When arriving at my campsite for the weekend, odds are, the first thing I do is pitch the tent. Sure, I also need to unload the food to start cooking and use the glamorous campground bathroom, but there’s something that feels right about setting up the tent first.
I walk in circles around the site to find the flattest and smoothest patch of land, wrestle the tent out of the bag, snap the tent poles together one by one, unroll the sleeping bags, blow up the air mattress, and presto—a home away from home!
By pitching the tent, I have communicated that this is where I will stay. I have decided to dwell in this particular place with these particular people for a particular amount of time. Pitching the tent means establishing presence.
“By pitching the tent, I have communicated that this is where I will stay…Pitching the tent means establishing presence.”
As a hospital chaplain, I think a lot about pitching the tent.
My version of pitching the tent is walking into a patient’s room, pulling up a chair next to their bed, getting on their level, introducing myself and my role, and directing my attention to them.
By pitching the tent, I hope to communicate to the patient that I am there for them. I have time and space to listen to their story and attend to their needs. I have unrolled the sleeping bag and am willing to be there as long as they need; there is no agenda.
I didn’t learn this concept of pitching the tent overnight. Rather, I learned it from a chaplain I shadowed as I was still training. We got called to a patient’s room per request, entered the room, introduced ourselves, and sat down facing the patient, communicating our presence and availability.
As I observed and shadowed the chaplain, I noticed how few words she said during the hour-long visit and how many words the patient said. Even more, I noticed her comfort with that dynamic and her joy in it. Whereas I was itching, scratching, and glancing at the clock, she was present, rooted, and attentive to who was in front of her.1
It was during this visit that I recognized both my discomfort with pitching the tent and the power of pitching the tent.
Remember the first time you set up a tent? How you read the directions and practiced a few times before you could set it up swiftly and effortlessly? I believe there’s also an art to pitching the tent with people.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about the art of pitching a tent and being present with others:
1. Pitching the tent takes work and yet requires you to do nothing.
This paradox gets to the heart of good listening and true presence. You can probably think of that person in your life where every time you leave the coffee shop after meeting up with them, you feel like you were truly heard and understood. Was it because they gave really good advice, said a lot of wise things, and read your mind? Probably not. It was most likely because they “did” nothing, and yet something about their presence communicated to you that you matter.
Communicating presence and pitching the tent does take work, though it requires you to do nothing. It takes work to embody humility; to listen without thinking about what you might say next, to avoid giving advice, and to be okay with silence. It takes work to do nothing.
“Communicating presence and pitching the tent does take work, though it requires you to do nothing.”
My chaplain supervisor calls this the ministry of absence. The ministry of absence requires the listener to empty their mind of all racing thoughts, supposed solutions, and pre-existing biases. The ministry of absence requires self-withdrawal so that we might be more attentive to the work of the Spirit.
The next time you find yourself in conversation with a friend or a stranger, consider doing nothing. Lean into the silence, let go of the advice-giving, and see what it’s like to pitch the tent to make space for the Spirit to be known.
2. Pitching the tent requires slowing down
In the world we live in, the muscle of slowing down might be the hardest to flex. When I began chaplaincy work, it took me a while to realize that a chaplain gets to move slowly. The average pace in a hospital is just the opposite: everyone is in a hurry, everyone physically walks fast, and everyone is busy.
Jean Stairs, in her book Listening For the Soul2, says that a good listener cannot be in a hurry. “People are not going to feel heard by someone who is in a hurry, nor will they feel that they can approach someone who always seems to have too much going on in their lives.”3
In order to pitch the tent with others, we must slow down our racing thoughts and our pounding hearts. Physically, we must walk slower and take deeper breaths so that we might notice the faces, stories, pain, and joy all around us. Pitching the tent requires slowing down and creating actual space for someone else.
When on your way to meet up with someone who needs support, consider driving slower, walking into the building slower, sitting down and planting your feet firmly on the ground, and taking three deep breaths.
3. Jesus is the perfect example of pitching the tent
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14 NRSV)
The Greek word for ‘lived’ is ἐσκήνωσεν. The root of this word is σκηνη which means ‘tent like structure,’ and ‘to take up residence.’
God tabernacled among the Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus, God incarnate, was present to many as he ministered on earth, and through the gift of the Spirit, the Triune God pitches the tent among us.
Just as the Word became flesh and pitched the tent among us, how might we embody Christ by pitching the tent with others?
“…how might we embody Christ by pitching the tent with others?”
How might we follow Jesus’ example of listening deeply to the souls of others and responding with poignant questions rather than with advice or answers (Luke 5:17-26; 6:6-11)? How might we embody Jesus’ model of moving slowly and creating space to be interrupted (Matthew 9:18-26)? And how might we, like Jesus, communicate our presence not by our doing, but by our being (Mark 5:25-34)?
By pitching the tent with a friend, neighbor, or stranger, we communicate our presence and openness to their story. By pitching the tent, we communicate that their story has value, meaning, and purpose. By pitching the tent, we create space for the Word to live and tabernacle among us.
Mind you, the tent that I had decided to pitch during this visit was a little footstool that sat a few inches off the ground. I learned from this blunder and now try to find a higher-end tent, at least a normal chair. ↩
Stairs, Jean. Listening for the Soul: Pastoral Care and Spiritual Direction. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000 ↩
Stairs, 20 ↩
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Anna , what a wonderful insight! I’m afraid I am to quick to offer a solution. You gave me a lot to think about!
Well done, Anna!