Apr 4, 2019

In Good Faith: Coffee Connections

My April In Good Faith column doubles as the Holy Grounds book release edition of my monthly article. Why? Because it's an excerpt. So, sit back, relax, pour yourself a nice mug of coffee, and order yourself a copy of Holy Grounds: The Surprising Connection between Coffee and Faith - From Dancing Goats to Satan's Drink (Fortress Press). Bonus: if you can't stand this excerpt, move along, save yourself a few bucks, and make a nice cup of tea instead. 

Coffee Connections

When it comes to coffee, I’m a late adopter. While my college fraternity brothers tossed back
herculean quantities during late-night study sessions, I didn’t touch the stuff. As an army officer, while members of my platoon sucked down coffee with reckless abandon, I remained an outlier. When I managed political campaigns, and coffee was the jet fuel of marathon strategy sessions, I passed. At post-church coffee hour, while everyone drank coffee and critiqued the pastor’s sermon, I drank lemonade. 
Miraculously, I also endured a coffee-drinking wife, seminary, and one child without drinking coffee. The combination of two children under the age of two and full-time work in parish ministry, however, put me over the edge. And once I slipped down the rabbit hole of coffee consumption, a journey of discovery emerged that continues to unfold. 
Coffee often evokes the power of connection through personal narrative. Ask anyone when they first discovered the joys of coffee and prepare to be regaled with glimpses into their life story. Coffee can serve as an entry point into interpersonal relationships and shed light upon a person’s values and most deeply held beliefs. In answering the simple question “When did you become a coffee drinker?” a person shares much of their life journey. 
My parents began every day with freshly brewed coffee. While most Americans still scooped pre-ground coffee out of giant tin cans, they sought out whole-bean coffee from rare specialty shops. The sound of the grinder and the irresistible aroma of coffee in my own kitchen always remind me of the comforts and simplicities of childhood. 
One of my earliest memories of coffee revolves around my late father, a symphony orchestra conductor. He had a special relationship with the owner of the local coffee shop in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood and I often accompanied him on his excursions to what was then a rather seedy side of town and is now one of Baltimore’s hippest areas, chock full of trendy restaurants and coffeehouses. 
At the Coffee Mill, a dazzling variety of whole-bean coffees sat in plastic bins with big scoops while the aroma overwhelmed the senses. Customers shoveled beans into bags, then brought them to the counter for weighing. The regulars, mostly men, were a mix of Baltimore’s intelligentsia, artists, and urban pioneers. It wasn’t a cafĂ©—you couldn’t actually buy a cup of coffee—but no one seemed hurried as they browsed the bins and chatted with fellow patrons. 
One year, the owner, seeking a catchy, evocative name for a new blend, gave some beans to my dad to sample, asking him to help christen the roast. Which, I recall with great pride, he did. For many years afterwards, you could still show up at the Coffee Mill and pick up a bag of Allegro con Brio. 
Allegro, an Italian word, indicates a brisk or lively tempo in musical scores. Con brio is another musical direction meaning with vigor. So I can only imagine the newly christened coffee was bright, lively, and strong. Too bad I never got to taste it before the Coffee Mill closed down, after nearly three decades, in 2003. 
My first taste of coffee came after a fancy dinner at a neighbor’s house. The Steinschneiders, an older couple with grown children, occasionally invited our young family over to sit in the dining room for a meal. Mrs. Steinschneider made a big fuss over the after-dinner coffee, and I remember drinking a bit, loaded with milk and sugar, in a china cup. 
I didn’t drink coffee again until I sidled up to the coffee pot one morning as a desperate, newly ordained cleric, dumping in an embarrassing amount of sugar and cream. Basically, my first foray into regular coffee drinking was an experience in warm coffee ice cream. As someone who now drinks his coffee the way he wears his clergy shirts—black—this admission is embarrassing. 
The point is, when we share coffee stories, we offer something of our selves in the process. Ask people you’ve known for a long time or people you’ve just met about their relationship with coffee. You may be surprised at the ensuing revelations and insights into their own life’s journeys.

Mar 8, 2019

In Good Faith: Spiritual Wallflowers

In my March In Good Faith column, I refute the notion that Christians who follow the words of Jesus are mere wallflowers, citing the example of a little-known Ugandan martyr. 

Spiritual Wallflowers

I used to dread middle school dances. The angst began with the whole decision over whether to even go or just bag the whole thing. Among my circle of friends, the conversations typically went something like this: “You know that dance is on Friday. You going?” “I don’t know, maybe. How about you?” “I’m not sure yet. Is Chris going?” “He says he’ll go if we go.” 

And so it went, until we finally decided we should go; not necessarily because we wanted to, but because it would do more harm to our social reputations not to go. 

Which, in the end, I usually ended up regretting. Why? Mostly, the awkwardness of it all; the beady little eyes of the chaperoning geometry teacher; the loud music that I wasn’t really into; the cute girl I secretly liked who someone else had the nerve to ask to dance; the self-conscious standing around with friends as we tried desperately to look like we were having fun. The technical term for our approach to the whole scene was wallflower. 

Sometimes when people hear certain phrases from Jesus, they consider Christians who embrace his teachings to be little more than wallflowers. On the surface of things, sayings such as “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, turn the other cheek,” feel like asking to be walked all over.

Because everyone knows that if you love your enemies, you’ll be exploited. If you do good to those who hate you, you’ll  be taken advantage of. If you bless those who curse you, you’ll become a laughingstock. If you pray for those who abuse you, you’ll be bullied. If you turn the other cheek, you’ll be smacked again.

Maybe Jesus is just soft. I mean, if these words were posted on Twitter, they’d be mocked and laughed at. He’d get trolled for being a snowflake. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek — that’s a recipe for losers. Everyone knows that if you really want to succeed in life, you should hate your enemies and do ill to those who hate you and curse those who curse you and abuse those who abuse you. That’s the recipe for success. Might makes right…right? 

But it is possible to change the world while following Jesus’ humble ways, even if it doesn’t necessarily lead to what many might consider “success.” As an example, I wanted to share the story of a little known Ugandan martyr named Janani Luwum. I heard his story a number of years ago and it has always stuck with me. 

Luwum was born in Uganda in 1922, briefly worked as a schoolteacher before studying divinity in London and being ordained an Anglican priest. In 1969 he was consecrated bishop of Northern Uganda, which soon after coincided with the overthrow of the government by the notorious dictator Idi Amin. You may recall hearing of the brutal era of repression and the bloodbath that ensued in this land-locked east-African country. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered for being of the wrong ethnicity or the wrong religion or simply not showing adequate allegiance to Amin.

In 1974, Luwum became Archbishop of Uganda at a time when the cauldron of tension between church and state became increasingly heated. During this period he continued to call out the human rights abuses when few dared to publicly defy Amin. The archbishop was quoted as saying, “I face daily being picked up by the soldiers. While the opportunity is there I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present Government which is utterly self-seeking. I have been threatened many times. Whenever I have the opportunity I have told the President the things the churches disapprove of.”

That is not being a wallflower. And yet it is following precisely Jesus’ counter-cultural words of love and forgiveness. Janani Luwum did not fight violence with violence, rather he fought violence with love and prayer, forgiveness and blessing. He resisted injustice, advocated for his people with fervor and compassion and called out the abuses and excesses of an oppressive and sinful regime. He died a martyr, gunned down by Amin’s henchmen for speaking truth to power. Yet his courage continues to serve as a model of hope and inspiration to Ugandans as well as to people of faith throughout the world. 

As Christians begin the introspective, penitential season of Lent, we are reminded that the way of the cross is ultimately stronger than the way of the hammer. Wherever you live out your faith this season, may you be drawn ever closer to the transformative power of love. 

Feb 7, 2019

In Good Faith: Life is Not a Highlight Reel

In my February In Good Faith column, I write about the must-see TV of sports highlight reels. These are great fun, but our lives are less highlight reels and more outtakes.

Life is Not a Highlight Reel

There’s one thing that always makes me stop and stare at the TV. It has nothing to do with
breaking news about the Mueller investigation or the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Whether I’m on the treadmill at the gym or walking past the television at home, I can’t avert my eyes when ESPN broadcasts their Top 10 Plays of the Week. 

The thrills and spills of eye-popping athletic achievement never cease to amaze. From one-handed grabs in the end zone to fence-leaping catches in center field to high-flying acrobatics above the rim, there’s a superhuman quality to these plays. They’re attention-grabbing, exciting, and I can’t stop looking until they’ve counted all the way down to the number one top play of the day, week, or year.

We’ve always been drawn to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Highlight reels get to the heart of this infatuation, without having to wade through the chaff of the rest of the game. These highly curated plays offer viewers a unique view of sports, and they’re fun to watch! But highlights also have a dark side — they distort reality.

One of the great frustrations during my many seasons of coaching little league baseball was the lack of big picture strategic awareness. This was perhaps more than could be expected from a bunch of nine-year-olds. But even the kids who were huge baseball fans were less interested in hitting the cutoff man than making the diving, highlight reel catch — even on a routine pop up in the infield. 

I blame ESPN for this — and our ever-shortening attention spans. Many kids don’t watch entire baseball games, they wait for the highlights. Why? Because that’s where the action is! Relief pitchers don’t warm up on highlight reels; the managerial strategy behind the hit-and-run is never showcased on the Top 10 Plays. So the whole “game behind the game,” which brings such joy to the viewing experience, is being lost to a whole generation of fans, regardless of sport.

But this is all just a reflection of our growing penchant for excitement. We get bored easily — with relationships, with jobs, with religion. So we switch these up with reckless abandon, expecting the next great thing will offer hope and fulfillment, which it rarely, if ever, does.  

The thing is, life is not a highlight reel. The hard work of authentic and fulfilling relationships — with friends, family, and God — takes hard work. There are many moments of the mundane, and life itself is full of ordinary time. Sitting with a grieving friend; sipping coffee alone while reflecting upon the great mysteries of life; taking a walk through town with a spouse and dreaming about the future or problem-solving how to help a child who’s struggling in school.

Of course our lives have peaks and valleys, highs and lows. But most of life is lived in the unremarkable in-between spaces that we likely won’t remember next week or next year. This doesn’t mean they are unimportant; indeed these times are the bedrock upon which most of our lives are built. Highlights are important and should rightly be celebrated. But perhaps we should place equal value on the times when life isn’t as exciting as a reverse slam dunk to win the game in overtime.

Enjoy those highlight reels. Be dazzled by them. Yell “wow!” at the top of your lungs, unless you have a sleeping baby at home or you’re in your office cubicle. But remember that there is more to life than highlights. And that’s okay.

Jan 14, 2019

Sexist Vintage Coffee Ads - Yikes!

Bryna and I are not exactly au Courant in our Netflix viewing. We recently started watching Mad Men (about a decade after it debuted) and I've become fascinated with the lives and culture of early-1960's Madison Avenue advertising executives.

The show is brilliant, from the characters to the costumes to the props, it paints a vivid picture of a very different way of life. The blatant sexism, the day drinking, the infidelity, the manipulative power of advertising  -- and we just started season two!

In light of the Me Too movement, Mad Men reminds us just how far we've come -- and how much further we need to go. The interactions between the women in the secretarial pool and the male executives; the expectations around dress and sex; the power dynamic in the home between the men who held the purse strings and the gilded indentured servitude of the female housewives. It's painful and powerful and revealing.

In the research for my forthcoming book on faith and coffee, Holy Grounds, I encountered a number of coffee ads that reflected the culture out of which they were born. I didn't write about these ads because it was out of the scope of my book, but I share them now as a glimpse into the past. When we talk about returning America back to what it once was, this emerges as a piece of that reality.

In these ads, you'll see several common themes: women are always the ones making the coffee; good coffee is used as a tool to please men; women are the ones who will do the shopping; the wise housewife is a thrifty housewife. You'll also notice the emphasis on the traditional male-female nuclear family and a decided lack of people of color.

Hold onto your coffee mugs, friends!

This ad for Chase & Sanborn has to be one of the worst ads ever produced. Nice to see a subtle quote from Scripture with the "Woe be unto you" line. Ugh.

Right. The "key to a man's heart" is richer coffee.

So many ads were marketed to the thrifty housewife, who would please her husband by saving money at the supermarket. Though it's kind of great to see a young Betty White in the ad for Luzianne Coffee.

Not an ad for coffee, but for the Silex coffee maker. If only you served better coffee, he would  actually pay attention to you.

The two ads above, highlight the real point of serving tasty coffee: pleasing your husband.

Read the copy: "Keeping a man dithering on a ladder while she makes up her mind -- women!" Yikes.

So many of the ads of this era depicted well-coiffed housewives serving coffee to men. In this case, it looks like the boss has come over to the house -- better make a good impression!

Again, the copy: "Jim says it's the biggest thing that's happened to us since the arrival of little Jim." Um...

It's so simple, even a man can make it! Notice he's even wearing his wife's apron as his friends laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Make sure to pass on the sexism from generation to generation. And of course, all of these ads were written by men.

In Good Faith: New Year, Same Old You

In my January In Good Faith column, I check in on how your New Year's Resolutions are going. I also share my thoughts on why resolutions may conflict with a healthy understanding of God's love.

New Year, Same Old You

So, how are your New Year’s resolutions going? Have you greeted 2019 with steely resolve
or have you abandoned all hope in a bitter trail of champagne-soaked tears? Perhaps it’s somewhere between these two extremes.

Or maybe, like me, you’ve avoided making New Year’s resolutions altogether. I haven’t made any in years, not because I don’t have a tremendous amount of room for improvement in my life, but because the whole operation feels like a false construct. 

The underlying assumption embedded in the drive to make New Year’s resolutions is that there is something wrong with you; that you are somehow incomplete or not reaching your full potential. This is easily solvable, but only if you lose 15 pounds or get a better job or start doing crunches every morning to unlock your six-pack abs. 

Advertisers, gym operators, and authors of self-help books love New Year’s resolutions because our collective insecurity leads to big bucks. “New Year, New You!” scream billboards and e-mail subject lines. Purchase that new red dress, sign up for a membership at Planet Fitness, or buy Dr. Oz’s latest fad diet book, and your life will be instantly transformed.

Sure, not all resolutions require an outlay of cash. You can resolve to be kinder to your co-workers or more patient with your grumpy uncle or not to be such a troll on social media. But these still assume that you are somehow irretrievably and hopelessly flawed.

From a theological perspective, this is true. We are all sinners and imperfect beings; not because we’re horrible people but because we are human. Despite our best attempts, we fall short of perfection in this life. And yet this must be balanced with the fact that we are unconditionally loved by God. That God loves us with reckless abandon not because of what we do or refrain from doing, but simply because we are beloved children of God. Too often this message gets sacrificed on the altar of self-improvement.

This isn’t to say that we can’t better ourselves or work to improve the less desirable aspects of our lives. That’s important and holy work. But we don’t hear messages affirming that we are good enough nearly as often as messages reminding us of our shortcomings. Unless you watch reruns of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and listen to him tell you how much he likes you “just the way you are,” you’re bound to have pretty low self esteem, based on the onslaught of outside messages. 

Now, if you’ve made some resolutions for the New Year, know that I’m rooting for you to stick with them. But also know that, whether or not you do, you are beloved by God. Know that God has wondrously made you as a unique being to be loved, not demeaned. And know that this truth is not dependent upon how long you can hold a plank on your yoga mat in 2019.