Build An Altar

We were sitting in a circle, all 29 of us. The sun streamed through the trees, volcanoes provided a breath-taking backdrop, and the oh-so-familiar sounds of the Guatemalan streets, dogs barking, roosters crowing, firecrackers exploding, and women patting tortillas, created the backtrack to our gathering. As we sat in the circle, people shared story after story of adventure, learning, heartbreak, and healing were shared. These were stories of God at work. We sat and listened, bearing witness to what God had done.

So who exactly were these 29 people and why were we all in Guatemala sharing story after story of God’s goodness? Let me give you a little more context.

I write this piece, having recently finished a year as a Site Leader with a discipleship training program called Outtatown, run through the Canadian Mennonite University. This one-year program, geared to 18-22 year-olds invites students to journey together in “Knowing God, Knowing Yourself, and Knowing the World”. As we travel through Canada and Guatemala engaging in learning, service, adventure, and community, we ask ourselves these questions: Who is God? Who am I? And what does it mean to live in the world in a meaningful, Christ-filled way? Students are led through a year long process of stepping into contexts that are unknown and uncomfortable — be it a canoe trip in northern Ontario, a week on the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, or a host family in Guatemala. We also provide opportunities for students to push themselves beyond what they knew they were capable of — bungee jumping, climbing volcanoes, learning Spanish, or perhaps simply the act of living in very close quarters with 28 other people. And so, in the midst of these stretching experiences, God met us. God was and continues to be at work.

At the end of our three months in Guatemala this year, we set aside a number of days to debrief and to share with one another what we had learned. As I sat in the circle and listened to my students and my co-leaders share, I was struck by the thought that what we were doing was essentially building an altar, an altar to recognize and remember what God had done.

The practice of altar-building is very common throughout the Old Testament. Most often altars were used for sacrifice, but occasionally there is mention of instances where people built altars or memorials as a way to remember a particular, significant encounter with God. The act of calling attention to the work of God and allowing others to witness this work then served as a visible reminder for the Israelites of who God was and how He showed Himself to be faithful. This year, I had the privilege of seeing my students acknowledge and proclaim the work of God in their lives, and in the process, I was struck by a sense of how important this altar-building process is for us to do regularly.

It doesn’t matter what your daily context is. Believe me when I say that God is at work in and around you. Are we keeping our eyes open to how He is moving? Are we constructing “altars” along the way to recognize that God has moved, and to remind ourselves of that fact when we face unknowns, disappointment, loss, or change? I remember the months leading up to and following my graduation from TWU. I was terrified. Terrified of all the unknowns, the vast open space that lay before me, and the challenge of building a life without the safety net and security I had experienced during my undergrad. I often got lost in questions and unknowns. In the face of the questions and unknowns of this thing called life – which are not limited to just pre and post-graduation life – I think we are invited into the practice of building altars. We are given the opportunity to, regardless of circumstance, intentionally recognize the work of God and invite others to bear witness to it. These altars, these reminders that God has moved build faith in us. The more I can root myself in the faithfulness of God as seen in the past, the greater faith I have that He will continue to be at work in the days ahead. He invites me to trust Him even more, allowing the remembrance of the past to push me to step out in faith in the present.

So as you go through your day, your week, this summer, keep your eyes open. Where is God at work? When you see the hand of God moving, call attention to it, invite others to bear witness to it. May this work and these altars be a reminder as you go forward that God has been and will continue to be faithful.