Jan 29, 2020

In Good Faith: Star Struck

In my monthly In Good Faith column, I write about meeting a legend and the ensuing awkwardness. Yet being star struck, from a theological perspective, is a good and holy posture.

Star Struck

Have you ever been star struck? I remember one year when I was a kid, my father took meto Carnegie Hall for a concert featuring a narration by the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame first baseman Willie Stargell. Being in the music business himself, he knew the conductor and I went that evening with the promise, or at least the hope, that I’d be able to go backstage afterwards to meet this baseball legend. 

I lived for baseball back then. I knew all the stats and all the players’ uniform numbers.
Being from Baltimore, I certainly wasn’t a Pirates fan, a team that had beaten the Orioles in the World Series twice in the 1970s.

But still, I was so excited to meet a true superstar, and I even brought one of Willie Stargell’s baseball cards, hoping that he might sign it. My brother still laughs at the sight of me standing before this giant of a man, staring up with eyes wide open, haltingly asking “Mr. Stargell” to please sign an autograph, and then watching me drop the card, not once but twice. He graciously signed it for me, but from a dignity standpoint, this was not my finest hour. 

The reality is, I was star struck. Meeting a literally larger-than-life sports hero got me all twisted up. It was exciting and thrilling and nerve-racking and reduced me to a tongue-tied little kid. Which, in fairness, I was. 

For Christians who follow the liturgical calendar — which orders the holy days and seasons of the church year — we’re in the Season after Epiphany. And at one level, this whole season is about being star struck. On the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), the Magi are quite literally star struck as they follow Star of Bethlehem. Their journey is driven by a deep yearning to be in the presence of God, which comes to fulfillment upon their arrival at the manger. 

In this sense, being star struck is something to be embraced and encouraged. Rather than embarrassment and shame, it brings hope and solace, meaning and wholeness. Sometimes we meet God awkwardly or with hesitation. But God doesn’t care about how we present ourselves, just that we do. So allow yourself to be star struck, and know that what really matters is that you’re simply responding to a deep yearning in your soul. 

The piece Willie Stargell narrated that day was a newly commissioned work by an African-American composer named Joseph Schwanter titled “New Morning for the World.” It blended orchestral music with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. Combined with Stargell’s voice and presence, it was a powerful piece that was unveiled to much acclaim. Embedded within it, with the strings slowly droning, were these words from his “I Have a Dream” speech:

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God's children. We cannot walk alone. As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The possibilities are limitless when we allow ourselves to be star struck by the divine.

Jan 8, 2020

In Good Faith: New Year's Dissolutions

In my January In Good Faith column, I admit to failing pretty much every New Year's tradition. I think I'll be okay.


New Year’s Dissolutions

I didn’t make it to midnight on New Year’s Eve. Well, I guess technically I did since I didn’t
actually fall asleep until after midnight. But I was in bed with the lights out when the clock (that I didn’t hear) struck the New Year. 

Over the years, I’ve come to recognize that the arrival of the New Year isn’t dependent upon my staying awake to ring it in. Whether or not I’m awake at the stroke of midnight, the New Year still arrives. And that’s rather freeing! Despite the more-than-you’d-think e-mails mistakenly addressed to me as “Father Time,” I bear no responsibility for the transition from one year to the next.

I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year. This isn’t unusual for me, as I can’t remember the last time I did. I can get all philosophical (“time is a false construct”) or delude myself into thinking that, to channel Mr. Rogers, I’m fine just the way I am. While my wife and brother have made a pact to give up sugar, I just couldn’t come up with anything. Despite all the “New Year! New You!” ads for gyms and hair care products, I’m pretty sure God still loves the old me.

This week a friend forwarded me an article about a Lutheran pastor from Canada with the headline “Meet the Strongest Priest in the World.” Apparently the Rev. Kevin Fast, who bears a strong resemblance to a jacked up Santa Claus, pulled three firetrucks weighing 109 tons across a 100 foot parking lot in just 34 seconds. He’s also on record (with video evidence!) as having pulled 15 cars at once. 

All of which is to say, I could resolve to double my efforts at the gym. Pastor Fast — maybe I could, ironically enough, outrun him? — makes my exploits on the StairMaster at Planet Fitness seem rather pedestrian.

I didn’t eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. This brings good luck, apparently. Black-eyed peas weren’t part of my tradition growing up — or maybe my parents just decided to take their chances. But either way, seeing all those Facebook posts of people preparing black-eyed peas for their New Year’s Day celebrations makes me wonder what I’m missing and how luckier I’d be if I’d partaken.

There’s evidence that the tradition goes back to Rosh Hashanah and the celebration of the Jewish New Year, but these days it’s mostly a Southern thing. In the Civil War era, black-eyed peas were grown as food for livestock and became a staple of slaves. When General Sherman undertook his infamous March to the Sea, he destroyed all the crops deemed useful to the Confederate Army. He ignored the black-eyed peas, figuring they weren’t fit for human consumption. Those left in the South gratefully subsisted on the peas and ever since they have been viewed as a symbol of luck and prosperity, particularly fit for a celebration of the New Year. 

So while 2020 begins for me with many unrealized traditions, I am nonetheless optimistic. Hindsight may indeed be 2020, but I pray that we will have the foresight to live into the future with peace, hope, and love. In the end, that’s really all that matters.

Jan 6, 2020

On the Epiphany (and the "real" reasons the Magi were late)

On the Feast of the Epiphany, marked throughout the world on January 6, we celebrate the
arrival of the Magi (aka The Three Kings) to the manger, bearing their not-so-practical baby gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh**. You can read the story from Matthew's gospel here.

There are some wonderful traditions surrounding Epiphany, including the King Cake with good fortune going to the lucky person who finds the bean or plastic figurine in their slice. This practice has the added potential drama of a choking hazard. And Three Kings Day (or Día de Los Reyes) celebrations and parades break out all over the world, most especially in Spain, Latin America, and Hispanic and Latino communities.

While these are all wonderful traditions, the Three Kings weren't actually kings at all. "Wise Men" is a better translation. The word magi is a Latin version of the Greek magoi, referring to a sect of eastern holy men. (It’s where we get the word “magic”). The original Magi were a hereditary priesthood of the Medes (present day Kurds). Given recent world events, it's significant that the Magi were most likely from what is now Iran.

These three men, known apocryphally as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (no, their names aren’t in the Bible) were really star gazers, early astronomers perhaps. Actually we assume there were three because of the gifts mentioned in Scripture -- gold, frankincense, and myrrh -- but the Bible doesn't specify this either.

It wasn't until the third century that they started being referred to as "kings" and their apocryphal names didn't emerge until the sixth century.

None of this takes away from this day Orthodox Christians call the Theophany ("God shining

forth"). Wise Men, kings, whatever. The key thing is that they were Gentiles -- non-Jews -- and thus they stand as symbols that embedded in the Incarnation was an offer of salvation freely offered to all people. And so the journey of the Magi itself is symbolic of God’s wide and all-encompassing embrace.

Despite the fact that they wind up in most every Christmas pageant you’ve ever seen, they didn’t arrive until 12 days after the birth of Jesus (or up to two years later if you listen to some scholars). 

But the question remains…what took them so long? I personally spent hours poring over primary sources at the Vatican Library and uncovered the “real” reasons the Magi were late. And so, I offer you a subset of Epiphany devotions known as Epiphany humor. I'm pretty sure this will really take off this year.

The "Real" Reasons the Magi were Late

1. During what started out as a friendly roadside game of checkers, Caspar kept yelling “King me!” at inappropriate moments. This quickly got old.

2. The holiday traffic on the way into Bethlehem was dreadful.

3. At a certain point, singing “We three kings of Orient are” over and over again sapped everyone’s will to live.

4. The Star of Bethlehem (the original GPS) kept saying “recalculating” and they found themselves in a sketchy part of town.

5. Melchior drank way too much water at the first oasis which meant an extra long stop at Star Market.

6. Untying fancy sandals to go through the TSA checkpoint took a long time. Retying them took forever.

7. No one wanted to be “that guy” who showed up with myrrh. There was debate over who touched their nose last in the Not It game.

8. Stopping at the Holiday Inn slowed them down because, in a precursor to the “War on Christmas,” Balthazar kept insisting the name should be changed to “Christmas Inn.”

9. “I told you that stop at Herod’s house was a waste of time.”

10. They took a vote and decided to take their sweet time getting to the manger so they would have a day all to themselves on the Church calendar.

** Oh, and about those baby gifts? Of course they are symbolic rather than practical (I'm sure Mary would have preferred a diaper genie, wipes, and a bunch of burp cloths). 

Gold was a gift fit for a king. The Magi recognized Christ as king and this gift acknowledges his royal birth. Frankincense was burned in religious services as a symbol of prayer. The Psalmist wrote, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” And so Christ’s priestly realm is acknowledged. And then there’s myrrh. Myrrh was an aromatic embalming oil which foreshadows Christ’s death and points to his role as savior of the world. So in these gifts we see Christ as king, priest, and savior. 

Dec 16, 2019

Christmas Blend Controversy!

After last week's Monday Coffee Adventure found me drinking Vietnamese Weasel Poop Coffee,
today I travel to a tiny monastery on the Puget Sound, site of the greatest David vs. Goliath coffee story of all time.

I'll get to that in a moment, but first a word about the All-Merciful Saviour Orthodox Monastery and its holy roaster, Father Tryphon. This Russian Orthodox monastery was established in 1986 and sits on Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle. While it is a contemplative order, they do welcome visitors and have guest accommodations for those seeking to make a pilgrimage. And when I say it's small, I'm not kidding. There are five monks.

According to the bag of coffee (a sample of which was generously shared with me by a parishioner named Cathy Torrey), Father Tryphon discovered the joys of finely roasted coffee while attending graduate school in Berkeley. After joining the monastery and learning to roast coffee himself, he decided to market Monastery Blend Coffee as a fundraiser for the order.

But on to the controversy! (which I write about in Holy Grounds)

Father Tryphon
We've all heard about the ridiculous Starbucks red cup debacle and the fake "war on Christmas" that conservative pundits love to trot out as evidence of the fall of the Western World. But this wasn't the first Christmas coffee controversy involving Starbucks.

In 1997 attorneys for Starbucks contacted the abbot of All-Merciful Saviour with a cease and desist order. The problem? Father Tryphon's Christmas Blend Coffee.

No, this had nothing to do with the fact that it really should be called Advent Blend Coffee, if you're drinking it before December 25th. You see, Starbucks also had a Christmas Blend Coffee and had recently trademarked the term.

Once the David and Goliath story hit the national news, Starbucks backed off, rightly seeing a publicity nightmare in the offing. Thus, you can still purchase Father Tryphon's Christmas Blend from October through December.

As for the coffee itself? If you like darkly roasted coffee, typical of the West Coast roasting style, you'll love it. I'm more of a medium to light roast guy because I love the subtlety of specialty coffee. But even I enjoyed drinking a cup of monastery dark roast since it, in some small way, allowed me to stick it to The Man.

Dec 9, 2019

The Joys of Weasel Poop Coffee

I spent Monday morning drinking "Weasel coffee." Well, that's what they call it in Vietnam, 
the rough English translation of cà phê Chồn.

The more formal name is Kopi luwak, or civet coffee. It's one of the world's rarest and thus expensive coffees. I mention it in Holy Grounds, my book on coffee and faith, but never had the opportunity to try it. Until this morning. 

Two dear parishioners of mine recently returned from a trip to Vietnam and handed me a small package just before yesterday morning's 8 o'clock service. Frankly, it was even more challenging to say phrases like "innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same" knowing I had some elusive weasel coffee waiting for me in my office. 

What makes civet coffee so coveted? In a nutshell: weasel poop. You see, the Asian palm civet loves to eat coffee cherries. But they can't digest the seeds, or what we know as coffee beans. Rather than the normal process of separating the beans from the cherries -- either drying them on beds or running them through tanks of water -- fermentation occurs as they pass through the civet's intestines. After the beans are pooped out, they are then collected. 

One of the things that makes this coffee special is that civets are selective in which cherries they consume. They only eat the ripe ones, which is the key to harvesting good coffee. And the story surrounding its discovery is an interesting one. It's said that when Indonesia was under Dutch colonial control, the native farmers were forbidden from harvesting coffee for their own use -- it was seen as a form of financial theft. They noticed the indigenous civets would eat the coffee and then leave beans in their poop. They started collecting them and roasting them, finding the coffee was much better than that which was commercially harvested.

Now, I should mention that there is a darker side to this entire process. As the coffee has become more popular, ethical concerns have been raised by animal activists. Many producers keep civets in cages, force-feeding them coffee cherries. Not exactly in keeping with the vision of civets in the wild enjoying breakfast before their mid-morning poop.

Alas, I'm not sure how my weasel coffee was produced -- I can't read the label. But I'm grateful for the opportunity to try this mythical coffee and if you're interested, there are companies out there that sell certified wild luwak coffee.

But how did it taste? A lot of coffee experts feel it's among the most overrated coffees out there, at least for the price. I found it to be very smooth, which is one of the oft-cited characteristics of kopi luwak coffee, with a sweet and citrusy flavor. 

The only real ethical dilemma remaining, is whether to give some to Bryna BEFORE telling her how it was produced. Something tells me this wouldn't go over well...