Toni Wilcox: A Celebration of 20 Years of Musical Ministry

For The Director of Music:
A Celebration of Toni Wilcox’s Twenty Years of Music Ministry
at the First Congregational Church of Hadley

Use what talent you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.  ~ Author unknown

From Lila West:

Psalm 34
 
I will bless the Lord at all times; 
my lips will sing out his praise.
I will thank him for the love he has shown me
and the clarity that gladdens my heart.
Sing out with me and thank him;
be grateful for all his gifts.
Turn to him; let your soul feel his presence; oh taste
and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who trust in him.
 
As a child of this church, Toni taught me and so many others faith through song.  She taught us that Jesus Loves me, and All the Little Children of the World. She taught us that I am the Church, you are the church, we are the church together and the complex gestures that accompany that philosophy. She taught us to Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord, all the earth, make a joyful noise unto the Lord. And she let us yell on the make a loud noise! part. She taught us to Rise and Shine and (clap!) give God our glory, glory, and she forgave us when we clapped on the wrong beat. She taught us what a Wonderful Child Jesus is, and that Zacchaeus was a wee little man. We learned from Toni that our faith is Deep and Wide, that we have the love of Jesus, love of Jesus Down in our Hearts, that he’s got The Whole World in His Hands.
 
Every week, every summer, Toni taught us to sing in rounds, to sing in harmony, to sing in front of an audience. She taught us that we’ve all got a little light to let shine, whether we’re singing or not. It’s just like This is My Father’s World, and to my listening ears, all nature sings, and round me rings, the music of the spheres.
 
But probably the best thing she ever taught us – or at least that she ever taught me – is how to learn about our faith through music, for as our Psalm says, it gladdens my heart.  Toni has taught us how to share our faith through music, our lips singing out praise.  And how to honor our faith through music, letting our souls feel God’s presence. 
 
In Chapter 1, Verse 3, Joel teaches us, “Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.”  What easier way to do that, than through song?  When our church baptizes our babies, we all stand and promise to teach that child what our faith is, and what it means. In that way, Toni is like our Godmother of Music, showing us that Joyful music leads us sunward, and teaching us the glorious songs of old.
 
One of my favorite hymns tells us to Come, let thy voice be one with theirs and To give and give, and give again, what God hath given thee. Toni, thank you for coming here and letting your voice be one with ours. For giving and giving and giving again what God hath given thee. Praise for your singing, sing out with me and thank him, for we are grateful for his gifts to you and to us.
 
Lord of all, to thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.  Amen.
 
 
From Ruth Morse:
 
Music has always been a big part of why I come to church.  
 
I get to sing my favorite hymns, and I get to learn new ones -- I didn't grow up in this denomination, so most of the hymns have been new to me at some time.
 
There are moments of transcendence, like on Christmas Eve when we are all holding our candles and singing Silent Night.  Or when we are singing the anthem and, despite the rough rehearsals, it all comes together. Or when the bell choir is playing and I realize that everyone is fine and I don't have to worry about them and I can let the music carry me along.
 
Music has keep me at this church through all its ups and downs. There have been times when the only reason I was here was to sing.
 
Toni is a huge part of why the music program is so wonderful to me, and for me. She is the opposite of a prima donna director. You know the kind.  The ones for whom the choir is an instrument and they are playing it?  Any accomplishments of the choir are due to them?
 
Not Toni. Instead, she helps us find our voices. She draws the music out of us. We have a range of musical training and skills in our choir, and yet she finds the music in all of us. Everything she does is for the purpose of helping us do our best.  
 
She can't direct with her hands while we sing, because she's busy playing the piano (or the organ). So she uses the piano to give us subtle cues. She does it during hymns too, giving you that breathing space between verses.
 
There's a fun Garrison Keillor piece about singing in chorus in Jr. High, and not wanting to be the first to sing. About wanting to let someone else take the chance that it's the right place and right note, and then joining in a heartbeat later. And about what would happen it everyone did that!  Well, the choir is like that sometimes. So listen, especially at the beginning. Some pieces require more nudging than others, so you may not hear it this week, but you will sometime. 
 
And now I have to take you back 34 years. Kurt and I were married by Lorain Giles in Shelburne, on July 2, 1978. The organist? Well, the church's organist wasn't available so Lorain recommended a young woman that she knew.  It wasn't until many years later that we put the pieces together and realized that that young woman had been Toni!
 
 
From Rev. Sarah Buteux:
 
Psalm 40
 
I trusted you, Lord, and waited,
and you came to answer my plea.
You lifted me from the pit,
you pulled me out of the mire,
you set my feet on firm ground,
you made my steps unshakable.
 
You put a new song in my mouth
and gave me the power to praise you.
You opened me to the truth;
suddenly my eyes could see it.
And I knew you don't care about rituals
or the mummeries of religion.
The only thing that you want
is our whole being, at every moment.
 
Hold me in your embrace, Lord;
make me transparent in your light.
Grant me awareness; keep
my gratitude fresh each day.
Let my song give blessing and insight
to those who can't see for themselves.
 
And let your compassion always
shine forth from the depths of my heart.
 
According to Stephen Mitchell, whose translations of the psalms we’ve been hearing from this morning: “The Hebrew word for Psalm is mizmor, which (simply) means a hymn sung to the accompaniment of a lyre.
 
But,” he says, “when the ancient rabbis named the anthology that we know (of) as the Book of Psalms, they didn’t call it the book of mizmors, they called it sefer tehillim (literally), the Book of Praises” (From the forward, “A Book of Psalms”).
 
And I think this is significant.
 
I think the rabbis did this because they knew that this collection we have right here was no ordinary musical compilation. As anyone who has ever opened their Bible right to the middle in search of wisdom or comfort can tell you: these psalms, these words, these ancient songs, they are not mere performance pieces – the Billboard hot 150 from before the common era.
 
Be they songs of praise or cries of lament, there is something undeniably timeless about these hymns, something sacred, something holy…something that speaks right to the heart of the human condition and rightly of the God who created that heart.
 
The Rabbis were right. The Psalms in this book are not just lyrics to be sung. The psalms collected here are scripture to be lived.
 
But it is that distinction - the distinction between performance and praise, between song and scripture, between entertainment and enlightenment, between what is for show and what is for real – I really want to focus on today because it is that distinction that reminds me of Toni. 
 
You see what we do up here every Sunday - the hymns, the sermon, the anthems – this is not a performance, and that is something Toni truly understands.
 
Not all church musicians do, you know. Not all pastors do either. But Toni does.
 
Toni knows that though we might pursue excellence, we are not obsessed with perfection, because we’re not up here to put on a show.
 
We’re here to meet God, wrestle with God, question, praise, and know God. We come to love God and maybe, just maybe, feel God’s love in return and it is the music, more often than not and often more than anything else, that helps us do that; not because we do it all so well around here, but because we do it with love.
 
That is what the word amateur actually means, you know, it means something done for love. And week in and week out, Toni takes a bunch of amateurs and channels that love, hers and ours.
 
She takes whoever comes to choir, whatever hymns I can find, your voices and that noble old organ, and helps us weave our love into song: a song of praise, a song fit for a King. Toni doesn’t help us create some grand and holy spectacle.
 
Toni helps us worship.
 
It’s not always perfect, but it’s real because she is real. And that my friends is not just something for which to be thankful, that is something from which we can all learn, because you see life, (and this is the sermon so pay attention) life isn’t a performance either.
 
Life isn’t about being perfect. Life, much like worship, is about being present and being real. Life is about striving to do our best the better to let a little beauty and wonder loose in the world.
 
With her generous and humble heart Toni not only shows us how to do that here, she shows us how to do that out there, which is why we celebrate today, not just her dedication or her musicianship, but her ministry here amongst us -twenty years of ministry - thanks be to God.
 
Amen