Show me the way to the next whiskey bar (or not)

 

Well, here we are, one week into Lent.  For the past several years my Lenten fast has been alcohol related. I have alternatively abstained from beer and from alcohol altogether.  As I considered my options I started taking stock of my life.  What habits were starting to trouble me?  What might God be calling me to change?

The answer didn’t take long.  Whiskey (usually bourbon or rye) had become a nightly ritual.  Just a few years ago it was a very occasional indulgence.  Beer was my undisputed drink of choice.  But since our trip down the Bourbon Trail in 2015 that after-dinner whiskey cemented its place in my nightly routine.

Unfortunately, along with that habit came a gradual increase in my consumption of alcohol. Especially when the whiskey isn’t getting measured out by the bartender it became all too easy to pour a double. Add high-proof varieties into the mix (one of my favorites, Old Weller Antique clocks in at 107 proof on up into barrel-strength whiskeys which tip the scales in the 130’s), and suddenly that “one” glass has the alcohol equivalent of one and half all the way up to three regular 80 proof drinks.

Just to keep things simple, I extended the fast to include all hard liquor, otherwise I’d be tempted to start substituting G&T’s or Armagnac which would defeat the whole purpose.

One week into Lent, I pleased to report that I’m doing OK. It’s been interesting to notice that when I am heading into the living room after cleaning up from dinner, my eyes are drawn inexorably upwards towards the liquor cabinet. While I miss it, the absence of whiskey isn’t causing me any existential crisis. And, as I hoped, it has cut down on my alcohol consumption. While I might choose to have a nice quad or Imperial Stout after dinner, I am certainly not temped to go back for seconds.

Of course I still have five more weeks to go and a lot can happen in that time. But I’m not losing any sleep over it. What will be really interesting is how I re-integrate whiskey back into my life once Christ is Risen. But for now, that’s a question for another day and another post.

What about you?  Do you fast for Lent?  If so, what do you give up?  Have you ever fasted from alcohol?  How did it go for you?

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.

Kirk Mowhawk 1
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.

download

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

Meeting Metal Matt

I was already a little on edge just walking into the show. A lingering knee sprain from a Gogol Bordello concert meant no mosh pit but even so, I was worried about how I would get along with the crowd who had come to see Behemoth.  Beside that I was on my own which created a certain amount of anxiety all by itself.  Yet there I was, finding a seat in the balcony.  Once I settled in and ordered a beer, my next job was finding a friend or at least a conversation partner.

I looked around for options.  To my right was a couple in their late 20’s with the usual leather, tats and piercings.  Several seats down on my left was big guy sporting a shaved head, lots of ink, a shirt that read “Blackcraft” and a laminated VIP badge.

I opted for door #1.

They were friendly enough.  We chatted about beer and the bands for a while but there was no real connection.  Once that conversation petered out I glanced back to my left.  I’m not a small man (6 ft and 225) but this guy made me feel puny.  He looked like he made his living as a bouncer at some very nasty bars.  Not the most inviting conversation partner to say the least.

So I had to decide… which fear was going to get the better of me?  Was it worse to go through the concert alone?  Or to broach a conversation with a guy who looked like he could kill you just by being a bad mood?

This time I went for door #2.  After the customary “How you doin?” I asked if he was with the band?  Turns out that he was just a fan who had come up extra early for a VIP meet and greet with Behemoth.  In fact he had left early that morning to drive all the way from south of Richmond, VA.  As he shared the experience of meeting Nergal and company and what nice guys they all were, I moved a seat closer.

I welcomed him to Philly and we introduced ourselves. I asked Matt what he was drinking.

“Jack and coke.”

I ordered our next round.  He insisted on getting the next one. While we waited I told him about the opening act, Myrkur, then we discussed other bands we liked.  Like me, Matt has wide-ranging tastes.  He rattled off a long list of genres that on his phone.  My ears perked up when I thought I heard him say “Praise Music” but I let it go.

After some time the conversation drifted from music to our families.  He’s got three kids, all younger than mine.  From there it was an easy segue into the trials and tribulations of parenting.  In addition to working hard as a telecom lineman, Matt also worked hard to instill decency, respect and morality into his kids.

At this point I couldn’t help but circle back.  “Hey Matt, earlier when we were talking about music, did you say you liked praise music?”

“That’s right.”

“So are you a churchgoer?”

“Indeed I am.”

“That’s cool.  I’m an Episcopal priest”

At that point Myrkur took the stage.

Between the sets we talked about Jesus.  We talked about the perceived contradictions of being a Christian and liking metal.  I asked him about the Blackcraft shirt. He said it was pretty much the same thing as liking Behemoth.  He liked the designs and didn’t worry about how others might interpret them.  He knew what he believed and the rest was of little importance.

I respected that.  I’m not sure that, even if I liked it,  I would ever feel comfortable wearing something covered in the symbols of Satanism or black magic, but I admired his sense of himself and his confidence.

So there we were, surrounded by pentagrams, goats heads, 666’s and every other imaginable symbol hostile to Christianity, and we were talking about Jesus and the challenge of trying to raise decent children in the 21st century.

Once the show ended I told him that since he was facing a seven hour drive he was welcome to crash at my place.  He insisted he was fine. Even so, I couldn’t let him leave without partaking of one of Philly great late-night institutions.

6e7cfd0555761d2faf38e10c53b390f9

We poured out of the TLA and across the street to Lorenzo’s.  I must admit that it was gratifying when he marveled at the size of slices.  Although the place was mobbed, we were given enough berth to finish our pizza comfortably (one of the perks of looking big and scary I suppose).

download

Back out on the street we hugged and then he gave me his VIP lanyard.  I protested but he insisted that he still had plenty of swag to remember the show.  And this way I would have something too.  We exchanged numbers.  Not knowing his last name I just put him under “Metal Matt.”

imag01841

Some of my favorite Gospel stories show Jesus finding faith in the most unlikely people- soldiers, lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors.  Time and time again he marvels to find they have more than religious professionals and otherwise upstanding citizens.  When I first saw Matt sitting down the row, I was scared to talk to him.  By the end of the night I was happy to offer him the guest room in my home.  And from a concert that, at least on the surface, was all about celebrating Satan, what I found instead is that faith continues to show up when you least expect it.

IMAG01275

Beer Week, The Brew Off and other Successful Shenanigans

The last six weeks have been exceptionally busy.  I’m pleased to report that all our endeavors were successful both in terms of fun and funds raised.

All Teams

All the brewers and brewsters at the end of the night

The 3rd installment of the Biblical Brew Off saw our biggest crowd yet.  There is no doubt that the women of Team Eve helped to bring many of their own fans which swelled the crowd.  Those present got to sample the seven brews, dine on BBQ and bid on the silent auction while team of judges (Theresa Conroy, Danya Henninger, George Hummel and special guest Jay Brooks) ranked the offerings.

Team Jesus took back the crown but Team Eve took the People’s Choice with their Saison d’Eve.  But the real winners were the charities who split an all-time high of over $2700.

IMAG01353 IMAG01349 DSC07380

IMAG01386Beer Week was just as fruitful.  Sarah Weissiger joined Rabbi Eli and myself at Fergie’s for the latest iteration of A Priest, a Minister and a Rabbi Walk into a Bar.  Sarah’s knowledge and humor blended perfectly.  Together we shared our thoughts and mused theological.  The crowd was wonderful and posed heartfelt questions.

13331092_1291803494182386_1811649086735608448_n IMAG01380

A few days later I took my first turn working behind the bar at the Old Eagle Tavern.  Lew Bryson and I poured beers for a big crowd some of whom were regulars but many of whom came out to support us and the good work of North Light Community Center.

13339663_1069972963083602_3446761183106370189_n

Note which side of the bar Lew Bryson is on and which side I was on. Thanks Nancy Rigberg for the pic!

I have to say that it’s a lot harder than it looks.  Thankfully Ryan (the regular barkeep) was a good teacher and the patrons were patient (although I was occasionally heckled for being too slow).  Between keeping orders straight in my head and dealing with foamy taps, I was ready for a beer myself by the time it was all over.  All told we raised $275 in tips and Erin kicked in another $200 from the house’s take which meant that North Light Community Center got $475!

13412909_10209855694532727_2382110223510416420_n

I know- I on the wrong side of the bar yet again but trust me I really did work hard and pour a lot of beers.

The money we raised for charity is great but what is even more important about these events is that they bring people, who otherwise might never meet, together in a way that fosters conversation and helps build common bonds.  There is real power in coming together over a beer and I am truly grateful to have friends that help me harness that power in new and creative ways.

The Biblical Brew Off is Back!

Team Moses and Team Jesus are back and facing off once again to see which congregation’s beer reigns supreme.  But this year they also have to reckon with the women of the newly formed Team Eve. As before, each entry will be blindly evaluated by qualified judges according to BJCP standards. The team with the highest average score will be declared the winner.  There will also be a people’s choice- each person in attendance will get to vote for their one favorite beer.

BibBrew-Off 2016 (2)

But this is not just about bragging rights.  Each team will be competing for a charity.  Representing my parish of St. Tim’s, Team Jesus will be competing for North Light Community Center.  Team Moses from Rodeph Shalom will be competing for HAIS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). And Team Eve, made up of women from both congregations, will be competing for the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network.  The purse will be split with 50% going to the winner’s charity and 30% to second place and the remaining 20% to third.  That way none of these worthy causes will walk away empty handed.

It all takes place this coming Saturday, May 7th at Rodeph Shalom (615 North Broad Street).  Doors open at 7 pm.  Advance tickets are only $25 and can be purchased here. That gets you unlimited samples of the different beers, BBQ from Deke’s and a commemorative pint glass. We’ll also have custom growlers, t-shirts for each team and amazing baskets filled with beer and other goodies to bid on in a silent auction.

IMAG01326

The only way to win this basket filled with rare beers from Vermont is to come to the Brew Off!

We hope you will join us for what is sure to be memorable evening of friendly competition, food, fellowship and of course beer.  Best of all, every penny we net goes to benefit those who are homeless, hungry and who have had to flee from war and persecution.

140510_biblical brew off_008

Thanks to Brian Biggs (who draws the logos) and Home Sweet Homebrew for all their support!

Holy Bartenders

I really value and respect a good bartender.  They remember your name.  They remember your drink.  They can keep a dozen orders going all at the same time and the best ones can manage it all with great aplomb.  All of this is in addition to the work they do listening, offering advice and generally caring about the people they serve. It’s not a stretch to say the best bartenders are holy.

No, not like this:

More like this:photo-small

With that in mind here is a condensed version of my most recent sermon.

 

I have a lot of respect for people who change careers and reinvent themselves.  Sometimes I wonder what I would do if I weren’t a priest.  Let’s face it, seminary training doesn’t really prepare you with many other marketable skills.  I can’t fix a car or write a legal brief.  I don’t know how to start an IV or create a comprehensive lessons plan to teach 4th graders about history.  But there is one job that I think could be an easy fit.  I could become a bartender.

Think about it… What skills does a bartender need?  Well, you have to be good with people.  You have to listen to their problems and sometimes offer them advice.  I can do that.  You have to be organized and able to multitask.  I can do that.  You have to be able to diffuse conflict or even settle an argument.  I can do that too.  And when it comes to actually serving drinks, well it just so happens I know a little bit about beer.

All this overlap might explain why so many bartenders feel like they often wind up doing the work of a priest.  They deal with people who are lonely, sad or upset on a daily basis.  Any bartender worth their salt knows how to listen as a patron unburdens themselves after a tough day.  How many times have they had to hear a confession or offer advice on how to try and save a relationship?   I would bet that more than a few have even stopped a person from hurting themselves or someone else.  It’s fair to say that a barkeep has the chance to do some holy work if they are so inclined.

The overlap between priests and bartenders isn’t new.  In fact, in today’s Gospel Reading we find that Jesus himself might have helped blur the line between the two professions when he turned water into wine.  Let me set the scene.   We find Jesus as a guest at a wedding when the unthinkable happens.  The wine runs out.  Now wine was extremely important in Jesus’ time.  Why?  First because drinking water could make you sick.  Wine was a much safer choice, thus an essential part of everyday life.  Of course given what I see from some of your Facebook posts, not much has changed.

But wine was also important for religious purposes.  This was particularly true when it came to weddings.  Not only did it play an important role when it came to enhancing the guests’ enjoyment, wine also had great religious significance.  It was seen as a sign of G-D’s blessing.  To run out of wine then would not simply leave you with disappointed guests… it was a serious faux pas.

It is in such scandalous circumstances that we find Jesus today.  The wedding is in full swing yet the wine has run out.  Yet Jesus barely seems to notice.  Indeed, it is only after some prodding from his mother that he gets involved.  And so it is that rather reluctantly Jesus steps up to the task and enables both the good times and the blessings to continue to flow.

That’s all very nice but what does it mean?  Jesus doesn’t say.  In fact, the only thing that Jesus is clear about is that it is not yet his time to go public in his role as the Messiah.  Indeed, apart from his mother, a few of the servants and later, his disciples, no one seemed to know what occurred.  So apart from the demonstration of Jesus’ miraculous power, what, if anything does it mean for us today?

Let’s start with the fact that Jesus’s first miracle was both largely anonymous and devoid of any overtly religious trappings.  Think about it.  He never makes a show out of what he was doing nor does he appear to take any credit for it.  Moreover, he never invokes the name of G-D nor does he even do so much as bless the water.  So what’s the point?

Perhaps what Jesus is trying to show us is that miracles can happen regardless of whether or not we recognize them.  G-D acts in our lives, not just in obvious ways or through obvious people like priests… G-D also acts through mundane or even the profane circumstances or people.

Unfortunately, when this happens, we, just like the steward in the Gospel, tend to miss the fact that a miracle just occurred.  When Jesus’ wine is brought to him, he tastes just how wonderful it is but has no idea where it has come from. He mistakes it as a sign that the groom has mistakenly kept the best wine until late in the game.  Not once does he even suspect that the wine is a sign of G-D’s presence and blessing.

How often do we miss out on seeing what G-D is doing for us because it comes, not in church or from a priest or from reading the Bible but just in the course of daily life?  Maybe the whole point of this water into wine thing is to help us see that miracles happen all the time. G-D moves among us and intervenes in our lives in the most unexpected ways.  Yet we are too wrapped up in the problems of the moment or in trying to get through the day to even notice.  If we were just more open to that sacred possibility, how many more times might we find that the hand of G-D has touched us… helping us get through a crisis or deal with a problem or perhaps even helping find a respite of joy?

The truth is that G-D works just as much through the caring shown by a cop or a teacher or our dry cleaner as G-D does through the church.  Yet we are far more likely to give thanks to G-D when that blessing comes through our priest as opposed to our bartender.  Maybe the whole point of the Miracle at Cana is that we shouldn’t be so quick to make that judgment.  Jesus takes ordinary water and turns it into wine.   In the same way G-D takes ordinary people and makes them instruments of healing and blessing.  The question is that when these miracles happen, will we take them as a happy coincidence or will we recognize them for what they truly are?

The good news is that either way G-D will continue to reach out and bless your life.  The worst that can happen is that you enjoy that blessing unaware and go on with your day.  Yet how much more meaningful might those blessings be if we saw the hand of G-D at work when they happened?

When the guests drank the wine at Cana, there is no doubt they enjoyed it.  It was the good stuff after all.   But imagine if they knew where it came from?  Imagine if they knew just how truly special it was?  That wine would have done much more than brighten their day… it would have changed their lives because they would have known that G-D was in their midst and was there blessing them.

Now think about your life.  Think about times in which someone, especially someone unexpected, touched your life and blessed you when you needed it most.  That was G-D at work. Yet like the steward at the wedding, you probably didn’t know it.   But what if you did?  What if you saw that act of kindness or compassion for what it truly was- a blessing?  How much more joy and hope might you find if you remembered that G-D is not limited to sacred places or people?   Such preconceptions only limit our lives, but they cannot limit G-D.  And in the end, the blessing we need might come not from our priest but from a nurse, a mechanic, a crossing guard or even from our bartender.

AMEN

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.

IMAG00684

IMAG00682

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.

IMAG00688

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.