I love good coffee. I like coffee from New Orleans, and from these Green Mountains. I like my coffee black or with cream. I like it dark and strong and somewhat bitter. I like it with a hint of sweetness, not from added sugars, but from a deep roasting that carmelizes and creates a foundation just under the bitter etch that makes the brain think — “Oh, life is good, even with the bitter right out front.”
I was delighted therefore when RJ’s started selling some coffee from the farm of Julia Alvarez, who is also an author and a summer resident of Middlebury, VT. Alta Gracia, the name of her farm, is located on the slopes of Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in the caribbean. Volcanic soil, tropical climate and cooler temperatures of the elevation combine to create some of the best growing conditions anywhere for coffee beans. But coffee trees don’t do so well when they are grown on a typical farm where the farmers remove everything that is not the product producing plant. And neither does the soil. The coffe tree does not, by itself stabilize nor enrich the soils where they are grown, and when it grows poorly because its not growing under the shade of other trees, they are not able to prevent the regular and heavy rains of the tropic from washing the spare soil away, clogging up streams, killing the aquatic life of these rivers and streams and disrupting and even threatening the lives of the villagers below.
And so Julia Alvarez began, years ago to restore her new farm to a more sustainable state, by planting shade and fruit trees to hold the moisture and the soil on the steep mountainside. The trees also provide the needed shade for the coffee and a habitat for the insects and worms and other critters required for a sustainable farm. The motto of her coffee farm, imprinted on every bag of coffee from Alta Gracia, is “Coffee tastes better when birds sing over it.”
Now, I’m not much into pollyanism. So when I say, after all that has transpired within our little church community in the past few months, with the resignations of two of our music staff members, that life is better when the we sing over it, I am not suggesting that it is better because we are suddenly distracted, through singing, from the pain and turmoil of all of that. I am suggesting, however, that like my coffee, the bitter is never all there is — that one can hear, even if only because alive, the high grace birds singing over it. And that to become aware of that song again is to be and do as we ought.
THE metaphysical question is, therefore, how can we keep from singing? If human life is such that it is impossible to keep from singing — or put less optimistically — if human life is such that it is possible to sing when all around is crumbling, it is because the fact of our existence, in order to be recognised as existence at all, requires there to be something already there, already behind us, already above us, ready to be re-thought at all. To re-cognise our existence, to re-think it, is more than to say, I think therefore I am. It is to come to the fresh awareness that to be alive is to be a part of something comprehensive. Something not only more enduring than our lives, but something fundamentally worth dealing with in our lives.
A pollyannish answer to the great question of evil asserts one of two things. It either assert that evil is an illusion or that evil non-existent for God’s children.
First as an illusion. An extreme form of Buddhism I think is rare. But a much more common and modern twist on the illusion solution to evil suggests that it’s all in the mind, and the power of positive thinking will in fact eliminate evil for you because the illusion becomes reality in the processes of the mind.
The other approach to evil is the equally pollyanish Augustinian one which holds that God is an irresistable force for good and that for all of God’s children, that grace eliminates our involvement in it. The modern Catholic twist on this, recognizing that evil nevertheless persists, is the doctrine that holds that evil persists because only inside the church is salvation actually effected — the doctrine of the church known as nulla salus extra ecclesium.
Now, we Protestants have our own twist on Augustinianism, maintaining God’s omnipotence, but holding that God acts in concert with human acting.
We could go on. But we don’t need to because all of these solutions fall short by relying on the failed devise of omnipotence – and, so the argument goes, “we humans are not really given to think about this stuff anyway – God’s ways are not our own.”
Now, the point is never simply to criticise. The point, instead, is to hear with fresh ears the birds singing again. The point is to be able to affirm to our own hearts and then through our actions, that the God whom we claim to worship and love, and whom we would truly and properly serve, is real. And because arguments against Augustinianism by those outside the church (and some within) have been extensive, a different way might allow us to be more at ease in our skins and less religious. Perhaps the notion that religion is merely about God saying NO to the human condition could be overcome by the human reason saying “Yes” to Divine grace. Perhaps we can get rid of the idea that God must be sheer and irresistible force guided by all-knowing insight and instead see that the God who rules through the power of love persuading us to manifest wise care to each other is in fact the entirety of what we need and want from God — and that the rest, the irresistable might, the limited grace, is all a product of the very evil it cannot seem to solve. Perhaps then our almost indominatable will to power that results in so much discord and disappointment might soften, and the call to high grace and gentle wisdom leaven our ways and put a song in our hearts.
It is easy to get distracted by the WOW factor of this gospel reading. We get destracted by the alcohol, we get distracted by the quantity of the alcohol, we get distracted by the party atmosphere. (We may be liberated UCC folk — but our puritain heritage does not die easy.) Obviously we get distracted by the miracle. To even ask about the miracle is distracting us from the story-teller’s intent. In John that intent is always pretty straightforward for an audience with no intellectual tools to distinguish say, fermentation from miracle. Miracle is an explanation — it is not a causative description. John’s intent is to describe the kind of life that Jesus brings us to again. John’s purpose is to help us to see that life, even when it seems to be on the verge of disaster, or perhaps in the middle of it, as a large wedding party without wine or beer has always been, is yet ready to surprise and to awaken us to the deeper well from which to drink is truly to experience life.
Julia Alvarez calls her farm Alta Gracia because grace is only truly grace when it is attune to the singing of the world, not as try to harvest it for our convenience, but as we live and move and find our being in the midst of its wonders, its terrors and its beauties, its disappointments and its urgings. To sing when everything is coming up roses is one thing. To sing with passion and beauty and intensity, when the bricks are tumbling down around you is another thing — nothing short, I propose, of staying in tune with Alta Gracia. Amen.