The temptation, for churches as well as individuals is to build tents. We can see the change coming. We know things will never be the same. But we wonder if we are ready.
February 19, 2023
Dr. Todd R. Wright The transfiguration is a story of a startling moment … when on a high mountain Jesus shone briefly like a star in the night sky; when two legends of the past, Moses and Elijah, returned briefly for a conversation; when a bank of clouds rolled in, and the voice of God could be heard briefly by human ears; and then just as quickly it was over. One scholar describes that moment this way: “The world has gone back to what it was. No prophets of old. No audible divine voice. No light emanating from Jesus’ face. The world has gone back to what it was. But the disciples cannot return to the same world as they descend from this mount. They have been changed.”[ii] American poet Camille Dungy also writes of such a moment. She begins one of her poems, “After the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone …” and then proceeds to tell of deer culled, songbirds returning to saplings no longer nibbled, of seeds the birds scattered growing into underbrush that offers shelter to hares and weasels, who draw hawks and falcons and eagles. Inevitably, willows and birches grow all the way to the riverbank, attracting beavers who dam. Muskrats and tadpoles thrive in the pools they create. So do fish and the bears that hunt them. Rivers that had run straight now meander and are less prone to flooding. All this change started by the reintroduction of wolves! Dungy concludes her poem, “Don’t you tell me this is not the same as my story. All this life born from one hungry animal, this whole, new landscape, the course of the river changed, I know this. I reintroduced myself to myself, this time a mother. After which, nothing was ever the same.”[iii] After the transfiguration, the world was never the same for the disciples either.
Not for the want of trying, though. Peter famously offered, “Lord it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents.” “What was he thinking?” you might ask. Was he just trying to be hospitable? Or, like Martha, was he more inclined to do something, anything, rather than sit, like Mary, and embrace the spiritual? Or did he think he could freeze the moment, like taking a selfie? One professor offered her opinion: “I suspect Peter is caught in that suspension between wanting things to stay the same and knowing that change is afoot.”[iv] Maybe you know that feeling. Maybe you look around the church and feel that way. Or maybe it’s your neighborhood that is changing. Or maybe it’s what you see in the headlines. Part of you recognizes that change is happening – like Spring transforming grey into green … or a forest fire burning ever closer, pick the analogy that fits your mood. But another part of you wishes things could just remain stable and still, so you could catch your breath, so you could get your bearings, so you could know what to do. That’s what building tents signifies. That professor I quoted earlier calls them “a rather apt metaphor for this in between experience. Not permanent structures, but structures just the same — to give us more time, to hold on to something we likely know cannot be held.”
There are lots of reasons for us to build tents. One preacher tells of visiting a couple in their new apartment. The husband’s worsening Alzheimer’s symptoms had forced them to leave their home of 40 years. At some point in the visit the wife mentioned that she had been unable to hook up the stereo so she could play the records he loved. The preacher offered to help and soon they were listening to Benny Goodman coming through the speakers. The husband was transformed. “He listened intently to the clarinet, horns and piano, wincing slightly when the needle hit a scratch, but mostly beaming as he closed his eyes and swayed back and forth.” And then the preacher said this: “I wanted to build a shelter for Jim and his wife so they could permanently live in that moment, but the record ended.[v] Just like Peter, that preacher wanted to build a tent … as an act of love.
The temptation, for churches as well as individuals is to build tents. We can see the change coming. We know things will never be the same. But we wonder if we are ready. We wonder if we have what it will take to face this new world. We wonder if all we know and love will survive and if we will have a place in this transformed world. Perhaps those same questions filled Peter’s heart. If they did, it makes Jesus’ response all the more wonderful. Matthew says, he touched them – I like to think it was a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder, or maybe even a hug. And told them, “Do not be afraid” echoing the angel’s words to Joseph whose world was about to change. And then he led them back down the mountain, so they wouldn’t have to face this new world alone. May you
[i] “Jesus Mural” In Uptown Chicago, IL [ii] From Eric Barreto’s reflections on the text for workingpreacher.org, 2/23/20 [iii] From her poem, "Trophic Cascade" [iv] From “Change Matters” by Karoline Lewis, 2/19/17 [v] From “Glimpses of Glory” by Christian Coon for the Christian Century, 1/29/08