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Phil Wickham, whether alone with a guitar or in a sea of fresh and refreshing accompaniment, brings something to the worship table that is often missing: emotional power and transparency, melodic and creative originality, unexpected lyrical turns and an escape from “more of the same.” Like Crowder, John Mark McMillan, and the shepherd psalmist, David, his emotional vocabulary and worship vision is expansive and courageous. Instead of just getting louder, Wickham chooses to go deeper. In a time where there is a call for music that truly is formational, often emotion is left out of the picture. Jesus was emotional. He was sad, at times angry, moved with compassion, joyous, expressing a vast array of feeling. At its best worship is emotional as well as revelational, personal as well as corporate, doxologically diverse, forming us into more—not less—dynamic reflections of Jesus.
On The Ascension, produced by Pete Kipley, an array of guitars (alt/rock/folk/surf), synthy surprises and moody washes, poppy percussive celestial choirs, pulsing drums, create a sonic backdrop for deeply personal and highly congregational worship. As in the Psalms of David, God is sometimes near, perceivable on every side, as in “Wonderful” co-written with Chris Tomlin, and at other times requiring a “climb” to break into his manifest presence as on the title track “The Ascension.” Similarly, on “Carry My Soul,” it requires a transition with finality, from earth to heaven, to fully experience Jesus. The latter is reminiscent of “I Can Only Imagine” with its telescope of longing for that inevitable future encounter with Jesus. The Ascension’s most profoundly beautiful song is “Mercy,” which tells the epic fall and redemption story with poetic power and startling clarity, traversing Testaments, creating visual rhymes, and offering a creative way to set the stage for an altar call.
Heaven to earth came down from on high
With hope in his name and a fire in his eyes
The image of God walking upon the world
A must add for your service of worship, if you’re not already singing it, is “This Is Amazing Grace” (co-written with Jeremy Riddle and Josh Farro). Kipley and Wickham have given it a dancey sort of Village People meet the electrical parade intro, and it is without doubt one of the strongest corporate worship songs. Other obvious choices include “Glory” with its classic reverential beat-and-guitar-driven modern worship and choral embellishment and “Over All,” a declaration of God’s power and glory over all of creation, emotional uncertainty, and circumstance. In the use of Grand Canyon University’s New Life Singers throughout, Kipley and Wickham suggest some innovative ideas for melding choir and praise-band sensibilities together that might inspire a new sort of “blended” service.
There’s the occasional challenge lyrically as in the powerfully moving and beautiful “When My Heart Is Torn Asunder,” another song destined for the sanctuary, where in the last stanza, Wickham characterizes the time we live in as “this age of death,” which although sometimes it seems that way—it is an age with a lot of dying and there is a “culture of death”—there are some prominent theologians who would argue the point that the kingdom has been inaugurated and this is the age of grace overflowing with God’s life. Occasionally, Phil’s heaven seems far away, rather than “God’s space and ours overlap[ping) and interlock[ing]” as NT Wright would put it. But Wickham can just as quickly occupy the other side of the equation and in the same song.
Indeed, The Ascension is a perfect tableau of the paradoxes of life and biblical truth … and for that matter, psalmic reality. Side by side, death and life, ecstatic joy and aching sorrow, God at a distance and fully present, in the now and also the not yet. Phil manages to cover it all, balanced between waiting for, running to, climbing up and breaking through to the possible, the promise, the someday, the glory…to Jesus—“with nothing standing in the way.” At the same time, he hands us an experience of God in the now, “healing the desert in [our] soul[s],” “turning mourning to dancing,” and ruling “over all.”
When my heart is torn asunder
And my world just falls apart
Lord you put me back together
And lift me to where you are