Dec 7, 2017

In Good Faith: Unexpected Endings

In my December In Good Faith column, I write about those insipid Hallmark Channel movies. Maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from them? Yeah probably not.

Unexpected Endings

“Whoah! I did not see that ending coming.” This is a reaction that no one has ever had while watching a Christmas movie on the Hallmark Channel. The endless loop of these seasonal movies is nothing if not formulaic. 

If you’re not familiar with the genre, every movie has several common elements. They all
star a vaguely familiar-looking actress who used to star in Full House or the Wonder Years convinced that she will, once again, be spending Christmas alone. They take place in cleverly named fictional midwestern towns like Evergreen, North Dakota or Holly, Iowa. The male love interest is a chiseled, young widower with a perky elementary school-aged daughter. There’s a kindly white-bearded grandfatherly type named Nick who works at the small town hardware store and dispenses timely life advice. The budding romance has a seemingly insurmountable obstacle — a failing family business or a job opportunity in the big city. In the end, the obstacles are overcome, the couple falls hopelessly, if unexpectedly, in love just as it begins to snow, the Christmas soundtrack crescendoes, and the credits roll. 

Hallmark Christmas movies are cheesy, predictable, and incredibly popular. Millions tune in during the weeks leading up to Christmas and for many, these movies have become an integral part of the season — at least as important as hearing an endless stream of carols in the mall or picking up a peppermint latte at Starbucks.

How do I have any clue about the plot structure of these movies, you ask? Hallmark Christmas movies are one of my wife’s seasonal guilty pleasures. She’s not addicted or anything but after a full day of work, she’ll sometimes relax by making a big bowl of popcorn and clicking over to the Hallmark Channel. I end up catching enough to predict the ending after watching for two minutes. They are that predictable.

But I think that’s the whole point. In a world full of uncertainty, people are drawn to the familiar and formulaic. There’s something comforting about knowing precisely how things will end up. Since we don’t have that luxury in our daily lives, we crave such control in other areas. Enter Hallmark who understands this at a deep and highly lucrative level. As one Hallmark executive recently put it, “We own Christmas.”

But this is where the Christmas of Hallmark and the Christmas of faith differ. People of faith are not seeking to “own” Christmas but to live Christmas. And when living Christmas, there are no formulaic endings. The Christmas of faith is about wonder and surprise and transformation. It doesn’t always go according to plan because that’s not how life works. There is pain and grief and anxiety and unmet expectations. Jesus enters the world to offer hope and light amid the dark places of our lives, not to tie everything up with a beautiful bow. 

I don’t begrudge anyone watching a Hallmark Christmas movie. Go ahead, pour some hot chocolate, put on your most comfortable PJs, and enjoy this seasonal cotton candy. But I encourage you to also embrace the comfort of the Christmas story this year. Christians draw comfort in the familiarity of Mary and Joseph and the manger and we know how the story turns out. We revel in the liturgy of Christmas, in singing the traditional hymns, in celebrating with one another. 

Yet we also know that many in our midst stand outside the warm glow of the idealized Christmas, and that God entered the world in human form to bring comfort to the lost, the lonely, and the least. This may not make for the picture-perfect, expected ending but it does add hope and meaning to the reality of the human condition.

Nov 1, 2017

In Good Faith: Day after Day

In the November edition of my In Good Faith column I write about the post-holiday blahs, the tradition of keeping vigil, and the potential for stale Halloween candy.

Day After Day

Be honest. Do you have any leftover Halloween candy or have you eaten it all by now? Your
answer likely depends on whether or not you have children in the Halloween-obsessed zone and just how stealthy you are about “reapportioning” some of the bounty.
But even for those of us who don’t get many trick-or-treaters (no sidewalk, live next door to a church) or who have children past the dress-up age, you still must be prepared. Which involves buying a few bags of your favorite candy — just in case. “Oh, rats, there’s just so much leftover candy. Well, I wouldn’t want it to go to waste…”

We don’t often think about the day after holidays. We’re big on eves, of course. Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, All Hallow’s Eve (aka Halloween — the night before All Saints’ Day). The word itself derives from “evening” and thus the evening before a big holiday is full of anticipation.

In the Christian tradition, the concept of keeping vigil the night before a major holy day runs deep. It is a time to wait, watch, prepare, and pray for the celebration that is to come. In the early church, the all-night liturgy that preceded day break on Easter morning was the most sacred ritual of the year and the Easter Vigil remains the most ancient of Christian liturgical rites. If you expand the idea, you could argue that the entire seasons of Advent and Lent are like extended “eves” before Christmas and Easter. 

Yet for as much emphasis as we have traditionally put on vigils and eves, we don’t think much about the day after a big holiday.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There is Boxing Day, which is celebrated in England, Canada, and other parts of the former British empire, on the day after Christmas. 

In the Middle Ages, it was the day when a church’s alms box was opened so the contents could be distributed to the poor. It was also traditional that servants got the day off to celebrate Christmas with their families — since they all had to work on the actual holiday itself. 

In modern America, since we don’t tend to have servants, “boxing day” might refer to either cleaning up all the boxes from the absurd over-abundance of Christmas gifts or the fights we get into with our dysfunctional families over the holidays. 

Boxing Day aside, little thought is given to the day after holidays. I know on December 26th I generally feel like I’ve been hit over the head by a giant candy cane. But that’s more a function of having led a slew of church services in the preceding 24 hours.

I do wish we collectively put at least a modicum of emphasis on the day after a major holiday. It’s probably enough to take a few minutes to pause and reflect upon the greater meaning of the day; to sit in the warm glow of shared memories for a moment; to contemplate the unique traditions inherent in our most beloved celebrations.

But all of this can wait. In the meantime, I have some candy corn to attend to. I wouldn’t want them to get stale.

Sep 28, 2017

In Good Faith: Patriotic Duty

In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about the controversy surrounding NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem and the importance of broadening the definition of patriotism.

Patriotic Duty

It was quite a weekend of football here in New England this past week. The Patriots pulled out a victory against a tough Houston Texans team in classic, last-minute Tom Brady fashion. Boston College hung valiantly with national powerhouse Clemson before being overwhelmed in the fourth quarter. 

Yet for all the action on the field, it was the conversation outside the lines that had the greatest impact. The posture of players during the singing of the National Anthem became more relevant than the final score. Kneeling or standing was subjected to greater analysis than blocking and tackling and the deep divisions within our nation were again exposed.

The emotional impact of this latest flashpoint is profound and there are few moderate voices on this issue — just log onto Twitter. The two trending hashtags #TakeAKnee and #StandUp point to just how polarizing this issue has become. The players who have chosen to kneel during the anthem — predominantly though not exclusively African-American — are either vilified as “whiny, millionaire athletes, disrespecting our nation” or celebrated as “prophetic voices fighting against injustice.” As with many divisive issues, where you stand depends on where you sit.

As someone who spends a lot of time both kneeling before an altar and standing behind one, I feel attuned to the rhythm of honor, sacrifice, service, and respect. Yes, as a Christian, my allegiance is ultimately pledged to the cross, but I understand the emotions surrounding loyalty and community.

What I don’t understand is how patriotism has somehow become the exclusive domain of the military. This is so often the response from people incensed at players taking a knee during the anthem — that to do so is a direct slap at our country’s soldiers. Serving one’s country through the armed forces is absolutely a patriotic act. I am thankful for those who have served, those who are serving, and those who have lost their lives in defense of this nation. They are indeed patriots.

Yet what gets lost in this perspective is forgetting that protest is also a form of patriotism. Rosa Parks sitting down on that bus in Montgomery is as patriotic an act as soldiers storming Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. 

We may not be able to solve the deep divisions in our country overnight but maybe we can work together to broaden the definition of patriotism. I’m convinced that patriotism transcends posture. So while it is patriotic to enlist in the armed forces, it is also patriotic to volunteer at a local food pantry; or have a heartfelt, honest conversation with someone who holds a divergent viewpoint; or donate money to support hurricane relief; or listen to the concerns of those crying out for racial justice.

One of the main reasons I served in the Army was to defend everyone’s right to voice their opinion — whether or not I agreed with it. That’s the Constitution I vowed to defend and that’s the America I dream about. What makes America great is our openness to debate and difference — not blind allegiance or a disregard for those who don’t look or think like us. 

Patriotism, like much of life, is not always so black and white. It’s not just a matter of loving it or leaving it; of standing or kneeling. There are shades of gray in the complex society in which we live and recognizing that patriotism comes in many forms is one way we can authentically honor America.

In Good Faith: Leaving the Nest

In my September In Good Faith column (which I forgot to post until now!) I wrote about the emotions surrounding dropping your first child off at college.

Leaving the Nest

Sending your eldest child off to college unearths a swirl of emotions. Like pull-out-a-
thesaurus-because-you’re-running-out-of-names-for-them-all emotions. It’s not as if we didn’t see this coming; in a sense you prepare for this day from the moment they’re born. But it’s still a shock to the system that is the family dynamic.

We dropped Ben off at college last week and it was a strange combination of elation, pride, anxiety, melancholy, excitement, and the feeling that we’d just lost a limb. He’s ready, we’re ready, and yet this changes everything. And nothing. He will grow and evolve and become more of the person he was created to be and through it all, we will continue to love him and support him in ways visible and invisible.

Still, I’m not exactly sure what to expect in all this which is why I suddenly look to empty nesters and partial empty nesters (is there even a word for this in-between stage?) as my own personal gurus. I approach them with a certain reverence as I humbly seek counsel on what it’s like “on the other side.” 

Most tell me it’s hard; very hard. But that it gets easier over time and by October we should be fine. This sounds like much the way humans react to change generally, with an initial period of bewilderment and emotional chaos followed by acceptance and recaptured joy.

I do know there will be a big void at home. I’ll miss Ben’s wry sense of humor and his ability to reach things out of the tallest shelves in the kitchen cabinets. I’ll miss shooting hoops in the driveway and cheering on our Ravens together on Sunday afternoons — sorry Patriots fans.

I’m pretty sure I’ll even pine for the things that used to drive me crazy — like using eight water glasses per day when one would suffice and seeing them strewn all over the house; grabbing a fresh towel for every shower like he was living at the Ritz-Carleton; banging around the kitchen foraging for food at midnight on a Saturday night when I have to be up early to lead Sunday morning services.

I’d like to think we’re going into this new reality with our eyes at least partially open. My wife and I got the message loud and clear at orientation that helicoptering parents were not welcome. Although the school is only an hour away, it’s not as if I was planning to show up for an early Saturday morning breakfast with Ben every weekend. Or that I’d start arguing with his professors to up his grade half a point in Intro to Psych. It’s his life now and while that reality is a tad disconcerting, the growth potential is limitless. Which makes the whole experience, fraught with anxiety though it may be, worth it.

Anyway, at least we weren’t like the parent at orientation who asked the academic dean whether students were allowed to leave campus without permission. Um, we’re not sending them off to prison, for God’s sake. And, ready or not, they are all adults.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to resist the urge to text him every day. See you at Thanksgiving, Ben!

Aug 7, 2017

Colombian Coffee Pilgrimage

There are many reasons to visit the South American country of Colombia: the culture, the architecture, the history, the music, the food, the cocaine (just kidding). We recently returned from a family vacation to Cartagena, an ancient city on the northern coast, and while it was a magical experience in many ways, the primary draw for me was the coffee. 

Some of the world's best coffee comes from Colombia and the industry itself is ingrained in the national heritage. Colombians take tremendous pride in their global reputation for high-quality coffee beans which comes from 2.2 million acres of coffee cultivation across the highlands. What makes Colombian coffee so special? Predominantly the combination of high altitude, rich volcanic soil, and shade-grown cultivation.

One of the sad things you quickly realize in many coffee-producing nations — and Colombia is no exception — is the lack of…good coffee. It seems counterintuitive that a country that harvests some of the finest coffee on the planet would serve crappy coffee to the natives but this is often the case. The good stuff gets exported at top dollar while the mediocre to middling stuff remains in country. 

This is mostly an economic reality but it’s sad to travel to a coffee-producing Mecca and be served something you’d find at a Holiday Inn Express in Bayonne, New Jersey. Fortunately this culture is changing — or at least native specialty coffee shops that emphasize local coffee and education are becoming much more common.

In Cartagena, you can find some pretty lousy stuff that passes for coffee. It’s sold on street corners and in restaurants and cafés all over town. But the good stuff is also available if you seek it out. Which is precisely what I did thanks to the internet and coffee pilgrims who have come before me.

One of my favorite finds was the Café San Alberto, located on a side street near the Cartagena Cathedral called Calle Santos de Piedro. The coffee comes from the San Alberto farm in Buenavista in the Quindío region of Colombia, located in the central Western part of the country among the Andes Mountains.

The café was simple but well-apportioned and the barista who served me was passionate about the coffee and genuinely excited to answer my questions about the farm and the family that has owned and operated it for generations. Plus his name was Omar which, if you know your coffee history, is a fantastic name for anyone in the coffee business -- there's an apocryphal story about a Yemenese Sufi mystic healer who popularized coffee drinking in the 10th century known as Omar the Dervish.

Another coffee shop I discovered was a newly-opened café called Epoca Espresso Bar. Okay, maybe that’s not the most Spanish-sounding name and they may be catering to Western tourists but…wow. 

I tasted several coffees but the one that stood out was the San Donatto from Colombia’s Nariño region. And anyway, who doesn’t like drinking fine coffee named for a saint? Especially a 4th century Italian saint who challenged and defeated a dragon who had poisoned the local drinking well by…spitting on the dragon.

Every day I treated myself to yet another Colombian coffee experience -- sometimes alone, sometimes with Bryna or my brother Matt who was with us. I even drank coffee prepared out of a syphon for the first time (the cleanest cup of coffee you'll ever have, plus the apparatus looks like something out of Breaking Bad).

It really was a fantastic journey and I'd highly recommend a trip to Cartagena's old walled city. Very few American tourists, great coffee, and an all-around life-changing experience.

Here endeth the Trip Advisor-like blog post.