“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…”
One of the more vivid memories of my childhood was a camping trip with my family at a campground south of Spencer called Lane’s Camping Retreat, which my dad happened upon while selling bug spray in Owen County. A few years before, Dad had bought a big blue tent from Sears, ushering in a series of weeklong camping trips around the state, that lasted until the tent disappeared when my mother was home by herself. A subsequent investigation revealed stray threads from the tent in the trunk of her car and soil from the landfill in the tire treads of her 1968 Plymouth Valiant.
One summer night, Lee Comer walked across the yard to listen to a Cincinnati Reds game on our front porch and he and Dad began talking about how wonderful it would be if our families went camping together at Lane’s Camping Retreat. My mother and Mary Lee were not privy to this conversation, and by the time they were, the camping train was hurtling down the tracks and could not be stopped, so off we went to Owen County on a Friday evening after work, where we pitched our tents side by side. Then the men went fishing, we children went swimming, and Mary Lee and Mom stayed behind to cook supper, which was so often the case in those pre-enlightened years, and likely explains why our big blue tent eventually and mysteriously disappeared.
This would have been about 45 years ago, but I still remember lying in my sleeping bag that night, listening to the night sounds, the frogs at the pond, the hushed voices from the nearby campfires, the occasional distant rumble of a truck on Highway 67, and Lee and my father at our campfire discussing current events. I remember feeling such a part of things, so connected and cared for. If you’ve ever felt that, and I hope you have, then you know how wonderful and warm it is to be loved and to belong.
John the gospel writer likely never met Jesus. His was the last gospel written, somewhere between 90-100 AD, some 60-70 years after the death of Jesus. Thus John had one advantage the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not. He had the advantage of time, specifically the accumulation of interpretations and explanations about Jesus that simply weren’t available to the earlier writers, some 30 additional years of reflection, thought, and study. He begins his gospel with that advantage, drawing not only upon the stories about Jesus, but the added layer of their meaning and significance. John is philosophical and metaphorical in a way the other gospel writers were not and could not be, since they did not have the advantage of accumulated insight that time permits. Barely into his gospel, John is wondering how best to describe the event of Jesus to his readers and he writes these words –And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He used a Greek word eskoneon, which literally meant “to pitch a tent.” John is saying that God became one of us and pitched his tent alongside ours.
I bet when John was a kid, his family had this big blue tent, and that years later, when John was searching for just the right word to describe the deep sense of love and belonging he experienced in Jesus, he remembered back to a special night in his childhood, of falling asleep to night sounds and soft voices around a campfire and thought eskoneon. It’s as if Jesus pitched his tent next to ours.
You know, we’ve all read or heard stories of people having these magical and mystical encounters with a NuFlexne Being, encounters so beyond our human experience we had to invent new words and concepts to even talk about them. Words like transubstantiation, and trinity, and incarnation. John didn’t do that. Rather than inventing new words and concepts to describe his sense of Jesus, he just remembered back to when he was a kid and how safe and cared for he felt in the presence of people he loved, and he realized that was the same feeling he had about Jesus. Eskoneon. Just an everyday word without airs, without pretension, without a hint of self-importance, as if Jesus just showed up and pitched his tent right there among us, just like he was our neighbor.
Several years ago I was in New York City, staying in a hotel around the corner from St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue. The man at the desk told me I had to go see it, and that the second I walked in the door I’d feel the presence of God. Well, how can you pass up that kind of opportunity? So I went, and it was pretty, I’ll give him that, but it wasn’t eskoneon.
It reminded me of a book someone gave me when I was thinking of becoming a minister. It was a coffee table book with all these full-color pictures of sacred spaces from the world’s religions—temples, cathedrals, mosques, a Shinto shrine in Japan, all these ancient and gorgeous structures. But in that whole book, there wasn’t one picture of a big blue tent.
Now I want you to think back to a moment and place when you experienced Jesus most deeply. I bet you couldn’t find that place in a coffee-table book. I know where I was. I was in seminary and Joan and I were expecting our first child. We’d waited 7 years to have a child. I was impatient. I wanted lots of kids, but Joan kept saying, “Let’s wait until you’re out of graduate school, so you can actually enjoy our children.” I kept telling her I could multi-task, but we waited. Then, happy day, she became pregnant my last year of seminary and we were elated. Then one night something didn’t feel right and we went to the hospital. Our doctor met us there and ran tests and told us the baby wasn’t viable. She whisked Joan off for a procedure and I slumped on the floor in a corner of the examination room numb and sad. All I remember was sitting there, desolate, when this verse of Scripture started repeating in my mind. Lo, I am with you always. I am with you always. I am with you always. It just kept repeating in my mind
That hospital room will never appear in a coffee-table book of sacred spaces, but that’s where Jesus pitched his tent next to mine.
It’s just like Henry Vaughan said in his poem, The Revival.
And here, in dust and dirt,—oh, here,
The lilies of God’s love appear!