Though singer-songwriter Audrey Assad converted to Catholicism in her 20s, remnants of the fundamentalist faith in which she was raised still held some power over her perception of God, who she saw as an angry judge that hated her. Coupled with the despair she felt watching the war and death in her father’s Syrian homeland play out in the news, the popular Christian music artist found her faith shaken and doubts about God’s very existence growing.
Emerging from that dark valley took a lot of time, but it resulted in her latest album “Evergreen,” filled with original songs that convey her struggles, new view of God, and a sense of rebirth and hope. (More info on album at AudreyAssad.com)
Audrey’s father Riad, his siblings, and his mother came to the U.S. as refugees during the early 1970s. He eventually became a citizen and was always committed to being a good neighbor and member of the community wherever he lived.
Watching human beings slaughtered in her ancestral homeland took a toll on Audrey. During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, she recalled that it wasn’t just the war itself that troubled her, but also the American Christian response to it and to refugees. She started to re-examine her “ideas about the nature of God.”
That re-examination was ultimately a good thing because Audrey admits she “had a lot of bad ideas that needed to be done away with…My understanding of God was primarily in a sort of legal setting. I thought God is the judge, Jesus is the lawyer, and I’m the person on the stand, and I can’t measure up. Thank goodness for Jesus, who is saving me from God because, otherwise, God wouldn’t want anything to do with me because I’m this dirty rag of no worth.”
While the Scripture verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is well-known, the “loving yourself” aspect is often overlooked, which was the case with Audrey.
She explained, “I used to scoff at that idea of self-love, but now I understand. Thomas Merton said somewhere in his journal that by loving ourselves, we learn to love God…If God says, ‘I love you. You are worthy of love, and I only make what is good,’ then to sit in this attitude of self-loathing is actually [pride]…To love what God said is good…is actually the most humble thing you can do…It took me a long time to learn that. It’s been a really integral part of my journey as a person.”
Being the mother of two young children, including a four-month-old daughter, added to Audrey’s paradigm shift about God: “Even when she’s waking up all through the night, which she’s still doing, I have these moments of staring at her and thinking, ‘You’re so wonderful!’ It does come to my mind and heart that if God is love, and God makes children out of love and for love, then this is Him. I am actually experiencing the way that He loves – in a very flawed form, I’m sure – but it feels like participating in something like that.”
One of the themes on “Evergreen,” is that God weeps with us when we weep – and that His heart breaks when ours does. That’s especially true in the Mother Teresa-inspired track, “Little Things with Great Love”:
In the garden of our Savior no flower grows unseen
His kindness rains like water on every humble seed
No simple act of mercy escapes His watchful eye
For there is One who sees me
His hand is over mine.
In the kingdom of the heavens no suffering is unknown
Each tear that falls is holy, each breaking heart a throne
There is a psalm of beauty in every weeping eye
For there is One who knows me
His heart, it breaks with mine.
Audrey said, “I’m not drawn to any God that is not willing to be vulnerable. Part of that is my ideas about God were extremely misogynistic. I’m not going to name any names, but there are some famous pastors who make a living kind of pimping out this machismo God, and I think it’s very sad because it reflects our insecurity with what a lot of people would call the maternal characteristics of who God is, such as nurturing, kind, gentle, tender. We all know that men and women can both be these things, but…a lot of cultures have this idea that men are not those things. I’ve drawn closer to the idea that God is all of the good things that people are, men or women, that God transcends these boundaries that we set up for each other…He can be powerful and strong and all of these other beautiful virtues at once…I can’t get behind a God who’s like an MMA fighter rather than the most benevolent presence that you can imagine being in.”
Audrey found special comfort in Henri Nowen’s depiction of Jesus as a “wounded healer,” who rose from the dead not with a perfectly healed body, but with his wounds intact. She even wrote a song with that title, which begins, “Image of the Invisible / In our pain we feel you near. / God of heaven in flesh and bone / By your wounds we shall be healed.”
Audrey said, “If we believe that Jesus is the fullest revelation of who God is and who God has always been, then his wounded body is significant because it means that [these wounds] have always had a place in the heart of God: to be wounded, to be vulnerable, to be laid bare and to be open to love with all of its pain and rejection and all the risks that it has.”
In addition to Nouwen and Merton, Mother Teresa’s influence on “Evergreen” is equally strong, including a track named “Teresa.” Audrey takes comfort in the fact that this modern-day saint struggled with many of the same doubts and fears she addresses on this album, but she wonders how the average Christian would respond:
“I was trying to imagine if I walked into a small [church] group and said, ‘Hey guys, I haven’t heard the voice of God in five years and I’m not even sure if he’s there. I’m just kind of doing this thing because I keep thinking to myself if I do it, maybe I’ll find God again, but I don’t know that I’m going to.’ There are people who are not prepared for that kind of stuff…My struggle to feel certain of God or God’s plan and His movement in the world is not just mine, and I don’t have to feel excluded, even if people exclude me. Even if I do get cast out, I have these companions on the road in people like Mother Teresa and Thomas Merton.”
Thankfully, Audrey had a few friends who stayed with her through this period of darkness, hearing her out instead of judging or shunning her. She said, “It is good to have…friends who are willing to hear you out even though [you] might sound heretical or blasphemous. There’s this song on the record called ‘Unfolding’…and it comes from this moment where I realized, ‘When I say Jesus Christ says this, I don’t know if I’m praying or cussing.’ I’m so knotted up, but I’m still saying His name because I’m drawn to His name. So it’s so valuable to have those people, and I’m thankful to have a few of them.”
Much of Audrey’s time nowadays is spent being a mom to her kids. It’s a vocation that takes place out of the spotlight, just like so many other jobs and careers around the world. This idea worked it’s way into the aforementioned track “Little Things with Great Love.”
Audrey said, “Everybody from your plumber to your pastor has a God-given call to be who they are and to do what they’re doing. For me, particularly as a mother who is at home at lot right now doing invisible things all day, I take refuge in the idea that me sucking the snot out of my daughter’s nose is ministry. A lot of us are living in a reality where we don’t feel like the things we’re doing lend us any significance whatsoever in the eyes of other people or in our own eyes. The beauty of being fearfully and wonderfully made by God is that all of our actions done out of love are fragrant to God. That means anything, from bodily fluids of children to giving a glass of water to a stranger to going to prison and ministering to prisoners. Those things are all heavily weighted in the kingdom of God.”
In the end, Audrey has become something of a wounded healer herself. The songs on “Evergreen” can be appreciated by anyone going through struggles of any kind, elevating their minds, hearts, and spirits to who God is and how much He loves us.
But Audrey also has a special message for the questioners and the doubters out there who get overwhelmed when faced with the evils going on in the world or the tragedies in their own lives. For them, “Evergreen” holds a special message.
She concludes, “I hope they feel that I have helped them make space to have compassion on whatever it is they’re struggling with, especially doubt, because I really believe those compassionate spaces we make for ourselves are what actually enable us to move forward. A lot of times we’re so concerned with squashing [those feelings] that we actually end up expanding their power over us. When we can make room and let those things float above us or around us…and look at them with compassion, then we actually start to find the things we’re looking for. I believe that is the way to freedom.”
(To listen to my full interview with Audrey Assad, click on the podcast link):