Reflections on Drinking Tea

But again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tea party.  There are green, black, and oolong teas; all cups of tea will contain at least one of these, plus hot water.  There will be milk, lemon, or sweetener as needed by each guest.  But all true tea comes from the same plant, and all guests are refreshed and restored by that plant. (The Gospel of Wendy, which does not really exist, but should.)

I got a beautiful Chinese commuter mug for Christmas, and some oolong tea which is very nice, but doesn’t really work well in the mug (it is loose, but packaged in a way that puts far more tea into the steeping chamber than one person needs).  And, as someone who drinks a lot of tea–mostly “true” tea, from the Camellia sinensis–the idea of steeping tea, ministry training, and being church got all mushed together in my mind.

Throughout the Bible, the vision of humans in the presence of God is frequently imagined as some kind of festive gathering–a banquet, a wedding feast.  Good food and drink, a sense of bringing out the best (the nice dishes, the beautiful linens), happy company, all of that is brought to mind when we think of a party.  A good tea party, with a variety of teas on offer, a range of interesting and delicious things to eat, an opportunity to converse with everyone in the room, is thus not that far a stretch.  God might very much like to host his people at a tea party.  If the first English Bible had not appeared until the reign of Queen Victoria, it might well have included the idea of the reign of God looking very much like an elegant gathering for afternoon tea.

The great thing about tea (and apologies to those who prefer herbal blends, which, while delicious, are not true “tea”) is that it demands only two elements:  tea leaves and hot water.  That’s it, that’s all–no wonder tea is the second most popular beverage in the world (water is the first).  In some places, tea might be safer than water, depending on the microbiological inhabitants; boil the water first, and you kill off anything in it.  But just as boiled water needs something to make it palatable, tea leaves aren’t good for many culinary uses besides making a cup, pot, glass, or pitcher of tea to drink.  Sure, you can use it to make fancy smoke to flavor some chi-chi dishes, but I don’t imagine tea leaves would make very good salad. There’s a reason we put tea leaves in bags or infusers, or strain them out before we drink the brew.  Nonetheless, with very few  demands, it doesn’t take much to make a decent cup of tea, and the additives (sweeteners, lemon, milk) to make a cup that will please almost any guest, are easy enough to have on hand that the preferences and needs of any tea drinker can be accommodated without great fuss or expense.  Tea can come from the ultra cheap to rare and expensive, but a good cup of tea is really not that hard to come by. (I wouldn’t necessarily buy the box of 100 tea bags at Dollar Tree, but you don’t have to break the bank, either.)

Various preparations of tea–green, black, white, or oolong–supposedly have different health benefits, and meet various needs.  Even without the science, a lot of us reach for a cup of tea with lemon and honey when our throat is sore, or just straight up if we want a little bit of caffeine but not the full jolt of a strong cup of coffee.  When I lived in England, it seemed that the immediate response to every life problem, from a car crash to a job loss to a death in the family, was the same:  put the kettle on. (It doesn’t really solve anything, though.)

Tea, it seems, is highly to be praised, and should have an honored place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But if we brought the tea metaphor into the church, we would see that  the ordained minister is the tea bag, and the congregation is the water. The seminary professor is the tea bag, the students are the water (who are somehow supposed to magically turn into tea bags and be able to infuse the congregations to which they are called). That seems to me a bit of a burden to the ministers/professors, because what restores them when they have been over-steeped?  And what happens to the congregation when they’ve had so much of the same stuff infused into them–can they help but to become bitter?

The Kingdom of Heaven is a tea party. But the church is not the Kingdom of Heaven. The church helps to provide the world with what makes the Kingdom of Heaven possible–and so rather than ordained ministers being tea bags, and congregations being water, what if the church began to think of itself as a tea plantation?  

What would that look like?

It would mean that the church was a place that provided the essentials of what is needed for that heavenly tea party–especially the ingredients for a variety of refreshing, restorative plant-based beverages that all come from the same plant.  That means growing the breed of that plant which works best for the environment in which it is situated, and processing the leaves a number of different ways to meet the needs of many people. It means not controlling exactly how people use its product when it leaves the plantation, but only recommending which blends and processes work best with which enhancements (green tea does not generally work well with milk, for example, but if someone wants to do it, you can’t really stop them).

And it means that the product leaves the plantation.  Tea growing does involve a certain amount of on-site testing and tasting, but most of the tea is actually brewed and consumed far away from where it is grown. For the church, that means we would expect people to leave the place where their Christian formation happens, and go be useful, refreshing, restorative someplace else than in the church.

We need new ways of thinking about, and being church.  Tea plantation–supplying refreshing, restorative, thirst-quenching goodness–to the world which is already the Kingdom of Heaven (although it doesn’t always look that way), might be a place to start.

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