“Keep calm and eat a cupcake.” These are the words on the side of my coffee mug, which is filled to the brim with strong, black coffee in the middle of the day. My favorite candle is lit beside me (Boulangerie Pumpkin Souffle, for anyone needing gift ideas for a loved one—or just an awesome candle recommendation for yourself). My bedroom, now free from the furniture I’ve had since my fifteenth birthday and fully refurnished with pieces I actually like, is filled with natural light. I’m sitting on top of all-white bedding that smells faintly of bleach, with my computer in my lap and three books on the side table next to me—Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant, and the Bible by…well…we’ll leave that alone. I reached another major milestone at work today, and Monday marks the beginning of several weeks of a much slower pace. I’ll still be working during the day, but it’s work I can do from anywhere [read: home]. My early mornings will be devoted to exercise, my days to work productivity, and my evenings to my husband and daughters. When my girls are asleep and my husband and I agree to pursue our own interests for a time, you will often find me here. I am committed to reading and writing during the evenings and weekends of these weeks of reduced work responsibility. What will I read? What will I write? I have some ideas of my own, but I’m open to suggestions. For now, my husband just refilled my coffee (and brought me chocolate—I love that man!), and this afternoon is the perfect punctuation to an intense 16-month-long phase of my career. I refuse to use this coffee mug when I have any stress in my life, because it taunts me. Keep calm? Eat a cupcake?! As if everything going on right now could be fixed with a cupcake… But what I’m feeling right now is perfect tranquility. The former me would have seen this as an “altar moment.”
What is an altar moment? I used the term to describe the moments that came at the end of a struggle when I took time to worship and be in the presence of God, honoring Him for walking with me and bringing victory. Scripture is full of altar moments. In Genesis, Noah built an altar after the floodwaters receded. God smelled the aroma and made a promise to never curse the earth again. Abraham built an altar in response to God’s promises to him. Later he built another one, prepared to sacrifice his son. When God provided a ram instead, Abraham named the place “The Lord Will Provide.” Jacob built an altar after God confirmed the continuation of his covenant with Abraham, and he called it Bethel, meaning “The House of God.” In Exodus, Moses built an altar after God gave Israel victory over Amalek, calling it “The Lord Is My Banner.” In Judges, Gideon received a call and asked for a sign. When the Angel of the Lord consumed his offering with fire, he built an altar and named it “The Lord Is Peace.” In 1 Chronicles David refused to make offerings to the Lord that cost him nothing, and he paid full price for a threshing floor where he built an altar. There the Lord answered him with fire from heaven. I’m sure that these are only a fraction of the examples of altars in scripture, and I have many more personal examples of times when I have intentionally entered into the presence of God and reverently responded to what I saw as his work in my life. If altars must be physical structures, the structures I point to are my journals. So many of those pages are altars. If my entries had titles, they might be like the names of the altars of the Bible—“The House of God,” where I write about the joy of being in his presence; “The Lord is My Banner,” where I write about the victory he brings; “The Lord Is Peace” when I rest in the promises he gives to answer my fear. There are others—“The Lord Is My Father” when my dad was in prison; “The Lord Is My Portion” when I felt empty and alone; “The Lord Is My Restoration” when I finally had victory over memories of abuse; “The Lord Is My Bridegroom” when I entered into the covenant of marriage, a beautiful picture of Christ and the Church. Still more—“The Lord Is My Comforter” when I lost two unborn children; “The Lord Is My Joy” when two girls were safe in my arms—so many altars, and many more than these.
So if these are altar moments, what is today? What do I call these precious moments of peace after 16 challenging months? What do I do with the thankfulness that builds up in my heart, for this sense of accomplishment for which I do not believe I deserve all the credit? Why do I just want to worship?
Because it’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always built altars. I’ve always found a reason to praise him. I praised him even after he flooded my life with heartache. I praised him when it seemed that he was asking too much—believing that he would provide a ram. I praised him for his promises, and I praised him for battles won. I have always built altars, and I think in some ways, I always will. I praised him even in the midst of doubt after my youngest daughter was born—it seemed like the only fitting response to that much joy. I praised him when she fought a serious illness in the days after her birth in an intensive care unit, because I was too weak to do anything else.
Today I look back on these altars and ask myself if they meant anything at all. I feel so foolish when I walk among them, scanning the pages of old journals and remembering my prayers, my altars to a God I no longer believe in. As I consider these altars, one thought strikes me. God never brought the fire. I never did what Gideon did—I never asked for a definitive sign. I lit all of the fires with my own hand and fueled them with my own emotions. In my journey through doubt, I build another altar. And like David, I do not make an offering that costs me nothing—my doubt and the intense desire to overcome it has led me to vulnerability I never could have predicted. I’m sacrificing my comfort and my reputation for the sake of finding God if he exists. Because of my anonymity, these words here cost very little—but my words at church last Sunday cost a great deal. This time, my altar is different than it has been in the past. It is not an altar to praise him, but a rock where I place an offering and ask for a sign. My offering is my time. It is my contemplation of God. It is every word I read or write about this matter. It is every conversation I share with every strong believer and every skeptic. It is every prayer I pray without believing in One who hears them and every tear I shed over losing a love I never really had. I lay it all on a rock and ask him to do something with it, if he’s there. I wait for an all-consuming fire that says to me as it said to Gideon, “Do not fear; you shall not die.” And I wait…and I wait…and I wait…
I build an altar to the Lord, and I call it Desolation.