This post is part of a synchroblog on “Big Tent Christianity” in preparation for the conference by the same name in September. The idea comes from the big revival tent – one where we all fit. In considering my own hopes for the church – one without division and internal rivalries – more than one type of “big tent” came to mind. I hope this short story sparks your imagine for what could be…
It all started in the springtime, the father told his daughter. You know the time of year – when the flowers come back from their winter slumber and our creek grows from a trickle to a current worth talking about. Seems like spring is when things always change around here.
I remember this particular year like it was just yesterday. Us kids woke up one morning to the sounds of hammers hard at work – coming from both sides of town no less. Without washing up or eating breakfast, we ran out the door half-dressed to see what was making such a commotion. And what did we find? Right next to the hospital- before they had the parking lot – was a huge tent. They were busy pulling it up as we arrived. What a sight! We had never seen anything like it. That is, until we remembered that we had also heard a racket coming from the other side of town as well. So we picked our jaws up off the ground and high-tailed it all the way past the train tracks to near the graveyard. And what did we find? To our utter amazement – anther big tent. How could this be? Two mysterious tents appearing in our town on the same day.
Now as you might imagine, we were stupefied by this sudden invasion of our town. We quickly ran back home to see if our parents knew anything about these two mysterious tents. “Yes,” my father said. “There’s something in the paper this morning,” and he handed me the new section. The headline read: Circus in town “The circus!” my brother and I shouted in delight. We’d been eagerly waiting for circus to arrive – was it here already? “Yes, but what about the other tent?” I asked. My mother called from the other room, “oh yeah, that one’s mentioned on the back page.” I flipped the paper over and saw a picture of the tent we had seen and caption underneath: church revival meeting this week.
We didn’t know it then, but we’d visit both of those tents that week. Now the first tent – the one by the hospital – was the church tent. We were too small to know it then, but every year the big tent would arrive. All the religious folk would go there every night and hear some man from out of town in a fancy suit talking about heaven. There was lots of singing (they all seems to know the songs), clapping (and sweating!) and at the end of the night people would raise their hands and everyone else would pray for them. Problem is, we knew those people. And the rest of the week, they weren’t dressed up all nice and singing. They were yelling at us kids: “sit down, be quiet, don’t do that.” And they were the ones who ran the Wilson family out of town after we all found out what their papa did. Now don’t get me wrong – they weren’t all bad. But they weren’t all good either. And to this day I can’t understand why they don’t seem to get along with one another. Aren’t they supposed to follow the same God? Our folks took us to that tent the second night they were in town and we sang the songs and then sat quietly with our hands in our laps while the man in the fancy suit talked about Jesus. Then we went home and that was that. We never really talked about it after that.
But the circus, now that’s another story altogether. It was a child’s dream. We had begged our parents all year to take us to the circus when it came to town and we were almost delirious when the night finally arrived. You could hear music coming from the big top as we drove up, inviting you into the magic inside. And it seemed that every kid in town was there, dragging their parents toward the opening to try and get the best seats. And inside – oh, it was wonderful. People laughing and oohing and aaahing and cheering. Colored lights, spot lights, balloons, sirens. They had three separate rings going – each with a different act. How could you decide which one to watch? They were all so amazing! There was the flying trapeze and a tightrope walker. A woman danced with a real live bear. A man was inside a cage with an African lion. I saw twenty people stacked in a pyramid. And clowns everywhere! They tickled the babies, thew confetti on the teenagers, piled what seemed to be about twenty into the smallest car you’ve ever seen. It was fun, surprising, and terrifying all at the same time. Each new sight was more amazing than the last. Every act played a role in creating and calling us into the most fantastic reality we could imagine. You could tell the performers simply loved their art and were glad to be part of such an amazing show. We all loved it – young and old - there was something for everyone. I’ve never forgot that night.
The day the circus left town, all the kids followed on their bikes as far as the interstate. We didn’t want them to go, for the magic to end. We thought that when the circus left, everything would go back to the way it had been. But that’s when the magic really took over. You see, the circus hadn’t just entertained us, it had inspired us. And every kid in town now wanted to be in the circus. That’s when I started my juggling. And you know how your uncle Mark can do flips? He learned that from the circus! And a group of girls put up that old swing over the river so they could practice to be trapeze artists themselves. And of course you know that old Emory went to Africa to find lions and never did come back. I guess you could day the circus taught us how to really live. And every year when the circus came back, we were all there – watching, learning, laughing, and trying it ourselves at home.
“But daddy, why didn’t the circus just stay? Why did it have to leave and only come back once a year?”
You know, I used to ask myself that. I always hated the day the circus left town…. until you were born. And then I realized that there were other boys and girls in other towns who wanted to see the circus too. They were also waiting all year for the circus to come. It had to leave us to give them a turn. I’ll bet they love it just as much as I do. And besides, the circus never really leaves. Only the big tent leaves.
“And what about the other tent… the church one?”
I don’t know. Either they stopped coming to town or people just stopped going to their tent. They never could compete with the circus.