Written by Steven Liechty
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.'"
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, the one who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands . . . [God] allotted the times of [mortals'] existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for [God] and find [God]—though indeed [God] is not far from each of us." - Acts: 17:23-26
Some Christian churches, heart-led churches, have a strong tradition of the "altar call," the moment in worship when people are invited to the front of the church to make their peace with God, to receive the Holy Spirit, to forgive themselves of all kinds of shenanigans and to be forgiven by God, and to recommit themselves to the life of faith.
In other churches, head-led churches, getting called to the front of the church is equivalent to getting called to the principal's office, or to the chalkboard in math class when you really have no idea how to multiply fractions. We would rather die in our pews than experience the new-lease-on-life that can come of an altar call.
At my New England church full of migrants and misfits, we are in the midst of a heart/head identity crisis. Is the altar a final resting place for the roses from yesterday's funeral? Prim and remote and never to be approached except by a duly authorized member of the altar guild?
Or is it a cairn marking a former visit by the Divine, an object upon which anyone, at any time, when moved by the Spirit, can literally throw themselves to receive the grace of God?
Like all good Congregational churches, we compromised. At our annual drag gospel festival, we invite our sanctuary full of atheists with a poetic heart, curious agnostics, SBNRs, cradle Catholics, frozen chosen, Pentecostals with PhDs and everybody else, to come to the communion table, and touch it, to whatever degree they are comfortable, if they have been touched by what they have experienced that day. We invite them to get out of spectator mode and find the courage to be really seen, really known, really loved by God, here at the heart of all things.
And they come. In droves.
We're all attaching ourselves to one altar or another. We might as well touch one where God is said to have shown up.
God give me the courage, next time I'm in a church sanctuary, to do a drive-by. Give me an excuse to make my way forward, and when nobody's looking, or when everybody's looking, lay my hand on the altar, and lay claim to Your presence in my life. Amen.
Molly Baskette is Senior Minister at First Church Somerville UCC, in Somerville, Massachusetts.