Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
Like any living body, the Church has its own heartbeat. This heartbeat remains steady and audible at several levels. On the highest level it marks the most basic cadence of earthly human living: baby dedications, graduation services, marriages, funerals. In the middle we find annual events, the rhythms of the liturgical calendar and seasonal programs. Listening more closely, the weekly life of the Church emerges in the chatter of bible studies, prayer groups, and weekly gatherings. Finally we arrive at the downright quotidian: whispered prayers before bed, devotions by a dawn-lit window, murmurings of thanks and muted praise.
On this level, the finest and most delicate in the audible range, it is possible to discern the scrape of a fingernail etching grooves into the rim of a Styrofoam cup and the sound of a stirring rod batting powdered cream into a small quantity of coffee. These too are heartbeats in our houses of worship.
After grape juice, and then after water, and then perhaps after milk and/or honey, coffee is the drink of the evangelical church. It fuels the pastor, elder, and congregant alike in their shared pursuits of the holy, which pursuits can put a dire strain on the sleep-deprived mind. Under such conditions, caffeine may help to support the brain when it threatens collapse across the desk or boardroom table or baby changing station or whatever else there is within range of a falling head.
Perhaps there are churches in this world that boast of espresso machines and sitting areas where congregants cradle wide-brimmed mugs heaped with fern-imprinted foam, but I have never graced the doors of such a place. My boast is in Jesus alone, of course.
Rather, the coffee to which I became accustomed after church as an 11-year-old missionary kid in the Middle East, and have enjoyed at regular intervals ever since, comes into existence in imprecise potfuls. It’s cheap, hot, and weak. Heretically, it’s often instant. It’s a democratic drink par excellence, showing no favoritism as it props the eyelids of the believing rich and poor alike.
As a practice the preparation of church coffee has the aura of an ancient rite; I can recall from every period of my life memories of people working in concert to prepare carafes of brewed coffee for times of fellowship. The smells of simple Folgers roasts enticed me to hang around church kitchens, where I often discovered there to be stockpiles of sandwich cookies to boot.
I had my first taste of the stuff straight black—bitter and grainy on my tongue—when my age was hardly a two-digit number. The experience was my gentile bar mitzvah. As it burned my mouth and throat I felt as though I was drinking the cup that Christ drinks, in this case meaning the cup of adulthood. Later I discovered cream and sugar and coincidentally adulthood became far more palatable.
What is this mystical drink, this gift of God to the people of God? It aids the sleepy-headed in their fight with gravity, righting the tilt of their errant chins. It quickens the hand that holds the pen to the notepad during the pastor’s sermon. It aids in battle with the Old Man, the sin nature, which loses its hold on a person as he or she shakes off the darkness of sleep and the grumpiness derived thereof. And, of course, it forestalls the inevitable fall back into sleep, which is the closest analogue we have to the unknowable night of our own deaths.
A professor friend once told me that suburban developments are designed to look the same across the country to preempt a kind of vertigo that would otherwise result during regular air travel from place to place. The idea is that if homes looked different every time a person stepped out of a terminal, people’s minds would crack from the disjointedness of it all, seeing as we’re unaccustomed by design to such rapid transit between places. The uniformity across states and regions provides a comforting familiarity.
For me, there’s a similar comfort in the blandness of the coffee brewed in a Lima, Ohio church basement and the identical blandness of the coffee mixed in the cup in a repurposed gymnasium in Tel Aviv. It’s a material appearing of the Church universal, a visible sign of our invisible communion with one another and with God himself. I can walk into any fellowship hall, head for the refreshments table, and mix myself a sweetened milky-brown cup of coffee that puts me in touch with millions of believers around the world as they gingerly sip the same drink. Even the sound of dry lips peeling off a Styrofoam rim can bounce as an adhesive echo throughout the great house of the Lord. Verily, these are holy grounds.