Where Are the Altars?

I’ve been reading through the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.), and there are many references to altars and sacrifices–both the ones built to honor Jehovah God, and those designed for idols.

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Israel and Judah were guilty of building thousands of altars and shrines to false gods. Some of them were found even inside the Holy area of God’s own temple! As part of God’s judgment, He repeated that He would no longer accept the empty sacrifices of His people–He would no longer hear their prayers, unless they repented.

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I read these words and wondered– Where are our altars today? When I was a child, many of the older churches had what we called an Altar. It was usually a raised platform, with a podium for the minister, and possibly a “host table” for communion. My childhood church also had a small table that held a large Bible. Sometimes, the platform would have a railing around the edge, with a couple of stairs on either side. And, while many churches “passed the plate” for offerings, some had a special plate on the railing of the altar, where people would march up and place their offerings for the week. There it would sit for the rest of the service–random dollar bills of random denominations in random states of being crumpled, folded, and worn, along with checks, and, sometimes even coins. All of them brought forward and placed on the altar.

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Today, many churches have stages, like any large theater or event center. There is no railing, but there are hundreds of spotlights and fog machines. There is no podium for the pastor–just a headset and maybe a small stand for notes. Sometimes, the pastor reads from a teleprompter. Often, he or she is joined by a full band or orchestra, and dozens of singers, actors, or other assistants. No one from the congregation approaches the stage– why would they get up from their comfortable reclining padded seat? No one even “needs” to bring a Bible– the sermon text is printed out on the giant screens hanging above the stage. Our worship is comfortable, and entertaining.

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But we have no altars. There is no place for someone to lay their offering before God; no place to meet with Him in repentance or revival. There is no place to remind us of sacrifice and atonement. Oh, to be sure, many churches have a large cross on display somewhere. Some even have the “host table” for communion– somewhere in the wings, just in case–but the concept of an “altar” has all but disappeared from churches in the West. It is an anachronism–something ancient and uncomfortably part of the distant mists of tradition.

I miss the altar. I believe God misses it, too.

Name Above All Names

We live in a wonderfully diverse world, filled with unique individuals. One thing that defines us to our families, neighbors, and friends, is our name. Names can be tricky–some are difficult to pronounce, or spell. Some names are shortened or changed to form “nicknames.” Others are changed by circumstances, like adoption or marriage. Some names are common to several people, or shared as “namesakes” of others, or shared between generations, calling for additions, like “Jr.,” or “the elder” or “the fourth.” Some people reject the name they were given at birth, preferring to use an alias, or going through a legal process to change it. Some names have become symbolic, or stereotyped, famous, or infamous, or iconic.

Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gesturing during sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Even though many of us may share a common first name, or surname, (or even both), our name still represents who we are–it becomes a symbolic representation of all that makes us unique– our personality, our history, and our character. And it’s not just people who carry names. We name rivers and mountains, cities, houses, farms, cars, products, pets, works of art…the list goes on. It is deep in the human soul to name things. This is a God-given desire. All the way back in the second chapter of Genesis, God brought all the beasts of the air and land to Adam, to see what name he would give them. Adam and Eve chose the names for their sons– names with very personal meanings. Names are important and carry power; they should never be taken lightly.

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God recognizes each one of us by name. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah both refer to God calling them before they were even born! Before the great judge Samuel even knew how to recognize God’s voice, God called him by name. God often changes names– Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Saul of Tarsus to Paul, the disciple Simon to Peter (or Cephas). One reason God changes names is to show His power to transform people and give them, not just a new name, but a renewed nature and spirit.

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And when we talk to God, whose very name is sacred, He allows us to call on Him through the Name He gave to Himself/His Son– Jesus. There are many boys and men who carry this name, but when we pray in the name of Jesus, we are referring to the one and only Begotten Son of God the Father; the Jesus of the Trinity; Jesus the Virgin-born Messiah. HIS name is above all other names. There is power in every ordinary name, but THIS name carries eternal, sovereign, immeasurable power. It encompasses His holiness, His compassion, His wisdom, His goodness, His faithfulness, and His Love. There is no other name by which we are saved; no other name by which we can be made new. It is not a name to be taken lightly or in vain. It is a name to be honored, cherished, and exalted. JESUS. The name above all names!

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“Thoughts and Prayers”…Revisited

One of the reasons I began a blog about prayer over eighteen months ago was in reaction to a scathing op-ed article about prayer written in the wake of a mass shooting. Well, here we are again. Two highly publicized (and several “smaller”) mass shootings occurred over the last week in the U.S., and the outrage and anguish is overwhelming and completely understandable. The senseless violence and subsequent loss of life stops us in our tracks. Why? Why would anyone do this? How? How could this happen? In the wake of such evil, millions of people rush to distance themselves from such evil; many of them resort to angry protests and calls for action. Many point their fingers at this leader, that group of people, that philosophy, that industry–any entity (other than oneself) that can be held responsible and made to “pay.” Many offer earnest condolences for the families of the victims– often with the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”

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But what good are any of these responses? Nothing we say or do can turn back time and undo the events of the past week. No amount of protesting, legislating, avenging, or moralizing will guarantee that everyone lives in peace and safety as long as evil lurks in human hearts– whether by vigilante gun violence, war, terror attacks, economic and political unrest, rioting, looting, domestic violence, brutality, assault, murder, or suicide. “Banning” guns (or “assault weapons”, “military-style” weapons, etc.) sounds like a sensible action to take, but it is not practical in the face of evil people who will not follow the law, and corrupt governments who will not enforce the law, or worse, who use their power to oppress their own citizens.

Finding, and even punishing a scapegoat may make us feel morally superior and bring a false sense of closure, but it will not break the cycle of anger, hatred, injustice, or lack of respect that is at the root of violence.

But there is something equally repugnant about hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers”, no matter how earnestly it may be expressed, in the wake of inhuman tragedy. The “thoughts and prayers” of strangers have no warmth, no solidity, no promise, and no strength. They are wisps and vapors of selfish and graceless bystanders, who want to ward off the evil that has befallen someone else. They are nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual appeasement offered to the nameless, faceless fates.

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And the greater tragedy is that such empty phrases, expressed as reactions to great evil, cheapen the very real power that should be found in the pursuits of thinking/meditating and praying.

Prayer is not a knee-jerk reaction to bad news. It is not a gesture meant to signal to others that you are beyond the touch of whatever forces have just hurt someone else, or that by your thirty second of piety you can alter the consequences of a catastrophe or change the course of the future.

Where were the “thoughts and prayers” of others two weeks ago? Where will they be tomorrow or next week? What quality of “thoughts and prayers” go out to the families of victims whose names we have not even bothered to learn? Such superficial public expressions, sent with seven teary-eyed and five or six high five/praying hands emojis, mean very little to anyone except the sender. They change nothing from the past, and offer nothing going forward.

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I am as guilty of this kind of meaningless virtue-signaling as anyone. I want to feel as though I can, by such empathetic expressions, encourage and strengthen those who have been touched by horror, tragedy, survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, etc. But I can’t. Nor can my anger, frantic attempts to “fix the world”, or brilliant analyses of all the root causes of violence prevent the next bombing, drive-by shooting, hijacking, arson, political uprising, or disappointing election result. I cannot change the hearts or minds of those with whom I disagree. I cannot “make” a better world.

But that is why I write this blog. It is through a lifestyle of prayer– real prayer, difficult and sometimes agonizing prayer, joyful and grateful prayer, pleading and gut-wrenching prayer, consistent and obedient prayer–that I engage with the only One who CAN bring hope, justice, change, renewal, and salvation to this world. And it is through a lifestyle pursuit of prayer–daily seeking God’s face, asking for His wisdom, accepting His mercy when I fail, reflecting on His character, acting in obedience–that He can change me. That power, that hope, and that renewal is available to ANYONE who will ask. It sustains us when tragedy strikes, and it empowers us to offer far more than empty “thoughts and prayers”– it causes us to pray, not just after a tragedy, but unceasingly– not just for our own comfort and safety going forward, but for the well-being of our enemies, not just for those who look like us or think like us, but for those who scream at us and tell us to stop already with the “thoughts and prayers!” That power causes us to seek peace where there is hatred, justice where we find corruption, and humility when we are surrounded by narcissism.

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And if we are not doing those things– if we are not tapping into that power– we should be taking a closer look at those “thoughts and prayers” we are hiding behind.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in violent times. His city was besieged by the Babylonians, and his king was a prisoner in his own palace. God had sent messages of judgment and punishment for the entire nation. Jeremiah prayed diligently, and spoke out against the injustice, pride, and idolatry all around him. In response, he was arrested, beaten, thrown into a pit, and abandoned. God even told him to stop praying for his countrymen, because they were unwilling to accept the truth about their condition, or prepare for the punishment to come. But in the middle of the violence and bad news, God offered hope and promises of restoration, justice, renewal, and peace. He also gave this warning to Jeremiah, that he should stand firm– he should, by his example of consistent obedience and hope– influence others, NOT let himself be influenced by the anger and arrogance of those around him.

Lord, I need to stop offering cheap thoughts and empty prayers that do nothing to honor You and little to help others. Give me the strength and grace to stop reacting to tragedy by reflecting the anger and self-righteousness around me. YOU are my hope, and the best hope I can offer to anyone else. Help me to serve others in truth and love, not judge them, dismiss them, or honor them above You. Help me to seek and stand for justice that is consistent with Your character and Your word, even if I stand alone.

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