Born a little on the melancholy side, I was always attracted to the bleaker parts of Scripture.
You know, the parts where a prophet would cry out to God for help, or where God would lament the betrayal of His bride. Or the psalms of lament where the psalmist feels desperate and horrifically abandoned. These passages captured my imagination like nothing else.
I spent many years writing songs from those dark places in Scripture and, as I got older, I started to share them with others in the church as a music director or artist.
The reaction: “What’s wrong with you?” “Why are you so sad?” “Do you have the Holy Spirit?” “Have you prayed for help?”
By the time I found the Anglican church, I had been pummeled into a full body bruise.
I had spent six months refusing to go to church because the church didn’t like me. I obeyed God, I used my gifts, and in the end, I got made fun of, ridiculed, and told I didn’t have the Holy Spirit.
All this, just for presenting music that was somewhat and sometimes melancholy. It was like I had reached into people’s hearts and crushed them to a pulp. How dare I make anyone feel sad for one single second!
I felt like church was not a place where broken people can come to be assured that they are not alone, but a place where they stuff it down and have a mini Sunday vacation to escape the horrors of the work week.
We only deal with real things at the office, or in our closets by ourselves. God and us. Or: just be positive and put on a happy face. It is too frightening to allow God to reach us in our darkest moments in a corporate setting; we might lose our composure.
Thank God for the Anglican church and the church calendar.
I don’t say that lightly because I spent many years feeling there was no place for me in the church.
However, as I started leading music in the Anglican church, I was pushed to bring variety. A whole new world opened up.
The church calendar forces us to follow the life of Jesus, which is a dynamic life of joy and suffering and everything in between. There is joy at Christmas, there is joy at Easter, but many of those in between seasons teach us that Jesus was indeed the suffering servant.
Lent, our celebration of Jesus in the wilderness, is the perfect season to bring in the minor keys.
Advent is also a penitential season where we long for the Child to be born but also await the coming Kingdom where we need to be like the five virgins who, with longing and yearning, keep their lamps replenished with oil (Matt. 25:1–13).
What a haunting, mysterious time Advent is!
I found that I could teach a melancholy refrain interspersed with a read Psalm of lament for the week. I could squeeze in a penitential song after the confession. If there was a reading of the prophets for the Old Testament, I could get creative and have it sung with a haunting melody instead.
The restrictions of the liturgy and church calendar brought a variety of emotions and a sacred space for honesty within a structure of deep meaning. There was finally a place for me. And there is a place for everyone, because the calendar and liturgy are supposed to touch every variety of emotion and orientate us.
This past Lent, I hit my congregation hard with dark melodies and somber tunes. I remember putting “Create in Me a Clean Heart” by Keith Green in D minor and using it as a refrain to Psalm 51.
Everywhere I could, I brought in the atmosphere of the wilderness. We decorated the sanctuary with old, gnarly grape vines, draped cloth over the windows, and used lanterns with candles inside to create a closed, constricted feeling.
Between the services and fasting for 40 days, one of my friends in my Lenten dinner group said, “I really can’t wait for Easter. It’s so heavy for me. I feel like I’m getting just a taste of what it was like for Jesus in the wild.”
There is room for our gifts.
An author in my church told me once that he thought that maybe he should expand his genre, and not write the same type of books that he always writes.
I had just finished one of his books and thought it was excellent. “You’re really good at what you write. How about continuing in what you are good at and expanding only if you really want to?” I think he was surprised by my answer.
I’d spent years wishing I was someone else, writing cheery songs all the time, but it mostly wasn’t in me. Expanding is not bad; but expanding so you can escape how God has gifted you is.
It took me years to accept that there was room for my gifts, and that everyone has something to add within the wide range of liturgical emotion.
How else are we to be the Body of Christ and create an honest expression of who God is?
We need to challenge each other.
Once I started to understand how being a Body with many members worked, I applied it to my songwriting.
I rarely find anyone these days within the Anglican tradition who shies away from lament; but once in awhile I do. And when I do, I am not afraid to tell that person that they need me like I need them.
What is Lent without sorrow and minor keys? What is Easter without joy and major keys? Easter is nothing joyful at all without the crushing anguish of Lent. And Lent is complete despair without the hope of Easter.
The richness of the Anglican church is continual, cyclical, seasonal, and Christ-centered. The artist is challenged to be appropriate and the congregation has no complaints. The Holy Spirit pulls us, tugs us and invites us into the life of Jesus and there, everyone who believes in Him has a place.
Rachel Wilhelm is the United States Team Leader at United Adoration (ACNA) and Director of Worship Arts and Artist in Residence at Redeemer Anglican Church in Dacula, GA. She released her full-length album, Songs of Lament, in 2017.