The Beautiful and the Damned

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G-Eazy wants to be a saint.

Now I know next to nothing about him. I only know of him through a former student of mine who sent me the title track of his new album to listen to.

Its title is striking though – The Beautiful and the Damned, but not original. F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Beautiful and the Damned in 1922 just prior to publishing his magnum opus, The Great Gatsby. Again I must disclose my ignorance of both works so as to construct the limits of this post.

This post is mostly for this student whose questions about faith tend to take the form of discussing pop culture figures that he idolizes (his words, not mine). From them I hope he hears echoes of rich truths bouncing off the canyon walls of human experience.

Here I want to trace that echo to its source. To get there will take us through this striking song.

The song revolves around G-Eazy’s central struggle with himself. It is a classic, if cliché take on the Jekyll-Hyde problem – how does great good and great evil seem to inhabit each of us? In his pursuit of fame, Gerald Gillum finds himself captive and captivated by the “dark cliché” of life as a rockstar. It is the fast-paced life that he always wanted, but it is now a life that traps him. Like Bruce Banner, he finds himself stuck in an alter ego of his own making, Gerald Gillum has become “G-Eazy”.

Yet this fame is not all that it he hoped it would be. “All the sex, drugs, and boozin” leave him wondering “what I’m losin”. Yet the tension that he feels is not something that came from his fame – “cause I been this way, it’s not a new thing”. Rather fame makes the tension all the worse while offering redemption. If he can’t escape the tension, fame at least offers eternal life, because “a legend, he could never die”. Yet even this hope rings hollow in a song wrestling with the costs of fame.

The great irony of the song is that despite claiming to be a “devil with a halo, an angel with some horns” the portrait G-Eazy paints of himself is a man troubled by his demons, a devil deceived and not an angel in anguish. There is no mention of generosity, compassion or even genuine love in his life. It leaves this listener with the question, what again is good and redemptive in G-Eazy/Gerald’s life?

But let me ask a slightly different question. What explains G-Eazy’s war within himself? His popularity at least as it is manifested to me through my student indicates that his experience resonates with others. Why?

As I alluded to it earlier. G-Eazy wants to be a saint, but he knows that he can’t be. Doubtless he would never express it this way but as one writer put it frankly, “There is one tragedy in the end, not to have been a saint”. Read through the lyrics of The Beautiful and the Damned (It is explicit). If given a simple choice to continue in his destructive habits or be transformed into “a better guy” which would he choose?

It’s not that easy, Gerald, nothing is.

Gerald Gillum is haunted by the fact that he is made in the image of God. He was created to be like God, but cannot escape a world where he is his own God, a world where his desires rule him, where pleasure is his prison, and all good things are grim. He knows that he was created for better things, but his desires for his vices keep him from them.

So his solace is his fame. His salvation is attention. Which is what explains these deeply personal struggles playing in the ears of millions of fans rather than the ears of a close friend or confidant. The dark irony of The Beautiful and the Damned is that Gerald’s confession to these vices simultaneously perpetuates the very system that enable them. As long as G-Eazy lives, Gerald will continue to die from his vices. Thus the song itself while clothed in authentic confession betrays a truth that Gerald is not yet ready to confess. G-Eazy does not exist. There is only Gerald Gillum.

Only Gerald Gillum is trapped. He cannot live up to the law that he should be a better guy, a better artist, a better person than he is. It plagues him with anxiety and insecurity – “thinking too much like you usually do”

Now this problem is not unique to Gerald Gillum. Hundreds of years before Gerald Gillum, another introspective writer tackled this tension with a stunning solution.

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. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

I don’t know if Gerald has ever read the Bible (this passage is from the book of Romans). If he hasn’t, I’d love to read it with him. He seems haunted by it.

He may even find the person he is looking for.

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Over

The Aegean Sea from Rafina – My home for a night

Today my trip is over. After 3 and a half weeks, I’m returning to my homeland. Over the course of my time here I’ve:

  • Personally met people from 11 different countries
  • Traversed 3 different continents
  • Traveled between Asia and Europe 13 times (Thanks Istanbul!) 
  • Learned phrases in Turkish and Arabic
  • Stayed in 6 different homes 
  • Flew on 9 flights
  • Visited 4 sites significant to Biblical and Church history
  • Heard countless stories of God at work
  • Lost my glasses
  • Purchased Contacts in Greece 
  • Almost missed 2 flights (arrived late to the airport) 
  • Lost my water bottle
  • Saw IKEA in 3 different countries 
  • Had dinner with Beduoins
  • Ate incredible food basically everywhere. (Avoided McDonald’s like the plague) 
  • Helped cook food for ~30-40 people twice. 
  • Thought the Turkish Passport control was going to put me into custody (they took a long time to look at my passport) 
  • Delivered clothes and gifts to friends and for refugees. 
  • Taught the Bible on a sailboat. 

I am blown away. When I try to take everything in, all I can come up with is that God the Father cared for me at every turn, his Son was with me in mind and heart, and his Spirit made this trip abundantly rich. 

Thank you for following this adventure with me. Your prayers and thought were so appreciated. 

See you soon! 

To be clear, I was not almost late for this flight just voluntarily late to board. Mostly to write this post.

30 Days of Prayer for Ramadan

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A Panorama of Amman, Jordan
As I write this the local mosque in Jordan is giving a call to wake up at 3:45am.

Why you ask?

Yesterday marked the start of Ramadan, the 30 day fast in the Islamic faith. Right now people are waking up to get in food and water before the sun comes up. While the sun is up, Muslims, of which this country is comprised of nearly 98% will not eat or drink anything. I’m only here for a few days of Ramadan but the cultural significance of the holiday is striking. Public spaces and houses are decorated, drinking water in public is discouraged (in some cases illegal), and of course there are calls to prayer at 3:45 in the morning.
During the month of Ramadan, an organization has put together a prayer guide for Christians to pray for the Muslim world. Being here has sharpened my focus for the needs of the Muslim world to hear the gospel, and shown to me some of the work that God is doing among the people here. I am so excited to come back and share with you what I’ve seen and experienced here but I want to invite you to join me in prayer during the month of Ramadan for the Muslim believing world. You can visit 30daysprayer.org each day to see the guide or you can order the full PDF guide here – https://www.pray30days.org/order/

I will be flying back to the States this Wednesday and I look forward to seeing many of you soon!

Moving East

Since leaving the boat, life has moved fast. I’ve visited two cities, been through airport security more times than I want to take the time to count, and changed continents at least 10 times. 

Currently I am waiting to board a plane to visit another city, Amman Jordan. I’m moving east – Greece to Turkey to Jordan. 

Greece was an incredible experience. Turkey, a remarkable time. Amman? You have big shoes to fill. 

I plan to offer more reflections and share more stories later but for now here are some pictures from Greece and Turkey

Sails up! Had some good sailing during my time on the boat
Where class was held (and meals and snacks and studying) 
Sailing with students (From left to right: Joel, Liam, Julianne, Chelsea)
The White Tower of Thessaloniki
The main Orthodox church in Thessaloniki
Roman Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki
This inscription was found in a tunnel in Jerusalem. It was built during King Hezekiah’s reign to bring water to the city when it was being besieged by the Assyrians. (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:3-4)
I don’t know what it says. Anyone know Sumerian?
The Hagia Sofia built in 6th century to be the greatest church in the world. For 900 years it was a church and for nearly 500 years it served as a mosque. Now it is a museum.

Hagia Sofia was my favorite sight that I visited. So much church history is in Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque – Got there as prayers were starting so only saw the outside.
Coffee is a big deal in Istanbul. Even bigger perhaps than in Chicago…
Selling stuff since 1461.

Teaching on the Encounter (or Reflections on Teaching on a Sailboat)

Today the baton passed.

Eight days after arriving here, my job here is done. One of the distinctive features of Torchbearers bible schools like the Kingfisher Project is that they bring in teachers for 1-2 week intensive classes on books of the Bible, Theology, or the Christian life. So my job over the past week was to teach  the book of 1 Corinthians to 13 students living on a 90ft sailboat. Now, that job passes to Wayne Weissman, who will lead these students in studying the book of Hebrews.

As you might imagine, a 90ft sailboat was a unique context to teach. It is, as I noted during my last trip here, a unique classroom environment. Class sessions were held in the ship’s galley around two large tables. Space was tight, but this proximity aids community.  Around these two tables, we ate together, we learned together, and we shared our lives together. In this way they were not so different than tables elsewhere.

At some point, I hope to write about the genius of tables. Though humble and common, they shine as one of the most ingenious creations of the human mind. Cars and computers take the fascination of many, but it is the table that exceeds them both in terms of versatility, enduring value, and significance to the human enterprise.

Despite the peculiarity of the setting, the commonness of the tables and the task meant that for all intensive purposes, this classroom was no different than others. What was most peculiar is that rather than being a student, I was their teacher.

Youth has its advantages. They are few, but lively. In teaching the only advantage is that one often shares that youth with those being instructed. In this way rapport with students came easily, but the challenge then was to navigate the narrow channel between over-identifying with the students in our youth, and over-emphasizing my status as a teacher. Throughout this trip, I felt this tension continually; At times I felt as though I was scraping the side of over-identifying with my students. This led one student to remark,  tongue-in-cheek, that I was a “student teacher”.

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The Corinthian Canal

Given my youth, I actually found that comment to be apt. Having recently graduated from Moody Bible Institute and nearing my 25th birthday, my identity as a student lingers in my insecurity as a teacher. Before coming to teach, I felt inadequate to the task, under-qualified and under-prepared. The teachers for other weeks were seasoned bible teachers who were 20-30 years my elder. Who was I to teach the book of 1 Corinthians to these students who were so near my age?

Yet the saying held true this past week, “God does not call the equipped, he equips the called.” As it turned out, I had all that I needed to teach, having received it from from the gifting of the Holy Spirit and my education at Moody. Furthermore, throughout the week, there were times where I saw God provide insight and clarity to a passage from a student’s comment or reading through the passage once again during class. As Wayne Weissman remarked to me, “It is God who does the teaching, we are simply his instrument.”

This does not mean that my teaching was free from mistakes. Far from it. First, I did not spend nearly enough time preparing how I was going to teach the class. Part of this was due to lack of preparation, but the other part was simply inexperience. I am still learning how to teach. Though Moody did have a class on teaching the Bible specifically, that class did not prepare me to teach an intensive class like this one. Second, I had some trouble discerning what to teach from 1 Corinthians. Not every interpretive issue, nuance, or cultural detail needs to be communicated, and while I don’t believe that I made the mistake of simply communicating a commentary, there were times where I recognized that what I considered important in the passage may not have been what was important for my students to hear. In the future, I hope to be more intentional to foster discussion and dialogue in these settings in order to better involve students and get a gauge on what they need to hear.

Overall, I come away from this past week with immense gratitude. Not only did God give me an opportunity to teach his word, of itself an immense gift, but also a reminder of countless memories during my trip, a wonderful group of students who I came love during my short time, and even a few conversations that indicated that the content of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was having an impact on the minds and lives of my students.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God ~ 1 Corinthians 1:18

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Kingfisher Project Class of Spring 2017

Skopelos: Iconic Christian Community 

We arrived on Skopelos island on Friday afternoon.  It was a short sail from Skiathos to Skopelos. Skiathos is a tourist island. There is an airport and an extensive walking mall of stores and restaurants that service the sizable tourist population that comes from all over Europe. One of my students remarked thst they heard more English than Greek here. 

Skopelos on the other hand is quieter, more scenic, and more of a local destination. Most of my last visit to Skopelos was spent on a beach because I had sprained my foot on Skiathos so I was looking forward to getting to see more of the island. The movie Mamma Mia! was filmed here which means that at times being on Skopelos feels like being in a movie. 

(It is a near requirement that students watch the movie before arrival. I already had fulfilled the requirement)

On Saturday, the students had a free day which also gave me the opportunity to explore Skopelos. Most of my students went to a beach, but I decided to set out alone and hike into the hills surrounding Skopelos port. 

Leaving the road, I found a trail that weaved through the hills and took me to a few Eastern Orthodox monasteries. The first two looked closed, but I was able to enter the third. 

This monastery, Padromos, sat atop a hill overlooking the ocean. Initially I was uncertain whether I could enter, but I did. There I met the monk who lived there. 

 He invited me to enter the church, which though simple for an Orthodox chapel, it was still quite ornate in comparison to my American utilitarian sensibilities. Though the Eastern Orthodox ways of worship are still quite foreign to me,  I could not but reflect on the Gospel as I saw the various icons and images of Christ. 

Leaving the chapel, I struck up a conversation with the monk in residence. He lived there alone, but told me that the monastery had once served nuns rather than monks. This was his 10th year living as a monk but had only been living there for about a year. 

I found out in the course of our conversation that he was also an iconographer. This must be a common vocation for monks as there is no deficit of icons for sale in Greece. Given that I had recently read a paper by a friend of mine on the Orthodox and icons, this was particularly interesting to me. 

Creating icons in Eastern Orthodox thought, so I am told, is part close obedience to the tradition and part the individual expression of that tradition. It is not the creation of art, per se, but the portrayal of metaphysical realities that mediate the presence of those represented. 

I am not so mystical as the Orthodox. Yet still the beauty of these representations and the people represented were beneficial as a reminder of the Gospel mystery of Christ’s Incarnation. They exist because Christ in the flesh exists. 

After leaving the monastery, I spent the hike down reflecting on the past couple of years. The past couple years have been rich in blessing not least of these being the presence of Christ through my church community in Hyde Park. 

This perhaps is the reason that I am not so mystical as the Orthodox. The representation of Christ and the saints in my life is primarily in the local church-the brothers and sisters, mothers, and fathers that I have at Holy Trinity Church-Hyde Park. It is through these rich relationships of love and accountability in the regular rhythms of common worship and devotion to the Word that I have experienced Jesus Christ in ordinary daily life. 

This is a timely reminder as I will close my time teaching 1 Corinthians over the next couple days covering Paul’s image of the church as Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12) and his exposition of love (1 Corinthians 13). These iconic passages are instrumental for understanding the meaning of the church, essential for the vitality of every Christian community, and contain good news for the whole world. 

Some of my students at a cafe on Skopelos

Skiathos: Celibacy and Marriage

Today we started discussing Paul’s sexual ethic in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7. In my preparation for this section I returned to a book that I read for a class at Moody on Biblical Pespectives on Human Sexuality entitled Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West. It is a summary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Theology of the Body. 

(Before anyone makes any comments about my “closet papism” note that I read this for a class at Moody Bible Institute – hardly a bastion of Catholic thought) 

Here is an excerpt I found helpful from the book related to what Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 7:

The difference between marriage and celibacy must never be understood as the difference between having a “legitimate” outlet for sexual lust on the one hand and having to repress it on the other. Christ calls everyone—no matter his or her particular vocation—to experience redemption from the domination of lust.

Today we sailed into Skiathos which is a popular island destination in the Aegean. Tomorrow we will sail onto Skopelos island and spend a couple of days there. 

Καλησπερα!