Sweet Nothings

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."

The Passenger Thinks Aloud

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.

Beauty & Brokenness

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.

Divine Comedy

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.

Grandaddy

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.

Stephen Lee Beggs

The anniversary of my dad's death is right around the corner. I've been thinking about it recently, and about how I learned he died. I think about him often—not always fondly—but I have to admit that in years past I have completely forgotten to observe his death. Not every year. Some years. Payback for all the years he forgot my birthday, I guess.

I don't know what's different this year. I'm a father now. I guess that's part of it. Just a minor life change. You know.

Still in grad school, I woke up late. Listened to the traffic slide by our Nashville apartment. Listened to the neighbor downstairs coughing. I pulled up the covers and turned on my side. Grabbed the iPod Touch off the bedside table and checked out Twitter. Jumped on Facebook.

Who's Sean Fonseca?

"Logan, I think you are the right Logan. I see you changed your last name. I am your cousin Sean, from your dad's side."

Oh, that Sean Fonseca.

"I am sorry to deliver this news, but your father, Steve Beggs, died yesterday of a heart attack. Please call grandpa. I know he would like to talk to you."

I'm sure there were some other pleasantries and condolences but I've deleted my Facebook account two or three times since then and I don't remember them.

I can't think of a more bleeding edge way to find out your dad died than through a Facebook message.

I immediately put down the iPod, got out of bed and went to the computer to read the message again. Something about a bigger screen. I called Elizabeth, told her I was fine stay at work. I read the message again. Wrote back to Sean. "Thanks for writing. Sorry you had to be the one to deliver the news. Will write more soon."

I felt a lot of things. Relieved mostly, sorry to say. It had been three years since we had spoken father to son, son to father. It felt like the time was coming to mend things, and I didn't look forward to managing a relationship with him for the rest of his life. Well, no worries now.

But I also strongly remember—I suppose it's beside the point—I also remember reading Sean's message again and sitting back in my chair, sighing, and saying to the empty room, "Fuck Facebook." To this day, when I tell someone the story they get a funny little pained expression on their face, and they kind of laugh and say, "Really?" and shake their head. "Yeah, I know. Facebook, right?" Hah hah.

I don't think it means anything or tells us anything about who we are. It just is. It's something that happened to me. And fifteen minutes later I was walking to my Kierkegaard class wishing I felt sadder about it.

Front Row Seat

"Shortly before the war of 1914, an assassin whose crime was particularly repulsive (he had slaughtered a family of farmers, including the children) was condemned to death in Algiers. He was a farm worker who had killed in a sort of bloodthirsty frenzy but had aggravated his case by robbing his victims. The affair created a great stir. It was generally thought that decapitation was too mild a punishment for such a monster. This was the opinion, I have been told, of my father, who was especially aroused by the murder of the children. One of the few things I know about him, in any case, is that he wanted to witness the execution, for the first time in his life. He got up in the dark to go to the place of execution at the other end of town amid a great crowd of people. What he saw that morning he never told anyone. My mother relates merely that he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to talk, lay down for a moment on the bed, and suddenly began to vomit. He had just discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrases with which it was masked. Instead of thinking of the slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that quivering body that had just been dropped on to a board to have its head cut off." – Albert Camus

And so begins Camus’ exemplary critique of capital punishment, Reflections on the Guillotine. I wrote it out so that you might read it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read it before. And if you haven’t read it before, maybe you can think of it in terms of what happened last week. It speaks to the sickening weight I felt upon hearing the details of Clayton Lockett’s botched execution in Oklahoma. If you want to know my feelings on capital punishment, read the masterpiece that is Reflections and you’ll pretty much have it. I might not agree with every point along the way, but I cannot deny the conclusion Camus reaches.

But I’m not writing about that right now. You can glean my opinion on the larger matter by reading a more brilliant writer than I could ever hope to be unpack an issue more eloquently in a little under sixty pages than I could ever hope to do in volumes and volumes. What I want to do here is ask you to reread Camus’ opening quote. Go.

Now that you’re back, read this. It’s Ziva Branstetter, a local reporter for the Tulsa World, giving a time-stamped, eyewitness account of Lockett’s forty-three-minute-long execution. Heads up, it’s not ok. You won’t feel ok after you read it. I doubt you’ll think anything about justice or goodness or the appeasement of social traditions and long-held mores. Or maybe you will; I don’t know you. But it makes me sick. Like Camus’ father, my thoughts go to the action, to the reality that is planned and executed death. State-sanctioned death happens a lot in this country, so why are we talking about this execution? Why does it matter if it was botched? He died anyway, right? Death penalty given, death penalty carried out. End of story.

But it isn’t, or no one would be talking about it. And that’s the point. We’re actually talking about it. We as the public are being confronted with something that is done on our behalf, something that we take part in as members of society. Supposedly we do it for a number or reasons: justice of the “eye for an eye” variety, social standards (it’s how we’ve always treated the most heinous crimes), or the safety of the social fabric (one less killer in our midst, and hell, maybe we’ve scared a few others out of it in the future). But none of that matters when we don’t have to look, when we don’t have to know what the killing sounds like, what it smells like, how it feels to watch life be there and then not be there because someone made it go away. But when an execution fails to do the job efficiently enough, quietly enough, sanitarily enough, we end up looking like a rubbernecker on the highway. Whoops. Shouldn’ta upset our weak constitutions like that.

Pop culture weighs in, too. In the third season of The Killing, Detective Sarah Linden watches Ray Seward, a man she helped put in jail but who she comes to learn is innocent, hang. She watches an innocent man hang. And the crunch of his broken neck isn’t the end. It doesn’t kill him immediately. He struggles, gurgling and gasping for breath for several agonizing seconds before he dies. Linden knew he was innocent, and she watched. Clayton Lockett wasn’t innocent. He kidnapped, beat, raped, shot, then buried alive nineteen-year-old Stephanie Neiman. We’re not supposed to see Seward and Lockett in the same way. One deserved it and one didn’t, right? The only problem with that is, if you think Lockett deserved to die, if we as a collective society are supposedly saying Lockett deserves to not only die, but to suffer in the process, why aren’t we watching? Why do we ask for, insist on, rather, having closed doors and rooms with blinds take our place? If you believe that the punishment is fitting, the least you can do is demand to show up and face it. Every time. It’s in your social contract, after all.

In America, we’ve managed to pull such a thick wool of cognitive dissonance and moral passivity over our eyes that we can perform execution medically. It’s like an out-patient procedure. Like, really out-patient. It’s clean and the needle isn’t dirty and the condemned is strapped to a surface that’s probably padded. These are layers meant to separate us, the public for whom the killing is done (it only makes sense if done for us, you see?), from the reality. Because the reality is messy, and if we actually had to face and name what was being done on our behalf dozens of times a year, we might get a bit squeamish and start talking nonsense, wondering if it’s actually a good thing we’re doing or not.

Here’s a hint: busting some guy’s vein with an untested chemical cocktail and then having him writhe for half an hour until he dies of a heart attack should make you squeamish, and it should make you think about how you view the death penalty. And really, it should be that grim every time. We’ve gotten really top notch at making it so unremarkable that we have the audacity to call certain kinds of making someone die not cruel and unusual. ‘Cause some kinds of making someone die who doesn’t want to die are cruel, and some kinds aren’t, right? That’s one way to think about it, I suppose. Until you are “shown the machine, made to touch the wood and steel and to hear the sound of a head falling.” Then maybe it’s not so easy. I’m not telling you how to feel about the death penalty or about justice or anything else. But the least you can do is touch the machine and watch it do its thing. Then you can talk about the ethics of keeping it around.

It’s, Like, a Religion You Can Totally Buy, You Know?

Two comedians in London, England created a non-religion religion called Sunday Assembly. They wanted the feeling of religion without the God parts.

It's good to get together with people you might not otherwise meet and listen to music and maybe do a community project. That's what religion is about.

Right?

Theoretically I'm all for opportunities for people to take part in community, expand their horizons beyond their particular view, and get involved in their community. That's the opportunity Sunday Assembly is trying to provide. This is already being done in various ways by clubs, nonprofits, and community organizations already in existence, but if Sunday Assembly can attract people to what it offers, that's all to the good.

What bothers me, though, is the generalizing attitude toward religion among people quoted in the linked article. Those interviewed suggest that Sunday Assembly has isolated something about religion and offered it up to be practiced by secular people: church, you know, but without the hard religion parts.

Except they haven't jettisoned religion entirely.

Theology

The article claims "there's little God talk at Sunday Assembly." A member says they aren't out to critique or debunk religion. Pippa Evans, one of the group's two founders, says simply, "It's all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs." I'll admit, this is a refreshing change of pace from so-called New Atheist proselytizers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – especially Dawkins, with his half-baked philosophies and reductive fundamentalism.

That being said, while Ms. Evans may argue to the contrary, there is a theology at work behind the scenes at Sunday Assembly. The word "theology" simply means "God talk" (Theos: "God" + Logos: "Word" or "Talk"). Though the rejection of the divine may go unspoken at Sunday Assembly's meetings, this unspoken theological position is the grounding principle which speaks the group into existence. I found a short paragraph near the end of the story interesting. A New York chapter of Sunday Assembly has suffered a split over how much to emphasize their rejection of God. How much God talk is too much for a people who've rejected talk about God? Better hire a theologian to figure that one out. Maybe hire two.

Specifically

But I'm not a religionist. I'm a Christian. And as a Christian, all of the throwing around of the word "church" opens Sunday Assembly to critique.

Specifically troublesome is part of the quote from comedian Pippa Evans, above: "it's all the best bits of church." From what I can tell, "all the best bits" seem to be the parts that feel good. The word "feel," or a form of it, appears seven times in the roughly 920 word article. Often accompanying all of this feeling are references to belief (also appearing seven times).

Another comedian, Louis CK, has something to say about beliefs. Namely, that we hold "believies" that make us feel good just for having them and then there's the way we actually live.

I suppose it's an indictment of the Church in the West that the generalities Sunday Assembly isolates from the experience of church is "believing things," "doing good," and "feeling good." But, religion cannot be practiced generally, it must be practiced specifically. It must not simply be believed, it must primarily be lived. The best of Christian practice does not call people of faith in Christ to strive toward a poorly defined ideal of cultural “goodness" or to consume the good feelings that may come from being in community. No, a Christian is called to become a servant, to become not more but less, so that the mystery of grace may increase in one's life and work.

I can see why Sunday Assembly hasn't repackaged this bit of church. It doesn't necessarily feel good. It downplays the ever-present "Self," so precious to us, in favor of servitude to the neighbor and to God.

That this call to become less embraces death makes the glossing over of the particularities of church even more predictable in a culture that worships at the altar of eternal vitality. Indeed, to lay down one's life is what leads to a becoming in the self that is greater than servanthood. But only after becoming empty shall one be filled.

Believe what you want though, you know. I don't want to push my beliefs on you. It's not like it matters or whatever.