Have you ever felt like someone knew more about you than you knew about yourself – like they could see deep into your heart and soul at the very things you’re afraid to admit you think or believe?
I’ve often heard people tell me when I preach that they feel like I wrote a sermon specifically for them, that it addressed their particular life-situation right now in an uncanny way, as if I knew them. I’ve felt the same with certain songs or books – but I’ve never felt that way with an entire album… until now.
Last week Audrey Assad released her latest album Evergreen, and I’ve been listening to it non-stop ever since. I first listened to it all the way through as I walked along the river under the Scottish pines near where I live in Scotland – which seemed a fitting location in light of the title track. As I walked, I waited with baited breath for the next line of a song, then the next song, as if it was the unfolding of my own story that Audrey had written and composed. As Mrs. Turpin says in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, Revelation, “[it was as if Audrey Assad] had known [me] all her life — all of [my] life, it seemed too, not just all [of Audrey’s] life.” A few times I almost intuitively knew the next line of the song I was listening to, because it’s what I wanted to write but couldn’t – because I didn’t have the words to write, or didn’t want to admit that I had the words to write it – but Audrey did.
The album has such courage. To be totally honest, writing this post scares me because I’m afraid that people will judge me because of things I will write and struggles I will share. I’m afraid that if I share my doubts then I’ll never be able to be a pastor or preach again. But Audrey has given me the courage to be honest by how she has so fearlessly shared her story in this album even when it (unfortunately) has already gotten her criticism from some people. So, I’m going to basically share what sticks out to me in this album – sort of as a review, sort of as commentary, but mostly to share how much I identify with the season that Audrey is writing about in this album – and because I think the album is powerful and I want others to see some of the beauty I see in it. It’s going to probably be more stream-of-consciousness than a polished post, and I won’t comment on everything in the album, but I feel the need to write and share.
I suggest you listen to the whole album through from start to finish right now. Or you could listen to each song before my thoughts below because I think the songs give much more weight and emotion than my words.
In general, the album feels like Audrey saying, “I believe, help my unbelief” and working through her doubts and wrestling with her fundamentalist upbringing. It feels like her finally being willing to acknowledge her “unbelief” and admit that she doesn’t have God figured out like she thought growing up. Honestly, it feels like exactly where I am right now in my spiritual journey. In an interview on the Cultivated podcast she said that she felt duplicitous by how she was wrestling with her faith while being a “Christian artist” and worship leader on the stage in front of other people, and I feel the same feeling in ministry now. I wonder how I could ever become a pastor when I still feel like I’m in my own dark night of the soul. Sometimes I have more questions than answers, and more doubt than faith – God seems silent more than he speaks. I feel like the friend Christian Wiman mentions in his book, My Bright Abyss: “[I can] wake up a Christian and go to bed an atheist…”
But even in the midst of the doubts and wrestling, there’s something that won’t let me go. In that same podcast interview, Audrey said something that I identified with: “I’m a believer, even if I don’t want to be.” It’s hard for me to admit that there are times that I don’t want to be a believer – but it’s true. But at the same time, I know deep down inside that even if I don’t want to be a believer, I still am. So this album has been so life-giving and encouraging as I’ve seen someone wrestle with the very same thing – to recognize that, like C.S. Lewis said in Letters to Malcolm, “[I am] not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road.”
The album is called Evergreen, with the opening track saying “The tree of life is Evergreen.” The image it draws to my mind is of the pines in the snowy hills of Scotland – the only living thing in a land blanketed in brilliant snow, where life hides beneath cold death waiting to burst from the ground.
God on a cross / who would have thought it?
This place looks nothing like Eden
Life looks so different than we had always expected. It’s a paradox – a mystery:
But there is no death here in the ruinsThis is the land of the breathingOut past the fearDoubt becomes wonder / Doubt becomes wonderRivers appear
And I’m going under / I’m going under
I get the image of finally not being afraid of the snow, or the river, or going under, or doubting. Like Audrey is willing to walk through the ruins and death because of the tree of life – it casts away fear. That speaks to me in a time in my life that feels dark and cold and silent like fresh, fallen snow. God doesn’t look like I thought he would. Maybe I was expecting a king and conqueror to make my life bright and glorious, and instead, I was met with death in the ruins – “God on a cross. Who would have thought it?”
But then the next song goes on to break down my misconceptions about God:
You are not possessive / You respect all thingsYou are not invasive / You have no envyYou are not insistent / You do not force me
You are not controlling / You make me free indeed
God is our “Deliverer,” and sometimes God needs to actually deliver us from our own ideas of God. In one of my favorite passages from Lewis’ A Grief Observed he says,
“Images of the Holy easily become holy images—sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.”
If God really loves us he has to destroy our sacrosanct ideas of him that are not true – he has to shatter our images of himself. It can be painful though, and it hurts to see the ruins of the God you loved around you. But I love the image Audrey continues with from the bridge of the song:
In the ruins of my heart / You preach to the poorTurning over stones to show me there is moreMore than all I ask / more than I’m looking for
In the ruins of my heart
In the ruins of our [g]od we made in our own image, the true Image of God reveals that he is more than we could imagine. He turns over the stones in our ruin to show that we only saw part of who God is, but there is more than that. He is not afraid of our ruins.
“Little Things with Great Love”
This leads into a song about how God comes close in Jesus – who enters the ruins of our hearts:
For there is One who sees meHis hand is over mineFor there is One who knows me
His heart, it breaks with mine
And the result of the closeness of God in the incarnation, as God identifies with us, is that it transforms our hearts to love others as we have been loved.
O give us ears to hear them / and give us eyes that see
For there is One who loves them / I am His hands and feet
“The Joy of the Lord”
“The Joy of the Lord” feels like a melancholy joy song. Not all uppity and happy and ignoring pain like many Christian songs, but realistic joy in the midst of suffering. I like the image of crushed grapes and being made wine – which takes time, and is messy and about breaking fruit down and crushing it. I can only imagine the feeling of waste and woundedness when grapes are first crushed for those who don’t know about the winemaking process. Why break grapes – why leave them broken and fermenting for days, months, or years? How many times I’ve felt the same and wondered what God was doing:
I may be weak / but I will cling to the vineI’m pressed but not crushed / for You are making new wine
Wounds may be opened and weakness revealed / but I will be healed in the fire
“The Joy of the Lord” saying that “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me” – but that river is different than what we tend to think of when we sing that song.
Seek good, not evil, follow the Lord and liveGod will be with you, just as you say He isClean up your courtrooms, and all your prisons too
Come join the mourners, and God will weep with you
The river of life disrupts our comfortable way of life. It demands justice and being near to those who are broken and hurting.
The most powerful section of the album for me was the progression from “Unfolding” to “Wounded Healer” – which was the climax of the album for me. “Unfolding” voices my fear of being duplicitous:
Jesus Christ, I don’t know what I amAm I a lost little lamb or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?Oh, my God, I don’t know what this was
Am I the child of Your love or just chaos unfolding?
I love that at the start of each of these lines it feels like Audrey is almost cursing – almost taking the name of God in vain: “Jesus Christ[!]” – “Oh my God[!]” Sometimes my prayers can feel more like accusations towards God – more like cursing than praising, if I’m honest. And that makes me feel duplicitous. I can feel like since I’ve left my upbringing and am frustrated with the church a lot of the time I might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Like I’ll never be a pastor since my doctrine or theology isn’t the same and I’m not all that certain about things I used to be sure of, or don’t care so much about our overprotection of the “nuclear family” or our insistence on morality above all else, or because I like the Christian mystics and practice contemplative prayer (which people will think is “new age”), or will lead people astray if I admit that I feel like an atheist at times, yet still preach on Sunday – and on and on I could go.
It feels like a “cloud of unknowing” – which is the title of a Christian mystic book. The anonymous author, as I understand, suggests that in order to know God we have to be willing to be lost in a cloud of unknowing – to abandon our need to “know” and have everything figured out.
How do I grieve what I can’t let go?It’s got a hold, it’s got a hold on meHow do I mourn what I cannot know?
It’s got a hold, it’s got a hold on me
But it’s scary entering that cloud of unknowing – to give up what’s familiar. “It’s got a hold on me.” It’s like entering a dark night of the soul, which is where I’ve found myself for the past 3-4 (or maybe more) years. I’m more comfortable with certainty than unknowing. I want a God I can put in a box and keep in my pocket – a God I understand and can make sense of all the time.
How do I keep what I cannot find?I’m letting go / I’m letting go of YouI’m letting goHow do I love what I left behind?I’m letting go / I’m letting go of You
I’m letting go
Then the album goes to “Teresa”, which felt like my hearts prayer – like it could have been stripped from my inmost thoughts that I don’t want to admit to other people at my deepest point:
Jesus, I need You; lover, don’t leaveDid You call my name?Just to plunge me deep into the darkness?Do You know that I can’t even hear Your voice?Accusers around me on every sideWhispering to me that I’m willfully blindThat I’m clinging to nothing
But all that I want is to clear the noise
Again – wrestling with the silence of God, and wanting so much to hear God’s voice like I used to before, but knowing I can’t. God often feels like deus absconditus – “the God who hides himself.” Like he’s not just absent, but willfully absent. He’s actively hiding for some reason.
And You know I’m not asking You for a signI trusted Your promise, I gave You my lifeBut I guess I just miss You
I feel so alone in the silence
Sometimes I feel like I’ve given everything and trusted God through lots of trials, “I’ve trusted [his] promise [and] I gave [him] my life” and yet what he rewards me with is silence, not presence. It can feel like a betrayal, but there’s something in the darkness, in the silence, so “I reach out my hand” – I just haven’t felt anything yet.
The song is titled “Teresa” which is after Mother Teresa, who wrestled with the silence of God her whole life. She’s someone I’ve really looked up to and read biographies of because of how she felt called by God, then started loving the unlovable, but wrestled her whole life with the silence of God and feeling like he abandoned her – but she never gave up, she kept trusting and loving. As far as anyone knows and we can tell from her correspondence with her spiritual director (see this book), she died feeling that God was silent – yet loved him even unto death. She actively loved a silent God who she felt abandoned her, by loving people that everyone else had abandoned. I get teary-eyed just writing that. It gives me hope to press on and look to the hills.
So I reach out my hands / to find You where You have been hiding
Maybe I’ll see You / deep in the eyes of the dying
So that transitions perfectly into “Irrational Season” – which is the season I feel myself in. I grew up a rationalist, clinging to certainty and knowledge. But now I’m uncertain – looking to the hills, in the cloud of unknowing, wanting God to be near but still groping in the dark and silence:
Over the skyline to see the spheresI lift my eyes to the heavensNothing sensible has yet appeared
In this irrational season
I keep hoping for something to take away the darkness and cloud, but nothing sensible has appeared yet. It doesn’t make sense rationally, but I’m learning that reason isn’t everything.
But the light is wilder hereOut on the edge of reasonAnd Love burns bright and clear
Out where I cannot seize Him
I love the image of the light being “wilder” – it can’t be tamed. God can’t be seized by my mind, he’s too mysterious, too bright and wild. It’s scary, but beautiful.
All the way my savior leads meTo peace that’s past understandingInto the wilderness to find the streams
To know beyond comprehending
It’s a different way of knowing, that I’m starting to see. It might mean God never speaks to me again. That scares me, but sometimes I wonder if God is asking me, “Jason – if I never speak to you again, will you still love me? Do you love my speaking, or do you love me? Do you love the feeling of my presence, or my actual presence, even if it feels like a holy dark, even if it feels like silence and hiding and abandonment?”
It’s a double-edged sword – it’s both more beautiful and more dangerous. If I accept it, it means knowing God in a way I’ve never experienced before. Sometimes I want to stay with the comfortable God I know and can understand. The one that I can put in a box and explain everything he does. But out beyond reason is a God who is mysterious and more than I can comprehend. “The light is wilder here” and at the same time “the night is darker here.” I don’t want the holy dark, but I can’t have the wild light without it.
Then the song that broke me – “Wounded Healer” (which is probably a reference to Henri Nouwen’s great book by the same title). Jesus and the incarnation is the reason I cling to Christianity in the dark. He reveals the invisible God, he knows the holy dark, he knows all my doubt and fears. He gives me a glimpse of the God I cannot see.
But the second verse is what really moved me, because it touches at one of my rawest points – my sister’s death. Christina loved Audrey Assad, and her memorial video/slideshow at her funeral was set to “Even Unto Death.” So I can’t listen to that song without thinking of her (and crying, most of the time). But part of the difficulty of her death was that she believed that God was going to heal her, almost up until the day she died. She believed that God had told her specifically that he was going to “part the waters” and she would walk right through. I still have this image of her sitting on the couch about a week before she died raising her hand and singing the bridge of “No Longer Slaves”:
You split the sea
So I could walk right through it
She clung to that promise even on her deathbed. I couldn’t sleep that night and woke up at 3am and had a conversation with her just hours before she died where she was wrestling with what to make of that promise since she was positive she had heard from God. What did it mean that God was going to split the sea for her? Could dying be walking through the parted waters? Did it have to mean healing? That’s the last conversation I had with her, and I think she finally was okay with dying then.
So when I heard the lines in “Wounded Healer” verse 2:
Arms stretched out not to part the seas
I immediately thought of that promise Christina clung to. And I held my breath as I waited for the next line, to see what it might say. Then the next line came:
But to open up the grave
It felt like God answering Stina’s question. He didn’t open his arms to part the seas and heal her, but to open the grave. In one way, he opened the way to death. Maybe that was what he was parting the way for. But more than just opening the grave for her to die, he is going to open the grave for her to live – truly live. And that more than anything it’s a picture of his love for Christina. Healing her wasn’t the greatest thing he could have done, it wasn’t the full expression of his love for her. He loved (and loves) her more than we do, his arms are open – and even the grave can’t separate her from his love.
Blood poured out not for war, but peace
And to show us God’s own face
It’s about seeing God’s face, more than health or anything else. God is a God who creates “life from death” because Life itself was willing to face death. So we don’t have to be afraid of death, even if God doesn’t split the seas like we want – it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love us. His arms are open wide, they have been open wide since he died on the cross. He is the Wounded Healer, and we can give our hearts to him when we don’t understand why he doesn’t part the seas – when it doesn’t make sense that he opened the grave for someone we loved to enter the earth. But he will open that grave again – life from death. Her wounds will be healed by the Wounded Healer. No more cancer. No more tumors. No more death. No more sadness. Just life. Death into life.
No fire, no furyJust death into lifeOver and over
‘Til all things are right
“When I See You”
So if “Wounded Healer” is the climax of the album, the mountaintop, then “When I See You” is Audrey coming back down into the valley. It’s her coming back to face all the doubts and fears and darkness, but now facing them having seen the Face of the Wounded Healer.
You have loved me well, in a million waysBut my wounds are all I knowSo I turn my head, and I hide my face
Too afraid to come back home
The last three songs remind me of hoping in God, regardless of how much I doubt or mess up or want to rebel or get angry at him. When I see him, even just a glimpse of Jesus, “all the doors swing open.”
All of the doors swing openWhen I see You / when I see YouYou make my heart unbrokenWhen I see You / when I see You
And I come undone / I come undone!
Seeing Jesus leads to “Immanuel’s Land” – “God with us,” a God who comes close, who’s not afraid of my brokenness and failings, who knows my wounds and sorrows, who sees my weariness and still comes closer and closer.
Oh, I am my Beloved’s / and my Beloved’s mineHe brings this weary sinner into His house of wine
I stand upon His merit / I know no other stand
To the weary and downtrodden he offers a feast. Immanuel’s Land is a place of abundance because of Jesus, and we don’t have to bring anything to the table – he brings it all.
“Drawn to You”
Then the album finishes with a simple stripped down piano song “Drawn to You.” It reminds me of Peter’s response to Jesus when he asks if his disciples are going to leave him: “Where else would we go? You have words of life” (John 6:68). I finally realize that I have nowhere else to go but to God in the end. And I know that there’s no way to leave Christ – that there’s something that keeps me drawn to him regardless of the darkness and doubt.
All my devotion is like sinking sandI’ve nothing to cling to but Your sweet handNo clear emotions keeping me safe at nightOnly Your presence / like a candle light…After everything I’ve hadAfter everything I’ve lostAfter everything’s been saidAfter everything love costs
I’m still drawn to you
And the album ends at the place it began – with the same stripped-down piano, I think even in the same key with the same (or similar) melody/chords. It is as if the whole album has been a journey from doubt to faith, then back to a doubt that is changed and is now fine sitting in the darkness. Like Audrey is content with the holy dark, but there’s a silent reassurance that God is there too – even if he’s hiding, even if he’s silent. It’s like she sees the Wounded Healer at the mountaintop and then goes back down into the valley with a new perspective – a silent strength that lets her step into the cold snow and trust that there’s life coming from death – that the tree of life is evergreen.
What else stuck out to you in the album? Anything you think I’m misunderstanding or making up?