Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Final Report

I learned to Make Great Espresso!

I learned to make espresso. At three dinner parties in our home this summer, where the guests were colleagues in homiletics, I was able to prepare and serve espresso graciously, welcomingly, and hospitably. My espresso is really good! I have excellent equipment. I am very selective in what coffee beans I use. I would much rather make my own espresso than go out for coffee. My wife includes my espresso as an ingredient in her baking and cooking. My colleagues at the dinner parties both enjoyed the espresso and conversed about the connections between making espresso and teaching preaching.

Except for when I was traveling, I practiced the art of the barista—a person who serves at a coffee bar—and made espresso every morning during the year that I was privileged to participate the Wabash Center’s 2010-11 Teaching and Learning Colloquy for Mid-Career Theological School Faculty, and indeed every day since. Making espresso is such a habitual part of my life that writing this final report occasioned my recalling that this is a practice I intentionally undertook a year ago. Reading about techniques for making espresso and steaming milk and researching espresso machines and other equipment feels very long ago. Thus, I accomplished one of my primary goals and undertook an art form that I succeeded at, which has become part of my life—a hobby—and not simply another project.

I accomplished my second primary goal in that, in time, making espresso became an experience of triumph or accomplishment that broadened my life and revitalized my spirit and vocation. I learned to make espresso and, in time, to steam milk.  I am particularly grateful to Chris Nachtrieb of Chris’s Coffee Service for explaining a method of steaming milk that relies on listening to the sound of the milk rather than watching a thermometer. I was never able to master “latte art”— an art form created by pouring steamed milk into a shot of espresso and resulting in a pattern or design on the surface of the resulting latte—in large part because my espresso was so good that I did not want to dilute it with milk!

More than an accomplishment, making espresso has become for me a “sacramental” experience in which I encounter God and a “Sabbath” experience that distracts and so renews me. When I travel, I miss the morning routine of standing at my “altar” and thinking and praying while I grind, tamp, pull, and clean. As I listened to the reflections of the quilters, novelists, musicians, and photographers who were my companions in the colloquy, I discovered that my experience mirrors theirs, making espresso art. While some may need convincing that a shot of espresso is akin to a photograph, I have come to appreciate espresso as art. Made well, which I learned to do, It is a beautiful, multisensory experience—extraordinary sweet taste, inviting aroma that fills the house, and a beautiful dark reddish-brown crema, smooth, yet thick, that is delightful to look at.

Becoming a Student Again

Like preaching, espresso preparation is an art that demands the precision and dedication of science. Whereas the preacher must understand and balance variables including the personalities of the preacher and the listeners, Scripture and the context, the occasion and delivery, and the presence (or absence) of the Spirit, and the teacher of preaching must teach students to understand and balance these variables, the barista must understand and balance the blend, roast, and grind of the beans the distribution and tamp of the coffee in the portafiller, the quality, temperature and pressure of the water, the timeliness of the extraction and the temperature of the cup. Factor in milk for cappuccinos and lattes, and things get even more complicated.

Making espresso helped me rediscover the complexity, uncertainty, and need for trial-and-error that my students experience as they learn to balance the variables in preaching. One of my three leading questions is:  How does a “method” of preparing espresso inform a “method” of sermon preparation, and vice versa?  I was helped greatly by the formula known as the “golden rule” of espresso, which states that a double shot of espresso should equal 2 to 2.5 fluid ounces and take approximately 20 to 25 seconds to extract from the moment you start the pump until you reach the appointed liquid volume. I recall the weeks I spent watching the timer on my iPhone as I adjusted tamp, grind, and temperature. N response to this experience, I am exploring what formulas or “golden rules” I might provide students as they learn to balance the variables in preaching.

I also relearned the importance of routine, practice, and spending time every day.  I could not “cram” and learn to make espresso, as surely as students cannot “cram” and learn to preach. I felt affirmed in my insistence that students follow a method in sermon preparation and that I follow a (labor intensive) step-by-step process to teach students to preach. Yet, I wonder about the course’s place in our curriculum.  Students can take preaching in the second semester of their first year or the first semester of their middler or second year and not preach again until the third year on internship. With the three or four sermons they preach in class, they are discovering a process and not developing a routine. How might I better help students develop the routine? How might they preach every week or, at the very least, preach regularly in the interim between finishing preaching class and starting internship?

I learned a great deal by hanging out in coffee shops and both watching and talking to baristas and roasters. I wonder how I might facilitate students learning by hanging out with preachers. I know this happens during the summer residency of the ACTS Doctor of Ministry in Preaching Program, between students themselves and students and teachers. I am toying with ideas for inviting preachers into my M.Div, classes to preach and discuss a sermon and reflect on their process of sermon preparation.

A Fitting Metaphor

I made many metaphorical connections between preaching and making espresso. For example, coffee is like the Bible and the grind is exegesis—the process of analyzing and interpreting the biblical text. Relying too much on biblical commentaries is like using ground coffee. Much of the work is done for you but, like the coffee, the exegesis is dated. The best sermons, like the best espresso, require
freshness. Among preaching students—and preachers, I suspect—we can find two types of exegete. Those that enjoy exegesis produce a very fine grind. The message of the gospel gets clogged up in the exegesis. The preaching of those who are not exegetical fans is watery. Of course, the proper amount of exegesis depends on the discipline of the preacher and the expectations of the congregation. The question for me as a teacher of preaching is whether I need to do more to teach this balance? I have trusted my colleagues in Bible classes to teach exegesis for preaching. Do I need to do something more or different in preaching classes?

I made fewer metaphorical connections between making espresso and teaching preaching. I suspect that they are there but will take time to reveal themselves, since I am still thinking about making espresso and preaching, as opposed to making espresso and teaching preaching. Yet, the language and perspective of being a student of art nevertheless found its way into my teaching. I increasingly find introductory preaching students love to use “creativity” and “self-expression” as license to do whatever it is they want to do—along with reference to their particular “calling.”  I now tell them that jazz and improvisation are only possible when one knows the scales; otherwise the result is noise. A student who fancies herself a painter wanted to produce a watercolor painting while she preached. I said I learned sometimes painters make lots of attempts before they get it “right,” and wondered how she could be certain her painting would turn out spontaneously “right” as she painted while she preached. She answered that she trusts the Holy Spirit.  Other students in the class, including an artist and a musician, countered that the Spirit works through a method. The class had a great conversation about art, preaching, the Holy Spirit, method, and practice.  We decided that, even under the brooding of the Holy Spirit, “spontaneity” and “masterpiece” rarely go hand in hand, whether in art or in preaching.

A Helpful Evaluative Tool

Early on in this project, it occurred to me that, as espresso comes down to taste, so preaching at its best leaves people “tasting” the gospel. Preaching so that people “taste” the gospel is different from describing the taste or telling people what they should taste or how they should respond to the taste. If people don’t “taste” the gospel, the rest really doesn’t matter. Just as you cannot satisfy someone by describing a good cup of coffee, convince someone that they had a good cup of coffee, or get people to respond to a good cup of coffee when they have not been served one, so preachers cannot describe, persuade, or convince listeners that they have experienced the gospel in preaching when they have not.  I now ask students whether they “tasted” the gospel in the sermons they preach and hear their colleagues preach in class.  Students respond to this evaluative question and can name other tastes—guilt, shame, obligation, earning God’s favor—the sermons they hear metaphorically leave in their mouths.  I also look for consistency when evaluating students.

I also learned a goal of making espresso is consistency. I had to learn to pull a double shot of espresso of 2 to 2.5 fluid ounces in approximately 20 to 25 seconds as a matter of course. A barista cannot tell someone, “Sorry your coffee isn’t good. The shot I pulled last week was excellent.”  So, too, a goal of preaching is consistently—as in every sermon—giving people a taste of the gospel.  I now expect students to demonstrate consistency. Preaching the gospel in one of four sermons is no longer enough.

A Catalyst to Other Artistic Expression

I am delighted that this project—and the colloquy itself—served as a catalyst for additional artistic experimentation and expression.  I learned to set up a blog; I was less successful in maintaining it, because I wrote a book and twenty articles during the colloquy year, as well as sermons. I learned that writing is an artistic expression for me and I am claiming that more and more. I also learned to take pictures and video, and find myself writing poetry and song lyrics

Contribution to Scholarship

In terms of this project’s contribution to my scholarship, I published “The Preacher and Teacher of Preaching as Barista” in Currents in Theology and Mission, Vol. 27 No. 6 (December 2010). I included the notion that proclaiming the gospel is like serving someone a cup of coffee in my newest book, Preaching and Stewardship:  Proclaiming God’s Invitation to Grow (Alban, 2011). I have engaged in lively conversation with colleagues in the Academy of Homiletics. I continue to be intrigued by the “call for papers” put out by Teaching Theology and Religion, soliciting essays on the question, “What metaphor describes you as a teacher?”  I undertook writing such an essay as the form of final evaluation for the project; however, I am not ready in time for this report’s deadline. Tom Pearson was very helpful in advising me to clearly distinguish “preaching” from “teaching preaching,” and to explore and identify the limits of the metaphor.

Thank You!

I am very grateful to the Wabash Center for including me in this colloquy, for the leadership team, the fine teachers who taught us, and the colleagues with whom I shared the journey. The various artistic mediums we experienced provided a disarming and inviting entrée into deep questions about identity, vocation, faithfulness, and meaning. I do hope that Wabash will replicate an artistic approach to mid-career so others will benefit from a remarkably rich experience. Thank you!