Altars Everywhere: A Conversation with Chuck Swindoll’s “Abraham”

Altars Everywhere: A Conversation with Chuck Swindoll’s “Abraham” October 7, 2014

Chuck Swindoll’s Abraham: One Nomad’s Amazing Journey of Faith paints the life and faith of the patriarch in broad strokes. Swindoll’s text has many inspirational and practical moments. While I might take a different theological approach at many junctures, there is much to commend in his text, especially for the faith formation of conservative and evangelical Christians.
In my response to Swindoll, I want to focus not on the large story of Abraham’s life but on one vignette in the Abraham saga. As the story goes, God asks Abraham (Abram) to leave his familiar home and journey into the unknown. No doubt, God’s request and Abraham’s – and Sarah’s (Sarai) – response is not immediate. I suspect that God’s call comes over time through dreams, inclinations, and a sense of restlessness, a sense that there is “something more” ahead for them as a couple. I suspect that this affluent and well-established couple agonized over the decision to leave Haran. Becoming a nomad is difficult. Even with their wealth, setting off toward an unknown horizon will be challenging and unsettling. All this childless couple had was a divine promise – and a wild one at that – that the whole earth would be blessed by them and their offspring!

Their journey was physically, relationally, and economically unsettling. It was also theologically unsettling. In the ancient world, gods were often limited by geography. Like human rulers, they had particular sections of land for which they were responsible and in which they were supreme in power and authority. Beyond the boundaries of their territories, they had little power and their followers were on their own. Abraham and Sarah would have to trust a new god; one that was not limited by time and space, one that would be present with them wherever they traveled.
Abraham and Sarah do something insightful to respond to their anxiety. Whenever they make a stop on the journey, they erect an altar. The scripture records Abraham and Sarah building altars at Shechem and Bethel. Initially, I believe, these altars were erected to attract their god and insure his presence. Later, I believe, these altars were built to remind them that their god was with them and that wherever they journeyed, God would be their companion. (They build a third altar, according to scripture, at Hebron when they separate from Lot.)
I see these as altars of transformation and recognition. In a mobile and uncertain world, we need spiritual altars to remind us that God is with us and inspire us to continue the journey. I recall one of my Georgetown University congregants some two decades ago suggesting a motto for the Protestant ministry at the university: “God goes to Georgetown, too!” She thought it a little “cheesy,” as I recall, but she was right: in the midst of change, we need the sense that God is with us. As we face internal and external change, we need altars of the spirit to help us navigate the changes in healthy and life-supporting ways.
Now, few of us erect altars, although we may have prayer spaces in our homes or regularly go to our church for inspiration and comfort. Still, I believe that creating altars of the spirit helps us to find our way through each day’s wilderness journey. These altars can take many forms: they can be sacred spaces and sacred times in our daily walk. Think a moment: Do you have any personal or communal spiritual altars? If you don’t have any altars of the spirit that you currently practice, toward what practices, rituals, times, and places are you attracted?
Over the years, I have developed a few altars of the spirit that I will share. You may discover others that fit your personality, time commitments, and relational and professional responsibilities. I start the day each morning with a time of meditation. Then, usually I read or write for about half an hour as I enjoy my first cup of coffee. (For more on the spirituality of coffee, see Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Life.)
After I dress, I drive two miles to the beach and walk for about 45 minutes. Sometimes I simply rejoice in the wind and waves, reveling in the sunrise. Other times, I say prayers and affirmations. As you can see, I am blessed (blessed, he said!) to be an early riser. I am also blessed to live on Cape Cod, near the Nantucket Sound. But, a beautiful location is not necessary for a morning prayer walk, and of course, beauty is perspectival. In the year prior to coming to Cape Cod, my wife and I settled in a high rise in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside of Washington DC, to support our son and his wife, young professionals who had just had their second child. Each morning, I walked through neighborhoods and busy thoroughfares and discovered the presence of the holy just as deeply as I now do on Cape Cod. While there are “thin places,” where the holy manifests itself in lively ways, every place can be a “thin place,” a Beth-el, door to the divine, for those whose senses are awakened.
Sometime later in the day, I give myself and ten minute self-reiki healing touch treatment and spend another twenty minutes in contemplative prayer. My routines have sustained me through professional and family crises, moves to new towns, and on the speaking tour. (For more on reiki, see Bruce Epperly and Kate Epperly, Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus.)
We are all, as Chuck Swindoll says, nomads, and we all need altars to get our spiritual bearings and serve as our spiritual GPS as we go forth into the world. Abraham and Sarah provide us with a creative model for our own spiritual journeys.

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