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.

Jun 28, 2017

Sitting in a pew -- I'm the worst!

I'm lousy at sitting in pews.

Of course as a "professional" church goer, I don't do it very often. On Sunday mornings I strut around the altar in fancy vestments, stand in the pulpit for 10-12 minutes, and sit only when other people are doing liturgical things -- like reading from the Bible or singing a choral anthem.

But as Summer rolls around and vacation looms, I'll be spending a few weeks sitting in pews at some yet-to-be-determined churches. And I'll again realize just how easily annoyed I can be. Uncharitable thoughts inevitable arise. Like:
"I can't believe how many typos are in this bulletin. 'The Lard be with you?!' Come on!" 
"That is not the proper order in which to light the altar candles. What kind of liturgical yahoo trained this acolyte anyway?"  
"If this hymn was played any slower, I swear I'd fall asleep standing up." 
"Would it be rude to yell, 'I object!' in the middle of this vaguely heretical sermon?"
Perhaps it's simply an occupational hazard. I mean, when bus drivers ride the bus, they can't help but think to themselves how poorly the driver took that turn back on Main and Elm, right? But I'll be honest. No one likes sitting next to me -- certainly not my family. It may be the what-I-thought-was-barely-audible-but-apparently-was-not sighs too deep for words.

I remember a slightly different approach to clergy sitting in the pews that was equally irritating to the priest's family when on vacation. The spouse used to complain about her husband the minister acting as "Pew Captain" whenever they'd be in church together. He'd be the first one in the congregation to stand up or respond to a versicle. His "amens" were hearty and he encouraged everyone around him to sing louder.

I guess that would be a different kind of annoying. But the truth is I'm easily distracted when I sit in church and this does nothing at all for my spiritual life.

It's not a bad thing to want to worship in the beauty of holiness or to want worship to be "decently and in order." But when small things consistently get in the way of your experience with and of God, you may have some spiritual work to do. I know I do.

And it's worth reflecting on two questions: Where does your mind go during worship? And where does your heart go? Not every service will feel like a heaven-meets-earth transcendent moment. I get that. But you also have to put yourself in a receptive frame of mind to encounter the holy and be accepting and grateful -- and forgiving -- in order to experience God's amazing grace.

So worship, as important as it is, can never become an idol in and of itself. We can't sacrifice our faith on the altar of personal piety. Certainly not when it comes to going to church in an unfamiliar place a few Sundays a year.

So wherever I end up worshipping this Summer, I'll try my best to relax and enjoy being in relationship with Jesus while having a break from being in liturgical control.

And, anyway, I'm sure I'll have some clergy stop by St. John's this summer. And they'll feel the same way about some of the things I'm doing up there.

Jun 5, 2017

Words of Wisdom from Uncle Matt

Ben receiving his diploma
There's a slew of advice slung around this time of year. Especially for the freshly minted high school graduate. Some is inspiring, some is heart-felt, some is clichéd, some is unsolicited but either way, there no lack of it.

Whether through commencement addresses or notes to the graduates, the opportunities for doling out advice is legion. With my eldest son, Ben, graduating from Hingham High School this year, I'm particularly aware of the abundance of advice. 

One of the endearing traditions at Hingham High is the presentation of the Red Envelopes at the graduation rehearsal. 

Here's the deal:
"Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, clergy and friends may send their senior student a special note of congratulations on his or her upcoming graduation. We will carefully keep these cards and notes for each student and distribute them to the seniors during their graduation rehearsal." 
I had a lot of fun writing Ben's letter -- as we all did -- and am proud of him and his 2017 classmates.

The best letter he received, however, was from my brother Matt. Uncles are great, right? They can say things parents can't and Matt has always had a great relationship with Ben. I asked Matt if I could share his letter with the wider world and I do think every high school graduate could benefit from Matt's wisdom. Feel free to share it with that special graduate in your own life.

Dear Ben,
Uncle Matt

You're a high school graduate! Hurray! 

One more step to go in your academic career! Well, unless you're a masochist and choose more school after college. Either way, I'm here to congratulate, support, and give some free uncle-ly advice:

The real world is where the action is, and you're right to want to zoom through college and get to the good stuff. Sure, post college life also has rules, schedules, and responsibilities, but at least they come with a paycheck. And while at school you're rewarded for great performance with a vowel, out in the real world you get handed a bigger paycheck. I know what you're thinking. It's so close, you can almost taste the freedom.

But from someone who couldn't wait to get out there and start achieving, take a deep breath. Slow down. You're about to learn the big things that will help make you successful in the real world. And don't worry -- I'm mostly talking about things outside a classroom. Here's my list of things you need from college, things that will make you succeed when it's over, but that you can't rush through:

1. Live without mom and dad. Seems simple, but it's an adjustment whether you believe it or not.

2. Manage your time. Successful people do this without teachers or parents nagging them.

3. Learn how to hold your liquor. It's better in business when the other guy is more drunk than you.

4. Learn internal motivation. The role of grownup as authoritarian is over. That's a blessing and a curse. Make it a blessing.

5. Make deep friendships. That just happens at college. And you'll need them. And they'll be there when you do.

6. Question stuff. But don't just ask why in a late night philosophical way. Ask how to change and improve. Then do it.

7. Don't date one person the whole time. But don't date a hundred people either.

8. Go abroad for a semester or a year. Just do it.

9. Don't drop out. No matter what. You need the piece of paper. 0.1% of the time it works out and you only hear about those.

10. Be a brash and confident kid. But eventually, be humble. And thankful. Arrogance doesn't win in the end.

Have the best time! I'll be visiting you and checking up on this list!

Congrats, Ben. 


Uncle Matt

What's Matt doing these days? He's doing his usual entrepreneurial thing, currently serving as the Vice-President for Admissions at Smartly, the online MBA company. Previously he led the global growth strategy as Executive Vice-President at Rosetta Stone. Oh, and he went to Williams College.

Happy graduation season, everyone!