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.