Why the Stories Have Returned

Just a brief warning: this essay claims to share no great wisdom. It won’t give you either step-by-step hints about technology (a la An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist) or assist you with deep reflection on a subject (a la… um). If you know you are interested in the way a pastor/writer/musician’s life works, this seems like something you’d appreciate. If you’re not, or don’t think you are, it’s harder to predict. Give it a try. Who knows? As well as learning something about me, you might learn something about you.

One of the most frequent descriptions people apply to me is: “storyteller.” It’s a title I receive with gratitude. I like telling stories. I like listening to stories. I like preparing stories for others to hear. I like interacting with them while I do.

As a pastor, I have always told stories, most often as part of a “Children’s Time” or “Moment with the Children” in worship. I’ve told stories in other contexts as well – places like summer camp or vacation Bible school – but for the most part they’ve had a place in worship.

For many, many years of my ministry, I prepared no more than a sketch for each story. I preached from notes. For stories I used no notes at all. Occasionally I would take time afterward to write the narrative in full, but that usually only happened when I’d had a specific request. As much as people told me they appreciated the stories, those requests were rare.

Then the stories became rare. For about fifteen years of my ministry I did not serve a local church. My responsibilities as a member of a UCC Conference staff did not include a great deal of worship leadership. I preached little and I told stories less – in part, because I developed the habit of telling one particular story the first time I spoke anywhere (that story isn’t on this blog, which I ought to correct at some point).

In 2016 I laid down my responsibilities in New England and took up the pastorate of Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo. For the first time in a long time, I had to prepare a weekly sermon. For the first time in a long time, I had to prepare a weekly story.

During the preceding years, I’d made a big shift in my preaching practice. I’d switched to preparing a full manuscript rather than using notes. I’d done it, in fact, when I was invited to the pulpit of the church in which I worshiped. They had two Sunday morning services and the timing was a little tight. I had to control for time. A manuscript did the job. By the time I came to Hilo, I’d settled into the pattern and was happy with it.

I had not, however, made a similar adjustment with stories. The stories received no more than a few sparse notes. Within a few weeks I decided that I did want to share a written version of each one, so I began writing each story up on Sunday afternoon. The first was “Sun Astonished” in May 2016.

It turned out that this work process of Sunday afternoon note expansion wasn’t sustainable. Many of the church’s boards and committees met on Sunday afternoons, further separating the writing from the storytelling. Putting the sermon online required more work as we added an audio recording. The church’s electronic newsletter demanded attention on Sunday afternoons so that the office manager could send it Monday mornings. Gaps began to appear. In November 2018 “The ‘Apapane’s Own Song” became the last story to appear on this blog for over three years.

How have they returned?

Thank you, COVID.

When Church of the Holy Cross moved to an online-only worship format in March 2020 in the first days of the pandemic, I made a new shift in preparing sermons and stories. A streamed worship service, I felt, needed to take less time. I dropped several elements, mostly hymns and musical responses. I also merged the story with the sermon, or rather, I led the sermon with the story. For over two years the first words out of my mouth after the Scripture had been read were the first words of a story.

I began to craft the story as part of the sermon, and that meant that it would receive a full manuscript in its composition. That made sense for my writing process but it also made sense for the worship experiences I was trying to support. Along with the worship outline and response materials, I posted a written text of my sermon to the church website before worship each Sunday. Those with hearing difficulties or technical difficulties would have the sermon text to read as well as that of the pastoral prayer.

And, because it was the first thing in the sermon manuscript, they had the story.

On April 24, 2022, we resumed worshiping with a gathered congregation. On that first Sunday I continued the practice of combining the story and the sermon. I received some feedback, some very clear feedback, that that would not do. The young people liked the stories, but they also liked the time with their pastor, a time which said that they were important to me and to the Church and to God. Time with the Children returned on May 1.

When it did, I did not return to my long-time practice of brief notes. I kept writing the full manuscripts, and I also write the story before beginning the sermon proper. We continue to live-stream the service over the Internet, and that means a backup copy could easily be helpful. So now each worship service on our website includes a manuscript of the sermon, of the pastoral prayer, and of the story.

Those experiences do not and cannot match. In a virtual worship service, I could and did (mostly) read the story as written. With a congregation present – with children present – I do not use notes for the story except to remember certain words I’m likely to forget. I may have written a complete text, but I am still working from an outline in my memory.

Sunday afternoon has gained a new task. I still post the sermon text to the church’s website along with a video of the worship service. Side by side with that I post the prepared story text to Ordained Geek, accompanied by video of how the story was actually told in worship.

And that’s why stories have returned to Ordained Geek.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

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.  


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.