Coffee with the Rev

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“So Rev, how’s your friend the other preacher?” I asked when the Rev. Farley O’Stoutville came to the coffee counter.

“You mean Inspi Ganymede? He’s alright. No changes in his situation, but I think he’ll find a way.”

“The problems you clergy face always surprise me. I didn’t know until I started working here. I’m not sure it helps me to go to church the more I hear about church situations.”

“Have a cup of coffee with me and we can talk. It doesn’t look like a very busy day and Ms. Anne Thrope would probably enjoy the front of the shop instead of doing paperwork.”

“Sure, I can do that. What do you want to talk about?”

“When you bring the coffee.”

I made two cups of Armenian coffee and took them to the table.

After he took a sip of the coffee, the Rev. said, “Inspi’s situation reminds me of a church I came to pastor when I was younger. I followed a pastor who had been there nine years—a long time in my denomination. No interim. One week he was there and the next week I was there. After a month, I knew it wasn’t the place for me. A lot of conflict because of the changed power situation. And when I say the ‘power situation,’ I simply mean new personalities and new chemistry among the people. A lot of resistance to anything different. I stayed there two years, but it felt much longer. In the end, I moved on to a different church. Some people left the church.”

“Did they deal with any of the conflict? Try to improve the situation?”

“From what I can tell, I don’t think they ever addressed the conflict. The pastor after me stayed 18 months. Another one came and stayed two years. They’ve had a string of short-term clergy.

“And that’s why I told Inspi that he and the church will probably part ways soon enough. I think it is a message of hope and consolation, though Inspi didn’t like it. But that’s life. No matter what, all shall be well.”

That’s when I noticed Ms. Anne Thrope signaling me to give her a hand. All shall be well–if I keep my job.

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Morning at the Club

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The Rev Farley O’Stoutville spread his digital devices across a table and then came to the counter. “I’d like two Armenian coffees and two pieces of ma’moul, please. Walnut if you have it.”

“You want both coffees at the same time?” I asked.

“I’ve got a guest coming. Another pastor who is visiting.”

“Good to know. You had me confused with your order.”

“Ah, here he is. Let me introduce you to the Rev. Inspiratio Ganymede.” We shook hands and the Rev. could tell I was puzzled by the name. “Inspiratio and I grew up together, right, Inspi?”

“We both managed to survive life in Wondertown. And yeah, that’s really my name. My parents were inspired by the Horatio Alger stories and put it together in a most unusual way.”

“Good to know, and good to meet. I’ll have the coffee out to your table soon.”

They talked and drank and ate and talked and I started over to check on refills, but the Rev. waved me away. After an hour, the visiting clergy left.

That’s when the Rev. called me to bring two more cups of coffee—one for himself and one for me.

“My friend has problems. I’m going to blow off the tension by telling you a little. He became pastor of Memorial Church following a pastor who had been there twelve years. Everything was fine. The church people said they were ready for change. The old pastor retired and moved to Montana so he’s not interfering with anything. But Inspi says that the church people resist everything he suggests. Doesn’t matter what—hymns, a feeding program, ways of reaching out to people, new services of worship. All of them rejected. He wonders what he did wrong.”

“Sounds like he’s trying to do right, but what do I know about churches?”

“Truth is that he didn’t do anything wrong other than to be the immediate successor of a long-term minister. For example, if Ms. Anne Thrope sold this business to Mr. Pennyante, management would be different. You’d probably complain that Mr. Pennyante wasn’t like Ms. Anne Thrope and we’d hear it whenever old Pennyante wasn’t here. Sooner or later, people would stop coming become the atmosphere of the shop was off. After maybe a year, things would begin to seem right again, but you might not be working for Mr. Pennyante. Same thing goes with a church. People need space after a long-term pastor, and I don’t think Memorial Church had that space before Inspi arrived. So we talk. I don’t know what will be next for Inspi, but I suspect his time will be short at Memorial. But I have a sermon that needs attention. One more cup, please—the good stuff.”

Obituaries

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In 1979 William Saroyan published an oddly overlooked book titled Obituaries. Or maybe, given the title, understandably overlooked. He went through the list of deaths for 1978 in an early January issue of Variety and wrote about each person named—whether or not he knew the individual. The book rambles and is sometimes hard to read, but it is also pure Saroyan and his unique testimony to the wonder of living.

I offer another kind of death list. I didn’t intend to stay quiet for so long on this blog, but a number of deaths overwhelmed me. I’ve stayed away from writing and editing projects. After a long year, let me recount a chain of deaths that froze me.

Alfred Kamajian, died June 23, 2018. An artist and a musician and one of my three first-cousins. We were family allies in the midst of frequent family chaos. Known to most people solely by his last name, Alfred specialized in scientific illustration, doing work for the Scientific American, Omni, and other magazines and journals. He produced art for the American Ophthalmology Institute, and you may see his work when you visit an eye doctor. He also did cover art for Batman comic books. He played drums in clubs in the Baltimore-DC area. He and I jammed when he was an adolescent and I a young adult, but we were unable to connect musically in more recent years, though our conversation became richer.

Carole Perdue Farr, died  August 13, 2018. While I was in Maryland after my cousin’s death, my friend Mike Farr called to inform me of his wife’s death. Carole Louise Perdue Farr had a Ph.D. in library science. She had been a vocalist and loved to participate in musical theater. One Sunday afternoon when we were all in graduate school, a friend and I visited the Farr apartment when The Sound of Music came on the television. While my friend and I began making sarcastic and satiric comments about the songs and dialogue, Carole became defensive and then she went to the bedroom and returned with a sword, chasing us out of the apartment. Apologies all around, but later and after the movie. I miss her.

Michael Paul Farr, died September 13, 2018. Husband of Carole. Mike and I worked together on a garbage truck during our last year of college and went on to university together. He embellished stories about our adventures. Mike was a Methodist minister for a time, then went through several vocational chapters before returning to school to become a Registered Nurse. He may have been the only R.N. with the M.Div. degree. In the days when I rode a Honda 350, he urged me to prove that the bike was capable of highway speeds with two people on it. I proved that it could—and confirmation came from a highway patrol officer. Mike paid for half of that speeding ticket.

Rita Callis, died October 5, 2018. Rita was a clergywoman in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church. She and I served as pastors of eight neighboring churches—four churches for each of us—long ago. We bonded then, but as with many friendships, time and distance stretched the connection so that over the last twenty years we saw each other only once a year. Rita was always pastoral and always a seeker of justice. She encouraged many to stand for justice for all people.

Steve Roberts, died October 20, 2018. Steve was a member of a church of which I was once the pastor. A month before my arrival, Steve wrote a letter of welcome and offered some insights into that lakeside community. When I moved from that community to Nashville, Steve offered a prayer of blessing and a gracious letter followed the move. While we did not agree on all things Christian or church, we engaged in conversation and that continues to be the important reality of any relational connection.

Alan Shipp, died October 22, 2018. Here I will be like Saroyan and write about someone I did not really know. That’s not exactly true. I talked with Alan one time. At a wedding where he was part of the receiving line. Where when we were introduced, he said, “I’ve heard a lot about you” and I laughed in a Saroyanesque way. Alan was married to a friend who was a turning point for me, and that makes all the difference. A scientist and an entrepreneur and one active in church and community, Alan died after a long bout with cancer. His illness was part of an ongoing conversation among several friends and we engaged in much prayer for Alan and family, prayers that continue.

Ginna Minasian Dalton, died February 2, 2019. Ginna was the older daughter of my godparents, and she was my older sister. Ginna was ordained clergy in the United Church of Christ. She wrote curriculum and other resources for Protestant churches and for the Armenian Apostolic Church. She was also a truthteller. Ginna experienced rape and broke the silence about that experience so that others could speak about their experiences of sexual violence. Her lone failure, and an abysmal one, happened when she tried to teach me to dance.

Sam Malamis, died March 16, 2019. Sam and I were friends from childhood. In adolescence we played in rock bands. He was a drummer. We also bought fast cars that needed continuous work so we learned about those mechanics in his back yard. Sam died from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, which he had for twenty years.

Mesrob Mutafyan, died March 20, 2019. Archbishop Mesrob, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople. To be an Armenian Church leader in Turkey is no easy matter. We became friends when he emailed about a book I edited. I replied, but then made a joke about a gray-bearded Armenian archbishop and email. He responded, “This gray-bearded Armenian archbishop is 42 years old.”  Our friendship focused on books and church. He tried to convince me to become an Armenian priest, which I resisted. Mesrob attended the University of Memphis as an undergraduate and he hoped to visit Tennessee again, a trip I also anticipated. He did not return. In 2008 Mesrob could not longer function and  became vegetative because of early-onset dementia. Politics of church and state kept him in office until his death at age 62.

Obituaries matter for many reasons. They remind us of the impact other lives have on us. As Saroyan might also write, we celebrate these lives with gratitude because we are still alive.

 

 

The Art of Measuring

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Ms. Anne hummed something that seemed an unlikely mashup of “Deck the Halls” and “Come On’a My House.” Despite that, I knew the day was good and that Ms. Anne was not in a funk the way she was last year after Christmas. “How was your Christmas holiday? Your family visit go OK?”

“Yes, yes. We had a lovely time. Even the priest seemed to celebrate in a heartfelt way.”

“That’s great, Ms. Anne. End of the year is here. What shall we do?”

“I have an idea. Maybe a brilliant idea. Well, at least a good idea,” she said. “I’m going to commission art that interprets a poem. Not a montage or collage and not just any poem. A poetic painting. What do you think?”

“I guess that could work. There’s a lot of poetry that celebrates nature and we certainly have the wall space. Have you talked to an artist?”

“I didn’t say anything about nature. No, I’m thinking of a poem that speaks across generations and is appropriate to this coffee shop. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

I didn’t know if Ms. Anne knew that I read Prufrock once every year or so. An English teacher at the old military high school introduced the poem to us when I was in the ninth grade. I began scanning through remembered fragments of the poem.”I’ll bet I know the line you want, Ms. Anne! ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.’ Am I right?”

She laughed. “That is correct! I know an artist who would create a lovely tribute to Eliot and to the measure of our days that would fit beautifully here in the shop.”

“But don’t you think the poem is a bit sexist, reflecting the world as it once was, Ms. Anne? ‘In the room the women come and go, speaking of Michelangelo.’ And don’t you wonder how it speaks of aging?

“I don’t wonder at all. Have you ever read the poem and paid attention to it? It is about aging and a bit of sexuality and it offers a glimpse of mortality. I love that poem. Eliot may be out of style—I don’t know who is now considered a literary giant these days, but I’ve always had Eliot near the top. And if this painting can inspire people to read Eliot, that will be my reward. And besides, don’t we all measure our lives with coffee spoons?”

She was moving on to a new customer as I remembered other lines from Prufrock:

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Capping the Day

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Ms. Anne Thrope seemed irritated as we closed the shop on Tuesday.

“We didn’t do too well today, did we?” I asked, though I knew that the shop had been busy all day and we had sold all of our paklava and ma’moul.

“No, we had a good day. I’m feeling a bit irked, but it has nothing to do with business. With manners.”

“Yeah, I heard that big argument about Christmas greetings and ‘happy holidays’ and ‘merry Xmas.’ People seem to miss the point of Christmas when they feel such a need to be defensive and attack people who don’t share their exact perspective. Especially when they don’t know that the X represents the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of Christ so that Xmas is simply an abbreviation of Christmas.”

“Wait,” Ms. Anne gave me a halt sign with her palm. “I don’t need you to start mansplaining because you don’t know what is bothering me.”

“I apologize. I didn’t intend to get started. Some days I talk because I don’t know what’s going on and I fill in the space. An old trait that seemed to grow in adolescent anxiety, but there I go again. I’ll stop.”

“I’m glad that you understand my perspective.”

“I’m curious, Ms. Anne. Are you going to tell me what irritates you?”

“I think you’ll see a change here tomorrow. I’m going to put up a new sign by the door. Big enough for people to notice, I hope.

“Last night I took some friends out to dinner at one of the better restaurants in the city. McSorley’s Emporium—I love the sense of irony in that place and the nod to old New York! But in the middle of the restaurant was a table of twelve or fifteen men and every one of them had on a baseball cap or a trucker’s cap or a farmer’s cap. I guess to hide their baldness, but hiding it doesn’t make the baldness go away. I think keeping a cap or hat on indoors is rude, especially when dining. I grew up in a time when caps and hats were removed indoors. Have I given you enough of a mansplanation?“

“I think I understand. In many ways, you’re old school.”

“That is correct. And so I’m going to put up a notice effective January 1 that men should remove hats and caps indoors if they wish to receive service. No shoes, no shirts, no service is the idea. Cap on the head—no service.”

“That’s a losing battle, Ms. Anne. People will just go to the chain coffee shop. Their staff has to wear hats at work.”

“And if people go there, I will still feel that I have stood for a good principle. I feel better already. Good-night.”

Costing Celebrity

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Last Monday the Newton Minow Political Discourse Club, a group of retired people, came to the coffee shop for their weekly session. Samuel Terravosky seemed to have the biggest number of complaints. He didn’t like Meet the Press and he didn’t like Fox News and he thought the networks failed to cover any serious news such as defining the issues of Brexit or political corruption in South Africa or elections in Armenia.

“All they want to do is talk about the President’s tweets. Like he’s a cartoon figure and Sylvester the Cat is coming around the corner. There’s more news than these problematic messages.”

I tuned him out when he reached back to Richard Nixon.

Strawberry Kaimakamian came back from serving pastries to the group and said, “That group—that so-called Newton Minow club—is beginning to argue about the President and news organizations. Do you think we should stop them before it gets too loud?”

“Not at all. They have healthy conversations. They call themselves the Newton Minow Political Discourse Club for a reason. Minow headed the FCC—the Federal Communications Commission. He called television a ‘vast wasteland’ back in the 1960s. I wonder what he thinks now. That group will mind their manners.”

“Even when they’re talking about the President? People seem to forget civility when he comes up. And it’s not my generation, but your generation that keeps breaking the rules.

“You know I’m still reading the book by Dag Hammarskjold. He was a wise man. I keep going back to what he said about the idea of celebrity and from what I know, he must have been warning himself. I’ve got it in my backpack. I’ll get it for you.”

Strawberry returned while I was helping a customer decide on walnut or pistachio ma’moul. She waited until I finished.

“Listen to this. It’s brilliant!

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.

“Isn’t that a beautiful warning? Can’t you just hear him? Do you think Ms. Anne would post this somewhere? Can’t people understand that what others think of them doesn’t matter? What matters is our moral sense, our integrity. That’s an old-fashioned word, integrity. I’m beginning to like it a lot. What do you think?”

“I think we’ve gotten into a heavy conversation for two people working in a coffee shop, Strawberry. I’m not sure where it’s going to stop. Or if it can stop.”

“And that’s the beauty of Hammarskjold. Ever since I read that little book about his prayer—the Three Prayers You’ll Want to Pray—I’ve ventured into a different spiritual path. And I hope it doesn’t end. How about you?”

“The path I’m on began long ago, but I see that the group needs your attention. Forward we go!”

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.