Temporary Structures

We got a new tent in the mail this week. Our old tent had bit the dust after about 20 years of adventures. It had endured much in its time; it had served us well. But it was getting a bit worn—pinprick holes and tiny tears from falling acorns and pine cones and general wear and tear. The waterproofing was not as effective as it had been when it was new. We had to replace the poles once already after a severe windstorm in Kentucky had bent several. It was simply time.

We have yet to put up the new one. We got one that says it will go up quickly, but that is just what a tent manufacturer is going to tell you. It says that it will keep us dry— guaranteed! A claim that may or may not hold up given the conditions. It makes many claims as to why it will be the best thing that ever happened to our camping experience. We will see.

But what else would they say? Does anyone advertise a tent that is sure to leak? Do they say that it might blow over in a strong wind? Do they assert that it will not last very long under actual wilderness use? Of course not! People would never buy it. People want a tent that will claim to survive anything short of a direct nuclear blast. They want a sense of security and safety from their tent because they are going to be out in the woods. That thin layer of nylon has a tall order to fill—it is supposed to give the same sense of protection as mortar, blocks, metal, and wood. At least, that is what some folks are hoping for.

The reality is that going into the wilderness, camping out in the woods, getting away from it all, presents something of a test. We are testing our perspectives on the world and our place in it. We are trying to find the balance between adventure and accommodation. We are willing to take a bit of risk, but most prefer gear that will minimize any real danger. We want the experience of wilderness—the vastness, the unknown, the surprise—but we also are hesitant to give up our control.

We were waiting for our new tent during Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. It is the time of year when practicing Jews will construct a temporary shelter to remind them of their time in the wilderness. The roof has to be made of natural materials so that it is not completely waterproof. It has to allow some sun to shine in, but it has to provide more shade than light. It has to allow the occupants to look through it at night so that they can see the stars. Staying in the sukkah is like a trip to the wilderness. Whether the sukkah is located in the Middle East or Midtown Manhattan, whether it is in Cleveland or California—no matter where it is, it is a way to remind the festival keepers that it is a big world with lots that is beyond their control. There are things such as the sun and moon and stars and rain and wind and breeze and rhythms of nature that affect us. There are forces of nature that have been affecting us for eons; we, on the other hand, are only here for a short time. God is eternal, the one who laid the foundations and set the boundaries against which we press ourselves. We are temporary. We are only passing through.

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So the sukkah is also a place intended for hospitality. We welcome our fellow travelers who have come to our shelter. We share our provisions with the person who may not have much. We remember that welcoming strangers is an ancient value that hearkens back to an age where hospitality might have meant the difference between life and death. Perhaps you have had an occasion in which someone extended such grace to you? Hospitality can make a hovel feel like a five-star hotel; it can make less-than seem luxurious; it can offer benefits beyond what we see and know. A gracious welcome to a shelter in the midst of storm is heaven-sent.

As the feast reminds us of hospitality, we are aware that we have guests coming. We have friends who are already planning to stay in our tent, our temporary little shelter, out in the woods, in a pocket of wilderness. We are going to be providing the food and the location and the expertise that will afford them a wilderness experience to stir the soul. We will be venturing into a place that we do not control. Together we will be taking a journey that reveals our attitudes and perspectives on our place in this world. Along a stream, hiking a trail, sitting and staring at a fire, eating in the outdoors, sleeping in temporary shelter—we will go experience life together for a brief respite. Brief. Temporary.

I need the reminders that I am only here temporarily. I appreciate the adventure that involves some risk and gives some reward. I enjoy welcoming people to come and camp with us. I look forward to the elements and the experiences. For a time, for a short season, I will remember that I, too, am as fleeting as the wind, flowing like the mountain stream, and passing like the falling leaves.

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