The following is a reflection from the Rev. Thom Rock, deacon St. Mark’s, Newport.
Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen the cords and strengthen your stakes (Isaiah 54:2)
Even as we draw up plans for how to re-open church, it is clear that online worship is here to stay. It isn’t the same, and it isn’t perfect. But it has its good points. We get to see and hear each other—even friends who are far away and we wouldn’t see otherwise. Our pets can worship with us. We don’t have to drive or walk any further than across the room to get to the service; for that matter, we don’t even have to change out of our pajamas. There is wonder and weight in all of this. There are few signs of the virus abating. There is still no vaccine.
There will be, though, and we will look back on this strange wilderness time from the Promised Land that surely awaits us on the other side of pandemic. But meanwhile, it’s time to set up camp, to lengthen the cords and strengthen our stakes—to pitch our tent in the wilderness. To that end, I’ve been thinking about ways in which we might deepen our online corporate worship, how thankful I am for the rich heritage and sustaining words of our Book of Common Prayer, and the roominess within the tent of the Episcopal Church.
In the history of God’s people, the tent has always represented the place where we draw near to God and God draws near to us. Think of Moses, who pitched his Tent of Meeting in which he and Yahweh talked with each other like friends (Exodus 33:7-11). Or, how the Lord appeared to Abraham at his tent pitched in the shade of the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1). Indeed, God insists on dwelling not in any temple or building, but on “moving about in a tent and a tabernacle” (2 Samuel 7:6; 1 Chronicles 17:5). Like Father, like Son: Jesus came and camped out among us. While most of our Bible’s may say, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. . .” a more literal translation is, “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14). Not only does Jesus dwell or tent among us; we are to dwell in him. Jesus is our tent, our dwelling place, who goes before us and prepares a place for us in his Father’s house, in which there are many camp sites.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s tent was a transportable space of divine dimensions made of earthly materials and curtained off with fine linen and goat hair and leather (Exod. 25-26). A rectangle composed of distinct squares—not unlike the geometry of our Zoom meetings these days, the squares in which we see each other on our rectangular screens. God’s tent is still pitched among us, albeit comprised of different materials. The question is how we practice being disciples camped out in our little zoom boxes on each other’s screens as we continue to faithfully distance? If this is our new Tent of Meeting, perhaps we should approach it with as much wonder, awe, and intention as our predecessors did when entering their lean-to of linen and leather that they first erected in their desert wilderness. Before we click on the link to our next meeting, we might take off our shoes as if we are about to step foot on holy ground (because we are). Or, appropriate to the times, wash our hands in a ritual of cleansing before entering sacred space. I don’t mean this figuratively but actually; we can create new and meaningful rituals in our worship, even in this wilderness moment. We can make an offering of incense or candlelight as we prepare ourselves to draw near to God and each other online. We can imagine we are lifting the flap of God’s tent when we click on a link or “join with computer video”. Then, unmute our hearts and souls and selves, and speak like Moses and Yahweh did in the Tent of Meeting: like friends.