Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Rachel Wilhelm, who at that time was living in Northern Virginia with her husband and kids, and was helping to serve as a interim worship leader of sorts at my church when I arrived. I was instantly struck by her giftedness, her voice, her wisdom in worship leading, and therefore was very bummed when she and her family relocated to Minnesota. Rachel recently released an excellent album, Songs of Lament, and I asked her some questions about her background, her passion for the biblical expression of lament, and her new project.
1. Tell us about yourself.
I’m the Director of Worship Arts of a lovely small church in Minneapolis. I am also co-founder of the Roots Worship Collective, Minneapolis Chapter, consisting of a pool of worship leaders and church musicians who care about Church unity by leading local hymn sing events with the object of getting different denominations to sing together on days other than Sunday. I really love the Church. Sometimes I don’t know why because the Church can be a place where you can get hurt badly if you dare open up or put yourself out there. But the Church is beautiful because Christ says it is. I think I am a person who is learning all the time about grace and how deep and wide God’s love runs.
2. What has your worship leading journey looked like?
Well, it’s been interesting. I’ve been on worship teams since I was in junior high, singing for my youth group’s team in California. In a lot of ways, I think that is what kept me in the Church. Through the years I vowed I would never lead worship, but only be on teams since I thought that worship leaders only attracted drama, and some got this diva complex. Eventually I started going to some churches where women couldn’t technically “start” a song because it looked as if she were exercising authority over men. It bothered me that there would be no judgment if she sang at a bar, but if she started a song at church? Eventually my family landed at a church where the pastor approached me to think about training under him to lead music since he needed help. It actually was a terrible experience, but very good for me. When that stint was over, I quit going to church for six months. It was one of those times lament made an appearance. I was angry at God for trudging me through the mud when I obeyed Him. After that six months, my family moved closer to an Anglican church where we had some friends and low and behold, they needed a music person. That experience humbled me greatly. It was probably the best time in my worship leading journey. I learned to set boundaries for myself, think theologically about song selection, and unfortunately, judge other ways of leading worship. Years later I met you at Truro, and learned in my interim position there that a “hymns only” approach is not for everyone. God loves diversity. That sounds trite. But I took leading music so seriously that I wanted “to do it right.” Grace on myself and everyone else has been a huge part of my worship leading journey.
3. You have a passion to help the Church recover the biblical expression of lament. Where did this passion come from?
You know, it is super hard for me to give you an exact answer to that. Minor keys chimed when I was born or something. Since I was a small girl I have written music, and mainly in my head. I didn’t play guitar until I was an adult, so I memorized melancholy movements of my songs in every instrument on my long commutes to church and school in the back of the car, often lying down (before seat belt laws) or looking out the window. I came from a very low income background, so obtaining an instrument seemed impossible. Forget lessons. I was a very worried kid. I think if anyone were to diagnose me I would have had extreme anxiety. I worried about things a kid had no business worrying about. So I turned to the Scriptures because I really felt hopeless. And the passages in Jeremiah, the Psalms, and other prophets relating any kind of destitution, sorrow, pain, worry, et cetera really hit me as the most beautiful pieces of literature I’d ever read. I think I appreciated how real it was, how honest these people could be to God and He did not strike them down. From then on, that is how I talked to God myself. Later, in my worship leading journey, I noticed that most songs people loved to sing were just the upbeat happy songs. It seemed like people wanted to go to church to escape the rest of the week. Then I realized where it is so natural for me to just “go there” with vulnerability to God about my own weaknesses, it is not so for others. In fact, denial is huge. I think sometimes people don’t heal because they don’t lament to God. Sometimes you have to crack open that wound on purpose, clean it out, and sew it up to make it right again. You can’t just leave it like that. Leading worship in an Anglican church also taught me about how lament can be liturgically appropriate. That is when I realized that there was or could be a real place for it.
4. What are some of the common questions or misunderstandings you run into with regards to this topic?
Lament is bad because it is complaining. I think people forget that Scripture is God-breathed and righteous complaint is all throughout the Bible. They cite the passage about grumbling and complaining and end it there. I’m sure some of our modern misconceptions come from the bad theology of positive confession. People love denying the harshness of real life. Look at how packed Joel Osteen’s church is. I have been saying lately that complaining is not a sin. It’s who you complain TO. God can handle it. He wants to handle it!
People also think that lament is solely tearing our sackcloth, patting our heads with ashes, and crying for hours. I’ve heard that lament is not about justice even when the word complaint is a very courtroom term. I’ve also heard people ask me what lament even means because they have never heard the word before.
5. Tell us about your album, Songs of Lament.
The record came from seeing the need for lament to be addressed in the worship music genre. I don’t think I would have made an album if there wasn’t a need. I have such a high view of God’s Word that I think it is tragic that there are not more Scripture songs being sung (like during the Jesus Movement of our parent’s time). The Psalms are meant to be sung. There is power in singing God’s words back to Him. Something mysteriously healing happens.
My album has songs from Ezekiel 16, where God laments, Jeremiah 8 & 9, Lamentations 1, four movements of Habakkuk, Psalm 13, and to end, Psalm 139, which is to me, the resolve of lament. Some of the songs were written when I was a girl, some just last fall!
My hope is that some of the songs can be used corporately in church and others can be for personal devotion
Rachel, thank you for your ministry to the Church, and your passion to help congregations recover the biblical necessity of lament.