Altars Among The Mundane

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It’s often the story between the lines that’s most striking — and most surprising. As I’ve prepared for a five-month long teaching journey through the life of Abraham in our church, I recently found myself moved by one of those side notes that seemingly came from nowhere to inform not only my own life but some of the deeper conversations I’ve been having lately.

One of the central texts that we often discuss at The Mercy House is the call of Abram from Genesis 12:1-4. The preceding chapter tells of the barren womb of Sarai, a text so strong that Walter Brueggemann calls it a declaration of humans’ inability to create a meaningful future for their own selves. Then God speaks into that barrenness to call Abram and Sarai to a new place, to trust God and obey enough to leave for a far country. Perhaps that idea has been discussed here a time or two before.

It’s the next few verses that hit me as I began to prepare for the next sermon. They list the upcoming places along the way that Abram’s caravan encountered and simply note that altars were built in these places. The obvious step is to move on to the next bold heading, the next grand story, the next meaningful event, but like an unexpected gravitational pull, I couldn’t stop thinking about these altars that were erected for no good reason — at least that we know of.

I met with a friend named Kevin for lunch the other day. We spoke for hours about the dramatic nature of life and how beautiful it is to live amidst those moments. Then we also shared stories of the struggle to live in between. Kevin graduated from college several months ago, found a steady notable job, settled into an apartment, and is now faced with what was always known as “real life.” I told him the rhythm never changes. It always feels this way, and that grieving the loss of his college community and the constant buzz of events and invitations was okay to do.

“How do we live in the mundane?” was the question that emerged. How do we carry ourselves between the grand events? What about the days when we just put in our eight or ten hours? What about the weeknights of homework and bed times and conversations that simply check off the events of the day?

Even the artist knows these days quite well, for it’s not every day that an album is released or a tour is launched. It’s not every day that the book is finally finished or the painting finally revealed. The days between are filled with the rhythms of the mundane, the space largely inhabited by the ordinary. The dishes need to be washed. The trash needs to be taken out. No spotlight is waiting and no one is listening. It’s just another city along the way to no place in particular.

My conversation with Kevin was illuminated in that moment, for as we asked those questions, I found my own thoughts turning to Abram building altars among the commonplace. Some altars are named for a particular event. Some altars receive commentary on the reason for their existence. Instead of leaving the commonplace common, Abram builds an altar and calls upon the name of the Lord.

Perhaps something dynamic happened between Bethel and Ai that we’re not privy to. Maybe Abram was coming off of the high of the God of all creation having identified him personally to carry out his plan, to create a nation through him. It’s possible that Abram had Chia Altar that magically grew with a few drops, so it was really no trouble to build something like that. But as my conversation with Kevin took shape, we realized that the calling of the daily life is to resurrect altars along the way — to recognize the glory of God in the space that we inhabit no matter what surrounds. I believe it’s when we’ve made the habit of constructing altars among the mundane that we see the inspired journey we’ve been on all along.

Profile photo of Matt Conner

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


21 Comments

  1. Jess

    You know those times when you need something really badly, and then you hear or read something that not only addresses that need, but addresses it with beauty and grace? This is one of those times. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Matt

    This reminds me of a G.K. Chesterton essay called something like “On Running After One’s Hat”, where he talks about viewing inconveniences as divine occurences. The title comes from the example where he talks about how people are often grumpy when the wind blows away their hat and they have to chase after it, even though they do much the same thing for sport in fox hunting.

    Then again, it also reminded me of this Chesterton quote:

    “Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.”

  3. SarahN

    Thank you so much for this insight! I’ve been struggling lately with the in-between times, and what they could possibly mean. Even Abram had those times. 🙂 A very timely post for me.

  4. Chris Yokel

    I needed to hear this Matt. I just came off my first concert in a long time this past weekend, and I definitely felt the “performance high”. By contrast, this week has felt very normal, almost empty. But reading what you said helps me see that it is part of the rhythm of life. Perhaps it is what T.S. Eliot once called, “the stillness between two waves of the sea.”

  5. Patrick

    Great stuff! As we move through the ordinaries of everyday- what are we leaving behind? Does our ho-hum consume the whole of the day? Or do we take time to give glory to the one who has called us to whatever tasks we are pursuing as we pass through? Great thoughts to think about. Thank you.

  6. Alyssa

    I have been chewing on the meaning of the mundane in recent days as well. I’m studying David and how he was anointed as Israel’s king fresh out of the sheep pasture. What was it about his ordinary shepherding job that made him ready to govern with “skillful hands,” according to Psalm 78? Such an ordinary and lowly task seems an unlikely king-maker. Yet God’s hand was obviously working in the midst of David’s presumably ordinary, hum-drum life to prepare him for his royal calling. That gives me great encouragement as I change another diaper. And another.

    The tricky thing for me is that often the meaning of these mundane periods in life only becomes apparent in retrospect. It’s easy to look back and say, “God was really forming my character there,” or “That time in my life was great preparation for what God did next.” The struggle is to find meaning and joy in each task while I’m in it, knowing that God is using these things to complete a good work in me. This post was a great reminder. Thanks, Matt!

  7. Aaron Roughton

    Matt, no joke, altars have been on my mind lately. I’m in the middle of a week off between jobs, and I feel like I need to do something to remind myself of how God heard me and clearly answered my prayers. My search is not for a reason to build an altar, but how to do it. Do I do something symbolic, like write a song or an extra long journal entry, or do I pile some stones in my new cubicle? So far I like Lindi’s idea best: build a firepit in the backyard. That feels like the closest I can get to the real thing. Anyone ever built an altar, symbolic or otherwise?

  8. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I like that idea of a static monument, not just a memory or journal entry, but something we can see on a daily basis as we step out the door.

    I once typed out a bunch of struggles, unbelief, fears I was experiencing, gave them to God, printed it on a piece of gold parchment paper, and then burned the thing in the backyard. It went up in flames, but as it burned to ash it remained perfectly whole, a sheet of white ash; I could still read all the words. But it was no longer real; it was a false-self piece of paper, a lie, the old-man, a nothing, a residue left by an offering once for all time. I touched it with the toe of my boot, and it fell apart like the nothing it really was.

  9. Becky from NE

    One of the best sermons I ever heard was about the importance of ordinary days. Specifically, Jesus’ ordinary days. We really only know about a small fraction of the days that Jesus was on this earth as a man. What was he doing on any given Tuesday afternoon when he was four? Or thirteen? Or twenty-seven? The Bible doesn’t say. But those days were just as important for our salvation as the day he died on the cross. Without all of those perfect, sinless, ordinary days, the most extraordinary day of all would have had no meaning.

    Also makes me think about a sermon by Peter Marshall, talking about birth and death. He pointed out that, in the womb, babies are developing all sorts of things that are useless to them in their present state, but are essential for life on the outside. Things like eyes, mouths, and lungs. It may be that what seems ordinary or pointless in this life will be essential for life in heaven.

    We don’t know what is important–even necessary–from God’s perspective. So maybe we should act as though it’s ALL important.

  10. Matt Conner

    I totally agree on that Peter Marshall nod from Chris. That is really profound and it’s at least a curiosity worth considering.

  11. Becky from NE

    This Peter Marshall sermon has stuck with me for many years, and changes my perspective on what I consider mundane. I read it in Catherine Marshall’s book, A Man Called Peter. Some of his sermons and prayers have been published in book form, and some sermons are available in audio recordings, if you want to read or hear the whole thing.

  12. Paula Shaw

    This is one of the most beautiful and true things I’ve read in a while. It reminds me of a time WAY back in 1979. I went on a “Snow and Grow’ week to Colorado with our Navigator college group. Some friends and I decided to take a walk back in the woods around Aerie (a castle that the Navigators used for their retreats). We came across a really strikingly beautiful scene: a waterfall that had been frozen in the front, but the water behind was still moving. It was as if a giant piece of glass had been dropped over the whole fall and you could see through to the beautiful, icy-cold water cascading down. We’d been talking about this very scripture and about this very topic when we decided to (as silly as this may seem, it was really meaningful) build a little altar of remembrance right there out in those starkly beautiful woods. We celebrated God and how He gave us our friendships, and how He put this beautiful place right here on earth so we could enjoy it, and how we would always think back on that time and remember the goodness of it. And the reason we would remember it was because we built that altar. It was such a small thing, but as I look back and remember, it turned out to be a very significant time. God showed me how, not only we should celebrate the beautiful times in our lives, but also the mundane, which have a beauty all their own. We miss out on so much in life if we just “get through the day” on a regular basis. Thank you for sharing this, Matt. May your days be filled with the beauty of the mundane.
    🙂

  13. Tom Murphy

    Not sure if you’ve watched the Paul Newman PBS performance of “Our Town”, but it gets to the heart of finding the majesty of God in the mundane. You should check it out with Kevin. Would be a really great conversation continuer. It is a critical role of the Christian artist to give eternal significance to the seemingly (and I stress seemingly) mindless mundane. Thornton Wilder is an unrecognized genius in the canon of American playwrites. Most folks just write off Our Town as “sentimental hogwash”…I disagree completely.

    http://www.amazon.com/Our-Town-Widescreen-Jayne-Atkinson/dp/B0007CIHL0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1299408807&sr=8-1

    After Emily’s encounter with the mundane from an eternal perspective…

    Emily: Does anybody realize what life is while they’re living it – every, every minute?
    Stage Manager: No. Saints and poets, maybe. They do some.

    Last Lines – Points towards Resting in Christ; The PBS version ends with the closing to the song “Old Rugged Cross”…

    Stage Manager: “Hm…11:00 in Grover’s Corners. Everybody’s resting in Grover’s Corners. Tomorrow’s going to be another day. You get a good rest too. Good night.”

    Grace and Peace…

  14. The Third Seed

    I think the interesting part about a baby in the womb is that the baby would probably say the most important thing in life was the umbilical cord – the only thing (along with the placenta) that will be discarded! Wonder what misunderstandings WE have?

  15. Eric (not EP)

    Alyssa:

    I highly recommend this book…””The Making of a Man of God – Lessons from the Life of David” by Alan Redpath. A very detailed study written back in 1962.

    Eric

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