Grace makes a way through: the story of Tenth Avenue North

This past weekend, my early birthday present from my mom was a 6 hour round-trip to go see some of my people play some music for about 30 minutes. They have written my favorite words for a decade now. They are humble with their heart, but loud with their love of Jesus and their push for honest community living. They are probably some of the only people I would stand outside in blustery March winds to get through security for. They go by Tenth Avenue North, and their story in my life is one of God’s faithfulness to me.

You see, I’ve gone to see them in another life of mine. Six years ago. Another March. Another birthday present.

But let’s go back further.

I was 16 when their first major studio album Over and Underneath came out, and I fell pretty fast for a band who sang of God’s pursuant love that was over, underneath, inside, in between, even in “these times you’re healing and when your heart breaks, the times that you feel like you’ve fallen from grace”. At that point, and still to this day, I was drawn to anyone who would write or sing about brokenness and not sweep it under the proverbial Christian rug and cover it up with nice, plastic answers.

The story goes on. When their sophomore album The Light Meets the Dark came out in 2010, I was living in the Dark. Gleefully. And so it was with the strangest paradox of hypocrisy on my end and faithfulness on God’s end that I clung to their words of grace and honesty and confession. I would belt out the lines of Healing Begins with that paradox warring in me, “When you let your walls fall to the ground, we’re heeeere now” — but deny any real application in my life. I wanted so badly to believe in a song like Oh my Dear, to have someone? someones? in my life who could ever dare to hear my confessions and meet me with grace — yet I actively turned away from every chance to allow this.

By the time The Struggle came out in 2012, I had given up on much of my Christian music loves. To sing of grace seemed hypocritical; even I could see this. I wasn’t receiving it or offering it. But the depth of Anna’s sentiment knows no bounds, and purchase the album I did. I can remember driving around my college town in Massachusetts, rolling my eyes at the simple chorus of “You do all things well.” I remember saying, “they can write better than this!” — with the pride of a twenty year old and the bitter belief that he did NOT do all things well. I was no longer in a church. I didn’t want anything to do with his Bride. Most every relationship in my life was either built on a lie or was put on a back burner to simmer out. If it had been up to me, God was out of my life.

And so, still living in the dark in a relationship built on sin and defiance, March 2012 came and these two “church-rejects” went to see this band in Massachusetts. It was my 20th birthday present: going to see church people, surrounded by church people, when we had not willingly stepped foot in a church for two years. But I tucked it under the category of my sentimental dedication to this band, instead of God’s method of using whatever means possible to break down walls to get to me.

That night there were tears. That night they sang Healing Begins to a heart that couldn’t quite cover its ears fast enough.

Afraid to let your secrets out
Everything that you hide
Could come crashing through the door now
But too scared to face all your fear
So you hide but you find
That the shame won’t disappear
So let them fall down, there’s freedom waiting in the sound
When you let your walls fall to the ground
We’re here now //
Sparks will fly as grace collides
With the dark inside of us
So please don’t fight this coming light
Let this blood come cover us
His blood can cover us

That night lead singer Mike Donehey wandered out into the crowd to speak of a grace that could redeem a past life of sin. He quoted songs and he quoted verses. He spoke of new creations. He spoke of a God who bled for us on a cross, enough to convince cutters to put down their razor blades because His blood was the only redeeming blood there could be. He had no idea who was in that crowd, how badly I needed to hear of grace, fresh and sweet and up for the taking. My videos from that night are blurry and poor quality, taken from a balcony with the camera coincidentally going off kilter when he speaks of these things. But his voice is clear. And the truth of God screaming to me through it was even clearer.

When I look back at that concert 6 years ago, at the tears running down both our faces as Mike spoke, standing out of place amidst “church people”, at the pang in my heart I remember desperately trying to shove down (how many pangs over the years!): I see my Savior. Underneath some lights and electric guitars and the heartbeat of the drums, pleading for me to grasp the words I loved so much. Underneath the guise of some strangers singing of how His love could satisfy us, whispering to me that this could be true for me. My sinful relationship couldn’t keep me going. The walls I built up could not keep me safe. He was coming after me, and I could not run from this forever.

But as they like to sing, On and on we go, as you run away again. 

I’d keep running until June 2015, but the story from there on out continues to keep these guys in my life.

There are too many moments to list where His mercy coincides with their words. After my nephew Isaac died, Worn was quite literally worn out in my family’s houses. Since he was four years old, my nephew Sam chose to put his own spin on a classic TAN song and sing it as “No man is an island, we can EXPLODE.” And in the summer when so much of my story seemed to make sense, when life was becoming new again, I’d put my windows down and sing “Your joy is where my heart sings/ I need you, I love you, I want you … no one else can make me neeeeewww” at the top of my lungs on the way to baptisms and Bible studies. In fact, it was this summer that the song I used to deem “poorly written” came to be one of my favorites, as I could see from a place of clarity that He does in fact do all things well. “You break me to bind me/ You hurt me, Lord, to heal me/ You cut me to touch me/ You died to revive me.” It’s in this reverse and upside down way that He works that I’ve seen so much of the Joy in my life come to fruition.

The concert this weekend, this March, was a full circle moment — and it is no secret that those are my favorite. My mom didn’t even know I had seen them before, the depth of my silence ran so thick those days. I had never shared with her those moments, but I got to share these fresh ones. Their playing time was short, but my heart was rejoicing up from the nosebleed seats to see these guys again. More than Mike Donehey doing his excellent dance moves whilst talking about forgiveness (“you can’t hold a grudge when your feet are moving”), more than getting to see strangers I consider to be long lost friends, my heart rejoiced because my Savior knows how to write a good story and how to make a second concert worlds different than the first.

For my 25th birthday last year, my mama gave me the best gift of all: a journey through the songs that have been “my songs”/her songs to me over my life, all written down in a #blessed journal (the trendiest 60 year old there is). Not surprisingly, there were quite a few TAN songs in there, but her thoughts on Healing Begins during that period of my life were my favorite:  “I would pray and pray that God would cause you to really hear the words as you listened — for yes, I knew you still listened! I would pray my way through the song, pleading with God. And all the time, you were listening, probably trying not to hear, but He was hot on the chase and wouldn’t let you get away from these words. And so I will always love TAN for their part in your story and how they spoke Truth to you, even when you didn’t want to think about it.” (I just realized that my mom summed up in 4 sentences what it took me 12 paragraphs to try and say.)

And by the way? There are still times I will get in my car and turn on the radio or an album and feel the tears burn my eyes, a knowing smile in tow as I hear Healing Begins again. Still, after all these years. The truth of it will never grow old. They have taught me so graciously that no man is an island, we can be found. We can be found by a Savior and we can be found by others.

I like to imagine that my story with Tenth Avenue North will continue until perhaps we can all sing together around the throne one day: “So I come broken through the blood of your Son and I kneel before you: you are holy, you are worthy, you are holy, you’re the Lamb of God.” 

We fix our eyes on what we know is true
Even in our shame, grace makes a way through
Be our obsession, our constellation
You are light in and out of every season
So we keep pressing on with our redemption song
No one can undo what You’ve done

Winter Rock

It has been a long and snowy winter in the Hudson Valley, yet with each winter that passes, I seem to be given more and more grace and laughter to carry me through. I went into this winter knowing the only thing I had control over was my attitude in it. So I have turned up my heat a little bit more this year (still wearing 3 layers as I write) and have littered my apartment with flowers (nothing new here) and I make it a practice to watch the giddy birds at my feeder during every snow storm. And I keep counting blessings, because as Rend Collective preaches, surely every season (!) he is good to me. I far over spiritualize the death of winter and the life of spring, as anyone who has read my writing can tell you. At this point in the seasonal calendar, those closest to me would tell you it is either quite annoying or quite endearing.

An honest confession on the pessimism of my heart: in the cold months, the whole earth just reminds me of a bleak, cold, dead rock. Yet his mercy, even in this, is that our God is called our Rock over and over again! He is eternally constant and unmoving. When the life dies out of our trees and our gardens and our woods, he is our solid ground whose heart is still very much alive. Our portion. Underneath it all, the support for every season. Firm through the fiercest drought and storm! Maybe the cold earth can be our solace instead of our nemesis. He is still our foundation in the pain as well as in the pleasure. When the whole world comes to life in the End, when lions lie down with lambs, mountains sing, trees clap, and crocuses bloom in the desert, that solid Rock beneath us will be our consistency.

It seems that he gives us many joys to get us through until life is reborn — seasonally and eternally. In the spring/summer, I rarely have to go searching for these joys. With open windows and river banks and green grass with happy rabbit company and sunshine, my heart often doesn’t need to set out on a Gratitude search. Maybe winter is teaching me more in the intentional searching? So, as a slap in the face to the despair that tends to reach me by this point of the cold, I compiled some pictures of all the winter joys in the past couple months. It goes to show that I am given much grace: laughter at work, moms who bear flowers and bird cards and reminders that God “made this season as well, Anna”, chances at honesty and growth, and mostly people who love me through my grumpiness.

BeFunky Collage

Winter joys, captioned because they’re so tiny that even I can hardly see who is who in these pictures. Clockwise from top left: 1. Isaiah 35 on repeat during winter. 2. Mass hilarity band playing 3. Will spend my entire savings account on Adams garden department in the winter 4. JOY DAVIDMAN 5. Co-worker Christmas tree contests 6. Grumpy Ralph Cat 7. Woodpecker friends know when I need their company most 8. Mashed butt order 9. Mama 10. Paperwhites! 11. Frozen Hudson 12. Family pictures, smiles literally frozen on 13. More laughter than music 14. This winter is marked by Mario Kart with these four 15. Lewis surprises in my mailbox  16. Prue Baby’s bear decked out in pink/blue sequined chokers. HA.

And yes, there will be spring posts to come: oh, how the longing for green and growth comes easily for this heart! This blog has turned into a winter hatred/spring loving blog more than it ever was intended to. Embarrassingly so. But to be satisfied and present in the “dead” months, to intentionally pursue his grace that spills over, to rejoice in these little Joy pangs: this is the challenge that brings its own kind of growth in the winter. As hard sought after as those first hardy March buds. This is training for a contented heart as we face towards Home and the final new Life. This is training in the patient yet stubborn trusting in his promises. After all, his hands are promised to hold all we need to satisfy our desires. All we need to be satisfied! This promise seems as rock solid as the one who boasts in his trustworthiness and faithfulness to us. He boasts of his faithfulness as if, just maybe, it were as solid as the very Rock we stand on!


Reproach and Redemption: the Christmas story

It’s hard to hold all the words in during the Christmas season, as much as I want to shy away from clichéd thoughts and stories. Some of my favorite posts have been about Christmas and bum bums and sharing lyrics that have touched my heart. And so this Christmas morning, as the snow traps me in the silence for a bit and I finish up these thoughts, I smile at the grace he gives us to read the same story over and over again, bringing new thoughts to the surface for us each time. These first two chapters of Luke are some of the first words of a new story for Israel. For us. This is our second chance as mankind, a new breath of Redemption that would turn out to be the only Redemption we’d need.

In Luke 1, we see this paradox of two women whose lives get turned upside down, these cousins whose reactions must have varied from deep joy  to deep fear. It struck me that many of us find ourselves somewhere in between these two camps in this Advent season. Christmas mixes up all the emotions in me — and how the longing grows for a Home where our truest joys won’t be mixed or marred, as they are down here!

All her life Elizabeth had waited for a gift that never came. I wonder if she doubted. I wonder if she struggled to disarm the bitterness that rose up. I wonder if people told her, “Well, maybe next year at this time you’ll have a baby!” (Fill in the blank with me here: “Maybe next year you’ll have that ___________ !”{house, boyfriend, job, wife, generic dream fulfillment}) … and year passed and year passed, and she saw no changes. We’re told that it’s her husband who doubted the angel, but I wonder how much doubt Elizabeth had harbored in her own heart over her lifetime. I wonder if her heart clung to God’s goodness day in and day out, repeating words to herself that sometimes sounded hollow.

It’s the first year that Elizabeth’s words have popped out of the page and gripped my heart. “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” What a reaction! What a testimony. Sounds like mine. Sound like yours? In the ESV translation, it reads as Elizabeth’s reproach is taken away. And I marvel at this God who is always in the business of removing our reproach. (Joshua 5:9 — “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” // Isaiah 25:8 — “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth” //Isaiah 54:4 — “You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood”) There is no doubt about who’s responsible for the lavished grace, the removal of reproach. There’s no question that it was HE who expelled the waiting and the death and bestowed the gift and the life. Ah, doesn’t waiting feel like death often? But, true to his nature, he brought life out of the waiting death. As always. He spoke words into the silence. As always. He offered the second chance with a slate wiped clean of reproach. As always!

On the other hand, Mary got the change she never sought, but she met what could possibly have been life shattering change (…stoning!) with such humility. What conviction, to think that she faced the loss of her reputation/life/marriage with greater grace than I face my own struggles. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” The simplicity of her servant heart takes my pride down a notch. She is content to rest in God’s crazy plan for her life, and she rejoices that he fills the hungry with good things. His sovereignty satisfies her. His grace is enough to sing about. She sings of his mercy although her life was just flipped upside down. Does my heart mirror this in my daily concerns?

Reproach and Redemption: all of life, perhaps, summed up in these cousin’s stories. The Christmas story, and my story, and so many of the stories I know!

These are two camps we can find ourselves in this Advent season, and there are probably countless camps in between. Maybe we’re in the long waiting period with Elizabeth, or maybe we join Mary with trembling faith. How he uses both! One to bear a prophet of the Most High, and one carrying the Savior that would roll away our reproach eternally.

P.S. Merry Christmas — and remember that Christmas makes way for spring!


November Numbering

I wear three layers of clothes because it is November and the clock ticks away time and the Ralph Cat curls up as a ball of warmth in the blanket he likes to call his own. The heat clicks on.

It’s been bothering me lately, this idea running through the veins of all that I see around me: always wanting more, always rushing forward, always longing out of discontentment.  The stores filling up with Christmas decorations months ahead of time whisper of our culture’s ever-present sickness. Always keep looking forward: the next holiday, the next gift you need. The next relationship, the next house, the next job. The list goes on and on. We’ve lost all contentment. We’ve lost all the present moments looking for the ones to come.

What if my longing wasn’t bred from discontentment here on earth, but was a longing born out of my hope set on another world?

It flurried the day I put my tank tops and shorts and flip flops away for months:  tiny white specks mingled with yellow leaves all coming down in the wind. Lewis’ quote of a longing that means we are not meant for this world came to mind. Watching the leaves come down and the first signs of snow makes my heart long for spring. But it also makes it long for so much more. It longs for a day when we won’t have any more longings rise up in our chest, that fluttery, tenuous grasp on Hope. If I’m so blessed, I will have sixty or so more Novembers to watch the leaves come down and the snow come down; I’ll have sixty or so more Aprils with crocuses pushing through that cold ground. I will stand at the window and wait for spring sixty or so more times. But, ah, for life after that. No more waiting. No more wanting. HOME. This longing that rises up speaks of more than a favorite season and a least favorite season. It speaks of the longing for a life that even green shoots in April can’t match. Something in me that is still empty, even on my most full days. Something in me that is still lonely, even in the laughter.

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.
–Lewis, Mere Christianity

And so I return to the Gratitude Journal, whose scribblings have increased exponentially these past few months. How to hold carefully this short breath of life I’ve been given, to train myself in this gratitude game? How to be thankful for these earthly blessings while always longing for the world beyond the echo they speak of? Where is the balance between the Already and the Not Yet? It helps to make lists, to count them on my easy days, to read them on my hard days:

153. This is my Father’s world!
267. The hope of Isaiah 30
286. Co-workers who make me laugh
294. Sound of coffee brewing
305. Hudson River view from an airplane seat!

May I not be rushing forward. May I not always be longing for more. May I stay in Psalm 106:12 (“Then they believed his promises and sang his praise”) and not the next verse (“But they soon forgot what he had done and did not wait for his plan to unfold”). May I wait. May I not forget. May I believe and sing.

And keep numbering on.

Choosing to live in the now, content and as full as I can be down here in the tent world.

300. The sharing of life that I want to do now
350. Cardinals in November
353. Friends’ laughter

The Gratitude Journal is filling up this Thanksgiving week. It is not often the prettiest or neatest journey, the Gratitude one, but one that I hope to keep taking steps on in the next sixty years. As Ann Voskamp reminds me so graciously, “As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible.” Always possible! Happy Thanksgiving to all of you who I’m blessed to have, who make me a great deal more thankful and joyful than I’d be without you.

Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one…
{Hebrews 11:16}

Reflections with wet shoes

Many hours when I am not at work, you will find me on the banks of the Hudson. This morning is no different, with the blue water stretched out in front of me and Ann Voskamp’s words about thanksgiving heavy in my hand and heart (why did I wait so long to read One Thousand Gifts??). Thinking about making lists of graces and teaching myself to obey and rejoice in gratitude: one step forward at a time. My shoes are soaked through with dew and I realize I will be reminded of these moments for the rest of the day as I traipse around work with the sopping shoes and the smile. On the opposite bank I see the trees just starting to turn. Hesitant. Slow. There is no rush. The years seem to fly by, even in singlehood, even in monotony. I blinked and an entire year was gone. My mind skips to Christmas around the corner and a part of me cringes. Every Christmas comes so fast, reeking of loneliness and ingratitude. 25 years old looks like 24 years old, and I wonder what 40 will look like. And I wonder if the lists of gratitude can change all the ugliness that swells up in me. The boats pass slow and steady down the river, crawling along in their progress. Off in the distance a woodpecker headbangs against a tree and I smile to myself because it is a Wednesday morning, and I am glad for its company. It’s just me and the boats here along with the pack of geese all huddled amongst themselves behind me.

And this God is here, too – the One who meets us in our quiet, who tells us to slow down time in our gratitude, who brings healing and joy as quietly as the trees changing on the other side of the bank. Never coming how or when or where we think it will come.

I think of the day, some day, when all of this life will seem like a millisecond gone by. I think of how it will not matter: these Hudson River spots and the quiet Christmases and the wet shoes and the work I had to go to. My heart is what will matter, the praise that leaks out of it in these waiting days. My attitude towards the Lord who has new mercies every morning, who is my portion: this is what will be surveyed. I think of how I tell him often that I’d like other portions and other answers and other mercies than what he’s currently providing. And I think of his response: {the Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.}  Work more on the thing that involves {being patient and standing firm}, like that farmer James talks about, waiting for the rains to come. Fight more for the truth, self: {… put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.}

After all, isn’t this the truth? …

Who could command the stars to sing
Or hold the raging seas from breaking through the doors
And tend the fragile roses with the very same hands?
If everything is yours
I’m letting it go
It was never mine
It was never mine
{audrey assad}

The roses and the river and the geese and I are all in good hands, I conclude. Sometimes that is the only conclusion I can come to, but it seems to be enough for today.

An introductory letter

Dear people I love who have wanted to read my blog for a long time,

This has turned into a bigger deal than I ever foresaw. I can’t count how many times I’ve been talking about writing with people, mentioned my blog, and the other person is all excited: “You’ll have to send it to me!” … and I’m all, “Oh, I don’t share it with anyone…” (The polite, confused look on your faces is always really amusing.) The thing about hiding yourself is that the longer you do it, the harder it is to rip off that really sticky old Band-Aid and get it over with. All of this to say that this blog has turned into a bigger deal than it was ever meant to be, partly out of my wimpishness and partly for humor’s sake.

I decided to write this post because it’s easier for me to say this once than in various emails, messages, texts. I wanted to post a general thank you to you all. As I’ve thought a lot about sharing my blog, I’ve realized how so many of you have played a vital role — not only in my life, but in my passion for writing. It’s remarkable to me, how God has used so many of you to shape me and my love of writing. I can’t even begin to tell the stories, although many of you are leading characters in these stories, of how words have saved my life.  So many of you have read my writing, even starting 11, 12 years ago. You read really awful poems and lied to me and told me they were good. You wrote me 10,000 letters per day (mom) with no response on my end (but I saved every letter). You instilled in me a love of music and an appreciation for artist’s words that I’ve often claimed as my own.  You read countless letters from me in really tiny print and now I should pay for your vision plan because you’re probably going blind. You muddled through long chains of family emails filled with lyrics you probably couldn’t care less about. You told me to keep writing and said crazy things (many moons ago) like “your writing helps me feel closer to God.” In the more recent days, you’ve asked to read my writing, celebrated with me on tiny steps in the right direction, bought newspapers, bought me journals, and waited patiently for this blog (that is really not that great).

All of this, all of this brings me here.

My friend Josh Bales* sings these perfect words: “What I long for, what I fear is to know and be known…” This seems to be one of the most common truths of our existence, and it’s something I grapple with daily. I want community, but it also terrifies me. I want to be open, but when given the chance, I go the “I don’t share my blog” route. It’s obvious that the reason I have stalled sharing this so long is that my writing holds so much of me. I can’t hold back with it. I love writing about the parts of me that I usually try to hide. Showing this to others can be terrifying. But it is freeing!  I’m so grateful for how many of you have persistently shown me this, and lived through it with me. Some of you know my story well, and some of you are fairly new to it: what a beautiful mix of life this is.

Just some words on the blog itself: it has changed so much over these two years! I started this blog seven days after accepting Christ back into my life. I came up with the idea of the blog sitting in the same place, on the same river bank, that I’d surrendered a week earlier. I’d suggest scrolling allll the way back to the beginning, June of 2015, and starting from there. The title of the blog actually has nothing to do with much of anything, which is the #1 no-no of blogging (#2 is not having a theme, and I broke that rule as well). But oh well. {Picture in header provided courtesy of sister who didn’t know her nature photography was going viral on my blog. All the sarcasm.}

Bebo Norman (who for some reason has yet to make it into this blog??) has this great line, “I’ve got a little hope here in my pocket/ I want to share a bit with you…” This is the line I leave you with. Such Hope has been given to me by my God: through His words, through your words to me. I want to share a bit with you, and I want you to keep sharing your Hope and your words in return.

— ajb

*I am not actually friends with Josh Bales, but in heaven someday I totally will be.

-Oh, and Matt? It gives me great pride to say I won this battle. Most of my friends associate you as “the brother who scours the internet for Anna’s blog and finds blogs about moms in Texas.” What a role to have under your belt. I hope your life is complete now that you can finally read it. If not for this battle of the wills, I would’ve released it so long ago. Hahahaha.

The Acorn Necklace

My aunt/sister heart was really excited to get a piece published on Still Standing Magazine today. It was my sister’s idea to submit it when I shared this short piece with her, because she loves the story of her boy. I received the email saying it would be published yesterday, the day of my sister’s birthday: a tiny birthday present for the mama of this nephew of mine.

Take a read here about The Acorn Necklace.

This piece is a little rough and raw, something I had written for writing class. It seems rough around the edges to me, but there’s nothing I can take away from it. In its joy and heartache, it is my nephew’s life.

{Acorns} brought her some kind of tangible comfort, and so they brought comfort to all of us, because we were all more scared of losing a piece of her than we were of losing Isaac. The acorn trend caught on with all her friends and family, and the acorn that hangs around my neck reminds me of the little boy I can’t wait to meet someday.

It will be three years next month since they lost Isaac (not 33 months — the writing world is very slow to publish indeed), and we all still have our acorns.