Pitching Our Tents

Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality
Edited by Maren C. Tirabassi & Maria Mankin

Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality is a special project of Maria Mankin and Maren C. Tirabassi supporting interfaith reconciliation and shared ministry in the Middle East. Specifically, the book will help fund the Peace Cathedral (Baptist) in Tbilisi, Georgia, in its quest to build spaces to include a small synagogue and a small mosque beneath its roof.

The chapbook (I had to look that up; it’s a short paperback booklet) features the work of thirty-two contributors from seven countries beyond Georgia. Their poems rise from roots in experiences of inclusion and connection. I am honored to be among the writers.

Maren Tirabassi writes, “Peace Cathedral in the Republic of Georgia was established as First Baptist Church of Tbilisi in 1867. Its history is full of dangerous activist stands, and it has been involved in interfaith work for more than twenty years, trusted by Muslim, Jewish, Yezidi and other religious traditions, in a context where the more dominant Christian culture often responds violently against minorities. They are constructing a mosque and a synagogue under the roof of their church building to turn it into a spiritual home for Abrahamic faiths. In addition, there is a Centre for Interfaith Dialogue, an interfaith adult library and a children’s library with programming and summer camps. Their pilgrimage program brings people to visit the Republic of Georgia to learn about the hopes and struggles of people of all of these faiths.”

In these days of complicated publishing, obtaining a copy of the chapbook is fairly straightforward – making sure that the purchase funds the Peace Project may be a little more difficult. Follow these steps:

  • 1.     Go here to donate to the Peace Cathedral via the Alliance of Baptists. The suggested gift is $10.00.
  • 2.     To pay by credit card, select 1. On the second line of the form, where it states, “Other Designation,” please write in Peace Project – Tbilisi. To pay by check, choose 3, and write in Peace Project – Tbilisi on the Memo line.
  • 3.     Use this Book Funnellink to receive your free electronic copy of Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality with a choice of e-book formats or a PDF, in thanks for your support of the Peace Cathedral.
  • 4.     If you would like a print copy, it is available on Amazon. The cost is as low as Amazon will allow (this only covers the printing cost). The authors do not receive royalties from this, nor will the proceeds go to the Peace Cathedral, so if you’d like to support them, please follow the donation steps above.  

Published

In some ways I consider this my first foray into being a published author. I mean, look: I’m in a book! In truth, though, I’ve been a published author for a long time. I spent seventeen years writing for the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ (now part of the Southern New England Conference UCC), eventually becoming senior publications editor. My by-line appeared on newsprint and on glowing screens, and it has also appeared in United Church News.

My work as a poet has appeared almost entirely on my personal blog. So is that… published? Well, I think it is. It’s potentially visible to far more people than ever saw my columns in the print editions of ConnTact. I grant you (with a ruleful smile) that the readership has, well, not risen to its potential.

What sets this moment apart for me is not the format or the publisher, but the invitation. I have admired the work of Maren Tirabassi for longer than either of us care to admit. Her compliments on my work published in this blog have filled me with deep gratitude. To have her ask me to contribute… Well. I practically fell over myself to say yes. And write something.

Behind the Poem

Photo by Eric Anderson, August 28, 2017

For the moment, I’m not sharing the poem here. I will eventually, unless I forget, which is possible. I encourage you to gain access to the poem by supporting the Tbilisi Peace Project with a donation; that’s the purpose for which I wrote the poem in the first place. I will, however, tell something of the story behind the poem.

On August 12, 2017, the “Unite the Right” rally sparked racist violence to Charlottesville, Virginia. Marchers chanted Nazi slogans against non-whites. They chanted slogans targeting Jews. They raised the flags of slave-holding and rebellion. One sped deliberately into a crowd, and Heather Heyer died.

The nation’s leadership failed to condemn the racist and anti-Semitic platforms of the marchers, famously claiming there were “good people on both sides.” Demonstrations sprung up around the country condemning the white supremacist foundations of the Charlottesville rally, calling for repudiation of racist ideology, policy, and activity. Among the places was Hilo, Hawai’i. Interfaith Communities in Action gathered a small group for an hour’s roadside sign-waving on Monday, August 28, 2017.

What the planners, including me, had not expected was a counter-protest.

A smaller group gathered across the street, purportedly protesting against abortion but with signs, speech, and a bullhorn clearly opposing the anti-racist stand of ICIA and its participating communities. They chose one name to shout, taking it from the press release announcing the rally. That name was mine. I heard it clearly shouted in tones of threat.

A few of the counter-protesters even ventured across the street to confront us directly. There was no violence, but for weeks afterward a photo of myself appeared in the group’s materials, identified as a false minister. I reflected on the events in a Pastor’s Corner in Church of the Holy Cross’ The Messenger.

Graduation 2011 & 2021

Graduation 2021

I wrote and posted this essay on June 18, 2011 – ten years before this update. I wrote it about my son Brendan’s impending graduation, and I appended a video of his remarkable presentation for the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts’ Senior Celebration earlier that month.

Today Brendan anticipates another graduation, though it’s a few months away. He’s working on a Master of Arts degree in Arthurian Literature at Bangor University in Bangor, Wales. His sister Rebekah received her Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary just last month. Their accomplishments continue to thrill and astonish me.

In the last ten years, the “central truth” I chose to tell through their childhoods has asserted itself again and again. Humanity’s purported dominance of the world collapsed last year, not to earthquakes, storms, or fires, but to a virus. Humanity’s purported wisdom fractured into power games. Humanity’s inventiveness could not keep up with humanity’s willfulness. The United States of America, self-proclaimed greatest nation on earth, still holds the lead in the greatest number of deaths attributed to COVID-19. Despite this, some cling to folly as if it were virtue, and some of them hold power.

My children’s careers have already taken sharp turns from my own. I stayed continuously in school from the age of 4 to the age of 24. At 25, I entered my chosen vocation of pastor. The road from there to here has had more than a few unexpected turns, but today I work as a local church pastor much as I did in 1988.

My son and daughter have taken more time to consider their vocations. Even today, with master’s degrees in hand or nearly so, they continue to weigh new options. Perhaps they learned something about the hazy nature of “plans” from my erratic career. Perhaps they have just been wiser than I was… or perhaps they have been wiser than I am.

Once more they cross the “stage” that arbitrarily separates one season of their lives from another. Once more I wonder what this new season might bring. Once more I realize that they bring fullness of life to this season, and to the next, and to the next. Once more I realize that in them I have been richly blessed. Once more I pray that they will find rich blessing in the season before them.

Once more I rejoice to be part of their seasons.

Graduation 2011

On Monday, my firstborn child will take a few more of the steps into adulthood. He will walk across the platform and receive the diploma that marks the close of his public school education. With scores of other parents in the seats, and thousands across the nation, I will applaud him. My heart will fill with joy and pride, and my eyes with tears.

Adulthood is not conferred by arbitrary markers such as age, education, or achievement, but it is suggested by them, sometimes even confirmed by them. My son will be very little more mature on Tuesday than he is today (I can hope for at least a little bit), but this is one of the milestones used by our society that shouts loudly indeed. Even though I’ll continue to support him for some time to come – college tuition comes to mind – even in my eyes he can no longer be the boy I’ve known so long.

I hope I’ve been a wise father. In some ways I suppose I resemble the metaphorical “helicopter parent,” hovering over my children. I still read aloud to my children every night, and they still tolerate it. I still walk to the bus stop in the morning with them. This Thursday I saw my son onto a school bus for the last time.

If I am a helicopter father, I’m one who has chosen to tell a central truth. Life comes with pain, and pain comes with life. I had few options about concealing this truth. At a very young age my son learned a great deal about pain and fear, when his baby sister needed treatment for a life-threatening illness. I didn’t try to lie to him about pain, and risk, and heartbreak, and fear. These are realities of the world, and even the most loving parent in the world lacks the power – not the desire, the power – to hold them all in check.

I hope I’ve succeeded in doing what I set out to do instead: to make it clear that though I could not necessarily protect him, I could be with him. There is pain, but there is also comfort. There is death, and there is life. There is sorrow, and there is joy.

I don’t know how well I did with that. It’s a life lesson, and he’s plenty of time to learn it. For the moment, I ache for his disappointments. I ache for mine as well, but I ache especially for his. To some extent, I know, he has made or found his own comfort. To some extent, I fear, his hurts endure.

And I know, imperfect person that I am, that I have inflicted or contributed to some of those hurts, for which, my son, I am most sorry.

I am a minister of the Gospel, and he’s paid some of the price for that. I spent too many evenings away from the supper table, unable to lend my voice to the bedtime story. He has endured the pressure of being a “P.K.,” pressures I can’t wholly know. I lost my relationship with his mother, and I can hardly imagine the tears he’s shed for that, only know that they had an echo in my own.

And it must be said that my flaws of personality, intelligence, and wisdom have nothing to do with that vocation at all, and he’s suffered for those, too.

My son sees, and he dreams. He dreams, and he thinks. He thinks, and he writes. He writes, and he speaks. He’s eloquent, and far more wise than I remember being at that age. He clothes himself in black, to make something of a suit of armor for himself, even though he knows it does not protect him and cannot. And he still he dreams of Camelot: of “the powerful fighting for the powerless, instead of exploiting them.”

My son, go forth and make it real. There is pain, and there is no armor that will keep it from you; there is no shield you can place before anyone else that will entirely prevent them from suffering. But there is also brilliance, and eloquence, and wisdom. There is generosity, and joy, and courage. There is strength and resilience and endurance. There is faithfulness and honor, there is love, and laughter.

My son, there is life. You have it in abundance.

So go forth into Tuesday morning, and the Tuesday mornings that follow. There are books and classes still to come for you, there is time to splash about in the lake. There are long trips and short excursions, there are embraces and there are kisses. There is sorrow and loss and disappointment, and son, there is life.

And if you’d like someone to stand with you when you stand in your armor, hoping your courage will last, call. I walked to the bus stop with you. It’s just one more step.

Congratulations, son.

It’s Scary Out Here

“But [Jesus] was in the stern, asleep on the cushion…” – Mark 4:38

Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to wake him up.

You, Peter, have been shouting for a half an hour.
You, Andrew, have been shouting back.
James and John have been pulling on the same rope
in opposite directions. And you’re the experts.

I never thought I’d hear the Sons of Thunder
overmatched by screech of wind and wave.
Shout away, boys. I can’t hear you. You can’t hear you.
For sure the wind can’t hear you and it doesn’t care.

Thomas looks like he can’t believe what’s happening.
Philip, Bartholomew, and Judas all are seasick.
James son of Alphaeus is pretending to be a son of Zebedee,
but he knows nothing at all about boats.

Thaddeus and Matthew are praying beneath the thwarts.
I’m pulling on a rope when it’s handed to me,
and releasing it when Peter, Andrew, James, or John
snatches it away. At least two lines are streaming in the wind.

So, yes, I’m going to wake him up. I can’t believe
he’s not awake already. Peter’s stepped upon him twice,
and Philip tripped on him when making for the gunwale.
He’s soaked with spray amidst the pounding roar.

Maybe he can bring some order to this chaos.
Maybe he can heal the seasick.
Maybe he can bless us in the baptism of death.
Maybe he can just be with us as we drown.

That, at least, would be a comfort. It hasn’t been
a lengthy journey with the Teacher, and I wish
it wouldn’t end like this, but if we drown,
let’s drown together with the Master wide awake.

But man. That guy can sleep.

A poem/prayer based on Mark 4:35-41, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Proper 7 (12).

The image is The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633 – www.gardnermuseum.org : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6812612. The painting is still missing after being stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990.

Of Itself

“The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” – Mark 4:28

I am the seed, cradled in the loving embrace of God.
I am the seed, held in the richness of mercy.
I am the seed, surrounded by blessings.
I am the seed, cracking my shell to grow.

I am the stalk, stretching toward the heavens.
I am the stalk, nourished by my roots below.
I am the stalk, proudly waving in the wind.
I am the stalk, upheld by the ground divine.

I am the head, making space for the seeds.
I am the head, barely aware of the soil that feeds me.
I am the head, dancing among the grasses.
I am the head, confident of my own grace.

I am the grain, ripe and rich and precious.
I am the grain, and I have no memory of the Earth.
I am the grain, the fruit of my own growing.
I am the grain, flying out upon the wind.

I am the seed, fallen now to the dust.
I am the seed, fearing the burning sun.
I am the seed, praying for soil to cover me…
I am the seed, cradled in the loving embrace of God.

A poem/prayer based on Mark 4:26-34, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Proper 6 (11).

The image is by Jim Padgett, an illustration for Read’n Grow Picture Bible Illustrations (Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984); used by courtesy of Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18886335.

Family

“…they could not even eat… …whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness… …’Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.'” – Mark 3:20, 29, 35

I can’t quite imagine such enthusiasm,
people so eager to see you, Jesus,
that they drive me away from my lunch.

Yet there was the crowd surrounding your house.
You were far from the lake, no boat for escape,
just skeptical critics and uncertain neighbors.

And family.

I have to admire the gaslighting lie for
its creativity, if not its morality.
“He casts out the demons by power of demons.”

We’d believe it today, you know, Jesus,
just like we believe all those scurrilous tales
about peace through war, about life through death,

About wisdom through folly, about greed is good,
about white wealth is righteous, about injustice is right,
about male is empowered, female is servant,

And family.

Those were harsh words, you know, Savior.
No forgiveness for those who blaspheme against
the Holy Spirit? No forgiveness at all?

Forgive us if we’re just a little bit lost.
We’re barely acquainted with God’s Holy Spirit,
not enough to prevent this unforgivable sin!

As harsh as it was (and it was) to identify you
with the overlord of evil and captain of lies,
could you not forgive their hubris? Their fear?

Did they leave no room for repentance?
Did they step so far from the acceptable
to lose their place among humanity?

And family?

Have I blasphemed against the Holy Spirit?
Have I denied the power of God, of Spirit, of You,
to expand the circle, to welcome the newcomers?

Have I explained blessings of the world as evils?
Have I declared that what is should be,
though you and I know well that it should not?

Have I accepted boundaries that separate
this person from that person, this people from that people?
Have I pronounced as strangers those you choose

As family?

Forgive me what is unforgivable, which is
to deny the power of divine forgiveness, and
restore me to the blessed community

That you have summoned, symbolized by twelve,
expanding with the centuries imperfectly,
yet still the Church, the Way, the Faith,

The family.

A poem/prayer based on Mark 3:20-35, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Proper 5 (10).

Photo by Eric Anderson.



Peter’s Choice

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” – Acts 10:44

I certainly didn’t expect that.

Look at them. Listen to them. Praising God
in languages I’m pretty sure
they do not understand
(I did that once).

I thought I’d seen and heard it all,
the thunderous voice resounding
on the mountain’s summit,
thousands taught and fed.

The accusation I would soon deny,
soon echoed by my very throat,
“I do not know the man,”
once, twice, thrice.

Familiar voice, familiar face, though
glazed with tears, muted by sobs,
a story I have never told.
It goes too deep.

Tongues a-flickering upon the heads
of friends whose tongues declared
in languages they did not know,
and I, I spoke so, too.

I heard my own untutored voice
declare the truth I had denied,
I knew this Jesus, and I
know his power.

Since then? What miracles! What sorrows.
People healed with no more than
to hear the name of Jesus Christ
roughly spoken in my voice.

The joy of hearing Stephen, face aglow,
speaking with courageous grace;
the anguish then to see him
done to death with stones.

The People of the Way dispersed by Saul,
then – miracle of miracles! – the Saul
who persecuted raised his voice
to praise the name of Christ.

And now I am confronted with a miracle
I hadn’t hoped for (hadn’t asked for)
as Gentiles (Romans for God’s sake)
rejoice in Jesus’ name.

Oh, what to do? I could explain it so:
It looks, I grant you, like the Holy
Spirit, but I’m sure it’s just
enthusiastic show.

Or possibly a consequence of what
they’ve eaten or they’ve drunk.
Too much wine; spoiled food.
Good thing I didn’t eat.

I might not need explain a thing, of course.
The people with me would keep silent
if I did, lest they be left to testify
to what this moment means…

No. No silence. No denial. I have learned…
a bit. “Can anyone withhold the water,”
(with my eyes, I tell them, “No”)
“to baptize the Spirit-filled?”

No silence. No withholding.
God has chosen these to bless.
Bring the water. Cleanse my expectations,
so an expansive future can begin in Jesus’ name.

A poem/prayer based on Acts 10:44-48, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year B, Sixth Sunday of Easter.

The image is Saint Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius by Jan Erasmus Quellinus (late 17th century) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59323889.

Complicated

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” – 1 John 4:7-8

The Bible is complicated – Love one another.
Faith requires discernment – Love one another.
Righteousness needs consideration – Love one another.
Perfection results from preparation – Love one another.

In the meantime, I’ll carry on with what I’ve been doing.

Love one another.

A poem/prayer based on 1 John 4:7-21, the Revised Common Lectionary Second Reading for Year B, Fifth Sunday of Easter.

The image is The Head of Christ Carrying the Cross, a wood sculpture by Heinrich Douvermann (ca. 1520-1530) – Photograph from Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur: object 20603132 – photograph number RBA 608 899 – image file mi10859f02a.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37895066

Two Trials

When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” – Acts of the Apostles 4:7

They tried two people for healing.
They tried one man for killing.

They tried two people who had offered new life.
They tried one man for rebuffing offers of aid.

The two people spoke for themselves.
The one man held his silence.

The two people declared a new truth.
The one man maintained an old, old lie.

The two people walked away free.
The one man was imprisoned in his guilt.

But…

One of the two faced other trials.
He died unjustly upside-down on a cross.

How many trials will defend the old, old lie?
How many will die, their lives uncherished?

In sorrow for the death of George Floyd.

A poem/prayer based on Acts 4:5-12, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year B, Fourth Sunday of Easter.

The image is a detail from Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabitha by Masolino da Panicale (1424). Photo and crop: Cappella_brancacci, Guarigione_dello_storpio_e_resurrezione_di_Tabita(restaurato),Masolino.jpg: see filename or categoryderivative work: StAnselm (talk) – Cappella_brancacci,_Guarigione_dello_storpio_e_resurrezione_di_Tabita(restaurato),_Masolino.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15047438.

Surprise!

They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. – Luke 24:37

Surprise! I’m back!

Why are you surprised?

Mary Magdalene told you, I know. She’s had her demons,
but she can tell a story. Joanna can, and Mary, too,
and if they couldn’t they had company to share the tale
the angels told them. Oh, but no: you didn’t listen,
did you? You called it just an idle tale?

But why are you surprised?

I walked for miles toward Emmaus.
Cleopas and (sorry, I forget the name)
spent hours with me, fire in our feet
and in our hearts and then I broke the bread.
Which they just told you, right?

So why are you surprised?

You didn’t listen when old Simon there,
my so-rock-headed friend, said, “I’ve seen him!
Jesus lives!” He doesn’t have the gifted tongue
of Mary – no, not yet – but still you might
have done the favor of believing him.

Yes, why are you surprised?

Did I not tell you once and twice and so
and on again, again, again, that death
would come and death would go and I
would rise to come and speak with you?
And you are fearing ghosts, for heaven’s sake.

Sigh. Why are you surprised?

All right. You’ve heard the story thrice, and nope.
So here I am. You see me? Unconvinced.
I’m speaking right? You stubborn… argh.
Try touching. There’s even wounds to see
and feel; there’s bones beneath the skin.

No. You are still surprised.

For pity’s sake, can we move on from this?
I’m hungry. Have you anything to eat?

A poem/prayer based on Luke 24:36-48, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Third Sunday of Easter.

The image is Christ Appearing at the Apostles’ Table by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308) – http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/d/duccio/buoninse/index.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3925674.

One of the fascinating literary features of the Gospels – more in some, less in others – is the way the evangelists let the Twelve stand in for the uncertainties, ignorance, and earnest-but-not-educated yearning of their readers. As a result, the Twelve (Eleven in this passage) have something of a slapstick comedy feel to them. When they become figures of wisdom, authority, and talent in Acts of the Apostles, it comes as something of a literary (if not spiritual, thanks to the Pentecost event) surprise. In tribute to their earnestness which is also ours, I offer this… “Try and catch up with me, will you?” version of Jesus.

Touched

“So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But [Thomas] said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.'” – John 20:25

Stretch out your hand, Jesus.
Mine is stiff and still.
Stretch out your hand, Jesus.
I dare not reach to you or anyone.

I have no need to touch your scars.
I see those well enough.
I have no need to deepen your wounds
(except that I already have).

No, stretch out your hand to me, Jesus.
This season has been long and lonely.
Stretch out your hand, Jesus,
so I may feel your gentle touch.

A poem/prayer based on John 20:19-31, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Second Sunday of Easter.

The image is Reunion – Thomas and Christ by sculptor Ernst Barlach (1926). Photo by Wolfgang Sauber – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36069401.