Spikes and All

Priests and punk rock don’t often mix.  As open as I am about my past, stories from that phase of my life don’t often make it into my sermons.  Yet this Christmas, I reached way back to high school to tell the story of a brief conversation with Maggie (not her real name).  And for what may well be the first time in history, a tale of black leather and spikes managed to find its way to Bethlehem.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I liked preaching it.

Christmas, 2016

We’ve got three teenagers at home which means that in addition to the joy of watching them grow into young men and women, we’ve also had to endure our fair share of rebellion. But as difficult as their angst can be for us to endure, I try to take it with a grain of salt. Because to be fair, I put my parents through worse.

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If you’ve seen my Mohawk pictures then you understand just what I mean. My rebellious phase started harmlessly enough- camouflage army pants and some heavy metal sprinkled in with the prog rock. But once my parents announced their divorce things took a much angrier turn. In a matter of months I transformed from suburban dork to punk rocker.

I got a black leather jacket and started wearing the shirts of scary bands. As things progressed I added spiked bracelet and Doc Martens. And as much as it bothered my parents it also made me stand out in the preppy halls of Haddonfield Memorial High School. But here’s the thing about my punk rock phase, no matter how much paraphernalia I piled on, in my heart of hearts I didn’t reflect who I really was. I was really just a poseur.

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Haddonfield High

But there was one kid at school who wasn’t. Maggie was a genuine punk, one of few in all of Haddonfield. Her hair was dyed jet black and her nose pierced which, in 1986, was a MUCH bigger deal than it is today. She knew everyone in the scene on South Street. But her biggest credential was getting arrested. The rumor was that she got picked up for hopping the turnstile of the PATCO High Speed Line coming back late from partying with the other punks. No matter what percentage of my wardrobe came from Zipperhead, I couldn’t hold a candle next Maggie.

Anyway, one day I saw her walking down the hall and noticed that the back panel of her leather jacket had been completely covered with two-inch long spikes. I caught up and told her how cool it was. Maggie smiled and said, “Doesn’t it just make you want to give me a hug?”

A hug? Really? But I suppose that’s was the point (no pun intended). At the time I really didn’t give it any more thought. But now I realize that her quip, “Doesn’t it just make you want to give me a hug?” was in fact an extremely serious statement. Far more than just an expression of teen angst those spikes were armor… armor meant not for her body, but for her heart.

And you know what? I bet it worked pretty well. If someone was going to get scared off by those spikes, well then in Maggie’s mind that was someone who wasn’t worth getting to know anyway. But, if a person was willing to make the effort- to look beneath all the leather and scary exterior and still managed to see the creative and caring person underneath, well then that was a person who was worth getting to know… someone who was worthy of her trust.

For the most part, I’ve long since outgrown that rebellious phase. But you know, as far removed as I am from being that angry young man who tried to freak out my parents and scare the holy heck out of the rest of the school, there are times when I am still haunted by the same feelings of insecurity and doubt that so plagued my adolescence. When that happens, when people let me down or I begin to doubt myself, my instinct is to once again armor up and try and protect my heart against more hurt and disappointment.

I suspect I am not alone. Because regardless whether you were a cheerleader, a nerd or if the only leather you ever in high school wore were Sperry Topsiders, there is something universal in the urge to take your pain and project it outwards.

The unfortunate truth is that some of us are still putting on an act or erecting barriers, just daring anyone to actually try and get close. And it doesn’t matter if we wear a suit, work boots or a lab coat, when it comes to our pain and feelings of vulnerability we might as well be wearing Maggie’s spiked leather jacket.

The only way we know to protect ourselves is to keep others at a safe distance. Unfortunately, if we wear it long enough, we forget how to take it off and how to let people in. In the name of self-defense we drive person after person away. Then we look around at our lonely lives and start to wonder if we really are unlovable.

If that describes how you feel, then maybe it’s finally time to try something different. If you’re tired of being lonely, if you’re tired of being held back by fear, if you hurt so badly that all you can seem to do is to lash out at the very people who are trying to help, if what you want more than anything else in the world is for someone to love and accept you for who you really are, then I want you to know that this night is for you. Tonight, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are reminded us of the incredible truth… namely that no matter how many layers of armor we put over our wounded hearts, there is nothing we can do that will scare G-D off.

In fact it’s just the opposite. G-D sees through all the layers of our anger and pain and G-D… G-D loves us anyway. G-D loves us so much that he was willing to do whatever it took to close that distance we had created. In order to draw close to us again he came down from heaven and became one of us.

Born in Bethlehem, Jesus joined us in the whole range of our human existence. That means he knew doubt, isolation, betrayal, anger, fear, grief and all of those other terrible emotions which have caused you to withdraw or to push others away. Yet, no matter how bad things got, in spite of all the pain, Jesus refused to give up on us. In fact, Jesus loved us so much that he allowed himself to be broken so that we had the chance to be made whole.

That’ sounds too good to be true.  Imagine what that must be like… to have someone who looks at all your mistakes you’ve, at all the people you’ve hurt, at the whole of your messed up and messy life and somehow, still love you anyway. If that’s true then it means is that Jesus is someone you can trust with your heart. Jesus’ love for us is so great that if we let him, he is willing to hug us, spikes and all.

Such a relationship would change everything. To finally have someone who accepted you without condition or judgment… someone who could look past your anger and see the pain that lay beneath it… someone who you didn’t make you feel ashamed… someone you didn’t have to push away. To have someone like that would have to be some kind of miracle.

Well guess what? That miracle… that two thousand year old, heartbreaking, universe-changing miracle, that is what we celebrate tonight. In the birth of Jesus G-D comes into our world once again, and he comes so that you might finally know the love and acceptance you’ve always longed for.15673076_1246014532144500_3635799269079202813_n

Tonight you have a choice. You can go about your life as you always have; holding onto your pain, refusing to let go of your anger and doing your very best to keep G-D and everyone else at a safe distance, OR…. or just for tonight you can take a risk and choose to believe that Jesus just might be worthy of your trust. You can dare to let him see you without your armor. Just for tonight you can let your guard down just long enough to let Jesus come close, open his arms in love and hug you, spikes and all. AMEN

Beer and Christmas Carols

This Friday, December 4th, marks the official Beer and Carols release party for Gingerbread Jesus.  Join us at Barren Hill Tavern starting at 6:30 to sample this year’s GBJ as well as a a very limited amount of last year’s version.  I will also be blessing a firkin of Gingerbread Jesús- GBJ aged with Mexican chocolate and anchos that I grew and smoked myself.  We will be singing Christmas Carols while sipping away at some GBJ.  Hope to see you there!GBJ

Thanks to Brian Biggs for the artwork. and Erin Wallace and Dave Wood for making it happen.   #gingerbreadjesus.

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Breaking The Christmas Seal

downloadI normally observe and enforce a strict moratorium on all things Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving.  That means no Christmas music or decorations of any kind.  Normally it would also apply to Christmas beers as well.  But today I will make an exception.  That’s because today Gingerbread Jesus 2015 goes on tap.

It was a lot of fun coming up with the concept, but it has been even more fun making it.  This year we kept the same basic Belgian Dubbel base but doubled the amount of fresh ginger and made sure we used whole cinnamon and fresh nutmeg. But never fear- based on a taste a few weeks ago, the spices do not overwhelm the beer.  Last year everyone agreed that the ginger was too subtle so we hope this helps make this already wonderful beer even better. It goes on tap today at Barren Hill Tavern.  The official launch party with Christmas Carols will be next Friday, December 4th and will include a keg of last year’s GBJ and a firkin of Gingerbread Jesús- which will be enhanced with cacao and ancho chilies.  Hope to raise a toast with you there.

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In the meantime I wish you a blessed Thanksgiving with family and friends.

Gingerbread Jesus is Back

Making beer is hard work.  Period.  End of discussion.  Homebrewing is a good way to begin to learn this lesson.  It teaches us about measuring and quality control and after a while we start to understand that making beer, especially good beer, takes a lot of time, focus and dedication.  But industrial brewing, even at a small scale, is a far better teacher.

I was privileged to be invited back into this classroom last week when I returned to IMAG00667Barren Hill Tavern to again lend a hand in making Gingerbread Jesus. One of the first lessons of the day was that sometimes, not everything goes as planned.  We found this out upon walking in the door to discover brewmaster Dave Wood struggling with the grain mill.  For some reason not all the rollers would spin which meant we couldn’t crack the barley.  And, if you can’t crack the barely you can’t brew beer.  After an hour or so of taking the machine apart, making small adjustments and putting it back together again about 3 times we finally were ready to mill the grain.

This is where we got the experience the physical part of brewing first hand.  Hauling and lifting 50 pound sacks of grain and then hauling and lifting the tubs that held the cracked grain into position.IMAG00669 IMAG00671

Once added all that grain has to be carefully worked in so that is thoroughly wet.  The IMAG00674all steel paddle used for this purpose looked kind of like a canoe oar but could also have been the sort of thing you’d see in the hands of a Klingon warrior.  Moving it through a thick slurry of wet grain is no easy feat.  Dave made it look easy but when I took my turn I found it was a whole lot harder than it looked.  It’s not brutal work but it does teach you that brewing is a very physical art form.

After we finished mashing in it was time for a coffee break.  Which leads to another reality of brewing that few non-brewers actually get… namely there is a lot of waiting.  In professional facilities they definitely find ways to make use of that down time.  There is no end to cleaning, checking things like gravity and ph, and generally doing whatever else you can to make sure the equipment is ready to make the next batch.

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After a while we moved things over to the boil which meant we could clean out the mash tun.  600 pounds of dry grain doubles in weight which meant there was a lot of scooping into plastic trash can and then dragging said heavy cans outside so they could be picked up by a local pig farmer.  This marked the end of the strenuous activity but hardly the end of the work.

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Hops had to be added and then later the spices.  Since we were working to perfect last year’s recipe this meant doubling the amount of fresh ginger but otherwise we kept the balance of cinnamon and the nutmeg about the same.

All told the process took more than eight hours.  I’m grateful to Dave and Erin not just for making this crazy idea happen again, but also for opening the brewhouse so that I and other members of the church beer club could get hands on experience and deepen our understanding of how beer gets made.

Look for more updates on Gingerbread Jesus and the launch party with Christmas Carols very soon.

What beer says “Christmas” to you?

homer shirtYears ago my kids got me this t-shirt.  I loved it so much that I have since worn it out so completely that it got retired to the cleaning rag pile.  Nevertheless it made an indelible link between Christmas and beer in my mind.

As of now Christmas is only a week away.  It is a busy and a hectic time for all of us, particularly for those of us in the God business.  Yet, in the midst of all the rushing around and frantically trying to get work done, I must confess that my mind has started to wander to the all important question of what beers will I enjoy on Christmas?

So where do we begin.  Well, I don’t usually go in for many “Christmas” beers per se, especially the ubiquitous notion that all one needs to do to in order to make it a “Christmas” beer is to throw a buttload of cinnamon and other spices in.  Of course there are exceptions- Sierra Nevada Celebration is a kickass IPA that I wish they made year round.  Corsendonk Christmas is very tasty and the 12 Beers of Christmas series from The Bruery (currently on Six Geese A Laying) is always inventive and interesting.

But truth be told none of these make the list of beers that I plan my Christmas celebrations around.

So here goes: For dinner on Christmas Eve I usually go with a Yorkshire Stingo.  Since I have mass a hour later I only have one.  From there it is no rest for the wicked until the last parishioners have left after  our “midnight” Mass (which like most everywhere else doesn’t start at midnight anymore).  But by the time I sit down in my living room it is about 12:45 on Christmas morning and I am looking to indulge in something luxurious.  I am planning on a 3 year old Dogfish Immort to pair with some gorgeous cheeses while I de-stress and chat with my lovely wife and a few friends followed by an Odin’s Tipple as a nightcap.

beer_santahatBut the real event comes later on Christmas Day.  Once I have officiated at Christmas morning services I promptly get back into my pj’s.  Once I have finished my second cup of coffee it is time to pop open the first of many tasty offerings for the day.  A two year old Rochefort 10 sounds like the way to start.  Next comes Bruton 10.  Then after we have brought some order to chaos of wrapping paper and boxes, I will choose a barrel aged Eclipse from 50/50 to wind down the day.

What about you?  What beery treasures will break out  to celebrate the day?  Let us know in the comments.  But whatever it may be, I hope you choose to enjoy some of the best you can best and that you get to share it with family and friends.