He leaned in to dab her forehead with the wrung-out cloth, the cold sweat beading clearly under the fluorescent lights. He gently swiped a damp string of hair to the side of her head and moved in close to kiss her fevered brow. She smelled of antiseptic and heat, now almost indistinguishable from the rest of the hospital's perfumed decay. The bed creaked as he placed the weight of his body on his hands beside her fading frame. He leaned closer, remembering all the times he'd done this before in their own bed at home. He thought of how she had been a late sleeper, though easily awoken with a light touch to her blanketed shoulder. She would not be waking now. Softly, he brushed her skin with his parted lips, whispering a last sweet nothing in the silent room. "What's up, chicken butt."
A couple weeks ago, I flew to Portland from Nashville by way of Chicago. I went for work, and now I’m back. I apologize for the lack of Beard updates, but between my cross-country shenanigans and Logan’s fatherhood which is actually a thing that can legitimately take up your time, we just haven’t been able to make it work. But we’ll get back on schedule somehow, mostly because we’re proud of the site. We’re happy with what we put out there most of the time, and we’re especially happy when it makes someone else happy. Or reflective. Or less stupid. Any impact will do.
I knew the flight would be long, so before leaving I stocked up on several podcast episodes, both backlog eps from my favorites and a few new shows I’d been meaning to try. I’d heard great things about Song Exploder, so I found a few episodes I knew I’d like based on the artist featured and downloaded en masse.
I got through a few before arriving at the Long Winters’ John Roderick talking about the song “The Commander Thinks Aloud.” I rested my head on the stiff cushion and listened to John, which I do regularly on his podcast with Merlin Mann, “Roderick on the Line.” It’s hilarious, and smart, and all the things two people talking to each other should be. Logan and I should take notes.
I listened to John talk about the song, both from a technical perspective and from an emotional one. He described what went into recording the instruments and what philosophy guided the lyrics. The song is about the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, in which a crew of seven were killed upon reentry as their shuttle disintegrated. In the interview, John reveals that what the commander is thinking aloud is (and I paraphrase) that all he wanted was to bring back a message. A message that says, “I saw the everyday minutia—boys and girls in cars, dogs and birds on lawns—and from up there, up in space, it was simple. It was borderless. Up in space, we humans were doing our best work. We were taking it all in and understanding what matters. And I wanted to tell you that.”
But he didn’t get to. There was a problem. The astronauts knew something was wrong, but not to what extent. That’s because NASA knew to what extent, but wouldn't tell them as they believed the crew couldn’t risk the fix. So they all had to hope for the best. And upon reentry, the ship burned up and splintered apart, killing all aboard. And the message was lost until John sung it to us.
Song Exploder ends the episode by playing the song you just heard about. By this point, I had lifted my head forward to gaze out the airplane window. Stretching for miles I saw an undisturbed, thick blanket of clouds save three giant scars upon its surface. Mounts Hood, St. Helens, and Rainier rose up to remind me of the earth below. They challenged my moment of forgetting where I was, my desire to imagine that I was disconnected from life on the ground. John began to sing in my ear, over and over, “The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up.” I realized I was crying steadily, for the joy of the borderless miles, for the death of the crew years ago, for the people down below who I loved or knew or did not know, for the minutia of my own life. I wanted to tell anyone, everyone, how perfect the snowy peaks and blue sky and marshmallow clouds were, way up here. That’s all I wanted to bring home to you.
The Behemoth, a product of Christianity Today, is a small magazine which aims to remind readers of “the glory of God all around them, in the worlds of science, history, theology, medicine, sociology, Bible, and personal narrative.” Sort of an effort at a reunion of the various modes of being and knowing torn asunder by the Enlightenment. The claim is that we can know God in tangible ways and that fields claiming authority based upon the scientific method can be used in conjunction with faithful theological reflection to seek understanding.
So it isn’t surprising that the most recent issue features a thoughtful piece on the theological significance of beauty. The basic argument goes that beauty cannot prove the existence of God, nothing can, but it can give an observer clues about truth.
The author quickly moves past the problem of evil: “How can there be a good God when there’s so much evil in the world?” He then suggests a “problem of beauty.” In other words: “How can there not be a good God if there’s so much beauty in the world?” Beauty graciously and freely given is a clue to the nature and reality of the divine.
My gut reaction is to reject this notion. Too often this kind of argument about the revelation of God in nature is essentially an appeal to the vague lovely. Given Christianity’s claim that God is ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus Christ—his life, death, and resurrection—the vague lovely as a theological ground just ain’t gonna cut it. I am hesitant in the extreme to move past the cross to the resurrection, to a theology of glory and victory which might deny the reality of suffering and death.
But, embedded in the piece is a part of a compelling argument. If we look at, for instance, a storm that causes destruction, pain, and death and call that a problem of evil, logically we must also allow ourselves to be confronted by the beauty of a cool breeze on a warm day, the quality of light cast through a window, or the way cotton forms around a body. The author touches upon this when he writes about redemption as a sign of beauty: “God also creates beautiful things out of brokenness—unfulfilled dreams, dashed hopes, divided communities, hurting people.” But this doesn’t go far enough.
Beauty does not cease to exist because suffering exists.
Suffering is not easily resolved by the reality of beauty.
The content of faith exists in the tension between beauty and suffering. Indeed, there is beauty not only in our response to the destruction caused by a storm but in the storm itself. A forest fire is not only beautiful because it prepares the way for new life; the fire itself is beautiful and terrifying.
A truth is available in the tension between beauty and brokenness. This is the truth of the cross.
When someone dies, I listen to this. I don't know why. Maybe it's because the pace is contemplative. Maybe it's because the melody is soft and unobtrusive. Maybe it's because grieving love is a lot like grieving death. Maybe it's because I love Mount Moriah and they comfort me. It could be all of the above.
Death is in my world right now. It's never really not, but for our sanity we humans do a pretty good job of ignoring it until it's in our face. Well, death is in my face. There's death in the lives of people I love today. The news was of a color-dimming, world-graying kind. So I listen.
Death was in my world last week when Harris Wittles died. Harris wasn't my friend; I didn't know him personally. But I wish I had. He made me laugh more than I even knew until eulogies from other great comedians began detailing the amazing writing work he'd done for so many projects I enjoyed over the years. He was, by all accounts, a new comedic genius on the cusp. He was only 30, and yet he'd risen to a level most comedic voices would consider a lifetime's worth of achievement.[^1] He was, also by all accounts, an incredibly sweet person with a heart as big as his jokes.[^2]
So death is looming. I didn't expect to be thinking of Harris, someone I never met, a week out from his passing. But I am. On a road trip with a friend and fellow fan this weekend, we talked about Harris. We listened to his Foam Corner, an incredibly funny segment on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast where Harris plumbed anti-comedy and actually came out with comedy gold. Often. Kind of incredible, really. We talked about why we miss this person we didn't know but felt like we did. We grieved him while we laughed.
And that's the beauty of someone like Harris. Scott Aukerman, host of Comedy Bang Bang and longtime friend of Harris, gave his own eulogy before airing Harris' last appearance on the podcast. He talked about one of his last conversations with Harris, in which they discussed the purpose of comedy and the meaning of comedic relief, especially in the face of tragedy. Harris listened to Scott, then said, "Yeah, a lot of people wanna do serious stuff with their comedy, you know, like Louis [C.K.] does with his TV show, but...I just think motherfuckers wanna laugh."
At least in my experience, Harris is spot on. I do wanna laugh. Laughing has always been, for me, one of the most obvious traits of the Divine life, something truly sacred that humanity is lucky enough to participate in. Humor has healed me over and over again, one hilarious layer of scar tissue after another. I didn't laugh when Harris died. I was inexplicably sad. But eventually I laughed, laughed with and at Harris' ridiculousness in life, and I knew grace was with me. Like I said, I feel it's a given that God deals in comedy.
But now new death is in the mix, and I only wish I could find some funny balm to ease that burn. Like Job's friends, I want to do the right thing and say the right words for my friends who are hurting, but that's so rarely of any help. Right now, maybe sitting with death is best. There are times for grief, for laughter, for all things. To everything, turn, turn, turn, the Bible and The Byrds say. So until I can laugh again and feel the new life of God growing from the charred fields of grief, I'll just listen on repeat.
The thing I’ll remember most about my grandfather is his hug. A hug from him was a strong, powerful, enveloping thing. He was a wispy figure, but was somehow always able to lift me up when I ran in the front door. He would swoop me up with an urgency and hold me, vice-like yet gentle. When I got older, too big to lift up, the hugs were still strong as beastly jaws and soft as down. I craved those hugs, excited to visit my grandparents to hear my grandmother’s laugh and rest in my grandfather’s arms. When my grandmother’s laughs were no more, the hugs remained. Now the hugs are gone, too, but not the memory or the meaning they left. He loved me, and I loved him.
My grandfather loved deeply and broadly, firm in the knowledge of his createdness and his role to love those around him. It’s an example I’ll take with me until my own death. Love big, hug big, and that love will define your family and relationships with the swiftness of rapids in water and with the power of booming echoes in the deepest canyons of time. Grandaddy died early Monday morning, a being of lovely stardust returned to stardust, free to be one with Grandmama in the long memory of God. Be proud of your life extraordinarily lived, Grandaddy, for Death cannot be proud now. It's only poppy and charms, after all. Your hugs will always be stronger than those.