The Zach from Gold’s Gym Chronicles

I recently decided that I want to get in better shape. My wedding is right around the corner, and I don’t want my future kids to see pictures of good ole’ dad sporting some love handles on his big day. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily out of shape, but I usually prefer playing half-court basketball instead of full. Waking up early and hiking a mountain is fun, but knowing a post-hike brunch at Cracker Barrel awaits is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

I called a Gold’s Gym near my house and left a voicemail saying I wanted to join. About an hour later my phone rang.

“Hey buddy,” a voice on the other end of the line said with confidence, as if we’re actually buddies. “My name is Zach, and I’m from Gold’s Gym. Why don’t you come in and see me? I’ll get you set up with a membership.”

When I arrived a man with a ponytail led me to an office in the back and told me to wait. After a few minutes there was a soft knock on the door, and a man walked in, shook my hand, and introduced himself as Zach. Zach from Gold’s Gym.

“Glad you made it,” he said. “So what are your workout goals?”

“Well, I’d like to be fit I guess.”

“Tell me: what does fitness mean to you?”

“I just want to be healthy.”

“Perfect. What’s your current workout routine?”

“I don’t have one. That’s why I’m here.”

“Cort, you have come to the right place. You’re going to make friends here. This is a community. We are a community. We help each other reach our full potential. Does that sound good to you?”

Zach was friendly, and I liked him, but what he described sounded like a version of hell custom-tailored for Cort. I was looking for a treadmill, not a friend. The last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by middle-aged men in cutoff t-shirts committed to helping me pump out a few more reps before hitting the showers. I told Zach I needed to think about it.

The next day, at the urging of several friends, I visited Lifetime Fitness and discovered the difference between a gym and a sports club. Freshly washed towels were neatly folded and stacked high around every corner. The locker room had a sauna and a steam room. Instructors offered hot yoga classes at no extra charge. If Jesus designed his own workout facility, it would look like Lifetime Fitness.

I don’t remember exactly what happened next–perhaps one of the towel boys drugged me–but suddenly I was in Sam’s office giving him my credit card information.

Completely forgetting about Zach from Gold’s Gym, I joined the cult of Lifetime Fitness and became the most devoted disciple. I was downright evangelical about the place. I found ways to bring it up in every conversation. I got a massage and handed out my masseuse’s business card to friends. All was well.

And then my phone rang.

January 8: “Hey man, this is Zach from Gold’s Gym. Just wanted to see if you were ready to get started with that membership, man. Give me a call back. Have a good afternoon, bud!”

I felt a twinge of guilt. Oh well, I thought. I guess that’s that. But two weeks later my phone rang again.

January 21:  “Hey Cort! This is Zach from Gold’s Gym. Just calling to see if you made it back into town safely. Let me know when you want to get this membership up and running. Hopefully I’ll see you soon!”

Looking back, I should have had the courtesy to pick up the phone and say, “Hey Zach from Gold’s Gym. I’m sorry, but this isn’t working out. It’s not you, it’s me.” But I figured he would go ahead and cross me off the potential member list at this point.

And then this showed up in my email.

February 19:


The email went straight to my spam folder and I happened upon it by chance. I appreciated the personal touch–“almost two months!”–and that he signs his emails “Yours in Health”, but another gym had already won my affections.

Last week, while I was in Nicaragua, I received a text from an unknown number.

February 20:


This was a turning point for me in my relationship with Zach from Gold’s Gym. I knew that the only decent thing to do would be to break up with him. So I did.

February 25:


And so, with those last two words from Zach from Gold’s Gym, I think this season of my life may finally be over. I have nothing but respect for Zach, and I wish him the best as he hunts down other potential members. Farewell, Zach from Gold’s Gym. Thanks for the memories.


Yours in Health,




Call me crazy, but I assumed “it’s cool” marked the end of my relationship with Zach from Gold’s Gym. How wrong I was.

March 6: 

IMG_5850Okay, this seems fair. It’s clearly just a standard email Gold’s Gym sends out to potential members, and I guess I wasn’t taken off the list yet. So I hit unsubscribe and didn’t think twice about it.

But then later that day, as I was driving to Nashville, I received a text message from an unknown number. And here, ladies and gentleman, is the final conversation I will ever have with Zach from Gold’s Gym (I think).

IMG_5848There’s a good lesson to be learned here. If you’re in a relationship with someone but you want to break it off, just come right out and say it. Don’t dance around the truth. It might be painful at first, but that special someone deserves to know how you really feel.

Yours in Health, one last time,


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Nicholas Kristof the theologian

As a resident of Birmingham, lately it feels like every conversation I have eventually leads to the recent gay marriage ruling and subsequent legal showdown. Everyone has an opinion, usually a fierce one. Today New York Times columnist Nick Kristof put in his two cents.

Let me first say that I admire Kristof a great deal. His writing has inspired and challenged me. He’s one of the reasons 18-year-old me decided to major in journalism. I think he’s a crucial voice in shining light on injustices around the world. I even submitted essays for his annual win-a-trip contest. (Twice! although I never won. I didn’t deserve to win. Those essays were bad.)

With that being said, I was interested to see what Kristof had to say about the truly horrific murder of three Muslims in North Carolina yesterday, and the Alabama marriage rulings.

I think he raises some good points. Particularly here:

I don’t think Muslims should feel obliged to apologize for the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks. Nor do I think atheists need apologize for the killing of the three Muslims.

But it does seem useful for everyone to reflect on our capacity to “otherize” people of a different faith, race, nationality or sexuality — and to turn that other-ness into a threat. That’s what the Islamic State does to us. And sometimes that’s what we do, too.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about lately–my tendency to “otherize” people who don’t think or look like me. I do this all the time, usually without even realizing it, and it’s something I need to actively work against. My heart is darker than I’d like to admit.

What I wasn’t as crazy about was when Kristof decided to play theologian.

Here’s an example:

More broadly, one message of the New Testament is the value of focusing on one’s own mistakes rather than those of others. “You hypocrite,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:5. “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

And here:

It seems odd to me that so many conservative Christians are obsessed with homosexuality, which Jesus never mentions, yet seem unworried about issues Jesus did emphasize like poverty and suffering.

Few things are more frustrating than Christians who select certain verses and use them to justify their actions and/or beliefs. But that’s exactly what Kristof does here. He picks one or two verses, rips them out of context, and uses them to shape an entire Christian worldview/sexual ethic.

I’m all for a robust debate about the Bible, what it says, how Christians interpret it, and what role it should play in the 21st century, but I don’t think Kristof is the guy to do it. By “otherizing” this group of people he calls conservative Christians–which is not nearly as homogeneous as many people tend to think–he’s pandering to his readers and reinforcing stereotypes that are sometimes true, but not always.

Kristof is an influential voice, but today he isn’t moving the conversation forward in any meaningful way.

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Act on your brilliant ideas or someone else will and you’ll regret it until you die

Every once in a while, usually when you least expect it, a brilliant idea passes through your brain, and you know that life will never be same.

This happened to me in the winter of 2009. I was a senior in high school, and one night while I was cooking dinner I had an idea for a project that would guarantee me fame, fortune, and glory.

That is such a wild idea, I thought to myself, that I’m just going to store it in my mental idea vault and revisit it later. “Stay safe in there,” I said. “Your time will come.”

So what was my brilliant idea?

In August 2009 a film called Julie & Julia was released. It tells the true story of Julie Powell, a young writer who decides to cook her way through Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, blogging about her journey along the way. Powell’s blog was successful enough to earn her a book deal, and suddenly Amy Adams is playing her in a movie.

If you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for gimmicks—particularly ones that involve ultimately pointless and lengthy challenges, like watching all 8 Harry Potter movies in one sitting or tweeting every single line from Lindsay Lohan’s The Parent Trap

My idea was simple: watch Julie & Julia every day for an entire year—365 consecutive viewings—and blog about my adventure. I was going to call it Julie & Julia & Cort (doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but yolo).

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 12.51.41 PM

A blog about watching a movie based on a book about a blog about a cookbook. Like I said: brilliant.

I was going to make the blog humorous and poignant. Witty and thoughtful. I was going to infuse a silly project with humanity. I was going to learn new things about myself, new things about the world. I was going to share my wisdom with the masses.

Most importantly, I was going to find a way to meet Meryl Streep.

In 2009 I recognized the gravity of what I was stumbling into, and I knew I wasn’t ready. I was about to bike across America, graduate from high school, and start college; there was no room in my life for a project like this. So I let it simmer.

A couple of years passed, and as 2012 came to an end I started thinking about what I wanted to accomplish in 2013.

And I knew the time I had come. 2013 was going to be the year of Julie & Julia & Cort. One night I decided to tell my friend Andrew about it. Without missing a beat he said one sentence that effectively ruined my life.

“Good idea, but that’s been done already.”

A quick Google search confirmed my worst fears. Some guy had the same idea, but he did it first. I won’t even link to his blog because it fills me with such sorrow.

As I mourned the death of my dream, I learned a tough lesson. If you think your idea is unique, it’s probably not. So act quickly. Don’t wait any longer. Carpe diem, my friends. Someone else might be perfecting your brilliant idea right this very minute.

Let my story be a sobering reminder: if you don’t watch Julie & Julia 365 days in a row, someone else will. And you will live a life filled with nothing but regret.

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On the spiritual value of learning French


When I started dating Abby again, she told me if I wanted to marry her I would have to be okay with living in France for a few years. I, of course, agreed. I like the United States just fine, but it’s a big world and there are sights that need to be seen, cheese that needs to be eaten, and wine that needs to be drunk. It’s hard for me to imagine a place that suits my personality better than France. If I’m honest though, I think I was subconsciously calling her bluff. Everyone wants to live in France at some point. Very few people actually do it.

I knew marrying Abby would lead to an adventurous life, but I underestimated how quickly those adventures would begin. She recently accepted a translating job for a foundation that owns property in the south of France. Starting in July, we’ll be spending 6 months of the year in a small town near the Pyrenees, and 6 months in Birmingham. This means, among other things, that learning French is at the top of my priority list.

The French language is not completely foreign to me. In high school I studied under an irresistibly charming, and occassionally surly, Frenchman named Reginald. I viewed Reginald as a wise grandfather figure, and I adored him; he often called me “lazy bastard” (a term of endearment in France, perhaps?). Clearly he reciprocated my affection. When I was unexpectedly accepted into the French Honor Society, Reginald shook my hand, pulled me in close and whispered, “You make a fool out of this organization.” He winked, smiled, and sent me on my way.

As I’ve started studying the French language again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I actually learned in high school. I’m also rediscovering the joy of being challenged intellectually. I didn’t appreciate school enough growing up. School is literally 20+ years set aside to help you understand the world better. What a privilege! Since I’m no longer in class, it’s often tempting to forgo any sort of intellectual challenge and settle for mental junk food. Tackling a difficult subject is refreshing, and I can feel the gears turning in my brain once again.

In college I thought sitting through a 75-minute class was taxing, but it becomes even more arduous when no one is making you do it. I’ll set aside an hour to study French, and as soon as I sit down my mind finds a million things to think about besides verb conjugations and grammar rules. This has always been a problem for me. I’ll read a chapter of a novel before realizing I can’t recall what I just read because I was busy thinking about important things like which flavor of Sun Chips is the best. Sometimes, while I’m in the middle of a conversation, I notice my mind wandering away like a dull-witted sheep, and I have to catch it before my interlocutor asks a question and I’m put in the awkward situation of explaining that I have absolutely no idea what he or she just said.

My weak mind has spiritual implications, too. Some mornings I’ll read scripture before breakfast, but by the time I’m finished with my bowl of oatmeal I can’t remember if I spent time in the Old Testament or the New. I often find myself falling asleep in the middle of a prayer. I imagine God just shakes his head and thinks, “He makes a fool out of this organization.” That he accepts my haphazard attempts at faithfulness and allows the Spirit to intercede when my mind strays is nothing less than an act of grace.

In her essay Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, French Christian mystic Simone Weil argues that academic learning has the potential to help us grow spiritually:

School Children and students who love God should never say: “For my part I like mathematics”; “I like French”; “I like Greek.” They should learn to like all these subjects, because all of them develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.

That is to say, there’s sacramental value in diligently practicing  French verb conjugations. There’s an app on my phone that tests me on vocabulary words, and if I haven’t touched it in a day or so, it sends me a gentle reminder: “Hi Cort! Learning a language requires practice every day.” In the same way, strengthening our ability to focus provides us with the tools to encounter God and experience his presence more richly. They are called spiritual disciplines for a reason, after all.

Weil also suggests this teaches us how to care for other people, too:

Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.

Learning a language is daunting. Every time I learn a new concept, I discover just how little I actually know. Sounds a lot like my spiritual life. The only thing to do is keep moving forward.

Au revoir!

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Begin Again

I love the first day of a new year. Nothing really changes, but we’re all allowed a do-over, and no one is going to give you a hard time about it. As I write this, everyone else in the house is still asleep. 2015 is only a couple of hours old. An entire year lies ahead of us. I love waking up early on January 1 because these morning hours feel like an in between time. A year has just ended and a new one is about to begin, but not for a few more hours really. Everything is quiet.

When I was a little kid I wanted to be: a fireman, an astronaut, a professional dog walker, a marine, a mime, a teacher, a detective, a garbage man, a pastor, a scuba diving instructor, a master carpenter, a guest on Oprah, a musician, a producer, a record label owner, a roadie and a world-famous chef.

I used to imagine what my life would look like at 20, 25, 30, and so on. I didn’t know what I would be doing, but I knew I would be successful. People would value my thoughts and call me to get my advice on important matters. I was going to have stories to tell. I used to look up what my heroes were doing at certain ages so I knew the kind of trajectory I should probably be on as well. This proved to be an unhealthy habit. Knowing that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise when he was 22 is inspiring when you’re 15. Not so much when you’re 23. Then it’s just depressing as hell.

2015 is my first full year of adulthood, whatever that means. I had so many expectations for where I would be at this point in my life. In some ways I’ve met those expectations, in other ways I haven’t. It’s so easy to look around at other people and only see the ways in which they’re succeeding and we aren’t. But that’s no way to live. So my resolution for 2015 is simple: quit the comparison game. Everyone has a story to live, and we run the risk of missing out on our own if we get too preoccupied with someone else’s. If I thought I had to write The Great American novel at 22 like F. Scott Fitzgerald, then I would drink myself to death by 25. This year is about enjoying where I am, focusing on the tasks before me, and dreaming about where I plan to go next.

It’s going to be a big year. There are a lot of changes coming up, and that’s exciting and terrifying. I’m starting a new job (more on that later). I’m getting married in July. My fiancée recently accepted a job that will have us living in France half the year (more on that later, too). My life looks nothing like I wanted it to look when I was younger. Thank God for that.

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These are a few of my favorite things: 2014

As 2014 winds down, I’ve been thinking about my favorite cultural experiences from the past year. I usually make top 10 lists, but this year I’m going to make this short and sweet by choosing just one answer for each category. These are all things that moved me or stuck out in my mind for one reason or another in 2014.

Favorite Movie:  Boyhood

Favorite Album:  Atlas: Year One by Sleeping At Last

If you don’t listen to Sleeping At Last, then you’re missing out. The heartbreaking “Uneven Odds” is as good a place to start as any, I guess.

Favorite Book: Every Day Is for The Thief by Teju Cole

Favorite Piece of Journalism: The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the greatest opinion writer in America today. With this 16,000 word cover story for The Atlantic, Coates single-handedly kickstarted a national conversation about race in America, and he’ll almost certainly win a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. This is something that everyone needs to read and wrestle with.

An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

Favorite Personal Essay: On Kindness by Cord Jefferson

Cord Jefferson wrote a beautiful, breathtaking essay about his sick mother and the importance of being kind. It’s an essay I keep learning from, both in terms of craft and what it means to be a good human being. If you read this essay and take it to heart, you will be a better person. I promise.

When I think of my mother’s life up to this point, what I find most revealing is how much of the abuse hurled at her throughout the years came about solely because she showed care and love to the wrong kinds of people. Time and again, it was her openness to others that found her shut off from her friends, her church, her colleagues, even her own family. We seem to reserve a special rage in this world for those whose ability to be unafraid in pursuit of something new extends beyond our own. We begrudge them their strange friends and strange experiences under the guise that we find those things to be dangerous or unclean. But really we resent those people because their courage reminds us of how common and terrified we feel inside. Bravery is a virtue people revere in dead soldiers and then turn to disparage in someone extending her hand to a weirdo.

The world takes from us relentlessly. It takes our friends and first loves. It takes our parents. It takes our faith. It takes our dignity. It takes our passion. It takes our health. It takes our honesty, and it takes our credulity. To lose so much and still hold onto yourself is perhaps the most complicated task human beings are asked to perform, which is why seeing it done with aplomb is as thrilling as looking at dinosaur bones or seeing a herd of elephants. It’s an honor to exist on Earth with these things.

Favorite TV Show: True Detective

Favorite Film/TV Scene: The six-minute tracking shot from True Detective

From 0:38 to 6:34, this scene is all one shot. And it’s incredible. Worth watching even if you haven’t seen the show. This is what masterful filmmaking looks like.

Favorite Pop Song: A tie between Shake It Off by Taylor Swift and Flawless (Remix) by Beyonce (ft. Nicki Minaj)

Also, read this: Mansplaining Beyoncé and Nicki and the “Flawless” Remix by Rembert Browne

Favorite Vine: “I want to be famous”

Favorite Museum: The Louvre

Selfie with my girl Mona Lisa.



Farewell, 2014. It’s been fun.*

*except for Ebola, disappearing planes, racial division, wars in Ukraine, Obama’s tan suit, the realization that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist, the Sochi Olympics, the beginning of what could end up being WWIII, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ISIS, the public beheadings of journalists and aid workers, the celebrity nude photo leaks, the recent school shooting in Pakistan that left over 100 children dead, the deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, people complaining about the Ice Bucket Challenge, commercial airlines getting shot out of the sky, Kim Kardashian “breaking the internet,” Pharrell’s song “Happy,” etc.


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“Unbroken” and the story that should have been told


First things first: this review includes spoilers—lots of them. If you’re one of the seven people on planet earth who hasn’t read Unbroken and doesn’t already know the story, then consider this your official spoiler alert.


Unbroken, inspired by Lauren Hillenbrand’s 2010 book by the same name, tells the true story of Louie Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic track star turned bombardier who joined the army during WWII and spent 47 days in a raft after his plane crashed in the Pacific, only to be captured by the Japanese and tortured as a POW for more than two years. It’s one of those stories that would never work as a piece of fiction because it’s just too darn unbelievable.

For a film with such rich source material (the book has spent nearly four years—FOUR YEARS!—on the New York Times best-seller list), Unbroken decidedly misses the mark. From a technical standpoint, it’s a fine film. Some seriously talented people worked on this flick. As a director, Angelina Jolie has a keen eye, and cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption) is one of the best in the business. As Louie Zamperini, Jack O’Connell carries the film with ease. The screenplay is credited to Joel and Ethan Cohen, along with the enormously talented William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables) and Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephants, P.S. I Love You). All the right ingredients to make something special are in place, which is why it’s so disappointing to see Unbroken fall short.

It’s not a bad film, per se, it’s just an incomplete one. For two hours we see Zamperini experience unimaginable suffering—first while baking under the hot sun, stranded in a raft in the middle of the Pacific, and then from a sadistic Japanese commander (portrayed brilliantly and terrifyingly by Japanese pop star Miyavi) who beats the hell out of Zamperini every chance he gets. Facing horrific torture, Zamperini survives by sheer force of will. “If I can take it, I can make it,” a phrase borrowed from his brother, becomes his refrain.

And, as the film’s title suggests, he does indeed make it. The allies win the war and Zamperini returns to his family in America. That’s where the film ends. While his uncanny ability to endure suffering and never give up, regardless of the odds,  is awe-inspiring and impressive, the most compelling part of Zamperini’s story is what happens after he comes home from the concentration camp, and that’s the part the film all but leaves out.

After years of struggling with alcoholism and PTSD, Zamperini attends a Billy Graham crusade and becomes a Christian. With the help of his new-found faith, he forgives his captors and overcomes his inner demons,  even going so far as to visit Tokyo to meet and forgive his torturers face to face.

The most inspiring part of Zamperini’s story isn’t that he survived the unthinkable—it’s that he was able to turn such pure evil, such darkness, into light. By relegating this crucial part of the story to a few sentences on the screen at the end, the film becomes more about torture than healing. The larger story of forgiveness and redemption—the truly inspiring story—never gets told.

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Thoughts on the final episode of Serial


It was a fun ride, but Serial is officially over.

Wednesday night I imagine Sarah Koenig poured herself one large nightcap and fell asleep praying she wouldn’t wake up as Lindelof 2.0. Have no fear, Miss Koenig. Serial’s ending was spot on. Here are some initial thoughts (spoiler alert!):

When talking about Serial, I’ve found that a lot of people seem to forget one crucial detail: this is non-fiction. While I’m fine with discussing Serial’s similarities to something like, say, True Detective, I think those conversations become unhelpful when we forget that Koenig’s creative control over the direction of the story is limited to the facts. You can’t hold Serial to the same standards as something like Lost. Koenig is a reporter who is reporting. Serial has to be appreciated for what it is: journalism.

Are you satisfied with Serial’s result? is the wrong question.  A better question is Was Sarah Koenig a clear, engaging, thought-provoking storyteller given the material she had to work with? And the answer is a resounding yes.

The fact that Koenig and her team couldn’t land on a definitive answer is exactly what made this case so interesting to begin with. The ambiguity is what captured our imaginations.

In fact, I think ambiguous endings are usually far more interesting than endings that provide all the answers. Sopranos ended in 2007, but people still talk about it because it left so many questions unanswered. Breaking Bad ended last year, but what’s left to talk about? Not much. Neat, tidy endings are overrated. And, most importantly, they rarely happen in real life. 

My favorite part about Serial–besides Koenig’s soothing voice, the catchy theme song, and Mail Kimp–is the way that listening to the podcast became a collective experience. After each episode I would get texts from friends wanting to discuss the newest pieces of information. I literally met people simply because I overheard them talking about Serial. It reminded me of the good ol’ days when the only thing anyone in America was talking about was the most recent episode of Lost. 

At the very least, I hope Serial’s success will stir up interest in long-form journalism and radio shows like This American Life. People are hungry for good stories,  and that’s exciting.

Oh, and what’s my read of the case?

Adnan is guilty.

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Thirteenth day of Advent: Dying of thirst


Advent is beautiful and mysterious for many reasons, not the least of which is the way it reminds us that God often shows up in unexpected places, like, as a baby in a manger.

In 2012 I found God in Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. I was a junior in college with a penchant for Kanye West when I stumbled across Lamar’s masterpiece. More than a hip hop album, it’s an exercise in expert storytelling, complete with absurdly infectious beats and thoughtful theological reflections. It’s the creation of a man who is so clearly searching for something.

The album begins with Kendrick and his friends reciting a simple prayer. “I believe that Jesus is Lord. I receive Jesus to take control of my life, and that I may live for him from this day forth.” The prayer ends, and the listener is thrown into Kendrick’s world as he learns how to navigate the streets of Compton, wrestling with existential questions about faith, temptation and God along the way.

“I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again,” he confesses near the beginning of the album. “Lord, forgive me the things I don’t understand.” Kendrick is trying to be a good kid, but his environment makes that exceedingly difficult. There’s tension between light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong.

Take “The Art of Peer Pressure” for example:

Smoking on the finest dope

Drank until I can’t no more

Really I’m a sober soul

But I’m with the homies right now.

And we ain’t asking for no favors

Rush a ni**a quick then laugh about it later

Really I’m a peacemaker

But I’m with the homies right now

I’m reminded of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Kendrick raps about everything from poverty to police brutality, lust to gang violence. A passive listener might remove a single song from its context and be offended by the harshness of it all, but it’s important to remember that Kendrick is weaving together a story, and each track is a new chapter. A listener willing to spend time wrestling with good kid, m.A.A.d city will discover a piece of art that reveals things not only about the creator, but the listener as well.

In the album’s climax–a relentless, violent track called “m.A.A.d city“–Lamar paints a brutal picture of what it was like to grow up in the environment he grew up in, and what sort of emotional, physical and mental stress that can put on a young man. He recalls the gang violence that surrounded him, seeing “bodies on top of bodies, IV’s on top of IV’s.” It’s a grim image, to say the least.

There’s a self-awareness here that’s rare. Kendrick knows this lifestyle will eventually kill him. “How many sins?” he asks in “I’m Dying of Thirst,” the album’s most explicitly spiritual track. “How many sins? I’ve lost count.”

He continues:

Money, p***y and greed; what’s my next crave

Whatever it is, know it’s my next grave

Tired of running, tired of running

Tired of tumbling, tired of running

Tired of tumbling

Back once my momma say

“See a pastor, give me a promise

What if today was the rapture, and you completely tarnished

The truth will set you free, so to me be completely honest

You dying of thirst, you dying of thirst

So hop in that water, and pray that it works.”

More often than not, this is when Christ shows up in our lives–when everything we’ve turned to for meaning, everything we thought could save us, has failed. And in a way, this is what Advent is about: Living in a world that draws us further into darkness, and the redeeming promises of a Savior who showed up in an unexpected way–as a baby–to save us from dying of thirst.

The song ends with a recording of Maya Angelou talking to Kendrick and his friends.

“Why are you so angry?” she asks. “You young men are dying of thirst. Do you know what that means? That means you need water–holy water. You need to be baptized with the Spirit of the Lord. Do you want to receive God as your personal savior?”

She leads them in a prayer of repentance, and tells them they’ve been saved.

“Remember this day,” she says. “The start of a new life–your real life. “

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