What slow brewing coffee taught me about Faith

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I am such a creature of habit. Every morning pretty much looks the same – wake up, say Morning Prayer (Daily Office), make coffee, take a shower, drink said coffee, head to the parish. The variables in the morning are whether or not I am going to run (which my parishioners would be happy to know takes place before the shower) and when I check Twitter (don’t judge me… I’m a digital native).

My morning routine sounds simple enough, right? Except that the “make coffee” (which sounds curiously a lot like “make eucharist” in the Book of Common Prayer) is much more of an elaborate process than pressing a button on a Keurig machine. Several months ago my mother came to visit, and it was during this time that she and I toured the Roasterie Factory. Now, I had been slowly growing in my appreciation for coffee (let the reader read “coffee snobbery”) ever since my arrival in Kansas City (where coffee seems to an art), but this visit to the Roasterie Factory revealed to myself and my mother a shocking truth: that everything we knew about coffee was a lie – a cleverly devised marketing ploy of Big Coffee and the Man to keep us down. I might be overstating it.

At one point during the tour my mother and I watched the guide demonstrate a slow brew, manual technique. It was music. It was a dance. I was in absolute awe. I had never in my life seen coffee made like that – slowly and with intentionality. All I had ever seen was the assembly-line, I’m-in-a-hurry method of coffee making. But for our tour guide, nothing else mattered in that moment. It was the difference between beer funnels at a Fraternity kegger and sipping wine with a sommelier. It was nothing short of art. It was the spiritual practice of being present.

After leaving the Roasterie Factory ($100+ poorer and with bags of gadgets, filters, and coffee beans vowing never to return to the Dark Ages of Maxwell House) I made it my practice to start making coffee that way – taking a few moments in the morning to be present and fully engaged before every other force in my life dragged me in 20 different directions.

One of my best friends entered a religious community, Holy Cross Monastery, a little over a year ago, and ever since then I have made small (or not so small) jokes about wanting to flee the hustle-and-bustle of parish life and enter a religious community. I longed for simplicity and order, for prayer and community, for routine and stillness that would cultivate a vibrant relationship with God. He patiently listened to my complaining, all the while embodying stillness and presence, something I sorely needed in my life.

It wasn’t until recently that I was reminded of something that knew but had forgotten – the peace I sought was not an external or outward imposition, but an inward disposition. The “peace of the Lord,” as it is expressed in the Scriptures, isn’t the absence of conflict, but the presence of assurance and stillness regardless of what is going on the outside. Peace only comes from space, space where God abides.

It seems to me that throughout scripture God is inviting people into that peace. The institution of the Sabbath in the Hebrew Scriptures, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, is “work-stoppage.” It is saying “No” to the forces in our society and world that say “keep going.” It is responding to the voices that suggest that our worth is derived from our “doing” by defiantly asserting, “No, my worth derives simply from my being.” Sabbath, rest, was and remains an opportunity to dethrone the gods of production and efficiency and enthrone God as Lord in our lives. Sabbath rest is an intentional cultivation of internal space to balance out the rest of our lives. Joan Chittister, OSB suggests that peace, from a Benedictine perspective, is rooted in balance, in “not allowing any part of us to consume the rest of us.” These are sage words of which each of need to be reminded, including the “professionally religious.” Yes, pastors/priests/ministers, I’m talking about you.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post entitled “How a consumer culture threatens to destroy pastors” that describes the overwhelmingly stressful work conditions of clergy. Reading this article on the heels of the New York Times’ bruising expose “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” is sort an out-of-body experience. What is clear from the Washington Post article is that, far from representing an alternative to contemporary culture, the modern church too often baptizes the busyness of society and calls it virtue. Pastors too often wrestle with completely unrealistic expectations from parishioners/congregations who also wrestle with completely unrealistic expectations from pastors. This is a recipe for strained relationships, anxiety, and brokenness – none of which are hallmarks of the Reign of God.

In the midst of all this, I hear the voice of Jesus say “come unto me and rest; lay down, thou weary one, lay down thy head upon my breast.” But what does this rest look like in the midst of errands, tasks, soccer games, and board meetings?

For the answer to that, perhaps there is wisdom in Benedictine spirituality rooted in the cycle and rhythm of ora et labora ­­­­– work and prayer. For Benedictines work is an extension of prayer and prayer is an extension of work. In fact, the Divine Office, or rhythm of daily prayer (from which Anglicans get the Daily Office) is called the Opus Dei, the “Work of God.” It’s about presence in the here and now, regarding every ordinary moment and encounter with as much reverence as “the sacred vessels on the altar,” realizing that every moment is an altar upon which may descend the fire of God’s grace. We may not be able to stop the maddening cycle of busyness (though I believe we can do more than we think), but we can engage in ordinary tasks through a mindfulness and presence that reveals the stillness and peace of the Reign of God.

I absolutely love being a priest, but there is one particular liturgical function of a deacon that I miss – preparing the altar during the Mass. My favorite task was pouring the wine into the chalice. The dazzling light glinting off the silver of the chalice and refracting through the crimson cascade of wine has always been a very prayerful moment for me. I always poured deliberately, slowly, and with intention because, after all, this was the altar upon which the grace of God would descend and transfigure mere creatures of bread and wine into the mysteries of body and blood. It was work. It most assuredly prayer.

These days my kitchen counter has become an altar. The chalice? A glass coffee maker. The wine? Water just off the boil. I always pour deliberately, slowly, and with intention because, before the busyness of my day, this task is an altar upon which may descend the fire of God’s grace transforming ordinary encounters into opportunities for divine presence. The aroma of freshly ground coffee beans brewing is my prayer set forth as incense, ascending to the throne room of God.

Before the pastoral visits and liturgy meetings, before the sermon preparation and e-mails, before the prophetic advocacy for LGBTQ equality and the bold assertion that “Black Lives Matter,” I need this moment – this personal, one-on-one encounter with the God of the universe who deigns to pull up a chair to my kitchen counter and visit with me.

It’s about presence and intention… and damned good coffee.

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