Seeking the Alter

This happened years ago, but I remember my question: Where was the alter? The cross was easy to find, hanging high above the choir loft. Since it was large, and smack dab in the middle of the chancel area, the pulpit was obvious.

But what about the alter?

Back then I was officially on a sabbatical and not serving a church. I decided to attend one of the “mega churches” in the Fresno area. You know: wherever two or three thousand are gathered in my name . . .

I should be honest and put a few labels on the table . . . or on the alter? I am a liberal, progressive Christian. The church I attended was not. Since I’m being confessional, I will admit that I attended the highest profile church in our region out of curiosity, and not to worship our loving Creator.

Every city in America has a church, or churches, like this one. Thousands gather. Superb technology supports the worship experience. Jumbo screens highlight the choir members. Prerecorded announcements seem little different in quality from television commercials. Drums, guitars, violins, trumpets, keyboards, and more give power and diversity to the musical offerings. And please note, every instrument I mentioned was, indeed, in the plural. Each part of the worship experience had a soundtrack.

The cross. The pulpit. The choir. The chancel area. Offering was taken. Prayers were prayed. But where was the alter?

I finally found it. The alter was at ground level, directly below the pulpit (the sanctuary has stadium style seating). I would guess that most people in the sanctuary, with row after row rising higher and further from the chancel area, hardly noticed the alter. It was out of the way. Obscured. Barely used.

And, since I primarily went to feed my “liberal” curiosity, the first thoughts caroming around my brain were: Oh, those backward Bible-thumpers, with their Jesus-is-the-only answer attitude, they sure are missing the truth about faith. God’s alter is only an afterthought.

Am I a jerk, or what? However, that am-I-a-jerk thought occurred much later, and only after I had departed—with smugness on my heart—the cavernous sanctuary with its comfy seating.

But aren’t I a jerk? A hypocrite? Or to paraphrase Jesus, aren’t I a glad-handing Pharisee chortling about my wonderfulness on the street corner (or in my website) as I criticize “others.” (See Matthew 6:5-6 . . . beware Larry, you’ve had your reward!)

Following the Larry-as-jerk thought was a notion, a Holy nudge, which dug more deeply into me. What causes us to be, within Christianity, so different? I’m not talking Christian vs. Muslim. Or Jew vs. Buddhist. I’m talking Christian vs. Christian. I have sometimes declared, in preaching or teaching, that I don’t always agree with others, but “respect” their right to believe the way they do. And yet, I think that’s a lie. It’s a pretty lie, and a lie I want to believe, but it’s still a lie.

The church I attended on that Sunday (then and now) views my Christian LGBTQ brothers and sisters as wrong, as sinners. They believe forms of faith other than their version are wrong, no more than heathens. But I strongly disagree with them because of my deeply felt beliefs about Jesus’ words and mission.

It is a faith community that seems to discern minimal difference between following Jesus and being a “good” American citizen. Not me. I feel there can often be a great chasm between citizenship and discipleship. The church, the Body of Christ, is frequently strongest when it is counter-cultural. Being called a Protestant was born from the word protest.

How can we Christians be so different? Where is the common ground?

It is easy for me to call them, with my smugness on display like the latest fashion trend, “Bible-thumpers.” It is even easier for me to imagine I am the guy in the photo next to the dictionary definition for “jerk.” But whether I am haughty or humble, I remain perplexed. How can we be so different?

Even the preacher on that Sunday, a rightly revered pastor and community leader nearing retirement, fleetingly confessed bewilderment about the rampant “divisiveness” in our times. In that pulpit above the alter, did he share my questions and concerns?

By now, perhaps any spelling bee aficionados reading this have recognized the misspelling of “altar.” Yes, from its first misuse, my computer’s spell-checker has been squawking at me.

My Mirriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says:

  • Alter: to make different without changing into something else.
  • Altar: a table that serves as the center of worship.

An altar, even one tucked below the pulpit, proclaims a particular role in a church. And I think, as the “center of worship,” one of its roles is to remind us that God continually invites us to be altered. To be made different, better, stronger, vulnerable, truthful. In a sense, to be made more human as we worship the Holy.

I wish I had a one-size-fits-all response to my “Where is the common ground?” question.

And yet, I do know, for lovely moments, I did worship on that Sunday. I was aware of the people around me, aware of the Creator’s creation. A woman near me cried softly through part of worship. A young man sat alone, fidgety, but also alert and singing the songs, and sometimes his face glowed like a figure painted by Caravaggio. There was a child who danced in the aisle, just beyond her parent’s reach.

The Creator continues to create. Look around. Look around.

How I wish I possessed the answers. The old Bible-thumper Francis of Assisi said, “No one is to be called an enemy, all are your benefactors, and no one does you harm. You have no enemy except yourselves.”

I only have myself to alter.

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  1. Larry,
    I confess that I was one who was noting you were misspelling altar. Half way through, I wondered, “should I let him know?” “But he’s a professional writer so I think he would get it right,” I debated. Because you’re not the first clergyperson who spelled it alter, but In the other instances it wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t insightful.

    And, I confess that when I go to the big box conservative churches I have my own judgmental hat. Christ have mercy.

  2. I went to Presbytery today. I was not on vacation nor sabbatical. It wasn’t quite the mega-church you spoke of, Larry, but from the first drum roll till I left the parking lot iI mourned what this church had become. Some twenty years ago I had gone to this church as candidate. The pastor at that time was my mentor. The worship THEN did not have drums and giant distracting screens with a prominent media booth. Larry (my mentor’s name as well) led a beautiful LITURGICAL service. Larry is still one of the best preachers in our denomination. Thank heaven it has not changed one thing YET. It is NOT one of those pulpit centered churches. Must I altEr, Larry? Isn’t there some compromise? Frankly Larry, I think you were too hard on yourself! Right now, I think I need a good dose of Episcopalian incense from Divinity School!

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