Another cup of coffee

“For what it’s worth,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “it’s never too late . . . to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. . . . I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again” (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”).

It’s a perfect quote for the beginning of Lent, the annual season in which we reorient ourselves to the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” – when we try to muster the will and the strength to start all over again. I expected to be better than I am at starting all over again, I’ve had so many opportunities to do it and so much practice. But when I look back on even my best efforts, I realize how clumsy and ineffective they were. I know I’m not alone.

Some years ago, a fellow from the Adirondacks called up Willem Lange, one of Vermont’s treasured storytellers, wanting to know if he had the time to restore an old canoe. Lange didn’t have the time, but since it was the kind of thing he could do in the evenings, and since he loved old canoes, he told the man to bring it over. The canoe was a rare, vintage beauty. “If its owner had brought me a Stradivarius,” Lange wrote, “I’d have felt no more reverent about it” (Willem Lange, “The Old Canoe,” Tales from the Edge of the Woods, Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1998).

Long before the canoe had been refurbished by someone Lange described as “an impatient young varnisher just learning his trade.” Shortcuts and inexperience had left their telltale marks: runs in the varnish and a few quick, cheap substitutes for original parts. It didn’t take him long, however, to recognize the canoe was one he himself had clumsily revarnished a half-century earlier. He even recalled the part he played in the canoe’s history, when he served as a guide for the family who owned it then, a history that included a trap laid for a peeping Tom. The canoe still bore signs of that history in the birdshot trapped in its then-fresh varnish.

Lange’s recognition of his inexperienced earlier work reminded me of a time twenty or so years ago when I looked over some sermons I had written early in my career, the product of an earnest but clumsy and inexperienced young pastor, sermons that I had saved for the day when they might again be useful. Lange could correct his work on the old canoe with some judicious stripping and sanding and the skilled application of new varnish. There was no such remedy for my old sermons; I could only consign them to the recycling bin and start fresh, which I did with no regrets. A weight was lifted.

A couple of years ago I purged my files again. It was easier that time, requiring only a few keystrokes instead of hauling boxes of paper to the shredder. It was also easier because I recalled how it feels to let go of such a load and start fresh – to free myself of how I once saw things so I could see more clearly the brand-new life around me and not have to discover in a few years how stale even the best of my work will have become.

Thirteen years before his death and a few months before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner wrote, “It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago, and like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them” (Selected Letters of William Faulkner, ed. Joseph Blotner, New York: Random House, 1977).

Recalling those 2,000 or so purged sermons and looking ahead to whatever I may write next, I’ll probably sign what I publish, Faulkner’s intention notwithstanding and my ego being what it is. But I expect in time I’ll regret these new sermons as well, like I might regret other choices I made to start all over again in life. But here’s the thing about growing: there are always things to leave behind – the debris of wrong turns and poor judgment, the skins of old selves we’ve outgrown and cast off, as our new selves – which is to say our original, authentic selves – are clarified and revealed.

Any time’s a good time to do that; Lent just happens to be particularly appropriate for it. The process need not be gloomy, stringent, and burdensome. We can simply start where we are, making sure our life choices reflect, or begin to reflect, our hopes and not our fears. We can simply ask: Is this the way life was meant to taste, the way I want my life to taste? Can I make choices that are more lifegiving, more tasty, like the choice Mrs. Peterkin finally came to confront?

As E.B. White told the story from The Peterkin Papers, “Mrs. Peterkin poured herself a delicious cup of coffee and then, just as she was ready to drink it, realized that she had put salt in it instead of sugar. Here was a major crisis. A family conference was held, and the chemist was called in on the case. The chemist put in a little chlorate of potassium, but the coffee tasted no better. Then he added some tartaric acid and some hypersulfate of lime. It was no better. The chemist then tried ammonia and, in turn, some oxalic, cyanic, acetic, phosphoric, chloric, hyperchloric, sulfuric, boracic, silicic, nitric, formic, nitrous nitric, and carbonic acid. Mrs. Peterkin tasted each, but it still wasn’t coffee. After another unsuccessful round of experimentation, this time with herbs, Elizabeth Eliza took the problem to the lady from Philadelphia, who said, ‘why doesn’t your mother make a fresh cup of coffee?'” (E.B. White, “Coon Tree,” Essays of E.B. White, New York: Harper & Row, 1977).

Life can be – and often is – a wilderness of difficult life choices that cannot be avoided or deferred, like those the gospels tell us Jesus had to make in his wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11). But maybe the place for us to start is not by adding things to our lives to cure the bitter taste – disciplines and obligations and such. Maybe the place to start is by asking if there’s another cup of coffee in the pot, another way to live that is simpler, more authentic, less processed, more direct and unmediated. Maybe the place to start is simply to ask if there’s another cup of coffee in the pot and to live with the question for the rest of the season.

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