music, the authors state, “Much can be gained from music that does not carry explicitly theological agendas” (p. 142). Remembering how the drums welcomed me so quickly as a stranger in a new community, I wondered if this wordless communal music, too, could communicate the love of God.
With that question in mind, I signed up for an intergenerational drum class at the Presbyterian Association of Musicians 2021 Worship and Music Conference. In that week of classes, several people with mobility challenges voiced their gratitude for accessible ways to lead music for worship. Moreover, drums are flexible and portable. Calling to worship, the drums welcomed all conferees at one service to worship the living God. At another service, drummers sent worshipers out with a wordless musical postlude. As they drummed just outside the conference center even after the worship service had ended, lively conferees of all ages danced all the way out with joyful hearts. After all, whenever any formal service of worship ends, God’s call to take the light of Christ into the world begins. Music keeps that fire burning.
When my Peace River Presbytery called for a musical workshop outdoors at our Cedarkirk Camp and Conference Center, I wondered if drums could pair with text to communicate a more explicitly theological message. All Hands In: Drumming the Biblical Narrative from Brian Hehn and Mark Burrows offers a fun, creative resource, weaving biblical storytelling and percussion with many options for diverse groups. One percussive pattern invites people to speak various pieces of the Words of Institution spoken from the communion table in rhythm to the beat of their drums. Other activities call for prayer as people drum to the rhythm of their heartbeat, or drum repetitive phrases of praise from the Psalms.
Participants at the workshop felt moved by the Spirit to invite the drums into our presbytery worship service. This did not become a performance but a collaborative worship event welcoming all people to glorify God. Every participant at the retreat, whether or not they attended the workshop, was welcomed to grab an instrument and jump in. Those who had attended the workshop served as leaders anchoring the beat. Nearly fifty egg shakers, Remo Sound Shapes, and other easily transportable rhythm instruments accompanied the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. Together, we celebrated the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. When one drummer’s hands tired, another’s took the lead. When one person lost the beat, neighbors generously guided them back into the rhythm. Every mistake or misstep offered opportunities to lean on one another as the body of Christ.
At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, dedicated church volunteers carved a half-mile trail through beautiful wetlands on our church property, aptly named the Peaceful Path. Among others, a grant from Peace River Presbytery supplied the path with a giant outdoor xylophone and five brightly colored musical percussion flowers. Mallets attached to the flowers invite curious visitors to strike the petals and hear the clear, bright bell tones. Our xylophone features a weatherproof, color-coded musical booklet attached to the instrument with instructions that anyone can understand. All this is nestled under a theater of pine trees.
During the height of the pandemic, families and children safely enjoyed music in the wild. Not far from these musical playground pieces, strategically placed tree stumps offer seats for drummers. Many visitors to our path tell us that they do not feel comfortable stepping inside sanctuary walls but can safely stroll the Peaceful Path as an act of worship. Born under the threat of COVID-19, an outdoor living Nativity continues to be celebrated during the Christmas season, gracing the luminary-lined path with guitars, violins, flutes, and voices. The wider community frequently thanks us for offering a natural connection with their faith during the holidays.
As community members express gratitude for opportunities to connect with their faith outside the church walls, we continue searching for more ways to ease that connection. Organizations such as the Q Worship Collective are also welcoming people to engage their musicality and spirituality regardless of their comfort in a church sanctuary. In the words of cofounder Jess Grace Garcia, “For me, spiritual community is where two or more are gathered. My heart is to create spiritual spaces of healing for people hurt by the church whether or not that leads them into the church.” Most recently, making connections outside the church walls included a songwriters’ retreat in Portland with the goal of writing worship music and liturgy affirming LGBTQIA+ people. Garcia noted that while many attendees are involved in churches at this time, others are nurturing their faith and healing their relationship with the church.
As for the drums, if you find yourself in Siesta Key, Florida, I invite you to drop by and hear Mohammad playing one of his many Native American flutes. Listen to his breath calling life out of old wood. As he lifts beautiful melodies over thick drumbeats, rhythms form, fall apart in a chaotic mess, and re-form as the circle struggles to find a steady beat by listening more closely. In our churches, too, the Savior shepherds us back to the beat of the Holy Spirit. Whether or not we can hear it, God is calling music out of every heavy human heart. Christ is binding us as one body playing together, and the Spirit is bending our ear to the new song that God is already singing outside our walls.