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Don't Start Building Tents!

alec vanderboom

(a post from my pre-Lenten Retreat)

Mark 9:2-13

"And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Eli'jah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli'jah." For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is my beloved Son; listen to him." And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only."

This reading occurred during my pre-Lenten retreat. Here's some of my notes from Father Dan Leary's homily:

In the miracle of the Transfiguration, Saint Peter is overcome with emotion at the sight of Jesus in the full glory of his Divine Nature. Immediately, he turns to the fellow apostles and suggests “Lets build some Tents.”

It is enough to stand and give God our Adoration.

Jesus doesn’t need our suggestions! If He wants us to build tents, he will tell us.

You cannot do any action outside of a direction from God. All of you “doing” will fail.

Moreover, if you are new to this “seeing Jesus with the eyes of Faith” it become less likely that you are being directed to immediately go out and “do” anything. You need to stay and Adore God first. You need spiritual healing. You need to “know” him and “love” him before you “serve” him. You cannot bring the healing touch of Jesus to anyone before you’ve experienced his love and healing yourself.

This message hit my soul. By my fallen nature, I'm a "tent builder." I'm afraid. I'm overwhelmed when I see a glimpse of God. I deal with that fear by immediately distracting myself with "action."

When I was 14, I got ripped out of my sheltered middle class suburban existence in put in the midst of severe poverty in Appalachia. I went from a middle school were guidance counselors stressed about what bond of paper to type their college references on to a new high school with a 40% drop out rate.

I didn't know how to "deal" with poverty, so I ran around trying to "fix it." I joined every service club imaginable in High School. When I got into a good East Coast College, mostly because I'd been extremely hyper in academics and service projects in high school, I felt like I only coasted in as a resident of a "poor state." There were five students from Kenya at Smith College and only 3 from West Virgina. I felt that tiny number every day.

I remember sitting in a beloved professor's Modern American History class and the entire theme of the hour lecture happened to be "Johnson's Great Society was Racist." My professor's thought was that the "obsession" with helping the "white" poor in Appalachia was a distraction from helping the "black" poor in Northern inner city in the early 1960s.

I raised my hand and contributed to the class discussion. "While racism is real and a definite factor in 1960s politics, I don't think we can deny the real need in rural Appalachia. That was a serious cycle of poverty there that continues to this day." My professor and my class were totally hostile to that insight. I sat through the rest of class with my cheeks burning. I felt such anger. I just thought 'nobody knows." Nobody knows how bad it is in a coal town, they think these pictures of desperately poor children were just staged photo ops."

I hung on to that anger that I felt in my sophomore history class. It fueled me through three years of law school.

I remember having this emotional talk over a cup of coffee in a ratty diner in March of 2000 with my then boyfriend, Jon. I was trying to decide between three job offers. The ever sweet Jon drew me a little diagram on a napkin of Abby in her space ship trying to decide between three planets: the red planet, a plume job with the renowned Child Advocates of Chicago, the green planet, a safe, comfortable job with the Elder Law Center in Wisconsin, and the yellow planet: this unknown public interest job in rural Appalachia. I remember telling Jon, "I know I should take this great job in Chicago, but I just have this overwhelming need to go home to Appalachia and help."

So I went home and tried to build Tents, for four years. It was a failure. I couldn't "fix poverty." I couldn't build things without Jesus' direction. I didn't really know who Jesus was, or what this poverty problem meant.

I just know that poverty made me uncomfortable. I didn't like feeling that way, I wanted to "fix it" my way.

Thankfully, God is good.

Even when pride had me blinding going the wrong way, God gently got me back on track. During that awful lonely period as a young lawyer, I happened to get a sacramental marriage and start RCIA. As a new Catholic, I didn't get the "fix poverty" assignment. I got "become a mother" assignment.

Seven years after becoming a Catholic, my "must fix" poverty assignment is totally different. I still help the poor directly in small ways. Yet mostly I'm called to start "living" a life of poverty. Not just with my broken glasses and eight year old car held together with duct tape. It's living a life of poverty of spirit, of realizing my littleness, realizing my pride and my sin, realizing that I need His grace every tiny second of the day.

A quote from my "Saint of the Christian Cliff notes"

To desire to be poor but not be inconvenienced by poverty, is to desire the honor of poverty and the convenience of riches.

-- St. Francis de Sales