The Coach Meets the Press

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The group at the community coffee table seemed more animated than the usual Monday crowd so I decided to listen and learn about their topic.

“That coach ought to be fired,” said Pepper Frazier. “He disgraced the university with what he did on television after the game Saturday.”

“All he proved was that he was upset about losing the game,” said Maldeau Charolais. “I want a passionate coach. Somebody who takes winning and losing seriously.”

“But you know he could have calmed down before going on television,” said Pepper.

By then I knew that they were talking about Coach Rounda Horne of Watswrongwit U. On Saturday our team lost to Clipjoint State, and we really wanted to win that game to win our conference championship. We haven’t won the championship since the organization of the Mega-East Coast 36 Conference. This was supposed to be the year, but Clipjoint State won the game.

I remembered how Coach Horne went on television to meet the reporters. He said, “I have a statement. I have nothing to say. Questions?”

Some of us laughed at what the coach said because it seemed like a joke, but then the rest of that time was no joke. The first reporter asked about the quarterback and Coach Horne said that the team lost because of the media, the weather (70 degrees F and clear), the cheerleaders’ megaphones, the other school’s band, the pressure of the fans at home, and television coverage.

A reporter from the Fortnightly Standard asked about a lineman who was hurt.

“Team did well, but Clipjoint cheated. I don’t know what they paid the officials. I don’t know how they intercepted our telephone lines. They did all that and more. Next question. I’m done.” And he left.

The more I thought about Coach Horne’s lack of accountability, the more unease I felt. How were athletes held accountable if the coach was not accountable? And not only athletes, but people in ordinary jobs and everyday relationships along with politicians and those who aspired to be legendary leaders? Where learn accountability? The voices around the community coffee table brought me back to the present.

“—just an intense personality,” said Maldeau Charolais.

“Coach proved one more time that he is willing to blame everyone else, but he will not accept responsibility himself. No accountability,” said Pepper Frazier.

“The Mega Commissioner will probably have something to say about the cheating accusation. That’s poor sportsmanship,” said Strawberry Mgrdichian. “I can see a fine being laid down.”

“Thanks for letting me eavesdrop, but I need to get back to work,” I said.

And that conversation will continue until Watswrongwit U wins its next game or the coach is fired or another politician is bought by another cause.

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The Rev’s Report

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The Rev. Silmarillion Pendarvis hunched over his coffee and his iPad. After an hour I realized that he practiced a rhythm of sipping, looking at the device, putting it on the table, and then sipping again. Then he would look at the ceiling or out the window and start the process anew. Whenever the Rev is around, I discover a miracle. The miracle today was that it only took me an hour to recognize what he was doing. Sip, look, sip.

“Rev, I can’t help noticing that you’re sitting here with your sixteenth cup of coffee and looking at the iPad. Something you want to talk about?”

“Yes. No. Nothing.” Nervous laugh then.

“Rev, I’m not busy. You’ve listened to my problems.”

“I don’t have a problem. Well, I do have a problem of sorts. I need to do the annual reports for the church. Here’s the problem: I don’t have all the officers that the church is supposed to have because the congregation is old and tired and they’ve been doing it for years.”

“So leave the spaces blank. What’s the problem?”

“I’m resisting filling out the reports. The church functions. It knows what it can do in ministry, and it knows the limitations of age and size. I keep trying to do the reports, but I’m not getting anywhere because I don’t see the point. I fill out the reports and what happens to them? Someone looks to make sure the data is there. Names and addresses are pulled and sent to different places in the system. That’s it. And it gets done every year. I’m as tired of it as my church is tired. “

“Sort of like cleaning the kitchen every night. It’s work that needs to be done, but nobody likes it.”

“That’s it. I know the price of being a pastor in my denomination. Reports are due next week. Give me another day to vent and then I’ll do the reports.”

Three Questions for Donigian

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We featured In Days to Come, George Donigian’s Advent book, at last week’s book event. Usually Donigian works behind the counter and listens to people, but he stood with the mic. And it was a good event, though Donigian and the crowd tried to sing a song that he described in the book. Singing as a group was fun because nobody became a critic, but none of us should quit our regular jobs.

Ms. Anne asked him three questions.

“So the book is titled In Days to Come: From Advent to Epiphany. What is the focus?”

“The book offers six weeks of meditations that begin four weeks before Christmas and continue through Epiphany, which we sometimes call 12th Night. That’s why people sing ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’ We probably should have sung that as a group instead of ‘Children, Go Where I Send Thee.’ [laughter]

“My family celebrated two Christmases every year when I was a child. December 25 we called American Christmas. January 6 is the Armenian Christmas, a celebration from the old country and an older church calendar. So we had the big Christmas gifts and such in December and then in January we celebrated in a more quiet way the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. It seems to me that we need time now to let the spirituality of Christmas seep into our lives.”

“The book jumps from one subject to another. What was your purpose or your plan?”

“I actually began with a group of ancient prayers known as the O Antiphons, which were first prayed during Advent around the year 525. An antiphon is simply a name for a call-and-response prayer. As I read the prayers over and over, some themes seemed to jump out for me and they became the weekly focus.

“The book also works like an Advent calendar that marks the days to Christmas. With an Advent calendar, you open a window or turn over a block and you get a surprise. The calendar might show a candle or a wreath or a camel. It might show carolers or a guitar or a candy cane. The book does the same thing, and I hope that the range of meditations surprises people. One meditation deals with a counting song and another meditation focuses on an editor. There’s a nativity set. One of my favorite meditations is titled “Prudence” and I begin with a reference to a Beatles’ song and then to a character in a novel before looking at what prudence means for us now. Still another meditation deals with reading.

“I had fun writing this book, putting together the different parts, and I think that it will help shape Christmas for the readers. I think readers will be pleased. My editor was surprised by some of the references to Armenian culture and history. “Why didn’t I learn this in school?” she asked. I suspect I could give a lecture that you wouldn’t want to hear.

“I liked the comment of Dr. Safiyah Fosua, an early reader who said ‘I have often felt like Advent devotionals fall flat by spilling us into the Christmas cradle and leaving us there to fend for ourselves. George Donigian has given us an opportunity to follow the season to its logical conclusion—the Epiphany revelation of Christ’s coming.'”

“Last question for you,” said Ms. Anne. “You’ve written several books, including the one I liked, Three Prayers You’ll Want to Pray, and one for the season of Lent. What’s next?”

“Last month I did some video work for an e-course based on the book. Maybe I’ll do more videos. I do have a face for radio and a voice for still photos. [laughter] In reality I continue to consult with some authors and edit some projects. I’m still a church pastor and I am working on a project for the judicatory. Then there’s the coffee shop. I expect to return to the writing of a novel that remains in embryonic form. Life is full, and I am thankful.”

 

Brother Oostanaula and the Wolf of Gubbio

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Brother Oostanaula came from his hermitage for his annual visit to Ms. Anne Thrope’s place to celebrate Saint Francis on the saint’s day. Brother Oostanaula was the last monk in the area, and his austerity was becoming a legend of sorts.

“Brother Oostanaula, the coffee and pastries for you are free. Please tell a story about Saint Francis,” said Ms. Anne.

“I cannot refuse such an offer. Let me tell you a short story about Brother Francis and the wolf of Gubbio.”

Ms. Anne and I listened with others in the shop.

“A ferocious wolf lived outside the city. He attacked any living creature that came outside the walls and no one could kill him. Several people survived his attacks, but livestock and other animals fell to his strength. Days became weeks, weeks became months. How long this wolf seemed to keep the city of Gubbio in a state of siege no one knew.

“Somehow Brother Francis traveled to Gubbio. The city people were upset that he came and they felt relieved that the wolf had not attacked him. ‘I will go to the wolf,’ said Brother Francis.

“’Not possible for a man to go to the wolf,’ the people responded.

“But Brother Francis walked out the city walls while the people stayed behind and watched. He held a crucifix in his right hand. The wolf came toward him, and Brother Francis made the sign of the cross with the crucifix. The wolf stopped and looked hard at Brother Francis and seemed to growl. Brother Francis again made the sign of the cross. Now the wolf sat down and Brother Francis spoke to him.

“’Brother Wolf, you have attacked the animals and people of Gubbio, and that is not what our Lord intended. You must no longer practice violence, but live in the way of peace for that is God’s intention for each of us.’ Then Brother Francis told the wolf about the love of Christ.

“The wolf bowed before Brother Francis and even seemed to kneel. Brother Francis continued to talk to the wolf. They began walking together outside the city walls. Then Brother Francis entered the city with the wolf behind him.

“’People of Gubbio, meet Brother Wolf. Brother Wolf, meet the people of Gubbio. God gives us one another to love and serve. Brother Wolf will no longer harm anyone. He now understands the way of Christ. Let us devote ourselves to care for one another.’

“And the wolf lived at Gubbio two more years. Then he died and was buried. Something Brother Francis promised. About 150 years ago when they renovated the church at Gubbio, they discovered the skeleton of a large wolf in the churchyard. Now he is buried inside the church. Such was the way of Brother Francis and the love of Christ.”

“Thank you for the story, Brother Oostanaula. May you enjoy this Armenian pastry and coffee in the spirit of Brother Wolf and Brother Francis.”

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In Days to Come

In Days to Come: from Advent to Epiphany, my new book, is now available from the usual booksellers.

In Days to Come is a marvelous resource for people wanting to journey more deeply into Christian discipleship and formation. George Donigian’s prose is elegant but accessible; his personal anecdotes are rich and instructive; his insights into biblical figures are fresh and compelling. With neatly ordered chapters and helpful questions for each week, Donigian weaves together a study guide that encourages us to look at our practices from the perspective of Christianity through the centuries. As a result, we are encouraged to give thanks for all that has been and recognize what God has done throughout history.–Mark Vikram Purushotham, Filmmaker & Media Producer

At last! An Advent book that also includes the Christmas season and Epiphany. I have often felt like Advent devotionals fall flat by spilling us into the Christmas cradle and leaving us there to fend for ourselves. George Donigian has given us an opportunity to follow the season to its logical conclusion—the Epiphany revelation of Christ’s coming. Readers will appreciate this window into the season and into the author’s kind soul. The themes are relevant, the writing is compelling, and the design and flow of each section is helpful. I cannot wait until Advent begins this year!—Safiyah Fosua, Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation,Indiana Wesleyan University

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.

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.