Cross-posted from Rougher Places …
Tents have their advantages: as habitations go, they are lightweight, portable, reconfigurable, and keep you in close contact with your neighbors and the outside world. Of course, the same characteristics produce some downsides, too. If it’s hot, cold, windy, rainy or snowy outside, all of the above are going to be trying to come in the tent with you. And you’ll hear every rustle and breath of whatever’s outside the tent, whether your neighbors are camping buddies, raccoons … or fellow refugees.
We admire tents for recreation purposes, but for most of us, the thought of living in a tent implies hardships, only called for by a dire situation — such as the aftermath of an earthquake or hurricane — or a highly necessary choice, such as the need to follow nomadic herds.
Which makes it interesting that God chose to “live” in a tent, when God chose to accompany the Israelites in the wilderness. Their understanding was that God came to the tent of meeting to communicate with Moses; this was the place of God’s most intimate communication, where God’s glory was revealed.
The beginning of the gospel of John echoes this language intentionally in speaking of God’s advent to us in the birth of Jesus. In John 1:14, the author of the gospel writes “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen [God’s] glory ….” The Greek term used for “lived among us” comes from the same root as the noun for “tent,” and so we could understand this description as saying “God came and pitched tent among us.”
That’s intimate. That’s the mark of a God who wants to be available to us, to experience with us whatever joy or hardship comes from living in the world, at its mercy and in its delights, to hear our every breath, every cry.
One of the readings for today is from the book of Isaiah, and it’s a hard read, for several reasons, but there is a nugget I want to pull out of it.
One of the reasons this text is hard to read is that the author’s metaphor for God’s relating to us in that text portrays the people as having experiences like those of a woman who has been unable to have children, or who was the first wife of a man’s youth but was later abandoned. God is characterized as the husband who restores the woman’s fortunes, giving her so many progeny that she will need to expand her tent, and her descendants “will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns.” So, not only do we have patriarchal, androcentric, sexist imagery, but we also have a colonizer’s vision.
Sigh. What do we do with these old texts? Three things. Critique them; let them critique us back; and see what we can find to speak to us, here and now.
Our critique of the text is straightforward: we reject the objectification and essentialization of women in this text, and we do not embrace the notion of colonizing all the space around us.
How do we hear the text critiquing us? Listen to the second verse: “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.” Isaiah is telling us that wherever we live, in whatever habitation or community, we can and should make more room in our dwelling for whosoever needs a welcome. I hear this call, large and small. The small call is to my own heart: to become more loving, more gracious, more able to welcome all comers. The larger call is to the communities of which I am a part: we are to become more open, more welcoming, with strength to support our wide-openness and flexibility.
This is not a call to the cancer of endless growth; this is not an invitation to build bigger barns to contain hoards of wealth. The prophet is speaking of the tent God, after all, and a tent people. What principles can we glean from the prophetic word of this God, pitching tent with us here at Advent?
Enlarge the site of your tent … If the tent is my relationship with God, and that of my God-worshiping community, then I need to enlarge the scope of that relationship. I need to enlarge my sight, too, and see that my relationship with God touches everything in my life. How do I bring everything and everyone in my life into my relationship with God? How do I consider everyone I know as part of my community, in a way they will experience as love and care?
Let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out … The tents of biblical times were constructed with interior curtains to create separate areas inside the tent, for different purposes and for different genders. This word challenges me to think carefully about separations. Some cause needless division, and enable oppression; and yet, in some cases, having separate space is important for people to experience safety and spiritual solace. It may help to remember that a curtain is a thin, permeable and temporary divider, able to be reconfigured as needed. I can strive to stretch out protection where it is needed, and to let open space stretch out in welcome.
Do not hold back … This one is so obvious and simple — and hard. I have joined more communities than I have created in the last few years, and so this one cuts a keen edge in me. I experience communities holding back all too often. Whenever we are unwilling to change, we are holding back. Whenever we do not love, we are holding back. Churches hold back when we insist on doing things the same way as before; when we privilege the same people privileged in the world; when we resist simple changes that mean so much, from inclusive language and imagery to non-gender-specific restrooms; when we don’t allow a multitude of dreams to arise.
Lengthen your cords … The tent’s cords are what anchor it to the ground; if you have ever been camping, you know how critical and treacherous cords are. Thin, strong and stretched tight, cords both keep our tents sturdily planted and trip us when we are not careful, causing us to stumble. This is true in the world of metaphor, too; in this case, what attaches the tent of my community to the ground of God: Scripture, tradition, reason, experience. All of these represent important ties between me and my community and our God, and yet, the tighter these connections are drawn, the more likely we are to stumble over them. How can I hold tight to what ties me to God, and yet have clear enough sight not to stumble? How can I make my cords visible to my guests, and not dangerous to our friendship?
And strengthen your stakes … Stakes are what we drive into the ground, the crucial connection that allows both our tents both stability and flexibility. What are my stakes? If God is the ground, the foundation of my tent community, what will hold between us? Faith? Yes, although my believing does not always feel as strong as what I believe in. Hope? Yes, although my hopes can get in the way. Love? Yes. Love is the stake that does no harm. Let me strengthen my love, and fasten all to my love for God.
Tents are by their very nature intended to provide shelter in rough places. As a winter front pushed through Carolina last night, I woke often in the night to hear the wind moaning in the trees and around the corners of our sturdy house. It was a rough night to be outside, and I know there were people without even so much as a tent for shelter. God is by the side of these shelter-less ones, at the mercy of their loneliness and pain.
Enlarge our tents, Beloved, until no one feels outside your love.