Rick Lee James Opens Up about Singing an Unreleased Rich Mullins Song, Suffering & His New Album

Rick Lee James

Thunder, the highly anticipated eighth recording by acclaimed singer/songwriter and author Rick Lee James, will be available beginning February 8. Produced by Chris Hoisington of Brothers McClurg at Old Bear Studio in Buffalo, New York, Thunder features 10 songs, including the title cut co-written by the late Rich Mullins along with renowned songsmiths Lowell Alexander and Phil Naish.

Rick Lee James is an acclaimed singer/songwriter, worship leader, author, speaker and podcast host. James' recordings include Workin' On CommissionA Little Lower Than The AngelsChristmas SongsChangesBasement Psalms Live, and Hymns, Prayers & Invitations. His 2018 hit, "Advent Hymn," remained at #1 on Christian Radio Weekly's "CRW Adds Chart" for seven consecutive weeks. The song has been played on nearly 700 radio stations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.  

James' book, Out Of The Depths: A Songwriter's Journey Through The Psalms, is used as a textbook for the National Praise & Worship Institute at Trevecca Nazarene University. He has also been a contributor to Worship Leader magazine, Holiness TodayThe Table and His podcast, "Voices In My Head," has featured such leading singer/songwriters as Andrew Peterson, Sara Groves, Jason Gray, Michael Card and Paul Baloche. 

Q: Thanks for doing this interview with us. Let's start with yourself, tell us a little about your ministries.

Most importantly, I am a grateful to be a husband and a father. When I'm not on the road, I lead music at Home Road Nazarene Church in Springfield Ohio where I have served for 18 years. I also host a podcast called Voices In My Head which releases every Wednesday where I have theological conversations with wonderful creative people about their craft. Just for fun, I run the Twitter account @MisterRogersSay where I daily post encouraging quotes from Fred Rogers, because I think we need more encouragers like him in the world.

Q: You have written quite a bit about worship, what makes a great worship song?

That's a great and complex question. I think a great worship song, like any great song, will be easy to remember and hard to forget. A great worship song for a congregation needs to express rich and universal truths about who God is, but with lyrics, melodies, chords structures that are simple enough to be sung by nearly anyone. Repetition is also a good thing when writing for a congregation. A great worship song can help us to learn, sing and confess eternal truths not only to God, but also to each other.

Q: In a press release for your new album, it describes your album as one that "follows a liturgical path." What does this mean?

A liturgy is a way that a culture teaches its people what to love, what to worship. We learn these liturgies not only from churches but also from parents, schools, corporations, and even shopping malls. The ABC song most of us learned as children began teaching us to value language and communication. Advertisers use a kind of liturgy to train us to become consumers. Good Christian liturgies are like windows that we look through, open, and lean out of to see who God is. My hope is that the songs and spoken liturgies on Thunder will be windows by which we can view who God is, not only in the joyful moments, but also when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Q: What's the value of liturgy in worship?

I think the value of liturgy in worship might only be able to be measured years down the road. That is to say, if a person worships in your congregation for 10 years, what difference will it have made in their lives? What will a person look like after a decade of being shaped by your congregation's worship? Maybe that's the best way to tell if the liturgy that was spoken, sung, and prayed in worship had any value at all.

Q: You also have an unreleased song co-written by Rich Mullins on the new album. How did you get to record this gem?

Randy Cox, my co-writer on the song "Be My All", was Rich Mullins's first publisher. If it hadn't been for Randy, Amy Grant wouldn't have discovered "Sing Your Praise To The Lord", introducing the world to the writing of Rich Mullins. After Rich passed away, Randy came to have several of Rich's never released songs in his care. To make a long story short, Randy asked me to listen to a couple of these songs and then surprised me by asking if I would be willing to record one or two of them for my next album. Being a huge Rich Mullins fan, I jumped at the chance. Thunder, a song co-written with Phil Naish and Lowell Alexander, really resonated with me and it just felt like a great way to open the album. I can't tell you how unworthy and grateful I feel to be entrusted with this song. It truly is a great song and I hope how I did it would make Rich proud.

Q: Many of the songs were written from your own journey, which included lots of suffering. Can you give us an example of a song that came out of your experience? And how did the song bring healing to you?

My wife and I have experienced the loss of 4 children through miscarriages. When people ask me how many children I have, I tell them we have one, but the truth is we have 4 more in heaven. Songwriting is often a way that helps me to process my emotions. "The Lord Is Our Shepherd" is a song that I wrote as a kind of love letter to the children that we never met. In the song I speak to our children, telling them the story of how we learned about them, how we told our son he would have to get ready to share a room, and how we started to prepare the house for their arrival.

Then the song takes a difficult turn when I tell them how we came to find out that their hearts were no longer beating and how much we miss them and love them even though we never met them. I just needed a way to tell our unborn children that even though we are all walking through the shadow of death, on different sides of eternity, that the Lord is the Shepherd of all of us. I wanted to tell our children that it was okay to rest in the everlasting arms of Jesus. I can't tell you how badly my wife and I wish we could have held our babies in our arms. The comfort and healing that we are still trying to find is that God's arms are big enough to hold us all at the same time. Whatever it means that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, it certainly must mean that somehow He is near to us and is grieving with us in these difficult days. Honestly, the song hurts me and heals me every time I sing it.

Q: Besides your own songs, you also covered a couple of hymns. Tell us more about these covers.

I love the writing of Charles Wesley and really wanted to do a rendition of "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" that might be a bit more accessible to new ears who have never heard it before. I tried to keep the original melody intact while adding a new chorus to express the heart of Wesley's Theology, which is that God draws our hearts and our minds to Him with perfect love. The end result has a celebratory, almost surf-rock feel. The closing song is a hymn called "My Master Was So Very Poor" written by Henry Lee. I've still never heard the original melody to the song. I just love the lyrics and wrote a tune that I felt would serve the lyrics. I love the way it closes out the record in an almost orchestral way. Several churches have told me that they are already using it in their congregation during communion and I am so glad about that.

Q: What is your hope for this new record? How do you wish this record would impact the lives of your listeners?

I really hope that God will use it to speak hope into the lives of people who need it. I also hope that songs like "Love Our Enemies" will encourage congregations to worship in ways that will counter the anti-neighborliness that we are experiencing currently in our nation. I've prayed the same prayer for this album that Fred Rogers prayed every day before he walked into the television studio to record episodes of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, "Lord, let some word that is heard be Yours." 

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