Interviewing Donigian

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We did an interview of sorts over coffee with George Donigian about his book A World Worth Saving. He’ll lead a longer conversation at the coffee club later this month.

 Q: You write in A World Worth Saving about the spiritual aspects of apathy. What does that mean to you?

Donigian: Apathy refers to an attitude of non-caring, and the church historically has spoken about apathy as a spiritual illness. Without going into all of that history, I think it is important to remember that Christians are called to imitate One who cared for all people and demonstrated love in many different situations.

Can you imagine an apathetic Jesus? It’s almost impossible to consider that question. I cannot imagine a non-caring Jesus. That goes against everything I read in the Gospels. When I read John 3:16, I notice the first part: God loved the world so much. God demonstrates love and caring for humanity. That’s what we aim to do. To be spiritually healthy is to care for the world—the people and all of God’s creation, the earth itself, the environment that surrounds us.

Q: Usually people draw inward during Lent, yet in your book you speak of “practicing the presence of God in all activities.” You advocate going out into the world and doing acts of mercy and compassion. How do you manage to balance activity for God and spending quiet, focused time with God?

Donigian: If there is one question in my life, it concerns balance. I try to spend quiet time each day in which I read the Bible and reflect on the passage, pray, and invite God’s presence. I prefer to exercise alone and use that time for solitude. Those quiet private times are the fuel that powers my engagement in ministry with others—whether that is ministry with children in after-school programs or with hungry and homeless persons. Even so, in the midst of our activities we can also focus on God and what God would have us do.

Q: Lent is often associated with Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations. What about other churches that don’t fall into those traditions? What would they get from reading your book?

Donigian: I think every congregation would benefit by reading and discussing the book. It includes guiding questions for conversation at the end of each chapter, plus a brief guide for small-group conversations. Often the church assumes that we all understand and agree on definitions of words, and I think that we need to test that assumption. As I wrote in the chapter on justice, many people identify justice with our legal system, but that’s not the sole type of justice that the Bible identifies.

Another chapter offers ways we can respond to the hunger in our world, and I believe it is important for every congregation to address physical hunger along with spiritual hunger. Still another chapter looks at healing for our broken world. Every congregation can grow in its understanding and actual practice of ministry by reading the book and talking about its suggestions.

Q: Your church affiliations have been quite varied, including Lutheran, Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church. How have these churches impacted your view of Lent and Lenten practices?

Donigian: The churches that observed Lent focused on self-denial during the season. They urged people to give up a practice that they enjoyed, such as chocolate or desserts in general, or to give up a harmful practice, such as tobacco. I saw many people who began that pilgrimage of self-denial and then they gave up after a few days. I think we need to see Lent in a more positive light and as a season of mission and ministry, though the mission doesn’t end with Easter. The world needs Christians to engage in deeds of mercy, compassion, and justice.

I’ve read and edited books that focus on spiritual disciplines, especially the importance of fasting as a spiritual practice. I’ve learned about other ways to fast. For example, Steve Harper wrote about fasting from anger in his Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition. Kent Ira Groff suggested a fast from carbon–meaning an effort to reduce our carbon footprint–for Lent. These help us unplug from seeing life as usual, but I want even more for us in the church to show our love to others.

Q: Which chapter is your favorite?

Donigian: Choosing a favorite chapter is like choosing a favorite child. They all have their pleasurable aspects. I enjoyed writing about my hometown. We had a rare mix of ethnic groups, people who settled there to work in the manufacturing plants in the early 20th century and found ways to hold on to their traditions while embracing new life in the United States. As a child, I didn’t appreciate how rare our community was. There weren’t many towns of 18,000 back then in Tidewater Virginia where you could hear Armenian, Greek, Lebanese, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages in the same neighborhood. And in the book I wrote about Hagop. He was an Armenian man from the old Soviet Union who jumped ship while his ship went to the Port of Richmond and found my father’s grocery store. My family helped this refugee settle in this country and become a citizen. I think my father demonstrated a hospitality that we need to see again.

Q: After reading A World Worth Saving, what spiritual practice or practices do you hope readers will choose to incorporate in to their own lives during Lent?

Donigian: I hope that people will continue to pray as they follow the daily news reports. I hope people will notice what strikes them as unjust or unfair or simply not right and that they will focus their ministry and mission on these topics. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth reportedly said that preachers should prepare sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today I think all Christians need to do that.

 

A World Worth Saving: Lenten Spiritual Practices for Action. Nashville: Upper Room Books. ISBN: 978-0-8358-1211-5.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

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“Rev. Dyson, that was a lovely service. You brought the Word! I’m glad I stayed to the end.” Typical comment after a Sunday service of worship.

“I want you to know that the sermon was hard to hear at times. Oh, your voice was strong, Rev., and my ears picked up what you said. It’s just my head didn’t want to hear all your fine points. I felt a little uncomfortable at points. Even so, I stayed with you. You know you called it a sermon, but you had about three or four sermons there. All of them strong!” Not quite typical comment after Sunday worship.

“In fact, Rev., I’m not sure I really want to call what you did a sermon. Oh yes, you preached some difficult truths, but I also sensed love flowing through what you said. Like a love letter you might write. A truthful love letter. Maybe that’s the way all sermons should be: love letters from God through us to us.” Uncommon comment after a service of worship

“I appreciate what you said in that sermon, and I appreciate even more the way you are sending us back out into the world with a charge to action. I’m going to let you work on me and let the Spirit work on me and let my actions reflect the truth I heard coming from you about being white and being black.” Still less common comment in response to a sermon.

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Michael Eric Dyson structures Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America as if it were a service of worship. He begins with a call to worship, a statement of purpose and identity—a fairly conventional call to worship. Dyson moves to hymns, and these begin to diverge from traditional worship as we hear from KRS-One, Tupac Shakur, Beyoncé, and others. The scripture reading comes from the Book of Martin Luther King, Jr , 1968:3-8. Dyson’s section titled “Sermon” is autobiographical and confessional, personal and corporate. His book is a beautifully intimate work, perhaps begun as a lament, but I heard love supporting and sustaining the work.

Dyson’s work is elegant in its simplicity. He invites readers to see the world through his eyes and through the eyes of a history too long invisible. Dyson speaks to white America of not only what has been hidden or lost, but of the lives that have been destroyed because of the particular racial history in this country. It is an easy book to read, difficult to digest, and important for our time.

Do read this book and reflect on its message.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson. St. Martin’s Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-250-13599-5

Freud, Dali, and Comic Books: The Strange World of Your Dreams

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“So I got that comic book you were talking about,” said Mongo Mangosteen. “Kind of weird to have a comic book with a padded cover. You know what I mean? Especially with that subject matter.”

“I think the cover is a great touch! Makes it easy to carry around,” said Stan Lambkin, “and it isn’t just a comic book. It’s the whole short run of a series from the 1950s. Man, that’s a cultural artifact! Like looking through an archeologist’s lens or maybe even looking at our own time from the perspective of the future. It’s beyond categories!”

I overheard their conversation as I was delivering Mongo’s coffee and the three cookies called nazook. Then I saw the book. Cartoony cover for a book titled The Strange World of Your Dreams.

“Let me serve you and then I want to look at this book.”

“Don’t spill anything on it,” said Mongo. “I just bought it.”

“Tell me what it’s about,” I said. “Looks like a big fat comic book.”

“Let me explain,” said Stan. “Back in the 1950s comic books were being condemned for violence and for causing juvenile indecency or delinquency. People got upset because of Fred Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent. Talk about pandering to a crowd! That guy was a rabble rouser! So then the publishers tried to prove that comics were educational and wholesome and people had nothing to fear. So someone got the brilliant idea to use comic books to bring psychology and dream interpretation to a wide audience. Not that comic strips hadn’t done that already if you’ll remember Little Nemo. These comics introduced a dream detective who offered semi-Freudian interpretations of dreams. Typical 1950s–the dream detective would take his secretary out to dinner. Pre Mad Men culture. In the first issue the editorial group invited readers to send their dreams for interpretation. The artwork is cool—classic Jack Kirby and Mort Meskin. It feels like classic suspense and horror and then the endings are always twisted positively by the dream detective. It’s bizarre cool. Like cheap time-travel. The collection compares the material to the meeting of Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali, something that actually happened in London and must have been metaphysical.”

“Slow it down. I’m following you and I can see now why Mongo wants the book. I’m interested because of the mystical reality of dreams.”

“You might not like this because it’s not so much about divine messages in dreams. At least not in any traditional way. I think it’s a cool book and produced well,” said Stan. “Why don’t you buy a copy? Available online. You can always show it to people as an artifact of the old days.”

 

The Strange World of Your Dreams. YOE Books, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-61377-614-8

Don’t Feed the Fears: A brief review of Fear of the Other, by Will Willimon

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Once upon a time Will Willimon and I worked on a book together. As an acquisition editor in Nashville, I pitched one idea to him. He lobbed something back from his office at Duke University, and our conversation about the project began. I knew from others that Will spoke fluent sarcasm, but I learned that he also loves a good conversational debate. We had several stimulating conversations about his interpretation of John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lilies. While I disagreed with his interpretation of Updike’s novel and argued for a less caustic perspective, I came to two realizations: 1) Updike did not need me to defend him and 2) Willimon was the author and I was not. I am glad to have seen the birth of that book titled Reading with Deeper Eyes. Despite that book, Willimon became a bishop of The United Methodist Church. Retired now, he has more time to preach and to write, a gift to all.

Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, published in early 2016 by Abingdon Press, offers a corrective prescription to the fears fueled by a variety of news sources and alternative facts.

Remember Willimon’s love of conversation and use of sarcasm as you read this little book. He begins with these words: “Thanks to fellow Christians Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. If not for them, I would not have been asked to write this book.” (p. ix) Then off Willimon goes to examine the fears that plague US culture. He bases his reflection on a biblical understanding of the grace or unconditional love and acceptance of God.

“Is there anything more natural, innate, and universal than our fear of the Other?” Willimon asks (p. 21) and then he counters by recalling the role of the stranger or the Other throughout the Bible. He points out the radical nature of biblical hospitality in welcoming sojourners or aliens. Along the way, Willimon brings in the neurobiology of fear and how we project such fear in our lives. In opposition to that natural state, Willimon points again to the difference in perspective that comes through faith. He writes of love in action and speaks of the command that we love one another—the people who are our most feared enemies and the people who attend the church we attend, but have another angle on faith and discipleship. Perhaps most helpful is when Willimon strives to work toward a rule of hospitality in life, seeking the good in the other. As part of that rule of hospitality, Willimon suggests some actions for congregations to take. These suggestions are not  revolutionary, but offer concrete principles and actions for Christian disciples. They include participating in self-sacrificial service to people in need and identifying alienated or voiceless groups in the community.

Each of the five chapters closes with questions for reflection, making this book helpful for small groups and for congregation-wide study.

The Rev Gives A Test

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The Rev. Machamer Gasparovitz sat alone at a table near the counter of the coffee club. I could hear him saying, “How could they not know? How could they not know?” Better go see what’s going on with him, I thought. We’re not busy. I took two cups of coffee and sat down.

“Rev, you need another cup. I got time so let’s talk. Something the matter?”

“I gave people at church a short quiz the other day. Some questions about the Gospels and nobody knew the answers. The people I talked to weren’t new to church. They’ve been involved 20 or 30 years. Maybe more. Where have they been all this time?”

“You probably shot over their heads with the questions. After all, you’re the one who went to preacher school or seminary. Whatever it’s called. They didn’t.”

“I didn’t ask anything complicated. What if I asked you those questions?”

“Rev, you know I don’t go to your church. Haven’t been to church in a few years. Got too busy with work and other matters.”

“Going to my church has nothing to do with it. I know you used to be a regular at St. Timothy by the Gas Station so you probably learned some basics. Let me ask you the first question. Which Gospel was written first?”

“That’s a trick question, Rev! Most people probably say Matthew because it’s the one that starts the New Testament. I don’t know, but I’m going to guess the one in the middle—Mark. It’s hidden by the others and it’s short.”

“OK. Let’s play on. Which Gospel has the Sermon on the Mount?”

“I know that one is Matthew. Ms. Anne quotes it too much. What’s the next question?”

“Number three: Which Gospel has the Sermon on the Plain?”

“I don’t know. I never heard anybody talk about the Sermon on the Plain. How am I doing, Rev?”

“Two more questions. Which Gospel refers to Jesus’ first miracle? Bonus if you can tell me what it was.”

“I went to a wedding last week and heard the priest talk about the first miracle at a wedding in Cana. Water turned into wine.”

“That’s the bonus. Which Gospel tells about it?”

“I’ll guess Luke. Am I right, Rev?”

“Last question: Which Gospel was the last one written?”

“How about John? I haven’t mentioned him yet.”

“Low passing grade, but you passed! You missed the Sermon on the Plain in Luke and the wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John. But you must have paid attention when you went to church.”

“Rev, I try. I just don’t want anyone to know about it. But what’s the point?”

“The questions really don’t matter as much as what they point toward. For me Christianity has always concerned integrating head and heart, loving God with heart and mind and body and spirit, and most people want to speak only of the heart—and even there, they want to reduce heart to excitement or enthusiasm. If we don’t understand, how will we know what to do? So I try to be an educator and try to stir up a passion in people for what they claim. Based on last night’s test, I’m not doing very well, but I’ll keep trying. Thanks for the coffee and conversation. Somehow I don’t feel as bad as I did. It’s good to talk.”

Yikes! Writer on Deadline. Hooray!

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Writer on deadline.

Simple prose. A somewhat ambiguous description.

Good news: someone wants my ideas and thoughts and extended a contract.

Writer on deadline.

December 1, 2016.

Deadlines are always closer than I think. Isn’t that a universal reality?

In this case the deadline’s description also sounds like the working title of the book.

More about this and other happenings at Ms. Anne Thrope’s after December 1.

 

Banging the Backgammon Board, or Not the Usual Political Discourse

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Passionate voices at the backgammon table were louder than normal, sounding louder than the usual shouts over a good or bad roll of the dice. Several people began to look for other tables.

Kate Mgrdichian said to me, “They’re not playing. They’re arguing politics and getting louder and scaring other customers. You need to say something.”

While I tried quickly to plan something to say, Ms. Anne Thrope intercepted the table. “I’m hearing words of hatred and I want to point out the sign posted above the counter. If you can’t read it, I’ll read it to you.” She pointed to the house rules sign:

No demonizing or disparaging comments about anyone. Do not vilify. Talk about ideas, problems, and solutions. Nonviolently. Thank you for understanding.

Jimmy Antwhistle and Marshall Hopinsky both glared at Ms. Anne.

“Look, I’m not trying to cause a problem, but he keeps talking about the libs and making disparaging remarks about the President.”

“I’m just speaking the truth—and he needs to stop calling me a dunderhead. I’m conservative, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think. That’s that damn political correctness for you.”

“Yes, well, how about the other thing you call me—libtard. That’s real sweet—a made-up word. You think I’m a blind follower of certain ideas, but if you’re thinking, then you need to realize that I’m thinking.”

“Gentlemen, here’s what I think,” said Ms. Anne. “Labels don’t help anyone. Liberal and conservative name-calling—well, let me put it this way. When you label me as a liberal, you think I do this, that, and the other. When you label me as a conservative, you think I do this, that, and the other. But what if you see that I do a little of both? Suddenly I don’t fit your categories. You have to see me as a person. An individual. Labels endanger everyone.”

“You’re clearly a lib. That’s why you’re saying this.”

“No, she isn’t. She’s a traditionalist.”

“And as far as I’m concerned, the language is not politically correct as much as it is respectful of all people. As for my credentials, I voted for Ronald Reagan and then I voted for Bill Clinton because George Bush wasn’t the answer to our nation’s problems. Now I’m not foolish enough to think that this little conversation is going to change your minds, so you want a 30-minute sermon, a two-hour lecture, or a five-second blessing from me before you leave?”

“I’ll take five seconds.”

“Yep, I don’t need any sermon.”

“Live with others in peace. Thank you for coming to the coffee club. Please come again.”

The Message on the Shirt

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“So I’m trying to work out at the gym and I see this guy wearing a shirt that has that goofy heart on it and it says, ‘I <heart> my church’ and I’m thinking, Yeah, so? I like my coffee. I don’t advertise it on my shirt. Not on purpose anyways,” said Harold Varsamian.

“I notice when you get excited sometimes you spill coffee,” I said.

“Yeah, but that ain’t the point. These people—these people wear their shirts as if it is a big deal to like their church. If that’s what that heart symbol is supposed to mean. Who doesn’t like their church? You don’t like it, you find another church or you start another church or you quit church! What’s the deal here? I never saw this before.”

“Maybe we need a Ms. Anne Thrope’s Coffee Club t-shirt. Advertising is helpful. What church do they promote?” I asked.

“I don’t know. They just say, ‘I heart my church’ and then they have some sort of symbol. Maybe it’s a secret code. I don’t know. I don’t care. Just it irritates me. You like your church, fine. You don’t like it, leave. That’s simple. I already said it once.”

“Doesn’t sound like anything to cause the juices to jangle. I’ve got stuff to do. Strawberry or Brandy can fill in for me.” I went to the kitchen to check on some pastries.

“Hey, Mr. V. No problem,” said Brandy. “People wearing those shirts are younger than you. A lot younger. They’re my age and we identify. You wouldn’t understand.”

“You identify? What does that mean? Like a lodge handshake? What we did at the Loyal Order of the Royal Platypus? Church has come to mean secret signs?”

“No, sir. We identify because we’re part of the same team, some group of people. That shouldn’t be hard for you to understand. Maybe I’ll wear my shirt here. Might attract more customers.”

“The only thing I understand is that I’m old and it’s a generational thing. Can you give me another cup of Armenian coffee? I’ll be at the backgammon table. I need to think about this. Maybe calm down some.”

“No problem, Mr. V. I’ll have it out to you.”

“Of course, it’s no problem—but you know that. What happened to basic customer—never mind. Calm yourself down, Varsamian. It’s going to be OK.”

No Problem

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“So why are we having a staff meeting?” asked Strawberry Kaimakamian.”What can we do in twenty minutes?”

“Yeah, like I’m wondering the same because we haven’t had this sort of thing all year. Not since we got those bonus checks,” said Jeanne Sullivan. “I could use a bonus.”

“I need to retrain everyone,” said Ms. Anne Thrope. “I know it’s a generational expression, but I cannot abide the response ‘no problem’ when a customer orders something. Of course, it’s not a problem. It’s your job! It’s what we do for people. They order and we provide and we thank them for coming to this particular coffee shop and buying something from us. It would be no problem for them to decide to go to another shop. We don’t want them to make that choice.

“So now I’m asking everyone to thank each customer when they order. If you can’t say ‘thank you,’ say something positive to acknowledge their order. ‘Coming right up’ works for me. So does ‘Would you like something else to go with that?’ I want all of you to practice responses that sound to my ears more positive than ‘no problem.’”

“Ms. Anne, you’re showing your age,” Strawberry said. “My generation understands that the transaction is complete when we say ‘no problem.’”

“And you’re right about that—except I want this shop to stay in business by extending better-than-expected customer service. I went to a fast-food place the other day and when I ordered, the counter-person responded, ‘My pleasure.’ I know that taking my order was not a pleasure to that person—other than getting a paycheck—and that is part of that business’s hard-core staff training. It sounded so much better than ‘no problem.’ That’s what I’m pushing. My father had another kind of retail business and he drilled it into all our heads that we made sure to say to each customer something like ‘Thank you. Please come again.’ Of course we rolled our eyes then. Did it do any good? We didn’t have marketing surveys, but people returned. That’s all. While you’re working here, practice saying, ‘Thank you’ or ‘Coming right up’ or ‘You’re welcome’ or ‘Enjoy your drink.’ You will please this crotchety other generation owner and we’ll have more fun together. That’s all for today. Next meeting we will talk about the bonuses Jeanne wants. Enjoy!”

House Rules Posted, or One Afternoon at the Coffee Shop during the Election Season

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A handwritten sign went on the wall behind the counter at Ms. Anne Thrope’s Coffee Club: “No demonizing or disparaging comments about anyone. Do not vilify. Talk about ideas, problems, and solutions. Nonviolently. Thank you for understanding.” The words were inked in a dark blue against white background with the exception of a red “Nonviolently.”

“Well, that’s an odd sign,” said Jackson McUsquy. “It’s a political year. Those bums on the other side—well, you know what I think. They’re always tearing down my people.”

“Exactly my point,” said Ms. Anne. “And you’re always tearing them down. What would happen if people who disagreed began to talk to each other about our problems?”

“You know things aren’t right in this country. People want to be something else,” said McUsquy. “The only way to change things is to make people change.”

“And what if your side loses and they make you change?

“My side can’t lose—unless the election is rigged.”

“I hear that,” said Sonny Halstead. “It don’t matter what we want. The corporations rig everything to come out their way.”

“Damn straight,” said McUsquy. “Look at what AnKarA Corporation did to the land and all the people and then they got Congress to declare them innocent.”

“See already you’re avoiding the problems and blaming someone not in the conversation. Try to talk about situations and stop spreading personal attacks and rumors. People kid me about my name, but I’m not a hater of people. I love people and want everyone to do well. I don’t see it happening in our nation these days.”

“Yeah, take that football player who didn’t salute the flag,” said Sonny Halstead. “He doesn’t deserve the money. Ask any vet.”

“Hang loose, Sonny,” said Jackson McUsquy. “I’m a veteran. I don’t like what he did, but this is America and he has a right to express himself. Protest all he wants. Has nothing to do with his job. That’s the nature of a free country and our Constitution. And besides all that, lots of people don’t stand when the National Anthem is sung. I don’t stand when I hear it played on television. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t do it then.”

“Keep talking,” said Ms. Anne, “and pay attention to the sign. Here’s a coffee on me for the conversation.”