The Need For True Sadness: Why This Is My Favorite Album of 2016

True_Sadness_image

I wrote this piece a few months ago and the publication I sent it to never published it. I forgot I had written this till an article I read the other day about the new documentary on The Avett Brothers.

Then yesterday, two things happened that caused me to revisit this article. A terrorist attack that caused acrimony on social media before the dust settled. And an ugly fight between one of my former Seminary professors and a prominent writer and thinker.

I still listed to this album a lot. not every day like I was but close to it. I need more albums like this in my life. Full of kindness and perspective about this all too brief life here on earth. We need more albums like this in our lives.


The Need For True Sadness: Why This Is My Favorite Album of 2016

Let me start with a story.

Almost two months ago, my friend and I travelled a few hours to see a band in a run-down club. We saw this band live three years ago at a little festival in our hometown. Blown away, we swore we would go see them again if they came anywhere close. We got there early. There was only one row of people between us and the stage.

Two “bands” I did not know opened up. The first was just two girls. One on drums and the other singing and playing a distorted electric guitar. I’m not sure if they were any good or not, I was too distracted by the drummer. She looked so strung out. And I could only think, “this is some man’s daughter.”

The next band had a similar set up. This time it was two guys and the one at the drums sang. And he looked like he had been in a fight. And he had, as he told the crowd later.  Their music was mosh-pit inducing and we ended up too close to the action. At one point, after I had to push a guy away because he began kicking the women (they looked like they had just come from a PTO meeting) next to me, he rejoined the melee of the mosh pit and then he or one of his moshing friends punched me in back of the head.

That was it. I was done.

This was one of those moments of clarity you only get a few times in your life. You cannot orchestrate them. They are just given by God. I had a moment of clarity in which I asked why, at 45 years old, I was in a  place like this among music like this and people doing this. My friend stayed up front, but I spent the rest of the night at the back of the room near the bar, hoping the resulting headache would go away. I couldn’t really enjoy the band we came to see. maybe it was the girl doing drugs next to me in the back of the room. Or the one, who looked like an anime prostitute with an accountant.

For the next two weeks, I don’t think I listened to anything except Jazz – Thelonious Monk, Coltrane, Brubeck, and lots of Louis Armstrong. I wanted everything to sound and feel as different as possible to the darkness and violence I experienced in that club.

And then one day I was on Twitter and saw something about a new Avett Brothers’ video. Someone foolishly said this was the video we needed at this time. I took that statement as a reference to the weeks following the election and all the arguing and fighting. Rolling my eyes, I kept going through my feed. But then I saw it again and again. People kept talking about this video.

My knowledge of The Avett Brothers  was limited. I own a few of their albums but never gave them a whole lot of time. In my estimation they were the epitome of hipster music. “Ain’t No Man” was played regularly on our local radio station. Catchy, but I never really paid it much attention.

I’m not sure why I gave in and watched that video on the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving. But after watching it only once, I agreed. “No Hard Feelings” is the kind of song we need.

When the sun hangs low in the west 

And the light in my chest 

Won’t be kept held at bay any longer 

When the jealousy fades away 

And it’s ash and dust for cash and lust 

And it’s just hallelujah 

And love in thoughts and love in the words 

Love in the songs they sing in the church 

And no hard feelings

I watched that video again and again. And then the video for “Ain’t No Man” over and over. And I then went back to all the albums I did have and listened to them. And when I say listened to them, I really listened to them. I was not just being entertained, I was taking in their lyrics like literature to see what I had missed.

And then on Thanksgiving day, thanks to a late birthday gift, I bought their new album, True Sadness. I have listened to it at least once every morning since.

Tolstoy writes in What is Art?, ““Art should cause violence to be set aside and it is only art that can accomplish this.” Notice what he is saying and not saying. He is not saying that art does this naturally so much as art should cause violence to be set aside. In other words, art can and should be used to put violence aside so people can be kind to one another instead of mean and violent.

My wife and I have been watching Ken Burns’ Jazz. And what strikes me every time I watch these stories is how Jazz musicians were at the forefront of setting aside racial hatred and being kind to each other regardless of skin color. The music was the vehicle to bring together not only musicians but fans. For even as our country was fighting against the racism of Germany, the military was segregated. But Dave Brubeck’s jazz band was not. The music was being used to set aside the violence of prejudice and replace it with kindness.

And what has continually moved me as I listen to the Avett Brothers’ newest album – and all their other albums for that matter – is how kind the lyrics are. Their songs seem calculated to encourage and dignify not only their people but everyone everywhere.  And this is done while at the same time showing a humility and recognition of their limitations and broken-down conditions.

Take the title track, “True Sadness” as an example. While this is not the song getting all the press, it is the “center” of the record without question:

I cannot go on with this evil inside me

I step out my front door and I feel it surround me

Just know the kingdom of God is within you

Even though the battle is bound to continue

‘Cause I still wake up shaken by dreams

And I hate to say it but the way it seems

Is that no one is fine

Take the time to peel a few layers

And you will find

True sadness

In a culture that prizes gritty, cynical and mean-spirited dialogue under the banner of honesty, The Avett Brothers’ songs are a shot across the forward bow of open-hearted kindness about their struggles and weakness. When was the last time you heard a song about the evil being inside them and not “out there?”

And the limitations of our own lives?

You got to go somewhere, ain’t that true

Not a whole lot of time for me or you

Got a whole lot of reasons to be mad, let’s not pick one

I could be exaggerating, but the landscape of modern music for the most part wants us to be mad. About something. Anything. Maybe it has something to do with our desire to be under the tyranny of cool. Being mad and being cool have gone together since James Dean and Marlon Brando. The smirk and the sneer reign supreme. And a smirk and a sneer seem required in music these days.

But this seems wholly missing from the The Avett Brothers. And not only in their songs but in them also. In interviews their kindness and humility is inescapable. The more I get to know them, the more likable they are. I also get the impression they would be the first to admit how much they fail at this kindness.

And that consistency of kindness and generosity of spirit spills over into their fan base as seen on the Facebook page, Avett Nation. There you can sign up for Avett Mail and someone may send you everything from a CD, or a sticker or a handmade ornament. Or all of those. Why? because they enjoy the music and being kind with that enjoyment. There you can also donate to St. Jude’s, where Bob Crawford, the bassist’s daughter was treated for pediatric cancer. You can get encouragement in the form of lyrics. And those who cannot attend a live show encourage those are getting to attend. It would all be so very cheesy it if were not so rare and needed in this jaded world.

Last week I saw an interview with them at Google in Detroit and they talked about the kind of songs they write. Seth Avett says they could be performing for 20 more years. And if they are going to be playing these songs over and over thousands of times, they need to be songs they believe in. They cannot be about the “dance floor,” he joked. As soon as he said that, my mind ran back and noted the message for each song on the newest album:

  1. “Ain’t Nobody here, who can cause me pain or raise my fear.”
  2. The promises of fame and fortune are not to be trusted.
  3. When I leave this world, I want to leave it with no hard feelings and no enemies.
  4. The discovery of being limited in what we can know in this life
  5. A husband’s need for his wife when life is hard
  6. “My heart is in the puppet box and Satan pulls the strings.”
  7. If you peel back the layers, no one is “fine.”
  8. The fear of confessing your love to another.
  9. Being an artist comes with a price.
  10. We live in a world where you can be a victim of anything.
  11. No matter how you slice it, divorce is painful.
  12. We are so small as we navigate this world of truth and lies and there is something bigger.

In other interviews you will read of their love of great works of literature, all these books with a metaphysical bent. Tolstoy, Pascal, and Bonhoeffer. These are some of the most revered writers in the world. When I learned this about them, it left me in no doubt about the seriousness of what they are singing. In the stratosphere of their own hearts and minds, I think what they read is a witness. The songs above all are part of the great discussion about what it means to live wisely before God on this earth in the limited time we have.

That’s how you get an album titled, True Sadness.

This is rare air they are breathing and I am glad we get, through listening to these songs and singing along, to take in some of that air. My hope is that it makes me a better person as a result and not merely entertained. And that’s the whole point of the album, anyway.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend


1. In a culture of perpetual outrage, to buy into the belief our struggle is not against flesh and blood is not gonna be easy.

2. News of a new Jason Isbell album and tickets to see him at the Ryman are welcome news during a work week that made me want to listen to all his songs with the bad words.

3. I could be wrong but I think a sign of spiritual maturity is not wanting to argue on social media.

4. The steadfast love of the Lord is better than financial security.

5. The problem with baseball is how few games there are.

6. I was talking with my friend, Corey, the other night about music. He’s a musician, so these discussions are always interesting. I walked away from his insights realizing at least one reason why some songwriters are at a level of creating of life-changing art and others are not. You can trust them. People like Jason Isbell are rare. It is not mere entertainment or fame they are after. They are creating something from a place beyond the surface level of this culture. All their failures and weaknesses, skill and success are calculated toward creating something akin to literature for the ages.

7. Christians should be more offended by unkindness and gossip than by culturally-conditioned profanity. Far more. 

8. Fantasy baseball draft is today, so I hope you have been using the prayer cards I mailed out, just so you know how to specifically pray for me and my team.

9. The new Tedeschi Trucks Band live album is mesmerizingly good. Joyous and full of transcendent moments. Adding to my enjoyment is it was given to me as a “Thank you” gift for my writing. That makes the listening so much more enjoyable.

10. There is a lot in life, when evaluated, seems off kilter. Out of balance. Something’s not right. But sitting at the dinner table with Bethany and the kids seems in place. Maybe that’s history. Maybe it’s a createdness we ignore. Not a command. But maybe like sunsets, we should pay attention to this.

Five Reasons to Read Russ Ramsey’s Struck


1. I’ve never read a book like this. Whenever I read a new book, my mind flips through my memories like a Rolodex, trying to find some other book to compare it to. This book is no exception. But I kept coming up empty. I could think of nothing. This originality was a rare gift.

2. It is well-written. It is not easy to find well-written books by Christians. This is a scandal within evangelicalism. But Russ is a great writer and this book is so well-written, it may spoil you. If I can’t wait to pick up a book again but I dread finishing it, I know I’ve found a great piece of writing.

3. The subject matter is critical. Western Christianity struggles with its faith. That faith is informed by the Bible. And the Scriptures were written for the most part in the context of suffering. And our entire culture is calculated to move us away from suffering in any shape or form. We need this fact to be kept in front of our faces, which are lulled into forgetting our mortality in this  Disney Land we reside in. Now there are a lot of books on suffering out there, but in this one, we get to walk though it with Russ. 

4. This is an honest book. Honesty and authenticity are getting top billing these days. For good reason. We need more contexts in evangelicalism in which we can say, “You too?” And “me too.” You can’t do that without honesty, and sometimes honesty costs a pound of flesh. I appreciate his (and his wife’s) honesty throughout the book, which I am sure cost them. 

5. Jesus is the hero. If you buy this book for no other reason, this should be enough. There are a lot of spiritual biographies and memoirish books in the Christian market. And they are honest and well-written. But few point to Jesus and his love for his people so well. I walked away from this book knowing Russ better but thankful for Christ and his redemptive work more. I know Russ well enough now to assume this is what he wanted.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend


1. It is good news that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. Because so many of us have hard situations that either seem to never cease or will only cease when our hearts beat their last. 

2. I think it’s a good idea to evaluate the music you listen to by, “Would I trust these people with my kids?”

3. I assume the people incessantly posting politics on Facebook are the same ones that make sure I know all their opinions on the various issues with bumper stickers. I assume their political opinions  and stances on various issues are accessories, like earrings and broaches.

4. This past Tuesday I spoke at a retreat and my time there was slow and relaxed. It was the opposite of every other Tuesday. And like a gift from God, full of grace and mercy.

5. I think people were under the illusion Disney cared about them more than money.

6. So there’s this series on Netflix called Captive. And each episode is the true story of people being held captive. Nothing prepares you for one of the stories being about someone you know. 

7. I love the reverse echo of the resurrection in the laughter of friends.

8. I knew I hadn’t gotten enough sleep when I got choked up at my desk while listening to The Avett Brothers’ “Head Full of Doubt.” That “decide what to be and go be it” part. 

9. My résumé reminds me of that lost Mars rover that disappeared into the blackness of space.

10. About to celebrate 18 years of marriage with Bethany. In the far reaches of my memories I can just barely reach a recollection of my life before her. But it’s not worth the effort. No day previous compares to our hardest day.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend


1. We typically think of demonic teaching and living as “libertine” and “hedonistic” but Paul makes clear  in 1 Timothy 4 there is an ascetic life that is also demonic. 

2. Let me say again, increasingly you will be made to feel guilty about not protesting ________. And what is incredible is how much of this will come from the church. In other words, the standard of concern is the amount of “ink” used to protest via social media. Resist it.

3. In light of Acts 6:4, it is astonishing how prayer is rarely mentioned in pastoral job descriptions.

4. Last night I watched a baseball game. It was Spring Training. And it was between two teams I didn’t care about. But it was baseball. And it was beautiful. So very beautiful.

5. The Scriptures are closer in kind to love letters than textbooks.

6. The new Alison Krauss is exquisite. I’ve listened to it a couple dozen times now and can tell you it will be nominated for album of the year and may win. But even if I’m wrong, it’s still a beautiful collection of songs.

7. Four months till I see Tedeschi Trucks Band live. Four long months.

8. It is now rebellious to say a boy is a boy and a girl is girl. Maybe that’s why old music sounds so good.

9. The desire to speed up baseball is needless. We should be trying to slow everything down so that it’s like baseball.

10. I love to sit in the silence and listen to the background of the early morning. It makes music sweeter, the voice of God clearer, and I can hear the train down in valley below. For a moment, I am outside of my own time and feel as if I could be enjoying a morning from long ago.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend


1. One of the more profound ideas swirling in my head is being loved by God. It is stated so often, the gravity gets lost in the repeating. But we are not just those who have salvation. We are not just tolerated. We are loved with a love that cannot be diminished. Hard to get my head around that, sometimes.

2.  So much great music coming our way… Alison Krauss, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Gary Clark Jr, Jason Isbell. I’m gonna need to sell a bodily organ.

3. It is amazing we live in a climate in which someone you do not know can feel free to insult you via social media. And simply for disagreeing with a possible conclusion based on a possible implication. This is not a world I want to live in.

4. Y’all, we are just days away from baseball getting started.

5. I was listening to a talk given by Eugene Peterson yesterday and in it he quoted a Christian philosopher, Albert Borgmann, from the University of Montana who studies the effects of technology on people. He says that with each new technological advance there is a breakdown in relationship… in how we relate to people. And the reason is technology is always about speed and efficiency. Step away from your phone and let that sink in.

6. In an interview, Derek Trucks said he was careful about the kind of music he listened to, because as a musician he knows whatever he takes in will come out in what he plays.

7. If you are all for protesting for the rights of others but you cannot be kind to people you disagree with, then do not be surprised if you are not taken very seriously.

8. Peterson goes on to say, we in the church must be careful about technology and not assume that it’s use is all good. Because relationships are fundamental to living out the gospel and if technology does damage to those relationships then we must be careful.

9. I am convinced more than ever, the primary text of the American church is the News.

10. I cannot get over the other night. Bethany and I sat in the den after the kids went bed. Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio spun in the living room. Some Monk too. She read a novel and I read a used book of poems. Life can get chaotic and dark but that was a good night.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend


1. The only way out is to admit you are part of the great problem.

2. I think the reason we like sad songs is becuase they are in sync with the longing we all have for something beyond what we have experienced. As a believer in the gospel, I think that longing will only be satisfied in the restoration of all things. But we all are drawn to those songs because we know things are not what they are supposed to be.

3. In a protest culture, people’s convictions on an issue will be gauged by what they say about an issue on social media. 

4. Every time I go to the used bookstore, I visit the small back corner where the poetry section is. If I’m lucky, there will be book there I’ll want enough to buy. Yesterday, there were about a dozen. Hall, Heaney, Milosz, Oliver, Collins, Ferlinghetti… The joy of the hard choice.

5. When you eat Thai food in a gas station and it’s the best you’ve ever had.

6. I still find it hard to take seriously the praise of conservatives for Trump and the criticism of liberals. Conservatives, who thought Clinton was disqualified because of his womanizing, now praise a man who owns strip clubs. Liberals simply have regained a critical voice after losing one for a president that used drones to kill men and women overseas. I am convinced that increasingly no one has convictions beyond the conviction that the other side is wrong.

7. 1984 is the wrong book. Brave New World is what everyone should read. Everyone is worried about politicians. I’m worried about a culture drowning in Applebee’s and laugh tracks.

8. Baseball season with the green and brown and the crack of the bat and the wind ups and hot dogs and keeping score and leisure enjoyment and “birds on the bat” and dusk descending and the heat giving way to the night and field under lights and the joy of a double and the heartbreak of an RBI single.

9. Alison Krauss singing “Windy City.” Or anything.

10. One of those small things that no one ever tells you will be meaningful when you are young is the quiet joy of sitting across the table from the one you love.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts


1. Applause is addictive and deadly. Especially when you receive it in one area of your life but not in another.

2. Flannery O’Connor said she wrote so she could know what she believed. Which is the reason for many of my posts. None of the words come from a heart perfected in belief. In fact, writing them down convinces me of my need and His sufficiency.

3. My favorite album of the past year is True Sadness by The Avett Brothers. Not only is the music something else but the songs have an effusive joy surrounding the heavy themes. Also, we need more kindness and their albums have it in spades.

4. As I watch a lot of the battles of the culture war being fought on social media, I see a bitterness masquerading as righteous indignation. The former comes cheap and revels in the downfall of another. Bitterness feeds on scandal and it’s heart leaps when another is revealed because it justifies a dearly defended fortification. Bitterness cannot look inward and see it’s own faults. It wants enemies. Which is why it cannot be righteous indignation. 

5. Endo’s Silence was a hard read. Beautifully written but painful.

6. It’s supposed to snow down here tomorrow and I don’t ever want to be so old I see it getting in the way. I want to always see it as something magical.

7. Isn’t it strange that a published writer acknowledged as talented with the written word is less qualified to teach writing in public schools than someone who has not written but has a teaching degree? Cannot get my head around it.

8. I preached on Sunday and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. More so than the 40 during the week.

9. This Sunday in Sunday School I’ll be teaching on that part of Romans 5 where Paul says we rejoice in suffering and I cannot think of a subject I’m less qualified to teach on.

10. One reason my wife is so attractive is she has no clue how attractive she is.

Random Thoughts at the End of the Year


1. With each passing year, this world holds less charm – less light in the dark nights of the soul. The desire for a view of something over and above it all creeps in ever more. This world where we humans live slinks toward dehumanizing. Only in the promised forever do I see hope for being all we were made to be. The irony of moving towards death is the promise of finally life.

2. There is a passage in Endo’s Silence where Rodrigues thinks about his captors and their cruelty and comes to the realization that this is sin. Not stealing and lying as most imagine. That truth makes it possible for him to pray in his misery. And that’s why I can’t read it quickly.

3. Stars are prone to fall.

4. My son cried the other night as he talked about going backing to school and I felt for him because of Sunday nights.

5. I’ve got this old Merle Haggard record that contains whole worlds of dusty truths.

6. Leisurely enjoying a good meal makes us more human.

7. I wish Christmas lights stayed up all year.

8. A celebrity obsessed culture will evaluate the year by the loss of them.

9. We’ve been listening to the Avett Brothers a lot in our house because we could do with kindness in this world of  cold weights and measures.

10. Sometimes after a particularly demoralizing day at work, I’ll buy flowers for Bethany. Don’t be impressed too much. It makes me feel better. And therein lies a wisdom older than all the stars.

Christmas Is For Those Who Hate It Most

Who is Christmas for?

We are now accustomed to hearing how Christmas is difficult for many people. The story of Scrooge and his problems with the season is no longer anecdotal. It is now par for the course. Maybe this has always been the case. Maybe the joy of the season has always been a thorn in the side of those who can scarcely imagine joy.
Not too long ago, I heard from one of these people about how difficult Christmas would be because of some heartbreak in their family. There was utter hopelessness and devastation in her voice. She was sure Christmas would be impossible to enjoy because of the freshness of the pain. It’s been a story hard to forget.

I get it. I mean, it makes sense. Christmas is a time in which there is a lot of heavily concentrated family time. The holidays can be tense in even the best of circumstances. Maneuvering through the landmines of various personalities can be hard even if there is no cancer, divorce or empty seat at the table. What makes it the most wonderful time of the year for one is also what makes it the most brutal time of the year for another. My own family has not been immune to this phenomenon.

All the hurt and pain and disappointment with the expectation of joy and excitement make it hard for people to love Christmas. In fact, some hate it.

But I’d like to push back against this idea a little. Gently. I think we have it all backwards. We have it sunk deep into our collective cultural consciousness that Christmas is for the happy people. You know, those with idyllic family situations enjoyed around stocking-strewn hearth dreams. Christmas is for healthy people who laugh easily and at all the right times, right? The successful and the beautiful, who live in suburban bliss,  and we imagine how they can easily enjoy the holidays. They are beaming after watching a Christmas classic curled up on the couch as a family in front of their ginormous flat-screen drinking perfectly mixed hot cocoa. We live and act as if this is who should be enjoying Christmas.

But this is so damnably backwards. Christmas – the great story of the incarnation of the Rescuer – is for everyone, especially those who need a rescue. Jesus was born as a baby to know the pain and sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was made to be like us so that in his resurrection we can be made like him; free from the fear of death and the pain of loss. Jesus’ first recorded worshippers were not of the beautiful class. They were poor, most-likely ugly shepherds; beat down by life and labor. They had been looked down on over many a nose.

Jesus came for those who look in the mirror and see ugliness. Jesus came for daughters whose fathers never told them they were beautiful. Christmas is for those who go to “wing night” alone. Christmas is for those whose lives have been wrecked by cancer and the thought of another Christmas seems like an impossible dream. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media. Christmas is for those whose marriages have careened against the retaining wall and are threatening to flip over the edge. Christmas is for the son, whose father keeps giving him hunting gear when the son wants art materials. Christmas is for smokers who cannot quit even in the face of a death sentence. Christmas is for whores, adulterers and porn stars who long for love in every wrong place. Christmas is for college students who are sitting in the midst of family and already cannot wait to get out for another drink. Christmas is for those who traffic in failed dreams. Christmas is for all those who have squandered the family name and fortune, prodigals who want ‘home’ but cannot imagine a gracious reception. Christmas is for parents watching their children’s marriage fall into disarray.

Christmas is really about the gospel of grace for those who need it. Because of all that Christ has done on the cross, the manger becomes the most hopeful place in a Universe darkened with hopelessness. In the irony of all ironies, Christmas is for those who will find it the hardest to enjoy. It really is for those who hate it the most.
(Art: Blue Christmas Candle from Stushie’s Art)