To Be a Coffee Bean

by Rev. Dr. Susan Smith

I listened to a presentation given by a young man who took some wrong turns in his life, was sentenced to what was virtually a life sentence in prison, but who got out after seven years. He was a drug addict who had gotten into criminal behavior in order to support his habit. His parents were heartbroken and said at the time of his sentencing that there was nothing they could do. His fate was in the hands of God.

While in prison, he said he was told a story by a fellow inmate. He said that in prison you can be a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean. Prison, he said, is like a pot of hot water, and it is up to the inmate to decide what his time in prison will be like. The older man asked the new inmate, “What happens when you throw a carrot into hot water?” The young man said, “It gets soft,” and the older man nodded in agreement, saying to the student, “correct. In here you don’t want to be a carrot. If the guys see you are soft, you will not do well here.” Next, the older man said, “What happens when you put an egg into hot water?” and the student said, “It gets hard.” “Correct again,” the older man said. “In here you don’t want to get hard. You become like members of gangs, hardened by spirits of hatred and anger.”

Then the older man said, “What happens when you put a coffee bean into hot water?” and the student said, “The water turns brown.”

“Yes,” the older man said. “The coffee bean changes the water …and that’s what you want to do. You want to change the environment into which you ate thrown for the better. You want to be a coffee bean.”

The story was simple, but powerful and transformative. For the new inmate, it became a part of his own personal mantra,” I want to be a coffee bean.” With that thought, he turned from craving to be out of prison just so he could get high again to wanting to get out of prison so that he could help other young people not make the same mistakes he had made. He turned to God in ways he had not before and ended up being released from prison after serving seven years.

The story caused me to pause.

Who of us actually say that we want to be agents of change in this world? Who of us realize that to change the world we have to be willing to be thrown into “hot water,” a place where we might suffer some, in order to bring hope and change to someone else? Who of us really want to do that? It is far more comfortable to desire to become a hard- boiled egg. Hardened within and without, we shield ourselves from the discomfort of all that is around us that is uncomfortable and displeasing to us. We shield ourselves from having to be in communication with people with whom we need to be in relationship. We blind ourselves from seeing ourselves as we are or from seeing the degradation around us. We close our ears and shut out the cries for help which come from others.

It is just easier that way.

But to be a coffee bean is to be a companion of God. It indicates a willingness to “lose ourselves” for something greater that ourselves. It is to be willing to “take up our crosses” and carry some of the elements of this life that make life so difficult for so many people. When we change, when we decide that who we have always been is just not enough anymore to be pleasing to God and to be a voice in this world, things and people around us change.

We can see how being willing to “be” the change affects others. If your best friend goes on a health spree, eating well, beginning to exercising, never saying a word to you but just being different, something inside of you begins to jiggle. You find yourself doing things you had never even thought of doing before. If you live on a block and a neighbor puts up amazingly beautiful lights at Christmas, you find that one neighbor after another follows suit. If someone begins to wear a hairdo that you think is really attractive, you find yourself wanting to do the same thing.

In other words, people respond to coffee beans.

The world around us is hot water; it begs for there to be people to be willing to be coffee beans in order to help bring justice and peace and love into the world. In our personal lives, our relationships can be hot water into which a coffee bean must be dropped. Things around us beg for change; we are the way for change to happen.

I will never look at coffee beans quite the same way again. Nor will I look at hard-boiled eggs or carrots (or noodles or potatoes or anything that becomes soft in hot water). It is clear that being “too soft” or “too hard” is not the way any of us should want to live. At the end of the day, we should all have “coffee bean” stories to tell. In that way, we can testify and affirm that we were the change we desired to see.

Amen and amen.

About The Author

Dr. Susan Smith Dr. Susan K. Smith is the former pastor of the Advent United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio. She received her education from Occidental College, Yale University, and United Theological Seminary. She is the author of five books and the proud mother of two children.

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