Help me. Let’s construct a tent together. Of course, you and I hope we won’t have to live in a tent, but this is a metaphorical exercise. From the exercise, I hope we can make some important observations.
It turns out that in very early times God’s people frequently lived in tents. It is clear that Abraham, for example, lived in a tent, at least most of the time. It’s quite clear that the sojourn of the nation of Israel while in the desert was in tents arranged into a camp of camps. Tents back then, like houses today, performed basic functions related to identity and shelter. To a certain extent, the tent was also expected to perform some security functions. Again, the same is true today for houses although that is not as much an issue ordinarily. On the other hand, even after houses became a common phenomenon, there were such considerations as where the home was located relative to a city’s defensive walls (inside or outside for example).
Of course a tent is useful for defense in a somewhat meager way. It did provide for some screening from the enemy’s observation. The grouping of tents might also be intimidating to potential attackers. But let’s don’t focus much of our attention on the defensive functions of a tent, at least for now.
For the moment, in fact, let’s focus primarily on the sheltering function. Even a simple tent could provide some shelter. One might need to get in out of the sun. The tent might even be arranged to provide some minimal cooling. A tent would often be warmed in cold weather. A tent could provide some shelter from animals. You get the idea.
A tent only worked though if it was properly constructed. Not just any old attempt was likely to be successful. I have personally simply slept on the ground wrapped in a blanket or sleeping bag. This leaves you fairly exposed. I have awakened to frost in my moustache for example. And if it rained . . . I grew up in Louisiana and had the experience. There were a few times I wished for even the simplest shelter.
Perhaps, like me, you have decided to “put up a tarp” for shelter. These poly tarps we have now days typically have grommets in the corners. One shelter idea is to tie the four corners of a tarp to some trees. Then you have something overhead. Of course the trees have to be spaced just so or there will be wrinkles that make the tarp not work so well. In that case, or when there are no trees, we might find four poles to place at the corners to make the contraption remain in place. You might have done that. If it rained while the shelter was in use, you found that water would collect and cause quite a sag near the center of the shelter. It might even have begun to leak. You soon figured out that you could push up on the pool of water over your head. Of course, if you waited too long, that would be too hard and you had to partially take down the shelter to cause the water to run off. Being brilliant, as you are, you finally figured out that if there was a way to support the center of the tarp at a point higher than the four corner posts, you could avoid most, if not all, of the ponding of the water. Then, you might turn your attention to keeping birds or wind out of your shelter. You guessed it, walls!
Now you have something that looks like a tent, as we think of it. Of course, we might want to let things take their course. You have somewhat stopped the rain from falling on your head and the wind from cutting through your jacket. Next time it rains, you will have to push the rain off the top again. Other than that, things might work fairly well. Of course, the rain-on-the-top thing will still be a pain in the neck. You’re brilliant though, so you will soon figure out a way to permanently raise the top center point of the roof well above the walls so that the rain just runs off. You can either put up a permanent center pole, or just wait until it rains and deal with the ponding. HINT: Most anyone who has dealt with such things will have “found” the idea of the permanent center pole. Let’s go with that.
An interesting, kinda unexpected, feature of this new arrangement is that the center pole, which we avoided for so long, will begin to provide considerably more stability to the structure. Soon, in fact, we’ll put up the center pole first and work around it to make the tent work. Put up one of the corner poles first and it just won’t work. Center pole first and we can work out from there in a much more successful manner.
Some tents are so large or complex in shape that the center pole might just not do the job. Things such as the weight of the wall and roof materials might require even more stability. Soon, we may think of using a ridge arrangement, which amounts to a series of center poles. Even at that the stability of the main uprights is quite important. We’ll still build out from the center support(s). This is about to become a little too complex, so let’s make a concrete situation to continue our analysis. After all, we are working at a distance to build this tent.
Let’s give some dimensions to this project. What we have to work with is a square tarp. The tarp is 10 ft x 10 ft in its dimensions. We have grommets in each of the four corners. We’ve sort of concluded we need a center pole. So we will go in and punch a hole dead center in the tarp and reinforce that hole in some satisfactory manner (e.g. add a grommet). There are five grommets in the tarp now: one in each corner (4), and one manufactured in the center. Now we need five poles to hold this all up. We’ll start with five poles of equal length to get things going. Each of these poles is to be 6 ft long – one in the center and one in each of the four corners. You probably already see a problem. If the pole in the middle is the same length as the others, we still have a ponding problem. At least one pond will develop – maybe more than one – sorta like a donut. So, let’s make that pole longer. Let’s make it 8 ft long. That will probably make all the water run off if the tarp is fairly taut. As far as pole identity is concerned, it will permanently be obvious that the 8 ft pole is the center pole. The four 6 ft poles can be used interchangeably at the corners unless there are some special considerations we don’t know about right now. Let’s don’t go there for the moment.
Operationally, we go to our selected (hopefully) level site and set up the center pole. Then we make measurements to determine the proper placement of the four corner poles. I did the calculations. The corners will each be 7.34 ft from the center and will be placed in such a way that they are each nearly 10 ft from their neighbor corner poles. The poles in the opposing corners will be 14.68 ft apart. All that is left is to put the corner poles in their spots and anchor them away from the center. This will more-or-less stabilize the corners relative to one another while relying on the center pole for overall stability. So the center pole is the key point for stability, and it protects the integrity of the roof. Cool. We might say the corners are now “concentric” around the center. This is logically the most stable configuration anyway.
Let’s now conduct the process of personalizing the various poles: each corner and center. These are now persons, each with their own personality, etc. They know one another and depend on one another in ways that have to do with the complementarity of their functions. We can even name them if we want to: Bob, Shawn, Phil, Charles and Francis.
Things can really work well with our shelter except we haven’t added the walls yet. From a structural perspective, what we need to do is to attach the walls to the sides that have been determined by the corner poles. This adds to the function without changing the overall structure. So let’s just figure the walls into the thing. Now it is pretty much a tent as folks think of such things. Remember, though, this is a living tent. At least the poles are living entities.
We live in an age, and particularly in a culture, where democracy is all the rage. So our tent is set down and functioning for our purposes right in the middle of prevailing democracy. Because the (key) structural elements of our tent are persons, the issue of democracy is bound to come up. After all democracy just means rule by the people. One of the ways it will manifest itself is to engender a discussion about equality. Its logical processes will soon lead to a declaration that all the poles are equal and “the same” in some sense. Because of that, the logic will go, the poles are completely interchangeable. In the interest of “fairness,” it will be decided that the only way to make good decisions will be to agree on them. Since that won’t always result in complete agreement, the next step will involve voting in the process of decision making. Because there are five poles, there won’t be any ties, so the “majority” will decide. This will distribute both power and responsibility equally regardless of capability.
Soon, the corner poles will want to rotate from corner to corner. That might work fine and it might not, but it will be tried. As this progresses, the four corner poles will inevitably question whether the center pole is really any different. Why does that pole get to be in the center all the time? The direction this will take is the majority decision to take turns at all five positions. While it looks absurd to me and you, it will be tried. So, what has been the 8 ft center pole will now take turns with everybody else at all five positions. As you are imagining, that will be a strange looking tent. One corner will be taller than the other three and the center will be at the same height as the three 6 ft corners. Not only is that funny looking, the physics of rainwater movement will be really weird. Wind will also have some real strange effects. Furthermore, the walls that come together at the 8 ft pole will have enormous gaps at the top. We can probably fix the last problem by making odd-shaped walls that move around with the 8 ft pole. It’s intuitively obviously that these configurations are not equally stable.
Eventually, the poles will figure out that this really isn’t working. Something will have to be done to make the poles equal in their function, even if they maintain their individual identities otherwise. Because length is the problem at hand, the conclusion will be reached that the poles should all be of the same length. That implies two possible adjustments. The 6-footers can all be converted to 8-footers, but that sounds hard. It can be done in two possible manifestations nonetheless. Everybody can be made into an 8-footer permanently, or each in turn can become an 8-footer when it is his turn to be the center pole. The second of those sounds like magic. The first takes us back to the beginning because all the poles are the same length, and we haven’t solved anything. But, it is democratically satisfying.
The more logical solution is to turn the 8 ft pole into a 6 ft pole. Whacking off the two feet from the 8 ft pole will work. Now the poles can move around from place to place and always produce a flat topped tent. Back to square one. But, again, quite satisfying democratically.
One other possibility remains. We can keep the 2 ft piece that we whacked from the 8 ft pole and somehow attach it to each of the five 6 ft poles when it is their turn to be the center pole. That will be a democratically okay compromise, but the center will always be too weak – much weaker than when it was a single unit. Democratically: thumbs up. Structurally: quite strange. Functionally: early failure.
Maybe we can decide that a thing like the KINGDOM of God is not a democracy and allow the center pole to be the center pole. Not very democratic, but maybe strong and effective. This configuration will mean the least ponding and the best resistance to wind. Yeah, the corner poles will sometimes want to be the center pole but they can be sure that is not the best configuration.
In ancient Hebrew pictography (pre-alphabetic) the symbols for “father” are taken to mean the strength of the house. The pictographic meaning of “son” means continuation of the house. The pictographic meaning of “brother” means strength of the hearth, a kind of containing function. What might all that mean to our modern conceptions?
Early on we decided to postpone discussion of “identity” for a while. But, we can do that now. In a camp of camps, in the desert, each tent was likely to have a banner attached to the center pole. That banner identified graphically who was the father of the family in that tent. We knew who lived in the tent by the banner. The folks who lived there were the folks who were in the family of that father – not some other family. All kinds of folks might come and go, but the family was covered by the banner. The banner identified the father. The family took its identity thereby. Wow! The center pole just found a new function.
I know. I know. We use numbers on the front door to sort of give us identity as a family in the world. But you might have guessed I intend spiritual instruction in this. Spiritually, the “strength of the house” bears the banner that identifies the house. That is not the function of the corner poles. Wow, again.