Tunes and testimony

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis – Such a strange image in this passage from Acts: a tablecloth-like fabric lowered from the sky holding all sort of non-kosher animals. A nightmare for any orthodox Jew who followed the Torah’s kosher laws, as Peter did. The original followers of Jesus, all Jews, were now scrambling to deal with Jesus’ message spreading beyond their in-house, Jewish understanding of him as their Messiah, the Christ. What do we do with these non-Jews, these Gentiles, who are drawn by Jesus’ message of compassion and justice? Do they need to be circumcised and observe the Torah’s purity laws to be part of God’s plan? What happens if we become truly diverse and inclusive in following the Way of Jesus? Will the center hold?

For churches across the country, debate about diversity and inclusion has often focused on church music. What kind of music is appropriate for communal worship, for praising God? In a congregation that comprises five generations and hopes to grow its welcome to those age 40 and under? Organ, traditional hymns, anthems from the classical era? Piano and gospel? Congas and world music? Acoustic guitars and folk? Jazz? Pop? Rap? New Age synthesizers? Electric guitars and rock-like praise music and projected lyrics on screens? Thinking about these choices, I find it to be a curious and gentle irony that our “Joyful Noise Sunday” falls some four days after the death of the Minnesota music icon Prince. I’ve been listening to radio retrospectives of his huge collection of work over the last few days, and to fellow musicians and music critics discussing the uniqueness of his creativity and the breath of his musicianship. I was struck with their descriptions of the diversity of genres, Prince’s resistance to being slotted in one style, his innovation across different types of music. And I got to thinking….there is a lesson for the church here. God is bigger than one genre of music, and our praise and worship of God has got to be bigger, more expansive than one genre. I sense this will be the challenge of the 21st century church, especially one such as Falcon Heights Church. Not breaking off into different worship services for styles of music that cater to different preferences. But holding our center by blending genres and styles in one common celebration each Sunday. Worship as the place where all ages share the heart of our life together and experience God’s presence more fully. Where we courageously envision a new world of compassion and justice and are enabled to move out and make those changes happen.

We have invited a few of our choir members to testify to how different types of music have affected them spiritually and deepened their sense of connection with God. After each testimony, I ask us to express our gratitude for their sharing by singing together verse of “When in Our Music God is Glorified.”


In the winter of 1965 I spent a lot of time outside in the ice and cold. One particular evening I was huddled down in my backyard snow fort, and heard it for the first time – the song in the wind. I lifted my head and shut my eyes, listening, and experienced what I can only describe as the voice of God singing to me. There were no words, just the whooshing of air inside my brown parka hood, through my stocking hat.

Three years later, I heard it again. I was in the old Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. I was sitting under the balcony, on the right side of that massive hall, in the next to the last row, back by the pencil-poked acoustical tile rear wall. I was there to hear my teacher, Bob Elworthy, who was the principal horn of the Minnesota Orchestra, perform Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, Symphony 4.

The Italian is a great piece of music for the novice music-appreciator like I was. About 17 minutes and 22 seconds into the symphony, the two horns and two bassoons played this exquisite quartet: It sounded far away, over the hill and out of sight; it sounded organic and outdoors-y, it sounded like a place where I wanted to go, where I wanted to be.

A couple of years later it happened again, only this time it was on the stage of Northrup Auditorium. My high school choir was asked to perform a work for four orchestras and choirs with the Minnesota Orchestra. The piece, Carré, was written by the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Unlike the Italian Symphony, Carré was challenging for any music listener: a piece with no melody, no harmony, and no rhythm. After months of rehearsal, I sat at the concert near the middle of the Northrup stage, behind three sections of horn players and next to a 6-foot-diameter gong. As our choir performed, the music simultaneously surrounded me, swirled around me, crashed upon me, and suspended me transcendent above the ensemble.

Each of these moments brought me to be into the presence of God: God the natural force that sings to me in the wind; God that orders the tones of the scale and the harmonies of musical structure; and God the mystery that swirls around me and takes me to places beyond my imagination. Each of these moments made my hair stand on end and my eyes fill with tears. I was changed. Forever.


Worship in a faith community can take many forms. While I can find comfort and refreshment from prayer and silent contemplation, my spiritual growth would be lacking if I didn’t have music as part of my Sunday morning worship experience. Music nourishes my soul and enhances my inner life, and it does so on many levels:

First, there is the pure beauty of the melodies, rhythmic patterns and harmonies. These can delight me or sometimes conjure up deep yearnings for divine consolation. As an example of the latter, I think of our Service of Shadows on Maundy Thursday.

Then there is the characteristic quality of the sound, be it a solo instrument or voice, or an ensemble or the entire congregation. The mood and interpretation can inspire me and often give me a recognition of how we are all called to express ourselves, each in our own way, each on our own unique path.

Another aspect of music making in worship is the simple but sublime satisfaction of joining together with other voices and instruments. To me there is a true merging of souls as we offer up our music to God’s glory.

And last but definitely not least, there is the meaning behind the lyrics of our hymns and anthems. My awareness and connection to the lyrics really awakened in me in two separate stages: when I began to teach children’s anthems after coming here in 2004, and also five or so years ago when I began to explore worship music with a social justice message. That last endeavor has led me to a number of very profound experiences of internalizing the meaning, such as this short verse from a song I found recently:

You know my resting and my rising, You discern my purpose from afar. And with love everlasting you besiege me, in every moment of life or death, you are.

And, perhaps even more sacred and tender is my recollection of hearing children from our church singing in a mass choir at an ecumenical festival in 2014. They sang a contemporary setting of the poem “The Lamb” by William Blake. I will close with its final verse:

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee.
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little lamb, God bless thee.
Little lamb, God bless thee.


In the past few days, the more I have reflected on my relationship between music and faith, the more I have realized the power of that connection for me. Strangely, this was reinforced for me by reflecting on the death this week of Prince, and the incredible outpouring of emotion this has triggered for many people, including myself – I found myself surprisingly affected and moved by his death.

Faith is something that I think different people experience, or don’t experience, for many reasons, and one of the reasons that makes it easier for me to have faith is that I am fortunate enough to feel a connection to God, in a deep, intuitive, and completely non-logic-based way. This is not something that I feel all of the time, or even every day, but there are certain places and moments where I intuit a connection to God’s spirit. Two common places come to mind – one is in experiencing moments of nature’s beauty, such as while camping at the Boundary Waters, and another is in experiencing certain moments of music.

The most obvious connection for me is of course singing in the choir each week, as I’ve done now for a couple of years, but it is also in experiencing musical moments from others. One example that sticks out for me is the musical “Godspell,” the professional production which Susan and I attended years ago, before we even had kids, but still remains vivid in my memory. We were given tickets and went expecting to be entertained, but left feeling touched by God. I was moved there by songs like “Bless the Lord,” which we sang in the choir a few weeks ago, and also a song called “All God’s Gifts,” which I played again this week to prepare for this remarks, and even today it touches me and brings me close to God in a way that I can’t quite articulate.

For me, music is a type of language that can speak to people in ways that aren’t possible with only words. There is an emotional connection possible with music that is sometimes like a direct line to the heart, to the emotions, to a sense of wonder or joy about the world, and therefore to my spirituality.

It is easy for me sometimes to get caught up in troubles I may have, or in the troubles I see in the world, but then I come in to church on Wednesday night for choir practice, and nearly every time, in the act of singing with others, there will be some moment where I am reminded of beauty, of hope, and of God’s love. This feeling of being touched, renewed, and even transformed is something I look forward to each week. It binds me to this community, to our church, and helps me as I try to remain focused on those things that truly matter the most in my life.


I love this time of year for all of the reasons ALL of us love it, but especially because we can open the windows at night. Right on schedule, about 4:30 in the morning, I can usually hear ONE bird singing. Maybe just one measure, but with just enough melody and charm to attract another bird, and then more and more join in… They sing their hearts out and I silently fill in the words: “Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning. Born of the one light Eden saw play.”

I have felt many spiritual and uplifting moments in my life, and they often occur within music. To name a few…

I felt God’s presence last Sunday as we sang, “Look at the world, everything all around us: Look at the world, and marvel…” John Rutter’s haunting melodies and gorgeous lyrics have been floating in my subconscious all week, reminding me to praise all creation with a thankful heart…the sunshine and the rain, valley and flowing river…another reminder that music’s spirit is with me and speaks to my core beliefs.

A week ago Saturday, during the celebration of Hugh Faville’s life, we all sang, “Spirit, spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness, calling and free…” The simple words and melody took me back to my canoe paddling days, days of peace and harmony in the wilderness. While singing it again a week ago, something came over me, I felt something bigger than me. My inner voice, perhaps God’s voice, saying, Relax…breathe…find your own rhythm…cherish all of life because we are just passing through.

Profound thoughts happened again while standing next to Cindy Duddleston at her dad’s funeral. Here she was, so poised and so put together as we sang “Be Thou with Me.” I had to pretend-sing to keep the tears inside.

Needless to say, music really does a number on me, whether singing Mozart’s Credo Mass or Bach’s Magnificat in this very space, or even singing “This is My Father’s World” while sitting on a log bench at Camp du Nord. The great master compositions, which require weeks of preparation, seem to awaken the choir’s collective hearts on the Sunday we share them with the congregation. Proof that ALL kinds of music can speak of love, of giving thanks and of the beauty and the fragility of our short life on earth.

I’ll never forget listening to our twin grandsons as they took a break from making cookies with Grandpa Doug and played Christmas carols on their trumpets. Their pride and innocence made me remember 12 years ago trying to sing the hymn, “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” when those two little babies were baptized right over there. Especially problematic for me were the lines “I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold,” and I was a wreck when trying to sing, “In the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young, I’ll be there to guide you through the night, to complete what I’ve begun.” I love that hymn…It really speaks to me, but again, I had to just mouth the words. Getting choked up usually happens to me when real joy swells inside of me, but when it happens I feel helpless, SO out of control.

But maybe that IS the point! I’m NOT in control! God, through music, sends me many reminders about life’s really big deals…disappointments from my past and about my hopes and dreams for the future. Sometimes my mind races and I start to wonder what comes next in my life and about transformation and appreciating the little things, about being a better person, and being more in touch in the world and with my family and our community and in this church, about still being positive and still having fun, and will I be brave when lots of little surprises come my way? It goes on and on.

Music is the master calmer and reminder that I am not alone and that I am not finished, and that’s OK. As the familiar hymn reminds me, “My life flows on in endless song… How can I keep from singing?” I try to think of music as God’s persistent voice to get and keep my attention. And I know that part of God’s plan for me includes the early morning “all nature sings” wake-up music from my feathered friends.

Thank you.