When the hashtag #MeToo began showing up on social media feeds across the country in October 2017, Facebook reported that nearly half of its users were friends with someone who said they’d been sexually assaulted or harassed. Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised, as I’d already heard stories from two family members who were taken advantage of by close friends. One month later, #ChurchToo began trending on Twitter as users sought to increase awareness of this kind of tragedy happening in churches as well. And in the last six years, multiple stories of abuse have continued to be uncovered in the Christian world as we’ve seen leader after leader weighed on the scales of justice and found wanting.
This is why Rachel Wilhelm wrote the song “Vengeance With The Sword,” using images and phrases pulled from the prophet Jeremiah. Rachel has taken it upon herself to stand up for the oppressed and deliver God’s message to leaders who abuse their positions of power, with lyrics like these:
You will not be lamented, or gathered, or buried Strewn will be all the bodies, like refuse and carrion. A calamity will rumble From the wine inside your cup And if you refuse to take it I’ll make you drink it up
The song is the sixth track from Rachel’s newest album, Jeremiah, and whenever I listen to it I feel compelled to raise a silent fist in victory. Yes, I think to myself, God does care about justice.
“The Old Testament is key to understanding the heart of Jesus,” Rachel told me. “There are a lot of sex abuse cases, clergy mishandling, and unjust power dynamics in the church right now, but something tells me this isn’t new.”
“God sees it all, and has already spoken about it,” she added. “But not many listen.”
I’ve been in a writer’s group with Rachel for a couple of years now, and when she first shared this song with us last November, I said, “This is the song I needed after I listened to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast. But in the last month, I’ve discovered that the album in its entirety attempts to fill a serious void found in modern Christian music: songs that express lament and doubt.
“You Won’t Turn” starts off the record with some important questions: “Where is the Lord?” not a soul has asked / Not a prophet, shepherd or scribe who studies the law / “Where is the fountain of the Living God?” / They have molded vessels themselves with cracks in the clay.”
Such words echo the hearts of many who’ve deconstructed their faith and walked away from organized religion over the last several years. Though I’m still invested in my local church, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t relate to the cry for accountability made in the 14th verse of Jeremiah’s sixth chapter: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious / ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
Jeremiah is often called the weeping prophet, but the cover of Rachel’s album shows a young man smiling up at a beautiful sky—a scene that captures the complexity of someone who knows the importance of his calling. She commissioned the painting from Knoxville-based artist Barbara Thomas because she believes in fostering the arts in church. Rachel is also the Vice President for an organization called United Adoration, which has been holding songwriting and visual arts retreats across the US, Europe, South America, and even Africa for the last nine years.
She ends the album with the haunting line, “Good Shepherd, break us as you must,” which is a fitting prayer of conclusion because restoration is not possible without repentance. Janna Barber
Perhaps my talented friend relates to Jeremiah’s calling as a prophet of woe. Before this album, Rachel released Requiem, an album meant to help people during the pandemic who weren’t allowed to attend the funerals of loved ones they’d lost. Other previous albums like Daughter Zion’s Woe and Songs of Lament touch on similar themes, but Jeremiah feels more multifaceted, offering up songs like “I Know the Plans,” from the most famous verse in Jeremiah (29:11), which sounds a bit like a song The Welcome Wagon would perform. Then there’s “Fear Not For I Am With You,” a tune upbeat and hopeful enough to be played on some Christian radio stations, which ends with the beautiful repetition of God’s encouraging promise: “I’m not finished with you yet.”
Earlier this year I told Rachel that her new music was beginning to remind me of Johnny Cash, and she said to me, “God cares for the vulnerable and unnoticed, so I care for the vulnerable and unnoticed. It’s my calling.”
Rachel was joined by a host of talented friends in the recording and production of this album. Players like Phil Keaggy, Jered McKenna, and Adam Whipple, along with vocalists Karin Simmons and Devin Pogue. Pogue provides the lead vocal on a few songs, including “Turn to Me,” which contains my favorite line from the album, a promise from the Lord that says:
Turn to Me, O turn to me I am merciful and gentle, turn to me. A day will come when I’ll bring you home And your restless hearts will find shalom. I’ll forgive and I’ll take every disordered ache And I’ll anchor joy within its place
Rachel is unflinchingly faithful to the themes of this complex book, penning lyrics like, “How awful that day will be/but on that day you will be saved” for the song “On That Day,” based on Jeremiah 30, which alludes to the coming of Christ. Then she ends the album with the haunting line, “Good Shepherd, break us as you must,” which is a fitting prayer of conclusion because restoration is not possible without repentance.
In Jeremiah’s day, the nation of Israel did not have ears to hear his call for repentance, which caused him the terrible kind of suffering and lament that the songs “My Heart is Faint” and “Woe to You O Jerusalem” bear witness to. But what if these lyrics and melodies could be the beginning of something new for today’s churches and leaders? Perhaps Jeremiah’s message will finally be taken to heart, and God’s people will begin to live and love as though the Holy Spirit were near to their hearts, as well as their mouths.
May it be so, Lord Jesus. May it be so.