Office Work


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

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

In Grand Rapids I saw a sign that said:

Detour Ends on Wealthy Street.

I did not stop or rest on that fortunate road.

My journey, begun long ago, detours still—

Plans interrupted, dreams deferred, goals

Withdrawn and returned to the mind’s vault,

And the journey, never planed to end in wealth

Or on a street named Wealthy, recognized

The path at midlife, evidencing a goal

Apposite the street named Wealthy.

Name it Pilgrim’s Way, Mercy Court.

Perhaps even Seek Justice Road.

Back to the files.


Blindsided by the Blessing


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cup of Fortune


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

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

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

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

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

“So did her fortune-telling come true?”

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


Scout Sunday


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Scout Sunday at church brought out the youth involved in the Scouting movement. A fun day that reminded me of a poem written during my time as a Scout leader. First published in a little literary magazine.

Scout Camp

We found a raccoon skull in the woods,

bleached white, yet dirty, a part of our story.

The boys carelessly thought the skull a talisman

that would protect their food from marauding creatures.

Still the animals foraged each night and recognized,

in the boys’ activities, a sign of grace,

a meal freely given, an everyday sacrament.

Not good poetry, but a reminder of the significance of our everyday rituals and sacraments.

Walking Past the Ghost


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Every day I walk to work. I have time to think, to hear the sounds around me, to notice changing seasons and changes in the area. I walk a block, turn left and walk three blocks followed by a right turn. With that turn I’m on the street with the coffee club. Four blocks before I arrive at the coffee club, I pass a white stucco building on the opposite side of the street. The building has plate glass windows now boarded up. A sign in a window offers the building as “for sale or lease.” It’s a corner building with parking on the street and behind it. I haven’t talked to Ms. Anne about the possibilities for this place. I’m usually whistling or humming some jazz or the Armenian liturgy at this point in my walk.

I haven’t been inside the building in decades, but I know it well. My father grew up in that building, in a back room of what was then a grocery store that his family operated. Theirs was a classic immigrant story that began with recognition of basic human needs and how to profit from those needs. My father was born in the old world, but he seemed to live his life in that building. When he died, another immigrant family bought the business and lived in the back rooms. They’ve moved up the economic scale and the building sits and waits for a new immigrant wave to see the opportunities it offers.

I always feel glad that I’m on the opposite side of the street for fear that if I get too close to the building, my father’s ghost will pull me inside. Irrational, yes, but the nature of fear tends toward the irrational.

I haven’t seen it in years, but I remember the interior. The walls are a muted dull shade of gray-green, something my father called “boarding-house paint.” In my memory I see freezers and refrigerators, a butcher’s block, a checkout counter with an old adding machine and an even older cash register with a handle to crank it open. I see shelves of canned goods, displays of paper products and cleaning supplies, wine and beer and candy and cigarettes. Potato chips are near the checkout counter, and in the back near the meat counter is an old soda case with cold water chilling the bottles. I see my father with a cigar in his mouth or maybe a Pall Mall cigarette hanging there as he talks with a customer. Maybe someone has come by to pay rent on one of his houses. Maybe he is talking to yet another person to go on the roof with some tar to patch still another leak in the flat roof. And I see myself sweeping the floor, cleaning the meat-cutting equipment, rotating new canned goods behind older ones.

And the ghost has pulled me in again.

Talking on the Walk to Work


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Tuesday on my way to the coffee club, I saw Rev. Farley O’Stoutville on his morning walk and invited him to go with me for a cup of coffee.

“Sure, I could use a break from dealing with church needs.”

“You might not get a break. Something you said the other day got me thinking about the Bible.”

“That’s a good thing to think about. Reading it is better,” he said and then blurted, “Forgive me. That was such a pietistic thing to say.”

“It’s OK. The other day you seemed to question whether the Bible was liberal or conservative because of the reaction someone had to your shirt. I’ve never really thought about that because I know conservatives and liberals alike claim the Bible as their own and seem to give it their own spin.”

“That’s certainly one way to understand how people read the Bible. By giving it their own spin.”

“Wrong choice of words,” I said. “It isn’t that they spin the Bible so much as what they bring to this job of reading it. But you know walking gives a person time to think and I’ve been thinking about what you said. I’m sure theologians have written about this, but I think the Bible is a pretty liberal document. People caricature it, but I think it gives people a way to deal with chaos and it’s liberal in the sense of its concern for the well-being of people. What do you think, Rev?”

“I think you’re on target as far as you go,” the Rev. said. “But the Bible also conserves certain traditions and expects people to maintain those traditions. And tradition by its nature is conservative.”

“I’ll give you that side of it, but tradition doesn’t necessarily mean rigidity.” My response surprised me. “As I read the book, the Bible expects certain traditions to be kept as a way to honor the past or to honor the relationship with the divine, but it doesn’t stipulate that these holy days must be done exactly the same every time. And I don’t see the message of the prophets—whether Isaiah or Amos or Micah—as conservative. “ Now we had come to Ms. Anne Thrope’s. “What do you think, Rev? I’ll make the coffee.”

“I applaud your effort—and I look forward to the coffee–but you’re trying to make the Bible conform to criteria that it cannot meet because the Bible is not one grand book with one theme. It is multiple books with multiple authors written over multiple centuries. It is history and poetry, wisdom literature and the words of prophets. So yes, it would seem liberal at some points during those times when the community pulled into itself and forgot to care for others, such as widows and orphans and strangers. But it would seem conservative during times when people experienced no meaning in the rituals and wanted to quit doing them. People always try to force it to become what it isn’t.”

“Stop! I can’t take it. Different authors, different times. Different centuries?! I guess I’ve known that it wasn’t all written at once, but hadn’t really thought about what that means. Mind-boggling it is! I don’t know what to say.”

“You could say, ‘Coffee’s ready.’ You’ve made me work for it. Let’s jump to the hot stove league and talk about the Yankees.”

And he did. But I confess that I despise the sameness of conversations about sports.

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.”


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?”