“Crashing Waters at Creation,”
by Sylvia G. Dunstan;
Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, No. 476
Crashing waters at creation
ordered by the Spirit’s breath,
first to witness day’s beginning
from the brightness of night’s death.*
One of two sacraments in The United Methodist Church, baptism occupies a central place in the life of the church. Baptism, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, reminds the community of faith that water and God’s Spirit are interconnected. Yet, when we turn in our hymnals, we find approximately eight hymns related to baptism in The United Methodist Hymnal. The Faith We Sing nearly doubles our official baptism hymns, and Worship & Song adds an additional two hymns to the total in our printed songbooks.
Despite the low number of baptismal hymns available in our official resources, baptisms occur throughout the liturgical year, and often congregations sing one or more of these hymns when the sacrament takes place in the worship service. At times, we need a fresh perspective on texts, and this week’s hymn text provides us with the interconnectedness of water and the Spirit, as seen in the first stanza printed above.
“Crashing Waters at Creation” was written by Sylvia Dunstan (1955-1993), an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada. A prolific writer of hymn texts, Dustan died of liver cancer at age 37, after having served local churches and as a prison chaplain. While this specific text does not appear in United Methodist sources (its most recent publication is found in the Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God), Dunstan’s texts are set to tunes in The Faith We Sing and Worship & Song.
Originally written for her denomination, Dunstan’s text accompanied a prayer for blessing of the water as part of the baptismal rite. Imagery of water, as well as the movement of the Spirit, makes this text particularly appropriate for services of baptismal remembrance or covenant renewal. Stanza 1 recalls the story of creation (Genesis 1:2), where God’s Spirit hovers over the waters. The second stanza draws upon Israel’s escape from Egyptian armies through the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:15-31). In stanza 3, Dunstan turns to the classic story of baptism from Matthew’s gospel (3:13-17). The fourth stanza refers to texts from John’s gospel, echoing language of “living water.” In all four stanzas, we find that water and Spirit cannot be separated, for water simultaneously quenches thirst and fills the soul.
While baptism is the primary occasion for the use of this text, recent events throughout the world (tsunamis, hurricanes, mudslides, and so on) bring a different focus to Dunstan’s words. Those who have experienced natural disasters have firsthand knowledge of crashing waters, seeing the aftereffects of nighttime storms. I recently returned from Rockport, Texas, where the eye of Hurricane Harvey came on shore. Nearly six months after the disaster, some areas continue to be overwhelmed by the massive devastation. The amount of work still to do seems insurmountable. Perhaps Dunstan’s text can serve as a model for those affected by disasters, because each stanza builds on the previous stanza, making a journey from chaos to life. In fact, that is the very journey some have described as they descended into and out of the waters of baptism — crashing, parting, cleansing, living. Thus, there is hope.
The website www.hymnary.org suggests that there are three primary tunes used with Dunstan’s text. CRASHING WATERS, used most often (about one-third of the time), is by William Cross. The tunes STUTTGART and RESTORATION have been used equally, with other tunes of 87.87 meter (trochaic) also being employed. The text has been set twice for SATB chorus, once with an original tune by Randall Sensmeier (GIA) and once to RESTORATION by Austin Lovelace (GIA).
*©1991, GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For further reading:
“Crushing Waters at Creation,” Singing the Faith Plus, http://www.singingthefaithplus.org.uk/?p=2456
“Crushing Waters at Creation,” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/text/crashing_waters_at_creation
About this week’s writer:
Jay Regennitter is an elder serving in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of The United Methodist Church, currently appointed to Robinson First UMC. Jay holds degrees in choral music education and organ performance from Western Illinois University. He has a Master of Divinity Degree from Duke Divinity School. He has served for eight years as annual conference organist and as co-director of worship for the 2016 North Central Jurisdictional Conference. Having served in several roles with The Fellowship, Jay currently serves the organization as Development Coordinator. Jay’s recent spiritual renewal leave resulted in several new texts and tunes for congregational singing.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.