Encountering God with the Avett Brothers

True sadness and the zip code of meaningful connection 

Encountering God with the Avett Brothers

True sadness and the zip code of meaningful connection 


I’m not musical enough to explain why I’m a fan of the Avett Brothers, but something recently happened that changed my relationship with this band forever. I moved from ordinary fan and occasional listener to superfan-zealot-groupie with an unshakeable need to see them live in concert. What happened to spur such change? Watching the documentary May It Last, a deep-dive into the brotherly duo’s history and the process of making their album “True Sadness.” Reader be warned, you cannot dislike this band after seeing this film. 

The miracle of seeing two brothers continue to work together professionally without breaking up or killing each other is almost as remarkable as watching a love song be created ex nihlio right in front of your eyes, like when they riff “I Wish I Was” from chicken scratch ideas on napkins to chords and production and onto the big stage. 

Hands down, however, my favorite part of the film is everything that surrounds and is behind the harrowing song: “No Hard Feelings.” The lyrics bring us listeners face to face with our mortality – inquiring about the possibility of being ready to die when our time comes: 

When my feet won’t walk another mile?

And my lips give their last kiss goodbye?

Will my hands be steady when I lay down my fears, my hopes, and my doubts?

The rings on my fingers, and the keys to my house

With no hard feelings?

But more than this, the face of death brings a sharp, visceral confrontation with all the jealousy, lust, and nasty inner-angst we experience most days that end in the letter “y”. We’re invited to see how little these feelings do for us besides keeping us afraid and cold, ignoring all we’ve been given to have and enjoy. From there, we’re taken to a place of wonder at the freeing possibility of laying all these down and encountering supernatural laughter, light, and love: 

When my body won’t hold me anymore

And it finally lets me free

Where will I go?

Will I join with the ocean blue?

Or run into a savior true?

And shake hands laughing

And walk through the night, straight to the light

Holding the love I’ve known in my life

And no hard feelings

The song is poetic and palpably moving. But what happens next in the film is profound. The room of producers and support staff congratulate and praise the song: “Home run, boys – beautiful song” they’re profusely told. But rather than smiling and receiving the high marks, the brothers have taken a visible toll with this song, as if power had somehow gone out from them. They almost look like they’re crawling over the finish line of a long week at work after playing this one song.

And it’s here that we’re given a front-row seat to what truly draws people together. “It’s weird to be congratulated on mining the soul,” the younger Avett says before his older brother describes the elephant in the room as the fact that this is the hit song of the album – the one that’s going to make the money: “It’s the best song because it’s taken the most sacrifice to make. It’s taken the most living to make. You’ve sacrificed deeply, and the evidence of that struggle came out in something beautiful.”

The brothers have taken a resolute look at the lives they’ve been given and brought out things that we’re all afraid to confront. The song cuts through all the haze of life’s perpetual shallowness and “hey how’s it goin?…fines”. It takes the presence of death to see how often we’re overwhelmed by hard feelings that divide and leave us empty and cold. 

And yet we’re drawn in. We play the record over and over. Why is this? Because whereas other people’s strengths often keep us at bay and pretending, weakness invites us in and allows us to open up to our own inadequacies and experiences of being trapped. When someone metaphorically bleeds in front of you, a doorway opens. We’re brought into something more than the daily lists and measurements that wear us out with hard feelings of jealousy and insecurity. 

In 2 Corinthians 4:10, we’re told we always carry around in our body the death of Jesus. It’s a strange thing to say and perhaps an even more strange way to live. But these two brothers singing folk songs are showing the beauty in this strange way of being. The death of Jesus, like this song, gets to the point and silences all that traps us because our trappings are draped on his shoulders as he is strung up on the tree. It’s in his death we see with clear eyes that there really is a Love that rests at the heart of the universe. A doorway opens in the wound in Christ’s side, his poured-out blood making a way for our insecurities and shame to be absorbed and destroyed in the shame that Jesus bore on the cross. It’s an Active Love that finds us and replaces our coldness and the very existence of enemies with friends. Because in the story of Jesus, we were the enemies, and he died to make space at his table for us. In him, we have no enemies…and no hard feelings.