Several years ago I had the privilege of meeting Rachel Wilhelm, who at the time was living in northern Virginia with her husband and children, and was helping to serve as acting worship leader in my church when I arrived. I was immediately struck by her gift, her voice, her wisdom in leading worship, and so was very disappointed when she and her family moved to Minnesota. A while ago Rachel released a great album, Songs of Lament, and I asked her a few questions about her background, her passion for biblical songs of lamentation, and her project.
songs of lament
1. Who is Rachel Wilhelm?
I’m the worship arts director for a lovely little church in Minneapolis. I am also a co-founder of the Roots Worship Collective, Minneapolis Chapter, made up of a group of worship leaders and church musicians who care about church unity by leading local hymn-singing events for the purpose of getting different denominations to sing together on days other than Sunday. I really love the Church. Sometimes I don’t know why because Church can be a place where you can be seriously hurt if you dare to open up or expose yourself. But the Church is beautiful because Christ says so. I think I’m a person who learns all the time about grace and about the depth and breadth of God’s love.
2. What was your journey as a worship leader like?
Well, that’s been interesting. I’ve been on worship teams since I was in middle school, singing for my youth band team in California. In many ways, I think that’s what kept me in the Church. Over the years, I swore I would never lead worship, but only be on teams because I thought worship leaders only attracted drama, and some had this diva complex. Eventually, I started going to some churches where the women technically couldn’t “start” a song because it seemed like they had authority over the men. I was bothered that there was no judgment if she sang in a bar, but if she started a song in church? Eventually my family landed in a church where the pastor approached me to think about training under him to lead music as he needed help. It was actually a terrible experience, but a very good one for me. After that, I stopped going to church for six months. It was one of those times when the lamentation made its appearance. I was angry with God for dragging me through the mud when I obeyed him. After those six months, my family approached an Anglican church where we had friends and lo and behold, they needed a musician. This experience touched me a lot. It was probably the highlight of my worship journey. I learned to set limits for myself, to think theologically about song selection, and, sadly, to judge other ways of leading worship. Years later, I met you in Truro and learned in my acting position there that an “anthems only” approach is not for everyone. God loves diversity. It seems trivial. But I took leading music so seriously that I wanted to “get it right.” Grace to myself and to all others has been a big part of my worship journey.
3. You have a passion for helping the Church recover biblical songs of lamentation. Where does this passion come from?
You know, it’s super hard for me to give you an exact answer to that. Minor keys sounded when I was born or something. Ever since I was little, I’ve been writing music, mostly in my head. I didn’t play a guitar until I was an adult, so I memorized the soulful moves 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 getting an instrument seemed impossible. Forget classes. I was a very worried child. I think if someone were to diagnose me, I would have had extreme anxiety. I worried about things a child didn’t have to worry about. So I turned to the scriptures because I felt really hopeless. And the passages from Jeremiah, the Psalms and other prophets relating all kinds of destitution, grief, pain, worry, etc. really struck me as the most beautiful pieces of literature I have ever read. I think I appreciated how real it was, how honest these people could be to God and he didn’t put them down. From then on, that’s how I talked to God myself. Later in my worship journey, I noticed that most of the songs people liked to sing were just happy, upbeat songs. It seemed like people wanted to go to church to escape the rest of the week. Then I realized that it was so natural for me to just “go there” with vulnerability to God about my own weaknesses, others don’t. In fact, the denial is enormous. I think sometimes people don’t heal because they don’t complain to God. Sometimes you have to open that wound on purpose, clean it up, and stitch it up to fix it. You can’t leave it like that. Leading worship in an Anglican church also taught me how liturgically appropriate lamentation can be. It was then that I realized that there was or could be a real place for it.
4. What are some common questions or misunderstandings you encounter regarding songs of lamentation?
To lament is wrong because it is to complain. I think people forget that the scriptures are inspired by God and that righteous complaints are found everywhere in the Bible. They quote the passage on grunts and complaints and stop there. I’m sure some of our modern misconceptions come from bad positive confession theology. People like to deny the harshness of real life. Look how crowded Joel Osteen’s church is. I said lately that complaining is not a sin. It’s who you complain to. God can take care of it. He wants to take care of it!
People also think that the songs of lamentation only tear our bag, pat our head with ash and cry for hours. I have heard that complaining is not a matter of justice, even when the word complaint is a very judicial term. I’ve also heard people ask me what even lamentation means because they’ve never heard that word before.
5. Tell us about your album, Songs of Lament.
The record was born out of the need to respond to laments in the worship music genre. I don’t think I would have made an album if there hadn’t been a need. I have such a high opinion of the Word of God that I think it’s tragic that there aren’t more Bible songs being sung (like during the Jesus movement in our parents’ day). The Psalms are made to be sung. There is power in singing the words of God to him. Something mysteriously healing is happening.
My album contains songs from Ezekiel 16, where God laments, Jeremiah 8 and 9, Lamentations 1, four movements of Habakkuk, Psalm 13, and finally Psalm 139, which for me is the resolution of the lamentation. Some songs were written when I was little, others last fall!
My hope is that some of the songs of lamentation can be used corporately in church and others for personal devotion.
This interview with Rachel Wilhelm and her songs of lamentation originally appeared hereand is used with permission.