Coffee and Faith – You Just Don’t Care Enough

I am a coffee snob, but I have good reason.  I have been cupping coffee for websites and coffee distributors since high school. It started at a little cafe in Glendale, Arizona, where the owner would cup coffees on Thursday afternoons, usually all from the same region.  Once you can taste the glorious wonders of difference between an Ethiopian Harar and a Yirgacheffe, you are doomed to a life of wondering if this came from a can.

My girlfriend’s dad was offended that I wouldn’t drink his canned coffee, even though he knew that I drank coffee all the time and hung out at coffee shops.  All it took was one french press of a fresh Kenyan coffee, and he was off to the races.  Soon he was buying straight bags from Costa Rica and giving me my own home roasting kit for Christmas.  I started cupping for his local green coffee bean company, then he bought the company, and now years later my dad owns it.  So I have been tasting, describing, and rating coffees for two decades.

When my wife and I got married, she was frustrated that though I owned 18 methods of brewing coffee beans into a cup of coffee, I didn’t have a regular drip machine.  Between that cafe and marriage, I was ordained (as a Baptist minister and later as an Episcopal priest), and spent the same time in churches and dioceses working.  I have been in hundreds of churches over the last twenty years, in addition to growing up in Southern Baptist churches and visiting with friends.

So, this all leads to one overwhelming question:  Why does church coffee suck so much?

Think about it for a moment, especially if you are clergy or a committed church member.  Why would we serve absolute crap in a cup, knowing that it is terrible?  Why would this crap in a can be normal?

I mean, I could point to any number of ways that church communities suck.  There is abuse and hypocrisy, there is bad music and abysmal theology.  I can tolerate all of those.  I am an Episcopalian after all.  But why bad coffee?

Consider the poor visitor, the family member or young date who gets dragged into your church community for the first time.  They are up earlier than normal to go to a strange place full of strange people who are going to notice that they are there.  (We will leave it at that since the range of responses to a visitor ranges from overwhelming joy and neediness to disdain and even fear.  We may hope for a simple friendly greeting, open welcome and offer of help, but   . . . )  They get dressed to be there and put up with a completely foreign experience for most modern people, a community singing and listening to readings, lecture, and prayers, much less communion.  They are in completely foreign territory.  And then they spot the sweet comfort of a cup of coffee, usually left self-service on a folding table, like we are all in AA.  The comfort, the familiarity, the simple hospitality of a cup of coffee dissolves as the smell reaches the nose milliseconds before the flavor invades the tongue.

It is the stench of sloth.  It is the odor of carelessness.  Like the old sock smell of an unclean locker room at a gym.  Like the dirty smell of pee in a unclean truckstop bathroom.  Like the distinctive smell of cat in your crazy aunt’s house.  It tells you that this place does not care for you.  That it is even possibly unsafe.

It says, You are not welcome.

The thing is, we would never make this stuff for ourselves.  We would not boil coffee in a giant old stained percolator and drink it out of a toxic styrofoam cup.  We would not set a coffee service on the counter at a dinner party and tell people to get their own, at least not if we were hosting strangers.

See, that is the thing.  Bad coffee says, This is for us, and we don’t care.  Our architecture often says that in our gathering spaces.  Our bulletins often say that.  Our insider language sometimes says that.  Our prayers may say that too.  But the cup of coffee feels personal, like an slap instead of a handshake.

I walked into a church one time that knew I was coming in the Bay Area and was told no less than four times in the service and on paper and in greeting that I was welcomed.  But the bulletin’s insider language and the lack of invitation to the coffee hour said otherwise.  The rector’s turning aside to talk to someone else without a greeting or smile said otherwise.  But it was the horrid coffee from a giant pot on a little table on the side of the room where I was being ignored at the coffee hour that really conveyed that the Rule of God did not Rule here.  This was their place, and they were fine without me, thank me very much.

I am sure they didn’t notice when I left.

On the other hand, I was greeted at another church in the same town coming in the door early by a warm cup of really good Sumatran coffee, that was a little burnt even for a Sumatran coffee, but was handed to me by a member who showed me around and invited me to leave my cup outside the sanctuary.  I went back frequently to Saint James and later served there.  I would have joined Saint Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco just for the care of the coffee hour that always appeared like a magic trick at the end of the Eucharist.  They never left any doubt that you were welcomed.

These weren’t cafe coffees.  They were small estate lot coffees brewed by the cup from a V60 pourover.   They weren’t French or Italian.  They were just signs of a welcome that was more than a line in a bulletin and a muttering at the Peace.

Good coffee is normal these days.  When someone is coming over, we prepare.  We makes sure to have good coffee to serve.  Sure there is decaf, and you could get all Anglican and serve tea.  But we show who matters in how we prepare for them.

Jesus is coming again, we proclaim every week in a thousand ways.  We believe he will come in some amazing way, and maybe he will, only the Father knows.  But I would just hate for Jesus to show up and have to search for a toxic cup of sludge on a folding table in the secret coffee hour.

I can only imagine how rough his reaction would be.  Do you remember the cleansing of the temple?  I doubt he would just walk out.

So look, get a Bunn or clean your old one.  Buy decent coffee, at least what you would serve, and prepare for the day of the Lord.

*The image above is from our family photo album of our summer in the United Kingdom found here.

Why Study Theology as a non-Specialist?

Theology is not popular.  It is not a subject that elicits dinner invitations and offers for a beer, at least not outside of my circle of pastor and theologian friends.  I was called a god-geek once by a friend, and I was devastated.  I really thought everyone cared about third century christological statements.  I was wrong.

But you should care about theology; you have one.  A theology is a framework of information or a lens that you wear.  You may not think too much about it, but you already see the world through a framework or lens that has God on it.  The word “theology” means “thoughts about God” or “logic or structure about God.”  Logos is one of those helpful words to know.  It gets interpreted as “Word” in the beginning of the Gospel of John, but it means something much larger.  It is a big idea, an organizing principle, an order, a way of being or understanding.  The world is ordered and understood through this “word.”

A brilliant physicist and friend, also poet, philosopher, and theologian in his own right, Ke Chiang Hsieh, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Arizona, gave me a gift of calligraphy.  After a sermon in which I compared the concept of the logos to the tau, he wrote out the first verses of the Way of Chuang Te with the word logos in the place of the word tau in Chinese.  It is the way that makes the walker.

An example is coffee to the connoisseur.  The connoisseur loves coffee, to the point that he understands the world through it.  He learns to drink wine by cupping coffee, to understand terroir by how understanding how different plants in the environment and procedures of processing affect the final cup.  He thinks of the church in terms of the cafe.  He thinks of mission in the church . . . You get the idea.  Everything gets filtered through the lens of the one thing.  That thing is a logos.  It is a word, “coffee”, but it is also a way of ordering and understanding the world.

So theology is essentially seeing the world through one word, in this case, God.  In particular for Christians, God as revealed in Christ and made manifest in the Holy Spirit through the stories and writings, histories, poetries, and letters of the Bible.

So why work at theology if is such a natural thing? You already see the world through a God lens right now.  The problem is that our lenses get easily distorted by events and natural wear and habits.

For example, God is often understood as “father.”  This is true of our teachings from Jesus, but even more so just naturally in a world where fathers have often been in charge and the title is used for the ones who are influential.  It was true in Jesus’ day.  When a father-figure fails, especially our biological father, it usually distorts our image of God, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically.  To do a little theological work to separate our image of God from our experience of fathers is to delve deeply into the multi-faceted importance of theology.  We may still use the image of father as a way of talking about God, but not use Father as a proxy for God.  Or we may have to say we cannot use that image anymore.  We could spend years on this one topic.

There is a natural wear and tear to the lenses that we have.  I am a runner and a physical person.  I think about running, I obsess about my next pair of shoes, I plan runs.  I have opinions.  Those thoughts, obsessions, and opinions about running may seem unrelated to my thoughts about God, but they wear away at my theology.  I see God through my running too, and as my running self gets beat up or more in shape, my running thinking is changed, and that can wear on my vision of God.  I have gotten in better shape over the last ten years, and it would be easy to say that God is in getting in better shape because I have an easier time seeing God when I am not struggling with my body.  Or worse, I can let my being in shape be an idol to replace God.  I can let having better abs become more important than seeking the Rule of God.  In every case, it is theological work to separate and see clearly, then speak clearly a word about God that is more true.

Finally opinions.  I have opinions about lots of things.  My teacher when I was young used to say, Your recognition of the essential nature of the universe does not change the universe or its essential nature.  You ability to name the tau does not change the path, only your ability to walk it and enjoy the journey.  My opinions do not change things.  They are important to recognize, but they are not the thing itself or even reflective of it.  They are rarely really important.  The buddha would call them suffering, and these days I mostly agree.  Jesus would say, Do not judge, and I am trying more and more to submit.  Theology is not about having more opinions.

We learn theology.  In Owen C. Thomas’s and Ellen K. Wondra’s Introduction to Theology they begin the first page with a reminder than in the Anglican tradition, the Christian tradition, theology is about the Bible and the actual story and history and writings of the Hebrew and Christ-following people of God.  We are people of a way, and we are trying to name the way.  Ultimately all words about God fail, more surely than my words about my wife fall short of one smile from her.

But we do theology so that we can see clearly and speak clearly and walk the path with less stumbling.  I am deeply indebted to teachers and writers, pilgrims, travelers, and saints who have walked the way before me and left signs and markers, creeds and writings, that keep me on the way to the Rule of God.

That is the landscape we travel in and our hope, is it not?  To live in the Rule and Reign of God, the God revealed in Jesus to be love and shalom and justice.  To speak of that home that is our home and is not yet our home?

I love theology like I love poetry.  They both teach me what can be said in the space between our beautiful utterances show me glimpses of the places where others have been, where I have been, and where we can go.

A Coffee Connoisseur (Snob) Thinks about Creation and Creativity

So two weeks ago I was drinking a freshly roasted, and dark enough for a change on my small roaster, Sumatra Mandehling from a Chemex filter in a Hario v60 pour-over filter holder.  It was good but really overly refined for a Sumatra coffee.

You see, Sumatra coffees are famously funky; grown on volcanic soil and notoriously poorly sorted has meant that for more than twenty years there has been a sort of typical Sumatran flavor that was reliable crop to crop.  Some of that was due to, of course, to the unique growing conditions of the tropical South Pacific Island and its volcanic soil.  But, a great deal of the earthy and unpredictably unstable quality was due to the coffee being mostly grown and picked on small family lots or yards and poorly picked through leading to a diverse lot of beans that varied in color, size, and density.

These days, a lot has changed.  Twenty or more years of success in the market has meant that Sumatra has better coffee growing conditions, better pay to farmers, and more strict quality control measures than twenty years ago when I first had a cup of coffee that was single origin designated.

That cup was darker, more uneven, and had a wild quality that took that funk that I would describe as orange clay earthiness and layered in complexity with bright overtones and periodic notes of white orchid aromas and pungent citrus that was just short of the sharp smack in the face of grapefruit.  The overall quality was wild and dark, like being chased through a dense forest by an unseen tiger.

These days Sumatran coffees are more regularized. They have a more sophisticated, straight forward predictability.  It is ecotourism compared to my fearful flight from the teeth of that clay come to life in stripes.  This is advancement.  Everyone involved is benefitting from these advancements, but I cannot help but miss that cup that first captivated and chased me two decades ago.

I have an odd memory for flavor, I guess, but this moderated coffee has reminded me of Epictetus’s maxim that you can’t step in the same river twice.  Now he had never eaten at a McDonald’s, but he lived at a time when the world was still wilder, even than now.  Though it should be noted that the trees of Greece were already being lamented by other voices.

Coffee is a fruit, an organic substance that is grown not manufactured, and it changes lot to lot, season to season.  I cannot ever have that original cup of Sumatran Mandehling, even if I could find the exact yard those beans were grown in, could process them the same way, and brewed on the same machine.  Not one stage of that hypothetical is remotely possible.

How many pursuits in life are a search for that moment when something magical happened, when the right set of circumstances came together in a perfect moment of revelation?  Life is a river that moves and dances, always with new circumstances coming upstream or down, with new growth on the banks, new animals and fish, different climate effected by volcanoes or factories a world away.  Everything moves, and the water for my coffee is not the same today either.

Life is never caught, never repeatable.  We remember but from a constantly new place.  Even our memory is created.  I am God-obsessed and think God must be a weaver at the loom of creation, moving the shuttle of this moment across billions upon billions of threads, pulling together themes and re-tying broken or lost or ended lines.  Every single moment the coming together of a universe in a verse of the song of creation, a line in the poem of making.

This cup of coffee is a new thing, a taste of the creation coming together from several places in the world all at once.  Water from a cold Great Lake watershed, beans from a yard turned field on a tropical volcano side, gathered by locals and sold to a processor from Milwaukee who wanted to do good, who shipped by way of a freighter from Norway whose Chinese captain now claims Canada or Oakland as home, delivered by American men of so many descents they are a confusion of history to my father’s warehouse in Mississippi, where I bagged them up myself, unaware of how much of the world went into that bag of burlap.

Yes, I roasted them at home on a small roaster that it takes forever to get up to heat in our midwestern fall as the snow drifts over my green yard for the first time this year, and I recalled that first cup of Sumatran coffee I ever had two decades ago.

Dear reader, I hope you are a creator.  We are children of the God of the Loom, makers and creative caretakers of the world.  You were designed to work the loom of creation, bringing together threads and themes in new and fascinating ways, whether you are making a cup of coffee or teaching children or running an office or painting a landscape.

You are a maker.  Creation is the work of weaving the threads of the existing world and its constant changes and movements into new moments of creativity.  A businessman looks at the people in his office and, knowing them, weaves a marketing plan that utilizes their unique skills and abilities and personalities to enable clients to reach potentials that would be impossible without his imagination and prophecy.  A craftswoman takes a file to a rough metal housing and shapes the sounds of a concert pianist fingers from force to force of sound through miles of metal cord.  What will you do with the raw clay before you? What breath will you breathe into creation?  You have been given the breath of God at your making, O little creator, O child of God.

Make something new.

Taste and see that the LORD is good. Psalm 34:8

*Take a look at our family business.   Coffee Bean Corral:  You can find Sumatra coffee and all the stuff a maker of coffee needs, including roasters there.