The Common Good

Folding Up Our Tents

Last May, a family in our church offered the use of their garage and driveway for a weekend yard sale. Their entire suburb holds a three-day sale, and our youth group participated to raise some money.

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Rain and heat were in the weekend forecast, so church members offered to let us use their collapsible tents as shelter for the clothing and glassware, bicycles, and bobbleheads that had been donated for sale. You’ve probably seen such tents. They somehow fit into small carrying pouches — thank God for engineers! — and unfold into spacious tents.

It took six of us to stretch each tent all the way open. Each of us grabbed a leg and started pulling until the metal frame finally snapped into place and locked. The toughest part was getting the frame to expand that last inch or so to make it lock.

By the time we had all of the tents assembled, we were soaked with sweat. Stretching a tent to its limit is hard work!

It’s also a popular metaphor these days.

Political groups talk about expanding their tents to include some of those who vote the other way. Religious groups create requirements to stay under their tents and expel anyone who doesn’t meet them. There are great debates over who belongs under various tents and how far the fabric should be stretched to include others. Some want to pull their tents tighter and make them smaller.

All of those conversations basically come back around to the same point: We’re deciding who belongs and who doesn’t. And in fact, all of our tents tend to be very small. Our “family” tents might include only those in our immediate family and not the rest of God‘s family. Our “nation” tents might include only our nation and those whom we think should be within its borders. Our “God” tents are often very, very small, sometimes the smallest of them all.

From time to time, we might choose to stretch the legs out a bit and add another inch of space for others, but the room beneath the canopy is still very limited.

If we step outside our tent and move back a few steps, we begin to see it from a different perspective.

Above our tent is the sky, which is God’s tent. And it covers and shelters everyone — young and old, white and black, male and female, gay and straight, Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, humanist and atheist, American and Russian, all people of all types in-between.

Those tents of ours? Way, way too small.

So maybe it’s time to literally fold up our tents. Put them back in their handy carrying cases and store them in the basement. Acknowledge that they’re not only totally inadequate but wholly unnecessary. Recognize that they’re dangerous to the extent that they take our attention off the big tent above all our heads.

The one that has room for all.

Joe Kay is a professional writer living in the Midwest.

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