|gratuitous picture of my stompin grounds taken on the day of our special service|
I wanted to share a little with you about the time capsule that we buried at Old Union back in September. We planned this project over the course of nearly a year and filled it with biographical information of members of the congregation, photographs, historical information, and a lot more. There are copies of all of those things available for viewing at the church.
I didn't do a whole lot on the committee for this project, but I jumped at the chance to write a piece describing our altar practice. One of the reasons we wanted to do this time capsule at all was to send the truth into the future in a very physical, tangible way. We wanted our people - whoever is there - to read through the things we placed in that box when they open it in 2095 and either be encouraged and strengthened by knowing that they're still seeking and following the same truth we sought and followed before them or to be convicted and brought back to that truth if, God forbid, they have strayed from it.
I'm including my contribution below. It's one of my favorite things I've ever written because I know the Lord helped me. The idea of somehow living beyond my natural lifespan and being remembered by people who never met me is nice, I guess, but it's the idea of the same God who helped me write these words stitching them into the heart of someone many years from now that makes my cup bubble over. I'm equally interested in reaching people who might read it here and come to know something they've never known before or be blessed to hear something they know better than anything else.
Not because of my words, but because of my Savior. He's alive and He loves us oh so much. And He wants us for His own. That knowledge is too wonderful for me!
A letter to future generations concerning our altar
Written spring 2015
Written spring 2015
I sincerely hope that those of you who read this many years from now will find its information unnecessary as it is so similar to your current practice.
When I was asked to write a piece about Old Union’s altar practice, my mind immediately went to Old Testament sacrifice and the beautiful symbols there (which are some of my very favorite things to ponder) and I tried to write about how those symbols have carried over to us down through the years and how they compare to our current methods of worship. I finished that writing and felt like it was a satisfactory lesson. But then I thought of the coming generations of my family. I thought of bright-eyed, round-faced little people – my people – standing around an ancient (from their perspective) box that was dug from the ground. A box that people will say their great-great grandmother contributed to. And I didn’t want to send them a lesson. I wanted to tell them about it like I would if I could somehow fast forward myself there beside them.
We have all of this beautiful terminology that we use in reference to spiritual things. Over time, those phrases have become so common to us that they don’t even seem beautiful anymore, but that’s the thing about words. We can only use them up to a certain point to describe the things of God. Everything here, even our words, has boundaries and God is boundless. We can say that God is wonderful, which is true, but it’s like that word, wonderful, reaches its hands up in praise but fizzles out somewhere between here and Heaven. It doesn’t adequately do the job we intend it to do when it leaves our mouths or even when we think it. So, keep in mind while reading this that if you hear wording that sounds archaic or overworked that it could have just as easily been another word slipped into its place and made popular amongst our people at some point in history. They’re only words. Some are just used more than others in our vernacular.
Old Union and other churches like it preach and teach what we sometimes call a know-so salvation. In an effort to drive that point home, we sometimes say that we know that we know that we know that we’re saved: that we have peace with God, that things have been made right between Him and us. This is an example of what I mentioned before – a great effort to use our trembly little words to emphasize something that, simply put, is beyond words. In most basic terms, I know that I’m saved. I’ve struggled with doubt along the way, but with God’s help I know it more than I know anything else. I don’t need anybody else to tell me it happened and if I lost all of my physical senses, I would still know it. It’s woven into me. Because of Jesus, it’s who I am. For all time and eternity. You could sooner remove my freckles than remove my salvation.
That kind of salvation – the only kind of salvation – is what our beliefs are built on.
How does one come by that kind of salvation? Through prayer. Real prayer. Not just a repetition or a recitation, but truly calling out to God from your heart. That’s not something we can just make happen on our own. The faith we need to be saved comes from God. He extends mercy and grace to us… because He is so enormously and endlessly merciful, you know… and through that and by that, we’re made one of His.
More words that don’t do it justice at all.
Since our beliefs rest so heavily upon prayer, it makes sense that we would offer a place for people to pray within the four walls of our church’s building. At Old Union that set-aside, special prayer place is the front bench of the middle section of pews, which was at one time widely called the “mourner’s bench” or “moaner’s bench.” At the time of this writing, all of the front benches, along with the entire front-ish area of the auditorium, are sometimes included when we talk about “the altar” or “the altar area.”
In some services, normally at the end of the sermon, the preacher will give what we call “the invitation” for lost people – those who can’t say that they know that they know that they know – to come pray at the altar. Or to pray at their seat or wherever they feel they need to pray. You see, our altar is an excellent place to pray, but there’s nothing special about that front bench or any other bench. And it’s good to have God’s people praying all around you on your behalf, too, but you don’t have to be there in that setting to be saved.
I was saved in my bed late one night. There was no one there but me and God. I prayed at the altar many times before that night, though. The first time I prayed at the altar was during a fall revival service. There had been preaching, although I don’t remember who preached, and at the end of the sermon there was an invitation for unsaved people to pray. Then there was a song and a good friend of mine at the time went to pray at the altar. She bowed there at the front bench and it wasn’t long before I went to pray there, too, sitting on the floor with my head over on the seat of the bench. I didn’t go to pray because my friend went and I didn’t go because I’d been invited or because someone told me to go. I went to pray because I felt all wrong and tangled up inside. I was afraid and ashamed to go up in front of all those people. But because I’d been taught all my life to run after God when I felt Him drawing me, or when I felt afraid for any reason, and because I’d witnessed this altar-prayer scenario time after time all my life, I did the only thing I knew to do to fix how I felt.
That’s the real reason why a simple church bench gets any importance at all. Not because it has any redeeming qualities and certainly not because it has any power to help. It’s just a piece of wood. It’s important because it’s a place to pray. If we have in our church buildings a designated place for prayer, then it’s obvious that we hold prayer in a place of priority. So, our teaching and preaching and practices may seem to urge people to come pray at that altar bench, but the real urge is to just pray! Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, if you feel like you need to pray, DO IT! And don’t wait.
These instructions are true for those who have been saved, too. A lot of time and importance is given to inviting unsaved people to pray at the altar or wherever, but saved people need to pray, too. The altar is for everyone. In the Old Testament, it was God’s people who burned their sacrifices on altars. And they didn’t do it because they were in trouble or because they were particularly distressed about something. They came to their altars in worship and obedience. Smoke rose from their burnt offerings and smelled sweet to God. We don’t burn things on our altars and we don’t offer animals to God anymore; we have only our prayers to offer Him. You see, our words are just flimsy shells to God. He made words and language for us, not for Him. But when God teaches us to pray and helps us to truly communicate with Him, then we’re able to lay our hearts open and the praise and the pleadings that rise from our hearts are oh so sweet to God, sweeter even than the smoke from those burnt offerings so long ago.
And so, dear children, dear loved ones and friends… I hope that when you read this you can say AMEN! and find it all familiar and encouraging to you. But if not, I hope that something you’ve read here will draw you back to the only way you can be reconciled and made fit for Heaven.
That’s where I’ll be when you open this time capsule and I long to meet you there someday soon.