Vocation and the Serendipity of Exile

What if being out of the mainstream isn’t cool so much as serendipitous?

Hans Urs von Balthasar was an imaginative twentieth-century Catholic theologian.  Jean-Luc Marion notes that Balthasar:

  • Was ostracized by the Jesuits with whom he trained
  • Never became a university professor
  • Was ‘only’ a student chaplain at Basel
  • Was not invited to Vatican II
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Icon Painting – Holy Theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar 110 by William Hart McNichols

But Marion says that good was brought from evil. Balthasar was freed from the procedural and litigious dimensions of a church council. He was liberated from faculty meetings and committees. He did not have to grade essays. He wasn’t formed by one particular spirituality (the Jesuit way).

The result of his “exile”? Marion says that Balthasar:

  • “Remains without doubt the best Barthian”
  • Was a practitioner of “ecumenism in the highest sense”
  • Was freed to become a great writer
  • Became the only real rival of Karl Rahner
  • “Was anything but dogmatic”
  • Was “truly and deeply spiritual”
  • Exuded a “humble and almost timid authority which earned him any number of students [i.e., people who learned how to do spiritual theology and theological spirituality from him] but no disciples [i.e., people who were copycats of his theology and spirituality]”
  • “Had a learning so sweeping that it gave you goosebumps”
  • Is “the greatest Catholic theologian of modern times”

Sure, you can be a part of an “inner ring.” You can get invited to all the important meetings. Your name could be called whenever NPR or Le Monde or the BBC need a reaction to the day’s news from someone in your field. You could have young people aspiring to be just like you. Some of these things may even be gained without succumbing to soul-suffocating pride and the deadliest variety of ambition. You could certainly be a star. And not all stars are self-promoted idols.

But it could be that you’re not doing anything particularly sexy. You might be in some backwater place doing some low-profile thing for a living. It’s possible that no one will ever invite you onto their podcast or ask you to write a guest post on their blog. The phone might never ring, and you might only get 3 emails per day for the next 20 years.

But imagine what all that time could yield. Twenty years of not being interrupted by other people’s sense of urgency. Twenty years of focus on what you deem important, regardless of whether it happens to be urgent. Twenty years of quietly becoming one of the very best at whatever it is you’ve been called to do.

One indispensable key to maturity, I am learning, is the ability to emotionally adjust to being sidelined from the main event, exiled from the place where “everything” is “happening.” To adjust to the reality that margin and even a certain type of marginalization is not only serendipitous for one’s soul, but  also for one’s vocation.

And don’t the two go hand in hand? My soul is maturing, is growing up into the stature of Christ, insofar as I am emotionally content and volitionally diligent in my calling.

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The Expatriations of Bono and TS Eliot

As soon as I became an expat in the summer of 2015, I began feeling a new kinship with those who throughout history have gone to take up residence in a land not their own.

In the past year I’ve been fixated on the so-called “Lost Generation” of expats who lived in Paris after the Great War. First it was a near obsession with Hemingway. Then I got a group of friends together to read this generation. We’ve read Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, and now Eliot. In their lives and literatures, they were trying to dial into life after the cataclysm that was World War I.

Eliot’s difficult waistcoat

As I’ve studied The Waste Land, I’ve paid close attention to Eliot’s expatriation. As Yale’s Langdon Hammer humorously notes (in his Open Yale Course), Eliot is the only major British poet from St. Louis. In speaking of Eliot’s forced entry into British culture, Hammer makes a big deal out of the young poet’s waistcoat. (Being a sartorial old soul myself, I was all ears.) Hammer says Eliot’s waistcoat can be read as a symbol of his quest to strip himself of his Americanness, to fully embrace British culture, and to inscribe himself within its literary tradition, however uncomfortable, stuffy, and restrictive that might seem.

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Photo: The Telegraph

As Eliot settled into his British tweed, he made it his practice to quote heavily from authoritative literary and religious texts of the past. He was conscious of their power to convey an authority to him by their very citation. But he was also conscious of the fact that everything had changed in the wake of the Great War, and that he would have to do something new with the old he treasured. The result was a sort of bricolage of lines from Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, the Bible, and Buddhist texts. Nick Mount’s fantastic lecture on The Waste Land likens Eliot’s use of texts to a Canadian soldier’s gathering of bits of broken stained glass from across Europe and their assembly into a new window at the University of Toronto. Eliot was old and new.

He was also difficult! In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, he insisted that, following the War, poetry had to be difficult.

And so Eliot set out to become a tastemaker in his new home. By quoting authorities, he wanted to tell Britain what its literary and cultural legacy was, and he, the American, wanted to make himself the standard of what it meant to be literary, cultured, and British. Spoiler alert: he basically succeeded.

Bono’s star-spangled jacket

U2’s front man maintains a home in Dublin, and has most definitely not renounced his Irish citizenship or roots. And while in 2000 he had “just got a place in New York,” he was not new to America. The Joshua Tree feels like the wide open spaces of the American west. The video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was filmed under the pulsating lights of Las Vegas. “Bullet the Blue Sky” was addressed to the American industrial military complex and its commanders-in-chief. The Rattle and Hum album and tour was an immersion in American sounds and culturescapes. They re-toured The Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary, convinced that it had something yet to say to the two Americas under Trump.

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Image: Getty/GQ

After 9/11, it was U2 who memorialized its dead at the Super Bowl halftime show that winter. The names streamed up the screen like a New York skyscraper as though they were headed to “Where the Streets Have No Name”. Bono showed his American flag jacket lining in solidarity with the country reeling from the attack less than six months prior.

All of which is to say that Bono is a lot like Eliot. He has quoted America’s traditions to it, and has made himself himself its modern interpreter and its most enthusiastic champion. Though while Eliot renounced his Americanness to cozy up to the British, Bono has used his outsider status to hold a mirror up to America—to try to convince America of its exceptional history, ideas, status, and burden to serve and lead the world in all things free and brave.

However, Bono hasn’t postured himself as America’s authority. As recently as last night, Bono sang two songs to America on Saturday Night Live. In one of them, he sings:

I could sing it to you all night, all night
If I could, I’d make it alright, alright
Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside
I can help you, but it’s your fight, your fight

Moreover, Bono, unlike Eliot, increasingly doesn’t seem to be convinced (as perhaps he was during the Zooropa/Pop period) that, in order to point America back to its founding documents, his music and lyrics need to be difficult. Where Eliot thought the cataclysm of World War I called for difficulty, Bono seems to think the post-9/11 world needs joy and simplicity “with an acid drop mixed in with the sweetness.”

Bono’s and Eliot’s expat churches

One final consideration of Bono’s and Eliot’s expatraiations.

Everywhere in the world where there are expats, there are congregations for them. Eric Liddell went to the English-speaking presbyterian church in Paris on the Sunday when he skipped his Olympic event. Flushing, New York has Korean congregations that dwarf the rest of my denomination’s churches. I currently pastor an English congregation in Seoul.

Perhaps it was just another of Eliot’s anglophilic waistcoats, but the poet converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism in 1927. He submitted to the authority of a bishop despite his professed Puritanical temperament. While he moved and shook the literary world, effectively becoming its archbishop, in ecclesial matters he sat in the pew and became, liturgically, an English commoner seeking communion. For all we can tell, he was a quiet orthodox church member until his death. Two years after his death, his name was emblazoned in stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. That seems like a fitting place for one who became both the English language poet of the twentieth century and a humble Anglican.

On the other hand, as one of my fellow expat churchmen has recently pointed out to me, Bono’s relationship with the church has been a different sort of expatriation experience. As Joshua Rothman ably recounts, U2 struggled in its early years with their potential for international stardom and the felt demands of their fringy ascetic ecclesial community. Eventually, they chose rock n roll over church. The Irish context of Protestant-Catholic violence certainly contributed.

The result, as I’ve hinted at above, is that Bono became something of the megachurch worship pastor of America’s sorta-spiritual and maybe-kinda religious stadium rock crowds. He doesn’t fancy himself a papal authority in American music or culture the way Eliot saw himself in the world of British letters. Bono has always taken more of a persuasive posture of influence; he just doesn’t have an ex cathedra temperament. But if one made a bit of a Puritanical analysis of Bono’s dealings with the American soul, one might say he is an unauthorized street preacher; a circuit-riding camp meeting convener; an officiant of strange fire.

In the end, Bono has not expatriated the way Eliot did. Part of me thinks Bono is doing it right. Who instinctively cozies up to Eliot’s renunciation of homeland? Who can bear his stuffy sartorial affectations? Who cannot look on quizzically at his brazen cultural interpolation? And, by contrast, who cannot help but admire Bono’s admiring pep talks in star-spangled jackets?

But the churchman in me, along with the would-be rebel in me, knows that while Bono bends over backwards not to be seen as an American authority, his churchless spirituality ultimately amounts to an unwillingness to sit under authority. He’ll read the Psalms, interpret them, sing them, and make them sexy enough to sing in an arena. He’ll earn his money, and then he’ll decide where it should go and who it should help. And ultimately, he’ll make himself a sort of Unitarian pastor in a “church” where everyone that’s feeling the vibe feels at home, as long as their politics are sufficiently socially conscious and they’re okay periodically holding up their consciences to a certain figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

Bono has expatriated not from Ireland, but from the church. This leaves him homeless, dislocated in a way that Eliot would have remained had he merely gone all-in with the British literary tradition and not settled into the back pew in his local parish church.

It has been 35 years of ecclesial homelessness for Bono. My hope is that he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for in churchless spirituality. My hope is that, if he still can’t reconcile church and rock n roll, he will become uncool or irrelevant enough, soon enough, to settle down into some quiet parish outside Dublin and perhaps duck into Redeemer when he’s playing expat at his other home in New York.

To be at home, to repatriate, he’ll need to take some of the advice he’s giving to America on the new album and get out of his own way.

[Update: As I mentioned to my critical fellow U2 enthusiast, sometimes we assume we know the perspective from which Bono speaks and the audience to which his songs are addressed. We don’t, necessarily. It turns out that America may not be the primary audience of “Get Out of Your Own Way”—instead, that honor seems to belong first to his daughter and second, to himself. ]

Don’t call it an “office”

There are a couple things in life that I’m passionate about. Hills upon which I am willing to die. In no particular order:

  • One does not put two spaces between sentences; the computer will space it appropriately for you.
  • One does not grind one’s coffee until it is time to brew said coffee.
  • North Carolina is in no wise “first in flight”; Ohioans commandeered their beach and wind.
  • The bottom button of one’s blazer, suit coat, or sport coat is to remain unbuttoned.

And, more recently, a new rule:

Don’t call my study an “office.” It’s a study

Nomenclature matters, folks. Our words create the worlds we experience and the quality of our experiences therewith. John Culkin famously said that “we shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us.” Names of things are human-shaped tools, which thereafter shape us. They shape our expectations and our realities.

I don’t have a classroom of my own. I instead have a tiny room at the end of a hallway. I love this arrangement. I get lots of privacy and in turn I get lots of things done. And, by “things done”, I mean principally “thoughts thought” and “learning learned.”

That’s because my room is my study.

When I tell a student to come see me in my study after school, I am indicating to them that we are going to learn together. Whatever problem they may be having with their grade, the paper they’re writing, their attendance record, their behavior, their language acquisition process, or their mastery of the course content will be approached in a specific way: it will be approached with the conviction that we are, together, learning.

Consider the alternative. I could call my room my “office.” What experience can a student, a colleague, a supervisor, or a parent expect to have in my “office”?

They can expect to have their problem dealt with administratively. They expect their problem to be solved like the unclogging of a procedural bottleneck. They show up to get a grade fixed, a paper corrected, an assignment postponed or a concept explained. People who come to an “office” expect bureaucracy, and they pray that maybe this will be the one time in a hundred when that bureaucracy actually works efficiently, achieving the results desired. They expect, though, to be processed like any other data input that might come into that space, whether through paper and ink, email, telephone, or flesh and blood.

As for me and my study, we shall serve the learner. The learner inside me, and the learner inside student, teacher, administrator, and parent. I want people to come into my study–myself included!–with the expectation that both solitary and collaborative learning takes place in this sacred space. The sofa and armchair, the bookcases, the coffee station and the aroma that regularly makes it into the adjoining hallway, the round table (as opposed to a desk, aka bureau, hello!), and the natural light coming through the windows–all of these things help indicate what this space is for.

But especially the name of the space. Don’t call it an office.

Grace and Effort

I don’t do anything halfway. So when I was a Lutheran (sometimes ecclesially, sometimes theologically, sometimes both) as a young man, I was really Lutheran. Probably more Lutheran than Luther. So, probably not really Lutheran, actually.

What that means, of course, is that I didn’t like good works. Or trying hard. Or any sort of effort at all. It was an attractive spirituality, because I’ve never been attracted to workaholism. The Protestant Ethic missed me.

By the time I encountered Dallas Willard in my early thirties, I had changed enough to be ready to hear what is, in my estimation, the best line in all his writings:

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

I both hated and loved this. I hated it because it meant that I couldn’t be the champion of spiritual sloth in order to elevate grace. I loved it because I finally sensed the liberty to try.

Not to try to impress God, but to “make it my aim to please him” (2 Cor 5:9).

Not to try to impress others, but to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:23).

The notion that keeping a list and checking tasks off of it is a form of works righteousness? Yeah, I couldn’t fail people any longer under the cover of grace.

The notion that the meaning of life was to receive grace and live a passive existence rather than trying to glorifying God through the exercise a certain amount of holy ambition? I couldn’t fool myself in that respect any longer either.

Jean-Luc Marion, in reflecting on a long career as a Christian and a philosopher, articulates what a lifelong application of Willard’s dictum looks like. Tolle, lege:

At several points, indisputably, I had the impression of being taken from the herd and put where I did not even know one could go. In those moments, I did not realize projects or ambitions coming from myself, but I received what happened to me. Often, my life as a whole seems to me like some of the years when I trained as a runner:

During long and exhausting training sessions, one suffers enough to know oneself to be the one who makes the effort, but, once one is in form, on the day of competition, in the sun of spring or the overhead light of an autumn evening, when suddenly a state of grace causes one to accomplish the impossible (a victory, a personal record), one wonders who has done all that, or, rather, I wonder whether I have done it or even whether this has happened to me.

From there stems this strange feeling that has never left me, of living with someone bearing (in all the senses of the word) my name, who does things without warning me and whom I had to accompany. At times I would almost have preferred that he leave me alone, but I have always lived with someone who is stronger than me and whom I follow. Yes, and I cannot do otherwise. I hope so, all the way to the end.

As someone who is pushing toward a 500-mile running goal for the year, with one month left to go, I resonate deeply. I have no idea how my joints are holding up under my heavy frame, how the Pop Tarts I had for breakfast are converted into energy for my run after work (or even if it works that way), and I don’t know how I haven’t tripped and broken half the bones in my body by now.

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But I definitely feel as though it has been me running those 445 miles. I’ve had to decide on 128 different occasions in 2017 to get off my couch and go for a run. I’ve exerted more sheer will power in the past 11 months than at any time in my life.

It kind of feels like a cliché when you hear someone say “by God’s grace I was able to _______ [win the gold metal; finish an ultra-marathon; win the spelling bee; publish 20 books].” But it’s no cliché. We put ourselves to a task, and open ourselves to the ‘haunting’ of God’s gracious presence. And often, good things happen. Things we can celebrate—whether feats of strength or increases of moral fortitude.

It was hard work. And it’s all of grace.

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

Thickening the Sermon’s Plot

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s delightful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. If you are interested in writing short stories, novels, or even memoirs–in other words, any writing that is less expositional and more dependent on character and plot–you really need to get this book. It will demystify the writing process, while still leaving lots of room for you as a writer to lean into the real mystery: people’s lives, folks’ souls.
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I happened to get to Lamott’s section on plot the other day when I should have been writing my sermon. I decided to try and redeem my procrastinated time by trying out Lamott’s counsel for developing a good plot in the writing of my sermon.

Lamott shares a trick she learned from one Alice Adams on plot-making. It follows an ABDCE pattern. Action, background, development, climax, ending. 

You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, and what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot–the drama, the actions, the tension–will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?

My experiment in sermon-plotting

I was assigned Exodus 5:22-6:12, the story of Moses confronting God for failing to deliver Israel from slavery under Pharaoh, and how God responded. Here’s how I ‘plotted’ my sermon:

Action: Easy. Moses actually says what so many of us are thinking lots of times. “God, are you on our side, or have you teamed up with our enemies?” How will God respond to this accusation? What will God do? Incinerate him? Turn his staff into a serpent and have the serpent bite him? But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. That’s enough action to pull us all into the story.

Background: What’s the history of Moses’s relationship with God up to this point? It’s had its highs: being saved from an infanticidal Pharaoh, getting a Harvard education, enjoying Egyptian courtly privilege. It’s also had its troughs: being exiled into Midian and demoted to a lowly shepherd, almost being struck down by God along the roadside for not having circumcised his son. We’re rehearsing the twists and turns of this relationship that have brought us to the current action and dialogue. The action was at first introduced as raw action. Now, each bit of background shows how the present action is freighted with significance, and shows how the stakes are higher than we would have assumed with the action alone.

Development: Development is the part of the plot that sets the stage for the big climax. In Marylynne Robinson’s Gilead this is where we feel the feel the tension in the room when Jack and Rev. Ames say 10 words with their lips and 100 more words with their tone, body language, and with all the words that aren’t said. In Exodus 5-6, this is where I want the congregation to feel the sting of Moses’s words as he accuses God (who had promised to deliver Israel) and Pharaoh (who regularly threw Hebrew infant boys into the Nile to drown) of being on the same team. It’s here that I pull my “exegetical goodies” into the story–but only those exegetical goodies which actually help tell the story. Nothing will slow the story down like a bunch of parsed Hebrew verbs at this point.

Climax: Where is the confrontation between a God who is not going to change and a character who therefore must change in one way or another? When you’ve identified this point, you’ve found your climax. What remains is to make the climax of the story the climax of your sermon. In this case, everything hinges on how God reacts to Moses’s accusation. So my climax focused on how Yahweh did not incinerate Moses, but instead reiterated his promises to him, with two particular details:

  1. Yahweh underscored the intimacy with which Moses had come to know him, based on the fact that God had revealed his personal name to Moses, though not to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  2. Yahweh told Moses that for generations to come, Israel would constantly recall the deliverance that was about to happen–that these wild events would become Israel’s national origin story.

Ending: Here’s where you make sure to have Jesus be the real hero of each Old Testament story. The reality is that we’ve all been where Moses is from time to time: convinced that we’d answered the call of God to obediently follow his lead into some difficult task, only to begin to wonder if God had sadistically sent us on a fool’s errand. But from the cross onward, we know at least 2 things that Moses himself wouldn’t even come to know:

  1. God isn’t just God (his title). His ‘first name’ is Jesus, and this Jesus has drawn far nearer to us than Yahweh did to Moses. We have a God who invites us to call him by a personal name–a name which means what that same Jesus did: “God saves.”
  2. Jesus was sent on a ‘fool’s errand’ to fight a losing battle at the hands of sin, death, hell, Satan, Judas, the Pharisees, Sadducees, the crowds, Pilate, and the Romans. But in walking the plank like this, he saved us, and by rising again, he raised us. No matter what happens on the apparent ‘fools errands’ we seem to find ourselves on in obedience to Jesus, we can know, only because of the the cross and resurrection, that our labor in the service of Jesus is not in vain.

Let’s thicken our plots

The preaching of Old Testament narratives, in my opinion, doesn’t just lend itself to story-shaped sermons; it almost requires it. If anything, we should be taking the so-called expositional and doctrinal parts of Scripture and thinking about how to bring the impact of the text to our audience through the conventions of good storytelling. But what we’re prone to do is strip mine ready-made biblical stories, full of dramatic intrigue, for doctrines and principles. This is one of these instances in which Dorothy Sayers’s criticism of churchmen rings sadly true: Christianity is often boring through no fault of Christianity itself.

Remember, the point of preaching is not to teach doctrines. The point of preaching is to confront us with Jesus in such a way that we, like the characters after the climax of a dramatic story, are changed in a lasting way. If we’re aiming to reach a spiritual climax by preaching, why not make a plot out of our sermons?

Coffee and the Skinny Glutton

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It’s fairly easy for me to identify my favorite sins.

I’m currently teaching the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ to both a group of eleventh-graders and a group of faculty. Each capital vice is extremely nuanced in its manifestations and subtle in its habit-forming encroachment upon the soul. And each sin is a fountain from which flows a variety of discrete patterns of transgression. The most fascinating to me are, somewhat startlingly, the that are a little too close to home. Which ones? If you know me, you guessed it: sloth and gluttony.

Sloth will have to wait for another post. For now, gluttony has grabbed my attention like the mention of a cheeseburger around quitting time.

Happily, gluttony doesn’t simply effect people who would vote for pizza for president if they could. It’s satisfying to learn that gluttony embeds itself in the habits of the prissy waif just as it grips the hot dog eating champion.

According to Rebecca DeYoung, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, gluttony not only involves how you eat (ravenously, hastily, excessively, for example), but also what you eat. One type of glutton, of course, eats sumptuously–that is, she eats things that make her feel full. But the other type of glutton fixates on another type of food: exquisitely delicious food.

This fastidious glutton is fixated on taste. Rather than being enslaved by the demands of the belly, the food snob only lets the most delicious things, prepared to her precise specifications, come near her lips.

In Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape teaches his pupil Wormwood how to tempt eaters who are not prone to overeating with this alternative pattern of gluttony. The key, Wormwood learns, is to cultivate an increasing fastidiousness with respect to food and drink. When successfully tempted, the ‘patient’ habitually sends perfectly good sandwiches back to the kitchen with exasperated instructions like “Listen, all I want is …”.

You can see the pride and elitism in this sort of approach toward food. The high-brow glutton says, for all intents and purposes, “All I want is for everything to be precisely according to my tastes. Is that too much to ask?”

Is it too much to ask for a world in which all the nutritional, social, economic, and agricultural dimensions of eating–in which even the humanness of the persons making and serving your food–are bracketed out? Well, yes. It is too much to ask. It’s not difficult to see the fundamentally antisocial nature of this sin, and the god-sized pride in assuming that such a relationship to food and drink is “not too much to ask.”

And so I wonder: is it possible to be a connoisseur, an aficionado, of anything, without becoming a glutton?

I am all the other kinds of glutton in my relationship to all other kinds of food and drink. But I am decidedly high-brow in my coffee tastes. Am I an elitist?

Some have noticed that in the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus is always on his way to a meal, at a meal, or leaving a meal. He eats his way through Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Given that almost everything I do is either done with coffee in hand, or done in the strength of a post-coffee caffeinated state, or done on the way to my next coffee break, coffee is part of the warp and woof of my life in a way that almost no other person, place, or thing is.

The same is true of James Freeman, founder of the esteemed Blue Bottle Coffee–a name revered by baristas here in Seoul, even though most of them have never been in a Blue Bottle cafe. Freeman described his obsession with  coffee to a group of Stanford entrepreneurs recently. One thing that stands out from his talk, apart from his touchy-feely language about coffee culture and his against-the-grain principles of entrepreneurship:

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Freeman is obsessed, not just with coffee, but with control. Control over everything that happens from the purchase of beans to the roasting to the brewing to the tasting experience of the customer.

My friend Sooin, whose sheer knowledge of coffee is astounding (she attended a coffee college for two years), is similarly exacting in her approach to making a great cup of coffee. To watch her work is to watch a careful artist demanding the best of herself.

What’s the difference between these coffee professionals and myself? Sooin and Freeman approach their work as craft and as calling. They are professionals. When I make coffee, I’m an amateur.

I am also a consumer. And here, I think, is the heart of the matter:

What is my attitude when someone makes a cup of coffee for me? What is going on in my head and my heart when Sooin makes me an $8 pour over from a rare bean? When my wife brings me a cup of coffee in bed that she’s not super proud of? When my parents pop a K-cup in the Keurig and bring it to me in their living room? When a tea-drinker serves me instant coffee after they’ve served me a home-cooked meal?

Sooin has actually helped me think soberly about all this. Whenever we’re around her, I find myself peppering her with questions, looking for tips that will improve my coffee-making, and my coffee drinking, game. I ask about coffee origins, and what notes I should be tasting in different coffees. And usually I end up saying , in a disappointed tone, something like: “I wish I could taste the difference between a good cup of coffee and an excellent cup of coffee.”

And then she sets me straight. She reminds me that I am not a coffee professional. I have not been to coffee school. I don’t make my living trying to give people incredible coffee experiences. My relationship to coffee ought to be one of enjoyment. Especially when someone is serving it to me. For her, the professional, that’s the source of joy: when she meticulously controls as many variables as possible to yield a great cup of coffee, and people like me take our first satisfying sips.

It’s true that I am enhancing my enjoyment of coffee as I learn to distinguish and appreciate more and more nuances and subtleties from cup to cup.

But if I approach a cup of coffee, made with care and given to me in hospitality, with a critical spirit, with an air of elitism, and with a readiness to reject it if it’s not to my standards, then I have indeed become a glutton. Even when my experience of someone else’s coffee is dampened by my preoccupation with my own lack of discerning taste buds and faltering tasting-note vocabulary, I teeter on the edge of gluttony.

The vice of gluttony, whether manifested in a ravenous eater or a skinny, self-appointed food critic, consists in an antisocial, self-centered approach to what is consumed. Instead of being received with gratitude, the coffee, the food, or the wine is devoured in a stingy spirit or rejected with a stuck-up lack of gratitude. When one eats and drinks in a way that fails to acknowledge how food and drink is connected to the social act of eating and drinking , one commits gluttony.

I was raised on the slogan “food is love.” Indeed, it is. And coffee, too. May we all reject the self-love of gluttony and receive our food and drink with glad and generous hearts.