Labor Day Past-Present Tense

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Labor Day brings to mind memories of childhood in the Chemical Capital of the South. Built by DuPont and the manufacturing facilities spun off from DuPont, the town of Hopewell had something uncommon for many Virginia municipalities: labor unions. It also had many new immigrants to the United States, including my family, who spoke their own language at home and in public while they also struggled to learn English. My family and many others sought shelter and a new life in the United States after the horrors of genocide and warfare. They came to Hopewell because DuPont jobs were available if a person followed instructions. I’ve written a little about Hopewell and these immigrants in Three Prayers You’ll Want to Pray and A World Worth Saving, and a Hopewell story shows up in my new book, In Days to Come.

Labor Day meant a parade and events at the union halls. The Hopewell Labor Day parade was not as sophisticated or as large as the Rose Parade. It consisted of high school marching bands, troops of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, convertible cars loaded with local or state dignitaries, and floats put together by the different labor unions. At parade’s end, people went to their representative union hall for a meal, talent show, and speeches by elected officials or by those who hoped for election.

That was then. No longer is there a Labor Day parade in Hopewell. Most of the residents are glad that the plants still operate, though under new names and different working conditions.

Still people go to Hopewell and many other places in these United States for the opportunity to work and to support or sustain a family, a reminder that this nation remains a land of opportunity.

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Dry Spell

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Two clergy sat over a chessboard in the coffee shop. They drank Armenian coffee and studied the chess pieces. One motioned toward me so I walked over to ask what else I could get them. Rabbi Marc Lewis asked for a ma’moul cookie and Rev. Farley O’Stoutville asked for another Armenian coffee.

“Be right back. I notice you guys haven’t made any moves on the board. What’s the deal?”

“We’re talking,” Farley said.

“No, we’re not talking,” said Marc. “Farley is treating me like a priest in the confessional booth. I’m just listening.”

“That’s a funny image, Rebbe–a Protestant pastor speaks of his sins to a rabbi! I’ll get your coffee and ma’moul.”

“No. Sit down and listen,” said Farley. “You should hear what I say.”

“You sure about this?” asked the rabbi and simultaneously I said that I needed to take care of other customers and couldn’t sit down with them.

“Stay a minute. It’s not like you’re busy. I’m saying anything scandalous,” said the Rev. “It’s just that I’m tired of being put on a pastoral pedestal. Church people tell me their problems. They ask me to pray for their family and friends. They tell me about this or that person who has a disease. Then they seem to walk away while I want to call out, ‘Hey, you didn’t ask about my family or friends. They have needs and you could pray for them.’”

“Rev, I’m not a member of your flock. No more than I’m part of Rabbi Marc’s flock. I’m sure people pray for you.”

“That’s not what I mean. I’ve had two friends die in the last month and another friend has cancer. When I tell people about it, they seem to nod, but they don’t seem to care. People are so wrapped up in their own matters that they don’t pay attention to national matters–much less me. They don’t even remember the next time we see each other. I’m getting bummed out, and Rabbi Marc is putting up with my venting.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound like confession. I’m not sure what I’d call it.”

“It’s peer talk,” said Rabbi Marc. “It’s the human side of ministry. We represent the divine, but we are still finite human beings. We are created from dust and to dust we return, but in between we try to use our gifts wisely and well. And sometimes our dustiness becomes too dry. Other times we hurt because others hurt. I tell my brother that every pastor needs a support team. I connect with him and I talk to other rabbis about my life in the congregation. He’s been hardheaded and unwilling to let go. So here we are now, venting across the chessboard, and it’s all good.”

“Rebbe, you sound like you’ve got a good handle on things. I’ll get your coffee and ma’moul before more customers come in. Peace to both of you.”

Not Forgetting

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My first experience with David Kherdian came through his book The Road from Home, a memoir of his mother’s journey from Armenia to the United States. Still later I subscribed to Forkroads, a multicultural literary journal produced by Kherdian. Kherdian grew up in Racine, Wisconsin and his writing about his relationships there offer glimpses of love. While I have enjoyed reading many of his books, I find myself especially returning to his poetic remembrance of Racine titled Friends: A Memoir (Globe Press, 1993). In it I find connections with a gathering of lost friends.

Yesterday’s mail brought Factory Town: A 20th Century Memoir, Kherdian’s newest volume about Racine. I stopped reading because I gained a sense of satisfaction from one sentence in the introduction. As he writes of Racine, Kherdian summarizes the whole of the 20th century immigrant family experience, one I lived in my small hometown in Virginia—another factory town in which Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Lebanese, Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Germans, and even Turks were able to start life anew in the new land of the United States. They arrived in a factory town where, as long as they worked according to directions, they provided for their families and were also able to help other relatives and friends move to the freedom and relative safety of the United States. Kherdian addresses the familiar difficulties of this immigrant life in the US in much of his work— coming into a new culture, learning a new language and different customs—and he also writes of camaraderie. While life is difficult, we see that the difficulties are eased through the shared experiences of friendship and community.

Here is the sentence from Kherdian that stopped me:

America will become again the America of Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, or the desecrated junk heap it is turning into because of what the pitiless, immoral oligarchs have created for themselves out of greed, contempt, and their own psychopathic insatiable lust for power.

(np, Factory Town)

May we hear the words of the prophet.

I will return to read Kherdian’s book and learn more about the place in which he set so much writing, but I will savor this one sentence for days to come.

(Factory Town: A 20th Century Memoir. Tavnon Books, 2017 ISBN: 9781548324940 )

Ms. Anne Channels Her Inner Curmudgeon (or, Remembering Andy Rooney)

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“Two common sayings bother me, “ Ms. Anne said yesterday morning before the rush. “And you know the third statement that irritates me.”

“Yes, I’ve heard you rant about ‘no problem’ when you think a ‘you’re welcome’ is proper,” I said. “So what are the other statements?”

“People think they apologize by saying only the word ‘Sorry.’ And then there’s the lame ‘If I have offended you, I apologize,’ which makes the matter your problem and not the act of the offending party.”

“Ms. Anne, that’s just the way people talk today. You’re putting too much meaning in it.”

“Am I? What’s an apology? Before you try to answer, I’ll tell you that I think an apology recognizes that one has done something wrong. At the least, it shows a sense of regret.”

“And isn’t that what people communicate when they say, ‘sorry’ or the other?”

“No, it does not. Simply blurting or writing the word ‘sorry’ still leaves the other person hanging with a sense that an offense or a slight has been minimized and disregarded. What if you spilled coffee on a customer? If you only said, ‘sorry’ or ‘sorry about that,’ we’d certainly lose a customer and might even get sued. Why is the person sorry? That goes unanswered with that one word.”

“OK, Ms. Anne, I think you’re thinking too much, but what about the other?”

“It’s simple if you pay attention. When someone says ‘If I have offended you, I apologize,’ the other person is left in the position of victim. There is no transactional satisfaction. For example, the electric company sent me a slip of paper in their last bill with the words, ‘If we have offended you, please pardon us.’ They cut off my electricity by accident, and it took a day on the telephone to straighten out the mess. ‘If we have offended you’—that’s the least of what happened! But they didn’t admit to doing anything wrong and they certainly did not apologize. Do you see my problem?”

Before I could answer, Ms. Anne said, “People are coming in. Let’s enjoy today.”

William Saroyan Mocks the Big Ideas

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I was enjoying solitude during my nightly cleaning of the coffee shop when I stopped in front of the photo of William Saroyan and wondered what Saroyan would say about these days. I heard a big laugh and a voice said, “So imagine if two Armenians get together, what do they do?” and I knew that the ghost of William Saroyan was present.

“They would laugh and mock the big ideas of the world. Baron Saroyan, you’ve been dead thirty or thirty-five years now. Why are you here? What can you tell me about the afterlife? For that matter, what can you tell me about life?”

“Yeah, kid, the laugh gave me away. What I wrote in Sons Come and Go is still true. ‘I have always been a laugher, disturbing people who are not laughers. I laugh, that’s all. I love to laugh. Laughter to me is being alive.’”

“I seem to have inherited some of your laughing attitude. Maybe it’s in the Armenian DNA.”

“So what do you want to talk about, kid? I’m inside your head. Not out there.”

And I’m thinking, why does he call me “kid”? I’m not young.

“In Time of Your Life—you wrote about seeking goodness. To bring it out when found. What did you mean?”

“What I said. Let goodness be free and unashamed. People today want to limit goodness to certain behaviors or attitudes or philosophies. When we sense goodness, bring it into the open! Hide nothing! People are overwhelmed by headlines, negative thoughts, and doomsday nightmares. Be countercultural. Understand me, kid?”

“But do you understand how hard that is?”

“Look—I quote myself again because my writing was good, ‘Have no shame in being kindly or gentle.’ That’s in Time of Your Life, too. People put on these hard shells. They want to be tough. Hard. They like to think that war is good, that fighting is fine, that being tough is the only way to survive. How do I say in Armenian that needs to be flushed with the morning routine? People are meant to love.”

“Now I know you’re not real. Tell that last message to world leaders.”

“What I think of world leaders! ‘Three times in my life I have been captured: by the orphanage, by school, and by the Army.’ I wrote about that in Here Comes, There Goes. Everything in life is about becoming free from the hang-ups we inherited and free to be with people we like and love, free to do what feeds our spirits, and especially free from institutional capture.

“You know what I wrote in Chance Meetings—‘The people you hate, well, this is the question about such people: why do you hate them?’ Maybe if we put that to the people of every nation, we might move closer to love. But that’s never going to happen, kid. We humans have long memories. We remember too much. Hell, I’m guilty of that.”

“Yes, you were the one who remembered the genocide with these words: ‘Let us say that it is again 1915 there is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world.’”

“Glad you remember that, kid. And we are living again—two Armenians mocking the big ideas of the world and laughing.” And then Saroyan was gone and I was back to cleaning the coffee shop and setting up for the next day.

Curmudgeon at Heart

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Michael R. Strain, in a 2015 column < http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/02/18/please-address-me-as-mister-i-insist/ >, chided the President for referring to the Chancellor of Germany by her first name. Strain wrote: “Our society is suffering from a tyranny of informality. It is rude. It is false intimacy. It is a product of the utopian, egalitarian fiction that society is one big happy village.”

I appreciate Strain’s concern for the diminishing of boundaries between formal and chummy.

That leads to my own rant concerning the tyranny of informality.

I object to the use of two words substituted for mother and father: mom and dad. I see these informal words used in clauses and phrases such as “we were going to the funeral of my husband’s mom,” “80% of dads wear after-shave,” and “all moms go to heaven.” I understand headline writers who use these words for the sake of brevity, but the informality sets my teeth on edge and causes me to hear fingernails scraping on chalkboards.

I object because I think of “mom” and “dad” as intimate titles of our particular parents. Not parents in general. Not the category of all men who happen to have fathered children. Not the category of all women who exercised maternal responsibilities.

I also think this informality erases the boundaries and borders that actually make for healthy relationships.

I may have called my parents Mom and Dad or Mayr yev Hayr, but I do not address your mother and father in that familiar way. Call me a Tory or a traditionalist or a formalist or an irrelevant antiquarian, but I’ll stick with my old ways and respect the boundaries set up by proper titles and collective nouns.

John Penn’s Teachings on Healing and Forgiveness

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John Penn and I met twenty or so years ago when we both worked at The Upper Room in Nashville, Tennessee. John worked in the program area of the organization, focusing on healing and prayer. I was a book editor. The publisher told me that one of my first tasks would be to coax a very late manuscript on wellness from Howard Clinebell, one of the first generation of academic thinkers in the field of pastoral care, and then edit that work so that John Penn could use this resource in his work for the organization. Clinebell and I hit it off and eventually we produced a book titled Anchoring Your Well Being–plus a leader’s guide.

So that I could better work with Clinebell, John Penn and I began a conversation about expectations for the project. John told me about his own understanding of prayer and healing ministry, something of which I had been skeptical. I had grown up with televised healing services in which people ripped out hearing aids and tossed away crutches and then we later learned the fake nature of these episodes. I listened at first to John with the ears of a cynic. Then I realized that John’s understanding of healing differed a good deal from what I had earlier seen. To John, healing encompasses multiple dimensions of life: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational–even as Howard Clinebell wrote, healing of the earth itself through our stewardship. At the core of John’s work is also the healing power of forgiveness and love.

John’s new book Miracles of Healing in the Gospel of Mark (ISBN: 9781539729952) is very much like a straightforward conversation or seminar with him as he offers insights into these multiple facets of healing and Christian discipleship. At times I wanted to interrupt the text to ask John a question, something that might happen in a seminar, but not quite possible with a printed text. This book is intended to be written in, a working document in which each chapter includes an introduction and background material for a specific Markan text, the Bible passage (NRSV and NKJV), and questions related to the Bible passage to connect the text to the reader or the small group. Penn then offers material about the passage and invites readers to go further into the text and the specific form of healing. Each chapter closes with a devotional meditation or prayer and instructions for journaling.

I think this book would well serve those curious or interested in healing and would offer even more insight to clergy who wish to teach and preach about different facets of healing, especially the implications for healing through forgiveness that John notes.

Bomb Drop

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“So I heard that the new Secretary of something or other said that poverty was a state of mind,” said Myrtis Ingomar. “I guess that means if I change my thinking I can be rich.”

“Yeah, just think Harvard and you’ll get all the degrees you want,” said Maxwell McHemingway. “I just tell my creditors that they’re thinking wrong and that I’ve already paid them with good thoughts.”

The community table at the coffee club held a copy of the Gazette-News Leader from the day before while the group talked about news coverage on television and the web. I brought a basket of choereg to the table so I could listen to the conversation. Myrtis took a piece of choereg and began to pull apart the braids.

“I agree with the Secretary,” said Rev. Gunion Paisley. “It’s a state of mind, but not the way he thinks about it.”

“Sure, Rev. What are you thinking?” said Tom Gonzalez-Rink.

“I think the state of mind that is impoverished rests in those people who have an abundance of material possessions—“ started the Rev.

“Oh man, do we have to hear a sermon on a Thursday morning? I could go home and watch reruns of Gunsmoke,” said Pete Ohanyan. He remained at the table.

“Hey, I want to hear what the Rev says. Go on. Try not to preach, Rev,” said Tom.

“Thank you. When people fear that the resources of the world are scarce and not enough to go around, then they begin to identify wealth and poverty. They have an abundance of material possessions, but because of their fear, they don’t believe they have enough. That poverty mindset among the affluent leads to the cycle of greed, something we see among our members of Congress.”

“Rev, is this some kind of Marxist thinking on your part?” asked Tom.

“No, I think this is biblical. I believe that God created a world in which there is enough, but we’ve botched up things with the ways of production and distribution. And I think we can go back to an understanding of original sin, and here’s where I agree with William Faulkner, that great writer, who believed that the urge to possess land, to claim to own it, was the original sin, that all else—especially broken relationships–came from that urge to possess.”

Before Maxwell and Pete began to speak, the Rev held up his hand to signal a stop and then he continued, “So yes, I agree that poverty is a state of mind, but the Secretary is thinking of the wrong people. He has the wrong angle and is looking outward instead of within. He and his cronies need to look within themselves to see how they’ve become prey to fear. That’s the real poverty. Now I leave you with my thoughts because I need to work on Sunday’s sermon. I’ll be back tomorrow to hear what you have to say.”

And with that the Rev. Gunion Paisley left for the day.

When Two People Always Agree

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I telephoned a friend while driving through his old stomping grounds, but he did not answer. I left a message. Whether or not one left a message, the other would call back within the day. No response this time. I called two days later. No response. I have heard from mutual friends, and he is not ill. I did a little checking on Facebook and realized that he dropped me from his list of friends. I called one more time. No response.

We have known each other since our university days long ago. Why the silent treatment and dismissal?

I suspect that I offended him with a post that questioned the work experience of a leader, who my friend endorsed, and whether that leader’s past experience qualified the leader for the current position. I’ve observed many times when nepotism or ecclesiastical favoritism or the buddy-buddy system promoted unqualified people far beyond their abilities and so I noted that.

I generally avoid political and theological opinions on Facebook because the forum does not live up to the promise of conversation. My rule is hard to keep because, as a theologian-pastor-writer, I want to understand how we integrate our stated beliefs with our actions. When political or theological posts come into play, I may ask a question or two, but strive to avoid the “let’s you and them fight on Facebook” diatribes. I’m glad to have those conversations in person, but in the digital universe we tend only to make arguments and to avoid consideration of the points made by another.

Back to my old acquaintance’s decision to ignore my calls and remove me from his social network: have we moved in the 21st century so far from relationships and connections that only agreement matters? Are we living in the culture that Dave Eggers writes about in The Circle? Or are we moving toward another sort of culture–perhaps smaller oligarchies of agreement? Are we unable to accept differences? Those questions grow from neither liberal nor conservative biases because I hear similar themes expressed by those across the spectrum of opinion.

If we cannot hold differing opinions and continue to engage in civil conversation, then we miss an essential part of the national promise. E pluribus Unum—out of many one. Out of many [people, voices, opinions] a common good. Too often we hear an opposite perspective, one that can be described as “what’s good for me will be good for you.” I suspect that, to some, these questions sound similar to the one asked by Rodney King, but “getting along” does not mean lockstep agreement; rather, it points to civility, respect, and common ground.

The rabbinic comment strikes home: “When two people always agree, one is unnecessary.” A band or orchestra in which all instruments play the same note is boring. Do not scorn opinions different from your own. Engage in a larger conversation. Shalom.

On Seeing The Promise–a reflection on the film

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I saw The Promise on the film’s opening day with my son and his wife. I like the film very much. It tells about a love triangle in the midst of the genocidal efforts in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, and it shows the culture that was lost. Kirk Kerkorian’s decision to fund this film is a gift to many, and all proceeds from the film go to non-profit charitable organizations.

The Promise tells a love story in the midst of the effort to eliminate Armenian people from within the Ottoman Empire. The area of the Empire includes Armenian territory that goes back thousands of years. Ottoman rhetoric about Armenians foreshadowed the charges Hitler made about Jewish people. The effort to eliminate Armenians happened, and a number of scholars and nations, including the United States and Turkey, continue to deny that history.

While focusing on the love story, the film also shows the good and evil in people. Some Turks in the film, as in history, tried to redeem and save Armenians. We also see the evil of Enver and Talaat, leaders of the Ottoman Empire. Without focusing on the gore, the film shows evidence of the atrocities. Some scenes reflect photographs made by Armin Wegner, a German soldier stationed in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. (Chris Bohjalian tells some of the Wegner story in The Sandcastle Girls.)

Scenes featuring US Ambassador Henry Morganthau felt true to Morganthau’s character as evidenced in the reports he sent to the US State Department and the President concerning the violence against Armenians. Also especially pleasing to me was the inclusion of Gomidas Vartabet, an Armenian musician-priest who suffered as one of the first arrested on April 24, 1915.

The most chilling scene for me happens early in the film at a birthday party in which Germans soldiers are present and break into “Deutschland über Alles,” certainly a deft reminder of the alliance between Germany and the Ottoman Turks, but also nudging me to remember Adolf Hitler’s 1939 Obersalzberg Speech in which Hitler said: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

At the film’s close, a quotation from William Saroyan’s The Armenian and the Armenians (published in 1936) rolls across the screen:

Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years later, and laugh, and speak in their tongue. Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world…a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them.”

I think that the film helped Ashleigh and George understand better the stories they have heard from me. After the closing credits, we sat a moment more.

The older couple in front of us rose about the same time. The woman turned and asked, “Are you Armenian?” Ashleigh said, “I’m not, but they are.” So we talked. She told me that relatives on both sides of her family died during the genocide and how her grandmother and father could not talk about their experience as survivors. We both wiped away tears. I nodded in agreement because her story mirrored my own story. Her husband said, “Her family called me odahr and Esh [words that mean non-Armenian and jackass}—until they saw that I could do the Armenian dances” and he did some Armenian dance steps. We lingered in the lobby to talk about the film and then left.

We didn’t meet in Saroyan’s beer parlor and we didn’t mock the big ideas of the world, but we laughed and cried and recreated Armenia, another proof that the genocide failed. See The Promise. It is a story the world needs to remember.