Tent of Meeting

It’s odd. It makes me wonder.

Some people would say it’s coincidence, “serendipity” we used to say. When I was trained in Jungian theory, we began to use the word, “synchronicity”.

Or maybe it’s the Spirit. I am slow to ascribe such causation, but I know it does happen, here and there.

I had been writing about the “tent of meeting” over the weekend. I was referring to the image that my mentor, Carlyle Marney, had used to describe the gathering of ministers at his retreat called Interpreter’s House. I’ve written about this particular work of Marney’s before. It was a three week program for ministers who needed to be “fixed” or “retread”, or just needed a proverbial kick in the ass.

These ministers and priests would “come aside for awhile”, to a magical place on a mountain lake in Western North Carolina….not a bad respite from the grind of the parish. The first week, they would share their stories in front of a fieldstone fireplace. Marney called it “throwing up”, telling the tales of how tough it was out in the church house. The second week introduced some new concept, some insight that would shake the foundations of these road warriors to get them to imagine perhaps a possibility of something fresh in their ministry. The third week was spent planning on how to re-enter the parish, how to move the ball down the field. Marney built this field of play in the middle of nowhere, and like they say in the carnival business, the people would come.

Marney described the whole gathering as reminiscent of the Hebrew practice of Moses, pitching a tent outside of the normal camp, described in Exodus 33. This distance from the warp and woof of the normal life in community provided a break in order to get perspective, to clear one’s head in order to listen to the Spirit, to God, for direction. This is an image that has been suggestive as to how church should be.

Marney took it a step farther. He said that the tent of meeting, or church, was a place, a gathering where we could take our image of what it means “to Christ it in the world”, and submit it to one another for correction. What a grand idea for what church could be, a place where we could trust one another long enough to offer up our precious images of what life should be for amendment, or corroboration, or musing.

Just where might you have experienced such a place in church?

Most of my church experience has been more a place where we covenant for comfort. A place we meet with folks like us, a place where we easily “fit” in. We go to have our prejudices confirmed. We want our convictions applauded, lauded is even better. We have worked hard to get our act together, to form our concept of what is worthwhile, what is of value. Why should we submit our precious images to others? Who could possibly know better than me about “me”? And there is the rub……it’s called pride.

Marney’s answer was that we would only submit them because what we were about was worth it. We cared enough about the results that we would risk it. We would engage one another, push and pull against one another because we had a conviction that this every engagement would yield more clarity and distinction. Has that ever been in your mind when you went to church, when you sat your self (I’m cleaning it up) in a pew? I kind of doubt it.

It’s more a dome of protection than a tent of meeting, a place of discovery,

If we do dare to enter the tent of meeting, don’t you find it more adversarial than engaging? It’s more like boxing, where you enter the ring in a protective stance. You hold up your two fists in a defensive posture, moving from side to side, back and forth, waiting, just waiting for an opening where you can strike your opponent, to knock him/her out. That’s the feel of boxing, actually keeping your distance until your opponent lets their guard down. Then, you opportunistically strike to knock your opponent down. And as he/she sprawls below on the canvas, you lord your advantage over him/her, as sign of your domination. Where have I heard that recently? But that’s the game……

How different it is to wrestle. An engagement, but one marked by closeness rather that the posture of distance. The match itself begins with the two persons touching one another. There is close body contact, where you can sense the force of the other, respond the push, react to the pull. You can see the sweat of the other, you’re that close. You can smell their body, their anger, their fear. You are definitely engaged. It’s back and forth, rarely letting go of the other. When there is separation, one quickly reengages, grappling to regain contact. While there may be a winner in the match, there is no doubt that there was an engagement for both.

I would suggest that wrestling is a healthier and more productive way for us to engage. The engagement I have felt in recent years feels more like a boxing match, defensive, guarded, looking for a knockout punch. How different would it feel to wrestle, to engage, because what we are wrestling about is worth it? Could we truly engage “the other” as a worthy counter-force rather than an “other” that we fear, keeping our distance, looking to dominate?

So I began by saying “it was odd”.

What’s odd is that on Tuesday of this week, I received a letter from an old priest friend of mine. He was writing about the events of the last few weeks and was encouraging us to follow the example of Moses in having a “tent of meeting”. This guy is a Franciscan friar, of the Roman Catholic strain. He is one of the best teachers of Christianity that I know. I came to be familiar with him back in the late 70s when he was putting out cassette tapes of his teachings. Father Anthony at the monastery in Conyers hipped me to this guy, and I’ve been listening to him in one form or another for years. So how weird is it to get this note after I’ve been wrestling with the concept all weekend?

Cue the Twilight Zone theme. Rod Serling appears and says, with his head tilted to the left, “Submitted for your approval.” Funny, that phrase became a “go to” for those of us who attempted to imitate him, although he only used it in three episodes of the show.

A tent of meeting. Is it possible for Church to become this kind of gathering? In the light of recent events in our country, can we engage one another in a more civil way that respects the “other” rather than going for a knock out, or a put down? Is it possible to respect the dignity of the person we are engaging, submitting to push-pull of engagement, to wrestle because the understanding is worth it? Rather than bringing contempt to the engagement, an opportunity to prove how “right” we are, and just how “wrong” the other is, could we enter the “tent of meeting”?

In all honesty, I do not know. I do know that I hope for such a community, a tent of meeting. And that’s a start. How about you?

A “tent of meeting” pitched in our current desert. Now, THAT would be odd. But I am finding myself hopeful. A Tent of Meeting that is movable, built to bring us together, not just for comfort, but to engage, because what we are doing is worth it. Or as an enthusiastic, mystical Terrance Mann reassures a doubtful Ray, whose vision built a baseball field in the middle of a cornfield, in the movie Field of Dreams, “It’s definitely worth it.”

That’s my “take away” from my synchronic moment this week of renewal. My enthusiastic, mystical Franciscan friend was telling me: It’s definitely worth it.

And it is.

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