I’m busy with the UCC’s General Synod this week, so I’m reading a poem that has just been published in Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality. It’s a fundraiser for the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Here’s a transcript:
The first thing I’m thinking is how grateful I am to the Rev. Jonathan Roach, who will be filling the pulpit at Church of the Holy Cross this coming Sunday. I’m grateful to Jonathan for his time, but even more for the wisdom and insight that he brings to the message that he’ll share this coming Sunday. I know I look forward to watching the recording.
The reason that I won’t be in the pulpit is that this week I am a delegate to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ. The last plenary, in fact, occurs during our worship service and I seriously can’t be in two places at the same time. General Synod this year is being held online, via the Internet, so I won’t actually be going anywhere further than, oh, this desk right behind me. Still, it does mean that I will be spending a number of hours in committee meetings and in plenary sessions, and so therefore, rather than try to share a Scriptural reflection this week, I’ve instead turned to a small book that recently arrived in the mail. It’s a chapbook, that means a short book (a new word for me). It’s called Pitching Our Tents. It’s edited by Maren Tirabassi and Maria Mankin.
The book is an effort to raise funds for the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia. That site dedicated to peace is attempting to expand, to provide a space for a Jewish synagogue and for a Muslim mosque, called respectively the Peace Synagogue and the Peace Mosque. It’s a book full of poetry, and among the poems is one of my own. I was so flattered when Maren Tirabassi extended me the invitation.
Maren has been reading some of the poems from this chapbook on her Facebook page. She also read one of mine and if I can manage to find the link I’ll include it.
But I did want to read my own poem for you. The title is “August 28, 2017,” and it is based upon a real incident that occurred when an ecumenical – interfaith – group of people chose to witness for peace and love and justice for people of all races.
August 28, 2017
Grass glowing green, sky beaming blue. Sun streaming down upon the figures stretched along the sidewalk, bearing signs inscribed upon their neon glow that “Racism is sin.” “Justice for all.” “Aloha not hate.”
The same sun heats the sober sable garb of Buddhist priests and Christian clergy, glints from clerics’ collars, shines from smiles of Latter Day Saints and Unitarians, of Anglicans and followers of Amida.
The sun has blessed this gathering of witness to the spectrum of embraced humanity because another gathering beneath Virginia’s sun had stormed, consumed a human life, to magnify their power to oppress “the other.”
Does the sun see shaka signs displayed as cars drive by, or hear the horns that sound in affirmation? Does the sun hear voices raised in rage against the signs of hope? Does it hear the words of poison spat again?
UCC and MCC, Hongwanji and Quaker hear the calls of violence and know: until the fury fades, while race and faith are used as reason to oppress, the signs must wave beneath the sun in witness
To another day, when tents are pitched beneath the oaks of Mamre and the traveler and sojourner find peace.
From Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality, edited by Maren Tirabassi & Maria Mankin
You can purchase this book – and I have no problems in advertising it because I’m not actually benefitting financially from this in any way. It is fully a fundraiser for the Peace Cathedral and the Peace Synagogue and the Peace Mosque. Go the Alliance of Baptists website and look to donate there for the Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality (Note: the suggested gift is $10). You can find it on Amazon to have it printed and mailed to you. But also you’ll find that you can get it electronically. If you’re looking at this at either the ordainedgeek.com or the holycrosshilo.com websites, there will be links in the text to help you find this book.
That’s what I’m thinking. I’m curious to hear what you’re thinking. Leave me your thoughts in the comment section below; I’d love to hear from you.
By the way, did you know I have a YouTube channel? I do. It’s where live stream worship from Church of the Holy Cross lives, as well as musical performances and occasional appreciations of the beauty around me. Oh, right: and a weekly Scriptural reflection called What I’m Thinking. Feel free to check it out!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.