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...

Dec 6, 2019

In Good Faith: Getting the GOAT's Goat

In my December In Good Faith column, I try to jam as many football references and analogies into a single article, while focusing on this season of gratitude.

Getting the GOAT’s Goat

Tom Brady is cranky. The Patriots’ quarterback — he of the six Super Bowl rings, universally
acclaimed GOAT (Greatest of All Time), and future first ballot Hall of Famer — is not happy. In this, his 20th season in the NFL, his team is sitting atop its division and the Patriots hold the best record in the conference. 

So, what’s gotten the GOAT’s goat? Mostly it’s the way his team is winning and the lack of a supporting cast he deems worthy of the greatest sports dynasty to ever take the field in the modern era. The Patriots continue to rack up wins, but it hasn’t always been in Brady’s accustomed highlight reel fashion. 

This crabbiness was particularly apparent following the team’s 17-10 win over the mediocre Philadelphia Eagles on November 17. At the post-game press conference, he came across like a petulant child who had been dragged into the principal’s office, rather than the winningest quarterback in NFL history.

In fairness, this quarterback crankiness may be what has kept Brady at the top of his game for so long. His drive for perfection in the pursuit of winning is the fuel that fires championships. Dropped balls, sloppy routes, and a lack of preparation will render receivers dead to QB12 — a state from which there is no resurrection. And Brady is clearly frustrated when neither he nor his teammates execute the game plan at the highest possible level. 

Of course, we all get a bit cranky when we hit our early 40s and things don’t come quite as easily, physically speaking, as they once did. For Brady, this may mean throwing fewer than four touchdown passes on any given Sunday. For mere mortals like you and me, it may mean pulling a back muscle while bending down to get the colander out of the bottom shelf of the kitchen cabinet. That’s enough to make anyone a bit ornery.

The bigger picture during this season of giving thanks, is finding joy in and offering gratitude for the blessings of your life. An attitude of gratitude may not win you a shiny Vince Lombardi Super Bowl trophy, but it sure is a healthier way to live. Focusing on the fact that you’re 10-1 rather than that you may have fumbled once or twice along the way, leads to joyful living. As perspective is an important piece of the equation, you need to get your head out of the huddle from time to time and take in the broader view. There are some stunning vistas out there, if only we take the occasional time out to enjoy them.

So, while Tom Brady doesn’t need any career or life advice from me (full disclosure: this Baltimore boy is a Ravens fan), I do hope he’ll enjoy this season. Not the football season, necessarily, but this entire holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Because ultimately it offers us an invitation. Not to a fancy dinner party or even an informal gathering around the television to watch football. But an invitation to pause and give thanks; to take a moment to reflect upon the stunning goodness of God’s love and mercy; and to acknowledge our many and varied blessings. 

We may still occasionally rue the mistakes made by the rookie receivers in our lives. But we can still give thanks for their effort and the strides they have made on the learning curve. Even as we recognize that we can all stand to grow in gratitude.

Dec 2, 2019

Weird (and possibly heretical!) Advent Calendars

It's been a long time since I've offered a survey of some of the stranger Advent Calendars out
there. But, as Advent is a season of waiting and anticipation, your patience has paid off.

This is tough going as nearly every company offers some sort of Advent Calendar as part of their contribution to the Christmas Industrial Complex. We know all about the whisky Advent Calendars (I'm happy to send you my mailing address) and the various foodie offerings out there. But think of this as a curated list (with commentary!) of a few calendars you may not have seen before.

Here we have some of the best and worst (okay, the worst and even worse) of what's out there this season. Some are cringe-worthy, some border on the heretical. But in the end, Advent Calendars are a wonderful way to mark down the shopping days until Christmas. Er, I mean the days before we welcome the Christ-Child anew into our hearts and minds.

So enjoy, friends. And know that while these calendars may entirely miss the point of keeping this holy season, I do bid you a very happy and hopeful Advent.

1. Gruesome Christmas Anti-Advent Calendar

Are there people on your list who hate Christmas? Enjoy a daily "misfortune cookie" with the Gruesome Christmas Anti-Advent Calendar. Each of the 24 vegan black wheat cookies (yuck!) are individually wrapped with messages like, "I hope you've got pets. Because you haven't got any friends." This is the perfect calendar for misanthropes and those counting down to Christmas during what they would consider to be the most awful time of the year.

2. Jelly Belly 12 Days of Christmas Advent Calendar
Hey, Jelly Belly! Get clear on the concept! There's no such thing as a "12 Days of Christmas Advent Calendar." You can either do the four weeks leading up to Christmas (that's Advent!) OR the 12 Days of Christmas which start on Christmas Day (that's Christmas!). In fairness, this calendar effectively ruins both Advent and Christmas. So if that was your intention, you win! Oh, and you can keep that disgusting popcorn-flavored jelly bean for Lent.

3. Beanies Flavoured Coffee Advent Calendar

Okay, it's one thing to ruin Advent. But Beanies, a British coffee company, has also ruined coffee with the Beanies Flavored Coffee Advent Calendar (full disclosure: I'm a coffee snob -- I literally wrote the book on it). I mean, orange-chocolate coffee? Gingerbread coffee? Coconut? With "coffee" like this, who wouldn't be waiting expectantly for the promised End of Days?

4. 12 Days of Beauty Advent Calendar

It's not just that they get the 12 Days of Christmas confused with Advent -- see #2. It's the whole notion of making Advent "all about me" that irks me about the 12 Days of Beauty Advent Calendar. And believe me, it's not rare -- it seems as if every cosmetics company has some form of Advent-inspired promotion. But can you really see that major figure of the season, John the Baptist, getting jazzed about flavored bath soaps? Maybe wild honey-scented exfoliating cream...

5. Lovehoney Best Sex of Your Life Couples' Sex Toy Countdown Calendar
I can't even. And while the English word "Advent" is derived from the Latin "Adventus," meaning "coming," I still can't even. If John the Baptist yelling "You brood of vipers!" can't spice up your sex life, it may be a lost cause. Again with the locusts and wild Lovehoney. And you thought "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" was a yuletide bridge too far.

6. Very, Very Tiffany Advent Calendar

When we were kids, we were lucky if the LAST window on our Advent Calendars had a tiny, stale piece of chocolate inside. Fortunately for the 1%, Tiffany & Co. has solved this problem with their $112,000 Very, Very Tiffany Advent Calendar. Two "Verys" are apparently needed because the whole thing is just not decadent enough in itself. If only Joseph had access to this during Mary's third trimester.

7. 24 Days of Beard Treats Advent Calendar
Now, I'm not exactly sure what qualifies as a "beard treat," but this is an essential purchase for the special Old Testament prophet on your Christmas list. Imagine what this 24 Days of Beard Treats Advent Calendar could do for Malachi and Zephaniah? The scented beard oils are the perfect complement to finding one's prophetic voice -- and likely getting beheaded in the process.

8. Purple Ladybug Novelty Dinosaur Toys Advent Calendar

The only reason the Dinosaur Toys Advent Calendar made the list is for the Creationist on your shopping list. Don't believe in dinosaurs? Perfect! Here are 24 days of pre-packaged heresy. Keep opening those windows because, who knows? Maybe Adam and Eve are actually hiding in there. Nope. Sorry. That's triceratops.

Well, that's it for this year. If you find others you'd like to share (and there are many!), please do share them in the comments section. Your fellow Star gazers will thank you. Or not.

Happy Advent!

Nov 18, 2019

Beyond the Numbers

This past week, we ran out of room in the Register of Church Services that has recorded every public
liturgy at St. John's for the past seven years.

If you're not familiar with this book -- and unless you're clergy or serve on the altar guild, there's no reason why you would be -- it's been a staple of church sacristies for generations. At the conclusion of each service, the priest who conducted the liturgy, dutifully enters in the date, time, day in the liturgical year, type of liturgy, the number who attended, and then signs or initials it. There's also a spot to add additional information like the name of the deceased for a funeral or the fact that there was a blizzard that day, which might account for the fact that only four people showed up.

At one level, the service register is simply a bunch of numbers. It's used to fill out the annual parochial report which is sent, in our case, on to the Diocese of Massachusetts, before being compiled into attendance figures used by the National Episcopal Church to track trends across the country and beyond.

For clergy who equate their self worth with church attendance figures (and we're all guilty of this to some degree), the service register is either a source of pride or shame. But of course, the register only tells part of the story. It can't measure spiritual growth or depth or discipleship -- these more ephemeral statistics can't be quantified or recorded. And I'm pretty sure Jesus never once filled out a service register ("Last Supper - 13")

As I filled in the final liturgy, a Wednesday Eucharist with 15 of us present, I took a moment to flip through the book one final time before sending it to join the other service registers that have been faithfully filled out since the parish's founding in 1883. And in so doing I recalled a number of profound moments in the life of one particular worshipping community in one particular slice of God's kingdom. Funerals of parishioners I dearly loved; baptisms of children who have since grown up in the church and now play an active role in Sunday School; baptisms for families who never again stepped foot in the church; the joy of serving with former and current assisting clergy, the occasional bishop's visit; services of home communion before a death.

But what really stood out for me was simply the regular rhythm of the Church's worship. God was praised and adored and Christ was preached in this place long before I arrived, and will continue long after I leave. And there is solace in this. A sense that we are all merely temporary stewards of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We don't own any of this. We are simply invited to share it and hand it on to future generations, to the best of our ability.

One of the roles of the bishop in a diocese is to examine the service register whenever he or she makes a visitation. In the Diocese of New York, where I served for seven years, the bishop would sign the register in purple pen, indicating that he had examined it and found it all in good order.

I remember my first visitation as a young rector at All Saints' in Briarcliff Manor. Bishop Sisk, who had been my seminary dean at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, took a moment to go through the pages before signing it. And as he did, something I assumed would just be a perfunctory administrative duty, he reverently and prayerfully gazed upon the pages. It was after the service and after the celebratory reception in the parish hall -- just the two of us in what I used to refer to as "the tiniest sacristy in all of Christendom." And I'll never forget what he said. He mused that people often think clergy are out of touch with reality; that they live lives far removed from everyday life. "This" he said lifting the register, "reflects reality." And to this day, I appreciate and value that wisdom.

On Sunday, I filled out the first three entries in the new register, adding the information for our three Sunday services at 8 and 10 am and 5 pm. Who know where I'll be or where the people who showed up that day will be when this register is completed? But what I do know is that through faith in Jesus Christ, each one of us has been meticulously entered into God's Book of Life. And that is a good and joyful thing.

Nov 7, 2019

The Red Cups are Coming! The Red Cups are Coming!

Starbucks announced today that it was releasing five new holiday-themed cups. For many
of us, this triggers an automatic shiver-down-the-spine recoil as we recall the fake "War on Christmas" of a few years ago that continues to rear its ugly my-way-of-faith-is-the-only-way head.

You may remember the vaunted Red Cup Controversy. I wrote about this in Holy Grounds, my book on coffee and faith, in the Starbucks chapter titled The Green Elephant in the Room. Here's what I wrote:

The Red Cup Controversy

Not just any coffee company can so powerfully impact American society that it finds itself in the midst of the political culture wars. But that’s exactly what happened when the famed Red Cup controversy reared its caffeinated head. In 2015, Starbucks changed its annual holiday-themed cup to a plain, festive bright red with the circular green mermaid logo. Red and green—Santa colors. A cute, simple design meant to put everyone in the holiday spirit as they ordered their calorie-laden peppermint latte, right? Not so fast, Christmas hater!

After removing the traditional Christmas symbols like snowmen, trees, ornaments, and snow flakes of past years’ cup designs, suddenly Starbucks was Exhibit A in the War on Christmas. 

One rather unhinged internet evangelist put together a YouTube video in which he commented, “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus . . . SO I PRANKED THEM . . . and they HATE IT!!!!” 

He “pranked” them by ordering a cup of coffee and telling the barista his name was Merry Christmas. So the Starbucks employee dutifully wrote “Merry Christmas” on his cup.

In other words, his prophetic protest meant supporting the company he professed to abhor by buying their product and giving them publicity. And, not for nothing, but it’s not as if Starbucks suddenly removed Christian iconography from their holiday cups. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, et al. weren’t being banished. Generic, non-scriptural snowmen were.

This whole absurd episode shed more light upon the state of our divided country—and internet-fueled outrage—than it did on an alleged anti-Christian movement. It does show just how iconic Starbucks has become, however. A coffee shop becoming a catalyst for talk-radio folderol? That’s impressive.

Believe it or not, this contrived controversy wasn’t even the first time a dispute arose over Starbucks Christmas coffee. In 1997, Starbucks attorneys contacted the abbot of a tiny Russian Orthodox monastery (tiny as in five monks in residence) on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. The issue at hand revolved around a coffee-roasting monk at All-Merciful Savior Monastery who raised money for his order by selling a coffee called Christmas Blend. Starbucks had recently trademarked the term and insisted the monk cease and desist his operation. 

Once the David and Goliath story hit the national news, Starbucks backed off, rightly seeing a publicity nightmare in the offing. You can still purchase the holiday Christmas Blend from the monastery from October through December.