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.

Aug 5, 2017

In Good Faith: Touched by an Angel

In my August In Good Faith column, I write about angels. What are they? Who are they? And why are they often depicted as harp-playing cherubs?

Touched by an Angel

There are times in our lives when we find ourselves calling upon angels. I remember one such time in my own life quite vividly. I was a newly ordained priest in Baltimore just getting used to wearing a collar in public when I stopped by my mother’s house on the way home from church one afternoon. 

I can’t remember why I stopped by; maybe she had a gift for our two-year-old son or perhaps I was feeling guilty about not having visited lately. But she had recently adopted a small, energetic, fluffy, white dog. Along with the dog, she inherited the dog’s name — something she definitely would not have chosen. I admit I’m not a big fan of small, energetic, fluffy, white dogs but I’d forgotten all about her recent acquisition and so when I opened the door the dog ran out. And suddenly there I was on a busy city street, wearing my clerical garb and yelling, “Angel! Angel!”

After a few strange looks, I realized just how bizarre this must have looked — a priest quite literally calling upon angels. So I quickly and unceremoniously scooped the thing up and brought it back to my mother.

I thought about this story recently because we tend to have a dysfunctional, or at least an uncertain, relationship with angels. We’re not quite sure what to do with them. Are they real? Are they kind of like friendly ghosts? Why are they so often depicted as chubby cherubs with wings and golden harps flying around the clouds?

In the popular imagination they’re meant to provide comfort, I guess. People like the idea of guardian angels providing protection through the valleys of life. There’s something about being “touched by an angel” that evokes a warm, fluffy embrace, like spiritual cotton candy. And there’s a whole cottage industry of bad angelic art coupled with saccharine sweet sayings fueled by religious superstition.

But where does this notion come from? How did this whole angel-industrial complex arise? 
Well, it doesn’t come from the Bible. In Scripture, angels are many things but sweet, gentle, harmless creatures is not one of them. Angels are bold and daring; they bring messages of glad tidings and comfort but also messages that turn life as we know it upside down. They are warriors and comforters and deliverers of both good news and bad. So I want you to set aside your preconceived angel notions for a moment.

The word “angel” itself comes from the Greek word for “messenger.” And angels are, above all, just that — messengers of God. They are all over Scripture doing all sorts of things and delivering all sorts of messages — none of which involve strumming harps. In the Hebrew Bible we hear about Jacob wrestling with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok River; we hear about angels in the apocalyptic literature of the Book of Daniel encouraging Daniel during times of struggle.

And in the Christian tradition it is the angel Gabriel who brings word to Mary that she would bear God’s son; and it is Michael who fights and destroys the forces of evil in the Book of Revelation. Angels tend to Jesus after his trial and temptation in the wilderness; an angel comforts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in the hours before his crucifixion; an angel announces the Resurrection at the empty tomb on Easter morning.

These are not Hallmark moments! So where did this notion of chubby cherubs arise? In the ancient classical art of Greek and Roman mythology, flying babies represented nature spirits of some sort. Renaissance artists like Donatello and Raphael coopted these images into Christian iconography as a way to depict the transcendent balance between heaven and earth and the image stuck. For better or worse.

So the next time you watch a Christmas pageant and you see all of the adorable and proud angels strutting around in their tinsel halos trying not to get their wings entangled, enjoy the view. Then think about the angels of Scripture. And know that when we remain receptive to divine messages — no matter the medium — we are indeed in good hands.

Jul 6, 2017

In Good Faith: Message Received

In the July edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about the unique ways in which we receive messages. Sometimes even through an abandoned coffee mug left on the perimeter of a historic cemetery.

Message Received

In between the well-traveled path between my church office and my “satellite office” at Redeye Roasters coffee shop stands Hingham Cemetery. People here in town know it as a venerable, historic New England burial ground that dates to 1672. In it resides grave stones marking the final resting places of the original town fathers and mothers, two Massachusetts governors, some ancestors of Abraham Lincoln, and Sarah Derby, who founded the first coeducational school — Derby Academy — in the country.

In my frequent walks down Water Street in search of caffeine-assisted inspiration, I walk past a series of waist-high granite pillars delineating the cemetery’s side entrance. One day, I noticed  a bright blue mug on one of the posts. I didn’t think much of it other than, “That’s an odd place to leave a coffee mug.” I mean, there’s no school bus stop so it wasn’t accidentally left by a sleep-deprived, distracted parent. And there are no unspoken rules against wandering around a cemetery while sipping a latté. But mostly I just noticed it and went on my way. 

I spied it again the next day. And the day after that. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to take a closer look. The mug had words on it, I noticed. An inspirational saying of sorts. It proclaimed in white letters, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the presence of faith.”

Now, I’m not big on bumper sticker theology. “Honk if you love Jesus” or Hallmark-inspired phrases that adorn pictures of fluffy clouds or Facebook posts about “blessings” masquerading as humble brags. But this unattributed quote (no, it’s not in the Bible) did make me think as I continued home.

It’s certainly true that courageous acts often come with a personal cost. To do the right thing in the face of opposition takes a brave heart. And facing one’s own fears does take courage. There’s a recognition that it takes a force beyond ourselves to persevere in trying circumstances. That’s where faith comes in. A recognition that we are not in this world alone and that faith in ourselves or our own abilities only goes so far.

For Christians, this faith is not a blind one. It’s not a faith that assumes everything will turn up roses in the end. It’s not a faith of denial but a faith that proclaims that even in the midst of life’s inevitable trials and tribulations, God, as made known through Jesus, is present with us at every step of the way.

My other thought was about the placement of this mug. It didn't seem entirely random to me. That perhaps a grieving soul had placed it there because it was a message the person desperately needed to hear and incorporate into his or her life. Or perhaps someone had found a sense of peace and wanted to, in some small way, share it with a stranger. 

Who knows? But the mug was there for a week and then it suddenly disappeared without a trace. Vital messages come in different forms — through other people and through circumstances and through events. Perhaps the message on this mug is speaking to you through this very article. Or maybe it was just a mug that got forgotten and was eventually remembered.

Either way, it is important to be receptive to the many messages that surround us in this life. Some are overt, some are subtle, but all are dependent upon keeping an open heart and mind.