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  • Writer's pictureMark Whitten

Why Did We Stop Building Altars?

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

Here's one from the vault (originally published June 25, 2011)

At Mizpah, the old prophet gathered together the wayward nation for a sacred assembly of prayer, fasting, and repentance.  Their arch enemies surrounded them for a great slaughter.  But the old seer prayed on their behalf, took a suckling lamb and offered it to the LORD as a whole burnt offering.  And God heard the pitiful cries of His beloved people, and spared them from the hand of the Philistines. Then, the old man had a large stone erected near the place of their deliverance and called it Ebenezer, which meant "this marks the place where the LORD sent His saving help to us, or more simply put: stone of help." 

We live in a time of inundation. Innumerable advertisements: signs, pop-ups, cards, bells, landing pages, link-backs and likes...the countless empty words that litter our cultural landscape, pointing us toward our next consumeristic opportunity. However, there are very few "altars" that point us toward the ancient paths that give rest to our souls...that remind us of our mistakes and help us when we are tempted to take things for granted.

In Jeremiah 6:16, the Lord exhorts us to look back to the past in order to gain footing for the future and peace for our present. "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."

As the modern age gasps for breath on its death-bed, a new generation, a postmodern generation, finds itself blindly groping for a sense of rootedness and stability that seems more atheorial than ever. Millennials, searching for that ever-eluding, authentic base have begun to surmise that reality is indeed relative. Shared history and common values fade from memory due to the deluge of available information and opinions.

We ask. Why the plague of lost historical identity? Why does our significant past so eluded us? What are my values and where did they come from? What is real?

In the modern age, tradition, sacredness, and stability were traded for convenience, transience, and commercialism.  All things old were disdained and viewed as inferior to technology, science, and reason.  The modern age, which is really "the mature man of the enlightenment" promised a golden era of global peace, prosperity and unity ushered in by technology, scientific advances and global governance; but instead gave birth to the most deadly, disunified, and politically corrupt century in human history. 

In short, us postmoderns find ourselves lost in a world of scattered and discombobulated debris, like children looking for their parents after a deadly storm has taken them away.  Alone, naked, scared and with little direction, we find ourselves at the crossroads looking for an altar, searching for some ancient path, a seer, a stone of remembrance.  Sadly, there are very few to guide what is our response? In Mark Batterson's book Wild Goose Chase, he asks, "Have you ever noticed how often people in the Old Testament built altars? It seems that they were building them all over the place all the time.  Why? because we have a natural tendency to remember what we should forget and forget what we should remember.  Altars help us remember what God doesn't want us to forget.  They give us a sacred place to go back to."

He goes on to say that so many of us feel so spiritually lost because "we don't have any spiritual milestones that help us find our way back to God. We need altars that renew our faith by reminding us of the faithfulness of God." 

Mike Bickle, of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, says that God is continually building a history of His faithfulness toward us as we experience various trials and victories in our lives. 

However, what good is a history, if it is soon forgotten? 

God has come through for me more times than I can count, and yet I so easily forget His saving help.  Why do I waiver in my faith for His financial provision when He has been so faithful to provide for my every need over the years of walking with Him?  Why do I stumble into unbelief over issues that I have seen the hand of God deliver me from over and over again?  Other than the journals that are hidden away in a box underneath my bed, I have erected no altars.  There are few visible reminders in my house, at my desk, or on the dashboard of my car that remind me of the history of God's faithfulness to me.

When the children of Israel walked across the Jordan River on their way to conquer Jericho, God told Joshua to choose a man from each of the 12 tribes to take a stone out of the river where the priests had stood carrying the ark of God and place the stones where they camped that night as a permanent memorial for the people of Israel.  That way, when their children ask, "What are these stones to you?" they could tell them the story of God's faithfulness.

The modern age told us to tear down these ancient altars, and to cast away boundary stones, but wisdom is vindicated by her children, as we have seen the destructive fruit of abandoning and aborting the ancient paths. 

Therefore, it is imperative for us postmoderns to excavate the old ways and erect altars, or stones of remembrance, not only for ourselves and our posterity, but as witnesses to our near-ones that testify of the love and hope that our God gives.

Our heavenly Father deserves the thanksgiving that is a fruit of our remembrance. Therefore we must begin again to erect altars and "stones of remembrance" that serve as permanent reminders of God's faithfulness.

What does that look like for us?  Perhaps it's a photo we frame of a place where we encountered God in a special way.  Maybe it is a journal or a spiritual scrapbook of sorts that helps us recall the goodness of God.  Perhaps a book that we self-publish for legacy. I wrote one for that very reason: Altars: Centering Prayers for Cultivating a Thankful Heart. What about a tattoo or a t-shirt that commemorates a significant Holy Spirit happening? It could be a collection of songs, a playlist that take you back to a time or place where God encountered you deeply.  Whatever the case, let us who are standing at the crossroads, not only look for the ancient paths, but model our forefathers in their use of altars, as a means of remembering the goodness of God.

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