Coffee, Dylan, & Church

As I was driving to a meeting at church one evening sipping my Starbucks and listening to Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee for the Road,” I suddenly realized that coffee, Dylan, and church have something in common.

For most people these three are acquired tastes. I love all three, but if I’m absolutely honest, I’ll have to admit that there are a lot of “yucks” a person needs to overcome (or overlook) before the greatness of these three can be appreciated.

Let’s start with my honest appraisal of coffee. In many ways, it’s a horrible beverage. If the brew is too weak, it tastes like dirty water; if it’s too strong, it tastes like motor oil. To temper the inherent nastiness, one feels compelled to add cream, milk, sugar, blue stuff, pink stuff, yellow stuff, clumps, lumps, drops, syrups, froth, or foam. Once ingested, it can upset the stomach and make finding a toilet your top priority. And, of course, withdrawal from long coffee binges causes dreadful headaches that no medicine can cure.

But if you can overcome the built-in “bleckh,” you’re on the road to becoming a true coffee connoisseur. Yes, to the initiated (read: “addicted”), its subjective benefits far outweigh its drawbacks. Coffee stimulates the body and the mind. It repels daily “blahs” and creates a feeling of community among consumers. A hot, steamy cup warms the heart on a frosty day; a cold, icy glass refreshes the soul. It wakes us up and keeps us alert. It gives us something to hold firmly in our hands and sip soothingly with our lips for peace and security in a rough and raunchy world.

Similarly, Bob Dylan fans often find themselves stuck in the same uncomfortable tension. Some have likened his earliest singing to Country-Western crooning, but perhaps “crowing” or “cawing” would be more accurate. I sometimes find myself struggling with a violent internal conflict after hearing a live recording, asking myself, “Should I applaud or be appalled?” Most recordings feel like basement jam sessions . . . and some of them were! Most lyrics make sense only in servings of two or three words at a time. Over the years of his career Dylan passed through genres like a tree passing through seasons: from Folk, to protest songs, to Rock, to ballads, to Gospel, to Blues.

But at the same time Dylan touches on something deep, something . . . real. It doesn’t always make sense, but sometimes that’s the point. Even some of the most puzzling lyrics strike the initiated Dylan fan as extremely profound. I have personally spent nights tossing and turning as my mind wrestled with lyrics from songs like “Jokerman” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” With time, patience, and a bit of squinting to blur the ragged edges, a devoted Dylanite can understand why he received a special Pulitzer Prize for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

This brings me now to the church. Like coffee and Dylan, the local church can churn our stomachs and offend our sensibilities. The apparent benefits we get from church viewed in the light of the manifold problems we experience in close communion with other saints can make us wonder whether it’s even worth the effort.

Like mining for silver or gold, receiving the rich blessings of ministry in Christ’s church often means getting our hands dirty, digging through thick dirt, blasting through solid rock, and putting in long hours of hard labor. It means enduring refining fires that hurt like Hell . . . and waiting patiently while the Jeweler fashions the raw material into a treasure of unparalleled beauty. The problem is, however, that none of us in this life will experience church in that final perfected state. Rather, in this world we are being dug up, sifted out, and purified, eagerly anticipating the day when His masterwork will be completed and put on display for all to see. God’s treasure is a work in progress, and while that work continues, church can be frustrating, painful, and downright disappointing.

But even in the midst of God’s transforming work of taking the raw material of the ghastly, grubby church and making her holy and beautiful, I can have confidence that God is working all things together for the good of His elect— you and me. The church is comprised of individual believers called together to experience the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Only in the church do we experience real life in Christ’s body on earth. Only in the church do we draw near to God corporately through worship, word, and sacraments. Only in the church do we have genuine opportunities to pray for one another, encourage one another in good works, and strengthen one another in faith, hope, and love. Only in the church can we take messy, mixed up people with sometimes nothing in common and unite them as a living testimony of God’s transforming grace.

Coffee, Dylan, and church. Yes, these three are acquired tastes. Like honest coffee-addicts and diehard Dylan fans, real Christians will admit that they have to overlook a lot of imperfections and overcome a lot of problems to appreciate the goodness, nay, greatness, of the church. These imperfections and problems are the ones we each bring to the community . . . and the ones God will ultimately set right or put to rest.

As I now travel the rough road of the Christian life in this rusted out sedan—descending again into the depths of church life to experience more excruciating “one-anothers”— the mystifying lyrics of Dylan’s song somehow comfort me:

One more cup of coffee for the road

One more cup of coffee ’fore I go

To the valley below.


[Original posted Sep. 12, 2008]

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