I grew up in a church tradition that made a big deal about the “altar service”.
A really big deal.
For the uninitiated, an altar service is a time when people were invited to come to the front of the sanctuary and receive prayers for whatever ailed them. It was usually, but not always, at the end of a worship gathering and frequently accompanied by some kind of emotion-inducing music.
Sometimes these were invitations for “salvation” where non-believers could begin their walk with Jesus. Other times it was healing prayer for folks with maladies from headaches to cancer. Quite often the call was to repent of some thing (or things) done that displeased the Lord, took us out of fellowship with Jesus and left our souls teetering on the precipice of judgment.
To be honest, I spent a lot of time in line number 3…because I almost exclusively did the plural “things” and turned “displeasing” into an art form.
Now at these altars, there was lots of hand laying, oil applying and tear shedding. They were raw, visceral, unvarnished moments where broken people could fervently seek a “touch from God”.
At their best, these moments could be sincere times of earnest encounter with God through meaningful, unhurried prayer. But too often, they became raucous moments filled with emotional manipulation and spiritual showmanship. Sometimes things just got downright weird.
Sadly, they also grew into routine religious requirements and people didn’t feel like they had really “been to church” if by some great oversight, the altar service was skipped.
As I look back–with the mixed emotions of ambivalent memories–I have to admit some of those altar experiences were authentic moments where genuine repentance met generous grace. The result: renewed hearts and transformed lives.
The Old Testament places a lot of attention and focus on altars. Whether crudely constructed from a pile of stones in the desert or meticulously crafted artisan furnishings in a Temple, they were symbolic places where man and God met face-to-face.
Altars were places of sacrifice, worship, celebration and encounter.
One of the most beautiful prophetic pictures in the Old Testament is Ezekiel’s vision of a pristine river flowing from beneath the altar of the great Temple of Jerusalem.
The water started out as a rivulet sliding almost unnoticed from beneath the altar. As it flowed, it continually deepened and broadened until it became an impassable torrent. People could chose to tip-toe in ankle deep or dive headfirst into the grace that flowed from the altar.
This river was overflowing with life so that men stood shoulder to shoulder to net fish in limitless supply. Teeming with life, it was characterized by sustaining and satisfying provision for all who drew near. It was an inexhaustible flow of life able to sustain any willing to draw from its depths.
The source of all this energy and abundance was the altar–the place of communion and connection with God. The intersection where God crossed paths with man; the apex of intimate fellowship.
The idea of the vision was that out of such a meeting between a loving God and a needy heart, divine life and provision flood that person’s real world. Points of sacrifice and moments of worship release a flow of provision and power. All the needs of life were met in what flowed from the altar.
Precious moments; “altared” states.
I wonder if it is time to remember, rethink and revisit the altar. Not just specific moments and places in corporate worship settings. But those special times where heaven kisses earth in the silence and tears of seeking. The place where we offer ourselves as “living sacrifices holy, acceptable unto God.”
This redemptive, restorative point of connection is a place where real life flows into raw living.
From the altar we receive:
- Satisfaction. The daily bread that fills the eternal ache of the longing heart.
- Connection. Intimate meetings with God that pour infinite meaning into life.
- Affection. The loving touch of the Father infuses cold routines with tender significance.
To neglect the place where we touch and are touched by God is to abandon the source where eternity flows into existence. The quality of life that flows from the altar turns the brackish waters of rut and reality into crystal streams of life that is indeed living.
The Source becomes our source. The result is a person who rises from the ashes to new strength, joy and purpose; radically transformed and authentically changed by the river from the altar.
Living an “altared” state.