Ghost Interruptus


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Ms. Anne Thrope lets me work alone when I clean the shop. I have time to turn things over in my head, to solve problems, and sometimes I remember ordinary things that happened back in the day. I play music and sometimes sing or even dance. The door is locked so the only worries I have are inside my head. Tonight my worry concerns the economy and jobs, whether the latest government bailout is going to help ordinary people instead of helping the CEOs, and whether my unborn great-grandchildren will be able to clean up whatever mess we’ve left behind.

Big laughter interrupted my work, and I knew Saroyan was in the shop. Ms. Anne keeps an old photo of the writer on the wall, but I never thought a photo would invoke a spirit from the past until I began working here. I’ve become used to his irregular visits.

Not really conversations because that implies more of a dialogue than what happens when the ghost visits. He talks and he laughs—do ghosts have gender? Maybe I’ll find out in the future.

Saroyan’s big laugh signals some sort of talk and I brace myself for whatever he says.

“Hey, worried man! Pay attention. Why are you letting politics ruin your time on earth? You’re cleaning this place and all you can think about is how the politicians are screwing up the world with their greed and you’re acting as if this was just invented. Meanwhile you’re missing the imperfect beauty of the world. What’s the matter with you?”

I began to mumble something about feeling trapped because of decisions being made by different leaders.

He talked over me, “Did you ever read what I wrote? I forget which story I put this in. It was a good story—but they’re all good because they are my children and they retain their innocence unlike children who grow up. This is what I wrote:

Three times in my life I have been captured: by the orphanage, by school, and by the Army. I was four years in the orphanage, seven or eight in school, and three in the Army. Each seemed forever, though. But I’m mistaken. The fact is I was captured only once, when I was born, only that capture is also setting free, which is what this is actually all about. The free prisoner.

“And that’s why you need to let go the burdens you’re holding, kid. This worry isn’t helping you—unless you’re going to change things. And I don’t mean signing a petition. Do something constructive. Ask questions. Embarrass the politicians. Ask them again and again. Go to political events. Talk to other people. Take a run for political office. Don’t let fear turn you into a living statue. Live and make the world a more glorious place by what you do!

“Good talking with you, kid. Anytime you got a problem you need to talk about, let me know.”


Quiet Interlude with Tea


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The Rev. hunched over his teacup and his notebook. He held a pen, but didn’t write. No other customers in the place so I checked to see if he wanted another cup. “How about some fresh ma’moul today? Pistachio filling.”

“No, but another chai would be good. I’m not making any progress on this sermon. Something reminds me of my friend John Mogabgab—may he rest in Love eternal. His memory seems very close today.”

“Rev., I don’t know what to say. You’re the spiritual authority. Maybe his spirit is trying to communicate with you. Something else on your mind?”

“Life, I guess. I know where it comes from. I read a story by William Saroyan to pass the time the other day. It was one of those stories Saroyan claimed to knock out in an hour one day before he went to a party. He referred to a character named Mogabgab and that reminded me of John. Makes me sad.”

“So you know the why and the wherefore then.”

“Yeah. I like to pretend that I don’t. It’s the everyday pastoral reality. People are born, they get sick, they die. When I was ordained, an older minister told me that people wanted clergy for “matchin’, hatchin’, and dispatchin’.” Not the best description of ministry, but it comes close sometimes. There are rules and expectations. Don’t make anybody mad. Talk about ‘those people over there’ and what they’re doing wrong, but don’t say anything about the ones sitting in the pews. That sort of thing. And I’ve heard too many people who claim to love God use the foulest language to describe other human beings who are equally created in the image of God. Somehow what was once an easy way to describe political groups has become a way of tearing down one another. So I’m rambling and struggling with Sunday’s sermon.”

“Rev., that seems a long way from your friend.”

“You’d have to know John. He was concerned for community and the common good. He used the word commonweal a lot. What is our purpose and what is the common good? He would ask questions like that at his office. The questions he asked helped them gain perspective. I wonder what John would ask today. What is the common good for the congregation? What is the nation’s common good? How do we begin to change the dialogue to become more inclusive and improve the lot of all people? Those are the sorts of questions John would ask.”

“Well what if you were to preach a sermon about those questions? Or maybe let the congregation talk about the questions? I’d go to your church if you asked people to answer those questions in the service.”

“It’s good that you’re not clergy then! But thanks for helping me get beyond my surface lament. How about one of those ma’moul cookies now? Pistachio would be fine.”

The Singer of the Band


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The Rev. seemed to alternate between bouncing and dancing when he waited in line at the coffee club. “What’s up, Rev?”

“I just got word that a church is ordering 300 copies of In Days to Come—my Advent book. They’re going to use it for small groups and also try to let it influence the Sunday preaching. That’s why I write—to try to change the conversation in churches.”

“Everybody needs a reason. I know you’re not getting rich from books. If you have time, ask old Fred Falzone about his band story. It’s one of those good-bad things. You’ll like it.”

When I delivered the Rev.’s chai, I heard him ask, “So I hear you have a musician story, Fred.”

“Yeah, kind of a surprising turn for me,” said Falzone. ‘Here’s the deal. Back when I was a kid, I played drums in a small band. We did dances and we weren’t that good, but we made noise together and gave other kids something to make them move. We could count on playing small dances at Fort Yeprad—this was during Vietnam—and we’d each make fifteen bucks, which was decent money for a fifteen-year old back then. Minimum wage for adults was about a dollar then. We played two hours and then packed out.

“So these guys who’d been drafted always tried to talk their way into the band. Like the time this guy tried to convince us that he was the manager of The Beatles and wanted to play bass. And another idiot tried to convince us that he was Mick Jagger. How dumb did they think we were?”

“I see your point.  Mick Jagger and the US Army? Major contradiction.”

“So one night a guy comes up to the guitar player and explains that he recorded some tunes that made the charts, but the record label didn’t care and he got drafted. Went into a long explanation. Talked about The Box Tops. Asked if he could sing with us because he missed the old days. Lead guitar player said, ‘Sure, you be the fool,’ and this guy tells us to play ‘The Letter’ in some strange key like F-sharp. Guitar player hits the intro and we do the song and this guy sounds just like the record. So for the last forty years I’ve talked about the night the lead singer of The Box Tops played with our garage band.”

“That’s pretty cool.”

“Naw, Rev. They never drafted any lead singer of The Box Tops and he never served in any military. We got suckered bad. More than forty years I’ve been bragging about a lie and it makes me wonder if my friends knew the truth and were laughing about that story.”


Driving Thanatos


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As I drove home from the funeral of a long-retired friend, the radio played Chopin’s Piano Sonata #2 in b-minor. The third movement, often called the funeral march, includes a theme familiar to many cartoon doom scenarios: da da-da dahhhh. Instead of writing the rhythm or the notes, listen to Arthur Rubinstein play that third movement.

Somewhat dark and driven reflection on the lives of the five people I’ve known who have died in the last week. They were three adults who were fifteen-twenty years older than I and two adults whose ages made them my contemporaries. A lot of dying in a few days. I take these deaths somewhat personally.

But again as I hear Chopin’s somber chords and melody, I give thanks for the lives of these five and the ways that they brought change into the world through industry and business and publishing and writing and ministry.

Yes, I take these deaths personally. They tell me that life is sweet and to be savored. They tell me that life is short and full of depth and intensity. They tell me that the work of transformation continues.

They tell me that life grows out of love and that life continues through love.

The dirge of Chopin ended, having completed its work. I listen now to celebratory and joyful musical expressions by John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck and the king of jazz, Louis Armstrong, and I am grateful.



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Life is short.

I thought I understood that, but over the last five months, I’ve witnessed the deaths of family and friends, acquaintances and former co-workers. All these deaths keep pointing to this fundamental reality:

Life is short. Love one another.

I thought I understood that, but I am beginning to enter a new phase of learning.

William Saroyan’s preface or prelude or overture to The Time of Your Life inspired me in adolescence and continues to this day: “In the time of your life, live…so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.’

Live, as Saroyan wrote, to not add to the misery and sorrow of the world. I thought my generation born after WWII understood that. I was wrong because we’ve set loose as much anger and other deadly sins as the generations before us—the generations we thought to avoid imitating. And other generations pile on and add to the general misery and sorrow of the world.

Life is short. I have work to do, people to love, gifts to use. I will not waste time in anger—whether at others or myself.

I believe that to be a part of the divine will for humanity.

Remembering Carole


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My friend Carole Perdue Farr died from cancer earlier this summer. I write this in place of a sermon for a service of death and resurrection or a funeral or a memorial service because Carole did not want any such service. I write this note for Michael Paul Farr, her husband, and for Jeremy, their son. Carole was fierce in her love for Mike and for Jeremy. She dearly loved them and was not shy in her declarations and, when needed, her defense of them.

Carole was a force. She acted in theater, sang, danced. She earned a doctoral degree in library science and worked for much of her career as a librarian in the Georgia prison system, helping to educate an abused and underserved population.

We were in undergrad school together and then went on to Emory University. I don’t know which of our friends made the indirect reference to the Romanov family, the czar and czarina of Russia, but somehow we began to speak of the Farr and the Farrina. Somehow that designation suited Carole’s sometimes-regal persona.

The mind pulls up strange memories in times of grief. Carole once convinced me to let her use a home permanent on my then-abundant and uncontrolled hair in an attempt to straighten and manage it. While my hair eventually recovered, we agreed that the experience seemed more like a television sit-com.

One painful and funny memory, one of those bittersweet moments, goes back to a Sunday afternoon at Emory in the pre-cable television days. The Farrs invited several of us to their campus apartment to watch television and talk about the grind of course work. The Sound of Music came on the local station and Carole began to sing along with the movie. A friend and I began to lampoon the film, which we’d all seen many times. After telling us politely and then more firmly and still more urgently to stop the ridicule, Carole went to her bedroom during a commercial break and came out with a saber, chasing us out of the apartment. Bittersweet.

We stayed in touch in the years after Emory, visiting back and forth, arguing and enjoying conversations. Carole was never able to get me to admit publicly to any fondness for Maria and her singing charges, but she knew more about my sentimentality than I wanted to make public. So it goes.

A friend across many years of the lifespan is now dead, and the lives she touched are richer as a consequence. May Carole Perdue Farr rest in Love eternal.

Remembering the Kamajinator


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Ms. Anne Thrope closed the shop for her annual spring vacation, a holdover she said from the days when her father would close his business for the entire month after Christmas. I’ve told her that this is not a very contemporary approach to business, but she pays the staff full-salary during the closure and we still get vacation time.

This morning I walked back to the club because we’re open again. The place doesn’t feel the same because of the death of our friend, a drummer and artist named Kamajian. Ub some places he referred to himself as Kamajinator. We didn’t know his age. We didn’t know his first name. “Age is a number, and history is so last year,” he said. We only knew the one name he used. Conversations with him were refreshing and stimulating. We enjoyed his drumming at local clubs. He would come to the club, linger over his coffee, and work at his computer until one of his friends showed up for conversation. A beautiful soul he was.

Years ago I saw a cover illustration he did for a Batman comic book. I also saw some of his scientific art. We kidded him about the old Saab he drove, which he said he wanted to redesign to look like the Batmobile.

And then he died, and we found out his first name and his age and other details of his life that he never felt necessary to disclose.

We miss him.

May Kamajian rest in Love eternal.

Office Work


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Business slowed at Ms. Anne Thrope’s Coffee Club because of spring break, graduations, spring vacations, and the opening of three local outlets of national coffee chains. They can serve their donuts and brioche. We’ll still have mammoul cookies and other Middle Eastern pastries when the enticement of the chains wears off and people return to local vendors. Until then, I am cleaning the home office and discovering files full of the flotsam of life.

I came across this poem jotted during an interval at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing:

In Grand Rapids I saw a sign that said:

Detour Ends on Wealthy Street.

I did not stop or rest on that fortunate road.

My journey, begun long ago, detours still—

Plans interrupted, dreams deferred, goals

Withdrawn and returned to the mind’s vault,

And the journey, never planed to end in wealth

Or on a street named Wealthy, recognized

The path at midlife, evidencing a goal

Apposite the street named Wealthy.

Name it Pilgrim’s Way, Mercy Court.

Perhaps even Seek Justice Road.

Back to the files.

Blindsided by the Blessing


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The Rev. Farley O’Stoutville stared out the front window. The Rev. usually sits by himself and studies his iPad, but today he simply stared. I took a cup of Armenian coffee to him and asked what was going on with the parish.

“If you’re not busy, have a seat,” he said. “I need to unload.” After I sat, he said, “As you know, I’m neither conservative nor liberal. I like to think of myself as a Christ follower, a servant to all. I think that my theology is shaped the most by the Sermon on the Mount.”

“Yeah, Rev. I haven’t heard any complaints.”

“This week–I suspect because of different news stories—two different church members asked me if I could have a service of blessing for their guns and who knows what other weapons. And now the head of the congregation has asked me for a decision.

“I’ve known priests to pray and bless the military going off to war. I’ve read about such blessings on both sides of a war—for example, the Germans and the Americans during World War II—and it always struck me as a basic theological conflict. But now I’m the one with the conflict. Why would I bless shotguns? Why did that church bless assault weapons? What does that have to do with the Prince of Peace? Why am I dumping this on you? Don’t answer that because I’m not finished.

“It’s not like I haven’t taken stands on public matters. People know, for example, that I’ve named the sins of racism and homophobia and that I’ve questioned the confusion of nation and religion. If I have such a service, I’ll feel like a hypocrite. My heart isn’t in such an event. It would be like knowingly officiating at a wedding for a couple unsuited for each other—except I’ve done that. If I don’t have such a service, people will say that I don’t love the community or the nation or some such. But I keep coming back to a basic question: Why would a Christian pastor bless weapons that kill? Oh, I’ve heard all the justifications concerning the defense of human life, but I don’t see that happening very often. And if guns, then why not knives and blackjacks and nuclear weapons? I’m not saying that I’m a pacifist, but I don’t see this as what God wants. At least not as I read the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about turning the other cheek and giving your coat and cloak to the person who asks for the coat. Jesus talked there about anger and forgiveness and not retaliating. I don’t see him blessing the Roman occupation forces or even the Temple guards. So I’m sitting here and thinking. I may be here until you close.”

“Rev., my customers are on every side of this issue. I guess I’d ask the church folks why they want the blessing. Is there something else going on? I know Saint Timothy-by-the–Gas Station blesses animals in remembrance of Saint Francis. Would it be OK to offer to bless individuals in the congregation without their guns or pets? Maybe people want that blessing for themselves and they use the shotguns as an excuse.”

“Maybe. Just maybe that could work! How ‘bout we do it here at the coffee club instead of the church? You’re closed on Sundays. How ‘bout it–a Sunday afternoon here and the old guys jazz band could play. I’ll talk to them. Thanks! I really appreciate this!“

And now I’m trying to figure out what I said to become involved.

A Cup of Fortune


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“Hey, I just heard that people read coffee grounds to tell fortunes. True?” Acker Winters stopped me after I delivered a tray of Armenian coffee to the Newton Minnow Political Discourse Club, a group of retired people who gather at the coffee shop on Monday mornings to complain about the cable news programs they watched over the weekend.

“Good question, Acker. When I was a kid, I heard about some of the older generation who had the gift of reading cups. And my grandmother–my mother’s mother–would study the grounds. I’m not sure that she had the gift.”

“What do you mean by ‘the gift’? And how do you read the grounds? I thought people only read tea leaves and Tarot cards.”

“I don’t know about Tarot cards or tea leaves, Acker, but I can tell you a little about reading the grounds in a coffee cup. First you drink a demitasse cup of coffee. When you finish, you place the saucer on top of the cup and then—this is important—make sure you turn the cup over away from your heart. When the cup is cool enough to handle, you study what remains in the cup because there’s that sludge of fine-ground coffee and water. If you look long enough, symbols and signs come through the dregs—sort of like Jungian archetypes or Rorschach drawings.

“Now my grandmother may or may not have had the supernatural gift of reading the cups, but she would study the grounds. When I would visit from school—and realize that I went to a boarding high school before heading away from home for college and university—we would drink Armenian coffee and then she would read my cup. Always the story was the same. She would say, ‘You are going on a trip,’ which was true because I would return to school. And then she would talk about my dating life. ‘Two women are in your life. One has golden hair and the other has dark hair like an Armenian. Watch out for the golden-haired one. She will cause trouble. Dark hair is better for you.’ She was very serious and I would laugh and return to school.”

“So did her fortune-telling come true?”

“Maybe, Acker. To quote Fats Waller, ‘One never knows, do one?’”