Slogans, Messages, T-Shirts

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January is slow at Ms. Anne Thrope’s. People don’t like coming out in cold weather. As I was beginning to envy my grandfather’s annual trips to Miami every January, the bell on the door sounded and the Rev. Farley O’Stoutville entered.

“I need a doubleshot of Armenian coffee this morning to relax.”

“Sure. Grab a table and I’ll bring it over as soon as I make it.”

“I’ll watch,” the Rev. said. He paused and I didn’t say anything, which seemed to give him permission to vent.

“Let me tell you. I was working out at the Y this morning, minding my business on the treadmill when a retired geezer, whose name I don’t know, said something negative about the t-shirt I was wearing. He read the words out loud and said, ‘You liberals need to live somewhere else.’ Now all the shirt said was this: ‘Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.’ What in the name of Richard H. Nixon does that have to do with being liberal or conservative?! So I asked him what he meant and he didn’t like the fact that I responded. He said I didn’t need to talk back to him and walked away. I could hear him muttering more about liberals. I didn’t want to stop—I had twelve minutes to go on the treadmill—but that geezer irritated me. Talking back? And since when is a Bible verse liberal or conservative?”

“Your coffee’s ready. What table would you like?”

“Some place close so I can rant some more. I mean have you ever heard anything like that?”

“Rev, I’ll join you for a cup.” I carried his coffee and one for myself to a table. “People always think the Bible is liberal or conservative and you can’t avoid politics or the way people brand everything. I hear all kinds of opinions and sometimes Ms. Anne and I have to laugh to keep from crying about what we hear. That’s the nature of retail.” Before I could complete my own rant about customer opinions, the Rev. started again.

“I’m also angry because the other day another old guy at the Y confused me with the local political party leader and he started asking for help with the potholes on his street. I told him that I was a pastor and didn’t do potholes. So he said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re spirituality and that guy who looks like you is politics and they don’t go together.’ I said that spirituality embraced all of life, including politics, and this guy almost ambushed me. He said, ‘If you’re a Republican, it does, but not if you’re a Democrat.’ And that’s when that argument began. I’m just not cut out for this kind of stuff. People think the world is neatly organized into us-and-them categories and they have no real basis for thinking that way. How am I supposed to minister when I see that both ways are wrong?” While he talked, he kept  poking his finger into the table.

“Didn’t they teach you in seminary how to deal with conflict?”

“I learned Hebrew and Greek and church history and theology. We studied ethics and worship and mission, but my seminary days don’t seem to connect with modern life. The world is different from those days.”

“That’s true of all of our businesses and callings. When you finished seminary, would you have imagined going to a coffee shop to drink Armenian coffee? Of course not. Nobody knew Armenians from Trocaderians or cenobites. Rev, you can’t let the old guys get to you because they haven’t changed and they’re trying to ward off change like it’s an evil spirit. You know they’re not going to win that fight.”

“I know. I know. I simply can’t believe that the words of the prophet Micah could upset anyone, and here I’ve let that response get to me. I need to listen more deeply, ask questions, and not worry about the reaction.”

“Yeah, Rev. January will be over soon and you’re going to be OK. All shall be well.”

 

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The Week after Christmas

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After Christmas, people packed into Ms. Anne Thrope’s Coffee Club. They played chess and backgammon, talked about families and politics, and kept the staff busy. The previous week, people had been agitated due to shopping for last-minute Christmas gifts. We have the same pattern every year. Ms. Anne Thrope gets sad because the business is off, but she enjoys the conversations the week after Christmas. This year was different. Ms. Anne seemed curt with customers and jumped on staff for small things she usually overlooked. Strawberry Mgrdichian, the other full-time employee, and I tried to protect Ms. Anne and the customers from one another.

“Ms. Anne, let’s take a break,” I said, nudging her toward the back room.

She shook her head and said, “Some days it isn’t worth coming to the shop.”

“We’re doing good business. Lots of customers. People want to talk, drink coffee, eat paklava, drink more coffee. It’s a good time. Here, let me make you some Armenian coffee.”

“Thanks, I could use a cup, but I don’t want my grounds read. It’s too much for me.”

“The customers are too much? It’s the season of good cheer. Enjoy it—they’ll be back to complaining soon. You do seem sad this year.”

“Always I remember William Saroyan. He was an old man when I knew him. He used to laugh—big laugh—and say silly things like ‘Everybody has got to die, but I always thought I would be an exception to that rule’ and he’d laugh so loud you had to laugh with him. Things like that. Now let me say that I’m healthy. But Christmas reminds me of Saroyan and other people who have died. I’m getting old. I remember family members who aren’t around. is year seems harder than usual. I didn’t really enjoy Christmas.”

“I imagine that you have good memories of Mr. Saroyan and many other people, Ms. Anne. That’s a gift.”

“Maybe, but it’s a hard gift. I saw an article online about post-Christmas sadness. That’s probably what I have.

“I didn’t do everything I wanted to do. I didn’t do much at all. My kids came, but they seemed preoccupied before they arrived and my grandson got sick the night before Christmas Eve. Pretty sad, he was,” she continued. “And nobody put a brand new car under my tree. Not that I wanted one, but it’s such a fantasy. So much fake stuff we expect to please us.”

“Sometimes we miss truth in front of us because we’re looking too hard at the past. But maybe that’s why we celebrate Christmas. To remember that God provides many gifts to each of us over a lifetime. To remember the birth of Jesus and what that means—because it is a gift of love.” I was not sure if these words were right for the moment.

“I know that. I’m tired and Christmas happened too quickly for me. Bang! It was here! Bang! It was gone! And somehow I feel like I missed it.”

“Be gentle with yourself, Ms. Anne. Christmas is hard on everyone because of all the expectations people have. You know—the perfect tree, the perfect decorations, perfect meal, the perfect setting, the perfect gift. We get slammed by this illusion of perfection because none of us can pull it off, and it’s a long way from the birth of Jesus. You remember what Saroyan wrote in The Time of Your Life? I can’t quote it exactly, but he said to seek goodness and when you find it, bring it out of its hiding place. Sounds a little like Jesus and what he said about the kingdom of God and the mustard seed.”

“Sometimes you sound like a preacher. Not a very good one but OK. You make me laugh. You think I should be gentle with myself? Sure, why not?”

From pp. 83-87 of IN DAYS TO COME: From Advent to Epiphany. Copyright © 2017 by George H. Donigian. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Upper Room Books.

The New Discovery

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“Have you read Markings?” asked Strawberry Kaimakamian during a lull at the coffee house.

“I got a cat and a dog. They make markings all over the place.” I knew that I shouldn’t have responded like that. Strawberry graciously ignored my effort.

“No, it’s a book by some man who was important, but he’s dead now and he wrote the most amazing things about himself and about politics and people and God. I just discovered the book and can’t get enough of it!”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like it was written by Saroyan or Thoreau or Kherdian.”

“They would like it. I mean this morning I read something that spoke directly to politicians everywhere. I mean it was deadly! He wrote long ago—this was 1951—and he uses some old sexist language, but I can accept it for that time. Listen to this:

Around a man who has been pushed into the limelight, a legend begins to grow as it does around a dead man. But a dead man is in no danger of yielding to the temptation to nourish his legend, or accept its picture as reality. I pity the man who falls in love with his image as it is drawn by public opinion during the honeymoon of publicity. [Markings, p. 66]

“Isn’t that great?! All the politicians seem to believe what their campaign promoters said about them so that they think they’re the greatest. And even when they keep failing to live up to everything, they continue to believe.”

“Strawberry, be careful when you talk about politicians. You know Ms. Anne’s rules about character attacks.”

“I’m not talking about any one politician. All of them do this. They forget that they are public servants and begin to think of the divine right of politicians. But that’s what I love about this book. The author was apparently a politician who understood the need for humility and servanthood and not letting Ego run away with things. You got to read this book! I can’t pronounce his name very well—Hammarskjold is not Armenian!—but you need to read it because it’s not all politics. It’s about how one human being gained insight and meaning while serving the greater good.”

“I may have to borrow it from you, but here come some customers. Back to work we go.”

Later that day I told Strawberry  that I had been dipping into Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings for much of my adult life. I apologized and said that I didn’t intend to play the role of fool and was very glad to hear her passion for this new discovery.

 

The Drive-through Window

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“Ms. Anne, have you considered having a drive-through for people in cars? You could convert some of the space to have a window.” Mike Dumbellskovetsky, a general contractor, seemed eager to sell Ms. Anne on the idea. “I could have plans drawn for your approval in less than a week.”

The other staff and I watched Ms. Anne. We knew her feelings about car culture.

“Mike, you’re not the first to suggest that idea, but I reject the McDonaldsization of contemporary America.”

“I didn’t say anything about fast food. Just a drive-through window, Ms. Anne. Just a simple change would make a big difference to your bottom line.”

“Listen to me. Every corporation has its drive-through and its timers and its ways of getting employees to worker harder and more efficiently for less money and for less customer satisfaction. I stand against that.

“Last Sunday I stopped by the corporate coffee mill. We’re not open on Sundays, but I wanted a copy of the Sunday Times so I went. I parked the car and walked into the shop. That seemed like a good idea because cars were backed around the building for the drive-through window.

“A young man in front of me and an older man behind me. We chatted—the older one and I. I placed my order and noticed six baristas working hard. I’ll get my drink real soon, I thought. I waited. I watched them hand drinks and snacks out the window and they put coffee and such on the bar for pick-up, but the two men and I waited. Turns out that the chain’s priority is the customers in cars and the customers who order over their app so they can skip the line. And if you’re not in either of those categories, you’re out of luck.

“I understand where they get that approach. Edwards Deming brought the concept of measurement and quantification to corporate America from his post-World War II work in Japan. And the corporate accountants can time and measure the online orders and the car orders and establish standards for delivery, but they can’t do that for the walk-in people. I’m for the walk-in people.

“And you know what else, Mike. Not a single barista asked how I was doing or what I was interested in that day. Only a slightly kinder version of Sarge at the hash house saying, ‘What’dya want?’ And if I put in a drive-through window, I’d be tempted to treat everybody like they were just a cog in the profit chain instead of a human being. I refuse to go down that path. I reject that sort of thinking.

“Now before you try to answer, would you like your usual morning drink?”

 

Having Fun with Music

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In Days to Come, a devotional book I wrote for the period from Advent to Epiphany, includes a meditation that focuses on the song “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” It is a fun song to sing—around Christmas and any other time of the year—especially with groups of children.

When I began writing that meditation, I decided to listen to the song, but I couldn’t find the CD. I went to YouTube, plugged in the song title, and gawked at the list of all the versions. The beauty of this folk song is that words  and interpretations differ, but the essential message is the same. Here are some versions for your listening pleasure:

The Fairfield Four https://youtu.be/040tPQc8zsg

Mandisa https://youtu.be/O0y7YN6M0Og

Ralph Stanley https://youtu.be/5SuTfqssxE4

Johnny Cash https://youtu.be/GH0sjczcg48

REO Speedwagon https://youtu.be/q57jO-OqO7E

Mary Chapin Carpenter https://youtu.be/OtH8VC_Oc_c

You may find yourself humming or singing or tapping with some versions, or you may find yourself simply listening in awe to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s version.

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.

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