Bomb Drop

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“So I heard that the new Secretary of something or other said that poverty was a state of mind,” said Myrtis Ingomar. “I guess that means if I change my thinking I can be rich.”

“Yeah, just think Harvard and you’ll get all the degrees you want,” said Maxwell McHemingway. “I just tell my creditors that they’re thinking wrong and that I’ve already paid them with good thoughts.”

The community table at the coffee club held a copy of the Gazette-News Leader from the day before while the group talked about news coverage on television and the web. I brought a basket of choereg to the table so I could listen to the conversation. Myrtis took a piece of choereg and began to pull apart the braids.

“I agree with the Secretary,” said Rev. Gunion Paisley. “It’s a state of mind, but not the way he thinks about it.”

“Sure, Rev. What are you thinking?” said Tom Gonzalez-Rink.

“I think the state of mind that is impoverished rests in those people who have an abundance of material possessions—“ started the Rev.

“Oh man, do we have to hear a sermon on a Thursday morning? I could go home and watch reruns of Gunsmoke,” said Pete Ohanyan. He remained at the table.

“Hey, I want to hear what the Rev says. Go on. Try not to preach, Rev,” said Tom.

“Thank you. When people fear that the resources of the world are scarce and not enough to go around, then they begin to identify wealth and poverty. They have an abundance of material possessions, but because of their fear, they don’t believe they have enough. That poverty mindset among the affluent leads to the cycle of greed, something we see among our members of Congress.”

“Rev, is this some kind of Marxist thinking on your part?” asked Tom.

“No, I think this is biblical. I believe that God created a world in which there is enough, but we’ve botched up things with the ways of production and distribution. And I think we can go back to an understanding of original sin, and here’s where I agree with William Faulkner, that great writer, who believed that the urge to possess land, to claim to own it, was the original sin, that all else—especially broken relationships–came from that urge to possess.”

Before Maxwell and Pete began to speak, the Rev held up his hand to signal a stop and then he continued, “So yes, I agree that poverty is a state of mind, but the Secretary is thinking of the wrong people. He has the wrong angle and is looking outward instead of within. He and his cronies need to look within themselves to see how they’ve become prey to fear. That’s the real poverty. Now I leave you with my thoughts because I need to work on Sunday’s sermon. I’ll be back tomorrow to hear what you have to say.”

And with that the Rev. Gunion Paisley left for the day.

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When Two People Always Agree

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I telephoned a friend while driving through his old stomping grounds, but he did not answer. I left a message. Whether or not one left a message, the other would call back within the day. No response this time. I called two days later. No response. I have heard from mutual friends, and he is not ill. I did a little checking on Facebook and realized that he dropped me from his list of friends. I called one more time. No response.

We have known each other since our university days long ago. Why the silent treatment and dismissal?

I suspect that I offended him with a post that questioned the work experience of a leader, who my friend endorsed, and whether that leader’s past experience qualified the leader for the current position. I’ve observed many times when nepotism or ecclesiastical favoritism or the buddy-buddy system promoted unqualified people far beyond their abilities and so I noted that.

I generally avoid political and theological opinions on Facebook because the forum does not live up to the promise of conversation. My rule is hard to keep because, as a theologian-pastor-writer, I want to understand how we integrate our stated beliefs with our actions. When political or theological posts come into play, I may ask a question or two, but strive to avoid the “let’s you and them fight on Facebook” diatribes. I’m glad to have those conversations in person, but in the digital universe we tend only to make arguments and to avoid consideration of the points made by another.

Back to my old acquaintance’s decision to ignore my calls and remove me from his social network: have we moved in the 21st century so far from relationships and connections that only agreement matters? Are we living in the culture that Dave Eggers writes about in The Circle? Or are we moving toward another sort of culture–perhaps smaller oligarchies of agreement? Are we unable to accept differences? Those questions grow from neither liberal nor conservative biases because I hear similar themes expressed by those across the spectrum of opinion.

If we cannot hold differing opinions and continue to engage in civil conversation, then we miss an essential part of the national promise. E pluribus Unum—out of many one. Out of many [people, voices, opinions] a common good. Too often we hear an opposite perspective, one that can be described as “what’s good for me will be good for you.” I suspect that, to some, these questions sound similar to the one asked by Rodney King, but “getting along” does not mean lockstep agreement; rather, it points to civility, respect, and common ground.

The rabbinic comment strikes home: “When two people always agree, one is unnecessary.” A band or orchestra in which all instruments play the same note is boring. Do not scorn opinions different from your own. Engage in a larger conversation. Shalom.

On Seeing The Promise–a reflection on the film

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I saw The Promise on the film’s opening day with my son and his wife. I like the film very much. It tells about a love triangle in the midst of the genocidal efforts in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, and it shows the culture that was lost. Kirk Kerkorian’s decision to fund this film is a gift to many, and all proceeds from the film go to non-profit charitable organizations.

The Promise tells a love story in the midst of the effort to eliminate Armenian people from within the Ottoman Empire. The area of the Empire includes Armenian territory that goes back thousands of years. Ottoman rhetoric about Armenians foreshadowed the charges Hitler made about Jewish people. The effort to eliminate Armenians happened, and a number of scholars and nations, including the United States and Turkey, continue to deny that history.

While focusing on the love story, the film also shows the good and evil in people. Some Turks in the film, as in history, tried to redeem and save Armenians. We also see the evil of Enver and Talaat, leaders of the Ottoman Empire. Without focusing on the gore, the film shows evidence of the atrocities. Some scenes reflect photographs made by Armin Wegner, a German soldier stationed in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. (Chris Bohjalian tells some of the Wegner story in The Sandcastle Girls.)

Scenes featuring US Ambassador Henry Morganthau felt true to Morganthau’s character as evidenced in the reports he sent to the US State Department and the President concerning the violence against Armenians. Also especially pleasing to me was the inclusion of Gomidas Vartabet, an Armenian musician-priest who suffered as one of the first arrested on April 24, 1915.

The most chilling scene for me happens early in the film at a birthday party in which Germans soldiers are present and break into “Deutschland über Alles,” certainly a deft reminder of the alliance between Germany and the Ottoman Turks, but also nudging me to remember Adolf Hitler’s 1939 Obersalzberg Speech in which Hitler said: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

At the film’s close, a quotation from William Saroyan’s The Armenian and the Armenians (published in 1936) rolls across the screen:

Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years later, and laugh, and speak in their tongue. Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world…a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them.”

I think that the film helped Ashleigh and George understand better the stories they have heard from me. After the closing credits, we sat a moment more.

The older couple in front of us rose about the same time. The woman turned and asked, “Are you Armenian?” Ashleigh said, “I’m not, but they are.” So we talked. She told me that relatives on both sides of her family died during the genocide and how her grandmother and father could not talk about their experience as survivors. We both wiped away tears. I nodded in agreement because her story mirrored my own story. Her husband said, “Her family called me odahr and Esh [words that mean non-Armenian and jackass}—until they saw that I could do the Armenian dances” and he did some Armenian dance steps. We lingered in the lobby to talk about the film and then left.

We didn’t meet in Saroyan’s beer parlor and we didn’t mock the big ideas of the world, but we laughed and cried and recreated Armenia, another proof that the genocide failed. See The Promise. It is a story the world needs to remember.

Remembering The Promise

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Why is The Promise, a romance set during the Armenian genocide, such an anticipated film among Armenians?

Consider Franz Werfel’s novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Published in 1933, the book tells of an embattled Armenian mountain village that held off Turkish army attackers during the genocide. First published in Germany, the book became an international success. Louis B. Mayer bought the film rights to the novel for MGM.

If I wanted to play the click-bait game, I would title this “MGM tried to film this novel in the 1930s, but this nation stopped MGM “ or some such.

The government of Turkey, in its early years of genocide denial, recognized a public relations problem if the novel were filmed. Turkey’s ambassador to the US contacted the US State Department with official concerns about the movie. The State Department then expressed its official concern to the Hays Office, the group that approved or censored films. Next Turkish officials informed MGM that the movie would be banned in Turkey and that they would do whatever was necessary to prohibit the film elsewhere. MGM continued with its plan until US Secretary of State Cordell Hull weighed in and demanded a stop. The Hays Office now offered its support to the Turkish government’s position and the film died. Eric Bogosian writes much more about this episode in Operation Nemesis.

When The Promise was first screened in California, the audience response was positive and yet, over 10,000 negative reviews were posted online within 24 hours of that screening. 10,000 people at a screening? The word troll and the aborted filming of Musa Dagh come to mind. Many of these negative reviews came from Asia Minor.

The genocide of Armenians began in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire. 26 countries today give official recognition to the genocide. I want only two nations to recognize it: the United States and Turkey.

The US fails to give official recognition for fear of offending Turkey. When, during the administration of George W. Bush, the US House of Representatives considered a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide, members of Turkey’s legislature were invited to testify that such a resolution would hurt US relations with their nation. The House gave up that resolution. Turkey’s official policy denies that genocide took place.

But genocide happened—an effort to wipe out all trace of Armenian people and culture from the region.

So we will see The Promise and hope that the story of our families will continue to be told.

Wealth of Nations

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Chealy and Sheally, McDonough and Leary,

Bortnicker, Sellinger, Garfinkel, and Abrams,

Chang and Li, Gonzales and Lopez,

Rafey, Ameen, and Abou Rafi,

Rhyss and Reece, Alexandri and Alexander,

Harlalabopolis, Malamis, Gadinis, Eliades,

Moogalian, Ohanian, Aphbrahamian, Topian, Mardigian, Soghoian,

Sato and Fayed, Kanusek and Kaleyta and Christoffel,

Heretick, Frankenstein, Mueller and Muller.

Not to forget Miss Susie Pickle or Hiram Measles.

A town of 20,000 near Richmond, Virginia

Chemical Capital of the South,

full of chemical and paper factories.

Strange and harsh smells (I smell, you smell, we all smell Hopewell).

Follow directions. The plants hired immigrants from different states and nations.

We didn’t know how wealthy we were,

how wealthy we were.

Two or More Armenians Gathered Together

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“I need some coffee, but how did it go with your aunt’s funeral?” asked Della Bortnovsky. I’d been away from the coffee shop for a long weekend to bury my 93-year-old aunt at Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Philadelphia.

“Everything went well. She outlived her old friends, which is sad, but she lived a good and full life. God rest her soul.”

“So did you have time to do anything other than the funeral? Philly has lots going for it.”

“We were there only for the day—drove there from Baltimore. We went to a nice little Armenian restaurant for the traditional meal after her funeral. A place named Apricot Stone. Named after a patriotic song. So here we are, two Armenians, a couple from El Salvador who cared for my aunt, a near-contemporary friend of hers along with her son–Irish surname, and my aunt’s lawyer. Small restaurant and the owner-host-I don’t know any official title because it’s a family-owned place—showed us where to sit and gave us menus. The old family lawyer asked for a cup of coffee and the restaurant owner explained that they served only Armenian coffee.”

“That sounds familiar,” said Della. “You probably felt at home.”

“Yeah, I liked the place! Someone asked if the stuffed grape leaves on the menu were like sarma. ‘We don’t call them that because that’s the Turkish word. We don’t use any Turkish words on our menu and the Armenian names are too hard to pronounce.’ Like khorovats, I said to him. He laughed and said, ‘Yeah, or like my last name Ishkhanian.’”

“I asked him, ‘Do you know the Ishkanian family in Troy, New York?’ ‘I don’t, but I’ll ask my mother in the back.’

“His mother came out and said, ‘Who asked about Ishkanians? They lived in Albany, not Troy. We’re not related. They are from Van. We are from Aintab.’”

“Now that’s funny that she would correct you,” said Della.

“I’ve always confused Troy and Albany—childhood visits–but that wasn’t the point. She said Aintab! Aintab! My cousin and I gave each other the look because our family came from Aintab. We talked about the old country and family and all the things Armenians use to connect with one another. Reminded me of William Saroyan’s observation: ‘Go ahead. Destroy Armenia. See if you can….See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years later, and laugh, and speak in their tongue.’”

And so we gathered in a restaurant in Philadelphia and laughed and mourned and spoke in our native language and felt a sense of restoration.

 

Generous Criticism

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Seth Godin wrote:

One of the nicest things a generous critic can tell you is that a particularly off-key email or comment doesn’t sound like you.

It’s generous because that’s precisely the sort of feedback we can use to improve our work. < http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2017/03/it-doesnt-sound-like-you.html >

Nancy Bryan, an editor I worked with, offered those same words several years ago to my manuscript about prayers. I began writing the project with passion, but at the midway point the project simply became a dreaded task. Despite my fatigue, I completed the manuscript and sent it around the deadline.

A few days later my editor telephoned, ”I can’t publish this. It’s not you. Anyone could have written this. I’m not recognizing your unique personality. ”

We talked about options and what she felt was wrong with the manuscript. I said that I would look at the material and see what I could do with it.

Three months later I began to read through that manuscript and realized how right my editor was. The material seemed more like a college term paper than a book. I rewrote the last third of the material and revised earlier portions and then submitted it anew.

Two days later Nancy telephoned: “This is you! This we will publish!” And so Three Prayers You’ll Want to Pray came to life as a far better and much different book than that first effort.

I am thankful for the generous criticism of Nancy Bryan.

And Seth Godin offers generous guidance in his simple and profound observation.

Broken Places

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The Beatitudes of Jesus seem to receive less attention than other facets of his ministry. While I cannot quantitatively substantiate this statement, sermons and articles grow exponentially out of the parables of Jesus and the miracles done by him. I suspect that the rationale is that the parables and the miracles seem to offer more drama than this string of sayings grouped within the Sermon on the Mount—itself also a collection of sayings.

J. Marshall Jenkins, in Blessed at the Broken Places, mines the Beatitudes to help people connect the wounds that pile up in every life with the spirituality taught by Jesus, a spirituality that opens to God our strengths and weaknesses. Jenkins’ work reminds me of Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, particularly the first section and Peck’s honest opening sentence: “Life is difficult.” (The Road Less Traveled, p. 15). Certainly that noble truth counters much of the denial in the culture of consumerism.

As columnist David Brooks points out in a February 21, 2017 column, we all do have broken places in our lives. Jenkins’ own thesis shows up in this passage late in the book:

I find that the Beatitudes beautifully restore my confidence that, however, suffering comes, taking up my cross and following Christ through the suffering leads to greater joy than I would know by following the ways of the world. The world promotes not gratitude but the myth of self-made success, not honest mourning but denial, not humble self-restraint but brash self-promotion, not the desire for right relationships but looking out for number one, not compassion but competition, not single-minded devotion to God but pragmatic fragmentation, and not peace but exclusion. As I awkwardly step away from the ways of the world’s corrupt common sense and grope toward the ways of Christ’s self-giving love, I regain my faith in faith. (p. 138)

Jenkins examines each of the Beatitudes to glean insight for our human pilgrimage. He offers examples from the lives of friends and from his own life to bring light and guidance. Beyond the anecdotes, Jenkins brings into play insights from writers as diverse as Marjorie Thompson, Mohandas Gandhi, Barbara Brown Taylor, Gerald May, Frederick Buechner, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Jenkins suggests spiritual practices that relate to the different sayings, e.g., hungering for righteousness connects with the practice of discernment. His work is a well-researched description of spiritual malaise with guidance for healing.

While the book offers insights for individuals, Jenkins also offers guidance for depth conversation in small groups. The questions at the end of each chapter will help frame and connect conversation about the content with the lives of those in the group conversation. In addition to those in small groups,  Jenkins’ book will also offer wisdom to those who preach and strive to extend healing in the broken places of life.

Blessed at the Broken Places: Reclaiming Faith and Purpose with the Beatitudes, by J. Marshall Jenkins. Skylight Paths Publishing, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-59473-633-9.

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