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.”