Little Altars Along the Way
Today I want to talk about church furniture. “Furniture?! Uh-oh Pastor Dave has run out of material!”
Stay with me. What do you know about altars, this wooden structure that is the focal point of the sanctuary? It’s where your eye goes first (all sight lines are aimed right here). But why is it here? What is its significance? Is there anything about altars that can help us on our spiritual journeys?
Altars represent the holy.
The altar is a marker of connection to the holy. All worship is thought of as gathering around the altar. So many significant events happen around the altar. Baptism, communion, confirmation, weddings, membership vows, memorial services. Holidays. We offer our prayers, dedicate our service, pray for one another in our need. Altars witness so much of what is important to us.
Connecting the sacred and ordinary.
Most churches and other religions use altars to mark the connection between sacred and ordinary life. It’s the locus of worship. Some are elaborate, ornate pieces of art. Perhaps you’ve visited a European cathedral and know what I’m talking about. Many denominations have precise specifications for a proper altar. Catholics, for example, say a proper altar should have relics (usually bones) of a saint in them and be consecrated by a bishop. I like to pretend we have confetti from Jesus’ gender reveal party in ours.
Altars became the focus for communion, where Jesus’ sacrifice is remembered and the bread and juice elements of communion become sacramental or holy for us.
Most altars are like ours—simpler. Some churches have a communion table at their center that serves the same function of reminding us of God’s inbreaking love in our ordinary lives.
Altars in the Bible
People in the Bible were always building altars. The first one we find is with Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel, who brought their sacrificial offerings to God at an altar. To this day, the Sunday morning offerings are physically brought to the altar and consecrated. We do it symbolically when we rise for the doxology.
Abraham’s seven altars
In the book of Genesis, Abraham, the spiritual ancestor of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, constructs at least seven altars on his long journey. He presumably made them of stone and wood—nothing fancy or elaborate. In Genesis 12:1-9, he erected two different altars. Altars are markers of the connection between the sacred and ordinary life.
Sometimes, he’d build one in gratitude for living a while at a particular place along his journey. Sometimes, he built one to mark where he encountered God. Sometimes, he built them to seal a covenant with God or someone else. Abraham’s impulse was to throw up an altar whenever something important happened. When you have something significant happen in your life, you want to mark it somehow, physically if you can. To paraphrase Barbara Brown Taylor, if you were to retrace his steps, you’d get bruised hips from bumping into so many of them along the way. There are little altars everywhere.
Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”
Our little altars.
It’s not that much different than things we do. How many of you have a shelf or tabletop where you put mementoes from trips, or pictures of significant events you want to remember? Maybe it’s a box or a drawer—some place where you keep your sentimental items, things that you keep on your journey that remind you of something significant. What do you display in your home or office or dashboard? Little altars everywhere in our lives. We may not think of them as altars, but aren’t they functioning in the same way? They help us mark the people, things, and events where we have felt blessed and taken care of by God.
Think about some place where you keep such things. Aren’t they symbols of the goodness of God that has broken into your life? They are signs of blessing that you were able to have those experiences, those special people in your life. Those objects represent something sacred, a feeling of being blessed and recognizing the goodness of life. Maybe you can build little altars—even if you are just laying down a stone or making a mental note of where you connect with God.
An altar doesn’t have to be permanent. I like that Abraham built them and left them behind. When we go to the beach, Dayna enjoys creating mandalas—circular forms made from whatever natural objects she finds nearby—shells, leaves, flowers, rocks—whatever. And she arranges them into something pretty as she is grateful and connecting to nature and God. She can spend hours on it, letting her mind wander. It’s a prayer practice. It’s not about creating something perfect or permanent, Mother Nature, with the tides or wind, sweeps it away soon afterward. It’s about being in that space of feeling connected to nature, to God, to the goodness and fragility of life. A little altar along the way.
I think it is a good spiritual practice to construct your own little altars—whatever that might look like or mean for you. Create physical representations that mark for you, that the holy or blessings have touched your life.
Be specific with gratitude and it will help cure what ails you.
Creating our own little markers engrains in us a sense of appreciation for God’s care over us throughout our journeys. It makes thanksgiving part of our character more than one day per year. Instead of having a general sense of gratitude, “Yeah, I’m thankful for food and family, friends, health, and freedom,” it reminds us to be more specific for the little things along the way that are important to us.
The scientific research on happiness and mental well-being keep finding studies that conclude that cultivating a continual sense of gratitude is a fundamental component in addressing whatever ails you. You name your problem, gratitude is part of the solution. Gratitude helps with anxiety, depression, lonliness, grief, feeling spiritually disconnected. It’s the magic pill that helps get you feeling right again. Choose thanks, not angst.
My wife received correspondence from a caterer near her church that is trying to make a name for itself and provide meals for groups. They contacted Dayna and offered to provide food for the grievance group. They meant grief group, but that’s not how it came out. The nominating committee has been filling vacancies; anyone want to join the grievance group? If you feel overqualified, grievance less and appreciate more.
I like the word appreciate. I have a friend who instead of saying, “goodbye,” has taken to saying, “I appreciate you.” It feels good when he says it. For a while my cynical mind thought, “Don’t take it personally, he says it to everybody.” But that isn’t fair. He’s expressing gratitude for his relationships a constant reminder to himself and others of what is deep inside of him.
As often as you can tell people what you appreciate them. It makes a world of difference for them and for you.
In the financial world when they talk about appreciation of assets, they mean it increases in value. It implies growth. We grow by showing appreciation to God and others. Gratitude should not be general and static, but compounding our interest daily.
The cornucopia on our altar today is a symbol of the abundance of goodness and blessings God pours out on us and all creation. It’s a celebration of the natural and most basic gifts of food, and fellowship. Perhaps this week you can consider your Thanksgiving table as being an altar. Whether you are going all out at your house with tons of people, or it’s a quieter affair or you at a restaurant, think of it as an altar this week. It’s where you connect with the holy in gratitude. Bring your offering of food and say a prayer.
What I want to do for the remainder of the sermon, help you feel it. Here is an adapted meditation from Adam Thomas.
So I invite you to close your eyes, get as comfortable as you can without falling asleep, and take a few deep breaths.
For the next few moments, I invite you to think of something that you can’t remember doing without: it can be as basic as breath or your dog’s earnest affection. It can be the simple fact that you’ve always had clean clothes in your drawers or a hot meal on the table. Think of something you’ve never given thanks for because it has silently endured throughout your life, never calling attention to itself and never failing to make your life better. Allow yourself to feel gratitude for it. In your heart of hearts, give thanks to God for something-that-has-always-been.
Now we’ll take a look at the opposite – thanking God for things that have never been. It involves stepping into other people’s shoes in order to appreciate your gifts and blessings. Give thanks for something you’ve never had. Perhaps diseases that have affected people all over the world for hundreds of years won’t affect you because you were inoculated as a baby. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because you’ve never known a time when your stomach was so empty for so long that you forgot how to be hungry. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because every time you slept outside in your life, you did so because you chose to.
Recognize that the thing-that-has-never-been always is happening somewhere in the world – maybe next door, or a few blocks away, or across an ocean. Feel how fortunate you are in a way that realizes it could have been you but it wasn’t. Let that feeling ignite your empathy and extinguish your sense of entitlement, let it tamp down your anger over inconveniences and minor disruptions.
Feel gratitude for your family and your friends; for their love and support however it is given.
Feel gratitude for the community that surrounds and supports you. Everyone from the grocer to your hairstylist, your dentist and doctor, your neighbors, co-workers, teachers and the person who serves you your favorite treat. Let your heart smile when you think of them.
Feel gratitude for mentors, advisors, your dead who live on in you. For the values they embodied, the life lessons they have passed on to you. Remember how you felt when they were near and give thanks.
Move your head gently from side to side to release any tension if that feels right today.
Feel gratitude for your creative mind. For your dreams, desires and passions that inspire you to feel deeply.
Feel your heart expand as you feel gratitude for the beauty of nature all around you. For the ocean, trees, plants, and flowers, for the creatures that share our beautiful world.
Soften your forehead. Allow the forehead to be free and clear.
Feel gratitude for your intuition; that little voice inside that guides you on the right path, your spiritual self. Feel gratitude for all the times you have listened and tuned into this wisdom from within.
Take a deep breath. Through your breath feel connected to all those around you and to something larger than yourself.
Feel gratitude for the connection that makes you whole, complete.
Feel a deep sense of peace and contentment surrounding you. Take a few gentle breaths in and out.
We view our lives as though flipping through the pages of a magazine, one to the next. God sees our lives as collages, in which all the pages are pasted together.
So for the next few moments, I invite you to give thanks for something in your past that didn’t seem like a cause for gratitude at the time. Reflect on how this event fits into the overarching narrative of your life. What did you learn from it? How did God support you as you went through it? What do you know now that God knew then?
So for our final few moments, I invite you to give thanks for the vast expanse of the possibility the future holds. This sort of thanksgiving is the birthplace of hope – which is the willing expectation that the boundaries of possibility are far wider than we perceive. So give thanks to God for possibility, for newness, for adventure. And then take a step with God into the untamed wilderness that is tomorrow, knowing all the while that God has already explored this jungle and will lead you through. Amen.