Songs of Lament: An Interview with Rachel Wilhelm

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.

Download Songs of Lament on Bandcamp.

Summer Worship Nights

Earlier this year I approached some of my colleagues and asked if they would be interested in helping me host a series of eight “summer worship nights” at my church on Fridays. They all responded enthusiastically, and so we made some plans, spread the word, and went ahead with the idea. We just wrapped up our last one last week, so I wanted to explain why we did it, what we did, what about the kids, what the nights accomplished, and what we learned.

Why we did it
I regularly get approached by people asking me if we can have a more extended time of worship (they mean singing) at church. Sunday morning worship is wonderful, but there are a million moving pieces, and in the context of an Anglican liturgical service, you can’t really have a very extended time of uninterrupted singing without the service going on for 2.5 hours. So, I thought, “why not?” Offering people more opportunities to exalt Jesus Christ is always a win. It will always benefit the church. It will always have a bubble-over effect onto Sunday mornings. With enough advance planning, and making sure the Sanctuary was free for eight Friday nights in a row during the summer, we got word out, and offered anyone who wanted an opportunity for extended worship the invitation to come out on Friday nights.

What we did
We had these worship nights in our Sanctuary from 6:00pm – 7:00pm, so people with kids could come before it got too late. The first one was on the last day of school in Fairfax County. We started on the dot of 6:00pm with 30 minutes of singing, led by a full band, with space to repeat songs as much as we wanted, and time for reflection in between songs when it was appropriate. We would start with one song, then I would welcome people and read a Psalm, and we’d keep going. A big clock on the back wall kept me on time. At 6:30pm, before people were seated, I told the kids they could go down the middle aisle where “Dr. Jones” would meet them and take them downstairs for lots of fun. We’d all say “bye kids!” as they ran downstairs, then I’d encourage people to take a minute and greet the people around them. After that, we had a 15-minute Bible teaching having to do with the person and work of the Holy Spirit. To wrap up, we had more time for singing, prayer ministry up front, or time for people to stay and reflect/pray in their pews. At 7:00pm on the dot I would say “It’s 7:00pm now. You’re free to go, free to pick up your kids, of you’re free to stay if you’d like. We’ll keep singing a few songs, and you can come and go as you wish. Now may the Lord bless us and keep us, the Lord make his face…” By about 7:15pm or so, most people had trickled out, and we’d sing  the Doxology and that was it.

What about the kids
My colleague Mike Seawright, who leads our family ministries, was 100% behind these nights. Ministry really does work best with teams! So Mike got three summer interns, and one of their main jobs was to run an awesome 30-minute kids program downstairs during summer worship nights. So these three interns donned costumes which transformed them into mad scientists and professors, and had the kids doing ridiculous science experiments while also learning biblical/spiritual truths. Kids absolutely loved it. Many of them would ask throughout the week “is it Friday yet”? The interns – and the kids program – were awesome. And they helped the summer worship nights attract some younger families, so the demographic wasn’t exclusively empty nesters.

What the nights accomplished
1. They scratched an itch for people who longed for more extended times of singing.
2. They allowed the congregation to grow in their expression of worship. More time, less pressure, more freedom.
3. They were good practice for me – and my fellow worship leaders on stage – who had to use our “extended worship” muscles a bit more than we’re used to. Don’t get me wrong, we’re used to long services. But we’re not always used to 30 minutes of uninterrupted singing.
4. They were a good opportunity for young people to preach some of the sermons, and to run the kids program.
5. They allowed for multi-generational worship. For 30 minutes, everyone worshipped together. All ages. It was great.

What we learned
1. The people who came out to these evenings really wanted to be there. So even when we had small crowds, there was a wonderful expectancy amongst the people which allowed for some very sweet times of worship.
2. Summer rain storms seem to like Friday nights. We had several nights affected by torrential down storms. But there’s nothing you can do about that!
3. Nursery and kids program is key. If we hadn’t been able to offer nursery and a great kids program, these nights would not have been successful.
4. People are eager to be prayed for – and to pray for each other.
5. It was good to say at the start that we were going to offer eight. Maybe we’ll do these again next summer, but maybe not. We’ll see!
6. People were grateful that we started on time, and ended on time, every week.

Over all, I’m glad we did these, although they have significantly increased my need for a vacation. Next year, if we do offer these, I will need to spread the worship leading load out more effectively, and will leaning on Mike Seawright to help me recruit some worship interns to work in conjunction with his family ministry interns. That whole thing about teams being important is really… important.

These nights have helped us learn some good lessons about how to offer an extended time of worship in a way that works in our context, and between now and next summer, we may offer some seasonal worship nights, maybe one in the fall, one in the winter, and so on. I look forward to a good debrief with my colleagues in a few weeks, so we can make sure we affirm what worked well, and fix what didn’t.

Hey Everybody

It’s been almost a month since I last contributed anything helpful on Worthily Magnify, and that might be the longest stretch of non-posting since I started this blog in 2009. It’s been a very full summer for me, including several additional ministry things going on (I’ll share more on those later) and a seminary course through RTS’s online campus which I finished last week.

To dust off the blog a bit, I’m just going to share a little song I wrote for “Genesis Arts Camp” that we’re hosting at my church these week for about 200 kids. We need something fun and peppy to start off our sessions with, so for that purpose, “Hey Everybody” was born:

Ten Thousand Reasons For a Thousand Tongues Forever and Ever

Recently I’ve been challenging myself to memorize individual Psalms, so that I can use them as a call to worship at our weekend services. A few weeks ago I memorized Psalm 145, and was struck by just how many reasons David gives for why we should worship God.

He begins the Psalm in the first two verses by saying “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever.”

And then the list of reasons begins for why he should extol his God and King, and why he should bless and praise God’s name:

  • Because he is “great and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (verse 3)
  • Because of his “mighty acts” (verse 4)
  • Because of “the glorious splendor of (his) majesty, and… (his) wondrous works” (verse 5)
  • Because of his “awesome deeds…” and his “greatness” (verse 6)
  • Because of “the fame of (his) abundant goodness and… righteousness” (verse 7)
  • Because he “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (verse 8)
  • Because he “is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (verse 9)
  • Because of “the glory of (his) kingdom, and… (his) power” (verse 11)
  • Because of his “mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of (his) kingdom” (verse 12)
  • Because his “kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and (his) dominion endures throughout all generations”, and because he “is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works” (verse 13)
  • Because he “upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down” (verse 14)
  • Because he gives everyone “their food in due season” (verse 15)
  • Because he opens his hand, and satisfies “the desire of every living thing” (verse 16)
  • Because he “is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (verse 17)
  • Because he “is near to all who call on him… in truth” (verse 18)
  • Because “he fulfills the desire of those who fear him” and “hears their cry and saves them” (verse 19)
  • Because he “preserves all who love him” and destroys the wicked (verse 20)

Finally, after all of those reasons, he finishes the Psalm in verse 21 by saying “my mouth will speak the praise of the Lordand let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever”.

The best kind of worship leading – all across the musical, denominational, and liturgical spectrum – is the kind of worship leading that saturates the congregation at every service with fresh reminders of the reasons why God deserves praise. When people are well-fed with a feast of the goodness of God, then they are well-served by their worship leaders, and well-prepared to stand and open their mouths to declare his praise.

Love Never Ends: An Interview with Adam Wright of The Corner Room

Last year I came across the album Psalm Songs, Vol. 1 by The Corner Room (the music ministry of Cahaba Park Church in Birmingham, AL, led by Adam Wright). I was struck by so many things about that album: the beautiful arrangements, the excellent way the text of Psalms was set to music word-for-word, and how effective it was at helping me not only memorize, but also sing the Psalms. I had that album on repeat for most of 2016.

Here’s the lyric video to the setting of Psalm 121 from that album:

Earlier this year, The Corner Room released a stunning new EP entitled “Love Never Ends”. No pun intended, but I love it. Their website describes it this way:

“Love Never Ends is a three movement suite of 1 Corinthians 13 verbatim from the ESV Bible.  Written for piano, strings and brass, the resulting cinematic landscape make this a truly breathtaking journey through one of the most familiar passages in Scripture. This project is designed to help anyone, from children to adults, know and treasure God’s Word.”

Here’s a quick video sample:

I asked Adam to share with us a bit of his story, and the heart behind The Corner Room and their recent album. Here’s a short interview:

Tell us about yourself. 
My name is Adam Wright and I have lived in Birmingham, AL my entire life.  It’s definitely home!  I have a beautiful wife of almost 11 years named Jessica and two adorable daughters: Nora, 3 and Jill, 1.  I love to read and listen to music constantly.  I also enjoy a deep, thought provoking movie from time to time – Christopher Nolan’s films have been some of my favorites (especially The Dark Knight Trilogy).  I also am a stickler for correct grammar and punctuation.  Did I mention I’m a nerd?  I must have forgotten that part, but you’ve probably gathered that by now…

How did God call you into worship leading?
Music has always been a natural part of life.  From childhood to young adult years, there were always opportunities to grow and serve at church – youth and adult choirs, handbells, contemporary worship services, youth group worship, solos, etc.  There were more opportunities in college – some at churches and some with college ministries on campus at the University of Montevallo.  After graduating college, I got a part time job playing piano for a church which had both a traditional and a contemporary service.  After three years serving that church “behind the scenes,” I began working at Cahaba Park, which has been a wonderful place to use and develop God’s good gifts.  Initially, my perception of my job was to choose and lead four songs in the service – easy enough, right?  Wrong!  As I grew in my understanding of worship leadership, I found that there was a spiritual component that transcends executing songs.  There is a pastoral role in what I am choosing and planning every week for our congregation and for me, the weekly process is devotional.  I have loved working at Cahaba Park and am thankful for the opportunity to serve such a great group of folks.

Tell us about your worship ministry and the heart behind some of your recent projects.
In 2016, I created The Corner Room, a music resource ministry of Cahaba Park Church.  While we do have an EP of hymns (What Great Mystery, 2016), our specific focus is setting Scripture verbatim from the ESV Bible (the translation that our church uses in worship) to music.  The Corner Room has released two “Scripture song” projects: Psalm Songs, Volume I, a collection of ten psalms set to original music; and Love Never Ends, a three movement suite of 1 Corinthians 13.  Our hope is that these songs would create opportunities for people to experience the Word of God in a fresh and unique way, and serve as a tool for Scripture meditation and memorization.  While these projects are not intended for congregational singing, I believe that singing the Word of God to those in our services as they follow along is a powerful tool in corporate worship.  We played Psalm 8 in worship this past week and as I looked into the congregation, I saw husbands and wives, parents and children, youth and singles, following along in their Bibles while the Scripture was sung.  I’d like to encourage more music leaders to do this occasionally (or often), as it provides a moment for people to be still and reflect on the words and truths of Scripture.

Tell us about your latest project: “Love Never Ends”
All of the Corner Room projects to date have originated from the books of the Bible preached in our services.  Seeking to thematically incorporate the sermon text into the service, I took the texts that were going to be preached and prepared musical arrangements for them – both for Psalms and for 1 Corinthians 13.  Recording these songs was a natural extension of what our church was learning and created more opportunity for our people to reflect upon the text.

1 Corinthians 13 is one of those passages that is almost too familiar and it’s a challenge to create a musical arrangement that evokes a fresh sense of wonder and awe.  It’s such a tender text, but it’s also extremely vibrant in it’s descriptions of love.  Any previous interpretation I’d heard was extremely “ballady” and I challenged myself to think beyond the natural tendency to approach it that way.  Previous Corner Room projects had a very “rootsy” focus – I’m definitely inclined to write in that vein.  As I began these arrangements, I decided to use the both delicate and percussive piano as the main instrument and invited Grammy-nominated arranger/composer Don Hart, to score the accompanying (and phenomenal!) strings and brass.

This project has moved me to consider more deeply the love Christ has demonstrated towards me and the love to which he calls me to exemplify to others.  I remember my initial listen of the first movement.  In tears, I had to stop halfway through, drop to my knees and thank the Lord for his grace in Christ, and for the opportunity and gifts to create something like this.  I was overwhelmed with gratitude.  It was a truly humbling moment.

What’s next for you?
I am currently at work on Psalm Songs, Volume II!  I hope to have it completed by winter of 2017-2018.  Stay tuned!

Any chance you have any freebies you could give away?
I will gladly give away some freebies!  How about 3 digital downloads?

Thanks, Adam, for your ministry, and for sharing your heart with us.

If you’d like to get one of those free digital downloads Adam is offering, please comment below. At 12:00pm tomorrow I’ll randomly pick three commenters, and will put Adam in touch with you.

You can follow The Corner Room on Twitter @cornerroommusic.

Worship Leading in Real Life

The piano’s out of tune again. The sound board is possessed. The drummer’s belt pack just died, and over in his plexiglass space pod, he can’t hear a thing. The alto section decided to take the day off. The second verse of the opening song vanished from ProPresenter. The bulletin accidentally printed last Sunday’s hymn numbers.

And it’s only 8:45 am.

This is worship leading in real life.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to spend a little over 24 hours with worship leaders from all over the country at a little get-together we had in Atlanta. Over the course of our time together, as I sat with them at meals or while making a cup of coffee, I lost track of the number of times someone said how encouraging it was to hear real stories from real worship leaders, dealing with real issues, and to be reminded that we’re not alone.

Worship leading in real life isn’t all that glamorous. It’s a weekly exercise in humility, servanthood, leadership, patience, direction-giving, fire-extinguishing, and sometimes crisis managing, with a little bit of music thrown in.

It’s like this at my church, and it was like this at my previous church. It’s like this at your church too. And that other guy (who you think has it easy) deals with real life issues as well, and if you could have lunch with him you’d hear his own stories.

The airbrushed images of worship leading that we see presented to us can warp our expectations of what we will experience in our own local-church contexts, and lead us to think that we’d have it easier somewhere else. Just like airbrushed images of a man or woman in a magazine or on the internet can warp our expectations of what a real relationship with a real person will actually look and feel like, and lead us to think we’d have it better with someone else.

Real husband and wife relationships are messy, involve a lot of dirty dishes, require a lot more laundry than any pre-martial counselor ever told you about, and are more difficult than either party thought possible. Only Jesus can sustain a real marriage over the long haul and make it fruitful and joyful. Forget the airbrushed images. They’re fake.

Same deal with worship leading in real life. It’s messy, involves a lot of meetings, last-minute Planning Center cancellations, and maybe even a lady in the fourth row who scowl at you. But you’re not alone. Your brother and sister worship leaders are in the same boat as you. And once we realize we can’t get through this ministry thing on our own, we will see Jesus sustain us and remain faithful to us over the long haul, making us fruitful, and yes, even joyful, for his glory and our good.

Now to get that piano tuned…