True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts,
knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.
~ John Calvin
I find it amusing when, in coffee shops or on the side of cartons of chai tea, one reads the promise of experiencing nirvana. In these instances, “nirvana” is assumed to be a heaven-like afterlife where one continues to exist in a state of enduring bliss. However, what makes the promise so amusing is that most forms of Buddhist thought do not allow for the continuing existence of one’s individual self/soul. Nor is nirvana a place that one can be “at” in order for one to experience it. Rather, nirvana is reached when the suffering that one experiences,which is the result of all desires and cravings, is eliminated. Therefore, to be consistent with Buddhist teaching, one’s desire or craving for a cup of chai tea is at odds with reaching nirvana as the very act of desiring chai tea is would prevent one from attaining liberation from the cycle of rebirths and attaining the state of nirvana. 1
Thankfully, I am not Buddhist; rather, I adhere to the teachings laid out in Judeo-Christian Scriptures referred to as the Bible. According to those Scriptures, God created the world and announced it as “good”. And while those same Scriptures describe the world as being fallen, I believe that one can still enjoy the goodness in a cup of chai tea. I especially enjoy having a cup of chai in the presence and company of others. One of my favorite activities is, in a one-on-one setting or in a small group of friends, to talk with others in the aroma-filled environment of a coffee shop. I’ve come to associate the smell of coffee beans and chai lattes with the joyful engagement that comes with exploring the life of others as we talk about the recent happenings of our lives. Coffee shops and cafes, which can be found on many intersections in various communities (whether it is a well-known brand like Starbucks or a more independent reseller), can provide safe and relaxing havens for exploring the presence of others. 2 I believe that sharing the aromas of our lives with one another over a cup of coffee can be a deeply spiritual act when done with reliance on the presence of the Father, the guidance of Jesus and the power of the Spirit.
J. Brent Bill, a Quaker minister and writer, lends credence to my ideas above when he writes, “Coffee is a form of communion in many places and for many people – if by communion we mean communing with other people as well as God.” 3 As that quote indicates, such sanctified communion over a cup of coffee (or chai) is to be done with others and God. Where I currently live, there is a room upstairs that I enjoy being able to sit and read in. It’s not uncommon for me to have a cup of chai sitting on an end table next to me. As I sit in this room, I can look out the large, balcony windows that offer a view of the German countryside. And as I look out those windows in different seasons and see the changes in the deciduous trees that cover the hillside (they are currently barren with snow covering both them and the hillside), I may be prompted to consider the changing seasons of my own life. I become aware of my own fleeting and inconstant thoughts, habits, motivations, and longings – whether these be good or whether they require some redeeming.
The process of reflecting upon my life, as well as simply appreciating the beauty of the German hillsides, almost always leads me to a state of prayerful reflection. And as my thoughts are turned to God, I see my life and my innermost self in light of the presence of God and his desires for me. It is a cyclical and reciprocal process. As John Calvin wrote, “True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.” 4 It is true that the more we come to know God as He has revealed Himself in His Word, the better we will be at knowing and discerning our true selves and motivations. And as we parse through and recognize our own longings and desires, and how they find their fulfillment in Christ, then we can grasp better the character and mind of God as revealed through Scripture and Jesus Christ.
So for me, savoring the taste of spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger is an analogy for my time with others and with God. By tasting such variety on my tongue I am grateful for the reminder that I can relate to a God that is personal and who created the world with such diverse people and personalities to explore. I am also grateful that I can commune and abide in the presence of the One who mixes and stirs the various spices, both good and bad, that make up my life. I encourage you to spend some time in the presence of God or of others over a warm and steaming drink. Grande chai with vanilla soy, coming right up!
1) Sometime this week, ask someone you know to meet with you over a warm drink at a nearby cafe or, if appropriate, invite them into your own home (this can be a family member, friend, or an acquaintance – whomever you sense the Spirit moving you to ask). Before you sit down, ask for God to bless your time together and to enable the two of you to come to a deeper and better understanding of one another. As you are conversing, and especially if you are someone who likes to do all the talking, you may wish to pray for God to help you to become a discerning listener. After your time together, thank God for the time you spent. Pray over what was discussed asking God for whatever particular grace of His might be needed in that person’s life.
2) Find a comfortable place where you can sit alone without being interrupted for 20-30 minutes. Most likely this will be a place in your home, but if you anticipate feeling burdened by the demands of family or friends you may wish to go to a coffee shop. Prior to sitting down, brew (or purchase) your favorite warm drink. For the first 5-10 minutes, simply sit and savor your drink, while observing the space around you and what is taking place outside. What do you notice? Over the next 5-10 minutes reflect on what you saw. What does this say to you about yourself and about God? Finally, spend about 5-10 minutes praying over the insights you have received. If you did not sense God speaking to you, do not be discouraged but thank God for the opportunity to rest and ask for His help in discerning His presence and Word in your life.
1 Yandell, Keith and Harold Netland, Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009) pp. 22-25. Admittedly, my illustration is somewhat simplistic and lacks nuance. However, the authors of this book also explore differences in Buddhist thought and acknowledge that “some popular forms of Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia have embraced a kind of paradise as the soteriological goal”, p. 22. The book also employs philosophy to examine the logical inconsistencies within the different forms of Buddhist thought. For instance, if there is no enduring self then how is it possible for one to be in a state of existence long enough to expereince craving or to attain nirvana? As the authors point out, “But if everything is a construction, the fact is that there aren’t any persons. Nor is there anything – person or not – that could either feel compassion or suffer or be freed from suffering” p. 159.
2 While I am not opposed to Starbucks, per se, I do believe that other models can provide a better opportunity for one to slow down and experience the value of community. While the purpose of Starbucks was to mimic the role of Italian cafes, where one can find community and a place to call one’s “home away from home”, I find that Starbucks has sold out a little too much to consumerism. For instance, its addition of drive-thrus seems to work at odds with its intended mission. Second, other places, such as Pike’s Perk in Colorado Springs, CO which has a larger space to sit down, avoids the feeling of being cramped that Starbucks has and better encourages group activities, such as room to play board games. Further, I am hard-pressed to think of a Starbucks that has a sofa where one can actually relax for an extended period of time. Perhaps the utilization of hard, metal chairs is part of Starbucks strategy to have quick customer turnover?
3 Bill, J. Brent and Beth A. Booram, Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012) p. 181.
4 John Calvin, as quoted in Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008) p. 193.